It took a few ding-ding-dings, but the seat-belt-scold alarm finally got Bobby Mistriel's attention. "All right, all right!" he sputtered, annoyed that a 35-year-old federal law, new to him, had interrupted his story midsentence.
In 1980, seat belts were strictly voluntary and not policed by weight-sensing technology. Cellphones were commercially nonexistent, credit cards free of digital tethers, cassette tapes the dominant mode of music delivery.
And Robert Glen "Bobby" Mistriel had not yet participated in the murder that first exposed a scandalized public to the alleged confederation of predatory gay men that came to be called the Lords of Bakersfield.
Mistriel's crime might have been long forgotten by now had The Californian not reexamined it, and a half-dozen other local homicides of the late 1970s and early ’80s, in an exhaustive January 2003 report. The violent September 2002 death of Stephen Tauzer, the No. 2 man in the Kern County District Attorney's Office, had some of the same ingredients — at least on the surface — as those older cases: a troubled and compromised young man; a persistent, much older male sponsor; and homicide. Was there some link? That's what we sought to uncover.
Sixteen years after its publication, Mistriel can still recite, verbatim, the stage-setting opening words of that 2003 report on the dark saga he himself helped set in motion: "Powerful gay men. Vulnerable teenage boys. Murder."
Mistriel, who was just 17 when he convinced a friend to kill Kern County Personnel Director Edwin A. Buck in July 1981, was released April 16 from Salinas Valley State Prison. He is living in a closely monitored transitional facility operated by the California Department of Corrections in Kern County.
Mistriel never really expected to be a free man: The presiding judge had sentenced him to 31 years to life. The crime was so heinous, however, it always seemed likely, at least to Mistriel, that life behind bars was likelier than parole.
He sat through four parole hearings over the years, each time telling the board words to this effect: "I was a kid who was taught bad morals by a bunch of immoral people." And, at hearing after futile hearing, the parole board would answer: "You're blaming. Take responsibility."
And so, last Dec. 4, at his sixth parole hearing (he skipped his first one), Mistriel finally did just that. He owned up.
In 1979, Mistriel met Ed Buck — a man he knew only as Jerry, a real estate agent — at Beach Park, which was then a notorious meetup place for gay men. Men and boys, that is: Mistriel, who first accepted money for sex at the tender age of 11, was just 15.
At some point in their relationship, Mistriel claims, Buck — a senior county administrator with guile and clout — urged him to participate in a porn video with an even younger boy and an adult male. Mistriel refused. But Buck, at 55 more than three times Mistriel's age, persisted. Finally, Mistriel said, he'd had enough. He devised a plan to rid himself of this constant, mounting pressure to perform.
On the pretense of going for a midsummer night's drive to Lake Isabella, Mistriel chauffeured Buck out onto Bakersfield-Glennville Road, the northern extension of North Chester Avenue. A recruited friend, 18-year-old Roy Matthew Camenisch, motivated by the opportunity for robbery, followed Buck's Honda in his own car, unbeknownst to Buck.
At a properly secluded spot, Mistriel pulled over. Camenisch pulled in front of them, turned off his headlights and stepped out. Mistriel got out of Buck's car and walked toward his friend — attempting, he would later testify, to talk Camenisch out of it. Camenisch couldn't be swayed.
Then, with Mistriel sitting in Camenisch's car, where he wouldn't have to watch the carnage, Camenisch walked back to where Buck was still seated and, in the darkness, stabbed him in the chest, battered his head with a hammer and slit his throat. Having found the ground too hard to dig a grave, they stuffed Buck's body in the car's trunk.
They parked the car in the garage of Buck's place on Pinewood Lake Drive, stole some things from the home and then started a fire that eventually gutted the garage and much of the house. They got back to Camenisch's girlfriend's house in time to watch the last half of a midnight sci-fi movie, "It Conquered the World."
Authorities had believed that Buck was out of town on vacation and that an electrical short had sparked the fire, but on July 20, 1981, three days after the murder, workers cleaning up the rubble found Buck's charred body and the case became a homicide investigation. Buck's two sons told police that a small TV and a microwave oven were missing from the house, and Mistriel was arrested two days later after police found the microwave at his mother's place.
On April 6, 1983, Camenisch pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and received life without the possibility of parole. (On Christmas Day, outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown commuted Camenisch's sentence to 37 years to life; he remains incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison and has an initial suitability hearing set for June 26 with the parole board.)
On July 8, 1983, Mistriel was convicted of first-degree murder by a jury in Riverside, where the case had been transferred because of the publicity created in Kern by the murder's salacious nature.
THE PAROLE BOARD
Thirty-eight years later, asked once again to name the "causative factor of his crime," Mistriel told the parole board: "I disrespected the law, I disregarded human life, I didn't give a damn about anything."
This time he wouldn't mention Stan Harper, the Bakersfield health care executive and political campaign manager of Ed Jagels, the ambitious deputy district attorney elected DA while Mistriel was in jail awaiting trial. He wouldn't mention Ted Fritts, publisher of The Bakersfield Californian and host of legendary parties, some of them poolside affairs at his historic Oleander Avenue mansion with tank-top-wearing, underage cocktail boys. He wouldn't mention the wink-and-nod arrangement that allowed certain men to check out court-supervised juveniles like library books from the San Felipe Boys Home and return them hours later.
