Exactly three weeks after Mitrice Richardson apparently vanished in Malibu Canyon, Los Angeles police detectives assigned to her case are convinced that the 24-year-old woman is alive.
"Mitrice is out there," LAPD robbery-homicide Det. Chuck Knolls said. "We don't believe she's a victim of foul play."
But her whereabouts still bedevil Knolls and fellow detective Steven Eguchi. Both men are working the case full-time, and had past assistance from 12 other detectives.
At the same time, about 50 family members and friends of Richardson are doing their own tracking of alleged sightings from Malibu to outside L.A. County. The missing woman's bank account and credit cards have shown no activity, according to Knolls, and every supposed sighting that has been checked out has led nowhere. If she were injured or dead in Malibu Canyon, rescuers and search dogs would have discovered her during a massive ground and air search two weeks ago, Knolls said.
"There's no indication of murder whatsoever," the detective said. "We don't think there's a drug or alcohol issue involved. She didn't live a risky behavior life." Nor does she seem to have ties to gangs or criminals, according to Knolls.
By all accounts, the Cal State Fullerton graduate who was living in South L.A. was responsible, employed and plotting a way to pay for graduate school. Detectives, family and friends believe her disappearance is probably related to a psychological problem that revealed itself the night of Sept. 16 when Richardson went to Geoffrey's restaurant in Malibu, told people she was from Mars and began spouting gibberish.
Detectives interviewed the table of Geoffrey's diners she joined uninvited -- who described her as odd but entertaining -- and her colleagues at the Mercantile Freight office in Santa Fe Springs who last saw her at work the day of her arrest. Eguchi said they told him that she was "giddy, really giggly. Out of the ordinary."
Richardson's odd behavior -- as well as her failure to pay for a steak and a drink -- prompted restaurant staff to call sheriff's deputies. Richardson was arrested, then released at 1:25 a.m., having no car, purse or cellphone.
The L.A. County Sheriff's Department has since come under fire for not holding her for a psychological evaluation. The Los Angeles Police Department is now handling the matter as a missing persons case, and has assigned it to the Robbery-Homicide Division, which has greater resources.
Since then, some of the missing woman's family members and friends have complained that investigators were slow to follow up on possible sightings. There have been many. One person said she saw a black woman with a disheveled man in the parking lot of the Ralphs on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Knolls said detectives were sent to examine the store's surveillance video, but found nothing.
Detectives are trying to get the word out to all shelters in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties, including battered women's shelters. Family friends are now tracking a sighting of a woman matching Richardson's description who was recently seen on a Greyhound bus leaving San Jose.
Ronda Hampton, a psychologist for whom Richardson worked as a research intern during her last year of college, said she has stayed in touch with Richardson since her graduation.
"There were times when I've known her when she didn't seem OK, and we talked about that," Hampton said. She points to the incomprehensible phrase, 'my eyes over ees,' on Richardson's MySpace page. "I said, 'What does that mean?' " recalled Hampton. "And she said, 'Dr. Ronda, you just don't understand me!' "
Knolls and Eguchi can be reached at (213) 485-2531.