What Explains Odd Conduct of LA Sheriffs in the Death of Cal State Fullerton Student?

What Explains Odd Conduct of LA Sheriffs in the Death of Cal State Fullerton Student?

We'll probably never know why homicide investigators with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department acted oddly in the recovery of the skeletal remains of 24-year-old Cal State Fullerton student Mitrice Richardson in Malibu Canyon.

The August 2010 decision by sheriff's investigators to move Richardson's bones was met with stinging criticism from a high ranking coroner official, prompting an investigation from the Los Angeles Office of Independent Review (OIR).

​Last week, OIR boss Michael Gennaco released his findings regarding the dispute over the recovery of remains which were found 11 months after she was released from the Agoura Hills Sheriff's Station following a misdemeanor arrest.

The report, which chronicles a complex multi-agency recovery effort, ultimately concludes that "factual disputes" leave questions unanswered as to whether sheriff's officials were justified in removing the woman's skeleton.

California's Government Code gives broad authority to coroners--not the sheriff's deputies--over the handling of human remains.

The night Richardson's remains were discovered, sheriff's deputies flew via helicopter to the rugged canyon where the body was located and spoke by cell phone with coroner officials, who gave them permission to remove a skull, pelvic bone and leg bone. However, as they began brushing leaves aside, they discovered a nearly intact skeleton, which they loaded onto the chopper and flew back to the station.

In 2010, Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter told the Los Angeles Times that his department did not permit the removal and that sheriff's investigators may have violated the state's government code. He added that he couldn't think of another case in which a police agency had removed an entire skeleton without coroner approval. In his view, the unauthorized removal of Richardson's remains undermined the coroner's investigation into the suspicious death.

In the same article Sheriff's Homicide Capt. Dave Smith blamed impending nightfall and concerns that animals would be attracted by the smell of decomposition for the decision to hastily remove the remains without permission. But after an advance copy of the OIR report was provided to sheriff's officials, several months later, a homicide detective flip-flopped and told OIR investigators that he had in fact received clearance from a coroner's captain to remove the remains. 

According to the report, if the detective hadn't received this authorization it would have represented a "significant lapse in judgment on behalf of the detective." But the report adds "if as the Homicide detective now avers, such re-contact was made and additional permission had been given, LASD would not be subject to this criticism. Unfortunately, because of the now existent factual dispute, we are unable to determine which scenario occurred."

When asked last week why the detective didn't tell investigators about the call sooner, LASD spokesman Steve Whitmore told the Times "he just didn't offer it up...which is one of the reasons the [Office of Independent Review] did its review, to drill down to exactly what did happen and what didn't happen." 

Michael Gennaco at an earlier Fullerton City Council meeting
Michael Gennaco at an earlier Fullerton City Council meeting
Brandon Ferguson
​​Council on the police response in the wake of the Kelly Thomas death. His preliminary report found there was no police cover up following the deadly beating. He is expected to release more information regarding the incident in the future.

A former civil rights attorney for the United States Department of Justice, Gennaco has provided civilian oversight of (LASD) since 2001. Some news outlets, including our sister paper LA Weekly have noted that the independent office he heads maintains attorney-client privileges with the department, effectively barring Gennaco from testifying about his work in court. 

Following her disappearance, Mitrice Richardson's family set up a website critical of the sheriff's handling of her case. Before vanishing, she had been living with her great grandmother in Watts and was about to begin a career substitute teaching. Cal State Fullerton records indicate she graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor's degree in Psychology. 

Richardson was arrested the night of September 16, 2009 at Geoffery's, a swanky oceanside restaurant in Malibu, after exhibiting bizarre behavior. Family members say she was discovered rifling through a CD collection in a staff member's car and speaking gibberish. 

Still, she was allowed in the restaurant where she was served a meal and an alcoholic beverage totaling $89. Customers noticed her strange behavior, and staff called 911 saying she refused to pay her bill. After deputies arrived, Richardson reportedly used a restaurant phone to call her great grandmother who offered to pay the bill over the phone. Management refused and Richardson was arrested. She was released from the Agoura Hills station after midnight without her car, which had been impounded. Her family has said she was likely suffering from a mental-health crisis and that arrest wasn't the proper response to the situation. They also described law enforcement as uncooperative with family after her disappearance.  

"Since the disappearance of Mitrice, family and friends have been trying extremely hard to work with some members of the Law Enforcement," the site read. "But find it quite challenging given the amount of dishonesty and inconsistencies they have encountered." 

The webpage includes a particularly scathing remark from Richardson's father Michael apparently aimed at the sheriff's department. "When you tell the truth," it reads. "You don't have to remember anything."

(Follow us @ocweekly on Twitter and Facebook!)


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >