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Questions unresolved over handling of Mitrice Richardson remains

March 14, 2012 |  2:38 pm

A yearlong probe failed to resolve a dispute about whether Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies moved the remains of Mitrice Richardson without the permission of the coroner's office, according to a report released Wednesday.

In 2010, a high-ranking coroner's official criticized sheriff's deputies for removing the woman’s remains from a rugged ravine despite his directions not to, saying the deputies' actions may have undermined the thoroughness of the coroner's investigation.

The 24-year-old Richardson drew national media attention in September 2009 when she disappeared after being released from the sheriff's Lost Hills/Malibu station about midnight, without her car, purse or cellphone. Nearly 11 months after her disappearance, her remains were spotted in the remote Malibu Canyon ravine.

After Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter’s comments were published in The Times, the sheriff’s official watchdog agency launched a probe into the dispute.

The Office of Independent Review confirmed the Sheriff’s Department’s account at the time: that initially sheriff’s officials believed that only a skull and possibly a couple of other bones were there, and were given permission by the coroner to move the partial remains.

However, the agency’s review could not determine whether or not sheriff’s officials asked for further permission once the bones were lifted up and it was discovered that Richardson's entire skeleton was there.

The OIR blamed its inability to settle that dispute on poor documentation of on-scene communication between the two agencies.

“The fact that there is a factual dispute about this issue only emphasizes the need in future cases to improve communication,” the report states.

To further confuse matters, in 2010 both the sheriff’s spokesman and the department’s homicide captain acknowledged that sheriff’s deputies did not ask for further permission once more bones were discovered, saying they had to move quickly because of nightfall and the treacherous terrain.

Michael Gennaco, who heads the OIR, said he was prepared to ding the Sheriff’s Department for “a significant lapse” for not asking for that permission.

However, after distributing a draft report, he was notified that a sheriff’s detective who had been on scene said he did in fact tell a coroner’s captain that more remains were found after the bones were moved onto a plastic sheet, and said he was told “whatever you’ve got on plastic, just bring it out.”

Asked about the detective’s contradiction of the sheriff’s longstanding narrative, department spokesman Steve Whitmore said, “He just didn’t offer it up ... which is one of the reasons the OIR did its review, to drill down to exactly what did happen and what didn’t happen.”

A coroner’s captain denied that the detective made the phone call. 

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-- Robert Faturechi

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