The shaman lights a hand-rolled cigarette, inhales, and blows plumes of pungent Amazonian tobacco smoke onto the heads, chests, backs, and clasped hands of his acolytes.
Next, he might move about the room while beating on a drum. Standing six foot four, with an unruly shock of platinum-blond hair, he’s accustomed to being the center of attention. These ceremonies have taken place nearly every week for years inside his downtown Austin compound.
Some Indigenous Americans believe the tobacco, known as mapacho, possesses healing and protective qualities. But this self-professed shaman isn’t Indigenous. He’s a white, 69-year-old attorney named Mark Mueller, and his acolytes are lawyers, paralegals, and others who work for him. A Wisconsin native who earned his law degree from the University of Houston—and later graduated from the Power Path Seminars & School of Shamanism, in New Mexico—Mueller seems to revel in his eccentricities.
He sometimes shows up to depositions with a stuffed toy animal named Wizard Bear MD, JD, Esq., which appears in illustrated form atop the logo of his firm, Mueller Law Offices. He attends spiritual retreats in Latin America and the countercultural Burning Man festival, in the Nevada desert. Visitors to the elegant, 150-year-old mansion that serves as the firm’s headquarters enter through a hallway flanked by a rack of wizard and jester hats and a bench piled high with dozens of stuffed animals. The office decor also includes animal bones and teeth that Mueller has brought back from his travels.
Mueller founded the firm in 1992 and grew wealthy as a plaintiff’s attorney specializing in birth-injury cases. He claims to have won more than $400 million in settlements and verdicts for his clients, and Mueller Law maintains satellite offices in Atlanta, Chicago, New York City, and Montclair, New Jersey. In recent years, he has participated in litigation against manufacturers of pelvic-mesh implants, which doctors use to treat incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse but which have been linked to organ perforation and chronic pain. He fashions himself as a liberal crusader, with a special focus on women’s health. According to the firm’s website, he has volunteered as a rape crisis counselor and supported “a wide variety of environmental and progressive groups and causes.” A 2012 magazine advertisement quotes Mueller as saying, “The reason clients come to us is because we are guided by the principles of what’s right and wrong.”
Contrary to this marketing, however, four former employees described Mueller Law as a highly sexualized work environment in which women were subjected to Mueller’s innuendo, harassment, and misogynistic language. Last June, paralegal Delilah Stevens filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that she was treated in a “hostile and discriminatory manner” despite consistent praise for her work. Mueller, who is contesting the EEOC complaint, denies committing sexual harassment or fostering a hostile work environment.
Three other recently departed employees corroborated aspects of Stevens’s claims. They say that Mueller, who lives next door to the office on the half-acre compound, encourages his approximately twenty employees to bathe in his personal Jacuzzi and that he sometimes holds meetings in his bedroom. He texts pornography to group chats, speaks in demeaning terms about women, and engages in crude sexual humor, according to more than 2,500 pages of text messages exchanged between Mueller and his staffers that were provided to Texas Monthly by Stevens’s attorney, Mike Schneider.
Shamans consider themselves healers who access the spiritual world through altered states of consciousness. But the former employees say that Mueller uses shamanic practices, such as the mapacho ceremonies, to psychologically control his staff, creating a cultlike office environment that excuses sexual misbehavior. They tell a story that has become familiar in recent years, as the Me Too movement has encouraged workers, especially women, to break the long tradition of silence about indignities suffered in the workplace. “He slowly and systematically manipulates you,” said Stevens, who worked at Mueller Law from 2019 to 2021. “You think there are things you would never do, but then you find yourself doing them. And then you don’t feel like you can say anything because you participated.”
If the EEOC finds for Stevens, she could win back pay, compensation for emotional harm, and punitive damages of as much as $50,000. The paralegal has also sued Mueller in state court, alleging that her boss drugged her with MDMA, better known as ecstasy, during a February 2020 legal conference in New Orleans. She’s seeking unspecified damages for psychological and bodily injury, as well as lost wages. Mueller strenuously denies drugging Stevens and said she invented the story to get money.
The former employees who spoke to Texas Monthly say that Mueller appealed to their idealism by posing as a champion of the downtrodden. Stevens recalled Mueller declaring on multiple occasions that he wanted to change the world. “I convinced myself that we were on a mission to help people,” she said during one of multiple interviews, all of which her attorney listened in on.
Even after Mueller drugged her, she said, her loyalty to that mission kept her at the firm—as did her $100,000 annual salary. (According to workplace-ratings website Glassdoor, the average pay for a paralegal in Austin is a little less than $50,000.) “I made excuses for him,” she told me. “It’s the same thing that everybody who works for him now is doing.”
