The search for Mitrice Richardson has taken a bizarre racial turn, the Pasadena Weekly has learned, with a group searching the last places Richardson was seen discovering an isolated drainage culvert in unincorporated Calabasas covered with degrading murals of nude African-American women, some bearing a resemblance to the missing woman.
The site, located in Monte Nido, is near the home of veteran Los Angeles newsman Bill Smith, formerly of KTLA Channel 5, who reported seeing a woman who looked like Richardson sitting on the back steps of his home some five hours after Richardson was released from the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station — located about 12 miles from there — the morning of Sept. 17. Smith could not be reached for comment by press time.
The 24-year-old Richardson, a dean’s list graduate of Cal State Fullerton who has been caring for her aging great-grandmother and has bi-polar disorder, was in custody briefly on Sept. 16 for allegedly skipping out on an $89 tab for meals for two people at Geoffrey’s Restaurant in Malibu at 10 p.m. A resident of South Los Angeles, she was released shortly after midnight the following morning without a phone, money or transportation to her home, where she was living with her great-grandmother.
Her car, which was parked at the restaurant, was impounded the next day, said her mother. Inside the vehicle was her cell phone and purse, she said.
A search party led by Maurice Dubois, father of 14-year-old Amber Dubois, who was kidnapped and murdered in February 2009, discovered the disturbing graffiti June 6. Authorities painted over it soon afterward.
Pasadena’s Shirley Spencer, television producer Chip Croft and Dr. Ronda Hampton, a psychologist and mentor to Richardson, also helped organize the search party.
According to Hampton, the search ventured so far away from where Richardson was released because a few hours after she was released Smith called the Sheriff’s Department to report a woman fitting Richardson’s description in his backyard at approximately
6 a.m. Believing this was the last known sighting of Richardson, the search party checked a number of sites in the area.
According to Richardson’s mother, Latice Sutton, trained dogs picked up Richardson’s scent just down the street from Smith’s home, but lost it on that block. The Sheriff’s Department is continuing its investigation of the racist murals, which the missing woman’s mother and others remain convinced are somehow tied to Richardson’s disappearance.
“We certainly hope the Sheriff’s Department conducts a full, thorough, detailed investigation,” said Croft. “They definitely should check for fingerprints, as there would likely have been some left on the paint tools,” he said of some of the implements left behind at the scene. The perpetrators left paint can lids, brushes, feces, toilet paper and other evidence in the isolated, mountainous area. Searchers had previously put out a call for volunteers to look for Richardson, and whoever did this could have known the search was being conducted that day.
“These images are hateful and degrading to African-American women and are obviously the work of a very sick, deranged mind,” said Croft. “Also, I feel analysis of the paint could determine the time of application, the manufacturers and ultimately point of sale,” he said. “This is another reason for the FBI to come in. Plus, this is potential evidence of a hate crime. So now we need to keep pressure on the sheriff’s detectives to be sure they take this seriously and conduct the best possible investigation.”
According to Richard French of the LAPD media relations office, the LAPD has become involved in the case because Richardson is a resident of Los Angeles. Sutton filed the original missing person report at the Malibu/Lost Hills Station and, after discussing the case with the missing woman’s family, Sheriff Lee Baca had his detectives open a homicide investigation.
“His theory is that it would offer more resources to detectives if he assigned it to homicide,” said Sutton, a resident of Diamond Bar. “They say they have no proof that Mitrice is deceased. I think that’s ludicrous. They must have some evidence of foul play. They don’t just give away extra resources.”
In December, Congresswoman Maxine Waters sent a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller requesting that the FBI “open an investigation into Mitrice’s disappearance and the circumstances surrounding her arrest, detention and release from the custody of the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff Station,” according to her letter. The letter goes on to say that “there are questions as to whether the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station acted properly in releasing this young woman during the pre-dawn hours without money or transportation, all while she was suffering from what the Los Angeles Police Department’s doctors have concluded to be bipolar disorder.”
On June 29, attorney Leo Terrell filed a lawsuit against LA County and individual deputies alleging negligence in releasing Richardson without a ride or resources the night she disappeared. Filed on behalf of Richardson and her mother, the suit alleges that the Sheriff’s Department committed negligent and discriminatory acts that caused Richardson’s disappearance.
