On the morning of June 28, 2017, the doorbell rang at the luxurious townhome of Mr. and Mrs. Dustin Mitchell. The couple assumed it was a delivery, and Dustin answered the door in his pajamas to find an entire SWAT team there to arrest him.
“What’s going on?” exclaimed Lacey McCullough as she watched her husband — a man she believed to be a fabulously successful entrepreneur, the president of Mitchell Judicial Group and a shoo-in candidate for Denton County Judge — being apprehended.
Detective Adams surveyed the scene in the stately foyer, reading the faces of the couple. He turned to one, then the other. “She doesn’t know, does she? Ma’am, I’m so sorry.”
Adams then turned to Mitchell. “Are you going to tell her or should I?”
That morning, the Dallas-sized façade of the most infamous gay con man to come out of St. Louis, a façade held together by deceit, sheer audacity and allegedly even threats of murder, began crashing to the ground.
I shouldn’t have been shocked. I know Dustin Mitchell. He and I have a strange bond.
In the 1991 horror-thriller Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer, seems to develop a fondness for FBI agent Clarice Starling, and she a fascination with him. I like to say I’m the Clarice Starling to Dustin Mitchell’s Hannibal Lecter.
In 2012, Mitchell was a hyper-intelligent Rolla, Missouri, native who by age 31 had moved to St. Louis and spun a vast web of lies. That year, he got arrested at the St. Louis County courthouse, where he’d represented clients under the guise of being an attorney. (His arrest spurred numerous headlines, including my personal favorite from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “St. Louis County lawyer-entrepreneur-candidate was really none of those.”) He eventually pleaded guilty to a theft charge related to a $1,000 retainer fee he accepted and served four months in prison.
Upon his release, he hit the ground running, pitching one fishy business venture after another — copper bullion, discount vacations — on Facebook. I saw them streaming on my news feed and sounded the alarm on social media, in my blog and in my Vital Voice column. Mitchell made his displeasure known in enraged messages, but would quickly revert back to his charming baseline, seeking to win me over and even offering me the opportunity to write his biography.
At one point he apparently faked a hostage crisis that triggered a dramatic police response, then tried to frame me for it after the fact. He told police I was a scorned ex-lover, and should be considered the prime suspect.
“He said you’re obsessed with him,” said a detective who questioned me.
“Obsessed? I guess that’s fair,” I conceded, then rattled off several of Mitchell’s outrageous scams.
My book Delusions of Grandeur, which came out in 2015, described much of this backstory. The back cover made mention of a deranged con man who penetrates Missouri’s political scene — an obvious reference to Mitchell.
Incredibly, Mitchell attended my book signing. He was relaxed and pleasant, posing for a photo with me and the book, which he signed. Afterwards he invited me to join him for a few drinks and, in all sincerity, asked if I’d work on his campaign for governor.
When he finally moved away in July 2016, I thought he might mellow out and seek a simpler life.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
A DATE WITH DESTINY
A woman I’ll call “Destiny” first met Mitchell seventeen years ago at Bubby & Sissy’s, a bar in Alton, Illinois. (She asked that I not use her real name.) To Destiny, the guy was fun — really fun.
“Dustin is always a good time flailing and cutting up,” she says. “You just can’t beat a good time with a drunk Dustin. He’ll do crazy shit like singing to my boobs in the middle of a crowd of people.”
In 2015 Destiny moved to Dallas, and about a year later Mitchell called with exciting news: He was moving there, too.
“The next thing I know he’s saying his apartment isn’t ready and he needs to stay with me for a few weeks,” Destiny recalls.
Destiny claims to know Mitchell better than anyone. Though they’re not far apart in age, she says he looks to her almost in a maternal way. She’s who he calls when his life bottoms out. And, unlike nearly everyone else in his orbit, she was never fooled by him. Feeling certain he had no apartment in the works, she agreed to transfer to a two-bedroom unit so he could stay with her.
I spent a few hours first talking to Destiny on the phone on Christmas Eve, after being given her number by an administrator of the Facebook page “Bustin’ Dustin C. Mitchell: The Conman.” I had found the page while trying to determine if Mitchell was still in jail after his recent highly publicized arrest in Dallas for, again, acting as an attorney. Finding the group felt like finding lost members of my own tribe. This initial contact would lead to many more emails, calls, a flight to Texas and an interview with The Dallas Morning News.
