While most news regarding the disappearance and death of 24-year-old Mitrice Richardson has been horrific, Sheriff Lee Baca’s recent decision to call on the FBI to investigate Richardson’s mysterious death was met with elation by her family members and supporters.
 
“Once we presented [Baca] with hard facts, he took it and he got involved and he called the FBI,” said Latice Sutton, the mother of the mentally ill Richardson, a Cal State Fullerton honors student who disappeared after being arrested under questionable circumstances at a Malibu restaurant for allegedly not paying for a meal. Richardson was booked Sept. 16, 2009, but then released from the Lost Hills/Malibu Sheriff’s Station shortly after midnight without a ride to her home in Los Angeles, a phone or money. The woman’s skeletal remains were discovered in August in a ravine in Malibu Canyon, a short drive from the sheriff’s station.
 
On Dec. 29, Baca, with the concurrence of the Department of Coroner, ordered Richardson’s remains exhumed and sent to the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., for further examination. The decision came following criticisms by forensic anthropologist Clea Koff, who said contamination of the crime scene by sheriff’s deputies, who removed Richardson’s remains without proper authorization from the coroner, and failure to examine all the evidence found there, necessitated further investigation.
 
But in addition to those developments, Richardson’s death has also intensified calls for reform of how personnel working in the county jail system treat inmates, especially those suffering with mental illness. Richardson, family members and supporters say, was suffering while in custody from bi-polar disorder, which went unrecognized.
 
At a meeting Thursday morning at the Pasadena Women’s Club on North Oakland Avenue, the Pasadena branch of the League of Women Voters held a meeting during which members were asked to rank answers to eight separate questions aimed at improving LA County jails. After participating chapters have forwarded their responses to the League’s county chapter, final positions will be taken during a retreat set for May.
 
“This is an incredible day,” said Pasadena’s Shirley Spencer. Spencer and longtime Pasadena activist Gerda Govine-Ituarte are members of The Friends Group, which first called for a review of the sheriff’s nighttime release policy soon after Richardson’s disappearance. Spencer is also membership director of the Pasadena League of Women Voters chapter and chair of the Los Angeles County League’s jail study.
 
“The work that [Sutton] has done, I have never seen a more dedicated family than Latice and Lauren and Ronda,” Spencer said of Sutton, her sister Lauren Sutton and clinical psychologist Ronda Hampton, a counselor and mentor to Richardson, who Spencer said aspired to be a psychiatrist. For Thursday’s event, Spencer had on the same pink ribbon she wore to Richardson’s funeral. It was their focused commitment to the case that made Baca, after weeks of saying no, finally relinquish and call on the FBI for assistance, Spencer said of the three women.
 
“When we first met them in December 2009, we were just overwhelmed by how genuine they were. I thought, my God, this could have been any one of us. We could wake up one day and our whole world would be upside down. It could happen to anybody. But it addresses the issue of mental health,” Spencer said.
 
Sutton and Michael Richardson, the dead woman’s father, are both suing the Sheriff’s Department and the county in two separate lawsuits. Both suits allege wrongful death and negligence on the part of sheriff’s deputies.
 
Also attending Thursday’s League meeting were Esther Lim, head of the Jails Project for the ACLU, which has been the court-ordered monitor of LA County jail conditions for the past 30 years, and Michael Gennaco, a former federal prosecutor who now serves as chief attorney for the county Office of Independent Review, OIR, which investigates incidents involving the Sheriff’s Department and other area law enforcement agencies.
 
Soon after Richardson’s disappearance, Gennaco’s office was called upon to look into the case. In July, OIR found no wrongdoing and no violation of policy on the part of jail personnel involved with her arrest, booking and detention. At the time, Sutton and her supporters called the report — released in August, the same day authorities formally identified skeletal remains in Malibu Canyon as those of Richardson — a “whitewash,” one aimed at exonerating jail personnel now being targeted in court proceedings.  
 
In a separate interview Monday, Gennaco said jail reform has been a daunting and ongoing process. During his 10 years with the county, Gennaco said there has been progress, such as reductions in the number of inmates per cell and better medical care. But recognizing and handling mentally ill inmates remains an issue requiring “continual attention.”
 
In the case of Richardson, Gennaco said his office’s investigation found no indication that deputies believed she was suffering a bi-polar episode while under arrest and later while being booked. 
 
“Not to suggest that the policy might not be tweaked, but our conclusion was there was no wrongdoing. They were following the procedures that were in place at the time,” Gennaco said of the deputies involved with Richardson’s initial detention on the evening of Sept. 16, 2009, at Geoffrey’s Malibu restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway. 
 
“And there is certainly a countervailing interest of those detained no longer being in detention, so it sometimes puts the department in a difficult position of knowing what to do with someone who has been booked, being cited on a releasable offense and they want to go,” he said.
 
Gennaco also pointed out that there was some evidence that people at the restaurant that night were willing to help Richardson pay the bill, but it was ultimately up to the managers of the restaurant, the innkeepers, who had final say on what should be done, resulting in Richardson’s detention. In the process, Richardson’s car was left behind, as were her phone and credit cards, all of which were in her purse in the car, which was towed the following day.
 
“In hindsight,” Gennaco said, “more could have been done by the deputies to learn more about her mental state. Geoffrey’s certainly didn’t, so folks at the jail were left to deal with her, and by their reports she was coherent and did not express any signs of mental illness, at least while she was going through the booking process. Again, it’s a little more clouded as to what happened at Geoffrey’s,” he said, adding deputies “had no choice” but to take Richardson into custody.
 
“We have got to refocus and recognize signs of when people need help and intercede,” said Spencer. “Issues of mental health and training the police to recognize [symptoms] are a big responsibility for them. But they are the line that meets up with this. If they are not trained, that means we are going to have more Mitrices out there.”
 
For the time being, Sutton is basking in the glow of victory and vindication for her dogged pursuit of justice for her daughter.
 
“It is absolutely overwhelming,” Sutton said just before the event in Pasadena got under way inside historic Blinn House, located on the campus of Fuller Theological Seminary. “I’m very hopeful now there is an outside agency that is gong to take over and look at the evidence that’s been presented so we can get further and find out all the answers that exist in Mitrice’s case. 
 
“Being here today with the League of Women Voters, this is right down the road we are looking to travel, all because Mitrice is, to me, a poster child for what mental illness looks like,” Sutton continued. “We have to be able to see the signs, and when we see the signs that someone is not responding normally, then we need to make sure they get some help. And our law enforcement officials, they are the first responders, and we need to be able to depend on them to protect us and make sure we are taken care of.” n