Since she was 15, Doreen Mitchell, now 53, has described hallucinations caused by schizophrenia.
Her sons inherited mental illness, she said. Her cousin John Mitchell said he, too, has wrestled with demons for more than three decades.
They said told Social Security screeners that they were a trapped family, unable to work, drive, shop and clean themselves without help.
“I don’t like to see nobody or go nowhere,” Doreen Mitchell recently told a clinical psychologist.
The Social Security Administration and federal prosecutors now say the smorgasbord of mental problems were an elaborate, sustained ruse to defraud the government of almost $500,000 in disability benefits.
Doreen Mitchell, her sons, Michael Mitchell, 29, and Sonny Mitchell, 27; and John Mitchell, 58, were arrested late last month on a federal criminal complaint. Prosecutors must now present the case to a grand jury.
According to the complaint, filed in federal court in Dallas, the four family members lied for years about their intelligence and their ability to function and have received $461,913 in Supplemental Security Income benefits.
They told investigators they saw ghosts and spoke to the dead, the complaint says.
Social Security’s Cooperative Disability Investigations unit started keeping an eye on the family in 2004 after receiving a report that the four were receiving benefits for similar conditions, according to the complaint.
Investigators followed them, documenting their behavior. An affidavit prepared by Cynthia Roberts, a Social Security special agent, which was filed with the criminal complaint, lists numerous instances of suspicious behavior. But for the most part, they continued to receive benefits.
“When fraud does occur, it is rare,” said Sarah Schultz-Lackey, a Social Security spokeswoman. “Social Security, along with the Office of the Inspector General, aggressively identifies and prosecutes those who commit fraud. Our zero-tolerance approach has resulted in a fraud incidence rate that is a fraction of 1 percent.”
In her 1978 application for SSI, Doreen Mitchell told officials that she was mentally impaired because of schizophrenia and that she experienced visual and auditory hallucinations, according to Roberts’ affidavit.
When she turned 18, she underwent another psychiatric examination, at which she “resisted all efforts of being tested,” Roberts wrote.
But she consistently received benefits until Social Security officials began to catch on in 2004. In a covert interview, she said she was still having hallucinations, couldn’t read or write, and talked to her deceased father, the criminal complaint says.
“But it appeared to the interviewer that it was rehearsed,” it says.
Her benefits were discontinued.
She appealed and appeared before a hearings officer in 2005, when she “once again appeared to talk to her deceased father” but was denied benefits.
Mitchell appealed to an administrative law judge, one who serves as an independent arbiter in administrative proceedings, and had another examination in 2008, at which the examiner said she couldn’t cope with social demands.
The judge ordered her payments to continue.
Doreen Mitchell was scheduled for another Social Security interview in 2014, but by this time the Cooperative Disability Investigations unit had started surveillance of her home.
She was seen exercising an “activity level [that] was greater than she had previously disclosed,” according to the affidavit. She took out the trash and scrolled on her cellphone, Roberts wrote. She drove a child to a Family Dollar store in a Hyundai SUV although she said she couldn’t drive, Roberts said.
Mitchell walked down the street and spoke on her cellphone; she shopped; she banked; “she was, at all times, dressed appropriately,” the criminal complaint says.
But on July 22, 2014, in an interview with Social Security officials, her cousin John Mitchell provided information on her behalf as if she couldn’t speak for herself, according to the affidavit.
“Doreen Mitchell appeared disheveled, actively avoided conversations, mumbled unintelligibly to herself, and claimed she could not leave the house alone,” according to the complaint.
Doreen Mitchell appeared disheveled, actively avoided conversations, mumbled unintelligibly to herself, and claimed she could not leave the house alone.
“Doreen Mitchell claimed she never went out alone, and got angry when she was repeatedly asked whether she drove,” it says.
Over the next month, she was followed by investigators and was found driving, shopping and attending a Dallas church 20 miles from her house.
In 2001, Doreen Mitchell applied for benefits on behalf of her son Michael Mitchell, then 15, claiming he had “mild mental retardation,” according to Roberts’ affidavit. Cousin John Mitchell helped fill out Michael’s application.
Clinical assessments found that Michael had the social age of 4.8 years. He was diagnosed with “moderate mental retardation,” autism and psychotic disorder, Roberts wrote.
Investigators concluded that he was disabled and approved SSI benefits.
But three years later in a covert interview, Michael Mitchell “made regular eye contact” and answered questions “without hesitation.”
He told officials he did automotive work on the side, drove although he didn’t have a license, shopped, handled cash and went to Las Vegas to get married, the criminal complaint says.
Two weeks later, when he knew that his eligibility was being examined, he did not respond to questions or speak.
His benefits were discontinued.
He appealed to an administrative law judge who ordered a new examination for him in 2007. He told that clinician that he saw ghosts “all the time” and could not name the current president.
“When asked what day followed Saturday, he said, ‘Church,’ ” according to the complaint.
… When asked what day followed Saturday, he said ‘church.’
The judge allowed his benefits to continue.
As recent as May 4, 2015, Michael Mitchell was seen driving to the grocery store, shopping and going to an Ace Cash Express, where he used an Arizona driver’s license.
An investigator learned that he cashed a $4,191 check that wasn’t from Social Security.
