Breaking news in the murder of JonBenet Ramsey came from the other side of the globe.
Nearly a decade after the six-year-old girl was found dead in her Boulder, Colorado home on December 26, 1996, American John Mark Karr confessed to police in Thailand that he had killed her.
Karr, a thirty-something white man in high-waisted khakis and tightly-buttoned Polo whom the Bangkok authorities paraded through crowded, public hallways like he was Lee Harvey Oswald at the Dallas P.D., nonchalantly confessed to the scrum of reporters and cameramen.
“I loved JonBenet, and she died accidentally,” Karr said as he was hustled to a press conference.
“Are you an innocent man?” a journalist asked.
“No,” he said.
In a hint of what was to come, Karr entertained only those questions about the killing that he could answer with publicly available information.
“Were you playing with her? What happened?”
“Her death was an accident,” Karr explained, confirming he was with Ramsey in the basement of her home when she died.
When pressed to say what his connection was to the Ramsey family, or how he managed to get into their house, or how long he had known the little girl, he offered nothing but “no comment.”
Karr was arrested for the murder and extradited to the United States. But less than two weeks later, authorities dropped the charges against him when DNA evidence failed to put him at the scene of the crime and his relatives insisted he was celebrating Christmas with them in Atlanta, more than a thousand miles away from the Ramsey household, when JonBenet died.
Karr had made the whole thing up. But why?
Maybe he wanted a few minutes of fame. (You can hear from him at his official website.) Or it could have been mental illness. Or maybe he got a thrill from the act of lying. Or perhaps his obsession with Ramsey and her death prevented him from knowing the true from the false.
Whatever the combination of motives, Karr endorsed an obvious — and bizarre — deception.
Charlotteans continue to endure a similarly bizarre deception from one of their elected officials, Councilman James “Smuggie” Mitchell, who has publicly claimed over and over again that he committed a crime that investigators recently said never occurred.
It all began in December 2020, when Mitchell, who was then serving as an at-large member of City Council, took over as president and CEO of R.J. Leeper Construction, which has several contracts with the city. Mitchell also received a $375,000 loan from Bright Hope Construction, R.J. Leeper’s parent company, to purchase a 25% ownership interest in the firm.
This created a problem: State law prohibits the city from doing business with any company if a member of Council owns 10% or more of it.
On January 11, 2021, Mitchell announced his resignation from Council.
Then, in July 2021, R.J. Leeper terminated Mitchell’s employment, though he retained his ownership stake. About six months later, in December 2021, Bright Hope called in Mitchell’s loan. He failed to repay it, and in January 2022, he received a notice of default. About a month later, Bright Hope sent Mitchell a letter saying it had foreclosed on his ownership interest in R.J. Leeper, which had been the collateral for the defaulted loan.
A month later Mitchell filed to once again run for an at-large seat on City Council — while publicly claiming he still retained his 25% stake in R.J. Leeper, which, if true, would subject him to criminal liability if he won and took office.
Voters elected him in July 2022.
City Attorney Patrick Baker told Council the following month that Mitchell could face criminal penalties for taking his oath of office if, in fact, he had retained his ownership interest.
Mitchell was sworn into office in September 2022, and later that month, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather asked the State Bureau of Investigation to launch a probe into Mitchell’s actions.
As part of the investigation, Mitchell met with SBI agents in December 2022, and in January 2023, Merriweather sent a letter to state investigators explaining his conclusions after reviewing the results of their probe.
He first reiterated the reason an investigation had been launched: Mitchell’s continued pubic insistence that when he returned to elected office, he was committing a crime by retaining a significant ownership interest in a company with city contracts.
Wrote Merriweather, “Here, the request for an investigation of the business relationships of a local public officer was prompted principally by the repeated public comments of Mr. Mitchell, citing his 25 percent ownership of Leeper Construction, as he prepared to take office, even after he was confronted with the restrictions [in state law that would make it a crime for him to enter into office while holding his claimed ownership interest].”
Merriweather recounted that SBI agents reviewed the documents Mitchell entered into when he joined R.J. Leeper, as well as the promissory note that gave Bright Hope Construction the right the demand repayment of the loan at any time and the right to seize Mitchell’s ownership interest in the company if he defaulted. He also described the legal steps Bright Hope had taken to seize Mitchell’s ownership stake and noted that Mitchell and his lawyers conceded in an interview with investigators that they had taken no legal steps whatsoever to challenge the seizure.
He explained that investigators had examined the company’s financial records and found that “Mr. Mitchell has had no participation in the management of the company, has neither sought nor received financial documents related to the company, and has not paid anything in furtherance of the company’s operations. Additionally, there is no evidence he has received any distribution of profits from the company since his departure in 2021.”
The district attorney noted that while Mitchell and his counsel said they were considering an eventual court challenge to the foreclosure, “it will be a peculiar posture for someone to pursue a civil claim that, if successful, would also serve as dispositive affirmation of a violation of North Carolina criminal law.”
Everything pointed to one conclusion: Despite his repeated public assertions to the contrary, Mitchell no longer had anything to do with R.J. Leeper. Merriweather found “overwhelming evidence that Mr. Mitchell does not have an existing ownership stake [in the company]” and that a review of the available evidence “leaves no impression” to the contrary.
Mitchell responded to Merriweather’s letter — which exonerated him criminally by characterizing him as an unrepentant, serial fabulist — by saying he was “glad to have this behind me now and I can focus on really serving the citizens of Charlotte who elected me to do so.”
Fellow Democratic Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield echoed these sentiments. “Now that everything has come out through the DA for me I feel like this is a chapter we can close and we can move forward with the business of the community,” she said.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
People repeatedly asked Mitchell if he was an innocent man. Again and again he answered that he was not. We now know Mitchell didn’t tell the truth — or, maybe even worse, couldn’t distinguish the true from the false.
The foundation on which Merriweather’s conclusions rest is the “overwhelming evidence” that Mitchell spent the last year trying to deceive everyone. He didn’t commit a crime, but Mitchell’s insistence to the contrary calls into question his character and judgment and his worthiness to hold the public trust. A man who so easily and regularly deceives — himself, his colleagues, his constituents, and his community — is unfit for public office.
We shouldn’t move on because Mitchell’s a liar instead of criminal.