Los Angeles can be beautiful, magical and enchanting, while also being dark, grimy, and dangerous all at once. The glint of priceless cars driven by polished starlets down sun-drenched roads enamors many of us that dream for better. The Pacific blue that stretches far beyond the warm, sandy beaches calls to those of the colder climates to come make themselves at home. The lure of stardom pulls talented, young, creative minds in droves. With such a shiny veneer it's easy to either forget, or completely miss, the dark underside of L.A. Between the gang violence and drug activity that has become normal for some areas, and the disturbing amoral activities some in the entertainment industry have been known to partake in, this is one of the most dangerous places in the U.S. Random earthquakes and a season for wildfires only makes it more so. I find myself questioning why so many flee cross-country to California to make such a tenuous new start.
There are, of course, many that are life-long residents of the City of Angels. With such a high rate of violent crime, this name seems apt. While Mitrice Richardson didn't live in Los Angeles her entire life, she did have ties there through her father. Unfortunately it would end up being the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department that was responsible for investigating her case. The LAPD has a history of corruption that spans throughout the entirety of its existence. It would appear after reviewing this case that the LASD is no better.
Mitrice Lavon Richardson was born on April 30, 1985 to mother Latice Harris, and father Michael Richardson. Mike Kessler's article on this case in LA Mag offered much of the information I gathered for this post. Through interviews he conducted with both parents, among others, we are able to learn a great deal about Mitrice's early life as well as the investigation.
Her mother, Latice, was only a junior in high school when she met Michael. Having come from a difficult childhood, she was determined to make something of herself. She had seven siblings, but most of them were scattered between foster homes. Her father was absent from her life, while her mother drank heavily. This led Latice to live with her grandparents, Mildred and Eddie.
Latice was only 12-years-old on Mother's Day in 1980. On this day that is meant to celebrate mothers and all that they do, Eddie chose to point a pistol at his wife and the mother of his children. Latice watched in absolute horror as her grandfather shot her grandmother three times before turning the gun on himself, shooting himself in the chest. Mildred was hit twice in the torso and once in the finger. Luckily this tough, plucky woman survived, while her husband did not. The event was traumatizing for young Latice, nonetheless. She was fortunate enough to still have her grandmother and the close bond they would continue to share as Latice grew into adulthood.
At Locke High School, Latice joined the drill team and excelled in her studies. She was immediately intrigued by Michael, a clarinet player who loved to dance. Michael was known for being a talented dancer and a big fan of Michael Jackson. He could copy Jackson's dances perfectly and even owned a red leather jacket just like the one worn in the music video for Thriller. He would refer to Latice as "Tee-Cee," while she called him "Romeo," a name she would have tattooed on her wrist.
During her senior year of high school, she was pregnant with Mitrice. She didn't allow her pregnancy to slow her down or stall her aspirations. Continuing to work hard, she kept her grades up and graduated alongside Michael. After the baby was born, Mildred took to watching her while the young couple worked to eek out a living. Young and impatient, it didn't take long for Michael to find ways to pad his minimum wage pay. It started with small-time hustles, but then grew into felonies. By 1989, he was serving eight years at Soledad State Prison. He would later be transferred to a lower security facility before his release just four years after his incarceration.
While Michael was serving his sentence, Latice moved on with her life. She met and fell in love with a man named Jimmy. The two were married and in 1993, moved to the San Gabriel Valley, thoroughly disheartened by the Rodney King riots. It was here that Latice would eventually open a legal services business of her own. She felt that this was the right place to plant roots and raise a family.
It's reported that Mitrice grew up in Corvina, California with her mother and her stepfather, Larry Sutton. In middle school she was on the cheerleading squad and by high school had gotten into taking dance classes. A popular girl, she attended multiple proms. Latice believed very much that rules were important in every household. She didn't slack when it came to enforcing them, either. Creative in her methods of punishment, she was known to send Mitrice to school in a uniform when she was caught goofing off in class. Wearing a romper and knee-socks, she was expected to attend every class for the day as the rest of the students wore their regular clothes.
Her aunt, Lauren Sutton, describes Mitrice as being a princess. A girly-girl that did not care for outdoor activities or getting dirty. She tells Mike Kessler that when other family members would go outside at her house to enjoy the weather, Mitrice stayed indoors. She entertained herself instead with television, dancing, journaling, or crossword puzzles. No doubt thanks to her mother, she was an excellent student that always kept her grades up. Mitrice not only graduated from South Hills High School, she also went on to become the first member of her family to attend college. In 2008, she would overwhelm her family with pride when she graduated from California State University, Fullerton with honors and her Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology. Her plan was to become a psychologist, but she still needed to figure out where she would be attending school for her master's.
The year before Mitrice's disappearance was an eventful one for her. She had just graduated college with plans to attend another school for another degree. While she was searching for her next path in life, she had moved in with her great-grandmother, Mildred. She had also just come out as openly gay that year. Already familiar with the pageant scene as a contestant, she would enter beauty pageants as an open lesbian. She wore her sexuality proudly like a badge of honor, marching in the Long Beach Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade. She also started dating her first girlfriend, Tessa Moon, who was described as being every bit as rough and tumble as Mitrice was girly. An avid boxer, Tessa needed to be tough to make it in the ring.
Tessa's father set Mitrice up with a job doing clerical work for his Santa Fe Springs shipping company. This gave her a way to earn some of her own money while figuring out what was next. In the spring of 2009, Tessa and Mitrice made the decision to break up. Their split held no bearing on Mitrice's employment with the shipping company, though. She continued to work there until she disappeared later that year.
After the break-up, Mitrice started working Friday nights as a go-go dancer at a popular lesbian club called Debra's. She gave herself the stage name "Hazel" and even had business cards printed with her new name on them. Her father tried to warn her of the dangers of her new chosen line of work. He told her, "Once you start go-go dancing, you're exposed to a whole other element."