It had seemed like the perfect job. Sitting across a massive desk from Mueller at the firm’s West Seventh Street headquarters, in Austin, Stevens listened as the veteran litigator discussed his biggest cases. Perched on a high-backed wooden chair trimmed with red velvet, he gave the impression of a king on his throne. “I thought he was brilliant at first, because I couldn’t keep up with him,” Stevens recalled. “I had never met anybody that made me feel stupid.” During the interview, Mueller talked mostly about himself—his legal philosophy, his interest in shamanism, the book he was writing about the JFK assassination. (He believes the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, defense contractors, and LBJ were all involved with the killing.)
Mueller asked Stevens, then a 49-year-old who had worked at six other firms, only one question: How would she prepare for a trial? Stevens described her process, and Mueller appeared impressed. He gave her a tour of the Mueller Law compound, which occupies much of the Bremond Block Historic District, in downtown Austin. Merchant John Bremond and his family built a collection of Victorian and Greek Revival dwellings there in the nineteenth century. Mueller bought four of the houses a couple of decades ago. As he walked Stevens through a tranquil, tree-shaded courtyard, he pointed out the homes where he and one of his two adult sons lived, as well as a small cottage where employees or visitors sometimes stayed.
Inside one of the houses, he led Stevens upstairs to a conference room decorated with badger skins and a painting of the Hindu goddess Kali. This was the Badger Den. “He said, ‘This is where we have our meetings. This is where intentions are set, where the team collaborates,’ ” Stevens remembered. Announcing that he wanted to “clear the air,” Mueller then picked up a drum and began beating it.
Stevens was intrigued by Mueller’s shamanic practices, which seemed to promise a more progressive culture than those of her stuffier former firms. Unlike previous colleagues, Mueller hadn’t commented on her appearance. “I remember being really excited because I felt like I had finally reached the age where I was being seen for my intellect and my skills,” she said.
After being hired, in August 2019, Stevens was assigned a desk across the hall from Mueller’s corner office. Because he often kept his door open, she sometimes overheard his phone calls. They were frequently contentious. During one speakerphone conversation with a Dallas-based Mueller Law paralegal, Stevens heard Mueller bragging about how well he had conducted a deposition. After the paralegal responded sarcastically, Mueller stormed out of his office and screamed, “She’s a c—t!” (Mueller told me he doesn’t remember the incident. “That’s not a word I typically use at all. Now, would I call someone a bitch? Maybe, okay. Or an asshole.”)
On another occasion, Mueller asked Stevens to convert a set of measurements. When she responded that she was bad at math, “he was like, ‘You’re an idiot!’ He went through the whole office telling people I was bad at math, making fun of me.” (“I don’t think I called her an idiot, but I was making fun of her for not being able to do the math,” Mueller said.)
Stevens came to realize that Mueller’s attitude toward women was not as respectful as she had originally thought. He told her that his second divorce, from Paula Wilson in 2004, was particularly acrimonious. Wilson had worked at Mueller Law as a client liaison. “He talked about that quite frequently,” Stevens said. “He said he had to give her $9 million, and he would call her every name in the book.” (Under the divorce agreement, Mueller paid $3.6 million and ceded several Austin-area properties to Wilson, who could not be reached for this story. Mueller declined to discuss comments he may have made about his ex-wife.) In a January 2020 text message to one of his assistants, Mueller compared his experience of divorce to “a prison gang bang the guards and prisoners all want in on party time for your ass.”
Another former employee, Periwinkle Schuster, told me that Mueller’s behavior changed noticeably after his divorce from Wilson. Schuster first worked at Mueller Law as a receptionist from 1996 to 1998, while she was finishing college. Mueller wore flashy clothes then, she recalled, but otherwise his firm seemed like any other. After leaving that job, she stayed in touch with Mueller and received invitations to his lavish annual parties, which featured performances from the likes of B. B. King, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, and Dwight Yoakam.
The guest lists were eclectic—artists, musicians, and other bohemian types mixed freely with attorneys and paralegals. But after Mueller’s divorce, Schuster noticed that the character of these events changed. Out were the big-name musical acts; in were the body painters, burlesque dancers, and aerialists. “It was like a midlife-crisis kind of party,” Schuster said. “You had these beautifully painted naked ladies walking around.” Mueller wore elaborate outfits—psychedelic Nehru jackets, embroidered Western shirts, knee-length kurtas—sometimes accompanied by one or more of his stuffed animals.
