Under the rule of District Attorney Ed Jagels, Kern County, California became ground zero for the child abuse hysteria that raged across America for most of the 1980s. Utterly ruthless in pursuing convictions and entirely indifferent to the truth, Jagels recruited and developed a disciplined cadre of persecutors -- assistant DAs, police investigators, social workers, and "expert" witnesses -- who refined the art of railroading defendants into an exact science.
Kern County was the laboratory that developed the methods employed by opportunistic prosecutors who would eventually imprison thousands of innocent people on the basis of palpably fraudulent abuse accusations.
The process would begin with one or a handful of children believed to have been abused by someone. Those children would be designated "victims" and taken into "protective" isolation. Investigators and social workers would barrage the children with leading and suggestive questions, and then dispense with questions outright and demand that the children simply ratify accusations made by the adults themselves.
Some of the methods of manipulation favored by Jagels's agents were sleep deprivation, prolonged interrogation, positive reinforcement when the child would "admit" to being abused, coupled with contemptuous, hostile treatment of any child suffering from "denial" of abuse. Toys and other gifts were used as inducements, as were consciously dishonest promises that children who cooperated would be re-united with parents they accused of abusing them.
Once a handful of "victim"/accusers had been assembled, the investigation would take on the characteristics of a pyramid scheme: Each "victim" was urged to name other "victims," who in turn were pressured into naming "abusers." In this fashion, within a little more than a year Jagels -- with the help of a scandalously incurious local press -- was able to convince the public that Bakersfield and its suburbs were infested with at least eight child abuse "rings." And before long, other prosecutors began to copy the Jagels Formula.
As Edward Humes points out in his Pulitzer-winning expose Mean Justice: A True Account of a Town's Terror, a Prosecutor's Power -- and a Betrayal of Innocence, Jagels's minions "helped ignite similar cases throughout the country, as Kern County investigators and social workers fanned out to spread the word of their winning techniques."
For the rest of the decade and into the early 1990s, the public would be barraged with tales of massive child abuse "rings" found in communities from coast to coast --from the McMartin pre-school in Manhattan Beach, California to the Wee Care daycare center in Maplewood, New Jersey.
It was as if a chain-reaction were underway, causing public officials and local populations to suffer a complete melt-down where critical thinking and rational application of the law were concerned -- and Kern County had served as the breeder reactor.
Ironically, given his role in abetting this national disaster, Ed Jagels (to alter our metaphor) didn't ignite the firestorm in Kern County, even though he did cynically feed the flames.
During his 1982 campaign for the District Attorney post -- the last campaign he's ever had to run, now that he's effectively the Kern County DA-for-life -- Jagels capitalized on the issue during a May debate with his opponent, Judge Marvin Ferguson.
During a question-and-answer period, a woman named Jill Haddad strode to a microphone and, brandishing a large sheaf of photocopied papers, accused Ferguson of being lenient in his treatment of child abusers. The documents she held, according to Haddad, proved that in 1975 Ferguson had sent an abused four-year-old girl named Mary Ann Azevedo back to the stepfather who had beaten her, and then compounded this act by giving the abuser a ridiculously light sentence.
A few months later, after the stepfather was released, he took Mary Ann and her mother to Mississippi, where -- just a short while later -- he beat the poor child to death. Ferguson, blindsided by the accusation, dissolved into a gibbering, stammering mess while Jagels sat next to him on the rostrum smirking.
This confrontation -- memorably captured in a photograph run on page A-4 of the Sunday, May 16 Bakersfield Californian -- proved to be the decisive moment in the campaign. It undoubtedly impressed on Jagels the political potency of the child abuse issue.
The procurement of the case file wielded by Jill Haddad, and the cover-up of the circumstances under which it was made available, may have been the first of the many instances of official corruption that would characterize Jagels's career as Kern County prosecutor. The case file was obtained from the county clerk by a woman named Colleen Ryan, who -- like Jagels -- was an assistant county DA. At the time, Ryan was on maternity leave and had no official need for the confidential document; that fact was not explained to the clerk who handed it over.
Ryan gave the file to Jagels's campaign manager, who in turn provided it to Jill Haddad, a local child abuse activist and Jagels supporter.
