Spellbinder - Features - Atlanta Magazine
 
 
 

Spellbinder

Mitchell Gross wrote thrillers, but he was also an attorney, a scientist, a successful businessman, a Hollywood darling, and a charmer of women. He was none of these things. He was more. Why did so many people fall for his lies?

Photograph by Thomas Allen

This story originally appeared in our October 2012 issue.

At 7:15 on a Thursday morning last October, IRS agents arrived at a brick house in a cul de sac off Sandy Plains Road in Marietta, around the corner from a commercial strip with a Chick-fil-A and an Edward Jones branch whose sign warned, “Prepare for the Unexpected.” The man who answered the door was named Mitchell Gross. He was sixty-one years old and dressed in a T-shirt and shorts. The agents explained they had a warrant for his arrest but allowed him to first get dressed and take his medicine. He appeared lucid and calm, and on the way out he told his fiancee, who owned the house, to call his attorney and his son.

En route to the U.S. Marshals office, with Gross handcuffed in the backseat, agents asked him if he had any medical conditions. He explained he suffered from dissociative identity disorder and schizophrenia. As if to demonstrate, Gross began mumbling and shaking his head. He said he was hearing a voice: A man named Michael Johnson, he said, was warning him not to talk.

“People need to be protected,” Gross explained to the agents. He said a voice told him to go to a “safe location”—a storage facility on Shallowford Road. Within those walls, he claimed, his thoughts couldn’t be read. As the car made its way toward Downtown Atlanta, Gross looked at the road signs passing by. They often sent him secret messages, he said.

One of the arresting officers, Ken Roberts, had never seen such a performance. The next day at Gross’s arraignment in federal court, prosecutors dismissed his ramblings as just that—a performance meant to lay the foundation for a possible insanity defense. Gross, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Grimberg, “is a very smart man and is very competent, and he is a little too smart for his own good.”

Magistrate Judge Christopher Hagy agreed. Gross was denied bail. He was taken into federal custody to await trial on twenty-two charges of fraud and money laundering.

Gross’s arrest brought to an end an astonishing run of multilayered cons perpetrated by a novelist whose prose could not match his real-life deceptions. Over the last two decades, this affable and brilliant man talked his way into the offices of New York publishers and the lairs of Hollywood players, into the beds of lonely women and the homes of fractured families. A storyteller who couldn’t write and a lover who couldn’t love, Gross stole at least $6 million from the people whose lives he shattered. And they’re still asking why.

Something in Jane Schlachter’s Mercedes smelled funny.

It was an early morning in 1995, and she had to drive her seven-year-old son to school in East Cobb. Before she could even get into her car and head down the long, oak-canopied driveway of her Marietta home, Schlachter smelled something foul, almost like pesticide. Another person might have assumed that there was a problem with the engine, or suspected a leak in the garage. But Schlachter knew what it was: poison.

Someone was trying to kill her.

She rolled down the Mercedes’s windows. She and her son leaned their heads out of the car while she drove past the security gate and onto the road. After she dropped off her son, she called her boyfriend, Mitchell Gross.

Schlachter had met Gross five years earlier, in May of 1990, on an East Cobb soccer field while they watched their sons practice together. He was an amiable man with whom she had much in common: They were both attorneys with New York accents, young children, and dying marriages. Within four years, they’d both be divorced. But Schlachter’s split from her husband was traumatic. She was scared at the prospect of being a single parent and had little experience in handling her own finances.

Gross, who told her he specialized in family law, had witnessed plenty of divorces. With Schlachter separated, he stepped in to fill the void. Gross and his young son, Doug, grew close to her three children. Gross himself would perform magic tricks to entertain them.

As Schlachter’s divorce proceedings grew acrimonious, Gross was there—as confidant, emissary, even financial adviser. The final divorce settlement left Schlachter with joint custody of her children, and property and alimony totaling more than $2 million. As it turned out, Gross’s best friend, Michael Johnson, was an investment adviser in La Jolla, California. A throat cancer survivor, Johnson used an electronic voice modifier when he talked to Schlachter on the phone. They spoke so often that he became a friend, to whom she’d even send birthday gifts. She would one day bring her family to La Jolla to meet him in person, only to find he’d been called away on business.

Schlachter invested her alimony and retirement accounts with Johnson’s firm and would one day, at his prodding, sell a plot of land adjacent to her home for three quarters of a million dollars, which she also invested with him. He was oddly prescient: Whenever he called her with an investment opportunity, it usually required the exact amount of money that she had available at the time.

But now, as she phoned Gross after dropping off her son, Schlachter wasn’t thinking about finances; she was thinking about survival. Gross had befriended Schlachter’s ex, and the information he relayed back to Schlachter suggested the man was increasingly unhinged. So convinced was she that her ex wanted to harm her, she devised a series of secret safety codes to communicate with her children.

Gross reassured her. After all, he had recently made a startling admission, the enormity of which dawned on her slowly during that stressful time. He had confided that he was the Southeast director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He had a number of men under his command, and they would keep her family safe.

Later that morning, Gross took Schlachter’s car and explained he was going to get it tested. The next day, he confirmed her fears: It was a neurological agent. If she hadn’t rolled down the windows, she or her son might have died.

We should go to the police, Schlachter said. No, Gross replied. Let my people look into it instead. Trust me.

Disentangling truth from invention in Mitchell Gross’s life story is a daunting task. Over the years, he has been—or has claimed to be—an attorney, an author, a neuropsychologist, a secret agent, a Hollywood deal maker, a businessman, and a champion fencer. As a local novelist myself, I was compelled to learn more about Gross when I first heard about this writer/con man from the Atlanta suburbs. Here was a man who had lived on the electrified third rail of reality and imagination; one of his novels was even called Circle of Lies.

A basic challenge for a fiction writer is how to get readers to suspend disbelief—how to make your tale unusual enough to intrigue them but not so extreme as to cause them to roll their eyes. This tightrope has only become narrower as “reality” TV has supplanted scripted shows, documentaries or mockumentaries exploit the borderlands of real and fake, and people spend more time reading blogs, memoirs, and other so-called “true” stories, showing less patience for yarns that are purely invented. People want reality, but a wildly interesting, skewed reality. One that isn’t actually real.

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