Living with Mitchell, Destiny says, meant finding old business cards lying around from his many incarnations. They ranged from the pedestrian — managing an Irish pub — to the comically grandiose, like purporting to be a gubernatorial candidate. It meant overhearing arguments he was having over the phone (she and others I’ve spoken with now suspect there was nobody on the other end of those calls). And it meant a parade of barely legal men coming and going at all hours.
“I constantly called him out on his bullshit and he’d just laugh,” Destiny says. “He never tried presenting himself as an attorney to me. His whole life is like Catch Me If You Can. He truly believes he’s smarter than everyone else. He doesn’t apologize for anything, and he loves the attention. He’s all like ‘I’m Mr. Moneybags’ when he doesn’t have a pot to piss in, but on some level I believe he’s very self-aware. ”
But also needy.
“He’s addicted to attention, and the attention-seeking led to many 911 calls, normally for chest pains and anxiety,” she recalls. “I got to the point I didn’t bother answering calls from the hospital. I’d see the caller ID and think, ‘It’s just Dustin pulling his shit again.’”
The most unsettling event at their shared Plano apartment was the night Destiny woke to Mitchell standing in her room naked watching her sleep. He had lost his keys and kicked the door in.
Between the damaging of property and the frequent 911 calls, Destiny decided it was time to pull the plug and asked Mitchell to move out. The two didn’t talk for a few months, until he sent her a photograph of a marriage license with two names: his and that of Lacey McCullough.
“Now I know that shit’s fake,” Destiny thought to herself.
MRS. DUSTIN MITCHELL
Lacey McCullough graduated from Texas A&M University School of Law in 2015. She had yet to pass the bar exam but was able to practice law under the supervision of her boyfriend Riley, who was a lawyer at a civil litigation firm. She also worked as a department manager at Nordstrom, which is where she met Mitchell.
“Dustin was at the perfume counter, and a guy was awkwardly hitting on him, which clearly made Dustin uncomfortable. I walked over and pretended to be his wife to get him out of the situation,” McCullough recalls.
Mitchell’s interest was piqued when McCullough told him she worked in the legal field. “I’m running for judge in Denton County,” he told her. “We should keep in touch. I’m looking to make some hires at my law firm, since I’ll be busy with the bench.”
Then, on February 5, 2017, three weeks after meeting Mitchell, McCullough’s entire life was upended when her boyfriend committed suicide.
Mitchell called McCullough, and she was nearly unintelligible, telling him the news as she wept. “Where are you?” Mitchell asked. “I’m coming over.”
McCullough and her son were living in Plano with her mother, Lori McCullough-Butcher. Mitchell came right over and stayed for four days. He was by her side comforting her during a period where she was nearly comatose with grief.
“Mom was yelling at me saying, ‘He was just a boyfriend, Lacey, go to work!’” McCullough recalls. “Dustin looked at her in disbelief and asked, ‘Are you serious?’”
McCullough had a fraught relationship with her mother. Mitchell’s supportive behavior stood in stark contrast to her mother’s coldness.
But Mitchell’s time at the house came to an abrupt end when he arrived intoxicated after everyone went to bed and McCullough-Butcher got up and saw him entering the room of McCullough’s teenage son, Kaleb. She darted down the hall and opened the door just as Mitchell was crawling into bed with the boy.
“All hell broke loose,” McCullough recalls. “Dustin swore it was a mistake, saying he thought he was entering my room, but Mom threw him out. I thought it was just a mistake from being drunk and disoriented in a dark house.”
McCullough’s depression over the suicide lingered, and one night she woke from an Ambien-induced sleep to find herself in the emergency room. Her mother called 911 and said McCullough had tried to kill herself with a combination of Ambien and Xanax, both of which were prescribed.
With McCullough on a 72-hour psychiatric hold, Mitchell arrived. He claimed to be her fiance in order to see her.
“Your mother is trying to set you up. She’s trying to take your son and destroy your career,” Mitchell warned. He then instructed McCullough to sign a power of attorney, giving him control of her affairs. She told him no but later learned he’d forged her signature and faxed it to the Plano Police Department anyway.
McCullough says she was released from the hospital after 31 hours when the toxicology report showed she hadn’t overdosed — but by that time her mother had her son.
