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No signs of foul play in Mitrice Richardson's death, authorities say [Updated]

August 12, 2010 | 10:16 am

At a contentious news conference Thursday morning to announce the identification of the skeletal remains of Mitrice Richardson, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca acknowledged that the circumstances of her arrest and release merits further investigation, but declined further comment -- saying it was a time for her parents to grieve.

He said there are no signs of foul play, and no official cause of death has been listed.

"Life is fragile," Baca said. "The circumstances of this case are tragic. I am mindful of the fact that a mother and father are in deep grieving at this moment."

Richardson vanished nearly a year ago after being released from the Lost Hills/Malibu Sheriff's Station. Her body was discovered less than two miles away.

Her arrest for being unable to pay an $89 dinner tab at a Malibu restaurant and her subsequent release in the dark hours of the early morning last Sept. 17 without a car, cellphone or purse sparked widespread criticism of Sheriff's Department personnel and triggered two lawsuits accusing the department of negligence.

Some questioned L.A. County Sheriff's Department's procedures for releasing people at night as well as whether she should have been held for a mental health evaluation after she acted bizarrely at the restaurant.

[Updated at 10:35 a.m.: The Office of Independent Review, which oversees the Sheriff's Department, found that the department "properly and legally" released Richardson, according to a 58-page draft report. The report says that the station personnel "were not negligent in determining that Ms. Richardson did not demonstrate any symptoms of an existing mental health illness."

The report reiterated what sheriff's officials said initially -- that jailers had offered to let Richardson stay in a cell or the station lobby until she could arrange transportation.

Updated at 11:42 a.m.: Baca at times spared with reporters, who asked about whether the family was informed of the identification before the press conference. Both Baca and the coroner's office said the family had been called before the press conference. Baca also fielded questions from reports about whether the Richardson should have been arrested to begin with.]

The identification of the remains, found deep in a ravine by park rangers checking for marijuana plants, brings to a grim close the much-publicized mystery over the whereabouts of the Cal State Fullerton graduate who would have celebrated her 25th birthday in April.

And at a time when law enforcement agencies and the media have been accused of devoting less attention to minorities who go missing than to pretty white women who disappear, Richardson — a black woman who was a strikingly attractive former beauty pageant contestant — got extraordinary attention, becoming a high-profile enough case to make the cover of People magazine last fall along with several other missing people.

Over several months, law enforcement carried out four searches — the last being the most extensive ever undertaken by the county -- covering a total of 40 square miles of Malibu Canyon, while investigators from the L.A. Police Department spent months tracking clues and were eventually joined by L.A. Sheriff's Department detectives. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas got the county to offer a reward for information leading to her whereabouts. Friends and family followed up on sightings and arranged a fifth search of the canyon by unmanned drones. "If you knew how many buses I've chased down," Ronda Hampton, a psychologist who was friends with Richardson, said recently.

Earlier this summer, Los Angeles investigators scoured Las Vegas for the missing woman after a friend of Richardson's from her teen years said he saw her at a bar in a Las Vegas hotel in June and approached her, calling her by name. The woman looked at him and wordlessly walked away. But investigators called it their best lead to date and held a news conference in Las Vegas pleading with Richardson to come forward and let them know if she was alright.

The bones that were found in the ravine on Monday were about a mile out of the range of the county's last big search for her.

-- Andrew Blankstein and Carla Hall

Photo: Michael Richardson flanked by family friend Jasmine Cannick arrive for a press conference with Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca where Baca declared that the remains found in Malibu Canyon belong to Mitrice Richardson. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times