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A life and all that remains


Investigative reporter William Covington, in an attempt to find out what might have happened to Mitrice Richardson, the 24-year-old woman whose remains were found about one year after she disappeared, trekked out to the Malibu Canyon where her remains were found, surveyed the terrain, talked to forensic professionals as well as people who live or work in the area.

The skeletal remains of Mitrice Richardson that were recovered from Malibu Canyon contained a mixture of leaf litter, twigs, ants and rare hatched fly puparium, rare beetles and spiders, according to the autopsy report.

However, the report also notes that rather than being preserved for evidence the insects were destroyed. Asked why the insect specimens were destroyed and if the term ” rare” was used in reference to beetles being non-indigenous or rare in relation to being the type that are usually found on skeletal remains, Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter could not say, but promised to refer me to the entomologist.

Two weeks later a staff member told me the coroner’s office does not use an in-house entomologist’s and referred me to David Faulkner, a forensic anthropologist and entomologist who manages the Entomology Department at the San Diego Natural History Museum, where he is a research associate. Faulkner would have the answers, I was told.

Faulkner has managed the museum since 1974. He has trained peace officers from the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department in crime-scene preservation and currently is an instructor at UC Riverside teaching forensic entomology.

“I am sorry, I was not the entomologist on that case,” Faulkner said when asked about the insects. When informed that the insects had been discarded, he expressed outrage.

“If nothing else, store them like we stored samples of DNA until we developed the technology to extract a person’s genetic makeup from archived samples,” Faulkner added. “If the insects were not the standard arthropods that are attracted to a decaying corpse, they might have played another part in body decomposition that scientists are unaware of. Someone who discards such evidence is not aware of the significant information that the insects can reveal about decaying bodies,” he said.

Then Faulkner said something that has become increasingly obvious.

“Not much value was placed on her life,” Faulkner said. “She was not important; she was seen as worthless. We will never know if she was murdered. She [her remains] should have been left alone until she could have been properly removed without contamination to her skeletal remains or the area where she was found.”

Then there is the overall issue of crime scene preservation, which was botched by the sheriff’s department.

“Someone could have scattered her bones, animals could have moved them, someone could have moved her clothing and undergarments,” he said. “Without being at ground zero during the time of discovery it is very difficult to tell, and an attempt to solve a crime goes back to evidence. We lost that opportunity. A victim and her personal belongings should have been in the area.

However, we do not know the original site. We should know if the insects are related to the decomposition of the victim or an area the victim may have visited. The bottom line is the case was badly handled.”

“When we survey the insect kingdom of more than 1 million insect organism,” Faulkner said, “we have knowledge of only one-fourth of the insect population’s reproduction and eating habits. Out of that group, only a small number that we know of are associated with animal remains. When it comes to insect biology, most insects have not been studied.”

A staff member from the Los Angeles coroner’s office assured me that the issue with crime-scene preservation in the field is that the collector should be able to explain the presence or absence of certain things.

The remains were found without clothing. Richardson’s jeans–pockets empty–a pink belt, and a navy blue or black padded bra were found a hundred feet away. There were no shoes, no socks or panties. The coroner’s office suggested that the clothing disarray was a result of being washed away by flooding.

“They apparently felt these were the remains of the person we have been looking for. Now we know, we have her and have closure. Let’s move her and close the case.

“The sheriffs department said they felt the remains could have been further compromised by animals in the Malibu Canyon area. Anthropologists are well trained on bones and have a good handle on decoding a crime scene, a forensic entomologists understand bones and insects but neither was present. And for the record, my boss Ed Winter gave an order that Richardson’s remains not be touched until a coroner’s staff was present, and he was very upset when she was wrapped in a plastic sheet placed in a body bag which was secured in a rescue basket and helicoptered out of the canyon.”

A few days before visiting the site where Richardson’s remains were found I studied satellite imagery, and two days ago I visited the surrounding area.

It is possible Richardson may have traveled into the area eastward on foot after being released by the sheriffs department at about 1:25 a.m. on Sept. 17, 2009.

She had the choice of taking Las Virgenes Road, a heavily traveled thoroughfare that leads to the San Fernando Valley, on which she could have possibly caught a ride. If she had continued to travel eastward, she might have noticed a sign pointing to Pacific Coast Highway and might have eventually recognized Pepperdine’s Malibu campus. However, Las Virgenes connects to both Malibu Canyon Road, which is well paved and leads to PCH, and also Piuma Road, which leads to a community of horse ranches and sparsely developed mountainous terrain.

Her remains were found in a canyon off Piuma Road. The canyon is overgrown, and walking that road in early morning hours in the darkness would have been both scary and arduous, especially for an inexperienced hiker, according to Steve Fuji who accompanied me. Fuji said he could not imagine a single female walking down this path alone. Richardson’s remains were discovered by park rangers 60 feet above the canyon on a mountain that rises to more than 1,000 feet.

The following information was taken verbatim from the autopsy report under the heading Opinion (reserved for reason of death) and signed by Lisa A. Scheinin, M.D., deputy medical examiner:
“The remains are that of an adult Black female. All remains are consistent with coming from a single person. While there are no evidences of ante mortem trauma to the bones or the limited amount of tissue accompanying them, in the absence of internal viscera, internal injury can not be completely ruled out. In the absence of specimens for toxicology testing, the possibility of fatal substance cannot be ruled out. Death due to exposure, snakebite, pneumonia or other natural diseases also cannot be ruled out. Therefore, both cause and manner of death remain undetermined.”

Malibu real estate broker Donna Bohanna is one of the few African Americans who has lived in Malibu most of her adult life. Bohanna said she was very upset over the entire incident, and recalled that a friend was arrested for public intoxication in the same area. Since the friend was a peace officer, he was driven home and given his weapon once he reached his residence.

She also felt bad for the owner of the restaurant, Geoffrey’s, where Richardson was arrested for not paying her $89.21 dinner bill, because she had dated the owner while the both of them attended Pepperdine. Further, he says the whole incident really bothered him. He started there as a busboy and moved to waiter and then to manager and eventually purchased the place.

Most of that area on Piuma Road is very isolated with the occasional traffic from service vehicles and landscapers doing their rounds. There are a number of single-family homes under construction and workers occasionally drive past. But for the most part Piuma Road is isolated. Bohanna felt once Bill Smith woke up Mitrice and called the sheriffs they should have responded with scent dogs. The deputies found sneaker patterns that appeared to indicate someone running, but they disappeared less than 100 feet from Deer Creek. The dogs might have helped determine if Richardson might have been picked up by someone. Most scent dogs can track a scent up to 10 days, according to veterinarian Virgil Green.

If Richardson walked down Las Virgenes Road prior to reaching former newsman Bill Smith’s residence, where she slept until she was awakened at 6:30 a.m., she would have passed a Los Angeles County Juvenile Probation Camp Gonzales, a group of homes called Monahan Cottages, a school and Los Angeles County Fire Station 67.

The fire station is less than a mile from the beginning trail that leads to the area where Richardson was found. It’s partially concealed for about 15 feet, but once past the hedges two flood lights illuminate the station, and walking pass the station puts one directly in front of a sign and arrow there pointing to the station.

At the fire station, we spoke with Fireman Montoya who described the area as isolated and was amazed that Richardson’s remains were found at what he estimates to be less than a mile from the station.

He was asked his opinion on the snake bite possibility, and said there had been several snake sightings. When asked about mountain lions, he responded that they are far and few. He remembered a firefighter dying from exposure two years ago; he was familiar with the area but suffered a heat stroke and became disoriented and lost.