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Mitrice Richardson's mother files lawsuit against L.A. County, sheriff's officials

June 29, 2010 |  1:58 pm

http://latimes.image2.trb.com/lanews/media/photo/2009-12/51058252.jpgOutside the Los Angeles County office building Tuesday morning, the mother of Mitrice Richardson -- the woman missing since she was released from the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff's station in the dark, early morning of Sept. 17, 2009 -- said she was suing the county and sheriff's officials over the arrest and release of her daughter.

Richardson disappeared after being released into the remote Calabasas area without her car, which had been impounded, cellphone and purse. Her disappearance prompted several massive searches and an investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department. After discovering her diaries, police investigators concluded that she was probably suffering a severe form of bipolar disorder.

Richardson was arrested at Geoffrey's restaurant for not paying her bill. The staff told deputies that she was acting "crazy." The sheriff's department has always maintained that Richardson seemed lucid and normal during the several hours she was held at the station.

But on Tuesday, Richardson's mother, Latice Sutton, cited video footage of her daughter in a holding cell that showed her behaving in an infantile manner. According Sutton, who first saw the video in late March, her daughter, at one point, clutches the screen of the holding pen and sways from side to side.

"She's grabbing at a door where she's swinging back and forth," Sutton said. "She's pulling at the back of her hair." She tries to make a call at a pay phone. Unsuccessful, she relinquishes the receiver.

Hours later, Richardson vanished.

In the suit, Sutton cites as negligent the sheriff's department's "failure to give Ms. Richardson a medical or psychiatric evaluation."

"They knew when they got the phone call from Geoffrey's that she was acting strangely," said Sutton's attorney, Leo Terrell, at the media conference outside the county building. "They saw this conduct. They ignored the conduct."

Terrell said that they were also alleging unlawful arrest. "There was an offer to pay the bill. Mitrice Richardson should not have been arrested," Terrell said. Richardson's great-grandmother had offered to give restaurant staffers a credit card over the phone but she was told that she would have to also fax a signature. (The owner of Geoffrey's said later that they requested that because otherwise the credit card company might disallow the charge.)

Although the suit seeks unspecified monetary damages, both Sutton and Terrell said the primary reason for the suit was to give them the right to demand information about the night that Richardson was arrested.

"This magical lawsuit will allow me to obtain every single document in the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department and to depose every officer and detective involved," said Terrell, who stated that he has been representing Sutton pro bono. He also said the suit would enable him to get a copy of the videotape that Sutton was allowed to view but not take.

LAPD officials, who were not involved in her arrest or subsequent release, are not named in this suit. The LAPD was asked to investigate, and two detectives spent four months full time working on the case. They continue to follow leads as they come up.

"I feel as though I am forced at this point to bring this lawsuit to get answers," said Sutton, holding a framed photo of her daughter in cap and gown for her 2008 graduation from Cal State Fullerton.

The suit also alleges wrongful death. When Terrell was asked if he believed Richardson was still alive, he answered, "No."

Her mother, who said she continues to search for her daughter, gave a more complicated answer: "My hope is she's alive…. But based on how long she's been missing, she's either being held and transported or she's dead. I have to face that possibility."

-- Carla Hall

Photo: Family handout