'Unsolved LA: The Disappearance of Mitrice Richardson' examines 2009 unsolved mystery

In this documentary, ABC7 examines the unsolved case of Mitrice Richardson who went missing in 2009.

ByLisa Bartley KABC logo
Wednesday, December 22, 2021
UNSOLVED: In-depth look at disappearance of Mitrice Richardson
ABC7 examines the case of Mitrice Richardson, who, before going missing, appeared to have a mental health crisis in an upscale Malibu restaurant.

Mitrice Richardson vanished into the night on Sept. 17, 2009.

The 24-year-old Cal State Fullerton graduate was released from jail at the Malibu-Lost Hills sheriff's station around midnight with nothing but the clothes on her back. She had no money, no purse, no cellphone and no car. No way to get home.

Mitrice's skeletal and partially mummified remains were found 11 months later in a remote area known as Dark Canyon, about six and a half miles from the patrol station. She was naked -- her belt, bra and jeans scattered hundreds of feet down the ravine. Her skull and spinal cord were detached from the rest of her remains.

To this day, Mitrice's death remains a mystery. The Los Angeles County Coroner's Department classified her cause of death as "undetermined." The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department says the case remains "open," but without any new leads, there's nowhere to go.

ABC7's Veronica Miracle retraces Mitrice's steps, uncovers new video footage and hears from loved ones about how Mitrice was treated by law enforcement in the midst of a mental health crisis.

Mitrice Richardson is seen in these undated photos.
Mitrice Richardson is seen in these undated photos.

Who was Mitrice Richardson?

Mitrice graduated from college with a degree in psychology four months before that fateful night in 2009. She was getting ready to apply to graduate school and hoped to become a child psychologist with a focus on working with kids in the foster care system.

"Mitrice was a joy growing up, she was such a ball of energy," said her mother, Latice Sutton. "She loved to laugh, she loved to joke."

Mitrice Richardson as a child
Mitrice Richardson as a child

"She was my heartbeat, she was my everything," said her father, Michael Richardson.

Mitrice loved to dance and sing. Home videos show her performing in recitals, playing with friends, running track, going to the prom and graduating from high school surrounded by her family.

"She was a beauty queen... she was a cheerleader. She was an amazing student," says her aunt Lauren Sutton. "She was very loving, a vivacious personality, full of life. I mean she would walk into a room, and she would make sure that everyone took notice."

On Sept. 16, 2009, Mitrice left early from her secretarial job at a freight forwarding service in Santa Fe Springs. Her boss later told detectives that Mitrice "was giggly; she was too excited... just floating around the warehouse."

Mitrice stopped at her Aunt Lauren's home in Inglewood, but Lauren was out of town on business. Mitrice scattered a bunch of her business cards on Lauren's porch and tucked them into plants. She left a nonsensical note on her uncle's van that included the words, "Who is queen now, Mississippi?"

"Did you ever see any signs of maybe some mental health struggles growing up?" Veronica Miracle asked Mitrice's mom Latice Sutton.

"I did not," Sutton said. "I didn't start to question if something was wrong with her until close to when I lost her. You know when I would receive a bizarre text message from her that didn't make sense. But when I would question her - you know, what is this? She would explain it away."

Mitrice grew up with her mom and stepfather in the San Gabriel Valley and graduated from South Hills High School but visited with her father and was living with her great-grandmother Mildred in South Los Angeles when she disappeared.

Mitrice was getting ready to apply to graduate school and did an internship during her last year of college with clinical psychologist Dr. Ronda Hampton.

"There were sometimes her behavior was concerning to me," says Dr. Hampton. "But it was really subtle."

At some point that night, Mitrice headed north in her Honda Civic, eventually pulling off Pacific Coast Highway at Geoffrey's restaurant in Malibu, known for its ocean views, celebrity sightings and twinkling lights.

Mitrice's behavior at Geoffrey's was bizarre from the moment she pulled into the restaurant parking lot. The valet later described her car in a deposition as "ransacked" and "disheveled chaos." Mitrice then climbed into the valet's car where he saw her rifling through his CDs. He said he asked her if she was OK. "It's subliminal," she replied.

Caroline Paris Martin was the hostess at Geoffrey's that night in 2009 and told us what the valet recounted to her about his initial contact with Mitrice.

"She started talking to him about the language of numbers and asked if he understood," Caroline told Eyewitness News. "He said no, and she said, 'well, I'm here to avenge Michael Jackson's death.'"

Caroline seated Mitrice alone. She ordered a $65 Kobe New York steak and an Ocean Breeze cocktail.

"I saw that she had gotten up from her table and walked and joined another table that was a large party," said Caroline.

The people in that large party later told detectives that Mitrice seemed unbalanced, mentally ill and spoke in riddles.

