Last updated: 8 months ago
In September 2009, Mitrice Richardson was a 24-year-old Cal State Fullerton graduate living with her great-grandmother in Watts, working as an executive assistant for a freight company in Santa Fe Springs and preparing to become a substitute teacher. An unpaid dinner bill in Malibu changed that.
Refusing to pay the $89 she owed, Richardson was described as somone who "sounded really crazy and may be on drugs," according to the 911 call made from Geoffrey's restaurant. After finding marijuana in her car, Richardson was arrested for "possession of marijuana" and "defrauding an innkeeper." She was determined to be sober, and according to The L.A. Times, LAPD investigators believe she may have had a severe bipolar disorder.
There was no sign of Richardson until 2010 when the remains of an African American woman were discovered in a canyon about three miles away from where she was last seen. While the case was considered somewhat closed, the handling of the remains prompted deeper scrutiny.
In a 50-page report released Wednesday detailing how Mitrice Richardson's remains were found, an investigation has exposed the communication breakdown between the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and Coroner's Office.
"What was most surprising was that most of the initial information that was publicly available ended up being inaccurate," said Michael Gennaco, the chief attorney from the Los Angeles Office of Independent Review who had compiled the report.
Though spotty cellphone reception and the canyon's difficult terrain may have contributed to miscommunication between the departments, the main discrepancy pointed to a lack of authority.
"At the command post, it was unclear who was making the decisions," said Gennaco, "It led to a lot of confusion and inefficiencies to the best plan-- or plans-- because they kept changing. There was a litany of things that could have done better."
Such as waiting for the Coroner's Office to arrive.
In Malibu's Dark Canyon, where Richardson's remains were found, LASD officials were short on daylight and helicopter fuel. The report stated that the officials did not want to leave the remains, but they also did not want to stay overnight-- worried their presence would attract wildlife or that they would inadvertently disturb the site. The officials gathered the remains without the coroner being present.
And when the Coroner's Special Operations and Response Team did arrive- or tried to arrive- they couldn't find the site where the remains were located, having forgotten the GPS that would have directed them.
"So they were just wandering around. They figured they could just tramp around and stumble into it," said Gennaco.
Adding to the distress placed on the Richardson family-- who had found a finger bone while creating a memorial in the canyon-- the breakdown in communication could have also tainted the case's evidence. A prime example was when the Coroner's Office had given Richardson's clothing to her family before the homicide personnel could conduct a thorough analysis.
"The family returned it to the homicide unit and the clothing is currently being analyzed for trace elements-- maybe DNA, some evidence of a foreign object or foreign material-- to solve some of the mysteries of how she died," said Gennaco. "The coroners have made it known it was a mistake. It should have been released to law enforcement."
According to the report, the board certified pathologist who did the autopsy told investigators that the manner in which the remains were recovered "did not adversely affect the outcome" of the examination. Officials have not been able to determine the cause of death as of yet, but it has not been ruled as a homicide.
The report also made suggestions for the Sheriff's department to avoid potential cases like Richardson's, such as returning cell phones to arrestees once released from prison and offering-- in writing-- an overnight stay for arrestees released between sunset and sunrise.
"We'll be interfacing with the department to see if they find our recommendations to be reasonable and if they intend to implement them," said Gennaco. "We're hopeful they would."
The L.A. Times reported that the Richardson family tentatively reached a $900,000 settlement against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in August after filing two negligence lawsuits. One lawsuit was for the improper handling of Richardson's remains.
August 2011 Settlement (tentative) $900,000
March 2014 Report slams Lack of coordination in recovery of remains
February 2016 Attorney General to review the case
January 2017 Find no wrongdoing