Forensic Work Underway as Mitrice Richardson's Remains Reburied
• Dead Woman's Clothing Is Transferred to Sheriff's Department Crime Lab for Its First Examination
BY ANNE SOBLE
The exhumation of the remains of Mitrice Richardson early last Wednesday morning were handled with respect and compassion, according to Latice Sutton, the mother of the 24-year-old whose cause of death remains a mystery.
Richardson family members say they hope that additional forensic analysis of the remains will shed light on what happened before Richardson's skeletal and mummified remains were discovered in a rugged Malibu Canyon ravine last August.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has been under fire for its treatment of Richardson while she was in custody for field citable charges, as well as for its handling of her remains, a matter still under investigation.
Richardson ostensibly disappeared in September 2009, the day she was released from Lost Hills Sheriff's Station just after midnight without her car, purse or cell phone.
She had been booked for not paying an $89 dinner bill at Geoffrey's restaurant in Malibu. Witnesses reported that her behavior was bizarre and she appeared to be disoriented. There are indications she might have been experiencing a bipolar episode.
Eleven months after her disappearance, her remains were spotted during a National Park Service field reconnaissance near the site of a former marijuana grow about seven miles from the Lost Hills Station.
When a solitary bone was found near the same site three months later, then eight more were found close by this February, the family began to insist that additional forensics work be performed.
Officials of the Los Angeles County Department of the Coroner agreed to arrange the exhumation in order to do additional testing and to allow all of the remains to be reburied together.
Sutton had engaged Dr. Howard Oliver, a noted forensic pathologist and expert witness, to oversee sample gathering at the coroner's facility after the remains were brought there Wednesday morning.
Oliver told the Malibu Surfside News that the coroner's staff worked with an extensive check list, took numerous specimens, x-rayed the remains and all hair, studied a skull fragment, and even took samples related to insects in the area to shed light on the possibility that the remains might have been moved from another location.
Oliver said the coroner's staff was professional, thorough, sympathetic and respectful of Richardson's mother's concerns.
The forensics expert indicated that the coroner's preliminary review did not change the determination that the cause of death is unknown, which he said is not surprising in light of the current information.
Oliver indicated it might be several months before the extensive lab work is complete and there is any indication of whether causal reassessment is in order.
Oliver confirmed that still missing is Richardson's hyoid bone, which could indicate the possibility of choking as the cause of death. This is deemed important because residents in the area reported hearing screams that sounded as if they were then cut off. He indicated that given the presence of other bones around the throat, the absence of the hyoid raises numerous questions.
Family members and close friends who took part in the exhumation and reburial described the experience as intense.
Richardson's mother said, "During the early morning exhumation, I was anxious, almost in disbelief that it was going to really happen."
During most of the digging, she said she kept her composure by shifting her focus to two LASD homicide detectives on the case, Lt. Mike Rosson and Detective Dan McElderry. Sutton and other family members have been critical of how the two men handled the case and interacted with the family.
Sutton said, "From the time they arrived, they were stand-offish and did not even have the courtesy to say 'hello', 'hi', or 'good morning.' So I decided to approach them, say hello, then begin questioning Lt. Rosson about my daughter's investigation, on which he had no updates."
She said she struggled to maintain her composure, and added, "I did fine until the point where the crane was attached to my daughter's vault to be pulled up from the earth. I could feel various emotions, but the two strongest were sadness and anger."
Sutton indicated that after [her daughter's remains were] driven away, [her] attention turned to [the law offices where] depositions were being taken from patrons who were at Geoffrey's the fateful night.
She said, "It was at a deposition that I began to lose control emotionally, as I listened to the deponent describe the interaction between his table group and Mitrice. I could visually imagine how she would talk, smile, move, and completely have their full attention. I could feel myself emotionally breaking down and had to leave."
As Sutton was leaving the attorney's office, she got the call that her daughter's remains were being returned for reburial. She said, "We raced back to the cemetery to await their return."
Sutton said, "When the coroner's office removed her casket from their truck, that's when I began to emotionally lose control. As she was being lowered back into the earth, I lost all emotional composure. As I screamed and cried, the reality that she is gone and I will never see her in this lifetime hit me like a ton of bricks."
Richardson's mother added, "The reality of the promise of her future has been 'snatched' by some deviant, and now I can never hug her, laugh with her, experience her getting married, having children, or simply going shopping with her...ever.
"Until I find out 'who' physically killed her, the rage I am feeling will be present with me. But the joy and moments I shared with her, and each moment I continue to share with Mitrice's sister, keeps me sane and contains the rage I have in me."
Last Friday, family members went with Chief James Lopez, the recently promoted former assistant to Sheriff Lee Baca, and Dean Gialamas, an acknowledged forensics expert who is the director of the LASD crime lab, touted as the largest municipal crime lab in the nation, to the undisclosed location where the clothing found not far from Richardson's nude remains in August 2010 had been stored in its original packaging and protected.
According to Richardson's mug shot, booking report, and her mother's description, the clothes are the same garments she was wearing when she was released out the side door of the Lost Hills Station. The package was officially escorted to and logged-in at the crime lab that day.
Sutton told The News that no one with the LASD has ever explained why the clothing was of no interest to the detectives and had not been sent to the crime lab immediately after it was found. The lab has experts in all aspects of technical crime analysis, including specialists in the field of sexual assault.
Richardson's mother maintains that her daughter was sexually assaulted before she was murdered. She said she is hopeful that the analysis of the clothing will provide answers to this and other questions.
Sutton concluded, "It is my prayer that we uncover clues that will lead detectives to a person-of-interest/suspect in my daughter's murder."
ANOTHER FAREWELL—Family members and friends brought sunflowers, which were Mitrice Richardson's favorite flower, to the cemetery and placed them around the burial site before the crew prepared to put her casket in the vault and return it to the ground. Richardson's college mentor, Ronda Hampton, said, "A story that you cannot see is the gentleness of the workers as they removed and returned Mitrice. They were so delicate, it was amazing. At one point, they needed to remove a large sunflower that was already at her grave side and, if you will notice, there is one worker who kept the sunflower by his side and carried it with him while he was putting the dirt back over her." Everyone who was there said all of the staff at Inglewood Cemetery Park were compassionate and sensitive. Hampton added, "I am in awe of the kindness of others."