Long search for Mitrice Richardson comes to tragic end

In the 11 months since Mitrice Richardson stepped out of the Lost Hills/Malibu Sheriff's Station into the early morning darkness and vanished hours later, the mystery of her whereabouts twisted around false sightings from the ocean to Las Vegas.

Was that her at the Abbey in West Hollywood in late September? Or was she the badly burned body in a dumpster behind a building in Santa Fe Springs in October? Did her father really see her on a sidewalk near a Motel 6 in Las Vegas in January? Did a friend come across her in June in a Las Vegas hotel bar?

In her absence, she became a fixture on cable TV talk shows, the focus of debate over the sheriff's station's seemingly thoughtless decision to release a young woman without a car near a rugged canyon.

Richardson's mother, Latice Sutton, was skeptical of some of the sightings, particularly the most recent one in Las Vegas. She said that authorities should keep searching the area where her daughter went missing.

In the end, she was horribly right. On Thursday, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca confirmed that the skeletal remains discovered Monday in Malibu Canyon were those of Mitrice Richardson.

"The circumstances of this case are tragic," a somber-faced Baca told a news conference. "I am mindful of the fact that a mother and father are in deep grieving at this moment."

The saga started when Richardson was unable to pay an $89 dinner tab at Geoffrey's restaurant in Malibu and the staff called the Sheriff's Department. She was arrested and her car impounded. She was released from custody early Sept. 17 without her cellphone or purse — neither of which she had on her at the restaurant when she was arrested.

Her parents and critics contend that she should have been held longer for a mental health evaluation after she acted bizarrely at the restaurant.

Why Richardson even went to Geoffrey's remains as much a mystery as how she ended up in a steep-sided ravine, her badly decomposed body discovered only because park rangers were on a patrol of the area for illegal marijuana plants.

Sheriff's officials say there is no sign of foul play. Nor do they believe she fell to her death. A spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner's office estimated that her remains had been there at least six months, or possibly the entire time she had been missing.

Over several months, law enforcement officials carried out four searches covering a total of 40 square miles of Malibu Canyon.

Investigators from the Los Angeles Police Department, which handled Richardson's missing-person case because she lived in South L.A., spent months tracking clues and eventually were joined by Sheriff's Department detectives.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas got the county to offer a reward for information and questioned whether Richardson should have been arrested at all.

Friends and family members followed up on sightings. "If you knew how many buses I've chased down," Ronda Hampton, a psychologist who was a friend of Richardson, said recently.

And at a time when law enforcement agencies and the media have been accused of devoting less attention to minorities who go missing than to pretty, white women who disappear, Richardson — a black woman who was a strikingly attractive former beauty pageant contestant — got extraordinary attention, becoming a high-profile-enough case to make the cover of People magazine last fall along with several other missing people.

Only adding to the aura of her case was the intriguing and perplexing portrait that emerged of Richardson, a Cal State Fullerton graduate who worked as an executive assistant for a freight company in Santa Fe Springs, passed a test to become a substitute teacher, considered being a psychologist, and danced part time at a gay and lesbian club in Long Beach. LAPD investigators believe that she probably was suffering from a severe bipolar disorder.

She was living with her great-grandmother in South Los Angeles — but she also appeared to have been living in her Honda Civic, which was cluttered with clothing, make-up, books and the journals that she kept.

The night that she was arrested, she had shown up alone at Geoffrey's, charming strangers into allowing her to join their table — but alarming restaurant staffers when she couldn't pay her bill and spoke of being from Mars.

LAPD homicide investigators combed through her text messages, diaries, MySpace and Facebook pages and speculated that she may not have slept in the five days leading up to the fateful night at Geoffrey's.

At the sheriff's station, the jailer who processed Richardson found her cooperative and a little nervous. The jailer chatted about gospel music; Richardson talked about karma. She was booked on two misdemeanor charges — defrauding an innkeeper and possessing less than an ounce of marijuana in her car.

According to sheriff's officials, shortly before midnight, the station jailer told her that she was free to go, but suggested that she either stay the night in a cell — leaving whenever she asked — or in the station lobby since it was cold and dark out and her car had been towed to a lot.

Richardson said she would rather leave. At 12:15 a.m., she left with the possessions she came in with — her shirt and jeans, a brown hat and pink belt; two keys and her driver's license — signing a citation promising to return to the Malibu courthouse on Nov. 16, 2009.

Around dawn the morning she was released, a homeowner on Cold Canyon Road in the Monte Nido area of Malibu discovered a woman napping in his backyard and called the Sheriff's Department.

Investigators are convinced that it was Richardson, having somehow made her way from the sheriff's station on Agoura Road in Calabasas down into Malibu Canyon and east on Piuma Road to Cold Canyon. The woman left when the homeowner discovered her.

Investigators believe she was spotted two more times — once walking down Malibu Canyon Road about 7:30 a.m. and then a few hours later on Piuma Road east of Malibu Canyon. Her remains were found about 2 1/2 miles from that last sighting.

In the last year, her parents — who are not a couple — have seesawed between gratitude for the search efforts and frustration at the direction and pace of the investigation.

The Sheriff's Department faces two negligence lawsuits filed by the parents. And though the Office of Independent Review report says sheriff's personnel correctly handled the booking and release of Richardson, the department still faces questions about whether it should change its policy. Baca acknowledged that.

"The deputies acted properly," he said. "Properly doesn't mean we couldn't have done something more."

Richardson's father, Michael, said after Baca's news conference, "A lot of people wronged my daughter that night. It was a wrongful release based on her mental state."

Latice Sutton did not attend Thursday's news conference. But she sent out a text message: "It is with great sadness and grief that I [tell you] my baby, Mitrice Richardson, has gone on to our Heavenly Father. Thank you for all of you love, support and prayers."

carla.hall@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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