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. Although she promised me an interview that Halloween and mentioned that she "might be in costume," I wasn't surprised when I didn't hear back.
When I read the news about James, I called former San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, who is representing James and is a long-time friend of the Mitchell family. Hallinan had just returned from Mitchell's arraignment in Marin County, where he is being held without bail.
"James feels terrible about what happened," Hallinan said. When asked about the possibility of James having PTSD from his time in the Marines, Hallinan said, "I don't know if he's been overseas or not."
I then got a hold of a copy of the permanent restraining order Keller had secured on July 7, five days before she was killed. From it, I discovered that James had not been deployed overseas. In fact, according to the allegations in the court order, he had abused Keller for almost two years, beginning a month after the couple met claiming the abuse was his way to avoid Iraq.
The court filing also revealed that James brought his gun everywhere and usually kept it in his jeans until his siblings, including Meta, filed their own five-year restraining order after he pulled it out during a family business meeting at the O'Farrell Theater in November 2007 and "waved it around in a threatening manner."
Keller's statement also charged that James has mood swings, used cocaine, had a meth addiction, and was arrested for domestic violence in February 2008 when Keller was four months pregnant.
The couple's penultimate fight took place March 4 when Keller told him she was going to live with her mom. After that incident, James was arrested for vioutf8g his probation, and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris recommended putting James behind bars for three months. But 11 days before Keller's killing, Superior Court Judge Mary Morgan sentenced him to two days and stayed the sentence.
Warren Hinckle, a veteran Bay Area journalist and long-time Mitchell family friend, observes that people can't imagine what it was like to have grown up in this "battle-prone family."
"Sure, I knew Rafe, and obviously something very bad and weird happened," Hinckle told the Guardian. "People forget that the Mitchells spent a lot of the money that they made on First Amendment battles, and that they were on mob territory."
Keller's attorney, Charlotte Huggins, said she wants to make sure there's money set aside for Samantha. But that may be tricky because James was living on trust fund money. Following a 2008 settlement of the dancers' class action suit against Cinema 7 in which the corporation agreed to pay $2 million in legal fees and $1.45 million toward the dancers' claims Cinema 7 president Jeffrey Armstrong claimed in court filings that the corporation "is not able to pay the entire amount up front."
Instead, Mitchell matriarch Georgia Mae and John P. Morgan, co-trustees of the Jim Mitchell 1990 Family Trust, which holds two-thirds of Cinema 7's shares, pledged stock certificates as security interest.
Jim Mitchell's four adult children receive $3,000 a month from the trust. They have the right to withdraw 50 percent when they turn 30, and the remainder when they turn 35.
Court files show that Meta, who turned 30 last year, along with Justin and Jennifer Mitchell, are trying to wrest control of the trust from their grandmother, Georgia Mae, 85. Instead, they would like to appoint their mother and Jim's ex-wife Mary Jane Whitty-Grimm as the successor trustee. A hearing is set for September.
A stripper who used to dance at the O'Farrell Theater under the stage name Simone Corday wrote the book 9 1/2 Years Behind the Green Door (Mill City Press, Inc. 2007), in which she recalls Artie Mitchell as her lover. Corday told the Guardian that when the Mitchell brothers shared a house in Moraga, Artie worried about Jim's child-rearing techniques.
In Corday's book, Artie is quoted saying, "You know how Jim has Rafe dressed as Rambo so much? Now they're calling Rafe 'the enforcer.' If any of the kids use a swear word even mine when they're over there Rafe is supposed to attack!"
Corday said she was shocked by Keller's killing. "It's been disturbing. What with his name being the same as Jim's, and both being held in the Marin County Jail. It's eerie."