5 years after Mitrice Richardson’s remains were found in Malibu her death still raises questions

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Like most people, I was haunted by Mitrice Richardson’s death because I was troubled by the way she was treated by deputies at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Here was a young woman who had a mental health episode, and she was allowed to leave the sheriff’s station in the middle of the night, on a lonely road, with no phone and no ride. She could have been any one of us, or someone we knew.  Her story  symbolizes unfairness and how dismissing a person simply because of their sex, color, look, last name, or whatever, can have awful consequences.  Thank you to her family and friends for sharing her story with me. Five years after her remains were found, here is her story (Daily News, Nov. 28, 2015):

There were no obvious bullet wounds, no evidence of knife stabs or blunt force trauma.

There was only her skeleton resting atop leaves and brush. About 100 feet away lay her dark bra, a pair of blue jeans and a pink belt.

Almost a year after she had gone missing, Mitrice Richardson’s remains were discovered Aug. 9, 2010, in a rugged part of Malibu Canyon below Piuma Canyon Road. No one knows why she was found in this spot after she left the Malibu/Lost Hills sheriff’s station late at night without a phone, identification or car. Her family and those who support them don’t believe the 24-year-old was hiking and fell to her death, as sheriff’s investigators said.

“The problem that I have with this case is (investigators) were too quick to conclude that it was not murder,” said Ronda Hampton, a clinical psychologist and family friend. “They never put out there that there is a possibility of homicide. There is no way Mitrice could have hiked that canyon.”

The coroner’s report called the cause of her death undetermined. The Sheriff’s Department says her case remains open. But for anguished family and friends, that’s not enough.

Five years after Mitrice Richardson’s remains were found, questions continue to be asked. For that reason, Hampton and others believe Richardson’s case should be deemed a homicide. If so, her death would be added to the 4,862 unsolved homicide cases in Los Angeles County between 2000 and 2010, according to data analyzed by the Los Angeles News Group. Of those, seven homicide cases remain unsolved by the Malibu/Lost Hills sheriff’s station.

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QUESTIONS ARISE

On Sept. 16, 2009, Mitrice Richardson dined at Geoffrey’s restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway, then was briefly detained by deputies for not paying her bill. A few hours later, before her mother, Latice Sutton, could come and pick her up, Richardson was released just after midnight by deputies from theMalibu/Lost Hills sheriff’s station. Her car, which included her purse and cellphone, had been impounded. She had no transportation as she headed out into the darkness of Agoura Road.

Except for a brief appearance on the front lawn of a nearby residence, Richardson was never seen or heard from again. Search parties formed. Family and friends became worried. Questions arose: Why didn’t deputies hold Richardson longer for a mental health evaluation, especially after they were told at the restaurant that she had made several irrational remarks, and she was found to be sober? How could they let a young woman walk alone into the night?

During one of the searches, volunteers found a freshly painted mural along a culvert wall in Malibu Canyon. It depicted a nude African-American woman in various graphic scenes. Was it a clue? Did the painter know what happened to Mitrice? Hampton said investigators told her it was unrelated. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Department met with criticism and anger.

Eleven months after she disappeared, Richardson’s remains were discovered about seven miles from the station. Park rangers who were patrolling the area to check for illegal marijuana farms found her near a creek bed where few traveled. Deputies arrived and removed the bones, to the dismay of Los Angeles County Coroner’s officials, who were on their way to the scene.

Again, questions arose: Did someone pick her up as she walked the dark roads, kill her and dump her body in the canyon? Were deputies indirectly involved since they released her? Why did they remove her remains before coroner’s officials arrived?

“The Sheriff’s Department moved her remains without our permission,” Ed Winter, Los Angeles County assistant chief coroner, said last week. “I don’t think we’ll ever know what happened to her unless someone comes forward with additional information.”

Former Sheriff Lee Baca told reporters he believed his officers followed procedures and that deputies had asked her to stay in jail until her mother arrived, but Richardson refused. The Office of Independent Review, which oversees the Sheriff’s Department, agreed with him. In the meantime, Richardson’s parents, who are not married to each other, filed separate wrongful death suits and in 2011 were awarded $450,000 each by Los Angeles County.

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But Hampton pressed on. She and the family pushed for the department to conduct an internal investigation of the deputies. A request was made for the FBI to look into the department. A spokeswoman said last week that the case did not fall in federal jurisdiction. In October, Hampton sent nearly 500 pages of documents and reports about the case to Attorney General Kamala Harris’office hoping she would find cause for criminal action against the department.

Harris spokeswoman Kristen Ford said this month the documents were received and reviewed but no action will be taken.

“This case had a lot of attention at the time and we’ve been following it as well,” Ford said. “We determined there was no cause for criminal action.”

OPEN CASE

Despite the disappointments, the roadblocks, the lack of information, Hampton said she will continue to work to find answers. She said she remains hopeful that Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who replaced Baca and has pledged transparency and accountability in the department, will re-evaluate the case. Hampton said she and Richardson’s parents have asked to meet with him, but so far no such meeting has taken place.

A request by this news organization for an interview with McDonnell to answer questions relating to how his new policies affect the case, his position on the procedures by deputies that night, and if the Sheriff’s Department is improving its response for those with mental illnesses while in custody could not be accommodated, according to the department’s spokeswoman.

But in a response about the status of the case, Cmdr. Rod Kusch, who oversees the Sheriff’s Department’s detective division, said past leads have been exhausted.

“The case is open, and any new leads will be pursued when they are received by the Sheriff’s Department,” Kusch said in an email response. “It is a death investigation at this time, as the coroner’s office has not ruled it a homicide.”

The department also declined to answer questions about the mural or the reassignment of the Malibu/Lost Hills sheriff’s captain who oversaw deputies at the station at the time.

Hampton said while she doesn’t know who killed Richardson, she believes the department remains indirectly culpable and is covering up evidence.

“I think some people were negligent,” she said. “I think some are willfully involved in a cover-up, protecting their own.”

Michael Richardson, Mitrice’s father, noted that the recent deaths of five black women while in police custody across the nation show what can happen if law enforcement isn’t questioned. Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old woman who was pulled over in July by a Texas state trooper for a minor traffic violation, was found hanged in a jail cell and her death ruled a suicide. The Texas trooper was found to have acted inappropriately while he was questioning her and lied about it.

“I want the world to know that if we don’t do something, if we don’t fight for these lives in a diplomatic matter, they’re going to keep growing and keep increasing,” Richardson said. “You have people that are mean, tired and irresponsible and don’t care.”

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NEW SPOTLIGHT ON MITRICE

Mitrice Richardson had graduated with honors with a psychology degree from Cal State Fullerton. She had become an intern for Hampton.

“She really wanted to work with children and had wanted to go to graduate school,” Hampton said.

Michael Richardson said he didn’t raise Mitrice but when she visited him, he didn’t notice any signs of mental illness. Hampton said she did see some subtle signs when Richardson worked for her as an intern but nothing alarming. On the night she was arrested, she may have been having a bipolar episode, the family said in published reports.

Richardson spoke some Spanish and was raised by her mom in the San Gabriel Valley and “was not streetwise,” Hampton added.

Some in the Monte Nido community, near where her remains were found, are still haunted by the young woman’s story.

“There’s an uneasiness about how it was mishandled,” said Doug Dilg, a Monte Nido resident of 25 years. “For me, I think there’s been a lingering bad feeling about this that people haven’t talked about. What happened to her and why haven’t they solved this or attempted to solve this? It’s still an open wound.”

Richardson’s story will be told in a documentary called “Lost Compassion” as part of the 16th International Malibu Film Festival. The film, directed by Chip Croft, will be shown for free on the festival’s opening night, Thursday, at 7 p.m. at the Regal Cinemas Malibu Twin, 3822 Cross Creek Road, Malibu. The subtitle of the film is “Someone Knows.”

“I want justice, whatever that would mean,” Hampton said. “It’s not likely she killed herself. It’s more likely someone killed her. People don’t murder once, not in the way she was murdered.”

IF YOU GO

What: Mitrice Richardson’s story will be told in a documentary called “Lost Compassion” as part of the 16th International Malibu Film Festival.

When: The film will be shown for free on Dec. 3 (2015) at 7 p.m. at the Regal Cinemas Malibu Twin, 3822 Cross Creek Road, Malibu.

More information: email info@malibufilmfestival.org or go to http://www.malibufilmfestival.org

 

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