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Criminal Justice

Mitrice Richardson Disappeared 10 Years Ago. Will LA's New Sheriff Finally Determine What Caused Her Death?

A Black women with shoulder-length hair smiles for the camera.
Mitrice Richardson, 24, went missing after she was released from the Malibu police station on Thursday Sept. 17, 2009.
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Ten years ago today, a 24-year-old woman named Mitrice Richardson was arrested for failing to pay her $89 bill at Geoffrey's restaurant in Malibu. Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies took Richardson to the Lost Hills Sheriff Station, about 13 miles away. Despite being detained specifically because of her strange behavior -- she'd struck up bizarre conversations with patrons and the valet -- Richardson was not given a psych evaluation or held by authorities, which was an option available to the watch commander.

Instead, she was released in the middle of the night, in an area with which she had zero familiarity, with no ride and nothing but the clothes on her back.

For 10 months, she was missing. Then her body was found, naked and partially mummified, about seven miles away. The location in a rugged canyon far from any roads was smack in the middle of a marijuana farm that had been eradicated just shortly before she went missing.

Things got even stranger when the LASD, which had exclusive access to Richardson's remains for at least six hours, moved the body without bringing the coroner in to gather evidence that could help determine the cause, time and location of her death.

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A Troubled Investigation

The missteps, possible cover-ups, protocol violations, withholding of evidence, neglect, incompetence, and what appeared to be lies by personnel at the Lost Hills station and others in the department, including then-Sheriff Lee Baca and the since-dismantled Office of Independent Review, are too vast to recall here.

At a private event last week hosted by a friend of Richardson's family, Sheriff Alex Villanuevasaid he would "like to get to the bottom of it" and that he wants to "assess the entire case." His statement triggered a small news flurry and speculation among those who follow Richardson's story that it had been closed or gone cold and was now being re-opened or re-assigned.

However, through an LASD spokesperson, Sheriff Villanueva confirmed to KPCC/LAist that the case has never been closed or deemed cold.

Additionally, the sheriff said there have been no new leads or changes to the status of the case, and that it has not been reassigned within LASD. LASD has no plans to hold its own press conference or issue its own statement about the case.

Villanueva is planning to attend a memorial for Richardson on Tuesday at the Lost Hills Sheriff's Station. The sheriff was not initially scheduled to speak at the event, organized by a family friend, but has said he wants to "make sure the family is heard."

Ultimately, he did address the gathering; expressing concern for Richardson's family, but not announcing a new investigation. He also did not indicate the case would be reassigned within the department.

Here are 12 key unresolved questions about the Richardson case, as explained by our investigative editor Mike Kessler, who reported on the story for Los Angeles magazine back in 2011.

1. Why Wasn't Richardson Sent For A Psych Evaluation, Despite Her Odd Behavior?

Why It Matters: According to an email obtained while reporting the article in 2011, deputies had considered letting Richardson go with a citation, but decided to arrest her, in part, because witnesses had said she'd been acting strangely. If deputies breached protocol by simply locking Richardson up, they should be held accountable.

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2. Why Did The Department Claim Richardson's Behavior Was Perfectly Normal?

An email contradicts this claim.

Why It Matters: If LASD put forth a narrative to cover for its mistakes, the people responsible for creating and sharing that narrative should be held accountable. Of course, Sheriff Baca resigned in the wake of the inmate-abuse scandal, a story that broke shortly after publication of my article, and his press officer, Steve Whitmore, has moved on.

3. Why Was The Unedited Jail Cell Video Of Her Detention Never Given To The Family Or Its Attorneys?

Why It Matters: This video could have crucial information that sheds light on Richardson's behavior in her cell, where she was held for about two hours. Besides that, releasing the video would go a long way toward reassuring the family that LASD has nothing to hide.

4. A Deputy Is Seen Leaving The Building Shortly After Richardson. Did They Interact?

The departure is recorded on the video but it's not known if the deputy spoke to Richardson. And, if so, what was said.