LAPD launches missing persons investigation

The LAPD initially handled the missing persons investigation because Mitrice lived in South Los Angeles, which is LAPD's jurisdiction. Eyewitness News obtained audio recordings of interviews detectives did with the people at that other table. They were all co-workers at a mortgage company in Woodland Hills.

"The young lady sat down next to one of my co-workers," David Salgado told the LAPD in 2009.

"Just sat there," said another person at the party. "And we looked around, thinking - is this a waitress? Do we know her?"

"When she came to the table, she had a... some sort of fruity-type, umbrella-type drink," said Anthony Miguel.

"There was something obviously wrong with her, but we knew she wasn't being malicious," said David Salgado.

Detective: "Obviously wrong meaning?"

David Salgado: "The way she was babbling, something mentally."

Detective: "She had some mental issues?"

David Salgado: "She had a mental issue."

"It just didn't seem like someone that was drunk. Again, she wasn't slurring her words," said a woman in the party.

"She really could not string, you know, intelligent thoughts together," said Jim Zollo.

"Something about cracking a code... and that the voices... we said are the voices talking to you now? Oh, yeah!"

Later, Mitrice began to walk out of the restaurant without paying her $89 restaurant tab.

Geoffrey's employees call police: "It was about getting her help"

"She said, 'You know, I don't have to worry about my meal Caroline, because God told me that it would be taken care of, and with the language of numbers that makes sense,'" Caroline recalled. "And she said she was at work today, and 'I saw that soap opera come on or the actress, you know who does her thing, and I just knew I had to drive. And I had to drive here.'"

Caroline and the restaurant manager tried to help find someone to pay Mitrice's bill, but Mitrice didn't have her cellphone and the only number she could remember was her great-grandmother Mildred's.

"And her great-grandmother said, 'I'm 91 years old, I can't drive down there,'" Caroline told Eyewitness News. "She was really distraught and worried about Mitrice."

The Geoffrey's manager later told detectives that Mitrice claimed she was from Mars and that she told him she planned to have sex with him that night. He said that when he showed her the bill on the computer screen, her eyes "melted" as if in a trance. She was fixated on the number eight.

"I checked with some employees," said Caroline. "Why don't we just pay for her and pool our money together? And one of them said, you know, I don't think that's the right thing to do for her sake. She's not safe to go out on her own."

"We decided it was the safest and the right thing to do to get her to the police," said Caroline. "I don't think we'd make that same decision today."

The owner of Geoffrey's, Jeff Peterson, was not at the restaurant that night, but was in touch by phone with his employees about the unfolding situation with Mitrice.

"It wasn't about arresting her and about money, it was about getting her help," Peterson told Eyewitness News. "You can't just put them in their car and send them down the road. You don't say you're from Mars, you don't make up languages and talk in gibberish, and then give someone their keys and say, 'have a nice day.'"

The Geoffrey's staff made the decision to call 911 to prevent Mitrice from hurting herself or others.

Deputies make contact with Mitrice

Deputy Yoav Shalev: "Lost Hills Sheriff Station, Deputy Shalev, can I help you?"

Geoffrey's bartender: "Hi, I'm calling from Geoffrey's restaurant in Malibu. 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. We were wondering if someone could come by and pick her up."

Within minutes, three Los Angeles County sheriff deputies arrived at the restaurant. Mitrice passed a field sobriety test. Her car was searched, and deputies found less than an ounce of marijuana in the console.

The Geoffrey's manager who watched the search later told investigators that there were also empty pill bottles, two full gallons of Smirnoff vodka, half a case of Tecate beer and half a container of tequila in the trunk.

"And I just thought, OK, whatever she has going on, they'll get to the bottom of it and be able to help her and keep her safe," recalls Caroline.

"They told us that the only way they could get her help was we needed to do a citizen's arrest," Jeff Peterson told Eyewitness News. "And we were assured that this is how they could take her and get her help."

The Geoffrey's valet later testified in a wrongful death civil lawsuit filed by Mitrice's parents against L.A. County and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department that he asked one of the deputies, "What's wrong with her?" The deputy replied, "She's a ding," according to the valet's sworn deposition.

"So, the 'ding' comment was key," said retired LASD Lieutenant Roger Clark.

Clark spent 27 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and was hired as a police procedures expert for Mitrice's family in their civil lawsuit.

"That's a recognition that the deputy knows there's a mental issue," Clark told Eyewitness News of the ding comment. "It's something a civilian doesn't typically know, but it's common in the profession."

Jeff Peterson said the Geoffrey's staff believed that the deputies recognized Mitrice was in a mental crisis.

"I don't know why they didn't take her for a mental health evaluation," Peterson said. "Now, obviously, this went horribly wrong."