As it happens, Jagels and his allies not only stole the file, they lied about its contents in order to cover up their own role in the death of Mary Ann Azevedo.
It is true that Judge Ferguson sent Mary Ann back to a seriously troubled home. He didn't have a choice: The District Attorney didn't bother to send anybody to attend the critical hearing. In the absence of someone there to make the case for the prosecution, Judge Ferguson quite properly dismissed the charges.
Furthermore, the leniency granted to Mary Ann's stepfather (who was in jail for a different offense) was not Judge Ferguson's idea. He was the beneficiary of a plea-bargain arrangement that dramatically reduced his sentence. So if anyone in an official capacity was responsible for the death of Mary Ann Azevedo, that blame resided with the District Attorney's office.
This was not the first or last time the Kern County law enforcement community had covered up embarrassing details regarding the death of a child.
In 1979, four years following the death of Mary Ann Azevedo, a 14-year-old honors student named Dana Butler disappeared on her way home from church. Three days later, her mutilated mortal remains were found at the side of the highway just outside the Bakersfield city limits. Her body had been perforated by scores of stab wounds, and there was evidence that she had been tortured before being permitted to die.
Of particular interest was the fact that the murderer had carefully bathed and dressed the body before depositing it on the side of the road; it was still damp when the police discovered it. The obvious intent was to wash away critical physical evidence -- hairs, fibers, fluids -- that could be used by investigators seeking to identify the perpetrator.
Within a short time investigators learned that Dana had been a frequent house guest of 56-year-old Glenn Fitts, who routinely invited teens to his home for parties in which he'd ply the underage youth with alcohol and drugs and often receive sex in return. According to her friends, Dana had visited Fitts the day before she disappeared, and planned to return on the following day. Although Fitts was an obvious suspect, the DA's office and the Sheriff's Office were reluctant to pursue the investigation.
Prior to his retirement just a few years earlier, Fitts had been a pillar of the local law enforcement community: In addition to being chairman of the law-enforcement program at Bakersfield Community College, Fitts had been director of the Kern County Police Academy and a high-ranking member of the Bakersfield Police Commission. He had personally instructed many of the local police officers and sheriff's deputies, and as commissioner he had served as their supervisor.
A powerless victim, an unpunished crime: Investigators retrieve the body of 14-year-old Dana Butler, who was almost certainly raped and murdered by former Kern County Police Academy director Glenn Fitts.
After a lengthy and unnecessary delay, a search was conducted of Fitts' home, which had been thoroughly -- but not adequately -- scoured of evidence.
Carpet fibers and human hairs found in the house matched some found on Dana's body. Among them were (please forgive the specificity of this description) pubic hairs from Fitts that matched a sample found clinging to the head of the deceased 14-year-old girl.
Despite the accumulating evidence, the Kern County DA's office refused to prosecute. This decision was made by District Attorney Al Leddy in collaboration with his three top assistants. The Sheriff's office retaliated against the cover-up by leaking news of the investigation to the press; this resulted in the creation of an ad hoc pressure group called Mothers of Bakersfield, which pressured the state Attorney General to investigate the Kern County DA.
With pressure mounting on him, Leddy eventually submitted a case against Fitts to a grand jury. The ridiculously inadequate charge against him was contributing to the delinquency of a minor. And even then, notes Humes in Mean Justice, "senior prosecutors withheld key evidence from the panel and ultimately closed the investigation without asking for an indictment."
The only purpose served by that exercise was to provide political cover for Leddy and the local law enforcement hierachy. Their problems appeared to solve themselves shortly thereafter when Fitts died of what was officially described as a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. And even then, a neighbor reported hearing two gunshots rather than one -- a fact that suggests either really poor aim by Fitts, or very careful work by an assassin.
The Dana Butler murder and cover-up ended Leddy's career, and helped propel his subordinate Ed Jagels into Leddy's old office. It also offered a telling glimpse into the workings of the local ruling oligarchy, the so-called "Lords of Bakersfield," whose corrupt and criminal behavior was carefully protected by Jagels for more than a decade.
As an investigative report by Rolling Stone observes, many Bakersfield residents -- including people with access to the corridors of power -- concluded that Jagels' child abuse jihad was intended "to divert attention from the illicit sexual behavior of the city's ruling elite."
