Three months after Mitrice Richardson’s partial skeletal remains were found in a remote, rugged area of Malibu Canyon, her mother and a small group of friends made the difficult trek to the site for a memorial service.
They wore protective gloves and helmets. They were guided by search and rescue personnel. But once there on Nov. 6, they tried to find peace. Latice Sutton placed sunflowers, her daughter’s favorites, on the ground. They played some of Aretha Franklin’s music.
Then they all saw something small, skeletal and yellowish lying in the dirt and leaves. It was, they later determined, a finger bone. “It was upsetting, distressing,” said Clea Koff, the founder of a nonprofit organization that assists people in forensic investigations of missing or deceased family members. “But it immediately told us that despite the best efforts, the removal of the body on Aug. 9 may have compromised the investigation.”
The bone, which Koff believes is Richardson’s, was turned over to authorities.
Richardson’s mother has asked the Sheriff’s Department and coroner’s office to search the area for more remains. She also wants her daughter’s body exhumed for testing that they hope might lead to a definitive cause of death.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said that Sheriff Lee Baca “has no challenges to the family wanting to exhume the remains. He has always said he supports the family.”
Richardson’s remains were found Aug. 9 in Malibu Canyon, nearly 11 months after she was released from the Lost Hills/Malibu Sheriff’s station early on Sept. 17, 2009.
The 24-year-old had been arrested for not being able to pay her dinner tab at Geoffrey’s restaurant in Malibu. She was released without her car, which had been impounded, or her cellphone and purse, which were in her car. During the months that she was missing, investigators deduced that she had been suffering from a severe bipolar disorder.
The coroner’s office, which called the cause of death “undetermined,” has already agreed to return to the area with a special skeletal remains search team, according to Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter. The team was prepared to go out last weekend until the weather changed, he said. He said his office talks regularly with Koff and the family: “We’re keeping an open dialogue.”
Koff, who holds a master’s degree in anthropology, said she would like the body exhumed to examine the skull, scalp and teeth for more evidence. She described a hank of hair that she said was found near the remains. “Inside the hair were jewelry and man-made artifacts,” she said . “They are not consistent with the scene and not consistent with Mitrice Richardson in life…. Anything not consistent with the scene should be tested.”
Richardson’s body was found unclothed. Koff wants a belt, a pair of jeans and a bra found some distance away from the body sent to a lab for testing too.
“This is not a criticism of what has been done,” Koff said. “This is about what can be done now.”
Sutton said she doubted that her daughter simply walked into the rugged terrain where she was found dead. “One thing I know about my daughter — she is not a nature young lady,” she said. “She does not like bugs in bushes. On her own, that is not a place she would wander up to. I have stated before that my daughter was murdered.”