She was also working towards building her modeling portfolio. She had been to some auditions here and there. One in particular, she took a friend named Andrea Adams along for. They arrived at a shady-looking building that they decided not to go into. Andrea said that she was "pretty sure" her friend would've walked in alone had she not been there. In August 2009, she attended the Hot Summer Nights Party at the Playboy Mansion as a guest model. The very next night in Hollywood, she won $500 in a butt-jiggling reggae dance competition.
By this point in this very significant year for Mitrice, she had also fallen hard for a woman she'd met at Debra's named Vanessa. The feelings were not reciprocated and she made it clear that she already had a girlfriend. This made Mitrice all the more determined to attain her affection. She became obsessed with the young woman and the prospect of winning her over. One night after finishing up her Friday night shift at Debra's, she left from work and drove all the way to Las Vegas for Vanessa's birthday celebration. She had not been invited to the party, so she decided to crash it after work. It finally came to a point where Vanessa had to tell Mitrice in no uncertain terms to stay away from her.
To be clear, this woman has never been publicly identified. Even many podcast hosts that have covered this story have clearly never read this article by LA Mag. Later behavior displayed just before she disappeared have caused many to ask, "Who is Vanessa?" and "How did Mitrice know her?" This is the only explanation I've found to answer those questions.
Mitrice's behavior was becoming increasingly strange around this time. She began talking on the phone less and started making odd MySpace posts at all hours of the day and night. LA Mag printed one that read, "have u ever woke up 7am crying on a Saturday cuz now that u see the lite u see all the ppl lost in the dark??" At least once during this period she spoke with a friend about seeking therapy, but it appears that she never did. As far as anyone close to her knew, she had never suffered any kind of mental illness in her life. Her ex, Tessa, was quoted as saying, "Mitrice wanted people to think she had everything under control."
In the days leading up to her disappearance, Latice received some strange texts from her daughter. She was eager to help in any way she could, sensing that something was off. She urged Mitrice to open up and elaborate on what she was saying and why she was behaving this way. One message from Latice reads, "u have to tell me what's going on with u. Uve been somewhat elusive and philosophical, tell me what's up? Have you found yourself in a state of sadness? Are u crying without reason or understanding? I'm concerned..."
The message continues, asking her how she's feeling. Latice's love and support can be felt through these messages. Mitrice was clearly not hurting for a solid support system. She likely just thought she could handle things on her own. The responses that Latice received to her urging only served to alarm her further.
Mitrice writes back, "I'm writing a book (my journal) because u told me I can be anything I wanted..." She goes on to say that throughout her life her mother had referred to her as "Miss America" and "America's Next Top Model." Now she was telling her mother what she really wanted to be when she grew up. Strange words from a 24-year-old woman. She said that she wanted to be "Miss mother nature...cuz Miss America is a fake ass joke along with everything else we 'see.'" Mitrice declared her intention to find her way to Michelle Obama to "see if she will talk to Mr. Obama about creating my position within the white house." With alarm bells loudly sounding off in her head, Latice replied, "Call me!"
Another message sent Latice's alarm bells from loudly sounding to drowning out all other sounds in existence. She says, "I feel joy mommie," before going on to explain that we do not have to die in order to live. Telling her mother that the Bible says Jesus dies for us to live forever, she says that she has to "prove the 'unlogic.'"
On Wednesday, September 16, 2009, Latice received a couple more odd messages as she slept. A co-worker of Mitrice's reported that she came in to work in what was described as an "unusually bubbly mood." She did some of her work before taking her lunch break, but then she never returned. In the late afternoon, she stopped by her great-grandmother's house and then left without saying where she was going. In the early evening, her aunt Lauren arrived at her Inglewood home to find several of her niece's business cards scattered on her front porch. On her husband's car, she found a note from Mitrice. Nothing more than incoherent thoughts and doodles as scattered as the cards on the porch, scribbled down in haste.
It's not known where she went or what she did in the time between leaving her aunt Lauren's house and arriving at a swanky Malibu restaurant that night. What is known is that Mitrice drove her 1998 Honda Civic 40 miles from home and arrived at Geoffrey's. A bright, glowing blue sign in cursive lettering signals hungry patrons to their renowned four-star views of the Pacific. While most say they cannot figure out why she came to this restaurant, it quickly becomes clear with the bit of backstory provided by Mike Kessler.
She pulled into the parking lot and waited for the valet. By the time he was ready to park her car, she had already left the driver's seat. The valet looked around to find Mitrice sitting inside his car. He had left the driver's side door wide open, allowing her to just walk up and sit down. Her dark curls poked out from underneath a Rastafarian-style hat. A long sleeved white T-shirt could be seen underneath a black Bob Marley tee. She wore stylish jeans with a pink alligator-pattern belt and a pair of Vans. According to the excellent coverage by True Crime Garage, she was going through his CD collection, making comments on the music he listened to.
When he asked why she was sitting in his car, she simply replied, "It's subliminal." She muttered something about avenging the death of Michael Jackson before handing her keys off to the valet and getting out of his car. Before walking into the restaurant, she turned to the man and asked, "Vanessa here?" She referred to the woman she'd been obsessing over as though he should've known who she was. He had no idea who she was talking about. Mitrice told him to keep his eyes peeled for a girl with tattooed arms. The valet found her behavior odd enough to mention it to the hostess before Mitrice made her way up to be seated. He said that he thought her to be harmless, but also thought her behavior to be worth mentioning.
She was seated at a table by herself, but she didn't remain alone for too long. Ordering a Kobe steak and an Ocean Breeze cocktail, she could hear the cheerful conversation of a nearby dinner party. The friendly young woman walked over and randomly joined in on their discussion. Making herself at home with these complete strangers, she rattled on unintelligibly about astrological signs. A staff member approached to check on the seven-top and make sure she was not being a bother. They were able to manage her just fine, though she did seem a bit strange. When her meal arrived one of the guests kindly reminded her that she should return to her table to eat. She ate her steak and finished her drink before coming back to their table.