Why It Matters: Again, by not elaborating on who had contact with Richardson when she was in or near the station, the more LASD appears to have something to hide. Some transparency would help the department regain public trust. It's also important to know if anyone else from the department saw or interacted with Richardson outside of the station.

5. Why Did Then-Capt. Tom Martin Withhold The Video From The Family?

Martin claimed the video didn't exist for months when it was, in fact, in his desk drawer.

Why It Matters: If Martin was withholding the tape to protect an underling who made a mistake, there should have been consequences. Regardless of why he'd stashed the video in his desk, his secrecy wasn't serving the case or the public. What was most baffling was that shortly after admitting to then-Sheriff Baca that he'd had the tape in his possession, he was promoted.

6. Why Did A Deputy Tell Richardson's Mother To Delay Filing A Missing Persons Report?

Her mother mother was obviously worried. Also: Why did LASD wait so long to issue an alert for people to "Be On The Lookout" for Richardson, never mind a proper search?

Why It Matters: If this deputy had followed protocol and taken a missing persons report right away, he might have issued that "BOLO" alert -- and even helped find Richardson. In a way, it's less about why he didn't issue a BOLO and more about whether he paid consequences. If he's held accountable, maybe others will think twice before making similar decisions.

7. How Quickly Did Deputies Respond To A Report of a Woman In a Nearby Yard?

A woman fitting Richardson's description was reported by a neighbor six hours after her release.

Why It Matters: There were no fewer than 20 deputies on shift when the neighbor made this call. Someone could have been on the scene in less than 10 minutes. The station is just six miles away. We still don't know who was dispatched, when they arrived or whether they got out of their car to look for Richardson.

Mitrice Richardson made the cover of a 2009 People Magazine focused on women and girls who had disappeared. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

8. Was The Remote Area Where Her Remains Were Found Previously Scoured?

The area where Richardson's remains were ultimately found by rangers checking on an eradicated marijuana farm, is an upper, extremely remote part of dark canyon.

Why It Matters: If the area was searched and her remains weren't found, it stands to reason that her body was dumped there after the searches -- as two expert sources suggested. If it wasn't searched, the public deserves to know why and how such decisions get made.

9. Did Investigators Talk To Pot Farmers At Nearby Operations?

Rangers had busted marijuana farmers at operations close to where Richardson's remains were discovered. Did deputies interview them between the time she disappeared and the time her remains were found?

Why It Matters: The arrests in question happened no more than three miles away from the location of Richardson's remains. Clusters of grow operations in the Santa Monica Mountains are generally run by one group. If pot farmers were involved in Richardson's death, the people who'd been arrested could have had valuable evidence.

10. Why Did LASD Keep The Coroner Away For More Than Six Hours ?

The coroner waited more than six hours to remove Richardson's remains.

Why It Matters: The LASD's ongoing excuse has been a shortage of helicopters, but multiple sources said that's a bogus claim; LASD and the L.A. County fire departments could easily have wrangled another chopper from nearby sites, as it does from time to time. It's virtually unheard of for law enforcement to block access to remains in this way. So if there is a good reason, it would behoove LASD to share it. Every excuse it's put forth so far has been inadequate.

11. Why Did Detectives Claim That Richardson's Remains Were Intact When They Put Her In The Helicopter?

Why It Matters: The claim was patently false. There were a number of missing bones, and Richardson's skull wasn't even attached to her neck. To say this claim suggests a lack of transparency is an understatement.

12. What would getting these answers mean for this case, and others, so long after Richardson's death?

Why It Matters: I've spent more time thinking about Richardson's story than I have on any other project in more than 20 years as a journalist. Mistakes were made. And no one at LASD, to my knowledge, suffered any consequences as a result. Richardson and her family were treated with little to no respect. That needs to stop. I hope that someone, someday will answer these questions and help Richardson's family and the public understand what happened. Just as important, if someone -- anyone -- is finally held accountable, maybe a tragedy like this can be prevented.

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