The mysterious disappearance & death of Mitrice Richardson
The final hours of Mitrice Richardson, a 24-year-old Cal State Fullerton graduate, are filled with uncanny utterings, police missteps and intrigue. A disoriented black woman is left to fend for herself through the dead of night in rugged hills. So many questions. Few answers.
Her family and friends only know that she was picked up by Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff's officials and released from jail into the night on September 17, 2009. She was never heard from again.
About one year later her remains were found in a Malibu canyon. Was she murdered? Slayed in the murderous night? Did she succumb to wild animals? Nothing is as it seems, even six years later.
All the legal wrangling of the case is done: The family sued, Los Angeles County settled and many people have forgotten. But not everyone.
Even now, little consoles the family of the black woman who was a beauty queen and college graduate. Richardson was a dynamo of life. She also had bipolar disorder. In the days before her death she had told her mother that she tired of beauty pageants, she wanted to become "Miss mother nature." She would contact Michelle Obama to make it happen. Her last Facebook posts are a testament to a mind slowly slipping into the abyss.
“I just wanna sleep lol, but u know me and my crazy ideas...lets see where they take me," she posted shortly before she vanished.
The trouble started on that September evening in 2009 when she wound up about 40 miles from her home at a swanky restaurant just off Pacific Coast Highway. No one knows why Richardson jump inside her Honda Civic and headed down there.
Reports say Richardson pulled into valet at the resturant, Geoffrey's, and actually got into the valet attendant's car. Later she would order a Kobe steak, mingle with a large table of diners nearby and skip out on the $89 check.
Management called the police, saying "“We have a guest here who is refusing to pay her bill ... and we think she may -- . She sounds really crazy. She may be on drugs or something.”
Los Angeles County officers responded to the call, and presumably seeing Richardson's odd behavior, still decided to instead transport her to the Lost Hills detention center.
Once in custody there, Richardson's mother was contacted and there was this exchange about 10 p.m., according to Newsweek.
Latice Sutton: “I’m her mother ... and are you guys gonna book her and release her on her own recognizance tonight? Because it’s dark, she doesn’t have a car, and I don’t want her wandering.”
Sutton did not sound nervous, judging by recordings of the call. “I think the only way I will come and get her tonight—if you guys gonna release her tonight,” Sutton said. “She’s not from that area and”—here Sutton’s voice rose—“I would hate to wake up to a morning report: ‘Girl lost somewhere and her head chopped off.’”
“You don’t have to worry about her safety,” the deputy assured her.
“I feel safe with her being in custody,” Sutton said, at which the officer laughed. “It’s being released that I’m worried about. It’s crazy out here.”
Richardson's death has further fractured her family. Her father, Michael Richardson, told Newsweek that the woman's mother made a horrible decision” not going to get Richardson from the police station late at night. “You do not leave your child with these people," he is quoted as saying.
In video recorded at the Lost Hills detention center, Richardson is visibly disturbed. “She clutches at the mesh screening and is rocking side to side like a small child,” her mother told Newsweek.
But the officers at Lost Hills released Richardson anyway.
The torturous terrain of the Santa Monica Mountains -- rolling hills, slippery rocks, howling winds -- would have been exhausting in broad daylight. At night, it would be nearly impossible, especially since Richardson didn't know where she was. Especially since she was about 11 miles away from her car, which had been impounded. She was also more than 40 miles from home with no cellphone.
There was a glimmer of hope in the hours following her release though.
Early the next morning retired KTLA reporter Bill Smith, who lived along the hills about six miles from the police station, called police dispatch to report a "slim black woman" with "afro hair" on his property. He told the dispatcher, “We had a prowler walking around through the backyard here, but we don’t know what the situation was,” according to LA Magazine, which did an exhaustive piece on the Richardson case. Smith even said he asked the woman if she was OK. She said she was "just resting" and when he turned around and came back she was gone, he said.
Richardson's partially decomposed body was found among the rocks in an area called Dark Canyon on August 9, 2010.
Officers responding to the scene badly bungled protocol when it came to finding bodies. They never treated the case as a potential homicide. Directly against the coroner's orders, officers bagged Richardson's body and airlifted it before an official cause of death could be formulated.
Law enforcement posited uncanny explanations -- poison ivy, rattlesnakes, when animals attack -- for the reason why and how Richardson's partially nude body had been found "in tact," which many people contest.
This passage from LA Mag sums up the incredulous tale that law enforcement asked people to believe:
As for the nakedness of Mitrice’s body, Rosson posited that animals removed her clothing, only a portion of which—jeans, belt, and bra—was recovered. Given the location of those items, this would mean that scavengers took off Mitrice’s sneakers and socks, unbuckled her belt and slipped it out of its loops, then unzipped and tugged off her jeans before removing her underwear. The animals would have unfastened her two-hook bra and gotten it out from under her. Next, they’d have dragged the detached right leg uphill by the thigh—as opposed to a more mouth-size foot or ankle, which would have revealed bite marks—and positioned it atop a cluster of vines, at some point pulling out the femur. They’d have had to carry the jeans and bra 500 feet and 600 feet, respectively, down the canyon, drop them in the creek, and carry the belt another hundred feet downstream to hang it on the mess of vines where it was found. Finally, the creatures would have to have eaten or otherwise disposed of Mitrice’s two T-shirts, underwear, socks, and sneakers. “It’s absurd to suggest this was the work of animals,” says Koff, the forensic anthropologist. She also notes that, besides some rust on the zipper and buckle, the jeans and belt showed no significant damage, whether by animals or nature. The clothing, she says, “could have been worn after a washing.” In other words, they might not have been exposed to the elements for 11 months.
There is also the disturbing finding that her head was detached from its body and positioned upside down. Also, there was no explanation for her body's partial mummification, highly unlikely for flesh and bones left out in the elements for 11 months.
There was also this disturbing fact by forensic anthropologist Clea Koff, who clamped onto the case and spoke with LA Magazine: Richardson's left arm had been mummified bent across her chest.
“The left arm’s flexion could not have been created by the environmental conditions where the body was found,” Koff told LA Magazine. “There was nothing present to hold the arm in such a position—it was defying gravity.”
A law enforcement inquiry absolved all officers involved in Richardson's handling. There was never an internal probe though.
California State Attorney Kamala Harris agreed to look back into Richardson's case, spurred in part by a letter from Richardson's father. “You see, Ms. Harris,” Michael Richardson says in the letter. “I look at you and I see Mitrice Richardson. A young, intelligent, smart, black, and beautiful young lady who busted her butt in school to one day become someone who could be helpful and make a difference.”
In 2015, Filmmaker Chip Croft put together a documentary, titled "Lost Compassion," about Richardson's case and the search to find out what happened to her. Here it is below: