OIR Report Cites Miscommunication as Cause of Richardson Remains Dispute
• Advocates of Ongoing Review Say Latest Probe Leaves Major Questions Unanswered
BY ANNE SOBLE
An Office of Independent Review report that was described as a year in the making cites miscommunication as the basis for a heated dispute about whether Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department detectives improperly—if not illegally—removed the remains of a Los Angeles woman found in Malibu Canyon backcountry in August 2010 without the permission of the county coroner's office.
The OIR is the county funded agency that serves as the ostensible watchdog in cases of local law enforcement malfeasance and does contract work for other local governments facing controversial law enforcement issues. It is supposed to be independent but its email address is that of the LASD and it has a track record of agency support.
Department of Coroner Assistant Chief Ed Winter, in an article in the Malibu Surfside News Oct. 14, 2010, issue that was subsequently picked up by multiple media outlets, criticized LASD personnel for moving and transporting the skeletal remains of Mitrice Richardson despite express directives to not do so until specially trained DOC staff could assess them on site.
Richardson, a 24-year-old honors college graduate, who was about to begin teaching and graduate work in psychology, was placed under citizens arrest at Geoffrey's restaurant on Sept. 16, 2009, after noticeably bizarre behavior and a sequence of field-citable misdemeanors, which required that she had to be taken into custody at the Lost Hills Sheriff's Station.
Richardson was released from Lost Hills just after midnight on Sept. 17, 2009, without her car, purse or cell phone. Other than a possible early morning sighting hours later, she was not heard from again.
Nearly 11 months later, her unclothed remains were discovered by State Parks rangers doing routine monitoring of the site of a former marijuana operation about seven miles from the Lost Hills station.
Although the LASD first denied allegations of unauthorized removal, even expressly refuting The News' article on a cable show discussing the case, the department then did an about-face and indicated there might be issues related to the removal of the remains.
Last week, a second Office of Independent Review report—the first one exonerated LASD on issues related to Richardson's release protocol—acknowledged the dispute, but says it has become a battle between two contradictory views that may never be resolved because of the lack of documentation of on-the-scene communication between the two agencies.
This now revolves about an unnamed LASD homicide detective—three of them were at the find site—who came forward a year later and said he remembered that he received what was tantamount to authorization from a coroner department field officer.
When Michael Gennaco, the lead attorney with OIR, was asked on Tuesday whether such a serious memory failure warranted agency action, he said, if it did not rise to the level of discipline, it was "a lapse of judgment" because, if that detective had come forward earlier, it would have spared LASD from widespread public criticism and precluded the expense of an OIR review.
Gennaco also responded to inquiries by The News about why telephone records—as all equipment was county issue and information would be available—had not been examined to verify contacts and times of communication in an effort to corroborate the mystery call.
Gennaco indicated that this specific issue is under discussion. While acknowledging that there are a number of major LASD issues—such as jailer abuse—that require attention, the OIR chief said, "We're going to take another lap on this."
Despite OIR inability to resolve the "he said-he said" aspect of the handling of the remains, advocates of an ongoing investigation of Richardson's cause of death—because they think she met with foul play—are indicating they do not accept that conundrum.
Ronda Hampton, a clinical psychologist and Richardson's college mentor and friend, told The News this week, "We are expected to believe that a detective, who was publicly criticized and accused by the assistant chief coroner of removing Mitrice's remains against his orders, forgot to mention during his initial interview by the OIR a phone call that he made to the coroner's staff, which would have cleared him of any wrongdoing. Now—more than one year later—he suddenly recalls the phone call and the public is expected to believe this without any proof?"
Hampton, who has been outspoken about perceived shortcomings throughout the Richardson investigation, said, "I do not buy that a trained, experienced and competent detective would leave out such a significant piece of information as a phone call in which he says he was told to remove Mitrice's remains. If Michael Gennaco and Walter Katz [the OIR report's researcher and writer] accepted this without a review of phone records to prove that he did in fact place this phone call, then they are either incompetent or colluding."
The nucleus of advocates of what has become a justice-for-Richardson effort, better training about the treatment of individuals with mental health issues taken into custody and elimination of what is seen as an anti-mentally-ill bias in law enforcement, includes Lisa Santa Maria and Richardson's aunt, Lauren Sutton.
They have moved to the forefront of activism on the Richardson case now that the dead woman's mother, Latice Sutton, is no longer attending public events concerning her daughter, such as the press conference last Wednesday on the OIR report release and numerous ongoing meetings with Sheriff Lee Baca.
Speaking at the OIR press conference, Baca said, "That the sheriff's department is not without fault" was the reason the LASD settled the separate lawsuits filed by each of Richardson's parents.
Baca utilized the media event to state, "I am not convinced we have all the answers in this case." However, he still maintains there is no evidence of foul play, even though a bone of Richardson's is still missing—the hyoid bone— that might provide possible clues to a cause of death.
However, Baca stated, "A [citizens'] arrest by an innkeeper is a problem [and that] this young lady should not have been taken to the sheriff's station in the first place" has to be addressed.
Baca reiterated his stance that the LASD has to "keep asking the public for information" about Richardson. He held up a sign with contact information and urged everyone who knows anything that might in any way be related to the Richardson case to contact the Sheriff's Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500, leave an anonymous tip at 800-222-TIPS (8477), text the letters TIPLA, plus the tip, to CRIMES (274637), or use www.lacrimestoppers.org