Relatives blast report that raises more questions about the mysterious death of Mitrice Richardson
After two separate independent reviews, an out-of-court settlement for nearly $1 million and intense coverage by the media, family and friends of Mitrice Richardson still don’t know how the 24-year-old honors college student died.
Perhaps one reason for the lack of closure in Richardson’s mysterious death is the fact that the authorities investigating the case — the Los Angeles County’s Department of Coroner and Sheriff’s Department — have spent as much time pointing fingers at one another over bungling the dead woman’s remains as actually investigating how she died.
“I don’t think any of the detectives are doing any investigation in regards to what happened to her,” said Richardson’s mentor, Ronda Hampton, a clinical psychologist who was friends with Richardson and has remained close to her mother and her sister. Richardson, a psychology student at Cal State Fullerton, grew up in the East San Gabriel Valley and attended schools in Covina.
“There have not been any updates. There has been nothing,” Hampton said.
The latest report on the case is the second of two prepared by the Office of Independent Review, an agency that analyzes controversial incidents stemming from the Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies in LA County.
The second report was prompted by claims that the Sheriff’s Department mishandled portions of Richardson’s skeletal remains shortly after they were discovered in a rugged and remote wooded area of unincorporated Calabasas in September 2010 — nearly a year after she went missing.
Neither the Sheriff’s Department nor the coroner’s office would comment on the latest OIR report, which attributes any breach of policy or protocol that may have occurred the day Richardson’s remains were removed to miscommunication between the two departments.
“The fact that there is a factual dispute about this issue only emphasizes the need in future cases to improve communication and documentation between LASD and the Office of the Coroner. It also indicates that the unqualified public proclamation that intimated that there was even conditional permission provided to the LASD to remove the remains was problematic,” the report states.
The first time the OIR became involved in the case, it was to investigate claims made by Hampton and Richardson’s mother, Latice Sutton, who alleged the Sheriff’s Department erred in its handling of Richardson while she was in custody at the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station the evening of Sept. 16, 2009.
Richardson was arrested after refusing to pay an $89 dinner bill at a restaurant in Malibu. Customers at the restaurant reported the woman had been babbling incoherently and appeared to be troubled. Although her cell phone and credit cards were in her car, the arresting deputies either did not or did not care to look there, and Richardson was placed in handcuffs, her car later impounded.
In surveillance tapes made at the sheriff’s station that night, Richardson appeared to be experiencing some type of mental breakdown. Her mother and Hampton have said she suffered from bipolar disorder.
Despite her odd behavior, deputies released her shortly after midnight from the station, which is located in a dark, isolated, industrial portion of Malibu, just off the Ventura (101) Freeway. She was allowed to leave the station looking disheveled and without any resources whatsoever to either retrieve her car or to get home to Los Angeles, where she lived with her grandmother.
Richardson’s skeletal remains were found in unincorporated Calabasas 11 months later — about 12 miles from the sheriff’s station. Her body had decomposed to the point that coroner’s officials have not been able to determine how she died.
A July 2010 report concluded that deputies were within policy when they released Richardson and sent her into the dark streets in an area she was not familiar with, primarily because she did not request to use the phone and opted not to stay in jail until daybreak.
“I have filed an internal affairs claim against the two detectives,” Hampton said. “I was told by a lead detective he could not make a determination until the OIR report is released, which is ludicrous because it is supposed to be an independent review. The departments should be operating independently.”
After reading the latest OIR report last week, Sutton, who along with Richardson’s father, Michael Richardson, sued the department, would not comment directly on the report when contacted by the Weekly. The woman’s mother and father spilt a $900,000 settlement offered last year by the county. Since her daughter’s death, Sutton has been advocating for better treatment by deputies of people with mental health and emotional issues.
“I am tired of it,” she said in an interview Monday. “It’s a no-win situation.”
This latest investigation — released by the OIR on March 14 — looks only at whether the initial investigation was bungled at the crime scene, which was contaminated, making it difficult to convict anyone who might be arrested in relation to the death.
For example, Richardson’s clothes were returned to her family by the coroner’s office before they could be examined, and LASD detectives moved much of what was left of her body and collected skeletal remains without the coroner’s approval, or so it was believed at the time.
Coroner spokesman Craig Harvey would not comment on the report, saying his office was “kind of over it.” He did confirm, however, that it is against the law for anyone — including law enforcement — to move a body without the coroner’s permission.
“Movement of a body requires coroner consent,” Harvey said. “The coroner is charged by law to conduct a death investigation. In forensics there is a saying: There are three bridges you cannot cross and come back. One of them is disturbing the body,” Harvey said. “You can’t recreate what was there.”
According to Hampton, for reasons still unknown, the LASD is trying to alter evidence that may indicate what actually happened at the crime scene.
After a first-draft of the OIR’s latest report was released to officials with the Sheriff’s Department, an LASD detective came forward and said he was given permission by phone to move the body by the coroner’s office. In the report, officials with that office said they have no record of recollection of the phone call. The detective’s claim contradicts a statement by a Sheriff’s Department spokesperson shortly after the body was found, who said the department did not have permission to move the body.
“Ultimately, because of the now existent factual dispute, we are unable to determine which scenario occurred,” the final OIR reports states. “This dispute does highlight the main thrust of this report, namely, the need to better coordinate and document the efforts of the two departments in future body recovery efforts.”
The report further states that there is no way of knowing if the phone call between the detective and the coroner ever actually occurred.
“If that phone call did occur, couldn’t phone records be traced to see if a phone call was actually placed to whomever he stated he called?” Hampton asked. “During the press conference, [OIR Executive Director] Mr. [Michael] Gennaco stated that he could not determine if a phone call was made. What I am saying is that he could at the very least find out if a phone call was placed to the individual he said he placed the phone call to.”
Gennaco did not return several calls for comment on the report.
Despite being in near-constant contact with the Sheriff’s Department, Hampton said she was unaware the latest review was about to be released until Joseph Charney, a deputy to LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, informed her in an email that the Board of Supervisors would not place the mishandling of the case on its agenda.
In the end, the report did not find either side at fault, but recommended training to help improve the communication and cooperation at crime scenes.
“I am not surprised the OIR interpreted their findings in a way that did not find any wrongdoings by the detectives,” Hampton told the Weekly. “None of the information in this report is new. They had already concluded the Sheriff’s Department did nothing wrong.”