Once she rejoined her new friends, she told them that she was going to Hawaii and that she would get in touch with them when she arrived. Shortly after this, the seven diners paid their bill and left. After they had gone, Mitrice tried to make her way to the door. The manager caught her before she could walk out and asked her how she intended to pay her $89 tab. She explained that the group she had been sitting with was supposed to cover it for her, but they had not. Now the manager was looking for payment as Mitrice responded, "I'm busted. What are we going to do?" As he spoke, she just gazed at the numerical pad on the computer screen as though she were in a trance.
She explained that she was from Mars and made a remark about settling her debt with sex. To prove that she had no money to spare, she pulled her pockets out, producing a joint. At this point one of the staff members called the Lost Hills Sheriff's Station saying, "We have a guest here who is refusing to pay her bill. She sounds really crazy...She may be on drugs or something." As she sat there waiting for police to arrive, she told the hostess that while she was watching soap operas at work that day, God had instructed her to take the day off.
Mitrice claimed to have no parents, only a great-grandmother. The hostess called Mildred, who was more than happy to help her granddaughter out of this jam. Ninety-year-old Mildred gave her credit card number to the hostess, but she was unable to accept the payment without a signature. Unable to drive all the way to Malibu after dark, she was unable to help. When Deputies Frank Brower, Armando Loureiro, and John McKay arrived at 9:00, Mildred was still on the phone. She spoke with one of the men for a moment before the phone was finally passed to Mitrice, who seemed unfazed by the situation entirely. Mildred spoke bluntly when she told her granddaughter, "They're gettin' ready to take your black ass to jail."
The moment Mildred hung up the phone, she called Latice to fill her in. As Latice was learning of her daughter's arrest in Malibu, deputies were searching her vehicle. The cluttered Civic contained some partially drank bottles of liquor and some scraps of weed. They have never reported finding her cell phone, wallet, or money in that initial search. The arresting officer, Loureiro, told Brower that she was "possibly drunk, making odd statements." Brower stated that it was because of this that he was instructed to perform a field sobriety test, which Mitrice passed. When asked why she had come to Geoffrey's that night, she replied that she had been drawn in by the lights. She was asked if she was taking medication or had ever been put on a 72-hour hold, but neither were true of her.
The employees of Geoffrey's offered to pay her bill so she could walk away with only a misdemeanor ticket for possession of marijuana. Taking her odd behavior and comments into consideration, the manager decided against this and did not let them cover the bill. He didn't think that she would be safe leaving alone behind the wheel of a car. In a decision that haunts him to this day, he pressed charges on the unpaid bill. This choice not only led to many years of gut-wrenching guilt, but death threats as well. Due to these reasons, he doesn't speak much if at all about the incident. At the moment he was handing her off to the police, he truly felt that he was doing the right thing. He felt that police custody was better than her getting hurt or killed out there on her own.
Latice called the Lost Hills Station to check about her daughter as she was still sitting in the back of a police car in front of Geoffrey's. Her car had already been impounded, leaving her with no transportation home. The station she was set to be en route to was located near Agoura Hills, a 25 minute drive from the restaurant. This is the very same station Mel Gibson had been booked into just three years prior, in 2006, for drunk driving. After his arrest, the celebrity was given a lift back to his car by deputies so that the man accused of driving while intoxicated could then drive himself home.
It made sense to Latice that if her older daughter was going to be held for the night, she shouldn't wake her then 10-year-old daughter, Miiah, to make the long drive. Maybe this small dose of tough love was what she needed to make her sit and think hard about whatever was going on and how to fix it. The concerned mother resolved to make the drive at sunrise. The deputy she spoke with on the phone assured her that she had nothing to worry about. Mitrice would be perfectly safe in police custody. Latice tells the jailer, "I think the only way I will come and get her tonight is if you guys are going to release her tonight." With haunting foreshadowing, she goes on to say that Mitrice is not from that area "and I would hate to wake up to a morning report, 'Girl lost somewhere with her chopped off.'"
Mitrice never called her mother from jail. The only number she had memorized was her great-grandmother's. According to the station's logbooks, Mitrice made four attempts to call Mildred after her arrest. Though the LASD has stated that she was heard speaking on the phone with someone, Mildred says that her phone never rang. Though we know for certain that Mitrice wasn't talking to her grandmother, it's not known who she was talking to. She could've been arranging for someone to pick her up, or she could've been conversing with a dial tone for all anyone really knows. The pay phone set up to record prisoner calls was broken on the night of Mitrice's arrest. Unfortunately all of the calls she made were from a non-recording line.
Loureiro made no mention of "odd comments" or any kind of strange behavior in his report. She was charged with defrauding an innkeeper and possession of marijuana. With a clean record, she was allowed to leave within just a few hours. While speaking with her it was seen that she was a very intelligent young woman. Just as Latice had told the jailer on her initial call that night, Mitrice was very well-spoken. She was released at 12:15 am on Thursday, September 17, by another jailer named Sheron Cummings. The female jailer that relieved the previous deputy at the end of his shift offered to allow Mitrice to stay in the lobby until her mother arrived. She declined the offer, saying that she was meeting friends instead.
At 5:35 that morning, Latice called the station back, assuming her daughter was still there waiting for her. Cummings took the call and informed her that Mitrice had been released hours ago. She had no money, cell phone, or transportation. All she had on her was her driver's license and two keys in her pocket. The only businesses that were still open that time of night were miles away. Between the station and those businesses were nothing more than dark, quiet commercial buildings that would've been closed by that time. Latice's mind raced as she tried to figure out where in this setting her daughter could've gotten to. A girl that had never taken public transportation in her life and did not care for walking or hiking seemed to have left on foot.