"Those police officers, we made it clear that something is going on with her," said Caroline. "Something is mentally unstable. And so, whatever was going on, the valet and I and her server and the manager all witnessed and communicated."

The arresting deputy, Armando Loureiro, handcuffed Mitrice and put her in the back of his patrol car. Geoffrey's employees were certain Mitrice would be taken somewhere for a mental health evaluation. Instead, Deputy Loureiro drove her to the Malibu-Lost Hills sheriff's station where she was booked, fingerprinted and locked in a jail cell.

The night Mitrice disappeared

It's a 20-mile drive from Geoffrey's to the Malibu-Lost Hills Sheriff Station in Calabasas, along dark, windy roads that cut through the Santa Monica Mountains. Mitrice was still en route to the patrol station when her mother, Latice Sutton, called after being alerted to the situation by Mitrice's great-grandmother Mildred.

"I am calling, I'm a little frazzled right now," Latice said in that recorded conversation. "I understand my daughter is being brought into the station - Mitrice Richardson. Have they made it to the station yet, and she's been booked?"

Deputy Yoav Shalev: "The only place we have somebody that's in custody that they just announced on the radio that they're coming up is from Geoffrey's on Pacific Coast Highway is the only female that's being brought up to the station as we speak. They just put it on the radio right before you called."

Latice Sutton: "OK, I'm her mother and are you guys going to book her and then release her on her own recognizance tonight, because it's dark, she doesn't have a car and I don't want her wondering out... I'm just totally taken aback because it is so out of character for her. And you'll see when she comes in, she's well-spoken. I think the only way I will come and get her tonight is if you guys are going to release her tonight."

Deputy Yoav Shalev: "Yeah."

Latice Sutton: "If she's going to be held in custody for some type of arraignment tomorrow, then I will wait until tomorrow. She definitely has no place, you know, I mean, 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. But I guess I would have to come and get her - oh, my God!"

"When I made that statement, I often wonder, did I foretell what was to come?" Latice said. "Did I bring it... did I speak it into existence? I beat myself up about that."

Deputy Yoav Shalev: "The only thing is at least in this station here she will be separated so nobody's going to be with her. You know, so at least that's the plus thing, you don't have to worry about her safety."

Latice Sutton: "Oh, yeah. No, I feel safe with her being in custody. It's being released that I'm worried about. It's crazy out here."

Deputy Yoav Shalev: "Yeah, she'll call you as soon as she comes in, too."

Yoav Shalev, who has since left the LASD, later testified in the civil case that his shift ended shortly after his phone call with Latice, and that that he never told the watch commanders on duty that Mitrice's mom had called concerned for her safety - or that she'd pick Mitrice up if she was going to be released that night.

In his deposition, Shalev was asked if he made the effort to go see Mitrice in her jail cell and tell her to call her mother.

"No, that would - that's beyond my job description at the time," responded Shalev.

Shalev did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Exclusive video: Mitrice inside the Malibu-Lost Hills patrol station

Mitrice arrived at the Malibu-Lost Hills patrol station around 10 p.m. Video of Mitrice inside the station, obtained exclusively by Eyewitness News, has never been publicly released. Mitrice is searched by LASD Jailer Sheron Cummings and put inside booking cell number one with another female inmate. Cummings fingerprinted Mitrice, took her mug shot and ran a check for warrants. There were no warrants. Mitrice had no criminal history.

Jailer Sheron Cummings later testified in a deposition that she saw no signs of mental illness or instability, and no one told her Mitrice had been "acting crazy" earlier that night. She testified that she did not see anything unusual about Mitrice's behavior. Cummings said Mitrice was "coherent" and "polite," and that they discussed the type of music they liked during the booking process.

The arresting deputy, Armando Loureiro, who was at the end of a 17-hour double shift that night made no mention of Mitrice's strange behavior in his incident report. In a deposition, he testified that no one at Geoffrey's suggested Mitrice had a mental disorder. She seemed "completely normal" to him.

But an email that surfaced during the civil lawsuit appears to directly contradict Loureiro's testimony. In that email, sent three days after Mitrice disappeared, Loureiro's supervisor Lt. Scott Chew, tells the Malibu-Lost Hills Captain Tom Martin that "he spoke with Loureiro" and that the deputy "hard-booked" Mitrice into jail because she was "a little ditsy" at Geoffrey's. She wasn't drunk, the email read, but Loureiro "felt she was acting unusual and was uneasy about just letting her go."

In later depositions, however, Lt. Chew testified he doesn't remember the specifics of that conversation with Loureiro and does not remember writing that email.

Deputy Loureiro also claimed not to remember telling Lt. Chew that Mitrice was acting unusual or ditsy.

