Civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton vowed this week to file a federal inquiry into the death of Mitrice Richardson, a missing 25-year-old woman thought to be mentally ill whose remains were found last week. She had been allowed to leave a sheriff's station nearly a year ago against the wishes of her parents.
"The National Action Network will send a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to ask for an official inquiry," Sharpton told The Root exclusively. "The incident must be raised to a review of what the process was compared to others in the area. It could be a test case of what's going on around the country, where missing African Americans are not considered a priority for law enforcement or the media."
Richardson disappeared on Sept. 17, 2009, from the Malibu-Lost Hills substation of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department in Calabasas, according to news reports. She had been released after reportedly exhibiting erratic behavior and failing to pay a dinner tab at a restaurant in Malibu. She was booked for defrauding an innkeeper and possessing less than one ounce of marijuana in her car, reports say.
Her mother, Latice Sutton, pleaded with deputies to hold her until family could pick her up because she was mentally ill and far from home, in the middle of the night, with no money, no purse, no cell phone and no car. The items were in her impounded vehicle, the report said.
But the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department said at the time that Richardson seemed rational and they believed they were legally obligated to release her. A draft report of the Office Independent Review, a watchdog panel for the sheriff's department, found that the department acted in due diligence. Additionally, the Los Angeles Times reported that Richardson was given an opportunity to stay at the sheriff's office but declined, saying she was going to "hook up with some friends."
But in a sad turn of events, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca announced, at a news conference late last week, the discovery of the remains of the former beauty pageant contestant. Her bones were found in a ravine several miles from the sheriff's station, reports say. Now her family has filed a civil negligence lawsuit against authorities.
Sharpton said that Richardson's death was emblematic of law enforcement's general lack of interest in finding and saving missing African Americans.
But unlike Figueroa's story, Richardson's became a fixture on some talk shows. The Cal State Fullerton graduate, who worked as an executive assistant in Santa Fe Springs, was counted among the missing in a feature last fall in People and had a Web site created for her benefit called Bring Mitrice Richardson Home.
James Lopez, a commander in the sheriff's office, told The Root that investigators "worked tremendous hours on the case." Nevertheless, Sharpton believes that law enforcement and the media engage in racial profiling when it comes to finding missing African Americans.
He is not alone. LaDonna Meredith, president of Let's Bring Them Home — a Rogers, Ark.-based nonprofit organization that helps families and law-enforcement agencies find missing adults — called it "the missing white woman's syndrome" or "the pretty girl syndrome."
"You will receive greater attention if you are white and missing, especially if you are a white child," Meredith said. "It is frustrating for us when adults go missing and they are not Laci Peterson [who received widespread media attention when she and her prenatal child were killed by her husband, Scott Peterson, after her disappearance on Dec. 24, 2002] or Natalee Holloway [who disappeared on a school trip in Aruba in 2005 and received widespread media attention]. Let us be clear. We are not discounting the lives of Peterson or Holloway. We simply are saying, let us give everyone equal attention no matter his or her race, ethnicity or socio-economic status. We care about everyone."
Last year, there were 900,000 missing-persons cases, including about 50,000 adults, Meredith said. So far this year, 48,000 adults have been reported missing. Just over half are men; four out of 10 are white; three out of 10 are black; and two out of 10 are Latino. About one-sixth have documented or diagnosed psychiatric disorders, she added.
Let's Bring Them Home tries to help everyone but relies mostly on volunteers to do the work. "We do not get involved with a case unless we are contacted by a family or law enforcement," said Meredith, who was not involved in the Richardson case. "Our primary mission is to offer case-management support. We stay with the family until it's resolved. There is no federal funding for what we do for missing adults. The federal government provides over $50 million for missing children, but nothing for adults. We do our work thorough volunteers and on a shoestring budget."
For his part, Sharpton said that given Richardson's medical condition, there is no reason she should have been allowed to leave the station no matter how much she protested, which is why he wants to get involved.
"The civil suit is fine, and I don't want to interfere with the family's lawyer, but I think there should be a federal investigation to determine what was and was not done in this case," Sharpton said. "There is no reason, if you were told by parents to keep someone in the station because they are bipolar, to let them go. What needs to be explained in a judicial-review process is how someone leaves law-enforcement custody with important information from a family and ends up missing for months and then dead. That serious question should be answered under judicial review. I do not even know how you explain it. I could not."
Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.