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What Went Wrong?

What Went Wrong?

Los Angeles Times via YellowBrix

August 13, 2010

LOS ANGELES – It was the kind of phone call you might expect a worried mother to make.

Latice Sutton sounded concerned, confused and a bit embarrassed as she talked to the sheriff’s deputy, trying to figure out whether to make the 80-mile middle-of-the-night drive to the Malibu jail to pick up her 24-year-old daughter, Mitrice Richardson.

“It’s dark and she doesn’t have a car and I don’t want her wandering about,” Sutton said. “The only way I would come and get her is if she is going to be released tonight…. She’s not from that area and I would hate to wake up to a morning report: Girl lost somewhere with her head cut off.”

Sutton chuckled nervously as she spoke. It is chilling to listen to that conversation now.

Within hours of that telephone call, Richardson was released from the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station and went missing for 11 months. This week, her skeletal remains were discovered in an isolated ravine in nearby Malibu Canyon. Officials don’t know yet how she died.

It’s a case that sparked outrage from the start: How could Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies be so cruel, so callous or so clueless as to allow a young woman to set off on her own in an isolated area in the middle of the night?

And the report resulting from a months-long investigation by the sheriff’s watchdog, the Office of Independent Review, offers little to quiet the clamor.


“The decision to take Ms. Richardson into custody and transport her to the station was the only prudent option,” the report concluded. And the decision to release her from custody a few hours later — with no car, no money and no cellphone — “comported with legal and policy mandates.”

It answers some questions, but it raises another:

Where do you begin when you try to finger a villain in a case where no one technically did anything wrong, but everything that could go wrong did?

Hindsight is 20/20, of course. I imagine everyone involved at every step did what seemed reasonable to them at that moment.

When Richardson walked out of Geoffrey’s Malibu seaside restaurant without paying for her steak dinner, the manager followed her to the parking lot and escorted her back inside. Richardson told him that she had no money or credit cards. She also said she was from Mars and couldn’t pay because of “the language of the numbers.”

She seemed odd, but not dangerous, employees told investigators. She told them she didn’t have any parents, that God spoke to her through a soap-opera actress, that she knew she had to pay for her meal, but thought faith would take care of it for her.

The employees treated her courteously. They discussed pooling their money to settle her tab but worried that “it was not safe for her to drive away from the restaurant alone,” the report said.

The manager wanted her taken to jail, because he thought that was the safest place for her and the smartest option for the restaurant. Deputies found marijuana and alcohol in her car. If she had driven off and hurt someone, Geoffrey’s might be liable, he believed.

Even Richardson’s mother thought, according to the report, that a night in a jail cell might be a good wakeup call for her headstrong daughter.

“I felt that as long as she was in their care and custody, she would be safe,” Sutton told me in an interview last spring. “That clearly they would see that something was wrong. They had already been told she was acting crazy.”

But mental illness is not always so obvious. Deputies say they saw nothing that indicated Richardson was a danger to herself or others or was unable to meet her own needs — the criteria for mental evaluation.

Richardson chatted with the civilian jailer, who tried to persuade her to wait until morning in the station lobby.

But Richardson said she planned to meet up with friends. So the deputies had to let her walk. “They had no legal justification,” the report said, “to deprive her of her freedom.”

At a testy news conference announcing Richardson’s death this week, Sheriff Lee Baca acknowledged that going by the book in this case wasn’t nearly good enough. “The deputies acted properly,” he said. “Properly doesn’t mean we couldn’t have done something more.”

The investigative report recommends a series of changes, but they are little more than procedural tinkering, designed to insulate the department from liability, not protect vulnerable detainees.

What’s needed at that station is a cultural change, a respect for humanity, not just for procedures.

It might be “impractical,” as the report says, “to require the department or station personnel to call an arrestee’s family and friends” when someone is released from custody.

But it is unkind not to respond to a worried mother’s plea that her daughter not be sent alone into the night.

And it is unconscionable not to extend as much courtesy to a confused young woman as to a drunken, foul-mouthed celebrity.

If Mel Gibson could get a ride from deputies to the tow yard to retrieve his car when he was released from that same station after his arrest, why wasn’t Richardson offered as much?

The deputies couldn’t force Richardson to stay. She was an adult. She didn’t seem crazy, they said. She was entitled to walk out legally.

But couldn’t a deputy have picked up the phone and called Sutton, or handed Richardson the receiver and suggested, “Why don’t you call your worried mother?”

Instead, they offered what the report praised as “professionalism and patience.” And they promised a mother something they couldn’t deliver.

In that phone call Sutton made, as her daughter was en route to the station, the deputy was boldly reassuring. “You don’t have to worry about her safety,” he said.

“Oh, I feel safe with her being in custody,” Sutton responded, chuckling again, as if the two were partners. “It’s being released that I’m worried about. It’s crazy out here.”

If she knew that even then, I don’t understand how the deputies could have been so unaware.


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