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Art Makes Statement for Victims : Crime: Exhibit paying tribute to 45 women found dead in San Diego area stirs police interest. A case listed as suicide is now being investigated as homicide.

April 08, 1992|MARK PLATTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Pat Riccio pulled the coroner's calling card from her front screen door and then she knew. The improbable, drug-scarred life of her vagabond 19-year-old daughter Michelle, promising for the first 15 years or so, was over.

That was April, 1986. Jerry Riccio, Michelle's adopted father, had to call the San Diego Sheriff's Department homicide unit to verify what the coroner had concluded: Michelle died of a self-inflicted drug overdose. A syringe and several needles had been found scattered around her in the middle of an orange grove.

For the next six years, no law enforcement officer visited Pat and Jerry Riccio to discuss their daughter's death. Nobody phoned their San Marcos home.

Then came NHI, a controversial art exhibit that opened in San Diego last February as a tribute to 45 seemingly forgotten women found dead since 1985. Most of them had been prostitutes, transients, drug users or a combination of the three. Their cases had been scrutinized by the Metropolitan Homicide Task Force since late 1988.

San Diego law enforcement has spent millions and assembled its most skilled detectives to investigate the slayings. But it took the art exhibit--named "No Humans Involved," after police slang for crime victims considered unimportant--for police to re-examine Michelle Riccio's case and for Riccio to find out that her daughter is now considered a murder victim.

Since 1988, Michelle Riccio's name has been repeatedly put on and dropped off the list of 45 women at intervals that even the chief of the task force cannot precisely identify.

But ever since five local artists approached Pat Riccio in January and asked for a photograph of her daughter to place in their exhibit, the task force has expressed an interest in the case and is planning to contact Riccio and her husband for the first time.

In an interview last week, Richard J. Lewis, the deputy district attorney who directs the 15-member task force, admitted that previous investigators may have made a mistake by clinging to the notion that Riccio's death was a suicide. The young woman used methamphetamine almost exclusively, a drug that is very difficult to overdose, he said.

Michelle had been discovered by a worker in the orange grove, her body propped against a tree, with a teaspoon of an unidentified "yellowish substance" hanging from her pocket. A syringe with the yellowish liquid, never identified by the coroner, was found at the scene.

When the coroner's officer concluded that she had injected herself with too much methamphetamine, the Riccios thought it sounded plausible.

In 1988, the task force released a list of women whose deaths they were investigating. Michelle was among them and when the information was published in the newspaper, a neighbor phoned. Pat was stunned and when she called the San Diego Police Department, she was told it wasn't true. She called a year later and was told the case was closed.

But the exhibit changed all that. In addition to using billboards, five artists set up shop at a downtown gallery and displayed 45 framed black-and-white photos. Eight were photos of the victims, including Michelle Riccio. The rest were stand-ins who agreed to be photographed to represent those whose pictures were not available.

More than 3,000 people stopped into the gallery and scores more watched a series of live performances dealing with factors that compel a woman to turn to drugs or prostitution.

"Outstanding!" wrote one man in a exhibit sign-in book reserved for comments. "Every day it becomes easier to forget, to sweep them under the rug. This show reminds, forces people to stop 'sweeping' and start weeping."

Deborah Small, one of the five organizers, said one of the exhibit's purposes was "to give the families their due. We want a full and fair investigation of every murder and we hope that is what happens."

As far as Pat Riccio is concerned, the exhibit has helped move her daughter's investigation along.

"This gave Michelle some exposure," Riccio said. "It helped me share my experience. It made me want to find out what happened. The artists should get the credit they deserve for opening some eyes in the city to the fact that the police really don't investigate the crimes they say they do."

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