In 2008 Mueller enrolled in a two-year course on shamanism offered by Power Path Seminars, in New Mexico. Led by José Stevens (no relation to Delilah Stevens), the program included trips to visit Indigenous communities in Latin America; Mueller learned how to conduct a mapacho ceremony from the Shipibo-Conibo people of Peru. Dr. Stevens, a shamanic practitioner with a PhD in counseling psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies, has served as a mentor to Mueller since they met in Austin about thirty years ago.
“He was just interested from the start,” Dr. Stevens said via Zoom from his home in Santa Fe. “His character type is that of an artist—he’s very open to things.” Mueller hired Dr. Stevens to advise him on legal cases, help pick juries, and assist in training staff. In a 2010 Texas Super Lawyers article, Mueller describes being overwhelmed by work and turning to Dr. Stevens. “We wrote down a list of all these cases,” Mueller said. “Then, for each one, he’d say the name of the case and instructed me to say the first thing that popped in my head about an image, an animal, or an element of nature that came to mind. For example: one case may have been an eagle, another may have been a badger.”
Working with Dr. Stevens, Mueller then “went through again and found a dollar amount that might be the right number for each one. So I had a list of all the cases, a list of all these intuitive helpers, and a tight range of values for each” potential settlement. They did this for about twenty cases. Within six months, Mueller reached settlements on fifteen of them. He told me that he kept this tactic to himself: “I wouldn’t necessarily tell my clients, ‘Oh, in this case, I have a badger assigned to your case to protect the ground and do all the infantry work.’ I’d skip that part. They don’t want to think I’m crazy.”
Over time, though, Mueller opened up about his shamanism. “When I came back from the Amazon with bones and teeth and beads—people thought that was real strange,” he told Super Lawyers. “But I’ve found that the more I’ve been out there publicly announcing my other interests, the more I talk about my experiences, the more people seem to open up themselves. So there might be somebody on the opposite side of a case that looks like a nasty person. But when I share these sides of my story, things start popping up in their life, too. And they share it. It’s like permission to say, ‘We don’t have to play by these standard rules.’ ”
Mueller was certainly not playing by the standard rules when Periwinkle Schuster returned to work for him as an operations manager in 2019. On her first day back at the firm, she was chatting with Mueller and a few other employees on the office’s veranda when he decided to stage an impromptu mapacho ceremony. “It was awkward because I don’t smoke and I didn’t really want smoke blown on me,” Schuster recalled. “He had me turn toward him and bend forward slightly so he could blow smoke on the top of my head.” Mueller apparently sensed Schuster’s discomfort. “He turned to another person,” she said, “and was like, ‘She thinks I’m asking her to give me a blow job.’ ” (Mueller agreed that he’d said something in the same vein to Schuster, explaining that it was a joke meant to relax her.)
By then, he was leading mapacho ceremonies regularly, usually on the veranda or in the Badger Den. And his behavior, Schuster and others say, grew more outrageous. Mueller sometimes purchased lingerie for female employees. (“I’ve given a lot of gifts to a lot of people,” he told me when asked about that.) Orlando Saenz, who worked for Mueller Law from 2015 to 2021, said he witnessed Mueller giving women sex toys. Mueller denies this, but he acknowledges taking employees shopping at stores where sex toys may have been sold. I asked Saenz, who began at the firm as a filing clerk before becoming one of Mueller’s several personal assistants in 2018, what the staff made of this behavior. “We all kind of shook our heads at it, but no one really spoke up about it, to my knowledge,” he said.
Delilah Stevens and Schuster told me they saw photos that female employees took of themselves in lingerie Mueller had purchased for them. Mueller said that employees may have sent him such pictures but that he didn’t solicit them. Shortly after hiring Stevens, Mueller gave her a cat-o’-nine-tails whip. “It was early on, so I was shocked,” Stevens said. “I threw it on top of my file cabinet.” (Mueller told me that Stevens requested the whip.)
Mueller’s attorney, Jim Ewbank, arranged phone interviews for Texas Monthly with eight of Mueller’s friends and employees, each of whom said they had never seen Mueller give female employees sex toys, ask them to photograph themselves, or otherwise behave inappropriately. (Ewbank insisted on listening in during these calls.) These friends and employees confirmed Mueller’s eccentricities—the mapacho ceremonies, the costumes, the stuffed animals—but they denied witnessing the sorts of abuse and harassment that Stevens and others allege were commonplace at the office.
Mueller acknowledged sending sexually crude messages—which he characterized as jokes—to employees. In March 2020, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he sent an image of a naked man and woman touching each other’s genitals, captioned “new forms of greeting are recommended.” That April, he texted an image of a woman wearing a gas mask while performing oral sex on a man, captioned “Coronavirus Mask for Women.” The next month he sent an image—captioned “First Blowjob After Lockdown”—of a woman whose face and chest were covered with a white substance.
In one text message exchange with Stevens, he described a magazine advertisement featuring a photograph of himself as “masturbation Material for the hardworking and Underappreciated female paralegals and court staff.” In another, he wrote that he was “jacking off with Lysol lube.” He texted some staffers a suggestion that the office order shirts depicting a motorbike with the caption “Because is not polite to use vibrators in public.” And he forwarded to an employee group thread a meme about gender transitioning that he claimed to have received from “a tranny friend.”
Mueller described these and other graphic messages he had sent as part of a freewheeling company culture that some employees both participated in and enjoyed. As evidence, his attorney pointed me to numerous examples of Stevens, Schuster, and other women responding to Mueller’s sophomoric humor with a laughing emoji. “Many people might say those [text messages] are inappropriate—they certainly would be at my law firm,” Ewbank allowed. “But they weren’t at this firm.”
Stevens told me that she and other employees felt compelled to laugh at their boss’s puerile jokes. “Whatever Mark did, you had to say, ‘Oh my God, you’re so funny, you’re so cool.’ Otherwise, you would be ostracized. And when you’re ostracized at Mueller Law Offices, that means everybody’s talking about you behind your back,” she explained. “Not only is it uncomfortable, it’s humiliating. So you just go, ‘Ha ha, that’s funny.’ You just go along.” (Mueller said that nobody ever complained about the messages and that he doesn’t believe that his position as the boss would prevent employees from objecting. “If anybody had said anything to me, I would not have done it.”)
Thousands of pages of text threads provided by Stevens’s attorney show Mueller repeatedly using misogynistic language to describe female employees. He texted on a company thread that one of his paralegals “owes too many blowjob and the judge is gay” and, on another thread, suggested that one Mueller Law attorney be sterilized “immediately she’s a danger.”
Mueller habitually referred to one of his personal assistants, Denise Quintanilla, with a lipstick emoji. He once told Schuster that “Lipstick” was his nickname for “a type of girl that is really pretty but not a lot between the ears.” (Mueller countered that “Lipstick” is his term for any employee, male or female, who “relies upon social skills or appearance” rather than doing their job. He disputed the characterization of his texts as misogynistic.)
The attorney whom Mueller once suggested should be sterilized now works at a law firm in Mobile, Alabama. She defended her old boss, telling me that Mueller’s comment “was clearly a joke” and that “there was no hostile work environment. That man never sexually harassed anybody.” Quintanilla, who also no longer works at Mueller Law, said she was aware that Mueller referred to her using the lipstick emoji and considered the matter unimportant. “He’s rich, powerful, old, and white,” she said. “He behaves as one would expect.”
José Stevens, Mueller’s shaman mentor, acknowledged that the attorney “can engage in a lot of offensive sexual talk. That conflicts with this other thing, where he’s trying to be a good person and help people out. They’re kind of fighting with each other, and people get confused about that. I’ve seen that happen. And, you know, it’s not something I’ve been able to fix. I’ve had thirty years—he is who he is.”
Mueller could behave tyrannically, according to the former employees, texting them regularly and demanding that they be available at all hours. When Fernando Arratia was hired as Mueller’s personal assistant, in February 2020, Mueller asked him to live in the cottage at the Mueller Law compound—despite Arratia continuing to pay rent for his own apartment elsewhere in Austin. Mueller wanted him on call almost always, according to Arratia. (Mueller told me that Arratia seemed happy to move into the cottage. He denied forcing his employees to work unusually long hours.)
But Mueller could also be generous, regularly lavishing his employees with expensive gifts. He expressed an unusual level of concern for their physical and mental health, paying for them to visit day spas, chiropractors, and holistic healers. All employees were encouraged to use the Jacuzzi in Mueller’s house; many took him up on the offer, including, on one occasion, Delilah Stevens. “He would get deeply offended when one said no,” she said. “You were kicked out of the cool kids’ club, so to speak.” (Mueller told me that Stevens enjoyed the Jacuzzi and was generally appreciative of his concern.)
