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Hopes for a new investigation into Mitrice Richardson case end in disappointment

Kim Howard places a photo of Mitrice Richardson at the Lost Hills Sheriff Station
Kim Howard places a photo of Mitrice Richardson at the Lost Hills Sheriff Station on Tuesday for a memorial and news conference.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Friends of Mitrice Richardson started Tuesday with high hopes of a new investigation, as they marked the 10th anniversary of the 24-year-old’s mysterious disappearance from the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station in Calabasas on Sept. 17, 2009.

After years of suspicion that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had covered up what really happened to Richardson, and a lawsuit that ended in a $900,000 settlement with the county, Sheriff Alex Villanueva had come to a memorial service at the New Testament Church in Los Angeles on Sept. 7 saying he wanted to “pursue the truth and get to the bottom of what happened” after Richardson was released in the middle of the night with no phone, car or money.

“I want to assess the entire case from the beginning, with a whole new fresh set of eyes,” Villanueva said during that memorial, according to video taken by CBS-TV Channel 2. “And that means we will go back and we’re going to canvass and going to walk the entire length of it.” The rest of his comments were drowned out by cheering and applause.

Villanueva agreed to talk during Tuesday’s memorial at the sheriff’s station, to remind the public that the case was still open with a $30,000 reward for information about what happened to Richardson, a 2008 Cal State Fullerton psychology graduate. Her skeletal remains were found in the remote Dark Canyon in the Malibu hills 11 months after she disappeared.

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Memorial organizer Ronda Hampton, a clinical psychologist who called Richardson her “former intern and dear friend,” said she hoped to hear Villanueva expand on the pledge he made on Sept. 7. Pastor Robert Hendricks even started Tuesday’s memorial with a prayer of gratitude that the case would be reopened.

“That’s why I said that, because he gave us the sense it would be reopened, that they were going to take a look with fresh eyes,” Hendricks said. “That’s why we applauded.”

But the upbeat mood faded into confusion and anger after Villanueva said that the “fresh eyes” were his rereading of the department’s investigation and that no new investigation was forthcoming.

The case has never been closed, he said, and the department welcomes any new information. But Villanueva said there’s no reason to rehash a case already subjected to investigations by the state attorney general’s office, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and the Sheriff’s Department’s internal review. Those reviews found no evidence of wrongdoing by the deputies involved in the case, and Villanueva said he found no reason to question those findings.

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The night Richardson was arrested, she had shown up alone at Geoffrey’s restaurant in Malibu, charming strangers into allowing her to join their table — but alarming restaurant staffers when she couldn’t pay her $89 bill and spoke of being from Mars. The manager called police because he was worried about her welfare; he reasoned she would be safer in custody than out on her own.

A few weeks before she disappeared, Richardson had been talking strangely at Hampton’s office too, where she was an intern, Hampton’s sister, Melody, said after Tuesday’s memorial.

“I’m not a doctor, and she hadn’t been diagnosed, but I worked in the office too, and she was saying she knew Michael Jackson, and Michael Jackson was dead. And she said she was going to Mars. That’s an issue. The manager from Geoffrey’s, he was hoping the police would help her. He feels bad, but we’re showing love to him, because it’s not his fault.”

Villanueva said the department has changed its procedures since Richardson’s disappearance, which happened under the administration of Sheriff Lee Baca. The department doesn’t wait now to take missing persons reports for adults. It makes sure that people have their cellphones and personal property returned before they are released from jail. Richardson’s wallet and cellphone were left in her car, which was impounded after she was arrested.

And the department has changed the way it handles people who may be mentally ill. At the time, deputies claimed that Richardson seemed lucid when they released her into the night, Villanueva said. Now she would be evaluated by a mental health team.

The civilian jailer tried to persuade her to wait until morning in the jail lobby, according to a report by the sheriff’s Office of Independent Review. But Richardson reportedly said she planned to meet with friends, so the deputies let her leave. “They had no legal justification,” the report said, “to deprive her of her freedom,” The Times reported.

“There’s a difference between wrongdoing and holes in a policy,” Villanueva said when a reporter at the memorial asked him why the department had made changes to its procedures after the incident.

“We can’t pinpoint any violations to the policies at the time,” he said. “But there were lessons learned.”

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Richardson’s cause of death remains undetermined, according to the coroner’s office, but her family has insisted she was the victim of foul play and faulted deputies for their treatment of her. The department was also criticized for the handling of Richardson’s remains. Coroner’s officials said deputies moved her body parts without permission. Months later, Richardson’s mother, Latice Sutton, was visiting the site and found a finger bone that belonged to her daughter.

Villanueva said deputies opted to move the body because it was getting dark, they had no way to secure the remote site and they wanted to keep animals from disturbing the remains.

The office of then-California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris declined to review the case in 2015, but months later, in February 2016, Harris backtracked at the request of Richardson’s father, Michael Richardson. In February 2017, the attorney general’s office said there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the Sheriff’s Department that would merit criminal charges.

Villanueva answered questions for about 15 minutes during the memorial and then left, saying he had another appointment. Hampton, visibly upset, returned to the podium to say she was “extremely disappointed” by Villanueva’s comments.

“I acknowledge the policy changes, and appreciate that he came here today,” she said. But the reports he cited were compiled by a corrupt sheriff’s administration, she said, and there’s evidence that now-retired people at the Lost Hills station lied.

“When [Villanueva] said there would be a ‘new, fresh set of eyes’ on this case, I expected things to be different,” she said to the bank of cameras before her. “There’s no way this is OK and we’re not going to let it go.”


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