Right after speaking with the jailer, Latice called the station back and spoke with Deputy Kenneth Bomgardner. All of the phone calls between Latice and the LASD were recorded and played on True Crime Garage's two-part episode on the case. Latice can be heard asking how long before she could file a missing persons report on her daughter. "Is it 24 or 48 hours?" In response to her question, Bomgardner says that it depends upon the circumstances and that he wouldn't recommend one that soon. This deputy knew nothing of Mitrice's arrest, or her release the previous night. Even after he was filled in, his reaction remained the same.
He told her, "You know, I guess probably 24 hours would be reasonable. I mean, if there would be some mitigating factors, you know, where you would suspect maybe something [is] not quite right..." Even as Latice can be heard starting to cry, she remains calm, reasonable, and respectful with the deputy. It's clear that Mitrice was a well-spoken woman because she had been raised by intelligent, well-spoken women like her mother and great-grandmother. She explains that her daughter had never been to Malibu before and was unfamiliar with the area. To this Bomgardner replies, "I would probably wait till, you know, early this morning, and if she doesn't turn up, you can certainly call." When told that Mitrice had been "highly depressive and in a "depressive state," he responds by telling her to wait a couple of hours. He tells her, "...if she hasn't shown up or made contact with you, then maybe we can do something for you."
An hour later, at 6:30 that morning, the Lost Hills station received a call from retired KTLA reporter, Bill Smith. He lived in a beautiful bucolic community at the bottom of Dark Canyon, about 6 miles from the station. With many horse properties and hiking trails, this is an attractive place for people to come exercise and be out in nature. He tells the dispatcher, "We had a prowler walking around through the backyard here, but we don't know what the situation was." He described her as a "slim black woman" with "Afro hair." She had been seen quite close to the house, laying on the steps of the deck. He opened the window to ask the young woman if she was alright, to which she responded, "I'm just resting." When he ran to another window to get a better look at her, she was gone.
A cruiser was sent to the location, but no one was ever found wandering on the property. The former reporter explained to the dispatcher that though the hiking and horse trails run through his property and he allowed people to use them, no one had ever wandered into his yard before. The trail was set back away from the house. To make it there would've required a good hike.
A "Be on the Lookout" wasn't issued for Mitrice until six and a half hours after this sighting. By that time, she was long gone. The sheriff's department then waited a full two days before conducting their first search for her. Instead of using scent dogs to determine whether or not she'd hitched a ride for the six mile trip to Bill Smith's property, they decided to start their search in his yard. Her sneaker prints were found in front of the house, but the breadcrumb trail was quickly lost among the other foot and hoof prints on the trail. They lost track of her just 100 feet from Dark Creek. Dark Canyon wasn't searched at all.
Because Mitrice had been a resident of LA at the time of her disappearance, her case fell into the laps of the LAPD Missing Persons Unit. The LASD remained heavily involved in the investigation, though. After only three days, the case was reassigned to LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division. The public was assured that this was not a homicide investigation. Their unit just had better resources for investigating the disappearance.
Journals obtained from Mitrice's car led investigators to believe that she had been sleep deprived for days leading up to her disappearance. Her writings also revealed that she was possibly experiencing a bipolar episode the night she was arrested. With little effort her ATM card, checkbook, and cell phone were all found inside the vehicle.
It took no time at all for the press to pick up the story of the strangely acting black woman that disappeared into the night after being released from police custody. When compared with the treatment that celebrity prisoners have been known to receive at the Lost Hills station the bias becomes clear. Friends and family of Mitrice descended on the area along with complete strangers just trying to help. Everyone was handing out flyers and pleading for someone out there to step up and speak out. Though Latice and her ex, Michael, had feuded on and off for the two decades since their split, they managed to set their differences aside to find their daughter.
On September 20, 2009, Captain Thomas Martin of the Lost Hills station received an email from Lieutenant Scott Chew with the subject line "I spoke with Loureiro." The email concerned Mitrice's arrest and release. He states that the arresting deputy had booked her to make sure she was alright. Chew was quoted as saying, "She was a little ditsy at Geoffrey's and [a deputy] checked her for intoxication. She wasn't drunk, but [Loureiro] felt she was acting unusual and was uneasy about letting her go." He goes on to state that it was the arresting deputy's instincts that led him to bring her in that night, and that those instincts had been validated when she disappeared. Stating that "At the station it became obvious she was well educated and intelligent," they felt they had no reason to hold her.
Though Mike Kessler read and quoted this email for his article, Lieutenant Chew claims to not recall writing it. Deputy Loureiro also claims that he does not remember a conversation with Chew, or Mitrice being sound of mind during his interaction with her. He also says that he doesn't recall ordering Deputy Brower to conduct a field sobriety test due to "odd statements" made by the prisoner that night.
Just five days after Chew sent the email, the Lost Hills department issued an addendum to the sobriety test, reiterating that she "appeared to be entirely aware of her surroundings and did not seem confused." Three weeks later spokesman for the sheriff's department, Steve Whitmore, publicly declared that Mitrice "exhibited no signs of mental incapacitation whatsoever." In early November, Sheriff Lee Baca wrote to his superiors at the LA County Board of Supervisors that "all applicable laws, policies, and procedures were followed."
The LASD kept themselves plenty busy as they chased leads from Beverley Hills to Chino Hills. They hoped to find someone somewhere that could explain why Mitrice had been behaving so strangely the night she went missing. Meanwhile, her family was attempting to obtain the jail cell video from the night she was brought in. They were told that no such video existed. Captain Martin told the Malibu Surfside News "There is no video or tape of any kind."
On January 6, 2010, Latice, Lauren Sutton, and two of their friends sat down with Captain Martin to speak about the case. It was during this conversation that Martin did a complete 360 on his previous statement about the jail cell video. Not only was there a tape, but it had been sitting inside the captain's desk drawer. In a perfect world this man would've been investigated for holding onto such an important piece of evidence. Instead he was promoted to commander and transferred to Monterey Park by the end of that month. His new post was more than an hour's drive from his previous job at Lost Hills. The 34-year LASD veteran had led that department for the previous six years leading up to his promotion.