A document prepared for Texas Monthly by Mueller’s attorney acknowledges that Mueller makes his Jacuzzi and massage table available to employees: “The ‘Spa Lounge’ and holistic treatment are considered one of many perks available to MLO employees.” Regarding the mapacho ceremonies: “Mueller uses mapacho regularly in a safe and intentional manner and often extends an invitation to share the benefits of mapacho with both male and female employees.”
Mueller also demonstrated a keen interest in his employees’ personal lives, Stevens said, encouraging them to reveal intimate secrets. Over the course of her employment, she shared with Mueller details about her difficult childhood. She has spent many years in therapy and has been diagnosed with PTSD and complex trauma. (Mueller told me that Stevens volunteered this information.)
Professing concern for her mental health, Mueller paid for her to receive treatments, including Marconi therapy, which involves the application of electromagnetic fields; emotional freedom technique tapping, an alternative acupressure treatment; bodywork therapy from a chiropractor; and “natural hormonal therapy” from a yoga teacher. Mueller told Stevens that she needed to accept such treatments if she wanted a raise. Stevens contends that she had little interest but had to accept them to keep her job. “I learned to limit my use of the words ‘No, thank you,’ ” she told me.
Mueller also offered his employees various supplements and medications, from valerian root and vitamin B-12 to, on one occasion, Xanax. He is a regular user of kratom, a drug—legal in Texas but outlawed in several states—derived from the leaves of the Mitragyna speciosa tree, native to Southeast Asia. When taken in large doses, the drug has psychotropic effects similar to those triggered by opioids and stimulants. “Need some of the high grade red Kratom like couple pounds,” Mueller texted a group thread in January 2020. Saenz and Arratia frequently witnessed Mueller stirring a spoonful of kratom powder into a glass of water and drinking the concoction. (Kratom has been linked to side effects including hallucinations, seizures, liver damage, withdrawal, and death. The FDA warns against its use.)
In August 2020, Mueller texted Stevens that he had “medicines and treatments for every symptom a woman can have except insanity or stupidity or wanting to marry me.” She responded with a laughing emoji. She told me she didn’t have any choice. “You knew that if you stood up for yourself or said something, you were gone.”
About five months after starting at Mueller Law, Delilah Stevens accompanied Mueller to New Orleans for the February 2020 convention of the American Association for Justice, which bills itself as the “largest gathering of top trial lawyers.” The firm was well represented: senior litigation attorney Steve Faries brought his wife and children from Houston, while the managing partner of the firm’s East Coast offices, Bill Hurlock, flew down from Montclair, New Jersey. Many employees, including Stevens and Mueller, invited friends to join them. The following account of that trip is based on interviews with participants, contemporaneous text messages revealed in the course of Stevens’s lawsuit, and a PowerPoint presentation provided by Mueller’s attorney.
Mueller, Hurlock, and Stevens checked into Maison de la Luz, a luxurious 67-suite hotel a block from Lafayette Square. The conference lasted four days, and a pattern quickly established itself: Mueller Law employees would attend sessions during the day, followed by cocktails, a dinner at a fancy restaurant, then more drinks and dancing at a succession of nightclubs. (Mueller, who described himself as a light drinker, said he went out only one or two nights of the conference. Hurlock said his participation in outings with colleagues was limited to two dinners and a brief visit to a nightclub.)
Hurlock and Mueller are longtime friends and the firm’s top two attorneys. On the afternoon of the day Stevens says she was drugged, February 9, the two men discussed who would be joining them at dinner that night. “Two ladies tonight please,” Hurlock texted Mueller around 3 p.m. Hurlock told me that he meant to write “No ladies tonight please.” He had invited a client to the dinner, he said, and was concerned that Mueller might bring along women “with pink hair and purple hair, tattoos and rings.” But a few hours later, when Mueller texted back to ask if he could bring Analy Nakat, a tattoo artist friend whom he’d flown in from Los Angeles, Hurlock acquiesced.
“Ok, you, me, Delilah, you should bring Analy,” Hurlock texted.
“Escorts later?” Mueller asked. (Mueller told me this was meant as a joke. Hurlock emphasized that he has never patronized sex workers. “I’m very conservative,” he said.)
That evening, Hurlock and Mueller met up with Stevens and Nakat at the home of one of Hurlock’s clients before heading to Atchafalaya, a restaurant in the nearby Irish Channel neighborhood. Hurlock and Stevens both drank at dinner, while Nakat and Mueller said they abstained. (Stevens recalled that Mueller was nursing a drink.) Stevens, Nakat, and Mueller then drove to Maison de la Luz, where they hung out until leaving at about eleven.
