Reporting from Los Angeles and Las Vegas — After months of tracking fruitless clues in California, Los Angeles County sheriff's and LAPD officials looking for missing Mitrice Richardson said Thursday they were turning their efforts to Las Vegas, which has yielded the best leads so far.
At a Las Vegas news conference that also included local police, authorities said that a young man who had known Richardson when they were teens believes he saw her at a hotel bar in June.
"That's about as good as it gets for us," said LAPD Capt. Kevin McClure.
That sighting — which officials deem credible — has led investigators to 70 more potential sightings on buses and in restaurants, in the scruffy downtown area and at the polished high-end Wynn hotel and casino, according to Capt. Dave Smith of the L.A. County's Sheriff's homicide bureau.
At the news conference, authorities pleaded for Richardson, who disappeared last September in Malibu, to contact her family or law enforcement. They stressed that she was neither in trouble nor under criminal investigation. They offered a $25,000 reward for information and said they've distributed flyers with photos of her face as well as her distinctive tattoos.
The Los Angeles Police Department and Sheriff's Department are stationing officers in Las Vegas this weekend, in hopes that the publicity will spur new information, McClure said.
"We've already gotten three leads from this press conference that we're tracking down," said Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.
Greg Amerson — who accompanied Richardson to a high school formal when she was 15 — told authorities and a close friend of the missing woman's mother that he saw her at a bar in the Rio hotel about 3 a.m. on a Saturday and approached her, greeting her by name. She turned and looked at him, then walked away. But, as McClure said, "She didn't say, 'I'm not Mitrice.'"
Since then, bus drivers, waitresses, bartenders and hotel security officers, when shown her photo, have positively identified the Cal State Fullerton graduate, who turned 25 in April. But the reports are typically at least a few days old, and authorities concede they could be inaccurate.
The saga began last Sept. 16, when Richardson was arrested at Geoffrey's restaurant in Malibu after she behaved bizarrely and could not pay her dinner bill. Deputies took her into custody at the Lost Hills/Malibu sheriff's station, releasing her in the darkness without her car — it had been impounded — or her cellphone and purse, which were in the car. Months later, investigators found evidence that she had probably been suffering from a severe form of bipolar disorder.
Both of her parents have filed lawsuits against the Sheriff's Department, which has been harshly criticized for not holding her for a mental evaluation. Sheriff's officials have countered that she was acting normally while in custody and that they told her she could stay at the station until someone could pick her up.
Her father, Michael Richardson, said he saw the news conference as a way to deflect attention from his lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday.
He's convinced, however, that he saw his daughter on the street when he was visiting Las Vegas in January, though she disappeared before he could catch up with her. Family members and a close friend have said that Sheriff's Lt. Mike Rosson has discussed with them what Richardson might be doing in Las Vegas. "He said they are considering all avenues — including prostitution, night clubs," said Ronda Hampton, a psychologist and friend of Richardson's mother.
Richardson has been to Las Vegas before, her father said. The month before she disappeared, she drove to the city and stayed at a Motel 6 before going to a party.
Richardson's mother, Latice Sutton, said she does not believe the sighting at the Rio is credible because Amerson was not a close friend of her daughter's and had not seen her for years. In a press statement on Thursday, she said she "hopes this is not a diversionary tactic to redirect attention and efforts away from where Mitrice was last known to be last seen — leaving" the Sheriff's Department.