Commander Thomas Martin was replaced by Captain Joseph Stephen, the first black man to ever run the Lost Hills department. For three months after the video's existence was revealed, the family waited to view it. They were incredulous at the fact that they were not allowed to see it immediately. Finally after three months of waiting and demanding, they were allowed to watch the video at the LASD headquarters. According to the department, the delay was caused by nothing more than technical issues.
In the video recorded of Mitrice at the station, she appeared to be agitated and distressed. It had clearly been edited, leading her family to ask questions about the portions of the video that have clearly been removed. In one frame Mitrice is seen holding a piece of paper in her hand. Suddenly the video cuts to another frame, and the paper is balled up in the floor. Latice wants to know what happened between the time her daughter is seen holding the paper and when it's seen lying in a ball on the floor. She points to the suspicion caused by their withholding of information and asks, "Did they cut important footage?" The only answer provided is that it may have been condensed for outside audiences. Even after all these years they still haven't been allowed to view the unedited version.
One additional detail of the video raises even more questions and concerns, and it's one that the LASD has never elaborated on. While her family was told that the only deputy at the station at the time of her release was the jailer, the video proved otherwise. Another deputy can clearly be seen leaving out of a side door just after Mitrice walks out of the front door. The department has never named this man. As Michael Richardson points out, this man could've been the last person to talk to her. He could've even abducted her. The possibilities are endless in the frantic, wandering minds of parents looking for a missing child.
Mike Kessler did manage to get the man's name, though he never released it, and got in touch with him. He spoke with the nameless deputy twice, the first time being cut very short. On the first call he simply tells the reporter, "Unfortunately for you, dude, I wasn't there." He didn't even wait for a response before hanging up the phone. On the second call he seemed slightly more willing to talk, insisting that he couldn't remember whether or not he'd been at the station that night. His story shifts shortly after as he implies that he had been "on-site." He tells Kessler, "I was one of the guys that kept away from this, minding my own business." This strange statement makes me wonder who else was there and what they may have witnessed.
When a serious complaint is leveled against the LASD it's typically handled by the Office of Independent Review (OIR). This is a group of private contractor attorneys that report to the county board of supervisors. Of course the investigations are handled by LASD's own Internal Affairs department. Despite the large amount of criticism from Mitrice's family, the press, and the public no complaint was ever filed, nor were any allegations made of policies being violated.
On July 9, 2010, the OIR issued a confidential report to the board. The 58-page document that the board received was leaked to the public just a month after this case took a very hard left turn. One part of this document states that Mitrice's "questionable behavior included going to a restaurant, ordering a meal, parking valet, and leaving without a means to pay." Nowhere in the report are there any mentions made about the strange behavior she exhibited that night. Instead the head of the OIR, Michael Gennaco, made a point to state that deputies did not in any way, shape, or form endanger Mitrice by releasing her into the darkness with nothing more than the clothes on her back.
Citing the sheriff's manual LA Mag quotes, "Misdemeanor prisoners shall be released in the field whenever it is reasonable and safe to do so." They also cite two California penal codes about filing missing persons reports. One of these states, "it is the duty of all law enforcement agencies to immediately assist any person who is attempting to make a report of a missing person." The other says, "...the local police or sheriff's department shall immediately take the report and make an assessment of reasonable steps to be taken to locate the person." This second code requires much more stringent measures when the missing person in question has no history of disappearing, is mentally unstable, or both.
Deputy Bomgardner didn't follow either of these codes when speaking to Latice about the proper time frame to file a report. Instead, he took advantage of the fact that she did not know the penal codes and asked that she call back in two hours. As The Captain points out on True Crime Garage, this call takes place at almost 5:30 in the morning. It's possible that a shift change was coming up and the deputy was simply trying to push her off onto the next person coming in for the day.
The OIR report almost goes out of its way to mention the code on releasing misdemeanor prisoners in the field, but never says a thing about the email from Lieutenant Chew that attempts to justify the arrest. It also conveniently never mentioned the jail cell video that remained hidden in the captain's desk for more than three months while its existence was denied to any who asked. They did, however, respond to the suspicion felt by Mitrice's family after they saw the deputy leaving the building on the footage shown. They stated that this deputy was on official business with his partner, though the nature of that business was not disclosed. They denied that this man could've abducted her due to the business he was on, going on to state that she had been seen in Monte Nido several hours later.
Page six of this report directly contradicts itself in regards to the role played by OIR in this review. It states, "OIR played a multifaceted role in the review of the department's actions." However, a footnote in the document says that the "OIR did not conduct any interviews of the deputies and station jailer who had actual contact with Ms. Richardson on Sep 16 and 17, 2009, or who were involved in her being taken into custody or released from custody." When looking over the report and making note of what details are mentioned, it would seem that the LASD got to cherry-pick what was handed off to their "watchdog agency" for review.
When speaking with a reporter, Gennaco explained that many details had been left out of the report, but that there was a reason for that. He said that it was only an update for the board. The public had never been meant to see it. He says, "It wasn't intended to be particularly clear." In a second meeting, he couldn't explain why so many details had been left out, simply stating that he didn't conduct the inquiry or write the report. The writer of the report has not been employed with the OIR since before the release of the LA Mag article in September 2011.
When asked about the family's concerns about the withheld video and the deputy seen on it, he responds interestingly. He says, could the deputies have "abducted Richardson on the road, taken her to a secluded area, dumped her, and then three days later taken her up to where she was eventually found? Anything's possible. I mean, aliens coming down are possible!" After this very detailed hypothetical he goes on to say that a cop walking out of a door just after someone else meant nothing to him. As he states, there is no evidence that these men did anything.
Latice wanted more answers. A better explanation than the one given. As an anxious, frightened mother searching for her daughter, she was certainly entitled to more. She told Kessler, "If you consider how many other details they left out, it looks like a whitewash that lets the LASD off the hook."
