Lie & Deny: What Does the Still Unsolved Death of Mitrice Richardson Say About the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department?April 22nd, 2016 by Celeste Fremon
“EVERYTHING ABOUT THE HANDLING OF THE RICHARDSON CASE IS HORRIFIC, BUT NONE OF IT IS SUPRISING”
In February, six years after Mitrice Richardson’s body—or what remained of it— was found in a nearly impenetrable area of the Santa Monica Mountains called Dark Canyon, the Office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris agreed to launch a formal investigation into the way the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department handled the Richardson case. Whether the investigation will be pro forma or truly aggressive remains to be seen.
(WLA reported on the AG’s decision to take up the case here.)
Now Newsweek’s Alexander Nazaryan, has taken a new and very interesting look at the matter of Mitrice Richardson—her arrest, her incomprehensible release in the middle of the night, without her car, purse, cell phone or any cash, the staggeringly clumsy treatment of her remains.
But instead attempting to reinvestigate Richardson’s case, Nazaryan has instead examined the larger departmental context in which these actions involving Richardson occurred.
The result is disturbing.
Here’s a clip from Nazaryan’s excellent longread story. We strongly recommend you read the whole thing.
We hope the relevant people in the California Attorney General’s Office will also read the story.
Sitting in a car parked outside an Albertsons supermarket, Ronda Hampton was sobbing. “I can’t do this,” she cried, holding a bouquet of flowers, afternoon shoppers pushing past us, the Santa Monica Mountains aflame with sunlight in the distance. Chip Croft, a documentarian, made some feeble attempts to calm her down, but Hampton kept crying, so the three of us sat there awkwardly, two white men somberly watching a black woman wail over the death of another black woman.
After a time, Hampton’s tears subsided, and we headed off into the hills of Malibu Creek State Park, around where the 24-year-old Mitrice Richardson disappeared on September 17, 2009, several hours after being released from police custody in the middle of the night. Croft, who did not know Richardson but recently made a documentary about her with Hampton, drove, at times pointing out where celebrities lived, as if we were on one of those Hollywood tours.
Richardson had been arrested at a popular restaurant on the Pacific Coast Highway, just down the road from the beachfront estate of Steven Spielberg; Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies towed her car and took her inland to the Malibu/Lost Hills station, close to the Albertsons where Hampton broke down. That’s the station made briefly famous in 2006, when Mel Gibson was transported there after being pulled over for drunken driving. Deputies eventually escorted Gibson from Lost Hills to his towed car; the department tends to treat the famous with deference. Richardson had competed in beauty contests, but she was not a celebrity. She was released into the night at 12:38 a.m. without money or phone, expected to hike the 11 miles to the tow pound, which is on the Pacific coast.
Richardson was last seen the following morning in a residential area of the Santa Monica Mountains called Monte Nido, near the house of retired television news reporter Bill Smith, not far from the vast estate of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith (no relation). Richardson’s half-decomposed body was found several months later, in a remote stretch of the park called Dark Canyon, the clothes she’d been wearing scattered nearby. Some law enforcement officials surmised that Richardson, who suffered from bipolar disorder, walked into the canyon, took off her clothes and succumbed to anaphylactic shock from extensive poison oak exposure. This is highly unlikely, but so is every other hypothesis about her death: violent vagrants, drug cartels, neo-Nazis. Nobody knows anything, though most everyone suspects something. The most grave of these suspicions are aimed at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD).
Mitrice Richardson was a young woman who became a case but also cause. To many in Los Angeles, she is a symbol too, as potent as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, or Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, of a law enforcement culture that has grown contemptuous of both laws and men. “I consider Mitrice Richardson to be a victim of police brutality,” says Jasmyne Cannick, a Los Angeles journalist who writes frequently about race.
To those familiar with the LASD, everything about the handling of the Richardson case is horrific, but none of it is surprising. “The Sheriff’s Department is much worse than LAPD,” one lawyer said in a Knight Ridder investigation into the LASD. That was in the summer of 1991, blurry footage of Rodney King being beaten by four Los Angeles Police Department officers haunting the nation. The lawyer continued: “A growing joke in our circles is you never would have had the Rodney King videotape if they were sheriff’s deputies, because they just would have shot him.”
The sheriff at the time was Sherman Block, who died in 1998 and was replaced by Leroy “Lee” Baca, who had spent three decades rising steadily through the LASD ranks. The department was his from 1998 until 2014.
Now, though, Baca is probably headed to prison for lying to federal investigators looking into abuses in the jails run by his department. Because he took a plea deal, the sentence, to be doled out in May, won’t be longer than six months. The sentence for Baca’s longtime undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, who was convicted earlier this month on a similar array of charges, could be up to 15 years. Neither man had any direct connection to Richardson’s disappearance, but the secrecy, tribalism and cynical dishonesty that tarnished that investigation have manifested elsewhere: in the horrific abuses in the Los Angeles jail system, the nation’s largest, which the LASD operates; in the racial profiling by LASD deputies across the Antelope Valley; in charges of fawning favoritism for celebrities but often belligerent disdain for the average citizen.
Bob Olmsted, a former LASD commander who mounted a failed bid for the department’s top spot in 2014, tells me the men in charge of the department had an modus operandi for all potentially troublesome situations: “lie and deny.”
“They destroyed the organization,” he says of Baca and Tanaka. “They destroyed the public trust.”