"The reality is this," says Dr. Ronda Hampton. "At that scene, you've got a woman who's acting that bizarre, saying they're from Mars, sitting at a table with people she doesn't know, reading their palms and talking in some made-up language - you don't need a PhD in psychology to know that person needs to be taken down to be evaluated."

And remember, the valet, the hostess and the manager at Geoffrey's all testified in depositions that they made it clear to the deputies on scene that Mitrice was acting odd and unstable.

"I know that we communicated that she seemed off and that we didn't want her to go off on her own," Caroline told Eyewitness News.

Later, as part of the lawsuit, Caroline and other Geoffrey's employees were bewildered when they were asked by attorneys for the sheriff's department to sign sworn declarations that did not include what they say they told deputies that night about Mitrice's erratic behavior.

"Truthfully, I think they were trying to cover themselves," said Caroline. "They had taken out a lot of the details of what made it clear that she was not OK and potentially not safe to be on her own."

The valet's declaration, written by the county attorneys, shows his hand-written corrections. He wrote that he did, in fact, speak to at least two of the deputies on scene that night, and that one of them called her a "ding." The valet also added that he told them she "may be a danger to herself or others."

"Even the final report had so many errors in it, I'm like - this isn't what happened," said Peterson of the declarations they were asked to sign. "And I think, it's just, we live in a world of cover your ass."

Mitrice was released from the Malibu-Lost Hills station jail around midnight with no money, no cellphone, and no way to get home. Jailer Sheron Cummings testified in a later deposition that it was cold outside, and she knew Mitrice's car had been impounded. She said she offered to let Mitrice stay the night, but Mitrice refused.

Sheriff Villanueva: "Hindsight's always 20/20"

Current L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva would not allow the jailer or anyone else on the department to speak with us on the record about Mitrice because he says, it's still an open case.

"Well, at the time I don't think people appreciated what her mental condition was," Sheriff Villanueva told Eyewitness News. "Especially if it's someone who suffers from maybe a bipolar disorder, something where they appear rational in one moment and irrational the next. In a tragedy like this, you know, hindsight's always 20/20, and we don't connect the dots because sometimes they're not available to be connected."

Sheriff Villanueva told us he does not believe Mitrice met the requirements for a 5150 hold, which allows authorities to hold a person until they can be evaluated by a mental health professional.

"Well, the 5150 would not have survived," said Villanueva. "If she's acting somewhat rationally and in possession of her faculties. You know, you have three standards. You're either a danger to yourself, a danger to others or gravely disabled. If you don't meet any of those three, you're not going to get a 5150 admission at a local 72-hour care facility."

"How dare him say that, how dare him!" said Dr. Ronda Hampton. "He knows damn well that that is not their job to 5150. They only recommend for a 5150, they do not do a 5150. If someone says they're from Mars, you take them to the hospital - bottom line!"

Mitrice's mom Latice called the station the next morning around 5:30am, only to learn that her daughter had been released hours before.

Latice Sutton: "I thought they were going to keep her overnight! Something, something is obviously going on with her."

Deputy Kenneth Baumgartner: "Have you talked to the jailer?"

Latice Sutton: "Yes, yes, yes, yes I have. He said he tried to get her to stay but because she was an adult, they had to let her go."

Deputy Kenneth Baumgartner: "What's her name?"

Latice Sutton: "Her name is Mitrice Richardson."

Did the LASD botch an early chance to find Mitrice alive?

Early on the morning of Sept. 17, 2009, Mitrice was spotted five and a half miles away in the backyard of Bill and Karen Smith's home in the Monte Nido neighborhood of Calabasas.

Deputy: "Lost Hills Sheriff's station, may I help you?"

Bill Smith: "Yeah, hi, this is Bill Smith. We had a prowler walking around through the backyard here."

Deputy: "What's she look like? White? Black? Hispanic?"

Bill Smith: "You know, a tall, slim Black woman with afro hair. Very skinny and I think she was wearing maybe jeans or tight pants with a T-shirt."

Karen Smith told Eyewitness News that she and her late husband Bill spotted Mitrice from their upstairs bathroom window.

"And I saw somebody sitting on the top step of the six railroad ties that we have in the backyard," Smith said. "And I called out to her, I said "are you OK?' And the answer was, 'Yes, I'm just resting.' And by the time we went around to the other window, she was gone!"

At this point in the morning, Mitrice's mom had already called the patrol station again, frantic and asking to file a missing persons report. And yet, there was no apparent urgency by deputies to check out this sighting.

"The sheriff's station people came over a couple hours... an hour or two later I think and talked to us in our driveway," said Smith.

"When they got that call from Bill Smith - oh, her mother was distraught, crying hysterically on the phone just an hour ago," says Lauren Sutton. "Why wouldn't you go ahead and make sure that wasn't Mitrice there?"