A massive search was undertaken by the sheriff's personnel in January 2010. At least 240 people participated, 60 of them on horseback. Bikes, dogs, ATVs, and helicopters were also utilized. Typically when a woman is found deceased it's within a 10-mile radius of the place they were last seen. The department would never say whether or not they searched Dark Canyon.
As the press printed story after story full of speculation, they almost seemed to create a divide between Latice and Michael. Latice just knew deep within her heart that her daughter was dead. As the months passed by and the first anniversary of her disappearance drew closer it was looking more and more like Mitrice would not be found alive. Michael, on the other hand, held out hope for the best. He refused to believe that his daughter had died and would not be convinced until there was proof.
One day in January 2010, Michael was riding in the backseat of his friend's SUV near the Las Vegas Strip. While stopped at a red light, he was sure that he saw Mitrice prostituting herself nearby. He jumped from the car and ran as quickly as he could to catch her, but lost sight of her before he could get to her. When he reported this sighting authorities brushed it off without a second thought. To Michael, it all fit together perfectly like a puzzle. Mitrice had been to Vegas just weeks before she disappeared for a birthday party. He was also aware of her gig at the Playboy Mansion. Though he had spent many years in health care management, his South LA instincts kicked into high gear as he pieced the puzzle together.
As Latice wondered when she would finally be able to bury her daughter, Michael had a million more questions running through his mind. Did she possibly meet someone at the Playboy party that recruited her? Could that have been the purpose of her trip to Malibu that night? Did a pimp or a john pick her up from the station? Prostitution was an answer that Michael said he could've handled much more than the one he ended up with.
In late June 2010, a friend of Mitrice's from high school reported a sighting of her at a Las Vegas casino. This report was taken much more seriously than her father's had and was looked into by the Las Vegas police. As soon as the story broke the LVPD received 70 more alleged sightings of the missing young woman. Investigators from the LA sheriff's department traveled to Vegas for a joint-agency press conference. While Michael likely felt validated, Latice insisted that there was nothing to these sightings. The instincts of a mother told her that she was no longer with us.
On August 9, 2010, rangers hiked into Dark Canyon to check up on an eradicated pot farm. Their job that day was simply to ensure that the growers had not started back up again for the season. What should've been a rather mundane task turned gruesome quickly when they discovered Mitrice Richardson's remains. She was found less than 8 miles from the Lost Hills station and within 2 miles of where she was last reported to be seen. Her skull was separated from her body, sitting exposed with hair still clinging to it. The rest of her body was covered with leaves and debris. Nearby more hair was found scattered with something metallic tangled within.
According to the coroner's report the first deputy didn't arrive at the scene until 1:30 that afternoon, around 80 minutes after the rangers placed their call. With still another 6 hours of daylight left there should've been more than enough time for the coroner to make it out to the canyon, take pictures, collect evidence, and bring the remains back to the lab. California state penal code states that the coroner is supposed to be called the moment law enforcement learns of human remains. In this instance, however, the coroner wasn't called until 2:58, almost 90 minutes after the deputy's arrival and nearly 3 hours after the Lost Hills department was made aware of the discovery. When the coroner's seven-man team, led by Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter, were sent to the Lost Hills station to catch a helicopter out, they were left stranded at the department. LASD detectives Dan McElderry and Kevin Acevedo had already been airlifted out by 5:20 that evening as the coroner and his team sat waiting for transportation. They continued to wait for another hour and 40 minutes, figuring that by this time they would be forced to wait until morning to recover the body.
By 8:00, the LASD manager had finally managed to line up a helicopter, but it was not for the coroner's team to be taken to the canyon. "Against the direction of Assistant Chief Winter, LASD detectives collected the remains and air-lifted them." This was in direct violation of the state penal code that says a body "shall not be disturbed or moved from the position or place of death without permission of the coroner or the coroner's appointed deputy." For almost 4 hours while the sheriff's personnel had exclusive access to Mitrice's remains, the coroner and his team were kept on standby. LASD officials spent more than 6 hours alone with the remains from the time the first unnamed deputy arrived until their removal later that evening. When asked by Kessler, an experienced veteran of the LAPD said that the body should've never been removed without permission from the coroner. To this experienced officer the discovery and removal of Mitrice's body sounded completely "ass backwards."
Former United Nations forensic anthropologist and former member of the FBI's Scientific Working Groups, Clea Koff, found herself equally puzzled by the recovery of the remains. She was consulted on this case through her LA-based nonprofit, Missing Persons Identification Resource Center. She informed Kessler that even if permission had been granted by the coroner's office it would not have been done without an assessment by photograph, detailed description, or a visit by personnel from the office. In the nearly 7-hour span of time that sheriff's personnel were on the scene, none of this was done. In such a long span of time there shouldn't have been a problem in getting any of it done.
Koff also points out that the scene was not photo-documented at any point. No pictures were taken of the body before it was collected, nor were there photos taken of the stages of recovery. Not a single soil sample had been taken from the scene, either. The coroner had no understanding at all of Mitrice's body in relation to where it was found. All he received from the sheriff's department was the body, and nothing more. Before LASD arrived that day, the rangers that discovered her had taken pictures of their own. These were handed off to the coroner, but have never been made public. Her remains and their discovery only created more questions about this already bizarre case.
Her right leg was found about 2 yards up-slope from her body. Sitting atop a mound of dried-up vines, it had begun to sprout weeds as though becoming another piece of the earth itself. The femur had been removed from the soft tissue like it was pulled right from the top of the thigh. A narrow duct still remained where the bone had once been. The leg showed no signs of having been ravaged by wildlife. Normally when an animal gets after a body they will drag it downhill, not up.