Kyle Beckman, who served as an investigator for the DA's office under Jagels, now says that "the 1980s molestation trials were overcompensation," that Jagels and his allies among the "Lords of Bakersfield" were "covering up their tracks by going after other people."
"Between 1981 and 1984," reports Rolling Stone, "three prominent men in Bakresfield were murdered by their teenage lovers. At his trial, one boy testified that he had sex with 150 closeted gay men in Kery County, a group of judges, prosecutors and other pillars of the community who became known in local lore as the Lords of Bakersfield. For years, rumors about the dark cabal filtered through town: the wild parties at the house of Ted Fritts, publisher of the Bakersfield Californian, where teenage boys mingled with graying power brokers; the park at the edge of town where homeless kids would swap sex for money or drugs."
The Californian newspaper, interestingly enough, was little more than a megaphone for Ed Jagels' office during the child abuse frenzy, and displayed no interest at all in pursuing the truth about these tantalizing rumors -- until after Fritts, the paper's publisher, died of AIDS in 1997, and another of the local "Lords" was murdered five years later.
On September 13, 2002, the body of assistant Kern County DA Stephen Tauzer was found in his garage. Tauzer was the victim of a particularly vicious attack: His head was riddled with multiple stab wounds.
With Tauzer's death the curtain was pulled back far enough to reveal one unsavory aspect of his private life: For years he had been involved with a teenage boy named Lance Hills, a meth addict and hustler. Many speculated that Tauzer, by that time in his late 50s, was supplying Hills with drugs in exchange for sex.
Public records documented that the assistant DA was using his influence to protect Hills when he was arrested on drug charges. Rather than being sent to jail or prison, Hills was sent to a rehab facility, where he stole a car that he wrecked in a head-on collision that also ended his life. One month after Lance Hills died, his father Chris murdered Tauzer.
During the child abuse frenzy of the 1980s, Tauzer had been Jagels' right-hand man, supervising the persecution of scores of innocent people. He was fully complicit in the crimes and abuses committed by the DA's office. That relationship, and revelations about Tauzer's relationship with Hills, support the accusation that Jagels' child abuse campaign was intended, at least in part, as a diversion undertaken to protect the depraved "Lords of Bakersfield."
Additional support for that assessment came a few months after Tauzer's death, when the Bakersfield Californian ran a revealing series about the "Legend of the Lords of Bakersfield."
Abounding in detail and carefully reported, the series substantiated at least some of the speculation regarding the influence and activities of that powerful clique.
Jagels remains ensconced in the Kern County DA's office to this day. In terms of the security of his position, the longevity of his rule, and the cruel lawlessness of his reign, Jagels invites comparisons to Fidel Castro. Despite the fact that all of the child sex charges were dismissed, neither Jagels nor any of his subordinates or allies has ever admitted error, or been held accountable in any way.
Although large-scale child abuse scandals no longer dominate the headlines, families are ripped apart, children are abducted, and innocent people are terrorized by predatory state officials using techniques pioneered by Jagels and his comrades. This happens somewhere in this country every day. But Jagels and his associates did more than just create a template for spurious child abuse investigations; they were the vanguard of a movement to create a corporatist police state.
Notes Edward Humes in Mean Justice: "Even as schools and parks and clinics suffered, Kern County bolstered the budgets of the sheriff, police, and prosecutors. It built a new, bigger jail far out in the desert, doing everything it could to crack down on crime, hard and sure...."
And where criminals could not be found, Jagels and his allies were prepared to manufacture them, thereby guaranteeing a return on this civic "investment." "You don' thave to do anything at all in this town to be convicted of a crime," explained a former employee of Jagels to Rolling Stone. "I tell my kids, `Get out of this county after high school or you'll end up in prison.'"
A similar admonition applies to visitors: According to a popular local folk saying, Bakersfield's Chamber of Commerce invites tourists to "Come on vacation, and leave on probation."
At the time Jagels came to power, Bakersfield's civic elite described their community as an "All-American City." What it became was a foreshadowing of America as our descent into abject police state tyranny accelerates.
Not-entirely-gratuitous video extra
Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens perform the country classic, "Streets of Bakersfield":
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