“Mitrice was going through a mental crisis at the time of her arrest,” said Sutton. “I watched the booking video and it’s very clear from her behavior that someone should have known that there was something going on with her. She passed the field sobriety test, but the sheriffs never had an answer for her behavior. She had a severe bipolar episode. Absolutely, they should have referred her to a psychiatric evaluation.”
She added that she personally witnessed an unidentified uniformed deputy in the video leave the station right after Mitrice was released. He followed her out the same door and walked in the same direction Mitrice went.
The Sheriff’s Department has since declined to release the videotape. The Pasadena Weekly has filed a state Public Records Act request to gain access to that tape. The paper has obtained digital images of the racist murals.
“With this lawsuit, we hope to subpoena the Sheriff’s Department to get them to release that booking video and other related documents,” said Sutton. “We’re trying to hold them accountable for misleading us, for withholding information and not gathering information. They also tell us that when we go to the media, we impede the investigation. If we didn’t go to the media, we wouldn’t have gotten a lot of the information we have now. Of course, the sheriffs go to media when it suits them and makes them look good.”
Spencer, a longtime local activist and head of the Friends of the Pasadena Commission on the Status of Women who has been working with Richardson’s family and pushing the Sheriff’s Department to do more on the case, was shaken after seeing the images firsthand.
“It seems that the images were painted in anticipation of being discovered by the searchers,” said Spencer, who was there when the group walked onto the scene. “I have had difficulty finding words to express my shock in seeing this sick creation.”
On July 13, the LA County Board of Supervisors renewed a $10,000 reward for information leading to Richardson’s whereabouts. The city of Malibu has offered a $15,000 reward.
Mitrice’s father, 43-year-old Michael Richardson of Hawthorne, who was not married to Sutton, said he has been in contact with sheriff’s investigators and does not believe his daughter is dead. He blames the young woman’s mother for what happened to his daughter.
He also does not think it is right to sue the county over his daughter’s disappearance.
“There’s some gross negligence on the part of my daughter’s mother,” said Michael Richardson. “This is not publicity or fun, this is my kid. There is some fault on the part of the sheriffs, but her mother could have got her ass up and got her that night. If you start blaming people, then you have to claim some accountability also. This is my damn daughter.”
He said the last time he saw his daughter was at a barbeque a couple weeks before her disappearance and that Mitrice was exhibiting bizarre behavior before the incident at the restaurant in Malibu.
According to the Malibu Surfside News, which published a story containing edited versions of the murals, Capt. Joe Stephen of the Lost Hills station said deputies are looking at the monikers the taggers used and are comparing the murals with samples in their database.
Mitrice’s father doesn’t believe the graffiti is connected to his daughter’s disappearance. According to both parents, Lt. Andrew Rosso of the Sheriff’s Department is still investigating the murals.
“I think Mitrice is having a nervous breakdown and someone is capitalizing on it,” Michael Richardson said. “I wouldn’t even say someone is holding her against her will. If someone has her, they may not even be holding her against her will. They could be feeding her drugs to keep her under their control.” He added that Mitrice did not have a history of drug use.
Mitrice’s mother believes wholeheartedly that the murals are connected in some way to her daughter’s disappearance because the search party widely publicized that they would be searching in that area prior to the search. She noted that Michael Richardson was not part of the search and did not even know about the murals until she told him about them. According to his own Web site, Michael Richardson has been repeatedly asked by detectives to provide a DNA sample, but he has refused to do so. “Haven’t we learned anything from Mark Fuhrman,” he wrote, referring to the former LAPD officer in the OJ Simpson murder case accused of tampering with blood evidence.
“I most certainly believe they are connected to Mitrice, whether it’s the person who took her in that area or someone who knows what’s going on,” said Sutton. “I don’t think it’s coincidental. Taggers normally want their work to be seen and this was such an isolated area. Of course, the authorities think it’s a far-reaching theory.”
Sutton does, however, agree in part with Michael Richardson that it is possible Mitrice is being held against her will. She said anyone who knows Mitrice would say that she would not willingly run away from home.
“I don’t have any recent communications with Michael,” Sutton said. “Our interactions are very contentious. I do believe Mitrice had a nervous breakdown.
If she is not deceased, someone is definitely holding her against her will. She loves me and her sister more than anyone on this planet. She wouldn’t willingly let us believe she’s dead if she wasn’t.”
Editor Kevin Uhrich contributed to this report.