Their first stop was d.b.a., a music club on Frenchmen Street, where the Mueller Law group was joined by friends of Stevens who lived in New Orleans. One of them, who requested that her name be withheld, told me that they accompanied the group as it continued up Frenchmen to the Blue Nile, a venue known for its funk and blues bands, where they rendezvoused with Hurlock. Videos and photos from that night—provided to Texas Monthly by Stevens and Ewbank—show the Mueller Law group dancing together and posing for selfies. Mueller wore a floral-patterned sport jacket over a white dress shirt buttoned up to the collar, a pair of sunglasses perched on his forehead.
Around midnight, Stevens and Mueller were standing next to each other by the stage, watching the band, when, according to Stevens, the attorney leaned over and offered her vitamin B-12. “I remember thinking in my head, ‘I don’t know how long I’m going to be up with this guy,’ ” Stevens told me. “ ‘He’s got tons of energy. Yes, I would like B-12.’ ” She said he pulled a blue bottle from his inside jacket pocket, squirted the contents of an eyedropper into her mouth, squirted another dose into his mouth, and put it back. One of Stevens’s friends told me she saw all of this happen. Mueller denied giving Stevens anything out of a dropper at the club. Nakat said she did not see Mueller give Stevens anything, and Hurlock said he’d left the group by 11:45 that night.
Soon after taking what she believed was B-12, Stevens began feeling disoriented and anxious, she said. Nakat and Mueller told me Stevens appeared drunk and was repeating herself. The two of them left Stevens and her friends at the Blue Nile and went to another club next door. They later returned, they said, out of concern that Stevens was dangerously intoxicated. Around 2 a.m., Nakat and Mueller helped take Stevens back to her hotel room. Stevens said her memories of the night became fragmentary after taking whatever was in the dropper. She acknowledged drinking, but not enough to black out.
At 2:37 a.m., after returning to his own suite, Mueller texted Stevens a long message encouraging her to get some rest. “If you have any problems sleeping or with headaches or nausea don’t suffer—hit me up i have the remedies here and will leave phone on,” he wrote. He then offered Stevens a raise. “I don’t remember how much you make but you should get more money and we can discuss how to do that by raises or bonus or additional compensation for Certain projects.”
Two minutes later, Stevens replied: “I completely adore you Mark (as a human) and as a boss there truly is none better. Don’t ever doubt that (from any employee.) And do you have any Advil? [laughing emoji].”
After Mueller responded that he did have Advil and offered to bring it to her, Stevens texted, “i’m putting on a robe and coming over.” No further messages were exchanged for the next seven hours. According to Stevens, she went to Mueller’s suite, where she took the Advil. They talked for several hours about their personal lives, and she returned to her room around 6 a.m.—although she admits she can’t be certain of this because of her mental condition. Mueller told me that, in addition to the Advil, he gave Stevens kratom and B-12. Stevens recalls that she took only Advil.
A little after 10 a.m., Stevens texted Mueller from her room to say that she’d gotten about four hours of sleep and that her anxiety was high, in part because she worried that she’d overshared details about her past. Mueller assured her that she hadn’t said anything out of line.
“It was all in all a very plus evening,” he texted. “You got a little talky and repetitive for a minute from the alcohol boosted by the B-12 but the discussion we finished the night with was epic and got better and better as the alcohol was gone and the B-12 and Kratom were on board . . . you have a sensitive system but pretty good especially for a petite ‘lady.’ ”
Stevens replied with a heart emoji.
But she continued experiencing acute anxiety and grew suspicious about what Mueller had given her, she said, so she called a coworker about her symptoms. The coworker suggested that Mueller had actually given her MDMA—an illegal drug that Stevens had tried in her early twenties, and which had produced similarly unpleasant symptoms. (The coworker declined an interview request.)
I asked Stevens why she didn’t report the incident to the police or get a blood test.
“I was ashamed,” she told me. “All I did was go over to my friends’ house [in New Orleans] and crawl on their couch. I was ashamed, and I knew that if I told anybody, that they would make me quit my job. I was making six figures, and I liked the people that I worked with.” She told no one other than her New Orleans friends about her suspicions of being drugged. “I never talked about it again.”
Mueller contends that Stevens never told anyone because the alleged drugging never happened. He pointed out that she continued working at Mueller Law for more than a year, until he fired her for what he considered to be poor performance. Mueller acknowledged taking MDMA in the past but said he didn’t have any in New Orleans.
