For a man who spent his career locking up criminals, Kern County, Calif., prosecutor Stephen Tauzer showed unusual kindness toward a neighborhood kid who became hooked on drugs.
When Lance Hillis, the son of a former cop, hit bottom with methamphetamine, Tauzer put his reputation on the line to keep the young man out of jail. And his support didn't end there; the prosecutor offered his home, money, even a car. That posed more than ethical problems for Tauzer, the Kern County assistant district attorney. It also plunged him into a battle with his friend Chris Hillis, Lance's father. Chris Hillis felt Lance was beyond the reach of rehabilitation and needed the reality of jail time to sober up. Hillis said he would kill Tauzer if anything happened to his 22-year-old son, according to court records.
Prosecutors say he followed through on the promise five weeks after Lance was killed in a head-on crash while fleeing a drug treatment center in a stolen car.
Tauzer was found in a pool of his own blood on the floor of his garage in September with a knife sticking out of his head. Investigators said they knew immediately whom to suspect and only waited until they had DNA evidence to make an arrest.
Hillis, 48, is now behind bars, accused of murdering his former friend. He has pleaded innocent and is being held in the Kern County Jail without bail until a March hearing.
Soon after the body was found, talk in the conservative town of farms and oil fields focused on the relationship between the unmarried, 57-year-old Tauzer, and Lance Hillis, who was his roommate. District attorney Ed Jagels and family members say Tauzer was like an uncle to Lance and bristle at that the suggestion by some that Tauzer was a "sugar daddy" who showered more than gifts on him.
Margaret Tauzer, one of the prosecutor's 13 younger siblings, said her brother was not gay. Another brother, Mark, said his brother's compassion for Lance was typical of the love he showed his family. "If he'd done anything for this kid, it's nothing more than he's done for his nieces and nephews," said Mark Tauzer. "Twelve hundred people don't go to a funeral for a sleazy guy."
The defense is looking into whether homosexuality played a role in the killing, but wouldn't say how it would be used. "The witnesses have told us about Mr. Tauzer's visits with Lance in rehab, sending cards and money, getting him a job at the DA's office, giving him a car," said defense lawyer Kyle Humphrey. "We did have a string of homicides here in early '80s where prominent closeted gay men apparently were messing around with younger men. Several of the older men were killed."
Edwin Buck, 55, a personnel administrator for Kern County, was murdered in 1981 by a teenage boy with whom he was having an affair. Marshall Jacobsen, 49, a well-known lawyer, was killed in his garage in 1984 by two teenagers with whom he had been having sex.
As Tauzer was mourned, sheriff's deputies said publicly they were looking at defendants Tauzer prosecuted who might hold a grudge. But they were really focusing on Hillis, compiling more than 2,000 pages of reports and awaiting DNA results from one of the weapons.
The rift between the two men was well-established. When questioned by deputies on September 16, the day after Tauzer's body was discovered, Hillis said the last time he saw his former friend was two years earlier, when he confronted Tauzer about his relationship with Lance, according to police reports.
Hillis told the Bakersfield Californian that he asked Tauzer, "What is your obsession with my son?" Hillis slapped Tauzer in the face, and Tauzer struck back in an incident documented by the sheriff's office. He told Tauzer to leave his son and their family alone.
Hillis boasted and joked to his father, Donald Hillis, two years ago that he was going to drown Tauzer in a pool and then dump his body in the Kern River to make it look like a fishing accident, police reports said.
Donald Hillis, also a former cop, told Tauzer about his son's comments, and the prosecutor told friends, family members, and coworkers that he feared for his life, according to police reports.