Authorities present evidence that defendant brutally killed wife and mother-in-law before “staging” accident in Lakeside
By Jeremy Los
May 26, 2011 (El Cajon) -- Judge Herbert J. Exarhosin ruled Thursday that evidence laid out during preliminary trial testimony is sufficient for Michael Richardson to stand trial for the murders of his wife, Thao Richardson, and mother-in-law, Phan Lai. He is also charge in the two-decades-old murder of Jovita Collazo and the statatutory rape of his then-17-year-old niece.
Testimony came from police, experts, and witnesses -- including Colazzo’s daughter who revealed that she, too, was sexually abused by Richardson but at a much younger age.
During testimony, investigators claimed Richardson bludgeoned and slit the throat of his mother-in-law and asphyxiated his wife. He then attempted to conceal evidence of the slayings, investigators indicated, before ultimately “staging” the two deaths as a car accident off Highway 67 near Slaughterhouse Canyon Road last June.
Conditions of the bodies, evidence at the crash site inconsistent with a high-speed accident, as well as large blood stains on the carpet of Richardson’s home and in the trunk of the car led authorities to believe that the “accident” a cover-up for foul play.
Richardson will also face charges of statutory rape and oral copulation for unlawfully having sex with an underage girl, his 17-year-old niece. Richardson had planned to run away with her before his wife uncovered the affair after reading text messages on Richardson’s phone.
Richardson will also face a murder charge stemming from the 1992 disappearance of his then-girlfriend, Jovita Collazo.
If convicted, Richardson could receive life in prison or the death penalty. He has pled not guilty to the charges.
The bodies of his wife, Thao Richardson, 39, and her mother, Phan Lai, 72, were discovered outside their overturned Blue Honda Accord off a steep embankment near Slaughterhouse Canyon Road on Highway 67, on June 29, 2010.
The first person to find them, Ray Burton, indicated that one of the victims was found face down in the bushes while the other was down the hill a bit.
“What struck me was that there was no blood really visible,” said Burton of the scene.
Investigating officers testified on Tuesday and Wednesday that the accident itself seemed suspicious in nature early on.
California Highway Patrol officer Christopher Bille testified on Tuesday that investigators had reason to believe that foul play was involved due to the peculiar findings at the scene.
There was a lack of skid marks on the highway and only one gouge mark on the curb where the car was said to have plunged off the road. This, according to investigators, is not consistent with a high-speed crash, as a car traveling at a high speed would do significant damage to the curb line.
When looking inside the vehicle Bille noted that the keys were not in the ignition and the vehicle was placed in park.
The position of the glass from the shattered windows also alerted investigators, as the glass was amassed around the broken windows, rather than being spread amongst the area.
“It is in my opinion that the glass was broken at or near the vehicle’s final resting point,” said San Diego Sheriff Department Homicide Detective Scott Enyeart during his testimony.
Enyeart noted that when a car usually leaves the highway at a high speed it will launch, but the car did not appear to be launched in anyway. According to Enyert, the grass along the side of the cliff was matted down indicating to him that the car slid down rather than propelling off.
Suspicions were also raised when investigators examined the bodies of Lai and Richardson. Deputy Medical Examiner Jonathon Lucas testified that Lai had a large cut across her throat that was made with a blade, as well as blunt force trauma to the top of her head. Thao Richardson’s cause of death, according to Lucas, was some type of asphyxiation, a “strangling or smothering.”
Testimony on Wednesday also noted the finding of suspicious stains and area rug in the room of Phan Lai. Officers discovered a roughly 12-inch diameter stain near the door of Phan Lai’s room during conversations with Richardson’s 7-year-old daughter.
Police Detective Ruth Hinzman testified that during the her time with Richardson’s daughter, the daughter said, “the stain and the area rug got there the day her mother and grandmother left.”
On July 6, 2010 police executed a search warrant on the Richardson house in Chula Vista, ultimately leading to the discovery of a blood stained carpet, toys, and wall in Mrs. Lai’s room.
Investigators indicated that an attempt had been made to scrub the walls clean. The carpet under the area rug had also been removed and covered with three pieces of filler carpet. Stains on the toys and fan in the room indicated to homicide investigators the presence of blood spatter.
Criminalist Kelly Ledbetter confirmed that blood found in both Richardson’s house and the trunk of the Blue Honda did in fact belong to Thao Richardson and Phan Lai.
Along with the murders of Thao Richardson and Phan Lai, Richardson is also facing murder charges dating back to 1992 involving Jovita Collazo, his girlfriend at the time who has not been seen since then.
In chilling testimony, Collazo’s ex-husband Michael Collazo indicated that the two planned on starting anew right before Jovita’s disappearance. He also stated that his under-age daughter had been sexually molested by Richardson on multiple occasions.
Collazo’s daughter, now 32, took the stand Wednesday to face her attacker and the alleged murder of her mother. She testified that she was molested by Richardson, who lived with them, starting at age 9 and from then on, but that she did not tell her mother until she was 12.
Collazo’s daughter said she last saw her mom at 8 p.m. on April 30, 1992 when Jovita told her over the phone that she left their apartment to go get beer. Richardson reportedly told police that Collazo left after an argument.
Richardson was previously convicted of savagely stabbing a cab driver in the face in 1976 in North Carolina. He escaped prison while out with a roadside work crew after serving six years of a 30-year sentence. Arrested in 2000 in San Diego after 18 years as a fugitive, he was extradited to North Carolina, where he served seven months before being paroled.