A recent college graduate, she was jailed briefly for trying to skip out on her dinner tab in Malibu, then freed in the middle of the night in a neighborhood far from home.
She had no car, no ride, no phone, and no money.
When she disappeared, it raised a flurry of questions about how the sheriff’s department handled her case.
The discovery of her body a year later only raised more.
The rangers found the corpse shortly past twelve o’clock on a warm day in August 2010. They were deep in Dark Canyon, on the 818 side of the Santa Monica Mountains, inspecting a marijuana farm that had allegedly been run by a Mexican cartel.
They were familiar with the farm. Just over a year earlier, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department had flown over Dark Canyon and spotted the “grow,” along with a pair of others in the Malibu region—swaths of ganja that had been planted in spring and left to mature until the late summer harvest. After the flyover, the farms were raided. As expected, the growers were absent, and a thousand plants were uprooted in Dark Canyon alone.
Dark Canyon is a sensible place for a pot farm. Located near Calabasas, it’s less than eight miles from the 101 freeway, yet it’s rugged and seldom traveled. Hemmed in by private and federal land, it begins at the top of Piuma Road and descends from south to north, with a boulder-strewn creek—Dark Creek—running the length of the lush canyon bottom. Besides a blip of the Santa Monica Mountains Backbone Trail that crosses the lower part of the drainage, there are no official footpaths. In the wet season poison oak is unavoidable. Year-round the narrow canyon floor is rife with live oaks and scratchy laurel sumacs. You don’t stroll along Dark Creek, you negotiate it—hopping, climbing, concentrating.
On this summer day the rangers were making sure the pot operation had remained defunct. Some equipment was lying around—hundreds of feet of garden hoses that once siphoned creek water into spigoted PVC lines—but the cannabis was gone. Satisfied that the growers hadn’t replanted, the rangers headed downstream. Negotiating a series of boulders, they detoured through a wide clearing about 60 feet upslope from the creek bed. Then they noticed the skull and, beneath the leaf debris and dirt, a semidecomposed, naked body.
The men radioed State Parks dispatch, which alerted the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station, the LASD substation that handles law enforcement in the area. It was now up to deputies to call the coroner and head to Dark Canyon and guard the remains. Soon everyone’s hunch would be confirmed: This was the body of Mitrice Richardson, the 24-year-old who’d disappeared a year prior after being released from the Lost Hills station in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on her back. Finally, it seemed, the case of the missing woman could be closed.
Undeterred: Latice Sutton in dark canyon, near the Monte Nido neighborhood where her daughter was last seen
There she was— young, beautiful, zipping along PCH in her throaty ’98 Civic, watching the sun sink on a Wednesday evening in September 2009. That’s when Mitrice (pronounced my-TREECE) saw the sign, surrounded by palm trees, its blue cursive letters aglow: Geoffrey’s. Just below Point Dume in Malibu, the restaurant is regarded for its four-star views of the Pacific. Mitrice didn’t know Geoffrey’s, and she didn’t know Malibu. She knew Covina and the suburbs east of L.A., where she grew up with her mother and stepfather. She knew Fullerton, where she graduated with honors from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in psychology the year before, in 2008. She knew Long Beach, where she worked Friday nights as a go-go dancer. She knew South L.A., where her father lived and where she resided with her great-grandmother at 118th and Central. Malibu was not Mitrice’s turf.
In the parking lot Mitrice cut the engine and waited for the valet, but by the time he was ready to park her car, he found her seated in his vehicle, which was nearby with the door open. Hazel eyed, with curly locks sticking out of her Rastafarian-style hat, she wore a long-sleeved white T-shirt under a black Bob Marley tee, Vans, and fashionably distressed jeans with a pink alligator-pattern belt. The valet asked Mitrice why she was there. “It’s subliminal,” she said and muttered about avenging the death of Michael Jackson. Mitrice gave the valet her keys and, before making her way into the restaurant, asked, “Vanessa* here?”—as if he knew the person she was asking about. She said to keep an eye out for a girl with tattooed arms.
Mitrice appeared harmless, but to play it safe the valet warned the hostess she seemed pretty weird. Sitting at her table, Mitrice ordered an Ocean Breeze cocktail and a Kobe steak. She wasn’t alone for long. Drawn to the chatter coming from a table of seven, Mitrice seated herself there and tried to join the conversation, yammering unintelligibly about astrological signs. A staffer checked in with the patrons. Everything was fine, one indicated—bizarre but manageable. Though Mitrice went back to her table to eat, she returned later to jabber more. She was going to Hawaii, she announced, and would contact them when she arrived.
After the seven diners had departed, Mitrice walked toward the entrance, where the manager intercepted her and asked how she planned to pay her $89 tab. The other table should have covered her, she explained, but the manager informed her that this was not the case. “I am busted,” she said. “What are we going to do?” As the manager spoke to her, Mitrice gazed at the numerical patterns on a restaurant computer screen, as if in a trance. She told him she was from Mars and remarked about settling her debt with sex. Emptying her pockets to prove she had no money, Mitrice unearthed a joint, at which point a staffer contacted the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station. “We have a guest here who is refusing to pay her bill,” she told the dispatcher. “She sounds really crazy…. She may be on drugs or something.”
While the sheriff’s deputies were en route, Mitrice told the hostess that she’d been watching a soap opera at work when God instructed her to take the afternoon off. She had no parents, she said, just her great-grandmother, Mildred. The hostess called Mildred, who offered her credit card number, but the restaurant required a signature. Ninety years old, Mildred couldn’t help. She was still on the line, at about 9 p.m., when Lost Hills deputies Frank Brower, Armando Loureiro, and John McKay arrived and the manager described Mitrice’s strange behavior. One of them got on the phone with Mildred, then gave it over to Mitrice, who sounded unfazed by the trouble she’d gotten herself into. “You put that phone close to your ear,” Mildred said to her. “They’re gettin’ ready to take your black ass to jail.” After Mildred hung up, the old woman called her granddaughter Latice Sutton—the mother Mitrice had claimed she didn’t have.
