Investigation underway in Mitrice Richardson’s death

A local restaurant owner says Sheriff Baca left out important information during a press conference concerning her mental state.

By Jonathan Friedman / The Malibu Times

The search for the missing woman who was arrested at a Malibu restaurant nearly a year ago came to a much-publicized tragic end last week. The skeletal remains discovered in Malibu Canyon last week on Monday were publicly identified three days later as those of Mitrice Richardson. An investigation of how her death occurred is ongoing.

Several attempts by The Malibu Times to contact Richardson’s family and supporters were not successful. But they have spoken to other media, with comments ranging from accusations that there were significant mistakes made in Richardson’s arrest and release from the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station to allegations that officials from the station were involved in her death. Racial bias has also been alleged. Richardson, who was 24 when she was arrested, was black. A review of the station’s handling of the Richardson affair by the county’s Office of Independent Review, a panel of lawyers, determined in a 57-page report that the local Sheriff’s station “acted legally and reasonably.”

There are two wrongful death lawsuits pending against the Sheriff’s Department. One is associated with her father and the other with her mother. The two are not a couple.

Sheriff Lee Baca announced the discovery of Richardson’s remains during a heated press conference last week Thursday. He became noticeably hostile as he was drilled with questions from reporters, including accusations that the family had not been properly noticed prior to the press conference.

Baca defended the handling of the Richardson affair, but said this was a time for “soul searching.” Sheriff’s spokesperson Steve Whitmore repeated this in an interview after the news conference. He also noted the conclusion of the independent review.

“It will once again show you that we didn’t do anything wrong,” Whitmore said. “But this is not the time to discuss these things as the sheriff said. And I think he’s right. This is the time to let the family grieve. That is the most important thing.”

Mayor Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner said in an interview after the announcement, “This was a sad tragedy for the family. Hopefully they understand our hearts were behind them.”

Wagner said “Malibu’s face is on this loss.”

Richardson was dining alone on Sept. 16 in Malibu at Geoffrey’s Restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway. Restaurant management contacted Lost Hills after she could not pay her $89 bill and she exhibited signs of acting strange, restaurant owner Jeff Peterson said in a September interview. Sheriff’s deputies who arrived on the scene conducted field sobriety tests, former Lost Hills Sheriff’s Captain Tom Martin said in September, but found that she was sober. It has since been revealed that Richardson suffered from bipolar disorder, and at the time might have been exhibiting signs of this illness. Peterson signed a citizen’s arrest form, and Richardson was taken into custody for possession of marijuana in her car and defrauding an innkeeper.

According to the Sheriff’s inmate information portal on the Internet, Richardson was booked at the Lost Hills station in Agoura at 11:03 p.m. She was then released at 12:25 a.m. without a car, purse or cell phone. After leaving the station, Richardson was briefly sighted on the lawn of a nearby residence, and then was never seen again.

Many people have said it was at best a poor decision to release Richardson. The jailer who processed Richardson told The Los Angeles Times she recommended to Richardson that she stay until the morning, but Richardson refused.

The independent review stated, “Once Ms. Richardson, a misdemeanor arrestee, cleared a check of criminal history and station personnel determined that she was not a present danger to herself or others, or gravely disabled, Malibu/Lost Hills Station personnel could no longer legally detain her involuntarily.”

During the press conference, Baca said the soul searching will involve determining whether it is appropriate to have somebody arrested under the circumstances of Richardson’s arrest. Peterson said he was bothered Baca did not tell the full story.

“He left out the whole part of why we did it [call deputies], and that was because of her state of mind,” Peterson said. “If we wouldn’t have arrested her, she would have gotten in her car and gotten away. Who knows what could have happened. Our issue was to get her to safety.”

When asked about this complaint, Whitmore said, “The sheriff says what he says. I’m not going to take back what the sheriff says.”

Regarding whether Peterson signed the citizen’s arrest form because of a concern for Richardson’s safety, Whitmore said, “I can’t speak to his state of mind.”

Peterson said a restaurant manager spoke on the telephone with Richardson’s grandmother, who offered to pay the young woman’s bill with a credit card over the phone. The restaurant said this was not acceptable because a signature was needed. The grandmother and another family member, who Peterson declined to name because of “sensitivity for the grieving,” were unable to drive to the restaurant that night.

Peterson said another man recently did not sign a credit card bill for a $750 meal. He later successfully disputed the charge because of the lack of a signature. Peterson said usually people who cannot afford to pay a bill go to the bank, have somebody come and pay or something else is done. He could only think of one occasion in the past four years when an arrest was made.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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