Danielle* had fallen behind on rent on her Columbus, Ohio, apartment a few years ago. She wasn’t working at the time, and her boyfriend was away from home, living in a residential drug treatment program. She asked her landlord if there were any jobs she could do to defray the cost of rent. “I started doing things like painting,” she said, “picking up trash outside of different apartment complexes that he owned.
Danielle said she was painting the kitchen in one of the other homes her landlord owned when he arrived. He stood close to her and asked, “Have you ever considered, like, sending nude photos?”
By that time, she had already learned from a friend who also lived in one of her landlord’s apartments and worked for him that “Mitch,” as she knew him, was a Columbus police officer. A couple of times, she said, he came to collect rent in his uniform.
Seven months have passed since that same Columbus vice officer, Andrew Mitchell, shot and killed a young mother named Donna Dalton during a prostitution arrest. Already under criminal investigation by his own department, Mitchell faced even more scrutiny after Dalton’s death. This month, Mitchell was indicted on federal charges of abusing his role as a law enforcement officer, obstructing justice, witness tampering, and making false statements to investigators. According to the indictment, he had kidnapped multiple women and coerced them into sex in exchange for their release from his custody.
Last week, more details of Mitchell’s alleged abuse were exposed. In a motion opposing his release while awaiting trial, Jessica Kim of the U.S. attorney’s office wrote that the federal investigation had identified multiple women “all of whom are vulnerable members of our community—who were tenants of the defendant’s rental properties and traded sex for free or reduced rent from him.”
The overall evidence against Mitchell involved “testimony from multiple victims,” the motion states. “This testimony is corroborated by other evidence, including additional witnesses, geolocation and cell-site location information from the defendant’s cell phones, the defendant’s financial records, and recorded jail calls.”
While Mitchell’s defense portrayed his role as a landlord as a tie to the community, the government argued it was just the opposite. “The defendant’s secondary employment is as equally troubling as his primary employment,” the motion states.
Mitchell is in federal custody, and on or around April 4, he will appear before a grand jury in Columbus, where he may also be indicted by Franklin County for killing Dalton. The federal trial begins in May; he is facing life in prison.
The women who spoke with The Appeal describe Mitchell as a man who repeatedly intimidated and pressured them for sexual contact, and who used the power of his badge to ensure their silence.
Andrew Mitchell joined the vice squad in 2017, after 30 years on the force, including five years in homicide. But as a side job, he is a landlord who had 15 properties registered to his name at the time he killed Dalton, according to Franklin County parcel records.
The former tenants interviewed by The Appeal described their buildings as neglected and pest-ridden (the city has filed 37 violations on his properties since 2015 for problems like housing code violations and environmental issues). Mitchell also was known for frequent evictions—381 since 1996, according to county records. (Franklin County, where Mitchell is a landlord, has had the highest number of evictions in the state. There were 17,697 evictions in 2018, according to the county’s records.) But Mitchell’s evictions have raised even more questions since the Department of Justice exposed his sexual coercion of tenants.
For Danielle, Mitchell’s request for the photos made her immediately uncomfortable. “Sending nude photos for what?” she recalls asking. He replied with an offer, she said. “If you were to do something like that, then I would be able to take a lot of money off your rent and we could kind of start fresh,” he suggested.
She said no, but a few days later, Mitchell approached her again. “You know, if you’re going to consider sending those photos, you’re going to have to do it soon,” she remembers him saying.
Danielle said she tried to blow it off, but Mitchell was persistent, saying, “Are you going to send them? Are you going to send them?” She said she was clear with him that she was not.
One day, Danielle said, Mitchell overheard her talking with a friend about the adult entertainment work she was doing online. “It got really uncomfortable because that was something I was doing in my private life,” she said. “I didn’t know that he was even there when I was having the conversation on the phone.”
Mitchell pressed her again, she said. “If you’re willing to do that online, what’s the difference with sending some pictures?” he said, according to Danielle. She told him she no longer wanted to do work around the building for discounted rent, but says Mitchell still pressed her. “If you’re not going to work for me, you need to send me photos,” she remembers him saying.
Soon after, Danielle’s boyfriend returned from rehab, and according to county court records, Mitchell evicted her for nonpayment of rent.
Another Columbus woman, Kristen*, was also struggling financially when Mitchell rented an apartment to her. Like Danielle, Kristen said he took advantage of her situation to sexually coerce her.