McKay and Brower searched Mitrice’s cluttered car. Though they didn’t report finding her cell phone, money, or wallet stowed in the Civic, they did discover Mitrice’s driver’s license, along with marijuana scraps and partially finished bottles of booze. According to Brower, he was informed by the arresting deputy, Loureiro, that Mitrice was “possibly drunk, making odd statements.” For this reason Brower says he was instructed to administer a field sobriety test. Brower checked Mitrice’s eyes and pulse—she was sober. When he asked Mitrice why she was at Geoffrey’s, she told him she’d been drawn by the lights. Was she on medication? No. Had she ever been placed on 72-hour hold for psychological evaluation? No.
Employees at Geoffrey’s considered paying Mitrice’s bill so she could walk with only a misdemeanor ticket for pot possession. But they concluded she wasn’t safe on her own—not operating a car, not after acting so strangely. The manager elected to press charges. He’s too shaken to say much about Mitrice these days. Too much guilt. Too many death threats and blogosphere comments like “Geoffrey’s kills black women.” But he told local reporter Julie Ellerton that handing Mitrice to sheriff's deputies "was almost like a blessing to my heart at that point. Like, OK, good, this is all going the way that it should."
Mitrice’s Civic was impounded. She was sitting in the back of a squad car when her mother, Latice, called the Lost Hills station. Located 25 minutes from Geoffrey’s in a patch of suburbia near Agoura Hills, it’s the same facility where Mel Gibson was taken in 2006 after his drunk driving arrest and later given a ride to his car by deputies. Latice reasoned that if Mitrice was going to be locked up all night, she may as well let her other daughter, ten-year-old Miiah, sleep rather than schlep her to the station to wait till sunrise. And besides, she thought, a night in jail might be a dose of tough love, a chance for Mitrice to think about her life. The deputy on the phone assured Latice that Mitrice would be safe at the station. “I think the only way I will come and get her tonight is if you guys are going to release her tonight,” Latice said. “She definitely…she’s not from that area, and I would hate to wake up to a morning report, ‘Girl lost somewhere with her head chopped off.’ ”
If a law enforcement officer determines that an arrestee is mentally unstable, he’s allowed to detain the person as a possible 5150, the official code for an individual who poses a danger to oneself or others. In such a scenario the officer will either put the arrestee on a “watch commander hold” for greater scrutiny or, if necessary, send him or her to a facility for 72-hour psychological evaluation. Both instances call for extra time and paperwork, or even a trip to a hospital. The arresting deputy, Loureiro, didn’t mention any unusual behavior or “odd statements” in the arrest report. Mitrice was simply charged with defrauding an innkeeper and possession of marijuana. Since her record was clean, keeping her locked up could have been a violation of policy.
Mitrice didn’t call her mom from jail; the only number she had memorized was her great-grandmother Mildred’s. Logbooks show that she called, or tried to call, Mildred four times following her arrest. The LASD has said that she was overheard having a conversation, but Mildred insists her phone never rang. Because the pay phone—which records outgoing calls—was broken, the calls were made from a nonrecording line. For all anyone knows, Mitrice was blathering to a dial tone. Figuring Mitrice would sleep through the night, Latice waited until 5:35 the next morning to phone the station. She reached the jailer, Sheron Cummings, who informed her that Mitrice was no longer there.
Cummings knew Mitrice’s car was in the impound yard and that nobody was coming to pick her up. She also knew that Mitrice had no personal items besides her license and two keys that were in her pocket. Cummings has maintained that Mitrice declined an offer to stay in the lobby and said she was going to meet friends. The jailer released Mitrice at 12:15 a.m. on a Thursday—40 miles from home with no cell phone, no money, and no transportation. The closest open businesses are a mile away, out of view from the station, with nothing in between except empty sidewalks and commercial buildings that shut down at night.
A moment after talking to the jailer, Latice called the station again and spoke with Deputy Kenneth Bomgardner. “How long before a missing persons report can be filed?” she can be heard asking on the recording. “Is it 24 or 48 hours?”
“Well, it depends on the circumstances,” Bomgardner replied. “Normally I wouldn’t recommend doing one that soon.” Bomgardner didn’t know about Mitrice’s arrest or release, so Latice filled him in. Again she inquired about the time frame for filing a missing persons report. “You know, I guess probably 24 hours would be reasonable,” Bomgardner told her. “I mean, if there would be some mitigating factors, you know, where you would suspect maybe something [is] not quite right...”
Latice began crying. “Well, yeah, she doesn’t know the area. She’s never been in your area before.”
“I would probably wait till, you know, early this morning, and if she doesn’t turn up, you can certainly call,” Bomgardner advised. Sobbing, Latice told him that she believed her daughter to be “highly depressed” and “in a depressive state.” Bomgardner tried to soothe Latice and suggested, “Why don’t you wait a couple hours and give us some time” to make sure Mitrice wasn’t asleep in the lobby. “Then why don’t you give us a call back in a couple hours, and 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 a.m., Lost Hills received a call from Bill Smith, a retired KTLA reporter who lives in Monte Nido, the bucolic community of horse properties and private hiking trails that lies about six miles west of the station, at the bottom of Dark Canyon. “We had a prowler walking around through the backyard here, but we don’t know what the situation was,” Smith told the dispatcher. He described the trespasser as a “slim black woman” with “Afro hair.”
Smith recounted how he’d opened his window and asked the woman if she was OK. “She said, ‘I’m just resting,’ ” he explained. When Smith went to another window to get a clearer glimpse of her, the woman was gone. Lost Hills sent a cruiser to the house, but they weren’t able to find anyone. Deputies didn’t issue a “Be on the Lookout” alert for another six-and-a-half hours, by which time it was too late. Mitrice had vanished.
There’s an old video snippet that Latice loves to watch. Mitrice Lavon Richardson is called onstage at her kindergarten graduation to accept her certificate, but when she turns to face the auditorium, she launches into a “Running Man” dance that slays the crowd. Mitrice was a clown, a ham, a princess, a brat, and most of all, a dancer. She wiggled in her crib to Prince’s “Kiss” before she could walk. No one could ignore this child. Mitrice did the standing splits for no reason. She gave big, exaggerated air kisses: “Muah!”
“We’d be waiting for our parents to pick us up, and Mitrice would break into some silly dance or make up a rap about whatever you were talking about,” says Jalonda Davis, who went to middle and high school with her. “She was uninhibited and funny. But at the same time her parents’ background really drove her ambition.”
Latice Harris and Michael Richardson met in their junior year at Locke High, in 1983, back when that part of South L.A. was still known as Watts. Michael played clarinet; Latice was on the drill team, a dedicated student trying to shake the weight of her tough childhood. She was a social butterfly with seven siblings, most of them scattered throughout the foster care system. Her father wasn’t around and her mom was a drinker, so Latice grew up with her grandparents, Eddie and Mildred. On Mother’s Day of 1980, when Latice was 12, she watched Eddie shoot her grandmother three times (once in the finger, twice in the torso) before pointing the pistol at his chest and leaving the ghetto for good. She knew her future depended on solid report cards.
Homework was not Michael’s forte. But his Jheri curl? Now that was some honor roll shit. He wore a $900 red leather Michael Jackson jacket, the one with all the zippers, purchased at the Fox Hills Mall with money he made slinging nickel bags and punching the clock at Church’s Fried Chicken after school. He did “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” and “Thriller,” loose limbed, kicking up his leg, flicking his arm with a sleeve pushed up. He called Latice “Tee-Cee.” She called him Romeo and had his nickname tattooed on her wrist.
Latice was straddling two worlds. During her senior year, she tried to keep her grades up as she carried Mitrice in her belly. After the couple graduated, Mildred cared for Mitrice so the young parents could work. Petty wages weren’t cutting it for Michael, though. Small-time hustles turned into a series of felonies, and by 1989 he was serving an eight-year sentence at Soledad State Prison. (He was transferred to a lower security facility and released after four years.) While Michael did his time, Latice met a new man, Jimmy,* and to Michael’s dismay, married him. In ’93, disheartened by the Rodney King riots, the newlyweds moved to the San Gabriel Valley, where Latice would eventually open a legal services business and Mitrice could have a fair shot at life.
By middle school she was cheerleading. Come high school, she was deep into dance classes and attending multiple proms. If she got into trouble goofing off in class, her mother made her wear a uniform to school—a romper with knee-high socks. “It was important to have rules,” says Latice, who passed along her high cheekbones and slender face to Mitrice. “I always taught her to do it right the first time so you don’t have to do it a second time, and that’ll free you up to do more of the things you want to do.” As a young adult, Mitrice loved to drive, hated to walk, and had no inclination toward the natural world. “She’d be over at my house on a beautiful Saturday,” her aunt, Lauren Sutton, tells me. “My son and the neighbor’s kid and I would be out gardening. But Mitrice wouldn’t have anything to do with it. It was dirty. There were bugs. She’d stay inside and do crosswords or watch television or dance or write in her journal. Mitrice was a princess.” For all of her high energy and extracurricular activities, Mitrice kept her grades up enough to get into Cal State Fullerton. She’d be the first person in her family to go to college.
The sheriff’s department waited two days after Mitrice’s release to conduct its first search. Rather than deploy scent dogs from the station to determine whether she’d gotten a ride or walked the six miles to Monte Nido, searchers started at the “location last seen”: Bill Smith’s house. Out front they found tracks from Mitrice’s sneakers. It appeared she’d been running, but they lost the pattern among shoe and hoof prints fewer than a hundred feet from Dark Creek. The officers didn’t hike into Dark Canyon.
Because Mitrice was an L.A. resident, the investigation became the responsibility of the LAPD’s Missing Persons Unit, although the sheriff’s department remained heavily involved. Three days into the search the case was reassigned again to the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division because, officials explained, that office had better resources. It was not, they assured everyone, a homicide investigation. When the LAPD got ahold of journals from Mitrice’s Civic, they concluded that she’d been sleep deprived for several days and could have been suffering a bipolar episode the night of her arrest. Police also found her ATM card, checkbook, and cell phone in the car.
It didn’t take long for the press to pick up the story about the strange black woman who’d disappeared near sleepy, white Malibu after being in sheriff’s custody; her family and friends, as well as others who’d heard about the case, had descended on the area, handing out flyers and pleading for anyone who’d seen her to step forward. Michael and Latice, who’d been clashing off and on since their breakup some two decades before, looked past their distaste for one another, if only briefly. They wanted their daughter back, and they wanted answers. How could deputies let a woman loose in the middle of the night, in a remote area, with nothing but her driver’s license? Why didn’t they take her unusual behavior seriously? Why does Mel Gibson get a ride to his car, but not the black girl from Watts?
On September 20, 2009, three days after Mitrice’s disappearance, Lost Hills station’s Lieutenant Scott Chew sent an e-mail to his supervisor, Captain Thomas Martin, concerning the arrest and release of Mitrice. A well-placed source provided me the contents of the e-mail, in which Chew says the arresting deputy, Loureiro, booked Mitrice “because he wanted to make sure she was alright. 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.” Chew noted, “In the end, [Loureiro] brought her because of his instincts. The fact that she disappeared validated his instinct.” Yet Chew concluded the e-mail by rationalizing the missteps that led to Mitrice’s disappearance: “At the station it became obvious she was well educated and intelligent,” he wrote, “…so there was nothing to justify” keeping her overnight.