Stevens believes she was fired because she finally stood up to Mueller. On the weekend of February 6 and 7, 2021, Mueller pushed the firm into overdrive on a long-running mass tort case involving water pollution in Tyler. He wanted Stevens and her team to straighten out some hopelessly disorganized client data by calling plaintiffs that Sunday, the day of the Super Bowl. Stevens tried to explain why she thought it might be a bad idea to call clients on a day when they were likely to be distracted by the big game, but he wouldn’t listen. On a conference call, he became irate about the data. Stevens blamed the company that Mueller had hired to collect information from the hundreds of plaintiffs. The outside firm had incorrectly entered that data into an Excel spreadsheet, she said, making it all but useless. Mueller began screaming, “F— you!” at Stevens, who hung up the phone. (Stevens, who taped all calls related to her Mueller Law casework, provided the recording to Texas Monthly.) “I thought when he calmed down I could show him how we were trying to address his—made-up—issues,” she said, “but he wasn’t listening.” Mueller acknowledges cursing at Stevens, explaining that he was frustrated by the lack of progress on the project.
Less than a month later, on March 4, Mueller fired Stevens over text. “I thank you for the time, effort, skill, and thought that went into your substantial efforts in the Tyler case,” he wrote. “I am truly disappointed and saddened that the opositive [sic] accomplishments have been sabotaged and diminished by your recent actions.”
Mueller fired his personal assistant Fernando Arratia the following month, for violating company policy on overtime. Arratia was offered a month’s severance pay and two weeks to move out of the compound if he signed a nondisclosure agreement. When Arratia refused to sign, he said, Mueller immediately evicted him and cut off his pay. (Mueller told me that Arratia left the compound on his own and that he received two weeks’ severance.) Arratia filed for unemployment only to learn that he wasn’t eligible—Mueller had told the Texas Workforce Commission that Arratia was fired for cause. (TWC upheld Mueller’s claim.)
Schuster had been fired almost a year earlier, in July 2020. “At the beginning of the pandemic, he brought me into his office and said, ‘What are we going to do with you? You have children, and there’s no school.’ ” (Mueller denies saying this.) He gave her a list of 22 tasks to complete before leaving, one of which was to post a “true but fair and positive” review on Glassdoor.
Mueller fired Saenz in January 2021, shortly after Saenz said he confronted his boss about his failure to take adequate COVID precautions. He struggles with guilt over failing to call out Mueller’s abusive behavior during the six years he spent at the firm. “I had this relationship with him where I never really questioned the bad s— that he did,” Saenz told me. “I just went along with it, against my better judgment.” (Mueller said that Saenz was fired for insubordination and for requesting unreasonable accommodations to his work schedule during the pandemic. )
These former employees describe their time at Mueller Law as intensely stressful. Saenz said he developed psoriasis. Schuster said she regularly had heartburn, came close to a nervous breakdown, and started taking cortisol to manage her stress. Stevens said she experienced major sleep disruptions. All of them say they have symptoms of PTSD. Stevens is in therapy and says she has been unable to work since leaving Mueller Law.
Stevens realizes that some might find it difficult to understand why she put up with such conditions for two years. Yes, the money was good. But she also wanted to make a difference in the world, and she convinced herself that Mueller was the progressive hero he professed to be. “If Mark was this evil, horrible person, nobody would stay,” she told me. “But he has periods where he can be really funny, really charming. You want to believe that he is somebody who’s enlightened, who wants to help the little guy. Your need to believe that is so strong.”
I visited the Mueller Law compound on a scorching day last September. With the temperature pushing 100 degrees in downtown Austin, I waited at the wrought-iron gate surrounding the front yard of the Victorian-style main office. As I read a plaque recounting the building’s storied past, a young man walked out to greet me. He guided me past the gate, up a set of stairs onto the veranda, and through a pair of heavy wooden doors.
The entry corridor smelled of tobacco smoke, and I noted the bench of stuffed animals and the rack of costumes. About a dozen employees were working quietly at their desks. A man in a tan linen suit came out to meet me. He was Jim Ewbank, Mueller’s attorney.
Ewbank ushered me into a regal, high-ceilinged corner office illuminated by large bay windows. Sitting behind the wooden desk was Mueller, wearing a pink jacket, an untucked polka-dot dress shirt, jeans, and black high-top sneakers. He gave me a wan smile. Ewbank had said that I could interview Mueller, but he now explained that this was impossible. Instead, he presented me with a file folder containing thousands of pages of text messages—“context,” he said, for the pornographic images cited in Stevens’s lawsuit. He also handed me an inch-thick binder of documents. I would have two hours to review and take notes on this material, Ewbank instructed, but I could not keep or photograph any of it.
