Behind the Mitchells' door

My strange encounters with a strange crew

When James Raphael Mitchell, 27, son of the late porn film director and strip club owner Jim Mitchell, was charged with murder, domestic violence, kidnapping, and child abduction and endangerment last week, my first reaction was to wonder if he suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder.

I had run into met James in October 2007, at which time he sported a military-style buzz cut and told me he was in the Marines. And now I was reading reports that he had shown up at the home of his one-time fiancée, Danielle Keller, 29, the mother of their one-year-old daughter, Samantha Rae, killed Keller with a metal baseball bat, and fled with Samantha. He then led police on a five-hour manhunt that ended in Citrus Heights.

I later encountered James at the O'Farrell Theater, the club his father Jim and uncle Artie opened 40 years ago. At the club, the brothers produced porn films, battled with former Mayor Dianne Feinstein's vice squad, and entertained members of the city's political elite before Jim shot Artie in 1991.

Jim's attorneys described the killing as an "intervention gone awry," while Artie's kids believed it was a wrongful death. In the end, Jim served less than three years of a six-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter at San Quentin. After his release, he continued his involvement with Cinema 7, the corporation the Mitchell brothers formed to oversee their porn empire, until he died of a heart attack in July 2007.

Shortly after Jim's death, his eldest daughter, Meta, became the O'Farrell Theater's general manager. In fall 2007, Christina Brigida, a childhood friend of Meta, contacted me to see if I'd be interested in "a column about the reality of what the sex industry is like for females (both strippers and non-strippers)" and "female managers in adult entertainment." She proposed that she and Meta write the article. "The notion that the O'Farrell Theater is run by old white men pimping out women for money with no regard as to their treatment and/or well-being is just flat out not true," Brigida wrote.

In her piece, Meta recalled: "Growing up in my family there was a distinct line between the boys and the girls. The boys got to go on special outings with my dad and uncle, while the girls were left at home. As I grew older, so did my resentment. I continued to hate being left out. I felt like it all had to do with my dad's business. The boys could go inside, and I couldn't. I grew to hate the theater for taking my dad away from me."

Meta went to school and got a job as a mortgage consultant in San Ramon until 2004, when she began to recognize the club "as something that had taken care of us through the years."

And that's how I came to be drinking coffee one morning in the club's upstairs room, talking to Meta, a petite woman with a black bob, brown eyes, knee-length leather boots, a tiny dog, and a massive lime-green handbag. It was then that I met her younger brother, James, who his friends call Rafe.

I was seated in front of a photo of Pope John Paul II greeting Fidel Castro in Cuba, and a painting called Night Manager. The conversation somehow turned to war, at which point Rafe turned and told me he was in the Marines.

Meta resumed our conversation, which included my asking about a class action suit the O'Farrell dancers had brought against the club and Meta's talking about her innovations, which included theme nights and costumes. At that point, Rafe interrupted, observing that "guys get drunk and just want to have fun and don't care about costumes."

Clearly there was tension between Meta and James. And clearly Meta wanted to control the content of any story about the club.