A Los Angeles County coroner's official criticized sheriff's deputies for removing the remains of Mitrice Richardson from a rugged ravine without permission, saying the deputies' actions may have violated the law and undermined the thoroughness of the coroner's investigation.
Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter said he was "very clear" with sheriff's officials and could not think of another case in which a police agency had moved entire skeletal remains without coroner's approval.
A sheriff's spokesman acknowledged that deputies removed Richardson's body from the scene without the coroner's permission, but said they did so because detectives were concerned that it was getting dark and that animals might destroy the remains.
The 24-year-old Richardson drew national media attention in September 2009 when she disappeared after being released from the sheriff's Lost Hills/Malibu station about midnight, without her car, purse or cellphone. Nearly 11 months after her disappearance, her remains were spotted in a remote Malibu Canyon ravine.
Initially, sheriff's officials believed that only a skull and possibly a couple of other bones were there. Winter said that at that point, sheriff's officials were told they could move the bones only after coroner's officials reviewed photos of the scene and gave clearance.
After some leaves were brushed aside, Richardson's entire skeleton was discovered, "at which time I told detectives not to touch it," Winter said. "We've never given authorization to pick up entire skeletal remains."
Winter said that sheriff's officials consented and that he was shocked to hear just minutes later that the bones had been lifted into a helicopter and were headed back to the station.
Sheriff's homicide Capt. Dave Smith disagreed, saying investigators had been given coroner approval to retrieve the skull and a couple of other bones. But when the skull was pulled up, the rest of the skeleton was unearthed. At that point, he said, detectives were racing against nightfall and could not risk staying overnight in the wilderness after human scent from his team and the remains was stirred up.
"Our main concern was the animals were going to get to her remains that night," he said.
He said any pleas from coroner's officials not to remove the entire skeleton did not reach sheriff's investigators at the scene because radio and phone reception around the ravine was poor. Smith said that in dangerous situations, like the one that night, government code allows for removal without coroner authorization.
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said that four minutes after detectives decided to put the bones into the bag, they received directions from Winter to put them back.
"We said, 'We can't do that and we're not going to do that,' " Whitmore said. "Once you have moved bones or evidence … you can't then put it back. That's a manipulation and that's not done."
Whitmore acknowledged that detectives did not ask for clearance to move whole skeletal remains once they were discovered, and "perhaps we should have."
"That's something to look at," he said.
Issues with the sheriff's handling of the remains were first reported by the Malibu Surfside News. A recently released coroner's report documented Winter's account.
"Against the direction of Assistant Chief Winter, LASD Detectives collected the remains and air-lifted them," the report reads.
Winter said state law may have been violated, pointing to a specific government code that describes the authority and responsibilities of the coroner in handling dead bodies.
An autopsy was unable to determine Richardson's cause of death. Even if her remains had been recovered by coroner's investigators, Winter said, the cause of death probably would still not have been determined. But he said the deputies' actions may have affected the thoroughness of the coroner's analysis.
Coroner's investigators, he said, are trained in conducting detailed skeletal recoveries and keeping tabs on minutiae like nearby insect movement that might be factored into later analysis.
When coroner's investigators were taken by helicopter to the area the next day, they could not find the site where the bones were discovered. It wasn't until about two weeks later, he said, when coroner's officials again searched the ravine, that they found several bones left behind by detectives.
Richardson was arrested at Geoffrey's restaurant in Malibu after acting bizarrely and saying she was unable to pay her $89 dinner tab. Her family has repeatedly criticized sheriff's officials for releasing her from custody in the dark without her car — which had been impounded — cellphone or purse. Investigators said she was spotted three times in the canyon area in daylight hours that morning. After that, she was never heard from again.
Winter said Richardson's family has complained to him that untrained sheriff's investigators were allowed to retrieve her remains.
"We're in hot water," he said. "We're getting questions from her family.… What am I supposed to say?"