“We’ll get him back,” Mitchell assured her. “I’ll pay for everything but only if you marry me. I’m not investing six figures in this unless we’re going to be a family.”
MEETING THE MRS.
When I met McCullough in Dallas, I was struck by her clear blue eyes, dark flowing hair and tanned skin. She took me on a tour of Mitchell’s stomping grounds.
As she drove through the endless north Dallas suburbs, she explained that Mitchell had been not only a dear friend but also a life raft. He was openly gay, but he’d been a rock for her when she needed him, and she loved him. His apparent financial security was comforting as well, with his $400,000 Frisco townhouse and financial statements listing assets in the millions. She recalls seeing a tax return claiming his annual income was $189,000.
In the wake of the devastating loss of her boyfriend, she was not looking for romance. She was looking for a companion, she was looking for stability, and she was looking for someone to help get her son back. She said yes, and the two were married by a rabbi in June 2017. (Mitchell, after all, claims to be Jewish.)
At first, he was doting.
“He’d take flowers or chocolates to my work and make a big show of it like he does. My co-workers couldn’t believe it. But he couldn’t maintain that charm on a daily basis.”
The veneer began to peel in many places after McCullough moved into his townhouse. Only days after they were married, the SWAT team showed up.
But when one of the officers asked whether Mitchell was going to tell McCullough the truth or if he should, Mitchell had a ready answer. In the foyer, as he was being cuffed, Mitchell told McCullough, “This is more of your mother’s shit.”
McCullough believed that her mother had set him up, just as she’d set McCullough up with the overdose claim. McCullough got Mitchell sprung out of jail within six hours.
Once he was out, McCullough pushed him for answers about the arrest and charges. “It’s just because I don’t have a law license in Texas,” Mitchell said, claiming he was licensed in Missouri. He told her you don’t actually have to be licensed if you’d passed the bar exam, which she knew wasn’t true.
In the preceding months McCullough had introduced Mitchell to numerous players in the legal community. They’d attended every fundraiser, where Mitchell would hob-knob, check in on social media and of course get his photo taken with all the power brokers. After they were married, Mitchell would boast, “My wife’s going to be the next governor of Texas.”
But even as his identity as a legal professional was unraveling, she still believed he was a successful businessman. They always had plenty of money and a luxurious home. When they went to Nicola’s, a restaurant where Mitchell claimed to be part owner (in reality he was merely an employee), they got VIP treatment. Everything was on the house, including $400 bottles of wine.
After Mitchell was released, McCullough left town for a few days to process what happened. But Mitchell wore her down, targeting her with a running commentary about how splitting up so quickly would look bad to the judge in the custody case. “He wasn’t wrong,” she says, “but it was emotional extortion nonetheless.”
Even while Mitchell pushed McCullough to reconcile, he went out drinking with friends Daniel and Stephanie Cardona immediately following his release. The couple didn’t know anything about what had unfolded earlier that day, and, back at the townhouse, the evening would devolve into a shitshow of monumental proportions.
Mitchell attempted to perform an exorcism on Stephanie. During the unsolicited encounter, Mitchell aggressively grabbed her breast and vagina, all while wearing nothing but a dress shirt and a live snake. Mitchell then called Frisco police claiming to be the couple’s attorney, saying Stephanie needed to be committed. (The entire story, which was recorded in sworn affidavits to the Frisco Police Department, can be found here.)
But if the dramatic SWAT team arrest had been the first big crack in Mitchell’s Dallas façade, the second crack for McCullough appeared days later, on the day a stranger walked into their shared home.
Ten days after moving into the residence she had been told Mitchell owned, McCullough was startled by an unfamiliar man in her kitchen. “Who are you?” she asked.
“I own the house. Who the fuck are you?” the man replied.
The homeowner had taken a long-term assignment in India, but now was back. Mitchell, it turned out, was just renting a room from him.
When confronted, Mitchell was nonchalant.
“Dustin claimed he was in the process of selling the house to the man to cover medical bills and we would just buy something else, like it was the most reasonable thing in the world,” McCullough recalls.
Regardless of these unsettling events, McCullough’s focus was restoring full custody of her son. That seemed unachievable without maintaining her unconventional marriage with an increasingly eccentric husband.
For all that didn’t add up, many more things did. Mitchell dressed in a suit every day and went to work. He had money. He had reputable business associates.
And of course, he always had explanations.