"They just, it's like they didn't connect the dots... or are they inept? That inept that they didn't connect the dots," wonders Lauren. "Why? They thought she was a throwaway person. I don't know. They thought she wasn't loved by a family."

Why did the LASD tell the family there was no video of Mitrice?

The search for Mitrice Richardson spanned 11 months and 20 square miles. All the while, family and friends pressed the sheriff's department for information. They say they asked again and again - is there any video of Mitrice at the patrol station that night?

"For so long, we had been told there was no video of Mitrice in custody," said Latice.

"And he says, we have no video surveillance whatsoever," said Michael Richardson. "He's lying!"

"The desire to hide the video was just unbelievable," said Dr. Ronda Hampton.

Four months after Mitrice disappeared, in a meeting between the family and then-Sheriff Lee Baca, then-Captain of the Malibu-Lost Hills Tom Martin acknowledged he did have video footage of Mitrice at the station.

"I did not intentionally try to deceive them," now-retired Tom Martin told Eyewitness News. Martin insists the family only asked for video of Mitrice leaving the station, not inside the station. Martin says he only watched one part of the video that showed Mitrice getting booked at the station - and did not see the footage of her walking out the door that night.

"So, we finally saw the video footage and I was, I became very alarmed," said Latice. "There's a time where it seems she kind of loses it and she's, she's grabbing onto this, this meshing. I don't know if she's trying to break it down, trying to get out somehow, but it's bizarre."

The family was finally allowed to see the video in April 2010.

Lauren recalled that her son, Mitrice's cousin, continued watching the footage after the rest of them thought the video was over. Two minutes after Mitrice walked out the station door, he noticed something else.

"There was someone that walked out," said Lauren. "A shadow that walked out after her as she left the station."

"And so, we were wondering, who was this officer," said Latice. "He has to know something, he had to see her!"

Eyewitness News tracked down that deputy. He told us no one has ever asked him about Mitrice. At this point, 12 years later, he's not sure if he even worked that night. He told us he never saw her.

"Yes, that deputy, they reviewed his logs and everything, it was totally unrelated," Sheriff Villanueva told Eyewitness News. "He was just doing his job, just had nothing to do with her case."

"The reason why it's all suspicious is because everything's so secret," said Dr. Ronda Hampton. "You start becoming suspicious of anything."

The search for Mitrice

"She could've walked anywhere here," said retired LASD Sgt. Tui Wright as he walked along Cold Canyon Road in Monte Nido near the Smith home.

Tui Wright was the former team supervisor for the Malibu Search and Rescue team out of the Malibu-Lost Hills Station.

"One of our trackers, it was his opinion that she had gone from walking to running," said Wright of the footprints they matched to Mitrice's Vans sneakers.

"The scent, the dog's interest petered out right around this area," said Wright about the area where Dark Creek runs under Cold Canyon Road.

"It's a real mystery as to what happened," said Wright. "We just don't know how she got there or how she ended up deceased."

"I can speak on behalf of myself and the personnel of the rescue team. We were very passionate about searching for Mitrice and supporting the family. It was very upsetting, her loss, her disappearance in this area."

In January 2010 teams staged what the LASD called one of the largest searches in sheriff's department history.

"Search teams came from all over California," said Wright. "That included ATVs, personnel on horseback, bicycle riders, teams on foot, helicopters."

ABC7 report from Jan. 9, 2010, on the search for Mitrice Richardson

Drones soared over Malibu Canyon in April, and investigators ran down a rumored sighting of Mitrice in Las Vegas in July 2010 and even claims that Mitrice was being held captive by white supremacists.

For the family, perhaps the most disturbing find was a freshly painted mural found in June 2010 not far from where Mitrice disappeared. Latice believes the images of women's afros, the marijuana joint and the initials L.A. were not a coincidence.

"I believe that whoever painted this was painting a story of what happened to Mitrice," said Latice. "The sheriff's department felt it was very unrelated, didn't have anything to do with Mitrice. They claimed it was just a local tagger whose body of work depicts African American women."

It was another dead end.

Mitrice's remains discovered in Dark Canyon

On Aug. 9, 2010, 11 months after Mitrice disappeared, California State Park rangers hiked deep into the rugged terrain of Dark Canyon searching for signs of an illegal marijuana farm that had been run by a Mexican drug cartel.

One year earlier, the pot farm had been raided. More than a thousand plants were uprooted and destroyed. Now, the rangers wanted to know - had the cartel returned?

Instead, they found skeletal human remains: Mitrice Richardson. She was naked and partially mummified, mostly obscured by mulch, twigs and leaves. Her skull and spinal cord were detached from the rest of her skeleton.

