Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA CITY HALL – The Arcata City Council was unable to meet for a second night, its deliberations disrupted by activists demanding resolution to the unsolved killing of HSU student David Josiah Lawson. Unfinished business – including The Village student housing project – will be held over to an Aug. 29 meeting.
At the more than an hour long ordeal's end, Interim Police Chief Rick Ehle made some important disclosures about the Lawson investigation. In response to questions from attendees in the lobby, he said that "We're very close" to solving the case. He said that in other venues, the case was strong enough for charges to be brought "right now."
"The reality is, I think they will charge," he said. "But you can't compromise a case."
Ehle said the city was "lucky" that the case against Kyle Zoellner had been dismissed without prejudice in May 2017, leaving the McKinleyville resident eligible for re-charging.
"If he'd [Judge Dale Reinholtsen] done that, guess what? We couldn't re-file on him in particular," Ehle said, referring to Zoellner.
That, he said, makes it imperative that the current case be air tight lest it be dismissed again with prejudice.
Ehle said that the City of Arcata is considering requesting a change of venue for the trial, with a "career prosecutor" brought in to assist the district attorney's office with the case. "If they'd acquiesce to that career prosector helping them prosecute the case, we might have a bargain. I think I've got the city talked into probably paying for it."
While "kind of an unusual request," he said, "They do it all the time."
Protesters at tonight's meeting, and prior meetings, have demanded that the city rehire Tom Parker, a former FBI agent who worked on the case, later resigned and was accused by the city of inappropriately disclosing case details.
Ehle said there were "problems with the Parker relationship," and with two lawsuits filed, that the city can't meet with him without an attorney present.
He said he was striving to keep a promise he made to Lawson's mother, Charmaine, to solve the case before he is replaced by a permanent police chief. He said he would be willing to stay on in some capacity until the case is brought to closure.
He claimed that Charmaine had said through an intermediary she was satisfied with the measures Ehle had taken and the progress that's been made on the case.
"We have done stuff," Ehle said. "So much you wouldn't believe."
"We've been hearing that for 16 months," replied an activist.
Ehle repeated what city officials have said before, it's inadvisable to release case details, but that doesn't mean progress isn't being made. He said an estimated $100,000 had been spent on additional resources.
He expressed frustration with the slow pace of DNA processing by the state's Department of Justice, with an 11-month delay despite requests for priority.
Ehle also said he'd like to meet with a core group of perhaps half a dozen activists on a regular basis, to exchange views and information in a non-confrontational venue. Gesturing to the vacated Council Chamber, Ehle said, "This doesn't do us any good."
The chaotic quasi-meeting
Several dozen protesters, many involved with preventing last night's meeting, had gathered at the entrance to City Hall, whose doors were locked. Once opened for the 6 p.m. meeting, the activists flooded in, chanting, "Bring back Tom Parker, justice For Josiah!"
Members of the council and city staff took their seats at the dais as a phalanx of chanters lined up in front of them, chanting and clapping.
Councilmember Susan Ornelas was unable to navigate the crowd to get to the dais, so after an inaudible-to-the-public reading by Mayor Sofia Pereira, a four-member quorum of the council passed the Consent Calendar 4–0. No public participation or comment was possible prior to the calendar items' passage.
The city personnel stayed in place, some leaving momentarily to consult in the side media room. But it eventually became clear that the protesters weren't going to quiet down to allow the meeting to proceed to its business items.
The council then took a 20-minute break in the Environmental Services Dept. down the hall, hoping for a cool-down, restoration of order and resumption of the meeting, but the loud protest continued unabated.
Protesters demanded Parker's return, saying there was "no reason" he couldn't return to the case.
As City Manager Karen Diemer attempted discussion with individuals who'd attended for the agenda item on The Village student housing project, an activist named DeSe came down the hallway, chanting "No justice, no peace." Others were soon to follow, and soon the protest had relocated to the back hallway.
After an interval, councilmembers and staff emerged and filtered through the chanting crowd to the dais.
But there was to be no cessation of the protest, so after a few moments, they got up and left.
At this point, APD officers disallowed those who had left out City Hall's front door to return. DeSe attempted to re-enter, but was blocked by officers.
Tensions ran high as the crowd converged on the knot of police and protesters at the front door, with numerous cell phones and cameras raised to record the confrontation.
Ehle then came to the fore, engaging DeSe, whose hand was eventually pried from the door. As this drama proceeded, activist Renee Saucedo railed against the council through a loudspeaker. She faulted the council for refusing to stay and hear the group's concerns, and accused the city of violating the protesters' First Amendment rights.
The protesters remained for a time, engaging Ehle in the lobby colloquy. As that drew to a close, Saucedo said that the group had accomplished its principal goals for the night. City outreach to Parker had been established, and, continued Saucedo, "We shut down the City Council meeting once more. I think our job is done for this evening. Let's go home to our families and our loved ones, and we'll be back."
Amid a wafting chant of "Justice for Josiah," participants filtered out of the lobby, some continuing discussions outside.