THE MANEUVERING MOTHER-IN-LAW
“I never trusted him from the moment I laid eyes on him,” begins McCullough-Butcher, 58. She folds towels as we sit in her kitchen. “I’m a former cop, and my spidey sense was going off big time.” She even invented a slur for Mitchell: Her “scum-in-law.”
She felt he had sordid motives.
“It was him he was after!” she says, pointing to her grandson Kaleb, who is standing nearby. His height and build belie his young age. “I saw that from the start. It’s one thing to take an interest in a child, but he was just too interested.”
McCullough-Butcher looks at Kaleb. “You know he’s coming for you when he gets out,” she tells the boy. “He’s going to try to contact you.”
When McCullough-Butcher had discovered the truth about Mitchell, she fought to wrangle custody of Kaleb by filing an emergency ex parte stating that her highly educated daughter was unfit, neglectful, homeless, suicidal and — in reference to Mitchell — that she consorted with criminals. She also claimed that McCullough was incarcerated in a mental institution. Two officers swiftly tracked Kaleb down and removed him from a salon in the middle of a haircut.
In order to regain custody, the couple needed to move out of the townhouse where Mitchell was renting a room and into a home of their own. They rented a spacious home in upscale Frisco’s Queen’s Gate subdivision. They regularly hosted chefs and business associates who came to discuss plans for Mitchell’s sensational downtown Dallas restaurant, which was supposedly in development. Mitchell even interviewed potential employees at the house.
As at Destiny’s place, there were also many young men who came and went.
THE SOUTHERN GENTLEMAN
Initially, Mitchell tried to engage in sexual activity with McCullough, which she didn’t take all that seriously knowing he was gay. “Once or twice in the beginning he randomly went down on me and I was like ‘OK’ — I mean, who’s going to stop that?” she laughed. He did try to initiate intercourse as well, she says, but was unable to perform.
The two quickly settled into more of a Will & Grace situation, and when Mitchell brought home a handsome 27-year-old professional by the name of Cody Lee Spradling, as opposed to the motley crew of barely legals he brought to the house, McCullough was relieved.
Mitchell quickly fell for Spradling, but the relationship only lasted twelve days — it would have been nine, but Mitchell squatted in Spradling’s home for the final three and refused to leave.
Spradling spent the following months avoiding Mitchell’s obsessive calls and texts, which he found disturbing, while secretly becoming close friends with McCullough. When McCullough started to suspect Mitchell wasn’t really going to work each day, she asked Spradling to investigate.
“So I went to a few gayborhood bars I knew he liked, and sure enough, there he was wearing a suit and sunglasses, indoors, getting drunk in the middle of the day,” Spradling laughs.
Things finally came to a head in September 2017, when McCullough confronted Mitchell after discovering he had accessed her computer and sent threatening messages to people, including one vowing to “end” Daniel and Stephanie Cardona if they ever spoke to his wife again. She told him she planned to file for divorce, and asked him to leave.
Mitchell returned at 3 a.m. “I walked out of my bedroom to ask him what he was doing there. His speech was so garbled I could barely make out a response,” McCullough says. He shouted at her and even pushed her, cocking back his fist to punch her, she says, but was tackled by Kaleb. At six feet tall and 195 pounds, the young teenager knocked the wind out of Mitchell, who writhed on the floor.
But when McCullough darted to the backyard, Mitchell got up and called the police to report that McCullough was trying to take his son away from him.
When Frisco Police arrived, McCullough explained to officers that she and Mitchell had only been married a short time — and that Kaleb was not Mitchell’s biological son. Mitchell became enraged, charging towards McCullough while shouting, “You fucking bitch! I’ll destroy this house and everything in it and make sure you never see my son again!”
The Frisco officers advised Mitchell that if he didn’t leave the home, they would arrest him for public intoxication. He finally left after McCullough sprung for an Uber.
“Twenty minutes later Dustin began leaving voicemails, which I still have, saying he was on his way back and that if I cared about my son I would leave, because he didn’t want Kaleb to see what he would do if I was still there,” McCullough recalls. “Later that day he called again and said he would set the house on fire with me in it!”
It was when McCullough was packing up Mitchell’s home office that she discovered clear evidence of his fraud. She found checks for the “Mitchell Judicial Group,” evidence he represented someone on a marijuana charge — and paperwork showing he’d used the bar number of her deceased boyfriend. “I contacted his bondsman and advised her that I was absolutely unwilling to cosign on his bond.”
