A garbled story last month in the Fort Bragg Advocate informed Fort Bragg that a still young, and perhaps still dangerous, man named Tony Mitchell will soon be out of prison. The family of one of his victims, the McMahon family, is worried that Mitchell still represents a threat to them, that he has promised to "get" certain people when he's released, some McMahons included. The McMahons have pleaded with District Attorney David Eyster to somehow keep Mitchell locked up.
Eyster rightly says there's nothing he can do, that Mitchell was sentenced in such a way that his release does not depend on the Parole Board's approval. Eyster did not say that the Mitchell case is also a good example of how arbitrary the justice system can be. This particular double murderer will serve a mere 12 years, while the release of a thoroughly repentant and reformed man like Billy Mayfield, guilty of a single shooting committed out of youth and passion, can be held years past his sentence by the political ambitions of the "tough on crime" governors who have twice vetoed his release.
The Advocate didn't seem to know anything about Mitchell's crimes, but Fort Bragg might want to know those specifics, and residents of Fort Bragg and the Mendocino Coast might also want to prepare themselves for Mitchell's return. Then again, maybe Mitchell is not the Mitchell he was when he killed people. We shall see what we shall see.
Just after midnight in early August of 1997, Anthony ‘Tony’ James Mitchell beat William “Bill” McNeel to death outside the Noyo Bowl in Fort Bragg. Judge Joe Orr sent Mitchell to the Mendocino County Jail for 54 days and put him on probation for three years. The judge said Mitchell was only 25, and the judge could see that the boy was sorry for what he’d done.
Early on a January morning in 1999, about 1:30 in the morning, and less than two years after Mitchell had beaten Bill McNeel to death, Mitchell parked his truck in Eddie McMahon’s quarry near Westport, walked 300 yards up the road to McMahon’s house on a ridge overlooking the Pacific, and shot McMahon to death.
For this second murder, the same judge, Judge Joe Orr, sent Mitchell to state prison for 15 years, again saying that Mitchell’s youth and remorse might somehow redeem him.
Tony Mitchell has done 12 years of his 15. With nearly three years off the sentence for good behavior and the year he did in the Mendocino County Jail while he waited to be tried for the McMahon murder, he'll be back in Fort Bragg before he's 40. Which happens to be very soon. He's as good as out, and people are scared.
When Tony Mitchell murdered Eddie McMahon he was still on probation for the beating death of Bill McNeel. Among the conditions of Mitchell’s probation in the aftermath of the McNeel beating were stipulations that he not wear military garb and that he possess no weapons. Someone in Ukiah had figured out that Mitchell’s preferred dress and his preoccupation with weapons did not bode well for conventional employment.
Mitchell paid no attention to the conditions of his probation.
“He had all kinds of guns,” an acquaintance recalls. “After the McNeel thing he’d have a girlfriend buy guns for him under her name.”
And Tony Mitchell wore military garb everywhere he went around Fort Bragg — camo pants, a purple beret pulled down over his shaved head, his enormous arms spilling out of shirts whose sleeves had been cut to ostentiously display them. He also laughed about killing Bill McNeel, often bragging about how he’d left McNeel dead on the sidewalk outside the Noyo Bowl.
Mitchell had done an abbreviated tour as an Army paratrooper, but had unaccountably left the elite airborne unit with an honorable discharge to return to the Mendocino Coast where he’d been born and raised. The Army won’t say, but it seems that they considered Tony Mitchell something of a menace to the soldiers on his own side. Mitchell himself bragged about a barracks fight that sent the men who’d “jumped” him to the hospital.
He attributed his early military out more prosaically as a physical problem. “I blew out my knees and couldn’t jump anymore so I got out.”
If there was something wrong with the big man's knees it wasn’t evident to people who worked with him. That there was something wrong with his head was apparent both in his dress and his conversation. He dressed like Rambo right down to the big buck knife in a scabbard on his meaty shank and, as one dubious acquaintance put it, “No matter what the conversation was about Tony would bring up killing someone. Or guns, or how much he liked beating people up. He often said that killing people was no big deal.”