In 2002, Doreen Mitchell applied for benefits for her son Sonny Mitchell, claiming he had “mild mental retardation,” the criminal complaint says.
He was approved for benefits.
In 2004, during an investigation of the family, Sonny Mitchell sat with his head bowed and didn’t talk. He was diagnosed with psychotic disorder and his benefits were continued.
After he turned 18 in 2007, he underwent another consultative examination where he said he had a learning disability and schizophrenia, according to the affidavit.
At a May 2007 examination his “only cooperative effort was drawing geometric figures on request,” Roberts wrote. Furthermore, he was “unable to draw a figure commonly drawn by an average 3-year-old.”
His benefits were continued.
In 2014, his mother and her cousin spoke on his behalf in an interview related to his benefits.
They told investigators that he didn’t speak to anyone but his girlfriend, never made eye contact, and needed help completing simple tasks, according to the affidavit.
They said he had to be told to take his medicine, couldn’t drive, didn’t shop, couldn’t manage money or associate with people he didn’t know, Roberts wrote.
He signed a form indicating that lying or misinterpreting facts to Social Security is a federal crime with “2 ONNy MiteLL.”
Later that day, an investigator found Sonny Mitchell driving a pickup with signs advertising on-the-spot auto body repair.
He was followed to a QuikTrip convenience store where he was seen fixing a dent in someone’s car, Roberts wrote. He was later seen driving through a Home Depot parking lot looking for work, the criminal complaint says.
Surveillance found him soliciting work at least five other times in a month.
Doreen Mitchell’s cousin John Mitchell started receiving SSI benefits in 2002 after claiming that he was schizophrenic. He was denied benefits in 2004.
In 2013 he again applied for SSI benefits, and Doreen Mitchell filled out his “adult function report,” Roberts wrote. Doreen wrote that she had to tell him when to shower, shave and take his medicine, according to the affidavit. She said he couldn’t do housework, cook or handle money.
She said that John Mitchell could leave the house only with her and that he couldn’t pay attention or socialize, the criminal complaint state.
His case was turned over to Cooperative Disability Investigations because he had no original identification and because of the “credibility of his alleged impairments.”
In a 2014 interview related to his application, Doreen Mitchell was again the primary informant.
“She reported that John Mitchell did not like to communicate with anyone, communicated with spirits, talked to his deceased mother, and that his leg needed surgery [that] prevented him from engaging in physical activities,” the affidavit says.
She said neither of them could drive and a family friend took them to the store.
However, “that same day, Doreen Mitchell drove them both from the interview at the SSA office approximately 26 miles and stopped at a grocery store, at which she shopped by herself and politely asked the investigator, who was conducting covert surveillance, if he would like to check out ahead of her,” according to the affidavit.
Though Doreen said John could not drive, he was seen driving at least 12 times between the end of May 2014 and beginning of August 2014, Roberts wrote.
Free on personal recognizance
As recently as July, Doreen Mitchell appeared for an examination about her benefits in a “dirty, somewhat transparent nightgown with visible black undergarments and a scarf sloppily tied around [her] head,” Roberts wrote.
The doctor examining her determined that she was not presenting a “true level” of her functioning, Roberts wrote. He said she demonstrated a personality disorder with anti-social traits. The doctor believed she was exaggerating for personal gain, Roberts wrote.
Michael Mitchell also had an exam with the same doctor where he was asked to sign consent forms. He responded by “picking up the clipboard and slamming it on the table,” the criminal complaint says.
“When asked if he had ever had surgery, he responded nonsensically with, ‘pizza,’ ” it says.
When asked if he had ever had surgery, he responded nonsensically with ‘pizza.’
The doctor concluded that he, too, demonstrated personality disorder with anti-social traits and was exaggerating for personal gain.
Also that day, Michael Mitchell had an argument with painters about his truck, and a few days later, he took a child to a gas station, talked to a customer and drove to his brother’s house, according to an affidavit.
But this time he “drove in a manner intended to keep others from following him,” Roberts wrote.
When it was Sonny Mitchell’s time to be interviewed, he wore dirty clothes that were too small, according to the affidavit.
John Mitchell said that Sonny Mitchell had talked to a doll since he was 11, was too “scared” to ride a bus, and spent his days watching cartoons like SpongeBob, according to an affidavit.
Sonny Mitchell spoke up to tell the doctor he had “10 children,” but John Mitchell chimed in that he had three, Roberts wrote.
“When asked if there was any type of work he can do, Sonny Mitchell replied, ‘Fix cereal.’ ”
The doctor gave him the same diagnosis as his mother and brother.
Western Union records for the men show multiple transactions over the last five years.
“Some of the transactions are over $20,000 and have been sent to oversees locations,” according to the criminal complaint.
Some of the family’s financial transactions exceed $20,000.
Sonny Mitchell, John Mitchell and Doreen Mitchell were released from jail on Oct. 2. Doreen Mitchell misspelled her last name on her release form as “Michell.” Michael Mitchell was released from jail on Oct. 5.
They are free on personal recognizance.
The maximum statutory penalty for conspiracy to defraud the Social Security Administration is five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.
None of the Mitchells could be reached for comment.
They continue to receive SSI benefits.
Mental disorders that qualify for disability include schizophrenia, paranoia, somatoform, personality disorders, substance addiction, affective, autism and intellectual disability.