Another of Mueller’s assistants, a young woman, escorted me out of the office, across a sunlit courtyard, and up a flight of stairs to a large conference room decorated with psychedelic paintings and animal skins—the Badger Den. Several drums leaned against a wall, and what looked like a ceremonial pipe rested on a windowsill. As I took notes at the head of the table, the assistant monitored me from a chair in the corner of the room. After two hours, during which I was able to peruse only a small portion of the file, she walked me back to Mueller’s office so that I could return the documents.
As I prepared to leave, Ewbank asked if I would like to see the Jacuzzi where Mueller encouraged his employees to bathe. Mueller led the tour, saying little as he walked me out of the office, along the sidewalk, and onto the patio of his colonnaded two-story mansion. The trip took about half a minute. “I have a short commute,” he joked.
Passing through the front door, we entered a sparsely furnished sitting room before ascending a flight of stairs to Mueller’s main living quarters. Unprompted, Mueller began to discuss the JFK assassination. He told me that he had recently written an afterword to a book by his friend Judyth Vary Baker, who claims to have been Lee Harvey Oswald’s girlfriend.
“How’s your own book coming along?” I asked, remembering what Stevens had told me about Mueller’s JFK research.
“I’m still working on it,” he said. “I haven’t published anything yet.”
On the second floor, Mueller led me into an enormous bathroom dominated by a Jacuzzi big enough for four. Surrounding the tub was an assortment of bath toys, including several yellow duckies, and a variety of gels and lotions. A nearby vanity was lined with bottles, many of them containing herbal remedies. “All the doors lock from the inside,” he said, seemingly to assure me that he couldn’t spy on his employees while they bathed.
The tour over, Mueller took me back down the stairs and outside. We stood in the shade of the patio and shook hands.
“I wish we could have talked,” I said.
“I do too,” he replied. “But I’ve got to be careful.”
Before Mueller would agree to an interview, he insisted on seeing a full list of the allegations against him. I emailed this information to his attorney in mid-December, giving him two weeks to respond. Exactly fourteen days later, Mueller logged on to Zoom from his Austin office. He was dressed this time as if for court, in a pin-striped suit and a crisp blue-and-white dress shirt. A ring in the shape of a crown adorned his left hand, and an enormous sword hung on the wall behind his desk.
The interview lasted nearly three hours. Mueller held Wizard Bear, his stuffed-animal mascot, up to the camera. The bear wore a pointed hat and robe accessorized with a beaded necklace. “We actually got him an honorary law degree from Loyola University in Louisiana,” Mueller told me. He put down Wizard Bear and picked up another stuffed animal, Charlie McDragon. “I take him to depositions in Atlanta, and he’s quite the flirt.” The sexagenarian attorney dropped his voice to a low-pitched growl to demonstrate how Charlie McDragon talks.
When asked whether his law firm was a personality cult, as his former employees allege, Mueller dismissed the idea as absurd. “If anything, this office could be criticized for being too loose and letting people have too much expression. We have no dress code; we employ people of every race, sexual persuasion, everything. It’s a very open office. There’s no mind control going on here.”
What about texting pornographic images and crude sexual jokes to employees? “My sense of humor is like, if you know who Whitney Cummings is, or George Carlin, or Eddie Murphy,” he responded, “that kind of stuff.” He added that he “hoped” he no longer sends similar messages. Yes, he had given female employees lingerie, but that was just because he’s a generous guy. And a kind guy. That’s what the Jacuzzi, the massage table, and the holistic treatments were all about. He suggested that the four former employees I interviewed for this story were simply angry about being fired and out for revenge. “I think what I should have done with the people we’re talking about, I should have probably gotten rid of them earlier.”
If he was guilty of anything, Mueller told me, it was of concerning himself too much with the welfare of his staff. “We do try to take good care of people,” he said. “We do try to have people be happy. But it doesn’t work sometimes.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Shaman Lawyer.” Subscribe today.
This story has been edited, since we first published it, to make several clarifications:
• Bill Hurlock is managing partner of the East Coast operations of Mueller Law, not of the entire Austin-based firm.
• Our story’s description of the social activities that representatives of Mueller Law engaged in, during a legal conference in New Orleans, was not intended to suggest that every person affiliated with the firm participated in all of the activities. Hurlock says his interactions with the group were limited to two dinners, which he says were not “boozy,” and a brief visit to a nightclub.
• Hurlock and Mueller did not spend an entire afternoon discussing the women who would be joining them at dinner, but rather texted and spoke during part of the afternoon about which friends and colleagues, male and female, would be attending a client dinner that evening.