What happened next in Dark Canyon is still in dispute. The rangers contacted the Malibu-Lost Hills Sheriff's station. The LASD's Air 5 helicopter airlifted LASD Homicide Detectives and members of the search and rescue team into the ravine. Air 5 was then supposed to airlift the coroner's team to process the scene, but the helicopter was diverted twice to rescue stranded hikers miles away. By the time the helicopter returned, the sun was setting, and Air 5 was running out of fuel.

"We were told they were going to leave her remains there until the morning because it was getting dark," said Dr. Ronda Hampton who with the family that day waiting for word on whether the remains could be Mitrice.

"But then when we saw the helicopter hovering and then we saw what looked like a gurney basket being hoisted up into the helicopter, then we knew Mitrice was being moved," said Latice.

The coroner's report states that the LASD Homicide Detectives decided to collect the remains and airlift them out against the direction of Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter.

"There was a big falling out when her remains were found," said Michael Richardson. "Everyone knows that you do not touch a body or evidence of a crime until a coroner gets there."

"Incompetence, that's just incompetence," said Dr. Ronda Hampton. "I think when those sheriffs decided to remove her body against the coroner's orders, they did not allow for the scene to be properly evaluated by the coroners themselves. That's problematic."

"He says things like, well, it was getting late," said Michael Richardson. "And our guys were worried that some animals was gonna come out, you know, it's almost nightfall. But you let my daughter out at 12:15 - and you got a guy here with a gun!"

The lead LASD Homicide Detective later told investigators that he believed he did get permission from a different member of the coroner's team.

"I know there was some miscommunication between the coroners at the time and the investigators," said Sheriff Villanueva. "Again, not a perfect situation."

Eyewitness News asked Sheriff Villanueva why the LASD did not leave Mitrice's remains in place overnight, guarded by deputies at the site, or at least at the top and bottom of the canyon.

"We did not have the personnel to post there overnight, that's a fantasy," Sheriff Villanueva replied. "Our department is a bare bones operation; it's always been that way."

"These are flimsy excuses, they don't hold water," said police procedures expert Roger Clark. "Once the remains of a human being are located - under any circumstances short of an oncoming fire or flood that's going to destroy the site - the site has to be preserved because the assumption is it may be foul play."

Things only got worse from there. The next day the coroner's team tried to return to the scene, but they did not bring anyone who'd been at the site the day before: Neither of the homicide detectives and none of the search and rescue team members. The coroner's team could not find the site of Mitrice's remains. Initially, the coroner's team claimed they'd been "dropped in the wrong canyon" by LASD's Air 5 helicopter. A later investigation revealed that the coroner's team forgot their GPS device with the site coordinates on board the helicopter.

"The coroner's behavior is also unbelievable to me," said Dr. Ronda Hampton. "How do you - this is your job every day? How do you leave bones down there? How do you forget your GPS?"

More of Mitrice's bones found

It took two more weeks before the coroner's team returned to the actual site on Aug. 25, 2010. They found nine more of Mitrice's bones.

But when Latice, Lauren, Ronda, and independent anthropologist Clear Koff hiked into the site at Dark Canyon months later, they made a gruesome discovery.

"It was important for me to go to the site where Mitrice's remains were found because I needed to memorialize the area," said Latice of their November 2010 trek.

"And while we were up there, Clea was showing me what they do as anthropologists at the scene where, you know, remains have been found. And during her moving of the dirt is when we uncovered one of Mitrice's finger bones."

"I just remember being shocked and angry and, you know, afraid," said Dr. Ronda Hampton.

"What else is out there?" asked Latice.

The coroner team was notified and eventually returned to the scene again in February 2011. They found even more of Mitrice's bones.

The Los Angeles County Department of Medical-Examiner-Coroner declined multiple requests for an interview. They ruled the cause of Mitrice's death to be "undetermined," not a homicide.

"There's no doubt in my mind that Mitrice was murdered," said Latice Sutton.

The distance alone raises questions about how Mitrice got into that remote canyon. Dark Canyon is so rugged that Mitrice's loved ones had to be escorted by the Malibu Search and Rescue team when they went to memorialize the site. The terrain -- so treacherous they were outfitted with helmets, protective suits and used ropes and harnesses to get over giant boulders.

"I know that Mitrice didn't get to that location by herself," said Lauren Sutton.

After finding Mitrice's finger bone, they were airlifted out by Air 5 instead of attempting to hike back out of the canyon.

"Once they hoisted me up into the helicopter, when I got in there, I just came apart again because I realized this is the same Rescue 5 that they moved Mitrice's remains," said Latice. "I'm taking the same ride she took, and I just came apart again. It was overwhelming."

Somehow, in the midst of a mental health crisis, Mitrice made it from the Malibu-Lost Hills station in Calabasas to Bill and Karen Smith's house in Monte Nido five-and-a-half miles away. From there, she traveled at least another mile to where her remains were found in Dark Canyon, her belt, bra, and jeans scattered hundreds of feet down the ravine.

"She was took there against her will," said father Michael Richardson. "Tortured and when they was done, they killed her!"

And on the day Mitrice was laid to rest, her family suffered yet another indignity. Clea Koff, the forensic anthropologist helping the family, flew in to conduct her own independent examination. Inside Mitrice's body bag, she made a shocking find. A bag of Mitrice's clothing that had never been sent to the crime lab for testing.

Clea Koff held a news conference outlining her findings in December 2010.

"The clothing that the sheriff's department believes belonged to Mitrice Richardson, who was naked... a 24-year-old woman who's been missing for 10 months and three weeks is found naked, her clothes were found, they were never sent or requested to be sent to the crime lab," said Koff in 2010.

"I think it was an intentional act on somebody's part," said Dr. Ronda Hampton. "I don't think you accidentally leave clothing in a body bag! Those things have to be inventoried and accounted for, chain of custody."

"Those clothing items should have gone to the crime lab," said Latice Sutton. "I mean, how does that happen? And so that just furthered my distrust even more of the sheriff's department."

According to Clea Koff's report, jewelry was still entwined in Mitrice's hair and insect casings, none of which had been collected. The remains were dirty.

"They didn't care even to the point where when we were... received her remains at the mortuary, you know, they just delivered her like she was not important," said Lauren Sutton through tears. "With dirt and leaves and sticks."

Mitrice's left arm was tightly flexed against her chest, suggesting to some that she'd been confined somehow - wrapped up.

"There had to be something that one, that held her arm in a tightly flexed position," said Latice Sutton. "And two, just the environment. There was no way, I mean she had to be enclosed somewhere at some point to partially mummify."

"I think that somebody may have murdered her someplace else and thought that this was a good place to dispose of her remains," said Lauren Sutton.

Mitrice's socks, shoes, panties and shirt were never found. Nor were many of her bones, notably the hyoid bone in her neck, which can indicate if a person was strangled.

Mitrice's loved ones fought to have Mitrice's remains exhumed and reexamined in July 2011, but there were still no answers.

Before Black Lives Matter

Before Black Lives Matter became a movement, there was Mitrice Richardson.

"All of the facts of this case leads me to believe they just didn't care about her," Congresswoman Maxine Waters told Eyewitness News. "She wasn't important. She was just a Black girl. That's all."

Three months after Mitrice disappeared, Congresswoman Waters called on the FBI to get involved, but then-Sheriff Lee Baca did not want the FBI's help.

"We have nothing to hide in this case," said Sheriff Baca in August 2010 days after Mitrice's remains were discovered. "The point is there's a lot of factors beyond the sheriff's department that need to be explained."

Baca later served time in federal prison for lying to the FBI and obstruction of justice in an unrelated probe of abuse and corruption inside sheriff's department jails.

"Oh, I absolutely believe that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is responsible for what happened to Mitrice Richardson," said Congresswoman Waters. "I believe that they had it within their hands and within their power to keep her safe. And they did not do that."

"To see that, you know, she was not regarded as a human being just like anybody else would've been," said Lauren Sutton. "Regardless of if she's a celebrity or not."

Lauren is referring to deputies from that same Malibu-Lost Hills patrol station who personally drove the actor Mel Gibson to get his car at the tow yard, 11 miles away, after Gibson's 2006 drunk driving arrest and anti-Semitic tirade.

"All because they didn't have status, that society likes," said Michael Richardson. "Oh, this is a superstar or somebody you can come back and say 'hey, guess who I took home last night? I took Mel Gibson home, great guy, great guy.'"

"Missing White Women Syndrome" is the term coined for the disparity in news coverage and law enforcement attention between Black and white missing persons.

"'Missing White Women Syndrome' is something that has been proven and what that does is just reiterates whose life is worth protecting, who can be seen as a vulnerable individual and who is being seen as someone who's not being responsible with their own lives," said ABC News Contributor and Los Angeles Times Op-Ed Columnist LZ Granderson in an ABC News Live segment in September.

"So, we don't have the same kind of empathy, we don't offer the same kind of treatment for these individuals," said Leah Wright-Rigueur, an ABC News Contributor and Associate Professor at Brandeis University said in the same ABC News Live segment.

"I remember shortly before Mitrice had gone missing, there was a young woman, Natalee Holloway, who had gone missing and the whole world was looking for her," said Lauren Sutton.

"We were shouting from the mountain tops, something's wrong, something's happened to her. The sheriff's department is like, oh, she's a runaway and she'll, she'll come home when she's ready."

"Unfortunately, I don't believe that Mitrice's case will ever be solved," said Congresswoman Waters. "Because I don't think that anybody in the criminal justice system cares enough. They have it signed, sealed and delivered - nobody did anything wrong."