Murder Number One
Bill McNeel had come back to Fort Bragg to visit his parents the August weekend he died. He’d lived in Fort Bragg for many years, working as a carpenter in his father’s contracting business. McNeel had served in Vietnam as a Navy Seabee. Mrs. McNeel, Bill’s mother, says “he was never the same after Vietnam.” Still grieving for both her son and her husband who died soon after her son was beaten to death by Tony Mitchell, Mrs. McNeel concedes her son had an alcohol problem.
“But Bill had moved away from Fort Bragg,” Mrs. McNeel says. “He lived in Santa Rosa. When he was killed — murdered, we think — he was just about to graduate from Sonoma State University with a degree in computer science.”
Bill McNeel was trying.
McNeel was a familiar name to the Fort Bragg Police Department whose officers had 86’d him from one or another of the town’s bars before McNeel had relocated to Santa Rosa and a new life as a re-entry student. If he hadn’t encountered Tony Mitchell at the Noyo Bowl that fatal night in August of 1997, Bill McNeel would have graduated from college and perhaps finished his working life in front of a computer screen instead of dead on a gurney at Coast Hospital, his skull crushed, his stomach organs pulverized.
Like the man who beat him to death outside the Fort Bragg bowling alley, McNeel was somewhat of a military Walter Mitty. He’d have a few drinks and tell people war stories, implying that he’d been a Navy Seal, suggesting he knew a thousand and one ways to dispatch the inattentive man on the barstool next to him so quickly nobody in the place would know what had happened until the victim hit the floor.
Every bar in the country has its consignment of war heroes and once-upon-a-time great athletes whose alcohol-conjured exploits no one remembers the next day. The stories are harmless. Sad people need some way to lift themselves up a little ways to see over the mess they’ve made of themselves. Ordinarily, however, bar room bluster is not a capital offense. So what if Bill McNeel had never been dropped into North Vietnam with a Bowie knife between his teeth; he had been a Navy Seabee, honorable duty and plenty hazardous itself, but nothing anybody is going to make a war movie about.
But the man who beat him to death said he had to do it because Bill McNeel had said he was a Seal, an ultra-commando.
Tony Mitchell was another military Mitty, junior branch. He was a 25-year-old who had been in and out of the military suspiciously fast, but had done well enough during his abbreviated tour to get himself into an elite airborne unit. When he came back to the Mendocino Coast after his brief military career, Mitchell regaled his old high school pals with war stories from his non-combat tour, bragging about beating up guys in the barracks and how he was a super-trained killer. But even some of his friends figured that Tony was making up for his childhood as “a little guy who got picked on a lot,” as one of them put it. But he wasn’t a little guy anymore; he was as big as an NFL lineman whose entire menacing persona, enhanced by the neo-combat garb he wore around town, said, “I’m big, I’m bad and I can kill you a lot of different ways.”
Most people in Fort Bragg thought Tony Mitchell was simply another nut case walking around town who, hopefully, was getting professional help in learning the difference between reality and the unhealthy fantasy life he was obviously leading.
When the two military Mittys met in the Noyo Bowl it was inevitable that there would be trouble.
Tony Mitchell arrived togged out in camo shorts and a cut-off t-shirt, biceps on full display, an Airborne beret on his shaved head — full summer Rambo. He was accompanied by his cousin Quentin Shandel, Jeromy Zissa, and Bob Sallinen. The quartet was celebrating Shandel’s 24th birthday. They’d had dinner together at the Redwood Cook House, pounded down a couple of quick beers at the Ship’s Wheel, and had then set forth for the popular bar at the Noyo Bowl in Sallinen’s white pick-up truck.
McNeel, a middle-aged man of 54, was half-drunk and in no physical condition to fight anyone even if he wasn’t drunk, let alone a huge 25-year-old who came in at 6’2” and weighed 250 pounds “with arms like cannons,” as an awed woman at the bar described the most prominent parts of Mitchell’s physique. McNeel sat a table drinking beer with several acquaintances, grumbling that the bartender had asked him to pay an old tab for $38. McNeel had indignantly denied owing the money. It was a little after 10pm.
Pete Roblee, the bartender at the Noyo, later told police that the four young guys “looked like trouble” when they came through the door, but in fact were well-behaved all night. They sat down at a table not far from the bar and sipped beer. Behind them sat the angry McNeel who, a witness recalls, “started right in on Tony about the beret he was wearing, telling him he had no right to have it on.” The very sight of Mitchell seemed to outrage McNeel.
Mitchell ignored the drunk in the cowboy hat, but McNeel torqued up the insults, denouncing Mitchell as “a big pussy” and, inevitably, “a faggot,” also repeatedly informing the 25-year-old behemoth that he was “full of shit.”
Mitchell seemed periodically annoyed, but mostly ignored McNeel.
“Tony couldn’t have been afraid of the guy,” a female witness said. “McNeel isn’t all that big, and he sure as hell isn’t a fighter; one look at him and you know he’s just an old guy in a bar running his mouth. If the bartender had known that he was bothering Tony he would have kicked him out.”
McNeel kept on baiting Mitchell. “If I was 25 years younger I’d kick your ass.”
Mitchell got up to go to the bathroom; McNeel followed. Aware that the two had been having words, a man sitting nearby assumed “that Tony would smack him one and that would be the end of it.” Soon, the two military theorists calmly emerged from the men’s room, surprising some people who were aware that there was tension between the two. Mitchell told his friends that McNeel hadn’t tried to start a fight, adding that McNeel had told Mitchell he was a former Navy Seal and had merely admonished Mitchell that as a former member of another elite fighting machine, Army Airborne, Mitchell shouldn’t be telling outsiders his and McNeel’s military secrets.
Back among the crowd in the bar, McNeel resumed his verbal abuse of Mitchell.
Shortly after midnight, Mitchell and his friends decided to head south for the Caspar Inn. As they left the bar, McNeel, having carefully placed his watch on his table, followed Mitchell outside, muttering that he “was going to teach this big wimp a lesson.”
A few feet from the bar’s door, the two men faced each other. McNeel may have poked Mitchell in the chest. (Mitchell later said McNeel had pushed him.) Mitchell’s friends kept on walking towards Sallinen’s truck parked on Elm Street on the south side of the bowling alley. What happened from then on is not clear because no single witness saw all that happened.
Mitchell admitted to police that he’d hit McNeel “in the face as hard as I could, then hit him a couple more times and the guy went down.”
After Mitchell’s first punch, McNeel was rendered senseless. His head had been driven backwards into the stone-studded wall of the bowling alley where Mitchell kept him pinned with one hand while he delivered several more rapid, full-weight blows to McNeel’s face. As McNeel slumped to the ground, Mitchell leaned over and continued to punch him on the head, soon straightening up to kick and stomp him. A bar friend of McNeel’s, Orville Janes, tried to get between Mitchell and the still form of McNeel. Mitchell backhanded Janes out of the way and continued to punch and kick the unresisting, prone Navy Seabee who’d come home to Fort Bragg for the weekend to visit his mother.
Two witnesses said Mitchell then ran across the street where his friends were waiting in Sallinen’s truck and the young men drove off. Mitchell says he helped Janes to his feet, apologized to the would-be peacemaker he’d effortlessly swatted out of the way, and walked across the street to his friend’s truck for the trip to Caspar for more night time summer fun.
McNeel was left lying where he’d fallen, his battered face floating in a spreading pool of blood.
Janes had run into the bar yelling for someone to call 9-1-1. Paramedics found McNeel unconscious, a deep two-and-a-half inch gash in the back of his head, his stomach distended from the ruptured, swelling organs inside it. He was alive but his breathing occurred only in irregular gurgles.
Bill McNeel was declared dead at Coast Hospital shortly before 1am. The autopsy report said he died of “blunt force trauma” to his head and torso, either of which had been sufficient to kill him.
Mitchell was identified immediately as McNeel’s assailant and, within hours, tracked to Sallinen’s house on Gibney Lane where he was discovered by the Fort Bragg Police in an untroubled sleep on Sallinen’s couch. Sallinen told police he hadn’t seen much of the fight because he’d been across the street waiting for Mitchell in the pick-up. He also said that he’d seen “Tony get in fights before but he never throws the first punch because he doesn’t want to be the primary aggressor.” Sallinen recalled another fight Mitchell had gotten into in Fort Bragg “where he waited for the guy to hit him like he always does, but then he hurts them because he’s so big.”
The reluctant warrior responded calmly to the police interrogation. Mitchell said he had no idea that McNeel had died but expressed neither surprise nor remorse. Mitchell told police McNeel had been insulting him all night, and that when he’d followed Mitchell outside the bar Mitchell became alarmed because McNeel said he was a former Navy Seal.
“I knew someone who was a Navy Seal was not someone to play with because it takes five years training to be one. They’re very scary people, high speed and low drag,” Mitchell told the Fort Bragg police.
Mitchell said he thought “the guy” would wake up the next morning with no more than “a sore face and a hangover.”
The unperturbed Mitchell was arrested and charged with murder. The Shandel family, to whom Mitchell is related, promptly put up their property to meet Mitchell’s bail, which was set at $100,000.
Tony Mitchell went back to work for Eddie McMahon, mostly at McMahon’s quarry north of Fort Bragg near Westport, but he did whatever McMahon asked him to do, whether it was a task at the quarry or at McMahon’s minor subdivision closer to Fort Bragg.
Nobody beyond Bill McNeel’s immediate family was upset that Judge Joe Orr sent Tony Mitchell off to the county jail for a mere 54 days for what they and at least three eyewitnesses saw as the murder of the 54-year-old man. But McNeel’s death was an accident, the judge said. Tony Mitchell hadn’t meant to kill him and, after all, McNeel had started the fight.
Common sense says that a big strong young man who continues to strike and kick a drunk man half his size and twice his age after the man is unable to defend himself should suffer consequences more severe than a couple of months in the county jail.
The McNeel killing occurred during the arbitrary reign of then-Mendocino County District Attorney Susan Massini, who would soon be replaced by Norman Vroman. Regarding the McNeel case disposition, Vroman was uncharacteristically silent for a moment before he said, “Amazing sentence. Granted that the other guy started it, but there was a huge age disparity, size disparity, and the victim was extremely intoxicated. Any decent human being would realize he didn’t need to hit the man more than once.”
Murder Number Two
Dennis McMahon, is one of two surviving McMahon brothers. He and his younger brother, Eddie, were very close. Dennis is a paraplegic from a nearly fatal accident he suffered as a young man. Dennis shares an immaculate and comfortable home with his caregiver, Irene Merritt. Dennis and Irene knew almost at a glance that Tony Mitchell was trouble; when he started to talk they knew he was trouble.
“The first time I met Mitchell,” Dennis recalls, “he stopped by my house in Fort Bragg with my nephew, Brian. It was the day before Christmas in 1998. Mitchell said he’d been out shooting. I asked him if he was a good shot.”
McMahon’s question ignited in Mitchell an excited recitation of his abilities with guns, and then a jubilant account of how he’d beaten Bill McNeel to death. Mitchell capped off his unhinged presentation with the hope that he could shoot it out with the police some day.
Irene Merritt found Mitchell so unsettling she’d left the room. Denny McMahon made it clear to Mitchell that he wasn’t welcome to come back.
Here he was, a very large and very ominous young man whom Denny and Irene had just met, sitting in their living room mindlessly regaling two clearly disapproving middle-aged persons with juvenile accounts of mayhem! The young man was not reality-based, and he was clearly very, very dangerous.
Two weeks later he shot and killed Denny McMahon’s brother, Eddie.
“We last saw Eddie the day before he died,” Irene remembers. “He brought us lunch. He always helped Denny with gifts to make Denny’s life more bearable because Denny’s on a fixed income. Our last memory of him was when he went out the door with the sparkle he always had in his eyes. We were going to have dinner with him the following week.”
Another acquaintance of Mitchell’s, this one a young woman, says that Mitchell was “definitely a cold-blooded person. He never talked about ordinary things. It was always violence with him. He said only the strong should live and that women should be confined to special breeding pens. Every time I talked to him he went right into something morbid. He may have been on steroids, he was so pumped up.”
When Mitchell returned to work for the McMahons at their Westport gravel pit after his 54 days in the Mendocino County Jail for beating McNeel to death, Mrs. McMahon asked Mitchell if anybody had bothered him in jail. “Nobody bothers you in jail when they know you killed someone,” Mitchell replied.
Although someone over in Ukiah at least had had the sense to detect Mitchell’s ominous obsession with violence, recommending that he not wear camo or be anywhere near guns as conditions of his probation for beating Bill McNeel to death, less than two years later nobody in authority in Ukiah seemed aware that Mitchell had not abided by any of the conditions of his probation. He was buying guns, shooting guns, playing with guns, talking constantly about guns, and he dressed in camo every day and laughed about killing Bill McNeel. The so-called remorse Judge Orr and his supporting cast of psychiatric evaluators had said they detected in Mitchell was not evident to anybody in Fort Bragg who knew Tony Mitchell.
Wally Shattuck was Eddie McMahon’s best friend “all the way back to the 7th grade,” Shattuck says. Shattuck recalls that right after the fatal fight with Bill McNeel, Eddie offered to help Mitchell find a lawyer. Shattuck remembers Mitchell saying, “I don’t mind going to jail. I’ll just join the Aryan Brotherhood.” Mitchell seemed to think the prison gang was a kind of penal Rotary Club.
Shattuck thinks it’s a mistake to dismiss Mitchell as a head case or simply as a big, dumb mean guy. “Mitchell is sharper than you might think just to look at him. I know he read a lot because he knew a lot about a lot of different things, most of them not very good things; but the guy definitely wasn’t an idiot.”
No one was aware of any tension between Mitchell and Eddie McMahon. There had been a minor dispute when McMahon told Mitchell he didn’t want Mitchell charging things to his account at a local parts store, but that argument had apparently been resolved without any apparent bitterness on either side. Shattuck says Eddie would “occasionally get on the guy at the pit (McMahon’s quarry operation near Westport) but no worse than any other boss gets on an employee.”
Eddie and Ronelle “Ronnie” McMahon lived above Eddie’s quarry in an old but comfortable house on what is now called the Jackson Ranch, 3,000 acres near Westport owned by a man named Will Jackson, an East Coast stockbroker. Eddie owned the quarry concession on the Jackson place. He and Ronnie had been happily married for years, having met at Fort Bragg High School. In between days at the quarry — it was seldom busy enough to demand Eddie’s full-time attention — Eddie maintained the ranch’s far-flung acres. He also found time to work on his little subdivision a few miles north of Fort Bragg.
Ronelle McMahon, for years active in the county’s show horse events, was in Europe at the time of her husband’s death. She’d gone to Belgium to evaluate a horse a friend was thinking of buying.
About 1:30 in the early morning of Wednesday, January 6th a woman living not far from the quarry heard a truck go up the road towards the McMahon house and stop at the quarry. That truck belonged to Tony Mitchell. Mitchell got out of the truck and walked up the hill to Eddie’s house, a distance of about 300 yards. Shortly thereafter he shot and killed Eddie McMahon, who had probably been awakened by the barking of his faithful Labrador retriever. McMahon was shot once in the chest and five times in the back. McMahon’s dog was also shot, although “it was the kind of dog that might lick you to death before it would bite,” as a friend of McMahon’s assessed the animal’s guard dog abilities.
The killer was in and around the McMahon home until daybreak. Between 6:30 and 7am a neighbor saw Ronnie McMahon’s pick-up truck pass by and pull on out to Highway One.
What Mitchell did all those hours in the McMahon house is not known. It is known that he carefully covered McMahon and the dog with sheets. At some point during his prolonged, ghoulish stay in the house on the hill above the quarry, Mitchell had driven Eddie McMahon’s pick-up truck up an old skid road in back of the house where he pulled it partially into the bushes, as if in an half-hearted attempt to hide it.
Mitchell left his own pick-up at the quarry, thus creating an initial suspect pool of one person — himself.
Eddie McMahon wasn’t found until Friday evening. Wally Shattuck was the last friendly person to see Eddie McMahon alive.
“We’d been working on the loader to Eddie’s pit here at my shop,” Shattuck remembers. “We had the head off and Eddie was supposed to come back the next day and we’d put it back on and get everything hooked back up. He left here about eleven o’clock Tuesday night. He was tired as hell and I bet he went to sleep as soon as he got home. Usually you called his mobile, he called right back,” Shattuck says.
Shattuck said he assumed Eddie was simply distracted by some problem having to do with one of his several enterprises. He hadn’t returned phone calls because he was busy.
