SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — The days before he was arrested for beating his ex-girlfriend to death and kidnapping their daughter brought a string of bad news to James "Rafe" Mitchell, the son of late San Francisco pornography mogul Jim Mitchell.
Last Tuesday, he was ordered to attend a yearlong rehabilitation program for domestic batterers. On Friday, his girlfriend's lawyer wrote to let him know that a judge had permanently granted Danielle Keller's request for sole custody of their child and a restraining order prohibiting him from contacting her.
"I think that was the trigger. He would have got the mail on Saturday," said Charlotte Huggins, Keller's lawyer.
Police in the Marin County city of Novato allege that by weekend's end, the 27-year-old Mitchell only made his problems worse. Keller's body was found on Sunday evening in the yard where she had just held a first birthday party for her daughter.
The toddler, Samantha Rae Mitchell, was missing, prompting a statewide Amber Alert. Just before midnight, Mitchell's car was tracked to a Sacramento suburb where police arrested him on suspicion of murder, stealing a child and violating a restraining order.
The violent allegations saddened, but did not surprise those who knew Mitchell only through the prism of his famous father. Sunday also was the two-year anniversary of the heart attack death of "Behind the Green Door" director Jim Mitchell, one-half of the Mitchell Brothers empire that included X-rated films and theaters.
Jim Mitchell was convicted in 1991 of manslaughter and weapons charges in the shooting death of his brother and business partner, Artie Mitchell, in Marin County. The slaying led to a spectacular trial, and the elder Mitchell served half of a six-year prison sentence.
"By definition, he had an incredibly traumatic family life," veteran newspaper editor David McCumber, who published a book about the Mitchells in 1992, said of the younger Mitchell. "It's hard to say what's related to what. It's just that nobody who comes out of that kind of background comes through intact."
Rafe Mitchell's defense lawyer, former San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, seemed to agree while addressing reporters outside his client's arraignment hearing Tuesday.
"It's a tragedy – the uncle, the father, now this woman. It's just a tragic family, no question," Hallinan said.
Mitchell made his first court appearance shackled at the wrists and ankles and wearing an orange-and-white striped jail jumpsuit. He did not enter a plea; Hallinan told the judge he needed more time to evaluate the evidence.
Hallinan said the younger Mitchell "feels terrible about what happened. He's depressed about it. But we'll get through this. ... But hopefully we can work through this and the real facts about what happened can come out."
One of Artie Mitchell's six children came up to the San Francisco Bay area from Los Angeles to attend the arraignment. Storm Mitchell said he and his cousin were not close, but he had heard about Keller's restraining order.
"It definitely seemed he was having a breakdown leading to this," Storm Mitchell said.
Hallinan, a longtime family friend, said during an interview with The Associated Press that he's still trying to make sense of what happened. He said Rafe Mitchell called him on Sunday evening when he was on the lam with his daughter.
While arranging for Mitchell to surrender to police, "I just told him to be calm and it was very important that he do so," said Hallinan. "I know in those situations the police get nervous and things can easily get out of control."
Hallinan said Mitchell and Keller were in "a very troubled relationship." His father's death and fatal shooting of his uncle also weighed heavily on the younger Mitchell, the lawyer said.
"Makes you wonder, doesn't it?" Hallinan said.
During his father's 2007 funeral, the younger Mitchell eulogized his father as a man of his word, despite his faults.
"He always told me, 'Son, I'm not the greatest man. I'm not perfect,'" Rafe Mitchell said. "'Don't try to be the greatest man. Just be a man.'"
Huggins said that Rafe Mitchell never held a job because he had inherited money from his father and had a methamphetamine addiction. Keller left him because of his drug problem, but over the years struggled with staying away from Mitchell, Huggins said.
In her request for a restraining order, Keller painted a frightening picture of repeated abuse and horror she endured during her relationship.
"I live in constant fear of James and fear that he will take Samantha. James just bailed out of jail and I am worried about what he might do to us," she wrote.
She wrote that Mitchell first hit her in the mouth in September 2007 and that the abuse escalated from there.
"One time he dragged me naked by my hair across the floor because I would not have sex with him. He dragged me from the bedroom down the hallway and threatened to throw me out the front door of the apartment, naked."
Keller said Mitchell's brother and two sisters have a 5-year restraining order against him for an incident involving threats with a gun.
Court documents state that Mitchell brought his gun in November 2007 to a family meeting at the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre in San Francisco, waving the firearm in a threatening manner.
Keller said the gun was used to threaten her that same month.
"James took his gun out as if he was going to shoot me and I saw him pull the trigger as I ran away but discovered there were no bullets when I heard nothing," she wrote in her declaration.
Mitchell first was arrested for domestic violence in San Francisco when Keller was four-months pregnant with their daughter, Huggins said, in February 2008. He was arrested again in March for violating his probation from the previous case.
Mitchell's neighbors in Pittsburg, Calif., said the couple kept to themselves most of the time. But sometimes violent noises came from inside the home, the neighbors said.
Dave Miller, 54, and his wife Linda, 52, said Keller left Mitchell's home in February, and that Mitchell would come and go at all hours, usually smoking a cigarette.
"He never spoke, never waved," Linda Miller said. "I didn't know who he was."
Keller's mother, Claudia Stevens, showed up for Mitchell's arraignment with a picture of her daughter pinned to her shirt. Stevens said neighbors have told her they saw Mitchell leaving the house Sunday with Samantha in his arms.
Associated Press writers Terry Collins in Pittsburg, Calif., and Lisa Leff in San Francisco contributed to this story.