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Mississippi tea party leader tied to campaign smear dead in apparent suicide

By Paul Steinhauser and Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri June 27, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Police: Mayfield's wife alerted authorities; body had a revolver nearby
  • Sen. Cochran adviser: "This is very much a tragic and sad situation"
  • Mississippi Tea Party laments loss of "cheerleader" with "a patriot's soul"
  • Mayfield was charged in a picture-taking incident involving senator's wife

(CNN) -- A tea party leader tied to alleged political dirty tricks that rattled Republicans in Mississippi and beyond is dead -- shot once in the head in an apparent suicide, according to police.

Police officers in Ridgeland, Mississippi, found Mark Mayfield's body shortly after 9 a.m. Friday on the floor of a storage room in his garage.

"Because all of the indications, it appears to be suicide, but we still got some things to look into," Ridgeland police Chief Jimmy Houston told CNN. "He left a suicide note, and we are verifying its validity."

Authorities haven't disclosed the contents of that note or why Mayfield might have taken his life.

Tea Party leader in election scandal dies
McDaniel: Miss. election not fair
Scandal hits Mississippi primary

Yet the lawyer and Mississippi Tea Party leader has been under fire for the past month, having been charged with three others -- according to The Clarion-Ledger newspaper -- in connection to a blogger accused of taking a picture of Sen. Thad Cochran's wife in her nursing home bed. This came a week after the blogger, Clayton Kelly, was himself charged.

All were apparent allies of conservative state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who was then engaged in an ugly primary battle to see who would be the GOP Senate candidate from Mississippi.

The photo of Cochran's wife -- who suffers from dementia and has lived in a nursing home for 14 years -- surfaced in a political attack ad on YouTube that aimed to smear Cochran, The Clarion-Ledger reported. It's unclear how the photo was used because the ad was removed within hours of being posted, according to the newspaper.

This episode and others further inflamed the rhetoric in the primary fight. Cochran's spokesman Jordan Russell, for example, said last month that Mayfield and the others' arrests "raises even more questions the McDaniel campaign needs to answer."

But on Friday, Cochran -- who narrowly edged McDaniel in Tuesday's primary -- and his team showed only sympathy upon hearing about Mayfield's death.

"This is very much a tragic and sad situation," said Austin Barbour, a senior adviser to Cochran's campaign. "Mark was a really good guy. On behalf of Sen. Cochran and all of us for the campaign, our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and his friends."

Report: Mayfield faced conspiracy charges

Mark Mayfield leaves behind his wife and two children.

He also leaves a legacy in Mississippi in other ways, as a lawyer and a political leader. The Mississippi Tea Party remembered him as one of its founding members "and one of our biggest cheerleaders."

"He had a patriot's soul, and a smile that was as big as day," the group said on its website.

Outside Mississippi, Mayfield became part of a bigger national story one week after authorities arrested political blogger Clayton Kelly for allegedly exploiting a vulnerable adult and illegally and improperly obtaining a photo of her without her consent for his own benefit, according to the Madison, Mississippi, Police Department.

Blogger's arrest shakes up Mississippi GOP primary

Mayfield was later arrested along with Richard Sager, an elementary school P.E. teacher and high school coach, according to The Clarion-Ledger newspaper. Police also charged a third individual, John Beachman Mary, but did not take him into custody because of "extensive medical conditions."

All three face conspiracy charges, the newspaper reported.

Mayfield's death came two days after the runoff to decide his state's GOP Senate nominee -- an election necessitated since neither Cochran nor McDaniel cracked 50% in the June 3 primary.

Cochran won the latest contest by fewer than 7,000 votes, aided by African-American Democrats who were actively courted during the runoff campaign by pro-Cochran forces.

According to Mississippi law, voters are not required to register with a political party, and anyone who doesn't vote in a primary election can cast a ballot in either party's runoff.

McDaniel repeated his vow to use every legal maneuver available to fight the runoff results.

Lawyer, friend: 'My heart is completely broken'

Still, while that political fight continues, the focus Thursday was on Mayfield and his family.

His wife Robin was the only other person at the family's Ridgeland residence at the time, and also the one who alerted authorities.

The 57-year-old Mayfield was found dead of a lone gunshot wound, alongside a large caliber revolver.

Mayfield's attorney, Merrida Coxwell, said in a statement e-mailed to CNN that he was a client "but more importantly, he was a friend for almost 34 years.

"My heart is completely broken. This is beyond tragic and the people of this community and state have lost a good man and citizen."

In a phone call with CNN, Coxwell added, "It's not important to me how it happened. It happened today. Mark's wife called and texted me that Mark was deceased."

And McDaniel posted a statement on his Facebook page saying that, "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," the state senator added. "He was a loving husband, father, a pillar of his community, and he will be missed."

McDaniel says irregularities found

Who is Thad Cochran?

Blogger's arrest shakes up Mississippi Republican primary

CNN's Carma Hassan and Alan Silverleib contributed to this report.

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