The search for Mitrice Richardson

Cherise Rogers, 27, of Hawthorne, standing on Pacific Coast Highway at Webb Way in Malibu, was among the volunteers helping get the word out Saturday about the search for Mitrice Richardson, 24, who disappeared Sept. 17 after being released from a sheriff's substation in Calabasas. More photos >>> (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times / September 27, 2009)

Mitrice Richardson is afraid of the dark and always has been, says her mother, Latice Sutton, who remembers that quirk when she thinks about her daughter's release from a jail cell at a Los Angeles County sheriff's substation in Calabasas in the predawn hours of Sept. 17.

Wearing jeans and a dark T-shirt, Richardson, 24, had no car, no cellphone and no purse as she left the station about 1:25 a.m. The nearest Starbucks and fast-food restaurants are about a mile away in a shopping area. Beyond them stretches Las Virgenes Road, which turns into Malibu Canyon Road, winding through Malibu Canyon and emptying onto Pacific Coast Highway near Pepperdine University.

With the exception of a couple of probable sightings later that morning in the canyon, Richardson, a slender, 5-foot-5 black woman, has not been heard from since, her family says. Police have an unconfirmed sighting of her at a restaurant in West Hollywood early last week.

Her vanishing -- hours after her bizarre behavior at the restaurant Geoffrey's Malibu landed her briefly in jail -- prompted a massive but unsuccessful ground and air search Saturday by Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and Los Angeles Police Department personnel aided by trained volunteers.

"We're looking for all kinds of clues," said Greg Fry of the California Emergency Mobile Patrol Search and Rescue team.

A strange set of circumstances on the evening of Sept. 16 set the stage for Richardson's disappearance. It began when the management at Geoffrey's called the Sheriff's Department to have Richardson arrested for not paying $89.21 for a dinner of Kobe beef steak and an Ocean Breeze cocktail of rum, vodka and fruit juices.

When sheriff's deputies arrived and found a small amount of marijuana in her car, they impounded it and took her into custody on suspicion of defrauding an innkeeper and possession of the drug.

Richardson was released on her own recognizance.

"She was lucid, she didn't exhibit any mental problems," said Steve Whitmore, a Sheriff's Department spokesman, describing her behavior in custody. He said she had passed a field sobriety test administered to her at the restaurant.

Sutton, who had planned to pick up her daughter in the morning when she thought she would be released, said she believes sheriff's deputies should have realized something was wrong. "If the officer saw her behavior and decided to administer a field sobriety test, he must have realized something was wrong," Sutton said.

Most everyone agrees something was wrong.

Richardson is a Cal State Fullerton graduate who had passed a test to become a substitute teacher and works as an executive assistant for a freight company. She lives with her great-grandmother in South Los Angeles because it is convenient for work, her mother said. "She worked, she found time to volunteer, she's highly responsible," Sutton said.

Why Richardson was in Malibu on a Wednesday evening is unknown. She sat alone at a table overlooking the ocean, but then attached herself to a large group nearby.

"She seemed a little euphoric -- a little odd," said restaurant owner Jeff Peterson, who was home but conferred with his manager by phone. "The people she joined seemed OK with it. When she said they were going to pay her tab for her and they weren't -- that's when we realized we had a situation."

When she couldn't pay, she provided the phone number of her great-grandmother, who offered a credit card number. The restaurant requires a faxed signature -- credit card companies insist on it in cases of disputes, Peterson said -- but the woman did not have access to a fax machine.

Things got worse.

Richardson "said she was from Mars and started speaking in a made-up language," Peterson said his staff told him. "She did tell my valet at one point that she was here to avenge Michael Jackson's death."

Peterson said his staff became less concerned about the bill and more worried about her driving. Sutton said she was shocked when told that her daughter had not paid her bill, saying Richardson had $2,000 in a bank account.

Even her unruly hair, shown in a mug shot, was out of character for the former contestant in the Miss Azusa and Miss Fullerton pageants. "My daughter would never walk out of the house with her hair looking that way," Sutton said.

At the sheriff's station, Whitmore said, Richardson chatted with a custody assistant. After Richardson was released, the custody assistant suggested that she stay overnight in the station lobby. Richardson declined the offer. When the assistant asked if she had a ride, Richardson said she didn't but she had come to Malibu to meet up with friends, Whitmore said.

Later, about 6:30 a.m., a homeowner in the Malibu Canyon area called to say a woman was resting in the backyard. When deputies arrived, she was gone. Whitmore said the department is almost certain it was Richardson.

On Saturday afternoon, as her friends stood on Pacific Coast Highway, holding up fliers featuring the missing woman's face, sympathetic passersby stopped to chat with Sutton. One even offered a clue.

"I think I may have seen her walking," said middle school teacher Janette Goeglein.

About 7:30 a.m. Sept. 17, Goeglein said she was driving to a meeting when she saw a woman walking south on the road through Malibu Canyon. "I thought it's strange to see a black woman walking in the canyon," she said.

Goeglein asked Sutton if she was a relative. Her mother, Sutton said.

carla.hall@latimes.com