• Lost Hills Jailer Who May Have Been Her Final Contact Declines Local Press Interview
BY ANNE SOBLE
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s chief spokesperson and other LASD officials ask, “What does the family’s criticism [of us] do to help find Mitrice Richardson?” But the drumbeat of criticism grows louder and more specific as there has been no word from the 24-year-old Cal State Fullerton honors graduate in nine weeks.
Given a powerful push by Richardson’s photo appearing on the cover of People magazine and an intensive drive in the politically active gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, the saga of the young woman who was “acting crazy” in Geoffrey’s restaurant on Sept. 16 and allegedly unable to pay a dinner bill of $89.51 at the establishment despite having several thousand dollars in a bank account is achieving national status.
The GLBT community has expressed concern that the young African-American woman preparing to become a teacher and begin doctoral studies in psychology may have encountered not only race and gender bias, but also sexual identity issues because she is a lesbian.
Geoffrey’s manager performed a citizen’s arrest and signed paperwork requiring the remanding of Richardson to custody for transport to the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station where she was booked on two misdemeanor counts—defrauding an innkeeper and possession in her vehicle of less than an ounce of marijuana (normally a field citation).
Richardson was then ostensibly released alone after midnight on Sept. 17 without money, her cell phone (reportedly still being kept by the authorities) and without transportation (her car was towed from Geoffrey’s lot and impounded).
Family members criticize how Richardson was handled by the arresting deputies—they name two of them on a family blog, Armando Loureiro and Frank Brower—and contend that anyone described as saying she was from Mars and speaking gibberish should have been placed on a 72-hour hold under professional medical care, instead of being let out the side entrance of an isolated building in a dark industrial area she did not know.
Excluding the possibility that Richardson’s behavior at the restaurant was a carefully rehearsed act that she then dropped with sheriff’s deputies, family members say the woman was demonstrating a state of mental crisis that might be related to bipolarity or schizophrenia.
In the supplemental report—written by Brower a week after the initial arrest report—describing the field sobriety test, which the woman passed, he notes that Richardson was “cooperative and polite” and “seemed a little embarrassed about the entire incident.”
To complete the booking process, Richardson was handed over to a jailer, or custody assistant, named Sharon Cummings. Jailers are not sworn deputies but are classified as professional staff. As they are not peace officers, they are not armed. It is their job to run the jails in the Los Angeles County system.
According to the operations lieutenant at Lost Hills, Steve Smith, “[Cummings] started county service in May of 1997, working a county jail facility. She arrived at Malibu/Lost Hills in April of 1998.”
Smith said, “She is identified as our administrative jailer, which means she trains other jailers and is responsible for administrative paperwork that is required.”
The sheriff’s department’s chief spokesperson, Steve Whitmore, speaking at a rally in October outside the Lost Hills Station, told the gathering of placard carriers that the “African American jailer [Cummings] said she engaged [Richardson] in ‘lucid’ conversation...at great length.” Whitmore indicated that the jailer said they “talked about music... jazz [which Richardson] liked. [and] gospel [which] she didn’t.”
Whitmore said the jailer offered to let Richardson stay overnight in a cell with a bed. He indicated that the cell would not be locked, but Captain Tom Martin, the commander at Lost Hills, had earlier told the Malibu Surfside News that station policy requires all occupied cells be kept locked, but Richardson “could have asked to be let out at any time.”
Cummings now declines to be interviewed by the media or allow a personnel file photo or other photograph of her to be made public by the sheriff’s department.
Responding to an email inquiry from The News, Lieut. Smith said: “As I am sure you can imagine, an employee who infrequently interacts with members of the press can feel a high level of stress speaking to the press.”
Smith added, “Specifically, an employee is always fearful that they could be misquoted, sound/say something ‘stupid,’ answer a question incorrectly, and probably most common, when they read what was written, feel that the written words were not what they meant to say to the reporter.”
Smith noted that Cummings did one brief off-camera interview with a broadcast outlet a week after Richardson disappeared that the jailer considered stressful. Smith said, “I believe Ms. Cummings feels that..she did not need the added stress of another interview.” He added that “Ms. Cummings is a very professional and gentle woman, who takes great pride in her duties and responsibilities to those who she is entrusted to care for when they are in her custody.”
The only quote attributed to Cummings in the off-camera interview was similar to paraphrasing offered by Whitmore at the Lost Hills rally. Cummings said, “When I found out [Richardson] didn’t have a ride, I asked her why don’t you stay. It’s kind of dark and a bit cool, you don’t have a jacket. I knew she lived out in L.A. and didn’t know the area. But she said she didn’t want to spend the night in jail, and she was hooking up with some friends.”
Cummings then reportedly walked Richardson to a side exit door and up to the walk-through gate at the entrance to the side of the sheriff’s station. She may have been the last person to converse with the young woman before she disappeared.
Among conjectures voiced by family members is that Richardson encountered foul play at Lost Hills. The woman’s father, Michael Richardson, adamantly states, “I believe that someone at [Lost Hills] had something to do with my daughter’s disappearance.” Family members point to changes in versions of arrest circumstances given to them by Lost Hills and redacted reports as proof of a “cover-up.”
Some family members also ask whether Richardson might have been given a ride from the station and then, for some reason, either got out of the vehicle or was let out seven miles from Lost Hills, where she appears to have been sighted by a Cold Canyon area resident at about 6 a.m. Family members doubt that she could have walked that far in the dark alone. The report of this possible sighting was allegedly not responded to by deputies for several hours.
The family continues to request a meeting with Sheriff Lee Baca and has responded negatively to a report he presented to the county board of supervisors last week, outlining the department’s stance that Mitrice Richardson’s release was handled in accord with all applicable laws and practices.
The family is also keeping track of the Los Angeles Office of Independent Review’s oversight of the department’s review of Malibu Station personnel’s interactions with Richardson.
The OIR is a civilian oversight panel that monitors the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and investigates allegations of officer misconduct.
Sheriff’s department spokesperson Steve Whitmore says family members’ ongoing criticism of the LASD, especially espousal of conspiracy or wrongdoing theories, “doesn’t achieve the goal of finding the missing woman.”
Whitmore said he “can’t stress enough that there is no cover-up [because] there is no wrong-doing...there is no conspiracy.”
However, most observers say there can’t be anyone in the department who doesn’t expect a day of reckoning, no matter how the case turns out, which is why LASD officials hope the woman is found soon. They know that if she has befallen an ill fate, fingers will point at them.
An online activist group—change.org—has collected 2569 signatures toward its goal of 5000 signatures on a petition urging state and federal officials to initiate a federal investigation into the Mitrice Richardson case. The text of the petition can be found at the website: www.change.org
Although the tight-knit circle around the missing woman maintains an upbeat attitude and speaks out to her daily, as evident at a recent prayer service attended by her mother and other family and friends, signs of the ongoing stress show on many of their faces.
Anyone with information related to the Richardson case can go to www.findmitrice.info or contact Ronda Hampton at 951-660-8031, Michael Richardson at 310-283-4717, or LAPD Detective Chuck Knolls (Homicide-Robbery) at 213-485-2531.