“Friday,” Shattuck recalls, “my family and I were going to the Purple Rose for dinner, and seeing as how it’s half-way to the quarry, I went on up to Eddie’s house about 5 in the afternoon. I was definitely worried about him now. Eddie’s not the kind of guy who just takes off. I noticed his truck was gone, but when I looked over the bank outside Eddie’s house I saw Tony’s pick-up down at the rock pit.”
The perplexed Shattuck drove on down to dinner at the Purple Rose where he called Eddie’s house and dialed Eddie’s mobile phone in his pick-up again. Nothing. Then, fully alarmed, Shattuck called a friend to go with him back up to Eddie’s house above the quarry.
“Eddie was a diabetic,” Shattuck recalls. “If he’d somehow gotten himself in a jam somewhere on the ranch with his insulin back at the house, he could be in big trouble.”
The two-man search team hurried north over the 14 winding miles from Fort Bragg to Eddie’s house above the quarry. They drove all over the ranch’s 3,000 acres calling Eddie’s name and shining flashlights down over the sides of the old logging roads. They discovered Eddie’s pick-up above the house half-hidden, but no sign of Eddie. Finally, Shattuck entered the house.
“That’s when I found him. The snake had turned round and bit him,” Shattuck says, a disgusted sigh in his voice. “I knew who’d done it right away.”
“It wasn’t over money or drugs or women,” Shattuck continues, because none of that could have been involved. Eddie wasn’t into anything like that. Mitchell didn’t seem to even have a plan. He left his truck in the quarry. He had to know the police would look for him first. He just flat out plain didn’t give a shit.”
It didn’t take long for Detective (now Captain) Kurt Smallcomb of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department to figure out where Mitchell had gone. Several persons had called the Sheriff’s Department to say that Mitchell had often visited property the Shandels owned over in Trinity County near Hayfork. And that’s where Mitchell was discovered, in a trailer out in the woods with a girl he was fond of. Ronelle McMahon’s truck was parked nearby.
The man who’d bragged to Denny McMahon and Irene Merrit that he’d enjoy a shoot-out with the police surrendered to Detective Smallcomb without so much as a twitch of his great big biceps.
Rumors flew around Fort Bragg. Because Mitchell had hidden a case of dynamite from the quarry it was thought he might have militia connections to right-wing extremists vaguely said to be based in Trinity County.
Detective Smallcomb believed the militia speculation is farfetched. “I’d say they’re good folks,” Smallcomb says of the Anderson family at whose property near Hayfork Mitchell had been staying. “They were as shocked as everyone else by what had happened.”
Another rumor had it that rival gravel businesses coveted McMahon’s quarry, and that these interests had suggested to the highly suggestible and volatile Mitchell that McMahon was mistreating him, manipulating Mitchell into getting McMahon out of the way so these unnamed interests could get his quarry.
Shattuck scoffs at that one. “Charley Baxman could have bought it 15 years ago,” he says. “It wasn’t until just recently the thing had started to make a little money. Most of the time it was running two, three days a week, and there were only three of us working it.” Shattuck points out that Caltrans had not certified Eddie’s rock for the forthcoming Noyo Bridge project, a large contract McMahon had bid on. “The pit just wasn’t worth anybody killing over. Mitchell murdered Eddie for some twisted reason of his own, and he should have paid for it.”
Although court records cite the fact that Mitchell had “numerous sustained petitions as a juvenile” and was “known” to law enforcement as an adult, he was magically evaluated by the County of Mendocino and Judge Joseph Orr not as the ruthless menace that he clearly is, but as a young man “overcome with remorse at the death of Eddie McMahon.” A county-employed psychiatrist named Rossof also implied that Mitchell was remorseful about the McMahon murder, and that remorse, given his youth — 27 at the time of McMahon's murder — made him a likely candidate for rehabilitation.
The Ukiah authorities and Judge Orr had sung exactly that same rote, optimistic song about Mitchell 18 months earlier when Mitchell had beaten Bill McNeel to death.
