By Jeff Amy and Emily Wagster Pettus
RIDGELAND – A tea party official charged with conspiring to take photos of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s wife inside a nursing home apparently committed suicide Friday, police said, days after Cochran won a nasty Republican primary.
The body of attorney Mark Mayfield was found Friday morning in the garage of his two-story, brick home in a gated community outside Jackson. A gun was found nearby, Ridgeland Police Chief Jimmy Houston said. Houston says Mayfield had been shot, and a suicide note was found at the scene.
“Everything we see so far, this appears to be a suicide,” Houston said.
Mayfield’s death came just days after tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel was defeated by Cochran in the Republican Senate runoff. Mayfield had been a board member of the Central Mississippi Tea Party and had raised money for McDaniel’s campaign.
Mayfield faced a conspiracy charge, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine for a conviction, after allegations he and others conspired to take photos of 72-year-old Rose Cochran at the nursing where she has lived since 2001. The photos were later used in an anti-Cochran political video posted briefly online during the Republican primary.
An additional weight for Mayfield: Under Mississippi court rules he could have lost his law license if convicted and sentenced.
In a statement Friday, McDaniel, who has denied any connection to the photos, praised Mayfield.
“Regardless of recent allegations made against his character, Mark Mayfield was a fine Christian man who was always respectful and kind. He was one of the most polite and humble men I’ve ever met in politics. He was a loving husband, father, a pillar of his community, and he will be missed. We are saddened by his loss, and we send our thoughts and prayers to his wife, his family and friends,” McDaniel said.
Janis Lane, president of the board of the Central Mississippi Tea Party, said she had not seen Mayfield since he was charged, but had been in contact with him by phone and through text messages. She said Mayfield’s integrity was important to him, and he sounded like he was feeling pressured by the investigation.
“It was truly a challenging time for him,” Lane said, wiping away tears.
Three other men also were arrested last month and face various charges of conspiring to photograph Rose Cochran in the home where she has lived since 2001 with dementia. The Cochran family said she has lost the ability to speak and is receiving hospice care. Police said conservative blogger Clayton Thomas Kelly of Pearl photographed her without permission on Easter Sunday.
In a statement, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant expressed sympathy to the Mayfield family.
“Deborah and I are saddened to hear of the loss of Mark Mayfield. He was a long-time friend, and he will be missed. Our prayers go out to his family in this tragic moment,” wrote Bryant, a Republican.
The Cochran campaign also reacted.
“Obviously, this is a tragic and very sad situation. Mark was a good guy. The senator and all of our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends,” said Austin Barbour, a strategist and spokesman for the campaign.
Other suspects in the photo plot are elementary school teacher Richard Sager of Laurel and John Mary of Hattiesburg, who took over hosting a conservative talk radio show formerly hosted by McDaniel. McDaniel left the radio job before his election to the Mississippi Senate in 2007.
Lane spoke Friday at the Hinds County Courthouse, where she and other McDaniel supporters were examining poll books to look for examples of crossover voting — people who had voted in the June 3 Democratic primary and in Tuesday’s Republican runoff between McDaniel and Cochran.
“He was the finest man,” Lane said. “He was an attorney of impeccable character.”
Wagster Pettus reported from Jackson.