No, this time he would take full responsibility.
He could see the faces of the men and women of the parole board soften. This time he was granted parole, effective in four months, pending the governor's approval. And a funny thing happened: The parole board, with different members than Mistriel had seen before, justified his release with the same rationale previous boards had always criticized him for citing.
"You talked early on in this hearing about consenting to this behavior as an 11- or 12-year-old," Deputy Commissioner Mary Thornton said. "... This would be looked at now as a case of human trafficking. You were made a victim for quite a length of time with a number of different people. And it doesn't excuse a life of crime, but it puts a light on it today ... (not appreciated) way back in the ’80s."
Said Presiding Commissioner Neil Schneider: "Exposure to deviant peer (behavior) leads to increased deviant behavior. ... Your deviant peers ended up being a whole cast of adult males. ... (In this case) the young juvenile was exploited by a bunch of powerful, well-to-do adults. ... Looks like, sir, you were presented at age 12 with your very own 'Catch-22' situation."
He had served in at least 10 state prisons: Pelican Bay, High Desert, San Quentin, Folsom, Corcoran, Lancaster, Mule Creek, Calipatria, Kern Valley and Salinas Valley. Now, at age 55, Buck's age that horrific night 38 years ago, he would be free.
Mistriel is gratified to know that the record now shows what he has always believed: Streetwise though he might have been, immoral men took him, a boy, down a dark road.
Mistriel was the son of an absent father and an alcoholic mother who moved her family from squalid hovel to derelict motel and back again. Mistriel was molested by an older brother at the age of 6, endured his parents' divorce at age 8 and became involved in prostitution at age 11 or 12.
When Mistriel was in fifth grade he moved with his mother, grandmother and siblings from La Mirada to Norwalk, but for months afterward he would hitchhike back and forth between those cities. "Guys would pick me up and proposition me," he said. "I had to feed myself."
By the time he was 13, he was working as a homosexual hustler on Hollywood's Sunset Strip.
In 1978, Mistriel moved with his mother and grandmother to Bakersfield, and they settled at the Rancho Bakersfield Motel. It was there that he met Tommy Tarver, who owned a popular, fashionable hair salon on F Street frequented by some of the town's elite.
"One night I was sitting there in the cafe, eating my dinner, and Tommy Tarver staggered out of the bar. He came over and we talked. He asked, do I want a job mowing his yard? I went to his house and that very night things were happening."
He was still just 13.
One night a year and a half later, Tarver was stabbed and bludgeoned to death at his home in Westchester, and for a time Mistriel was a prime suspect. He'd been stopped the day after the homicide driving Tarver's car but was arrested only for burglarizing Tarver's salon.
Prosecutors thought the killer was William Kenneth Manly Jr., a Santa Rosa man who'd met Tarver at the Rancho Bakersfield and gone home with him that night, but Manly was ultimately acquitted, convicted only of burglary.
Mistriel, meanwhile, was convicted of the salon burglary and sent to the the San Felipe Boys Home, a facility for juvenile offenders run by the Catholic church, which contracted with the county. It was through San Felipe, founded by Monsignor Ralph Belluomini, that he met Harper, director of the Kern Medical Group, who had walked in one day professing to need a nighttime janitor. Mistriel accepted the job and went to work for Harper.
"That was the start of his little perversions," Mistriel said. "We would do it right there in the office."
Mistriel's relationships with Harper and others came up repeatedly in Buck murder trial testimony two years later, giving Kern County law enforcement officials what would seem a solid basis for a statutory rape investigation or two. Nothing came of it. At the very same time, local authorities were overzealously pursuing a string of alleged molestations involving unconnected, blue-collar families, resulting in conviction after overturned conviction (and millions of taxpayer dollars in wrongful conviction settlements). But illegal trysts allegedly involving pillars of the community like Harper — godfather to DA Ed Jagels' son — warranted only shrugs.
Thirty-eight years later, Mistriel says he is not bitter. He just wants to be happy. He plans on living 40 more years, but says it's too soon to know with certainty precisely where. He's in good physical condition, has stopped smoking and has quit heroin, always so easy to get in prison, cold turkey.
His goals are modest.
He made it only to the fifth grade before his life took its tragic turn, but he received his GED in prison and is now looking for some sort of job skills training. He mentioned forklift operator.
He checked one item off his to-do list Friday when he went to the Department of Motor Vehicles office on F Street and took the written test for his driver's license. He passed without having so much as glanced at the manual. Now he just needs to take the driving test (and a car to borrow for the occasion).
The DMV employee who took Mistriel's license photo, noting his name was nowhere to be found in the state database of drivers, asked when he'd last had a license.
"I was 16," he told the woman. "I was in prison 38 years."
She wanted to know his story.
"Ever heard of the Lords of Bakersfield?" Mistriel said.
"Is that a motorcycle gang?" she responded.
No, not a motorcycle gang. If only it were that simple.