On behalf of the LASD, Lieutenant Michael Rosson supervised the investigation. In October 2010, just two months after the discovery, he met with Latice, Clea Koff, Sheriff Baca, and two others. He explained to the group that deputies had been given permission, not by Assistant Chief Winters, but by a member of the coroner's staff to remove the skull. The purpose was to assess what lay underneath in the leaves and dirt. Rosson claimed that when deputies pulled the skull from the ground the entire skeleton came up with it, fully intact. This wild tale not only doesn't match up with the pictures taken by the rangers, it just isn't possible. Mitrice's skull was described as being detached from the neck, resting upside down on the upper torso, with its mandible missing. Whether this positioning of the body was the work of animals, gravity, or a person, no one knows.
There were five neck bones not recovered with her the day her body was pulled from the canyon. This makes Rosson's claim all the more problematic. LASD has never said whether or not Lieutenant Rosson and Captain Smith were actually present for the removal. For all anyone really knows, they may not have witnessed anything.
In an odd case like Mitrice's it's typically wise to carefully consider everything when trying to determine a cause of death. Likely just wanting to clear the case, the LASD didn't want to go to such trouble. Rosson pointed to the possibility of anaphylactic shock from poison oak as a potential cause. The problem there is the fact that this occurrence happens so seldom that reliable statistics don't even exist. Another suggestion floated was that she had wandered into Dark Canyon and was bitten by a rattlesnake. This would've made her 1 of only 2 people a year who die from rattlesnake bites in California.
The state of undress that she was found in also raised many questions that were never properly answered. Animals were blamed for the missing and scattered clothing, even though it was obvious to anyone that this just wasn't possible. The only articles of clothing recovered were a bra, a belt, and a pair of jeans. For Rosson's theory to be correct animals would've had to remove her shoes and socks, unbuckle her belt and remove it without tearing the loops, unbutton and unzip her pants before pulling them off with her underwear, remove both shirts, unhook her two-hook bra, and then maneuver it out from under her. These animals would then have to drag her leg uphill without leaving a single tooth mark before carefully positioning it on top of a pile of vines. They would then have to carefully remove the femur without disturbing the rest of the leg. As far as the clothing goes, they would've had to eat or otherwise dispose of the missing articles before dragging the rest off. It all sounds like a fabrication that Hollywood wouldn't even buy.
Her jeans and bra were found 500 and 600 feet away from her body, respectively. Her belt was found another 100 feet downstream, hung up in a mess of vines. The clothing hadn't been damaged at all by the elements or animals. Koff described them saying that they "could have been worn after a washing." She also stated that to consider this the work of animals was "absurd."
As though Rosson's theories weren't ridiculous enough, Captain Smith decided to offer up his two cents during the October 2010 meeting. He said that if animals were not responsible for removing her clothes, then rushing waters were. In this scenario the water would need to rise 60 feet above the top of the creek bed and push her body in the opposite direction of the current for it to be deposited where it was found with no clothing. Even still, as Latice points out, how would water unbutton and unzip her pants, unhook her bra, and unbuckle her belt? How would it have pulled both of her shirts off?
Another oddly-shaped piece to this epic jigsaw was the fact that Mitrice's body was mummified when it was found. Had she actually spent 11 months outdoors in Malibu between 2009 and 2010, in El Nino season, she wouldn't have been mummified. She would've decomposed in those conditions. Natural mummification occurs in subfreezing or extremely dry environments. Attics and closets are possible places for this to occur. The process is better achieved when the body remains clothed. This prevents flies from laying eggs on the body, containing flesh-eating maggots. While mummification in the elements isn't impossible or unheard of, it just isn't possible in the case of Mitrice, especially not in her state of undress.
The unnatural position of her left arm for the conditions she was found in is another clue that has led Koff to speculate that she was housed elsewhere before being dumped. It had mummified tightly flexed against her body as though she had been saying the Pledge of Allegiance. She points out that this kind of flexion isn't possible without something holding her arm against her. Out in the open with nothing around to do so, her arm was "defying gravity." Koff believes that some kind of wrapping, or possibly a sheet had pinned her arm against her as mummification took place.
The LAPD veteran that spoke with Kessler said that this sounded much like an abduction, murder, and disposal. Though he was far from the only person to think so, Sheriff Baca thought differently. In a press conference, Baca told reporters that there had been no indication of a homicide. He goes on to say that he doesn't believe they would learn much from the remains.
Kessler posits a theory that has crossed my mind many times while researching this case. According to True Crime Garage food wrappers had been found around the area that the pot farmers had previously been growing in. Is it possible that Mitrice wandered into this area at the wrong time? Did she encounter growers that did not appreciate her presence? Might she have even flagged down her murderer, looking for help?
The LASD weren't the only ones putting forth little effort in her case. The coroner's office left most of the work necessary to determine her cause of death undone. The hair on her head wasn't tested against the hair found at the scene for a match. An earring was found to be tangled up with the metallic bits in the scattered hair, but none of this was tested. Mitrice had not been wearing that earring when she was arrested or released, so why not test it?
Bug casings were found on her body, but not tested to see if they were consistent with the environment in which she was found. This bit of information could've told the coroner much, such as the time and possibly even the place that she died. Dirt and leaves weren't tested for blood and much of her clothing was never recovered for testing, either. What was found had never been tested by the coroner's office and had even been misplaced for several weeks. Koff found the articles balled up inside Mitrice's body bag when she viewed the remains.
The coroner's office didn't perform a craniotomy to check for signs of trauma. Her pubic hair was never combed for foreign fibers or suspect hairs, nor was it tested for semen. With so much left undone we're left to wonder what the coroner's office actually did.
Upon viewing the body, Koff noted that Mitrice's teeth looked to be slightly pink in color. This is a possible sign of strangulation. Unfortunately among the 5 missing neck bones from the scene is the hyoid bone. A broken hyoid would prove strangulation, but it's typically the easiest bone lost out in the elements due to its extremely small size. The sheriff's department never recovered this or the other missing neck bones. Only one other search was ever conducted after her remains were recovered, but it took place 6 months later. By that time any hope of finding another scrap of evidence had long passed.