(Update 3/15/12: I recently obtained a hard copy of the email, which can be read here.)
Though the e-mail—its subject line: “I spoke with Loureiro”—is in the case file, Chew has claimed that he doesn’t remember writing it or talking to Loureiro. Likewise, Loureiro has insisted that he doesn’t recall the conversation with Chew and that Mitrice was of sound mind at Geoffrey’s; he also denies that he asked Deputy Brower to perform a sobriety test because Mitrice was making “odd statements.” Five days after Chew sent the e-mail, Lost Hills issued an addendum to the sobriety test, which reiterated that Mitrice “appeared to be entirely aware of her surroundings and did not seem confused.” Three weeks later, in October, sheriff’s department spokesman Steve Whitmore declared to the public that Mitrice “exhibited no signs of mental incapacitation whatsoever.” By early November Sheriff Lee Baca wrote to his bosses at the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, concluding that “all applicable laws, policies, and procedures were followed.”
In the meantime, sheriff’s department and LAPD personnel chased false leads from Beverly Hills to Chino Hills. Hoping to gain some insight into Mitrice’s behavior at the station, the family tried to acquire the jail cell video from the night of the arrest; to their surprise, Captain Martin told them it didn’t exist. “There is no video or tape of any kind,” he was quoted as saying in the Malibu Surfside News. But on January 6, 2010, when Latice, Mitrice’s aunt Lauren, and two friends sat down with Martin and Sheriff Baca at LASD headquarters in Monterey Park, Martin confessed that there was indeed a video. It was in his desk drawer. By the end of the month, Martin—a 34-year LASD veteran who lived minutes from the station he’d led for six years—was promoted to commander and transferred to Monterey Park, more than an hour away. He was replaced by Captain Joseph Stephen, the first African American to run the Lost Hills facility.
Three months would pass before Mitrice’s family was allowed to view the footage at LASD headquarters. (The department attributed the delay to technical difficulties.) Latice says her daughter appeared agitated and distressed. However, the video had been edited, leaving the family to wonder what had been cut out. For instance, one moment Mitrice is holding a piece of paper, according to those permitted to see the tape; in the next the paper appears on the floor, crumpled. “Why won’t they show us how that piece of paper got that way?” asks Latice. “When they withhold information, it causes suspicion. Did they cut important footage?” Though the sheriff’s department may simply have condensed the video for an outside audience, it refuses to clarify why the footage was truncated and has not provided the unedited version.
The LASD declined to elaborate on another detail that has rattled Mitrice’s family even further: About two minutes after Mitrice is seen exiting the station, a deputy goes out an adjacent door. “It was shocking,” Latice tells me. “For the first time we learned that someone from LASD might have seen or even talked to Mitrice outside the station. We thought it was vital that someone look into it.” The department wouldn’t reveal the name of the deputy, and its lack of transparency has only fueled the family’s distrust. “Of course it makes me suspicious,” says Michael, a six-foot-one-inch-tall, 335-pound self-proclaimed hothead with a tattoo of Mitrice on his forearm. “The guy leaves the building right after my daughter, and they don’t tell us anything about him? He could have abducted her, offered her a ride to the impound lot, left her for dead and come back for her. Maybe he didn’t see her. The point is, Why have they been hiding him? It’s their job to get off their doughnut-eatin’ asses and find the truth.”
A confidential source provided me the name of the deputy in the video, who’d been transferred less than six months after Mitrice’s family viewed the footage. When I called the deputy, he told me, “Unfortunately for you, dude, I wasn’t there,” and hung up. On our next call he insisted that he couldn’t remember if he’d been at the station the night Mitrice was arrested, and then went on to imply that he had been on-site. “The night this nonsense happened,” he said, “I was one of the guys that kept away from this, minding my own business.”
When someone levels a serious complaint against the LASD, it’s often handled by the Office of Independent Review, a group of private contractor attorneys that reports to the county board of supervisors. Michael Gennaco was in his late forties when he was selected by the board in 2001 to head the new watchdog agency. Tall and soft-spoken, with short gray hair, Gennaco speaks with the specificity of the federal prosecutor he once was. Investigations of the LASD, he explained, are conducted by the LASD’s own Internal Affairs department. “Our bread-and-butter work,” he told me at the OIR’s offices in the City of Commerce, “is to ensure that the investigation that is done is a thorough investigation.” No Internal Affairs investigation of Mitrice’s arrest and release was ordered, however. Regardless of criticism of the sheriff’s department from the family, the public, and the press, “there really wasn’t a complaint or any allegation of violation of policy,” Gennaco told me. Instead of mandating a formal investigation, the OIR called for a “preliminary inquiry.”
On July 9, 2010, one month before rangers found Mitrice’s body, Gennaco’s office issued a confidential report to the board. The 58-page document was leaked right after Mitrice’s remains were discovered. In it the OIR declares that Mitrice’s “questionable behavior included going to a restaurant, ordering a meal, parking valet, and leaving without a means to pay” but does not acknowledge Deputy Loureiro’s alleged remark about Mitrice’s “odd statements.” Rather, the OIR determines that the Lost Hills deputies didn’t endanger Mitrice by releasing her and cites the sheriff’s manual, which states, “Misdemeanor prisoners shall be released in the field whenever it is reasonable and safe to do so.” The report excludes two California penal codes about filing missing persons reports, one of which 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,” and the other of which states, “…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.” The latter code, in fact, requires even more stringent measures when it comes to missing persons who have no history of disappearing, are mentally unstable, or both. The OIR document also claims that Deputy Bomgardner “explained the procedures for filing a missing person report” to Latice. Of course, according to the audio released by the department, he simply told her that if she called back in a couple of hours, “maybe we can do something for you.”
