Malibu Surfside News

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Latest Twist in Mitrice Richardson Case Is Conflicting GPS Coordinates for Where Her Remains Were Found

• LASD Arranges for Woman’s Mother to Visit Remote Malibu Canyon Location for a Private Memorial

BY ANNE SOBLE


No sooner is one set of questions aired, concerning the improper handling of the remains of Mitrice Richardson by Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department homicide detectives, than another equally confounding issue appears poised to take center stage.
Richardson is the 24-year-old African-American honors college graduate who went missing after being booked at the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station in September 2009 for nonpayment of a Malibu restaurant bill and, according to the county coroner, was found dead of undeterminable cause 11 months later.
The Los Angeles resident’s remains were found in Malibu Canyon backcountry on Aug. 9 by State Parks rangers checking out a former marijuana grove.
Last Saturday, Sheriff Lee Baca and LASD Commander James Lopez arranged for Latice Sutton, the mother of the dead woman; Lauren Sutton, a close aunt; and Richardson’s college mentor and friend, Ronda Hampton, to hike into the rugged terrain where the remains were found, with the assistance of an LASD Search and Rescue crew headed by Sgt. Tui Wright, a veteran of some of the most difficult mountain searches in the area.
Sutton and the close circle of supporters who help to keep Richardson’s name in the public spotlight expressed their appreciation for the trip that took weeks of planning.
The women said it not only was a profoundly moving experience but helped to address concerns they have had since Richardson’s skeletonized and mummified remains were found in the remote parkland area two months ago.
Included in the party was the forensic anthropologist Sutton has involved in the ever more complicated case. Clea Koff, the mother said, is “a forensic anthropologist who has gathered evidence of war crimes and genocide for the UN International Criminal Tribunals in the killing fields of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.”
Koff heads the Los Angeles-based Missing Persons Identification Resource Center, which assists families of the missing in communicating with law enforcement and coroners’ offices to facilitate identifications and investigations.
Sutton said Koff has helped her navigate the formidable bureaucratic labyrinth that awaits families of missing persons, especially adults. Sutton and those who have helped her say that “it takes endurance and perseverance not to give up in the face of obstacles put in the paths of those who want to learn the fate of their loved ones.”
Sutton and the others told the Malibu Surfside News they are convinced that where they were taken is where Richardson’s remains were found, but added that it does not appear to be the same location where the coroner’s investigative team said they found additional bones on Aug. 25.
That was two weeks after the original find of the skull and most of the skeleton that was moved by LASD homicide detectives despite directives to the contrary by the ranking official from the Department of Coroner at the scene.
They cite differences between the sheriff’s GPS coordinates for the location they visited and those in official coroner’s written report. Sutton contacted DOC Investigator Elyssa Fleak from the site and confirmed that the coroner apparently collected the additional remains from a different location.
In an email to all of the involved agencies, Hampton said, “The [GPS] differences have to be explained.” Sutton, who has said she will exhume her daughter’s remains if there is no alternative, is concerned whether all of the bones that were collected belong to Richardson and said DNA testing may be required to address this.
HUMAN BONE
Compounding things further, while the group was preparing a memorial for Richardson, a small human bone, likely a phalangeal, was uncovered while Sutton was preparing the soil for the arrangement of a hand-lettered sign, flowers, crosses, photos and other personal mementos.
After making telephone contact with the coroner’s office, the women were directed to give the bone to the SAR crew to bring back to the DOC.
While Aretha Franklin’s music played in the background, the mementos, including an inscribed photograph of the mother and daughter; Hampton’s college pin that she had hoped to give Richardson when the young woman finished her Ph.D in psychology; and the words of Psalm 23, joined other items beneath a hand-lettered nameplate made by her aunt that was encircled by small rocks.
The perimeter of the site, the location of which is not being made public by The News, is marked by orange tape, which is still in place despite the recent rains. The family expects their memorial to be claimed by nature when the heavy winter rains begin, but Sutton said, “These things were left for Mitrice, for as long as she needs them” and “whatever happens after that is fine with us.”
The women told The News that they had no difficulty communicating by cell phone or SAR radios with the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station or the coroner’s office, which raises questions about LASD spokesperson Steve Whitmore’s statements to the newspaper two weeks ago regarding the difficulty of communications from the area, officially proffered as the reason LASD acted contrary to DOC instructions, which is a violation of state law.
Mike Gennaco, the head of the Office of Independent Review, which is supposed to provide oversight on the sheriff’s department, accompanied the group that hiked in to the site and then was airlifted out of the location by helicopter.
The OIR’s first assessment of the case was that Lost Hills Station handled Richardson by the book.
However, Richardson family members have held steadfast to their belief that there was negligence in her release from the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station without a means of transportation, purse or cell phone just after midnight on Sept. 16, 2009, despite restaurant personnel and other witnesses indicating that she was in a distressed mental state that warranted her being 5150’d, put under an involuntary medical hold for professional evaluation, and not to have been released under circumstances that ultimately led to her disappearance and death.
While at the site, Gennaco indicated that he has personally assumed direction of future OIR investigation of the case, including the dispute between the LASD and the coroner’s office about the removal of Richardson’s remains from where they were found, which has been the subject of articles in the last three weeks’ issues of The News.
Richardson family members emailed the feuding agencies this week, expressing concern that the emphasis in the mainstream media on the “scandal that has been created [puts the] focus on the reasons a body was moved, [when] it should be on determining what happened to [Richardson].”
On Tuesday, Gennaco told The News that the framework for the joint LASD, DOC and OIR investigation into the remains brouhaha has been formalized, and the effort is getting under way.
Gennaco, when speaking at a meeting of the National Association for Equal Justice in America’s Compton chapter in September, had indicated that he had “some issues” with the original OIR report. Family members say they hope the current investigation will get closer to what they believe is the truth.
GROUP JOINS CAUSE
NAEJA’s founder and president, Royce Esters, an activist on local rights and justice issues for over 20 years, said the organization has offered to assist with the Richardson case.
The group’s meetings, which often attract over a hundred participants, regularly feature important civic speakers, including Gennaco and Sheriff Lee Baca.
Esters said the group readily tackles controversial community problems, such as environmental racism, job discrimination, and sexual harassment, and “monitoring of public officials is encouraged” in its quest “to promote a just society for all people.”
NAEJA is planning a meeting in December on the Richardson case, which Esters hopes will be attended by Baca and other local officials, as well as representatives from the FBI.
The NAEJA president’s goal is to persuade the FBI to join the investigation.
REQUIEM—Latice Sutton, wearing a protective blue jumpsuit provided by the LASD Search and Rescue crewmembers who took her and a small circle of supporters to the site where Mitrice Richardson’s remains were found, spends a quiet moment with the memorial for her daughter. Sutton said she is grateful to Sheriff Lee Baca for arranging the opportunity to visit the remote canyon location. An email to Baca said, “[The] spirit of Mitrice filled the air, the sky was filled with her joy, [and this moment] transcended her time here on earth.”
REFLECTION—The sounds of nature blended with the words of “Never Gonna Break my Faith” by the Queen of Soul, as Mitrice Richardson’s mother, Latice Sutton; her aunt, Lauren Sutton; her college mentor and friend, Ronda Hampton; and forensic anthropologist Clea Koff, rested by her memorial.