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Of Flesh and Blood : Another Scandal--This Time, Homicide--Shakes the Mitchell Brothers’ X-Rated Empire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The private life of a slain pornographer: Is it a movie, or a miniseries?

That’s a big question for Karen Mitchell, ex-wife of Artie Mitchell, 45, who died instantly Feb. 27 at his Marin County home when a .22-caliber bullet tunneled through his right eye and into the brain.

See, it wasn’t just another random urban death, the kind that makes tourists nervous but has no box-office potential. Jim Mitchell, 47, Artie’s brother and partner in a multimillion dollar porn empire, allegedly fired the fatal bullet.

Not only that, the Mitchells were famous long before their names were linked to fratricide--especially in the Bay Area, where their flamboyant exploitation of flesh made them rich while they were still in their 20s.

For more than two decades, the inseparable and popular brothers balanced frequent, well-publicized brushes with the law with a shrewd knack for seeming more naughty than nasty. How can you totally hate guys who wanted to save the whales and the rain forests? Or demand that Geraldo Rivera donate $15,000 to AIDS charities before allowing him to film their strip shows?

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The brothers’ bastion was the O’Farrell Theatre, a revolutionary combination movie and stage show emporium, opened here in 1969, that has been called the Carnegie Hall of Sex, the Cadillac of Whorehouses and, more generically, a temple of sleaze.

From their upstairs office--containing no desks but lavishly stocked with liquor and beer and furnished with a Wurlitzer jukebox, a gun rack, pool and poker tables, a safe and a moose head--the brothers directed an enterprise that at one time included 11 theaters--including two in Southern California--as well as movie and video production.

The raffish pair, natives of the Bay Area town of Antioch, studied filmmaking in college, attained semi-respectability in easygoing San Francisco and attracted a radically chic coterie of friends, including the late Black Panther Huey P. Newton and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

And the cash kept pouring in.

Their early 1970s movie “Behind the Green Door,” was made for $60,000--then a princely sum for a porno flick--but grossed a reported $25 million. The X-rated saga elevated Marilyn Chambers to stardom and sparked a buying frenzy on boxes of Ivory Snow soap, then graced by Chambers’ angelically complexioned face.

Of course, it wasn’t all profit and no loss.

Within weeks of its opening, police raided the O’Farrell Theatre, setting a pattern that continued for decades. The Mitchells spent hundreds of thousands a year on legal expenses in court battles that dragged on for years, including a monumental conflict over a theater in Santa Ana that ultimately involved Charles Keating Jr., then anti-porn activist and now disgraced impresario of Lincoln Savings & Loan.

Meanwhile, their private lives were just as complicated and expensive. Both brothers married twice, divorced twice and fathered at least nine children between them, maybe more. And Artie, the party guy of the pair, was in his last months caught in a spiral of drug and alcohol abuse that, prosecutors charge, stimulated increasingly erratic behavior, disrupted the business and provoked the killing.

No wonder the Mitchell homicide has proved to be the kind of marketable mayhem that makes front pages and keeps people talking. Even weeks afterward, citizens of Baghdad by the Bay become noticeably more animated when the Mitchell Brothers case comes up.

It is this mixture of commercialized sex and family tragedy that Karen Mitchell hopes will have broad appeal beyond the California border.

So, behind on her house payments and with five children to support, Mitchell, 34, flew to Los Angeles recently to explore the Hollywood options of her life. Dressed in a red blouse and jeans, she met a reporter at--where else?--a hotel on Sunset Boulevard.

“We have had a lot of action, a lot of interest,” Mitchell says of her search for a movie deal, assisted by entertainment attorney James Mulholland.

The interview with Mitchell puts into perspective a crime that was committed in an unevocative white tract home with blue trim on Mohawk Avenue in Corte Madera, a quiet Marin County town where Artie Mitchell spent the last troubled months of his tumultuous life. As the setting for a blood crime, the unremarkable house lacks resonance. With a “For Rent” sign innocently tacked up in the front yard, it stands anonymous, vacant and mute on a street where pickups outnumber cars.

The stillness of the empty house echoes the silence of many associated with the brothers. Some claim to be clamming up on advice of attorneys, while others were admonished by prosecutors not to talk to the media. Still others--Mitchell employees, other ex-wives, attorneys and cops--don’t return phone calls.

At any rate, and for her own reasons, Karen Mitchell has overcome a professed initial reticence and agreed to talk. For well more than an hour she spins out her side of her love-hate relationship with Artie Mitchell.

The killing of her former husband has been called “one of the biggest things that’s happened in Marin County in history,” Mitchell says, serving up coffee and recommending the half-and-half over the skim milk.

The trial of Jim Mitchell, scheduled to start in August, promises to be “the most sensational trial in Marin County history,” she adds, noting that circulation of a local newspaper more than doubled the day it splashed most of the front page with a long feature on the slaying.

