Mike Mead was newly engaged and about to have a child. Then, on July 16, 2008, he got a call: His fiancée, Lucy Johnson, had been shot to death and her house set on fire. Mead immediately thought of Johnson’s ex-boyfriend — the two were involved in a bitter custody fight over their infant son — but months went by and no one was arrested. Six months after Johnson’s death, police finally made an arrest, but they didn’t go after the ex-boyfriend. Instead, they went after Mead.
Quick Facts: Mike Mead
Date of Crime: July 16, 2008
Victim: Lucy Johnson (pregnant), White, Age 31
Acquittal Date: July 12, 2011
Years Incarcerated: Less than 6 months in jail, 2.5 years on house arrest
Real Perpetrator Found: No
Errors: The state pursued charges against Mead with virtually no evidence while also failing to investigate the one man who had a clear motive to murder Johnson.
“It’s like a light switch was flicked, and my entire world came crumbling down,” Mead wrote shortly after his arrest, in a letter to friends and family. “I loved Lucy very much and was looking forward to a life of happiness with her.”
In 2011, Mead was tried for his life in Gaston County and acquitted by a jury. After the verdict was read, he left the courthouse and found the jurors gathered in the hotel bar across the street. They cheered for him, bought him drinks, and laughed about the weakness of the state’s case. There was not a shred of physical evidence linking Mead to the murder.
Three years later, Mead says he still can’t fathom why police went after him, and why the prosecutor sought the death penalty. Why did they focus on him, a person with no history of violence and a happy relationship with Johnson, and fail to seriously investigate a man with a clear motive? Why did they ignore and hide evidence of his innocence?
Mead has gotten no answers, and Johnson has gotten no justice. Johnson’s true killer has never been arrested.
Like many modern couples, Mead and Johnson met on an online dating site. Mead lived in Fort Mill, S.C., and Johnson in Gaston County, N.C. They knew each other only three months, but Mead says they felt an immediate connection. By the time Johnson died, she was pregnant with Mead’s child. He says they were both excited about the baby, and less than a week before her death, he asked her to marry him.
Johnson was killed in the early hours of the morning. Mead says he was home alone with his dog. He had an alarm system, which he armed around midnight and did not disarm until the next morning. He had cell phone records showing his phone was used at his house, which was nearly an hour’s drive from Johnson’s home, at the time of the murder.
Mead also had a neighbor with a video camera trained on the street. If Mead had left the neighborhood that night, he would have had to drive by the camera. His neighbor offered the videotape to the police, but Mead says they refused it.
Mead submitted to interrogation without an attorney, searches of his home, gunshot residue tests, and a polygraph test — believing that police would eventually recognize his innocence. Instead, in January 2009, they issued a warrant for his arrest. The prosecutor announced he would seek the death penalty.
Mead spent 49 days in solitary confinement before a judge, in an unusual move for a capital case, granted him house arrest while he awaited trial. He spent the next two and a half years isolated in his home, tethered by an electronic ankle band, playing video games to fill the hours, watching his bills mount. On top of his legal bills, he had to pay monthly for his electronic monitoring bracelet. By the time of his trial, the cost topped $15,000, and he was never reimbursed.
At the time of his arrest, he owned a successful business as an engineering consultant. But as soon as he was arrested, his clients abandoned him and his business collapsed. He lived in an expensive home that he had been paying on for 11 years, but he could no longer afford the mortgage. He sold his possessions and declared bankruptcy. The bank foreclosed on his house a few months after he was acquitted.
During 29 months on house arrest, Mead says, he spent a lot of time thinking about “taking a needle in the arm for something I didn’t do.” He pictured himself in the execution chamber, with Johnson’s mother — who believed the police’s version of events — standing over him.
When he was finally declared indigent, he was assigned a new attorney, who found that police had virtually no evidence to support their case. The attorney focused on the father of Johnson’s 6-month-old son, James Spelock, who had become enraged when Johnson refused to name the child after him. Since the child’s birth, the pair had been fighting over custody and child support. Johnson’s had told friends she was afraid of Spelock, and she wrote in her diary that if anything were to happen to her, Spelock would be the culprit.
At trial, Mead’s defense team presented a strong case that Spelock was the person with motive and opportunity. They also tore apart the state’s case against Mead, and caught investigators in a lie. At trial, police claimed that, after Johnson was found shot to death, they never tested Mead for gunshot residue. On cross examination, police finally admitted that a gunshot residue test had been performed; they then claimed the test results had been lost.
At the end of the trial, with no physical evidence and their case unraveling, the state put a jailhouse snitch on the stand to testify that Mead had confessed to him during the few weeks he spent in jail. Mead says he had never met the snitch. The man’s testimony was so unbelievable that, by the time the snitch left the stand, the judge and jury were laughing at him.
Three years later, Mead has mostly rebuilt his life. He has a successful new business and a picturesque lakeside home, which he shares with his two dogs. He maintains a close relationship with Johnson’s father, who he says always believed in his innocence. Mead is now pursuing a civil lawsuit against the Gaston County Police Department and the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, which he sees as the only option left to get a semblance of justice for Johnson and his unborn child.