11.05.10

The Malibu Murder Mystery

Troubling questions surround the death of a 24-year-old beauty pageant contestant, whose body was found a year after her disappearance in a remote ravine. Christine Pelisek has exclusive new details.

When the body of the 24-year-old beauty pageant contestant was discovered in a rugged ravine in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was in such a rush to retrieve her remains, deputies left behind several body parts.

"We went back twice, and collected small toe bones, finger and vertebrae," the Los Angeles County Coroner Assistant Chief Ed Winter tells The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview, revealing for the first time how the investigation might have been compromised.

Furthermore, he says, the body was whisked out of the canyon by helicopter without the permission of the coroner's office—a charge denied by a spokesman for the sheriff's department who said the lead homicide investigator got approval by the coroner captain on-scene.

Clea Koff, a forensic anthropologist who has worked for the U.N. International Criminal Tribunals in the killing fields of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, agrees that a proper forensic investigation of the cause and manner of death was compromised by deputies' removal of the remains. "This case is a long way from being closed," says Koff, who runs the nonprofit Missing Persons Identification Resource Center, and who is working with the mother of the deceased. "The coroner can't even describe the death scene in his report let alone list a single piece of evidence collected there."

Why the sheriff's department was in such a rush to spirit the body away is just one of the many troubling questions surrounding the death of Mitrice Richardson, who vanished in the early hours of September 16, 2009, after she was released from a sheriff's department station in the secluded, hilly Malibu area.

Richardson, who worked as an executive assistant at a freight company but planned to attend graduate school to become a clinical psychologist, lived with her great grandmother in a house in L.A., volunteering as a mentor for at-risk children and working with kids at a cheerleading camp. Richardson also dreamed of becoming a model. Last year, the 5 foot 6 inch slender dark-haired beauty, who was a finalist in the Miss Fullerton Scholarship pageant, applied to become America's Next Top Model, though she didn't get selected.

The night of her disappearance, she had gone to Geoffrey's, a swank Malibu restaurant, where she dined alone, ordering a steak and an Ocean Breeze cocktail. At some point during the evening, she started acting strangely, claiming she was there to avenge the death of Michael Jackson. After she skipped out on her $89 tab, deputies arrested her and took her to the station around 10 p.m.

She was held there for two hours, charged with defrauding an innkeeper and possession of marijuana after deputies found less than an ounce of marijuana in her white Honda Civic. She was interviewed, fingerprinted, and asked if she had any mental-health issues. Richardson said she didn't.

At 12:15 p.m. she was released without her purse, her cell phone or her car, which had been impounded. At the time of her release, a jailer asked Richardson if she had a ride. She told him she couldn't reach anyone but that she was hoping to hook up with friends. The jailer asked her twice if she wanted to stay in the jail until the morning but she declined. According to sheriff department officials, Richardson acted rationally while in custody.

But Richardson's family was having none of that. Why did deputies not administer a proper mental-health evaluation after she acted strangely at the restaurant, they wanted to know.

"By letting her go, you are making her vulnerable to be prey," says Richardson's mother, Latice Sutton, who has filed a negligence lawsuit against the sheriff's department. So far, a number of deputies are in the process of being deposed for interview, including the jailer, the deputies that arrested Richardson, and the former captain of the Lost Hills station. "Looking at my daughter's booking photo and her hair in disarray, they probably thought she was a homeless person, and treated her with disregard."

The Office of Independent Review, which was charged with looking into how the sheriff's department had handled Richardson's arrest and release, concluded in a 56-page report that the sheriff's department was not negligent when they released Richardson,

Contradicting deputies' assessment that Richardson appeared to be lucid, the LAPD, which analyzed Richardson's diary entries, concluded that Richardson may have been experiencing the onset of a previously undiagnosed bipolar condition. Hours after her release, Richardson was seen asleep on the back porch in the backyard of a Malibu home around 6:30 a.m. The resident of the house called authorities, but by the time they arrived, over an hour later, Richardson was gone, according to the OIR report. By late morning, patrol officers were alerted to be on the lookout for Richardson. That day, there were two more sightings of Richardson by residents, one at 7:30 a.m and another at 1:30 p.m., both within a few blocks from where she was seen sleeping.

Two days later, a tracking team found her shoeprints at the house where she was last seen and determined she had been running when she left the footprints. A sniffing dog tracked Richardson's scent from that house to a property just down the street. The house was searched but police found no clues to Richardson's whereabouts.

At some point, she started acting strangely, claiming she was there to avenge the death of Michael Jackson.

But searchers later discovered a sexually explicit mural on a concrete wall depicting a young black woman with a hairstyle similar to Richardson's. In the area, there were also rumors about a naked man exposing himself on the trails, and a disturbed teenager who broke into homes of residents.

In August, after several high-profile searches, park rangers finally discovered Richardson's remains in a steep-sided ravine, near a wealthy horse community called Monte Nido. How Richardson ended up, seven miles away from the sheriff's station, in an upscale, secluded community known for its horse trails, cobblestone walkways, and million dollar homes remains a mystery.

"The whole thing is bizarre," agrees Los Angeles County Fire Department Captain Carlos Muzquiz, who runs Fire Station 67 in Monte Nido. "It's just strange someone would just sit out there and die."

After the discovery of the remains, L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca called a press conference and was quick to rule out foul play even though it would take almost two months before the Los Angeles County Coroner's office said Richardson's cause of death couldn't be determined.

In an interview, the Deputy Medical Examiner Lisa Scheinin said officials couldn't rule out internal injury, exposure to the elements, a snakebite or pneumonia as a cause of death. Because there was not enough tissue for toxicology testing, Scheinin couldn't rule out fatal substance abuse, either. According to the autopsy report, released Monday, investigators couldn't find all of Richardson's remains–bits of her neck, foot, and hand bones were missing.

Winter, the deputy coroner, says the case remains a puzzle. "I can't say if we'll ever be able to say what happened," he says. "There are things that don't make sense."

Among the things that don't add up is the fact that Richardson's jeans, belt, and black bra were discovered a few feet from her body, but investigators never found her Vans sneakers or the black T-shirt she was wearing at the time of her disappearance, Winter says.

According to sheriff department spokesman Steve Whitmore, Richardson's clothing was not tested for signs of foul play and were buried with her. "The coroner gave the clothing to the family and the family put it in the coffin with the remains," he says.

Richardson's family does not believe that Richardson, an urbanite who hated bugs and the outdoors, would have voluntarily walked into the dense brush to die.

"I don't believe Mitrice walked to the area," says Richardson's mother Latice Sutton. "It is my gut feeling that someone grabbed her, took her wherever and murdered her. Police believe that this city girl who didn't like bugs and bushes just laid down and died."

"It is very odd," says Amy Wells, a bookkeeper who works at a photography studio where the sheriff's department set up its command post the day Richardson was discovered. "It is so remote here."

"[The sheriff's] attitude was apathetic, unconcerned and uninterested from the start," adds Sutton. "Mitrice didn't walk up the canyon and lay down and die. I think it absolutely reeks of homicide."

But Whitmore says this is still an open investigation. "The sheriff wants to figure out how the remains got out to the top. We don't think it is a homicide or not a homicide. We're trying to figure it out."

Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.