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The danger from within

It has been six months since Mitrice Richardson vanished in the dark in Malibu, and the mystery surrounding the young woman has only deepened.

Richardson is the 24-year-old Cal State Fullerton grad who crashed a dinner party at a swanky oceanfront restaurant, was arrested for not paying her $89 tab, then released from jail in the middle of the night without her purse, cellphone or automobile.

No one she knows has heard from her since that September night.

Searches of Malibu canyons and hills have turned up nothing to suggest that Richardson succumbed to the elements, was abducted or killed. Reported sightings of her -- from West Hollywood to South Los Angeles -- remain unconfirmed.

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To me, the enigma is not just her disappearance, but how to square the disheveled, wild-eyed woman who showed up at that restaurant with the responsible, polished woman that her family and friends recall.

She was a straight-A student in college, planning to pay for grad school by working as a teacher. She was a ballet dancer, poised and pretty enough to place second in the Miss Azusa pageant. She was a quick study with an “intuitive sense about people,” who went from answering phones to researching complicated legal matters during her internship with psychologist Rhonda Hampton.

But there was another Mitrice, who began showing up two years ago in risque photos on her Facebook page. She was a go-go dancer at a gay and lesbian bar. She passed entire nights writing in her journals, and days at a time living in her car. She bombarded her friends with weird text messages, spoke gibberish to co-workers, told strangers she was from Mars, here to avenge the death of Michael Jackson.

And until she disappeared, no one knew enough to connect the dots between her promise and her torment.

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In hindsight, there were signs of instability, said Hampton, the psychologist now helping to coordinate efforts to find Mitrice. She met Richardson in 2007, when the college senior interned in her Orange County office.

“She was awesome,” Hampton recalled, “intelligent, personable, eager to learn. . . . She was always well put-together; the kind of girl who looked good on her worst day.”

But there also were days when she seemed out of sorts. Occasionally, she showed up angry, ready to fly off the handle. Or uncharacteristically disheveled, with her hair uncombed and face haggard. “I’d ask ‘Did you have a long night? Did you not sleep?’ She’d tell me she’d been up studying,” Hampton recalled.

The psychologist was concerned enough to refer Richardson to the campus counseling center. “I told her, ‘I’m not sure if you’re just stressed out . . . or if something more serious is going on with you.’ ”

She began to suspect Richardson might be bipolar, a mood disorder characterized by alternating periods of mania -- excessive energy, restlessness, irritability -- and debilitating depression.

After their talk, Richardson visited the counseling center and seemed to even out, Hampton said.

“I believe Mitrice knew there was the possibility that something was wrong with her. But just because you have two days where you’re a little nutty, then the rest of the year you’re not. . . . It’s hard to put that together and know that you need help.”

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I’d like to believe there’s some bright line between sanity and insanity. But when you’re just getting to know someone, it’s hard to distinguish high-strung from unstable, or moody from manic-depressive -- even for a psychologist specializing in mental illness.

Still, shouldn’t a mother know when her emotionally volatile child just needs a hug, and when a meltdown requires paramedics?

Not necessarily. I’m the mother of three girls -- the oldest the same age as Mitrice. I know melodrama goes with the territory, and every teenage girl is a little nuts. A mother can drive herself crazy worrying too much.

And sometimes we see what we want to see -- the photo album we carry in our heart, instead of the person developing in front of us.

Mitrice was always “a ray of energy,” her mother Latice Sutton told me last week. As a teenager, she loved the spotlight so much, she went to the prom dressed as a princess, with a tiara and a wand.

But getting her out of bed each day was a chore. “She was not a morning person,” her mother said. And a breakup with her boyfriend once laid her so low, she locked herself for days in a dark room.

I hear those stories now and think, mania, depression. But Sutton said, “I never saw anything that would say: ‘We need to take her to a doctor.’ She was funny, witty, sharp as a tack.”

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That’s because “mental illness is one of those things that creeps up on you,” Hampton said. “You could have a break [from reality] subtle enough that nobody recognizes it.”

Until your ray of energy burns out and you are swallowed up by the darkness.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

A citywide search for Mitrice Richardson will be held Sunday, from noon to 4 p.m., focusing on Malibu, Calabasas, Santa Monica, Venice, Hollywood, skid row and South Los Angeles. Volunteers can sign up at mitricefund@gmail.com or www.findmitrice.info.


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