Concern mounting for missing Santa Rosa attorney Steve Mitchell

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Steve Mitchell drove away from his Bennett Valley home on Saturday morning, saying that he needed to run some errands.

He never returned.

Three days later, the disappearance of the prominent Santa Rosa attorney remained a mystery, one that has left his colleagues and friends stunned and concerned.

“It’s a complete shock,” said Pat Emery, a Santa Rosa attorney and personal friend who has known Mitchell more than 25 years. “It’s out of the blue. As far as I could see, his life was happy and productive in all aspects.”

California State Parks rangers discovered Mitchell’s 2005 Acura on Sunday morning, parked above a beach on a coastal bluff south of Jenner. A cellphone and clothing were retrieved from the area, but investigators could find no other clues, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

A ground and air search was conducted Sunday along the coast but scaled back Monday to a single deputy. The coastal search was suspended Tuesday morning, pending new information.

Concern over Mitchell’s whereabouts mounted Tuesday as news of his disappearance spread rapidly through the legal community.

“He’s one of the foremost lawyers in Sonoma County. We hope for the best,” said Judge Rene Chouteau, who described Mitchell as “an excellent attorney and a wonderful human being.”

Steven C. Mitchell, 56, is tenacious in both the courtroom and on the tennis court, where he is a fixture on the competitive tennis circuit in Sonoma County. He and his wife, Terri, are well-known among families at Montgomery High School, where their four children went to school.

Mitchell is a partner at one of the county’s preeminent law firms — Geary, Shea, O’Donnell, Grattan and Mitchell, where he has been practicing civil law since 1989. He has represented cities, counties and police agencies in a number of cases over the years involving excessive force and wrongful death claims.

He currently represents the county in the high-profile suit brought by the parents of Andy Lopez, the 13-year-old boy who was shot dead by a sheriff’s deputy.

Mitchell was reported missing on Saturday night by his wife, who said her husband had been gone all day without checking in, something that was highly unusual.

Deputies issued an alert at 10 p.m. Saturday to area agencies to look for Mitchell and his Acura.

Early Sunday morning, his wife reported that Mitchell’s cellphone had been used last in the Bodega Bay area. Just before 8 a.m., state parks rangers found his unoccupied car south of Jenner, parked on Carlevaro Way, above Furlong Gulch Beach.

An extensive search ensued by sheriff’s deputies, search and rescue volunteers and the sheriff’s helicopter crew. Other than items of clothing and the phone, they found no sign of the man. Sheriff’s officials have said there was no indication he was the victim of foul play.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Cecile Focha said a detective was attempting to retrace Mitchell’s steps since he was last seen and find any new leads.

Focha declined to discuss details of the investigation, including where the clothing and phone were found, what items of clothing were found and whether the case was a possible suicide.

“We are continuing to investigate this incident as a missing persons case,” Focha said.

Mitchell, the son of the late Eureka lawyer Clifford Mitchell, was a third-generation attorney who handled a series of high-profile cases.

He represented the city of Sebastopol against a lawsuit filed by the parents of a 15-year-old girl who was hit in a crosswalk in 2009 on Highway 116 near Florence Avenue. A judge ruled the city was not liable for Julia Bertoli’s injuries, which included permanent brain damage. And a jury found Caltrans wasn’t responsible after listening to testimony and other evidence presented during a 3-month trial.

He also represented the county in a suit filed by the parents of 17-year-old Jeremiah Chass, who was shot and killed by two sheriff’s deputies in 2007. Family members alleged deputies used excessive force when they were summoned by a 911 call to help them with their troubled son. The Board of Supervisors agreed to settle the case for $1.75 million. The payout was among the largest on record in county history.

Mitchell also represented the city of Rohnert Park in a $50 million wrongful death suit filed by the family of Kuan Chunk Kao in 1997 after a Rohnert Park public safety officer shot and killed the man moments after getting out of his patrol car and confronting him. The man had wielded a long wooden pole and neighbors had called police complaining the man was yelling loudly and swinging the pole.

The city settled the case for $1 million.

Most recently, Mitchell has been a contract attorney for the county in the Lopez suit. He was quoted in The Press Democrat last week in a story about his appeal of a ruling in the case.

Over his career, he’s earned a reputation for his legal prowess.

“Steve was a hard-nosed guy,” Emery said. “There is a reason why the county hired him to represent it. He fought. He fought hard. But when it was over it was over. It was never personal. It was never nasty.”

His firm did not comment Tuesday.

But fellow lawyers expressed concern about Mitchell’s disappearance.

“It’s terrible,” said Peter Steiner, executive director of the Sonoma County Bar Association. “It’s a shock. He is a great guy. I have very high respect for him.”

Judge Gary Nadler also expressed shock Tuesday that such a respected lawyer would go missing.

“He’s a standard lawyers look to for excellence in the profession,” Nadler said.

A native of Eureka, he graduated from Stanford University in 1981 with a degree in economics and earned his law degree from the UCLA School of Law in 1986.

Mitchell served as president of the Sonoma County Bar Association in 2009 and was highly regarded in the legal community. He built up a “diverse litigation practice emphasizing business and real property disputes, public entity defense, employment law, and personal injury,” according to his firm’s website.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport.

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