A bizarre and tragic end

More troubling questions remain about the sheriff’s role in the death of Mitrice Richardson

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 8/13/2010

Now that the decomposed remains of Mitrice Richardson have been recovered from a rugged mountain canyon in unincorporated Calabasas, troubling questions are being raised about not only how Richardson died, but also how authorities handled the mentally disturbed woman’s 11-month disappearance from the outset.

By Monday, when the Los Angeles resident’s skeletal remains were found by state park rangers investigating an abandoned pot farm in the area — located roughly five miles from the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station — sheriff’s officials had already been under fire from the woman’s parents and members of the Pasadena-based Friends Group. The Friends Group said Richardson, who suffered form severe bipolar disorder and was arrested the night of Sept. 16 for failing to pay for a meal at a restaurant in Malibu, should not have been released from custody early the following morning, when she vanished, without money or transportation. They are demanding that the Sheriff’s Department change its nighttime inmate release policy, calling it inhumane.

Richardson’s parents, Michael Richardson and Latice Sutton, who were never married, are both suing the county and the Sheriff’s Department, claiming negligence. Sutton is also claiming wrongful death.

“Here’s how I would describe it: insistent inconsistency. It’s all about the Sheriff’s Department and they’re doing what they think is best for them, regardless of anyone else. I’m totally appalled,” said Gerda Govine-Ituarte, chair of the Friends Group.

“I definitely think it’s possible that the sheriff’s [department] had something to do with this or they’re covering something up. None of this stuff makes sense,” Govine-Ituarte said. “Their story doesn’t fit. I can think of 30 questions off the top of my head. And as this goes on, there will be more questions. This woman lost her life and it could have been avoided.”

Two weeks ago, Sheriff’s Department, Los Angeles and Las Vegas police officials announced that they believed Richardson, who would have celebrated her 25th birthday in April, had been living in Las Vegas since sometime after her disappearance on Sept. 17, based primarily on a supposed sighting in June by a former high school friend of the woman.

Officials at that time said they had as many as 70 credible sightings and actually believed Richardson, a one-time beauty pageant contestant and honors graduate from Cal State Fullerton who was being mentored in her advanced studies of psychiatry, was working as a prostitute in Vegas casinos.

Then on Monday, all hopes for her being alive were dashed when officials found a human skull and bones about two miles from the last place Richardson might have been seen — Monte Nido, an upscale neighborhood in unincorporated Calabasas.

At about 6:30 a.m. — roughly six hours after being released — Richardson was possibly last seen by veteran KTLA newsman Bill Smith. Smith called sheriff’s deputies after spotting someone who resembled Richardson sitting on his backyard steps. A trained dog was used in subsequent searches and picked up Richardson’s scent on that street, but then lost it there.

If that was Richardson, the last known person to see her before Smith was a uniformed deputy who her mother saw in a video walking out the door of the sheriff’s station right behind Richardson immediately after she was let go.

Since showing Sutton that tape and other images of her daughter undergoing a mental breakdown during her few hours in custody, the Sheriff’s Department has refused to release the tape and other items related to Richardson’s stay in the facility. Richardson’s parents and Congresswoman Maxine Waters have called on the FBI to take over the investigation.

But perhaps just as strange as all of those circumstances may be is what both mainstream media and sheriff’s officials are still not acknowledging: the racist and sexually demeaning graffiti discovered in June in an isolated culvert in an undisclosed area around where Richardson was last seen. The graffiti has since been covered up with paint by sheriff’s officials. Before they were painted over, the Pasadena Weekly obtained pictures of those images, which depict nude African-American women posed in several sexual positions. One of the murals has the women — which many have said bore a resemblance to Richardson — naked and on her hands and knees with a joint in her mouth.

“There are so many unanswered questions,” said Ronda Hampton, a psychologist and Richardson’s mentor. “Why was she in that pot farm? We know the sheriff’s were fully aware of that farm, so why didn’t they search that area? After the mural of the woman with pot in her mouth was found, why didn’t they go back and search that area?”

LA County Department of Coroner spokesman Craig Harvey said a final determination on how Richardson died could take six to eight weeks or longer. At a press conference Thursday, Sheriff Lee Baca said there were no signs of foul play.

Richardson was arrested at Geoffrey’s restaurant in Malibu after customers complained about her acting strangely. Further, she was unable to pay an $89 bill. Sheriff’s deputies took her into custody, leaving her purse and driver’s license locked in her car, which was parked at the restaurant. At around 12:35 a.m. Sept. 17, Richardson was released from custody and allowed to leave the station, even though she had no phone, money or car, which was still parked at the restaurant.

According to Hampton, the first investigator working on the case said the deputies told Richardson to put all of her belongings in her car. Later, Lt. Mike Rosson of the Sheriff’s Department Homicide Division said something different. He said one of the reasons they had to take her to jail was because she didn’t have her ID, not because her offense warranted arrest.

Although Michael Richardson also said he saw his daughter in Downtown Las Vegas in January, Sutton never believed her daughter was there and repeatedly requested that law enforcement search for her where she was last seen — Monte Nido.

On Tuesday, before the bones recovered a few miles from Monte Nido were formally identified as Richardson’s, Sutton held a press conference in front of the coroner’s office and accused law enforcement officials of stonewalling her and leaving her in the dark when she tried to get information about her daughter’s remains.

The county Office of Independent Review finalized a 58-page report in April clearing deputies and the department of any wrongdoing in the Richardson case. Sutton requested a copy of the OIR report from the Sheriff’s Department back in April and did not receive a response. She then read about the report in the paper. In a letter to the Sheriff’s Department’s Ben Jones, Sutton wrote, “I am very disturbed and outraged that a reporter from the LA Times has been able to obtain a copy of the report. Again, I am learning information regarding my daughter’s case through the media, which is not only unprofessional; it’s despicable, deceitful, deceiving, dirty and disgusting!”

At Thursday’s press conference, which was also held at the coroner’s office, Sheriff Baca confirmed the identification of the remains, but said, “We have no indication of a homicide at this point. I don’t believe that the remains are capable of telling us a story.”
That wasn’t good enough for Michael Richardson, who told reporters at the press conference that he’s holding the Sheriff’s Department directly responsible for his daughter’s death.

Nevertheless, Baca insisted the deputies acted properly. However, he said, “properly doesn’t necessarily mean that we couldn’t do something more.”

One change that Baca said could come from all this is how deputies handle citizen’s arrest complaints filed by businesses. When Mitrice was arrested at Geoffrey’s, patrons and employees said she was exhibiting bizarre behavior, claiming she was from Mars and that she was here to avenge Michael Jackson’s death. Management at Geoffrey’s filed a citizen’s arrest complaint with deputies.

“Is an $89 bill enough to take someone into jail?” Baca added. “There is more than one way to handle a problem.”

Shirley Spencer, treasurer of the Friends Group, said she was distressed to hear Baca blaming Richardson’s disappearance on the restaurant manager who called for help from deputies.

“Just one more sad spin by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on a very tragic outcome. I am personally concerned about the credibility of those who are to serve and protect us. We have all lost something today,” Spencer wrote in an email to the Weekly.

“I believe accountability is the issue here,” said Govine-Ituarte. “No one should get a pass on this. That goes from the top down. If people keep pressing and asking questions, the truth will come out. Hopefully this will never happen ever again to anyone’s son or daughter.”

Editor Kevin Uhrich contributed to this report.