In the fall of 2010, Latice made the trip up to the spot where her daughter had been found. With her was her sister-in-law, a friend, and Clea Koff. The group made a very sorrowful hike to place a memorial with plastic flowers for her. LASD search and rescue experts led them the whole way on their journey. Everyone was fully equipped with climbing harnesses, ropes, and helmets on what likely felt like it should've been an exhibition. It was while placing the memorial that one of the women made a shocking discovery. It was one of Mitrice's finger bones in the dirt. This has led Latice to wonder how much more of her daughter is lost out there.
Latice filed a civil suit against the sheriff's department that was consolidated with her ex's lawsuit. While Michael filed his with attorney Benjamin Schonbrun, Latice worked with attorney Leo Terrell, known to listeners of KABC-AM for his rants. The joint suit alleges that their daughter's civil rights were violated. She should've been held in custody and given a psychiatric evaluation rather than released in the middle of the night, clearly showing signs of instability. The department denied any wrongdoing on their part, but rather than utilize the city counsel for representation they hired a very upscale law firm instead. Lawrence, Beach, Allen, & Choi took the case on the department's behalf and a trial date was set for September 12, 2011. Both parents were awarded $450,000 each in a legal settlement from the county.
Kessler spoke with Michael Richardson just before the trial and suggested that the LASD would settle out of court. He insisted that this trial had nothing to do with money. He wanted to see his daughter's case end in a serious policy change to prevent this from happening again in the future. He's quoted in LA Mag as saying that there should be "a compromise between strict over-detention rules and releasing prisoners in the middle of the night with no means of getting home."
Since the loss of her daughter, Latice has suffered from debilitating anxiety, depression, and a crushing sense of guilt for not rushing to the station right away to get her. In the beginning, she was convinced that the sheriff's department knew more than they were telling. She just knew that a deputy, possibly the one on the video, had been responsible. After a couple of years, her mind started to shift to other possibilities. While the department certainly had been negligent in releasing her instead of taking her for an evaluation, they likely weren't directly responsible. The much more likely scenario is that someone came upon Mitrice in her vulnerable state and took advantage. There are also the possibilities that either one of the growers committed the crime, or a local attempting to pin it on them.
In December 2010, Latice went to Sheriff Baca to submit a request to have Mitrice's remains exhumed for reexamination. This time she wanted the FBI to perform the exam. Baca claimed to have contacted the FBI about performing the exam, saying that they agreed to help out. To the attendees, he went so far as to express his disappointment in the coroner for not being more sensitive about this case from the start. He even reconsidered the cause of death, finally stating that the removal of her clothing could not have been the work of nature or the elements. Baca began making the claim that he had always felt that this had been a possible homicide. Oozing lies like a politician up for re-election, Baca said that he would be posting a reward for information on LACountyMurders.com, the official website for "Wanted" announcements in the county. He never posted a reward.
According to Sheriff Baca, the FBI's point person in LA informed him that they would not be assisting in the reexamination of Mitrice's remains. When preparing his article, Kessler called the FBI to see what had changed. It seemed odd that they would change their minds so suddenly. As it turns out, they didn't change their minds at all. They had never agreed to help with the exam in the first place. Sheriff Baca had lied.
After 6 months of pressuring the coroner's office, Mitrice's body was finally exhumed on July 13, 2011. Latice watched solemnly as the casket was excavated on a hot summer day in Inglewood Park Cemetery. Family and close friends surrounded her in support as she celebrated this small win for her daughter. She hoped to finally have a cause of death determined, or at the very least have some possibilities ruled out. Though she wasn't thrilled about the idea, the LASD would be conducting the reexamination. She hoped that they would "do the job with integrity..." Aside from the exam, Mitrice's finger bone also needed to be put with the rest of her bones after it was determined to be her's.
Unfortunately the cause of death was never determined. Her remains were returned to the cemetery with nothing more known than before. It was a disheartening blow for a family that wanted nothing more than answers and closure.
NBC Los Angeles reported that The Board of Supervisors offered a $10,000 reward for information about her disappearance in 2009, before the discovery of her remains. It was reestablished in 2010, and then again in late 2021. On March 15, 2022, NBC stated in their article that the reward was set to expire the following Sunday. The board was not only considering extending the reward, but increasing it to $20,000 for anyone that can provide any information leading to an arrest and conviction. Both cities of Malibu and Calabasas also have standing rewards totaling $20,000.
In February 2017, the LA Times reported that a California attorney general's investigation into the LASD's handling of the case uncovered nothing. Back in 2015, then attorney general Kamala Harris didn't want to even consider reviewing the case for mishandling or wrongdoing. Suddenly in February 2016, she changed her mind. Around that time the case looked as though it was gaining some momentum. Conveniently coinciding with her announcement to investigate the LASD's handling of this case was her announcement to run for the US Senate, which she was elected to in November 2016.
After a year-long investigation, Michael Richardson was incredibly disappointed to receive a letter from the attorney general's office stating that no sufficient evidence had been found to support any of the claims. The letter continues with a punch in the gut, telling the distraught father that the statute of limitations for concealment or tampering of evidence had already passed more than two years prior. He was not only outraged by the lack of findings, but by the statute of limitations that allowed criminals to slip away, avoiding punishment. He also held no faith whatsoever in Kamala Harris, or her sudden desire to help after refusing them for so long. He says that her only motivation was an "election-year bid for publicity."
Mitrice's case is still unsolved with no more known today than was known nearly 13 years ago, when her body was found in Dark Canyon. The high possibility of this being a stranger-on-stranger crime makes it all the harder to solve. The fact still remains that if the investigation had been handled properly from the very beginning, they might at the very least be closer to solving it than they are. The argument can also be made that if she had been taken for an evaluation that night, she would have never disappeared in the first place. Unfortunately that is all Mitrice's family is left with now, what if's.