In fact, location may have something to do with the killing’s titillation quotient. The affluent San Francisco suburb is an unusual setting for the sensational. “Marin County’s quiet, yeah,” Mitchell says, adding with a chuckle, “Wealthy people, nice hot tubs, nice homes, nice cars--but not a lot of action.”

There was action galore in Artie Mitchell’s home the night he died, according to transcripts of the grand jury testimony that led to Jim Mitchell’s indictment.

But the transcripts and other court papers leave open to question exactly what happened before Artie Mitchell died in a bathroom doorway.

No one saw the killing, although Artie’s live-in girlfriend, Julie Bajo, testified that she was in the house.

Bajo, 27, had been a dancer at the O’Farrell Theatre and said that she had lived with Artie about nine months.

The final evening had been uneventful.

“I took off my contacts and my makeup and brushed my teeth and then turned all the lights out and got into bed with him,” Bajo recalled.

It was about 10 p.m.

Alone in the house “except for the fish,” the couple talked for a few minutes about Artie’s desires to change his life.

“He wanted to take a rest, and get away,” she told the grand jury. “He said he had put in 21 years and he deserved at least six months to a year off.”

About 10:15 p.m., Bajo said she heard the front door open and slam shut, followed by the sound of steps and someone “bumping around.” She added, “We knew someone was in the house and I felt hostility in my stomach.”

Artie made it easy for the intruder, Bajo said, by never locking the front door. “Artie’s slogan was ‘My Door Is Always Open’ in case somebody needed a place to stay in the middle of the night or something.”

Both immediately jumped out of bed and Artie switched on a light.

Bajo hid in a closet.

Scrambling into a pair of pants, Artie asked, “What’s going on? Who’s out there?” in a voice that “was louder than a speaking voice but lower than a hysterical scream.”

Then Artie walked into eternity, leaving the bedroom, moving toward the front of the house and into a fusillade of gunfire. He was hit three times--the shoulder, the abdomen and the right eye.

Bajo reached out from the closet, grabbed the phone and dialed 911.

She got lucky.

A policeman who had just finished making a routine traffic stop nearby rolled onto Mohawk Avenue within moments of Bajo’s call.

Officer Kent Haas told the grand jury that he parked several doors down from the house and saw a man carrying an umbrella walking down the street. On a night that had been rainy, it was a normal scene--except for the man’s pronounced limp.

With no other suspects in sight, Haas got out of his car, drew his gun and ordered the man to stop.

The man dashed awkwardly behind a car and began tugging frantically at the waistband of his trousers.

By now a very nervous cop, Haas told the man to stop what he was doing. And, perhaps surprisingly, the man did stop and raised his hands.

After another policeman arrived, Haas searched the man and found a .22 rifle jammed down a pants leg. The suspect told the two officers he also had a .38-caliber revolver in a holster under his jacket.

From the perspective of the grand jury witness stand, Haas recalled, “He dropped that umbrella down and tried like hell to get that gun out.” He also recalled the look of desperation on the man’s face.

Within hours, the identification of Jim Mitchell as that suspect sent shocks of surprise and disbelief all over the Bay Area. Naturally, a media frenzy ensued, with tabloid TV shows jumping into the fray almost immediately.

Since the night of his arrest, Mitchell has been held without bail in Marin County. Prosecutors say he represents a serious flight risk and that income from the porn business could finance a luxurious exile.

Prosecutors also charge that the killing was sparked by a dispute between the brothers about the future of their business. The motive for the killing, according to court papers, got a supercharged boost from Artie’s “substance abuse problems which were perceived by some (including the defendant) to be interfering with the Mitchell Brothers business interests.”

The day before the killing, Julie Bajo told the grand jury, she overheard Artie telephone the O’Farrell Theatre and tell someone that unless he was treated fairly “I might (expletive) them up,” an apparent reference to the alleged business dispute.

Yet, while the indictment of Jim Mitchell made the case seem cut and dried, those close to the brothers couldn’t figure it out.

At the O’Farrell, a worker who identified himself only as Bob told a reporter that no one on the staff had any hint of trouble between Jim and Artie. “Nobody understands it,” he said.

Dennis Roberts, the Oakland attorney who represented the pair in their countless legal disputes and is now half of Jim’s defense team, issued a statement to the press saying the prosecution’s theory was all wrong. (The other half of the team is Michael Kennedy of New York, best known as Ivana Trump’s divorce attorney.)

Karen Mitchell also is among those who doesn’t think the prosecution got it right.

“I don’t think we’re going to know what really happened until after the trial and then we may not know still,” she says.

What Karen Mitchell does know is her side of her long and tempestuous relationship with Artie. Linked by the three children they had when they were married, plus twins Karen says Artie fathered after their 1985 divorce, the two stayed in frequent, often acrimonious contact until a few days before Artie’s death.

In fact, Karen Mitchell thinks she may have prompted the encounter that ended in Artie’s death.