Jeff Thoma, Mitchell’s public defender, explained Eddie McMahon’s murder this way: “This case, while a genuine tragedy, occurred as a result of the victim, Mr. McMahon, attacking Mr. Mitchell with a deadly weapon, to wit a large knife. Mr. McMahon has employed Mr. Mitchell for a period of time, within which Mr. Mitchell helped Mr. McMahon move heavy objects, including vast amounts of marijuana crops.”
Untrue, front to back, but Eddie McMahon was gone and the Public Defender had nothing to present other than what Eddie’s killer told him. Mr. Thoma was just doing his job, bitter as it must have been.
Thoma went on to say that “this catastrophic event” had been triggered by Eddie McMahon telling Mitchell to return a truck part Mitchell had charged to McMahon’s charge account.
That was Mitchell’s excuse for murdering the man who had been nothing but kind to him. And, of course, the deceased, according to his murderer, “had come at me with a knife.”
Detective Smallcomb said Eddie McMahon’s name was not known to narcotics officers.
The human forklift, the toter of heavy loads, had never been deployed by McMahon to move bales of marijuana, and the quarry is fully mechanized. Mitchell never had to lift big rocks for Eddie McMahon.
In the twisted version of events trotted out in Judge Joe Orr’s benevolent court, Eddie McMahon caused his own death.
The truth is, Mitchell snuck up to his boss’s house at 1:30 in the morning with a gun, woke him up, shot him to death, took items of his property, fled to Trinity County, hid or destroyed the murder weapon, and lied like a child about why he’d done it.
Deputy DA Basner, Mitchell’s alleged prosecutor, said later he didn’t want to risk a jury trial given the facts of the case. He said he settled it in a way consistent with the evidence. After all, Mitchell might be acquitted of all wrongdoing by a jury because one never knows for sure what a jury will do, does one? And there were no witnesses to Eddie McMahon’s death, were there?
Judge Orr, with Eddie McMahon’s grieving family and friends looking on and, they say, an unrepentant Mitchell grinning at them whenever he could catch their eye, sentenced Tony Mitchell to 15 years in state prison for voluntary manslaughter.
Orr was not running for re-election, which is probably why he was assigned the case in the first place. The judge also said later he hadn’t been fully aware of the circumstances of Bill McNeel’s death although he was the judge in that case too.
Not fully aware of the circumstances of Bill McNeel’s death? You presided, your honor.
Mitchell was in the County Jail for nearly a year before his astounding plea bargain was worked out by what passes for authority in Mendocino County. He kept to himself inside, making no friends, his massive body shrinking by a hundred pounds. By the time Judge Orr told him he’d been a bad boy but there was still hope for him and sent him off to state prison for 15 years, Tony Mitchell was a skinny 6’2”. People had to look twice at him in court before they recognized him. His cannon arms were gone.
“Sounds like a steroid case to me,” a man from the local sports world summed up. “They make you big but they make you crazy too.”
Another witness surmised: “Nah. Someone had probably told him that he’d look a lot less like a killer to a jury if he came in without his muscles.”
Wally Shattuck sums it all up: “The first time I ever saw that guy Mitchell, he was unloading a load of hay for Eddie’s wife Ronelle. I said to myself, ‘Who the hell is that?’ He had a short t-shirt on with cut-off sleeves, a camo hat and camo pants. I wondered if the guy knew the war was over.”
“Wacko,” Shattuck says, “that was my first impression, and definitely not anybody you’d want to mess with, or even make eye contact with. Two years later he kills my best friend, and I have no idea why he did it. Nobody seems to have any idea why he did it; I’d say he was just evil, and I’d put a bullet in his head myself if I could. I just hope somebody up there at Pelican Bay takes care of him so he doesn’t come back to Fort Bragg in a few years and kill someone else.”
Mr. Shattuck’s is the consensus opinion in Fort Bragg. More than 600 people attended Eddie McMahon’s funeral, and probably ten times that number wonder why Tony Mitchell was sentenced to only 15 years in state prison for sneaking up on McMahon in the middle of the night and shooting him to death. And perhaps as many people now look at Mitchell’s casual dispatch of the bar room commando, Bill McNeel, the way it should have been considered in the first place — a murderous assault on a person no more menacing than a tough-talking 12-year-old.
Eddie McMahon was 45 years old when Mitchell snuck into his house when he was asleep and put a bullet in his head.