McCullough contacted her landlord and advised her she was seeking to evict Mitchell. She got a barrage of threatening messages from Mitchell, vowing that she’d never see her son again. That’s when she applied for a protective order.
In her affidavit, McCullough begins, “My husband, Dustin Mitchell, from whom I am separated, is a dangerous man.”
Later in the voluminous document she states, “I fear that Dustin may be suffering from a delusion that Kaleb really is his biological child, as he posted a lengthy Facebook Live video to that effect, and that he has the right to physically take him from wherever he may be.”
Part of what it made it so difficult for McCullough to see the truth about Mitchell was her aversion to admitting her mother was right. McCullough surrendered. It was not only a moment of clarity and reflection, but also foreshadowing. She wrote:
“When Dustin and I first started discussing marriage, I remember my mother telling me she thought Dustin had an unnatural and unhealthy interest in my son. She told me she was afraid his only interest in me was obtaining custody of Kaleb by any means possible. I had originally thought this was absurd, however, I now fear she was absolutely correct.”
McCullough’s emergency protective order was granted.
THE PROPHECY IS FULFILLED
The day after McCullough got her order granted, Mitchell filed an emergency motion of his own, stating that McCullough was mentally ill and abusive and that “their” son was in danger. In his request, he asked for possession of the Queens Gate home and custody of Kaleb. Astonishingly, the order was granted, giving custody of McCullough’s son to Mitchell, who the judge believed was Kaleb’s biological father.
This created a spectacle at the house, with the sheriff’s department there to enforce Mitchell’s order and the police department there to enforce McCullough’s. Neither could figure out which order controlled.
In the midst of this, McCullough turned to another nemesis for help: her mother. “Come get my son out of here!”
The jig was up. After reviewing the filings and evidence, the judge issued an amendment to Mitchell’s order granting McCullough exclusive possession and custody — even writing in boldface that Kaleb was not Mitchell’s biological child.
Just over a month later, on November 6, 2017, the Frisco Police Department and the Texas Rangers again arrested Mitchell for Falsely Holding Oneself Out as a Lawyer, a 3rd degree felony. As of this writing Mitchell sits in jail, unable to make bond, and facing multiple charges. He still calls Destiny, admitting nothing.
McCullough is currently sharing Destiny’s one-bedroom apartment until she gets her own place. At the end of my conversation with her there, we discussed the fallout among Mitchell’s contacts in Dallas.
“Everyone knows about it in the LGBT community and it’s a big joke. The legal community, however, isn’t laughing,” she says. “They are humiliated and just want this to all go away. Many have photos with Dustin, and they look at me as the gatekeeper who let this happen. I brought him in. If I ever planned to work in the field again I’d have to leave DFW. This has all been a horrible reflection on my judgment.”
McCullough says the FBI believes Mitchell’s primary aim was to use her to give him legitimacy in the legal community, while the Frisco Police Department believes his sights were on her son.
Mitchell ran up debts well north of $100,000, she says.“It’s going to take me ten years to financially recover from the damage he did in ten months. Emotionally and socially, I may never get my life back.”
The only positive thing to come out of the Mitchell ordeal for those involved are the incredible friendships that were formed as a result. Mitchell went to great pains to keep the people in his life from talking to one another, but now his soon-to-be ex-wife has close friendships with Destiny, Spradling and the Cardonas.
And as easy as it is to say McCullough should have known the score much sooner, I can attest that holding on to reality while talking to Mitchell is like trying to swim upstream in roaring rapids — which is why he gets by with so much. Sitting across from him the day of the hostage standoff and again the evening of the book signing was surreal, like I was being hypnotized or transported to his reality. He can lie and justify anything, all while being confident, charming, and completely at ease.
Hannibal Lecter believed Agent Starling was driven to save people because she couldn’t save the lambs as a child, the lambs which now haunted her. At every new development in her investigation, or in her career, he would ask her if the lambs have stopped screaming.
I was first inspired to delve into Dustin Mitchell as a subject after seeing scam after scam in my news feed. There are times I think I’m done covering him, but I always get pulled back in. The scams haven’t stopped streaming.
Chris Andoe is the Editor in chief of Out in STL. You can reach him at [email protected]