Over the years, she says, she had become increasingly worried by Artie’s consumption of drugs and alcohol, especially when her children spent time with him on weekends, visitation rights stipulated by their divorce.

“We had been trying to get Artie into rehab for over a year,” she says. “He was pretty well out of control, playing with guns at the O’Farrell Theatre, shooting into the walls and ceilings. He was disarmed at Maye’s Oyster House up on Polk street not far from the O’Farrell, was told not to come to work any more because he was just out of control.

“He couldn’t sign checks any more because the bank would send them back saying it wasn’t his signature. It was to the point where he could barely take care of himself. The kids, when they went down there, I sort of had to hope, well, hope they come home alive.”

Karen Mitchell asserts that her ex-husband’s behavior deteriorated markedly after he nearly drowned last May.

Believing that two of his children had run into trouble while surfing, Artie jumped into the Pacific Ocean and tried to swim to their rescue, she says. Although the children, carried about half a mile to sea by a riptide, were brought ashore without incident, Artie had to be hospitalized for several days.

“We thought maybe that would scare him into realizing how precious life is, but it didn’t,” Karen Mitchell says. “It sent him in the opposite direction. The day after he got out of the hospital it was straight Stoly-reefers and on a downhill slide, fast. Stolichnaya (Russian vodka) straight out of the bottle and big, fat reefers, marijuana, those were his drugs of choice.”

Driven to distraction, Karen Mitchell says she telephoned brother Jim. It was Feb. 18, nine days before the killing and two days after she had obtained a restraining order that allowed Artie to see the children only under court supervision.

She recalls telling Jim, “ ‘I really think that you need to do something right away.’ He didn’t say much, he just said, ‘Uh huh, uh huh, I’ll do my best, I’ll see what I can do.’ ”

And that, she believes, prompted Jim’s visit to Artie’s house on Feb. 27.

“It’s only my speculation that that’s the reason he went over there, but I’m pretty confident that that’s why he was there, to try to convince him to go to the hospital . . . he loved him very, very much. They were as tight as brothers could be.”

Despite the rancor that often colors her memories, Mitchell also says she had plenty of good times with Artie, whom she met in 1976 at age 18.

At the time, she operated a catering company with a girlfriend and they had been hired to provide food while the Mitchells shot a porno movie, “The Autobiography of a Flea.”

Soon, Artie turned into an immovable object.

“Artie was just separated from his wife and he had three children before I met him,” she says. “He was not eating well and decided I was a very good cook and started hanging out in the kitchen and took a real liking to me and started just staying at my house. He refused go home any more. I couldn’t get rid of him from that day on.”

After the movie job, the brothers asked Karen to cater for the Japanese male tourists who made the O’Farrell a highlight of their San Francisco jaunts.

One thing led to another and soon Karen says she helped in all facets of the business, including designing the Ultra Room--a glass-walled chamber surrounded by individual viewing booths from which customers watch women perform with whips, chains and other devices of bondage and submission.

For a time, all three lived together.

“Artie and Jim and I moved in together in a beautiful house in Tiburon. . . . I got to know them pretty well,” Karen Mitchell explains. “Considering the idea that most people would probably think that they were really wild, crazy, orgy type of guys. But that really wasn’t the case. Jim always had a girlfriend, was pretty straight. Neither of them were really sexually abnormal. They were pretty straight guys when it came to their own personal lives.”

Karen and Artie were married in 1979 in a bucolic wedding on their Contra Costa County farm, an idyllic place with “fruit trees and streams.”

But long before Karen Mitchell met them, naked flesh had become strictly a commodity for the brothers.

“As Artie used to say, ‘Well, you never really realize how ugly bodies are until they’re stuck in your face every day of the week.’ They look a lot better with clothes on, he’d say,” she explains.

Even after their divorce, the two never quite managed to turn off the relationship. In 1988, Artie asked her to marry him again, Karen Mitchell says.

” . . . he told me the stupidest thing he ever did was to let me go and told me how much he loved me,” she says. “I spent the night. He and Jim were living in a beautiful home in Moraga with a swimming pool and beautiful acreage and two master bedrooms, really nice place. They had three maids live in. And I was working as a bartender. I was working my tail off, raising the kids and was having a really rough time.”

But the morning after showed her that a reunion was not to be.

”. . . the next morning by 7:15 he (Artie) had smoked a big joint and by 7:30 he’d had a beer, by 7:45 another big joint, by 8 o’clock another beer, by 8:15 another beer,” Karen Mitchell says. “By 8:30 I said, ‘You know I think I need to go. Goodby.’ ”

The aftermath of the killing has been “a nightmare,” she says.

And despite the bitterness between her and Artie, she acknowledges that he was not wholly bad and that his death has spawned an emotional hurricane for the children.

“The kids are going to have some serious problems,” she says. “They’re going to miss their dad. He was really very loving with the kids. He liked them a lot. They were his life. He lived for the kids. . . . Unhealthy as he was, he was a very, very important part of their lives and they miss him a lot.”


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