Kristen told The Appeal she was pregnant before she met Mitchell and urgently needed a new place to live. Her gas had been turned off and the ceiling of her apartment had fallen in. A friend told her about Mitchell, who would let Kristen move in without a deposit and pay the rent when she could.
“I definitely thought, that’s kind of weird, but I was kind of desperate at the time,” she said. She knew other women renting from Mitchell, she said, and they knew he was a police officer. Some saw it as an asset, she said, assuming Mitchell could help them if they ever had trouble with the law.
Kristen said Mitchell propositioned her for oral sex a couple of weeks after she moved in. “He asked me if I wanted to do something, in exchange—and the rent at the time was $500.”
“He was crystal clear,” Kristen said. She said Mitchell approached her multiple times: a couple of months after moving in, and again six or seven months later. “Pretty much like, ‘Are you sure?’ … I just never could do it.”
I think he thought he was going to get something out of me.
Kristen (not her real name) one of Andrew Mitchell’s former tenants
The apartment Mitchell rented to her was bedbug- and roach-infested, she said, so he moved her into another of his apartments. He continued to pressure her for sex, she said, until one day he seemed to give up and asked her if she was looking for somewhere else to stay. “I did pills at the time,” she said. “I think he thought he was going to get something out of me.” When he realized she wouldn’t give in, she said, “he didn’t want me to rent from him no more.”
Kristen said she felt uncomfortable, so she decided to move.
When asked for comment on both the charges laid out in the indictment and the sex-for-rent accusations, Mitchell’s attorney Mark Collins wrote in an email, “Yes of course we deny the allegations.” Regarding the sex-for-rent allegations, he said, “my client’s not been charged with this. We have not been provided discovery … So until I see the discovery, until I know what the allegations are, I wouldn’t be able to discuss the specifics.”
Mitchell’s alleged behavior raises questions about the Columbus police department and its vice unit, which was disbanded this month amid FBI and internal investigations. Separate from Mitchell’s alleged crimes, officers in the unit have been accused of extortion, selective enforcement, and unlawful arrests. The unit was scrutinized, among other things, for its arrest of adult entertainer Stormy Daniels and two other women at a strip club in July, arrests that the department itself later deemed “improper.”
The issues go beyond vice. The department rarely pursues disciplinary action against officers for excessive force. When use-of-force incidents are investigated, the department nearly always sides with the officer involved. Between 2001 and 2017, the department justified officers in 99 percent of use-of-force cases, and in his 22-year tenure, Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Ron O’Brien has never charged an officer involved in a fatal use-of-force incident against a civilian.
The city’s reluctance to hold police accountable may have emboldened Mitchell, notes Dkéama Alexis, co-founder and core organizer with Black Queer & Intersectional Collective, an activist group in Columbus.
The reason why it’s systemically ignored is because it is used against people who are systemically ignored.
Dkéama Alexis Black Queer & Intersectional Collective
Vice officers in Columbus “targeted people for survival crimes,” Alexis explained. That put them in a position of power over people already vulnerable to sexual abuse by police and least likely to report it—including women, sex workers, and queer and trans people, Alexis said. “The reason why it’s systemically ignored is because it is used against people who are systemically ignored.”
As Mitchell’s behavior drew headlines, the police took action against him. In September, he was put on desk duty. In March, he was indicted as a result of the FBI’s investigation. And two days later, he retired in “bad standing” with the department.
In the federal motion, the U.S. attorney’s office described Mitchell’s dealings with women in Columbus as an abuse of his power as an officer, and a reason to deny him bail. “The victims and witnesses who will provide testimony against the defendant are terrified of him,” the motion states. “They fear that they will be retaliated against by the defendant and other law enforcement officers because they have come forward to provide evidence against a police officer. These fears are not unfounded. Multiple victims, when asked if they had reported these incidents, consistently responded that they could not ‘report it to the police because it was the police.’ The defendant further instilled these fears by telling them ‘even if you reported me, no one will believe you because you are just a prostitute’.”
Danielle and Kristen decided to come forward after Mitchell shot and killed Donna Dalton. “Not to say anything about Donna, but who is going to believe a prostitute over a cop?” Danielle said. ”Who is going to believe a single mom who is painting for her landlord over a homicide detective? … If we can all come forward and get justice, not only for ourselves but for Donna, then I am all for it.”
*Both women asked The Appeal not to use their legal names for fear of retaliation.