The omissions continue. The report doesn’t contain a word regarding Lieutenant Chew’s e-mail that says Deputy Loureiro felt Mitrice was acting unusual and that he was uneasy about letting her go. There’s nothing about how the jail cell video was in Captain Martin’s desk drawer for more than three months while he denied its existence. In response to suspicions voiced by Mitrice’s family about the footage, the OIR report concludes that the deputy seen leaving the building after Mitrice couldn’t have abducted her because he was on official business with his partner and because Mitrice was seen several hours later in Monte Nido, yet the passage accounts for only a few minutes of the whereabouts of the deputy and his partner on the day Mitrice disappeared.
Despite a proclamation on page six that asserts “OIR played a multifaceted role in the review of the department’s actions,” the claim is accompanied by a footnote: “OIR did not conduct any interviews of the deputies and station jailer who had actual contact with Ms. Richardson on September 16 and 17, 2009, or who were involved in her being taken into custody or released from custody.” In other words, sheriff’s personnel got to choose what they handed over to the watchdog agency.
After our first meeting, I called Gennaco and asked if he’d see me again to clarify parts of the report. “I can try and help,” he told me. “But some of it may be unclear—because it’s unclear!” He laughed. “Here’s one of the problems, of course. This was not written for the public. It was written for the board just as an update. It wasn’t intended to be particularly clear.” In our second meeting Gennaco couldn’t explain why so many details had been left out of the report that he’d approved and signed off on. He didn’t conduct the inquiry or write the document, he said. (The report’s author no longer works for the OIR; he didn’t respond to interview requests.) I mentioned the family’s concerns about the withheld video and the deputy in the footage. “Yeah, sure,” Gennaco said. Could the deputy and his partner, he continued, 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! The mere fact that someone’s coming out the door shortly after somebody else means absolutely nothing to me! There’s no evidence that [they] didn’t do anything wrong. There’s no evidence that you didn’t!”
Gennaco is right. The deputy at the door could have been pure coincidence and might not have even seen Mitrice. But, says Latice, “I’m entitled—as is the public—to a more thorough explanation than the one they provided, especially after being told that there was no video. If you consider how many other details they left out, it looks like a whitewash that lets LASD off the hook.”
(Update: On 3/14/12, seven months after this article revealed the contents of Lt. Chew's email, Sheriff Baca maintained that deputies had no reason to be concerned about Mitrice's unusual behavior, and that if written evidence of such concerns existed, "Certainly Mr. Gennaco's report would have said so.")
The year before Mitrice showed up at Geoffrey’s was a period of radical change for her. In 2008, she graduated from CSUF with plans to become a psychologist. She’d recently come out as a lesbian, too. Mitrice wore her sexuality like a favorite prom dress, entering beauty pageants, marching in the Long Beach Lesbian & Gay Pride Parade—out and proud. She started dating Tessa Moon, an avid boxer who was as tough as Mitrice was girly. While figuring out where to get her master’s degree, Mitrice lived with her great-grandmother and earned money doing clerical work for the Santa Fe Springs shipping company owned by Tessa’s father. In the spring of 2009, the couple decided to break up.
Mitrice had begun performing on Friday nights as a go-go dancer at Debra’s, a popular lesbian club in Long Beach. She called herself Hazel and even printed business cards. When her father learned about the gig, he warned Mitrice, “Once you start go-go dancing, you’re exposed to a whole other element.” She tried to build her modeling portfolio, hitting auditions here and there. “I went with her to one,” says her friend Andrea Adams. “We got to this building, and it was really shady. We didn’t go in, but I’m pretty sure she would have if I wasn’t there.” In August Mitrice attended the Hot Summer Nights Party at the Playboy Mansion as a guest model. The next night she won $500 in a butt-jiggling reggae dance contest in Hollywood.
By then Mitrice had fallen for a Long Beach woman named Vanessa, a regular at the club where she danced. That Vanessa had a girlfriend only made Mitrice more determined to win her over. She became obsessed. One night after her go-go job, Mitrice drove solo to Las Vegas to join in Vanessa’s birthday celebration. Eventually Vanessa had to tell her to stay away. Mitrice’s behavior was becoming bizarre. She didn’t talk on the phone as much. She posted frequent musings on MySpace at all hours (“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?? welcome to my reality…”). Something was off. She’d talked to at least one friend about seeking therapy, but as far as anyone close to her knew, she’d never dealt with mental illness. As her ex-girlfriend Tessa put it, “Mitrice wanted people to think she had everything under control.”
Presence: Mitrice at the 2006 Miss Azusa Pageant
In the days leading up to her disappearance, Mitrice sent her mother a number of alarming, semidecipherable text messages. “u have to tell me what’s going on with you,” Latice texted back. “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..… Help me understand what’s going on with you? Are you feeling lost? Helpless? Alone? Rejected?”
Mitrice replied, “I’m writing a book (my journal) because u told me I can be anything I wanted…u told me I was Miss America, u told me I was America’s next top model…now do u know what I want to be when I grow up? Miss mother nature…cuz Miss America is a fake ass joke along with everything else we ‘see’ so I’m trying to find my way to Michelle Obama to see if she will talk to Mr. Obama about creating my position within the white house.”
“Call me!” her mother urged.
