Catawba teen's murderer sentenced

The man who killed a 19-year-old Catawba teenager in 2007 will spend at least 12 years in prison.

John Lee Mitchell pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the April 2007 death of Travis Baker and two other charges on Tuesday in Catawba County court. He will serve a maximum sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

The Travis Baker case, which began as a missing person case in 2007, turned into a homicide investigation after his bullet-riddled skull and other remains were found under a lumber pile off Eulalia Lane near Catawba in June 2009.

Mitchell was arrested following the discovery of Baker’s remains.

Authorities said Mitchell became a suspect when the Catawba teenager went missing in 2007.

The case was set to go to trial in January, but Baker and the court accepted a plea deal Tuesday.

On Tuesday, the defense and prosecution unveiled new details about the case.

On April 16, 2007 — the day of the murder — Baker was last seen in his red Chevrolet Camaro near Oxford School Road heading to work, according to investigators. On the way, however, authorities say he stopped at Mitchell’s residence on Oxford School Road to deliver narcotics.

According to interviews that the state presented Tuesday, Mitchell told investigators that Baker made a racial slur about his grandson — who was bi-racial — and the two started fighting.

When the fight escalated and the two slammed into a toolbox, Mitchell put Baker in a headlock. He grabbed a gun out of the toolbox and “pulled the trigger,” according to the interviews.

Mitchell then took Baker’s body to property at 1366 Eulalia Drive in Catawba — land owned by John Witmer that Mitchell used for hunting.

Mitchell also took apart Baker’s car, hiding some of the parts with the body in the grave.

For more than two years, the body sat there and Mitchell went to Florida with the other car parts. Baker’s family reminded the community of his disappearance, posting hundreds of missing signs in the community and sending letters to media outlets. The Catawba County Sheriff’s Office received tips, but Baker’s body was not located.

In June 2009, investigators received a call from Mitchell’s brother, Dan, in Florida.

“The defendant told his brother, Dan, he had killed people in Catawba County and buried those bodies,” Assistant District Attorney Sean McGinnis said Tuesday, adding that Dan was then brought to Catawba County from Florida for questioning.

Dan gave investigators a possible location for the body, they traveled to Witmer’s property, and authorities located Baker’s body underneath a pile of wood in a shallow grave on June 24, 2009.

McGinnis said arriving officers noticed bullet holes in the skull of the remains. Medical examiners later confirmed the skull was Baker's.

Authorities obtained an arrest warrant for Mitchell in North Carolina on June 24, 2009. He was arrested the same day in Florida and extradited to North Carolina for questioning.

“During interviews, he confessed he had in fact killed Travis Baker,” McGinnis said.

Mitchell was originally charged with first-degree murder, but pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon and concealment of a body on Tuesday.

Plea deal
If the case went to trial, Mitchell and his attorney, Lisa Dubs, would have claimed the murder happened in self-defense, Dubs said Tuesday.

Dubs said that on April 16, 2007, Mitchell was “losing” the fight against Baker that started after a comment Baker made about Mitchell’s bi-racial grandson.

Mitchell was defending himself, Dubs said.

“He grabbed the gun in the toolbox and shot the victim," she said.

Dubs said several witnesses would have testified about Mitchell’s non-violent history and gentle personality, adding that his mother was a lifelong police officer.

“He has never maintained he shouldn’t be punished for this,” Dubs said, adding that Mitchell is very remorseful and sorry for the crime.

The self-defense claim and other factors may have played heavily on a jury if the case went to trial, something Baker’s family didn’t want.

“It was a chance we would have had to take against a jury,” said Wayne Baker, Travis’ father. “I wanted life. No amount of time was good enough for me, but I’d rather him be in jail for 12 years of his life than not guilty.”

The District 25 Attorney’s Office, which has worked with the Baker family since Travis’ body was found, arranged the plea.

“We had consultation with the family, and there was agreement with the DA’s office that the plea was appropriate and proper,” said District Attorney Jay Gaither. “We understand the hardship this has brought on the Baker family, and we hope this brings closure to them."