Crime & Justice

A son’s search for his mother after the Montecito mudslides

Rebecca Riskin was one of Montecito's most prominent realtors. When she went missing after the mudslide, her son Robert launched a frenzied search.
Rebecca Riskin was one of Montecito's most prominent realtors. When she went missing after the mudslide, her son Robert launched a frenzied search. "We just started searching downstream from her house," Riskin told KPCC. "It was brutal."
Riskin Partners

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Robert Riskin slept through the storm and mudslides that followed in the early morning hours of January 9th.

"We had some rain, but it wasn’t very strong," said Riskin, who grew up in Montecito but now lives a few miles away in Santa Barbara.

When he woke up, he saw a text that had come in while he was asleep from his business partner Dina Landi. She was staying at his mother’s Montecito guest cottage, which was in a voluntary evacuation zone.

"She was on top of the roof of the guest cottage waiting to be rescued," Riskin said.

He wondered about his mother.

A little later, another text came in that Landi, her partner and their dog had been airlifted to safety. It also said Riskin's 22-year-old sister was safe and his stepfather - who'd been rescued from a tree wearing only boxer shorts and a t-shirt - was in the hospital with a badly broken leg.

The text had more ominous news about his mother - no one had seen her.

Nobody knew if Rebecca Riskin, 61, was alive - only that she’d been swept from her home by the avalanche of mud.

Her son set out to find her. Riskin jumped into his car and headed for Montecito, only to be turned away by police roadblocks.

He called a friend who had been in the Navy and worked as a firefighter.

"We put wetsuits on and used his big truck that kind of looks official with lights," Riskin said. "We basically just stormed our way in."

His mother lived in the Glen Oaks neighborhood of Montecito, described by realtors as "coveted" and "nestled privately on the sea side of East Valley Road … just minutes from the famed San Ysidro Ranch Hotel."

When Riskin got there, he was stunned by what he saw.

"My mom’s house was completely full of mud and huge boulders," he said. "It was unrecognizable."

Riskin and his friend began their search – first around the house, then down a hill adjacent to San Ysidro Creek.

"Oftentimes we were pushing through chest high mud," he said. "We were calling for her, and it got dark."

They continued searching after dark for a couple of hours before it got too dangerous, he said.

Riskin hardly slept that night.

"I just was imagining her stranded there in the cold," he said.

Riskin rose early the next day. More friends joined the search. About 24 hours after he started looking for his mother, he got the news that he was dreading.

Crews had found her body along the 101 Freeway. The mud had carried her about two miles, Riskin said, adding that she was found about 10 hours after the storm hit.

"So we had been searching, ya know, for a lot of hours – even though she had been found," he said.

As Riskin mourned his mother’s death, he kept thinking about an offer he and his wife had made before the storm hit: "We had said, you know, 'Come stay with us, you’re welcome to stay with us.'"

Riskin said there’s no doubt his mother and stepfather would have left if they lived in a mandatory evacuation zone.

"They took it very seriously. They did not want to be in anybody’s way," he said.

Riskin said he and his mother were close. He works in his mother’s real estate office. They saw each other every day. Once a week, she would leave work early and spend the afternoon with his son, Riskin said.

When he went to Brazil and decided to stay because he fell in love with a woman there, his mother encouraged him to follow his heart. He later married the woman.

"She was honestly my guiding light and the only constant thing in my life," said Riskin.

Rebecca Riskin was the head of Riskin Partners, a leading local real estate firm. Some called her "the first lady of luxury real estate in Montecito," according to Robert.

"The most elegant and warm, generous person. That’s how she is thought of by everyone," he said. "I’ve received literally, I would say, a thousand messages."

His mother taught him gratitude – first and foremost for where they lived, said Riskin.

"We both just felt so grateful for our lives. Santa Barbara and Montecito is just paradise," he said.

He intends to now fulfill his mother's wish of taking over the real estate firm she founded.

"I’ll be back working in that same office and remembering her every day," said Riskin.