Four years after human remains were found on the property of a Forsyth County couple, the criminal case against them has been dropped — at least for now.
Jason Michael Mitchell, 38, and his wife, Mary Utleye Mitchell, 52, had each been facing one count of felonious destruction of a human body or remains to conceal a death. In other words, they were accused of burying a body, even though they knew the person didn’t die from natural causes, and they also are accused of failing to notify anyone of the person’s death. They were never charged with murder.
Law enforcement officials found the human remains at the couple’s property at 3555 Brookbank Drive in Pfafftown in June 2015. But they have never been able to identify the human remains.
And that makes the case hard to prosecute for the time being, according to court papers filed by Assistant District Attorney James Dornfried.
Despite testing at several public and private laboratories, lab analysts have been unable to pull a DNA sample from the human remains. These laboratories have the latest techniques and equipment, Dornfried said in his notices to dismiss.
“Additionally, said remains provide no insight as to the manner of death,” he said.
“A DNA profile could provide critical information that leads to evidence of the deceased person’s identity, as well as information concerning the time and manner of death.”
That information is needed to establish that the defendants knew that the remains were human, Dornfried said.
Without a DNA profile, prosecutors can’t successfully take the case to trial, he said.
Dornfried said Friday that prosecutors can reinstate the criminal charges if new testing provides the information they need for a successful prosecution, including identifying the remains. One of the problems, he said, is that the human remains are so small. They’re not even a full skeleton, he said.
Dornfried said he has been a homicide prosecutor for more than a decade and he doesn’t remember a case where he has encountered human remains this small.
John D. Bryson, Jason Mitchell’s attorney, and Michael Grace, Mary Mitchell’s attorney, could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.
Officials with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office have released few details about the case. They and Forsyth County prosecutors had declined repeatedly to say whether the human remains had been identified.
But the case had been linked to Gordon Reid, a 61-year-old man who was reported missing on Feb. 4, 2015.
Reid’s name appeared on a court order sealing a search warrant for the Mitchells’ house. Reid was last seen at 158 Motor Road, next door to a house owned by the Mitchells.
The Mitchells’ attorneys have said in a previous motion that prosecutors had intended to produce evidence of a dispute between Reid and the Mitchells. But prosecutors, they said, had not produced any evidence of Reid being dead or of the remains having been identified as his.
The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office has sent the remains to the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh and then to the FBI’s lab in Quantico, Va. After that, the sheriff’s office used Bode Cellmark Forensics Inc. in Lorton, Va., a private lab that says on its website it can provide forensic-genealogy services to law enforcement officials for violent crimes against individuals, such as homicide, or for identifying human remains.
According to court papers, Forsyth County prosecutors have now sent the human remains to the University of North Texas. The school won’t began testing until October and a final report from that testing won’t be available until March 2020.
Attorneys for Jason and Mary Mitchell filed court papers last month saying the new testing only further delays a case that they say has dragged on for four years. They say the delays violate the Mitchells’ constitutional rights to a speedy trial.
Bryson said Winston-Salem police seized numerous items from the property, including two motor vehicles, that Jason Mitchell never got back.
Dornfried said prosecutors are awaiting the results of the current testing. If a DNA profile is pulled and more information is gathered as a result, charges could be reinstated.
If not, prosecutors will have to wait for new advancements in DNA testing, he said.
New advancements in DNA testing could take years.