“I feel joy mommie,” Mitrice wrote. “not everyone has to die to live…I heard in the Bible Jesus dies so we can live forever…now I have to prove the ‘unlogic.’ ”
On Wednesday, September 16, as Latice slept, she received a couple more nonsensical text messages from Mitrice. According to a coworker at her shipping company job, Mitrice showed up that morning in an unusually bubbly mood, did some work, went out for lunch, and never returned. She made a late afternoon stop at Mildred’s house and left without saying where she was headed. In the early evening Mitrice’s aunt Lauren discovered her niece’s “Hazel” cards plastered all over the porch of her Inglewood home. Mitrice had left a note on Lauren’s husband’s windshield, a collection of random thoughts and doodles. “I ™ Uncle Johnny/Jimmy,” she wrote. In the right margin she’d scribbled the words “Black Women Scorned.” She signed off with one of her famous air kisses: “Muah!”
Sheriff’s personnel conducted a massive January 2010 search—at least 240 people, 60 of them on horseback, plus ATVs, bikes, dogs, and helicopters. When a missing woman is found dead, the body is typically discovered within a ten-mile radius of where she was last seen, but the sheriff’s department, for reasons it refuses to explain, won’t say whether it even searched Dark Canyon.
By this time members of the press had only widened the rift between Mitrice’s parents. Latice was convinced that Mitrice was dead; Michael held out hope. Riding in the back of a friend’s SUV near the Las Vegas Strip that January, he thought he saw his daughter prostituting herself. He jumped out at a red light, losing sight of the woman before he could get to her. Law enforcement brushed off his report, but Michael was certain he’d seen Mitrice. It made sense to him. Mitrice had partied with Vanessa in Vegas a few weeks before she’d disappeared. He knew about the Playboy gig. Even though Michael had spent several years working in health care management, his South L.A. street instincts kicked in. Could someone she met at the Playboy party have recruited her? Is that why she’d gone to Malibu? Could a pimp or a john have picked her up from jail? “If someone was pimpin’ her out, I’d have accepted that,” he told me one afternoon, leaning into the table of an Inglewood Starbucks. “I’d take that quicker than what I have now.”
In late June 2010, a high school friend of Mitrice reported seeing her at a Las Vegas casino. This time local police took the report seriously. When the story broke, the LVPD received word of some 70 more alleged sightings, and L.A. sheriff’s investigators traveled to Vegas for a joint-agency press conference. Latice, however, insisted that the sightings were nonsense. On August 9, 2010, the rangers headed into Dark Canyon to check on the eradicated pot farm and stumbled upon Mitrice’s remains—less than eight miles from the Lost Hills sheriff’s station and within two miles of the location where she was last seen.
The rangers were gone now. It was just sheriff’s personnel and Mitrice’s naked body. Leaf debris and dirt covered most of it. Hair clung to her skull. More hair was scattered nearby, an earring and bits of something metallic tangled within it. According to the coroner’s report, an unidentified Lost Hills deputy arrived at the scene by 1:30 p.m., about 80 minutes after the rangers called in their find. There were still six hours of daylight—plenty of time for the coroner to get to Dark Canyon, take photos, collect evidence, and bring the remains to the lab. State penal code dictates that law enforcement should notify the coroner the moment it learns about human remains. But the coroner reported that the LASD didn’t alert them until 2:58 p.m., nearly 90 minutes after the deputy arrived and almost three hours after the Lost Hills station was informed about the body.
Just before 5 p.m. the coroner’s seven-man team, led by Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter, had been sent from the hillside above the canyon to the Lost Hills station, where, they were told, an LASD helicopter would retrieve them. By 5:20 p.m. LASD detectives Dan McElderry and Kevin Acevedo had been airlifted to the site. Another hour and 40 minutes passed, and there was still no helicopter for the coroner’s team. (The sheriff’s department has said the helicopter was called to search for a missing hiker.) With the sun setting and no aircraft in sight, Winter’s team assumed it would have to return in the morning. But at around 8 p.m. the LASD wrangled a chopper and made a unilateral decision. “Against the direction of Assistant Chief Winter,” the coroner’s report states, “LASD detectives collected the remains and air-lifted them” back to the Lost Hills sheriff’s station. This, despite a state 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.” In all, sheriff’s personnel kept the coroner’s team on standby for nearly four hours and had exclusive access to the remains for six-and-a-half hours before removing them from the scene, allegedly without approval.
“Law enforcement’s job is to protect the crime scene,” an LAPD detective with nearly 40 years on the force tells me. “You never move a body without permission.” The events of August 9, he says, sound “ass backwards.”
Clea Koff is also puzzled. As a former United Nations forensic anthropologist and former member of the FBI’s Scientific Working Groups, she has determined causes of death of hundreds of people in Rwanda, Bosnia, and the United States. A 38-year-old Stanford grad and native Angeleno, Koff consulted on Mitrice’s case under the auspices of her L.A.-based nonprofit, Missing Persons Identification Resource Center. “Even if the coroner’s office was going to give permission for someone else to do the recovery, they would only do it after an assessment—by photo or a visit by personnel, or a detailed description, all of which LASD could have accommodated over the course of nearly seven hours,” she tells me. Furthermore, she says, sheriff’s personnel “apparently didn’t photo-document the scene or in situ positions or the individual stages of recovery, and didn’t collect soil samples. The coroner had no understanding of the body in relationship to the place. They only had the body that was brought to them.”
There were, however, pictures taken by the rangers and ultimately given to the coroner. Those images have not been disclosed or publicly discussed, but a well-placed source says that, like so many facets of Mitrice’s case, her remains have generated more questions than they’ve answered. Her right leg, caked in soil and sprouting weeds, sat about two yards upslope from the body, atop a mound of dry vines. The femur of the leg had been removed from the soft tissue, as if it had been pulled from the top of the thigh; there was nothing but a narrow duct where the bone should have been. Moreover, the leg bore no signs of having been ravaged by animals, which, in any case, would normally drag something of that size downhill rather than uphill. “We buried a sheep here a while back,” the owner of a horse property, located a third of a mile from Mitrice’s remains, told me one evening. “Coyotes and vultures dug it up and picked it clean within days, and if they missed anything, the bugs and rodents finished it off.” As we spoke on his patio, scavengers floated overhead and coyotes yipped nearby.