Multiple reports on the handling of Mitrice's case found no criminal wrongdoing and no violations of sheriff's department policy.

Michael Gennaco is the former Chief Attorney for the Office of Independent Review, which acted as oversight for the LASD until it was disbanded in 2014. The OIR conducted two reviews of how Mitrice's case was handled.

"The way in which Miss Richardson was arrested and handled the night she ended up disappearing could've been handled better," said Michael Gennaco.

"The investigation into any kind of malevolent or criminal activity on behalf of any sheriff's department personnel or anyone else that may have been involved with Ms. Richardson before she died, did not establish any kind of crime."

In 2019, facing pressure from Dr. Ronda Hampton and the family, Sheriff Alex Villanueva ordered a new review of Mitrice's case.

"Because common sense is that you do not release a young woman, or anybody, in the middle of the night with no means of caring for themselves," Dr. Hampton said at a press conference in 2019.

"We do not hide a video and lie to the public about it. You do not remove remains so that her case cannot be thoroughly investigated - that does not happen! And not only that, you do not disregard the family who are fighting for her."

Sheriff Villanueva told Eyewitness News that the case was reviewed from top to bottom by a team of LASD detectives.

"They actually went through and redid everything," said Sheriff Villanueva. "They knocked on doors, they talked to people, they went back to the location themselves where the remains were found, and they reviewed all of the evidence."

"The findings are the death remains unresolved and we don't know what was the actual cause," he said. "So, until we have new information that could point us in one way or another and get new evidence, maybe new witnesses, then we could hopefully resolve this case."

A case in limbo

Mitrice Richardson would be in her mid-30s if she was alive today.

"I just want everyone to remember how vibrant and beautiful Mitrice was," said Latice Sutton. "She wanted to be someone to make a difference in life."

"This, this picture right here, it makes me... it's so angelic," said Michael Richardson of the mural of Mitrice painted on the trunk of his '66 Chevy Impala. "You know, that's how I picture her in heaven right now."

Michael Richardson stands next to the mural of Mitrice Richardson painted on the trunk of his
Michael Richardson stands next to the mural of Mitrice Richardson painted on the trunk of his '66 Chevy Impala.

"So, I think about those things sometimes. Probably she would have had kids, finished school," said Dr. Ronda Hampton. "It's strange that she's not here."

"It just didn't have to happen; it didn't have to happen. She had such a bright future. She was such a lovely person, too. I just don't understand."

Mitrice's family believes it was an undiagnosed mental disorder that sent 24-year-old Mitrice into that downward spiral. A police psychologist who later reviewed Mitrice's journals said he believes she was possibly bipolar and experiencing a manic episode that night. A detective who also analyzed her journals, phone records and social media believes Mitrice had gone about five days with almost no sleep before she disappeared.

Sheriff Villanueva points to reforms, including a department-wide policy that ensures arrestees are told they can voluntarily remain at the jail until morning hours.

"A tragedy of different things that happened, that did not allow her to obviously get the support she needed from her family, or us recognizing the fact that she probably should have stayed there longer."

Twelve years after she disappeared, Mitrice's parents are still tormented by guilt. What could they have done differently?

"For such a long time, I was riddled with guilt for not just getting my youngest daughter up and just going immediately," Latice said about the night Mitrice disappeared. "I thought, why... why did I have such confidence in law enforcement? You know, maybe things would have been different."

"People say, hey, you got to move on," said Michael Richardson. "You never move on, but you carry on."

Michael told Eyewitness News he still struggles with questions about whether his previous life, which included a stint in prison decades ago, is to blame.

"So, I felt like my daughter was sacrificed for things that I did early on in my life that I had to be accountable for," said Michael. "Knowing that the one thing I ever did right in life... the one thing I thought was perfect to me in life, had to be taken from me."

There is no statute of limitations on murder, and all of those who loved Mitrice Richardson hope someone will come forward to finally solve the mystery of her death.

"What has been so difficult for me to live with is knowing, is knowing that she died alone, without family around her," said Latice. "In her last moments, she didn't have anyone who loved her around her. And to know how loved Mitrice was not to have anyone who loved her with her during her last moments. Just evil was with her. It's just... that's the hardest thing for me to live with."

Latice said that writing a book about Mitrice and her own struggles with mental health was cathartic.

"Because of my faith, I do believe that I'm going to see Mitrice again," said Latice. "When it's my time to go... and I look forward to that day."

Mitrice's family settled their wrongful death lawsuit against the County of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in September 2011. As part of the settlement, the County and the LASD denied any wrongdoing or liability.

There is still $20,000 in reward money for information on Mitrice's case being offered by the cities of Malibu and Calabasas.
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Got a tip? Email ABC7 Investigative Producer Lisa.Bartley@abc.com