Lieutenant Michael Rosson supervised the investigators on the LASD’s behalf. In October 2010, two months after the airlift, he met with Latice, Koff, Sheriff Baca, and others to discuss the case. Rosson explained that deputies were given permission from a coroner’s staffer—not Assistant Chief Winter—to move the skull and assess what was underneath the leaf debris and dirt. “At that point in time,” Rosson said, “when deputies moved the skull, the whole skeleton remains, intact, came up with the skull.” His supervisor, Captain David Smith, corroborated: “When we started removing some of those remains, the entire skeleton came up out of the ground…the skull was still attached to the skeletal remains.” But Rosson and Smith’s narrative doesn’t comport with the source’s description of the photos. Mitrice’s skull was fully detached from the neck and resting upside down without its mandible on the upper torso—a result of gravity, nudging by curious animals, or worse. Five of the neck bones weren’t even recovered that day. For the entire skeleton to come up out of the ground intact with the pull of the skull, as Rosson and Smith claimed, wasn’t just improbable, it was impossible.
The LASD won’t say whether Lieutenant Rosson and Captain Smith were in Dark Canyon to witness the airlift. Steve Whitmore, the department spokesperson, declined several opportunities to make the officers who had been there—detectives McElderry and Acevedo, among others—available for comment or to offer any comment himself for this article. When I e-mailed a sheriff’s reservist who was said to be in Dark Canyon, I received a reply from Lost Hills Captain Joseph Stephen. “Please refrain from contacting the staff,” he wrote. “The harassing nature of your attempted contact with my staff is becoming very troubling and again must cease immediately. We will not, and cannot discuss this case with you.” That afternoon I received a call from Whitmore, who told me, “The sheriff’s department has absolutely nothing to hide.” Still, he added, “when you contact them, they get unnerved.”
To rule causes of death out, you first have to rule everything in, yet the LASD seemed determined to deny that Mitrice’s death was the result of a crime. Lieutenant Rosson and others cited the possibility of anaphylactic shock from poison oak as one potential cause, an occurrence so rare that reliable statistics don’t exist. They suggested that Mitrice wandered into Dark Canyon and became one of the two people who die each year in California from rattlesnake bites.
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.
If animals didn’t remove the clothing, Captain Smith said in the October 2010 meeting, then rushing water was responsible. In that scenario the water would have needed to rise 60 feet above the top of the creek bed and push the body in the opposite direction of the current in order to deposit it where it was found. Even if the water had been that high, says Latice, “since when does water unbuckle belts, unzip jeans, and unhook bras? And how would water have taken off her T-shirts?” There is also the riddle of her mummification: Why, after 11 months outdoors, was her body partially mummified and not fully decomposed? Natural mummification, a state of preservation that renders the flesh leathery but lifelike, is usually the result of immediate and prolonged postmortem exposure to subfreezing or extremely dry environs, such as an attic or closet; it’s also better achieved when a body is clothed, providing a barrier against flies that lay the eggs that hatch flesh-eating maggots. It wouldn’t be impossible for a body to partially mummify in the elements, but this state of semidecomposition is not the norm—especially in Malibu between 2009 and 2010, an El Niño season, with almost no subfreezing weather, never mind all of the creatures in the area that feed on the dead. (The remains of Chandra Levy, the Washington intern who was found in a D.C. park one year after she disappeared, were nothing but bones.)
To Koff, there are too many unanswered questions to conclude that Mitrice wasn’t murdered. “You’ve got the naked body of a woman who you know was in a vulnerable state, within two miles of where she was last seen, in an area with which she had no expertise, in an unexplained position,” she tells me. “Usually the default move would be to consider this a homicide, at least until you can rule it out.” For instance, Koff notes, no one has explained why Mitrice’s mummified left arm was tightly flexed, as if she’d been saying the Pledge of Allegiance. “The left arm’s flexion could not have been created by the environmental conditions where the body was found,” she says. “There was nothing present to hold the arm in such a position—it was defying gravity.” To her, the position could indicate that the limb had been held in place—perhaps by a sheet or other wrapping—in a different environment while mummification set in. The veteran LAPD detective I spoke with goes further: “On the face of it, she was killed. It sounds like someone abducted her, killed her, and at some point dumped her body.”
Sheriff Baca thought otherwise. After rangers found Mitrice’s naked, semidecomposed body, he said in a press conference, “We have no indication of a homicide at this point. I don’t believe that the remains are capable of telling us a story.”
Portions of Mitrice’s story may still be in Dark Canyon. When I trekked to the site where the body had been discovered nine months earlier, I found, along with hundreds of feet of pot farm hoses, a pile of plastic grocery bags overflowing with empty food containers—stuff that drug cartel employees might have consumed as they planted cannabis. I had to wonder: Could the growers have come to check on their crop and encountered Mitrice wandering? Did she wave one of them down after leaving Bill Smith’s yard, hoping for help but finding only horror? Were her missing socks or underwear in one of those plastic bags? Could fingerprints or DNA on any of the cans or wrappers be linked to criminals in the system?
The coroner’s office also seemed uninterested in what Mitrice’s remains could reveal. As Koff put it in a December 2010 press conference, “They did not take the full complement of actions that were available to them over the course of their examination.” (Assistant Chief Winter wouldn’t comment for this article.) The hair on Mitrice’s head wasn’t examined to see if it matched the hair that was scattered on the ground. Was it someone else’s? Had it been cut off? The metallic fragments and earring in the detached hair—an earring that Mitrice wasn’t wearing at the time of her arrest—weren’t sent to a crime lab. Bug egg casings on Mitrice’s body weren’t tested to determine when the flies had hatched or whether they were consistent with the environment, evidence that could have helped determine the time and place she died. Dirt and leaves weren’t tested for blood. No craniotomy was performed to look for evidence of trauma. Pubic hair, though present on the remains, wasn’t combed for suspect hairs or foreign fibers or tested for semen. Nor were the articles of clothing near the scene. For several weeks, in fact, the coroner didn’t even know where the clothing was; Koff found them wadded up in Mitrice’s body bag after viewing the remains. Mitrice’s teeth appeared slightly pink, a possible sign of strangulation, but the coroner still hasn’t recovered the hyoid—a neck bone that can help determine whether a person was strangled—and haven’t scoured the area since their second search, which they didn’t conduct until six months after the remains were found. Last fall Latice visited the spot where her daughter was located in Dark Canyon. Her sister-in-law, a friend, and Koff went, too, all of them equipped with climbing harnesses, ropes, and helmets as LASD’S search-and-rescue experts led the way upstream. As they created a small memorial of plastic flowers, the women found one of Mitrice’s finger bones in the dirt.
I last saw Michael Richardson in April, just before what would have been Mitrice’s 26th birthday. He and Latice were not on speaking terms again, but several months earlier, he had, with attorney Benjamin Schonbrun, filed a civil suit against the sheriff’s department that was consolidated with a suit Latice filed in 2010 with attorney Leo Terrell, best known for his rants on KABC-AM (790). The joint suit alleges violation of Mitrice’s civil rights, claiming that she should have been given a psychiatric evaluation and kept in custody. The sheriff’s department denies any wrongdoing; rather than use county counsel, it has hired the upmarket Glendale law firm Lawrence, Beach, Allen & Choi. A trial is set for September 12.
When I suggested to Michael that the LASD might settle out of court, he said, “This isn’t about money. I want a trial.” He and Latice say they hope Mitrice’s case will lead to policy change, a compromise between strict overdetention rules and releasing prisoners in the middle of the night with no means of getting home.
Latice is haunted by guilt for not rushing to the Lost Hills station once she learned of Mitrice’s arrest. She suffers from debilitating anxiety and depression. Early in the ordeal Latice stated publicly that she thought deputies were involved in Mitrice’s disappearance. Though she’s convinced her daughter was murdered, that’s about the only thing she’s certain of anymore. “Mitrice is not a hiker,” she says, speaking of her daughter in the present tense, something she does often. “My daughter is a city girl. She did not wander into that canyon. I believe she was suffering from mental illness, and somebody took advantage of that. I believe she was possibly raped, definitely killed, and eventually dumped.”
Maybe it was dope growers. Maybe it was a local who figured he could pin it on the farmers. For now all Latice can do is speculate. “Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse,” she says, “sheriffs and the coroner made more mistakes that only complicate things.”
On December 29, 2010, Latice sat down with Sheriff Baca to submit a request: Based on what she’d learned from forensic anthropologist Clea Koff about the handling of the remains, she wanted Mitrice’s body exhumed and reexamined, ideally by the FBI. “I called the FBI yesterday, and I asked if they would do the examination, and they agreed to do it,” Baca told the attendees. “I am totally disappointed in [the coroner’s] lack of sensitivity about this evidence,” he added. Baca went so far as to reconsider the cause of death. “Removal of trousers and even her undergarments and the belt are not acts of nature,” he said. “I’ve always felt that it should have been treated from the offset as a possible homicide.... When you say it’s not a murder, you better know what you’re talking about, and I don’t think we’ve been able to conclude that.” He even said he’d post a reward on LACountyMurders.com, the county’s official Web site for “Wanted” announcements, but more than seven months later, nothing had been posted. On top of that, the FBI’s point person in L.A. informed Baca soon after the meeting that the bureau would be unable to help. When I called the FBI to find out why it had changed its stance, spokesperson Laura Eimiller explained that it had never agreed to do the examination, as Baca had stated at the December meeting. (The sheriff has not been made available for comment.)
On July 13, 2011, after six months of pressuring the coroner’s office, Latice found herself at Inglewood Park Cemetery, watching Mitrice’s casket being dug up. Her family and a few friends stood close by as LAX-bound jets cut through the marine layer. Eyeing the growing pile of dirt, Latice saw the orange bandanna that Michael had thrown into the grave, the sartorial mark of the Crip gang with which he’d been affiliated over the years. As the cement-encased casket was hoisted onto the back of a flatbed bound for the sheriff’s crime lab, LASD and coroner’s personnel departed in a convoy of unmarked Crown Vics. That the exam would be done by the LASD’s own crime lab wasn’t ideal to Latice, but, she said, “All I can hope is that they do the job with integrity and get some answers. Maybe they’ll determine a cause of death. Maybe they won’t. But at the very least they can rule things out, which is more than anyone has done so far.”
Whatever they find, Latice isn’t expecting the results to lessen her grief. Mitrice won’t be coming back. The cramped family room of Latice’s home, a 1950s bungalow in the San Gabriel Valley, is filled with images of her oldest daughter, overshadowing those of Mitrice’s half-sister. Miiah, after all, is in the here and now. Thirteen years old and soft-spoken, she’s a ringer for her big sister and a good kid. But her mother can’t stop worrying. She even drives behind Miiah at a distance when she ambles down the sidewalk in their neighborhood. “Miiah’s at the age where she wants to be independent and walk to school,” Latice says. “But I’m not ready to let her do that alone. I’m not sure I ever will be.”
Mike Kessler has written for Outside, The New York Times Magazine, and Men’s Journal. This is his first feature for Los Angeles.
ALSO: Watch Mike Kessler walk us through the details of this story on video
Top photograph courtesy Latice Sutton. Portraits by Gregg Segal