Police chief resigns, APD volunteers quit, Lawson killing unsolved as ex-FBI investigator rips police ineptitude, statue petitioners defy council
Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – A bittersweet life celebration for David Josiah Lawson, killed April 15 of last year, offered a moment of shared loss Sunday night at the D Street Neighborhood Center. Attendees enjoyed dinner as speakers kept alive the memory of the slain Humboldt State student, whose killing remains unsolved.
“Say his name,” implored Lorna Bryant of the Eureka NAACP, with attendees intoning en masse, “David Josiah Lawson.”
The evening of community capped a week of tumult in Arcata which saw a personnel implosion at its police department, damning remarks from a key investigator about the city’s commitment to finding a suspect and a serious pushback against the historic City Council decision to remove the statue of William McKinley from the Plaza.
Tuesday morning saw the sudden resignation of eight-year Police Chief Tom Chapman.
His terse resignation letter stated, “Effective April 10, 2018, I am resigning my employment with the City of Arcata as Chief of Police. It has been a pleasure working for the city for the past 24 years. I will forever cherish the fond memories. Thank you.”
A city press release extolled Chapman’s 24-year service to APD, and the many innovative programs and initiatives he had pursued during his tenure.
A follow-up press release by City Manager Karen Diemer said Chapman’s resignation was a personal decision.
Meanwhile, APD’s lieutenants are serving as acting chiefs, with an interim chief to be named this week.
Chapman’s resignation followed the resignation of former FBI Special Agent Tom Parker, who had been serving pro bono as an outside investigator on the Lawson case. Diemer said Chapman was unaware of Parker’s departure at the time.
For months, questions to the city about the apparent lack of progress on the Lawson case were met with the response that Parker was carefully auditing the evidence and that more evidence still being analyzed.
But in a revelatory interview with Lorna Bryant on KHSU-FM, the softspoken Parker roundly slammed the City of Arcata, Diemer and Chapman for bungling the Lawson case.
Parker faulted the city on multiple grounds. Astoundingly, and despite the heavy pressure on APD to get results, Parker said that the department wasn’t pursuing the matter with any real enthusiasm, or even following basic police procedure, and had repeatedly refused key outside assistance offered by others.
Problems with the investigation, Parker said, include poor communication with Diemer and Chapman; being “lied to” by Chapman; poor communication between the city and the District Attorney’s Office; failure to ask key questions of witnesses; failure to do forensic examinations of the murder weapon; failure to obtain search warrants for other key evidence; failure to keep Charmaine Lawson, Josiah’s mother, informed about the case; and what appeared to be an overall lassitude or disinterest in the case.
He said the preliminary hearing of initial suspect Kyle Zoellner was mishandled with use of multiple, contradictory witnesses.
He said District Attorney Maggie Fleming told him that her office had gotten no notification from APD that a murder had occurred, in violation of policy. He said Fleming told him that an offer of assistance to APD was declined.
That and other lapses of standard protocol, he said, were frustrating, inexplicable and inconsistent with his experience in how murder investigations are handled.
“Why?” Parker said he asked himself. “What’s holding this up? There’s no logical explanation.”
He didn’t rule out what he called a “subtle, abject racism” acting “like a wet blanket” over the investigation. He said he was “being astonished quite regularly” by glaring shortcomings in the case’s handling.
“In going back through the files, I could see where things just started to stop,” he said.
Parker said he had called Diemer to notify her of his intentions to leave the case after he was lied to about an undisclosed matter by Chapman, and that Diemer asked him to stay on while she talked things over with the chief and Lt. Detective Todd Dokweiler. But, he said, he never heard anything back and after a couple of weeks, gave up and resigned.
Parker said he wouldn’t rule out returning to the case, but only with different and better investigators. “There’s no question in my mind that it is solvable,” Parker said. “I think justice for Josiah can be found. He deserves it.”
Already short staffed, APD has also suffered the loss of longtime volunteers from its Citizens Volunteer Patrol Program (CVPP).
The troubles began when head volunteer Paul Wilson made a Facebook post about wearing a hoodie that some considered racially insensitive and possibly in violation of APD’s policy on social media postings. This and subsequent posts triggered a complaint to the city, and Wilson was called in for counseling.
But the conservative, affable and outspoken former City Councilmember wasn’t going to be stifled.
On April 9, he posted, “Today with some sadness I am no longer a member of the Arcata Police Volunteer group. I leave because i can not donate my time to a city that does not [want] freedom of speech. This has never been about the Arcata Police. Its about City Hall and the City Council. But I am not going away. It just gives me more time to fight for our statue to stay.”
Wilson’s departure was followed by the resignations of volunteers Fred Jamison and Dan Hauser.
Hauser, a former City Councilmember who was key to the liberal reforms of the 1970s, was sympathetic to Wilson. “It was my understanding that Paul was forced out because of his strong opinions,” Hauser said, suggesting pressure from unidentified City Counciilmembers. “There may be a connection with Tom Chapman’s resignation in that he was required to carry out the council orders.”
Said Hauser, “Fred [Jamison] and I both feel that Paul’s First Amendment rights were violated. We both disagree with Paul on a lot of political issues. On the other hand he has the right to his opinions. Paul and I served together on City Council and I am very aware of his far right opinions... I doubt if very many will remain in the Arcata Volunteer Patrol at this time.”
Diemer said the CVPP is carrying on, but may do more recruitment to bolster its enervated ranks.
Meanwhile, those opposing the council’s Feb. 21 decision to remove the statue of William McKinley from the Plaza got their petition drive underway over the weekend.
On Monday, April 9, City Attorney Nancy Diamond delivered the formal Ballot Title and Summary for the measure. It would reverse the council decision and prohibit the statue’s removal. A required legal notice was then published in the Times-Standard, and as of Friday, April 13, signature gathering got underway.
City Councilmember Michael Winkler, a statue supporter, said petitioners are going door-to-door to collect signatures. They were also working Friday’s Arts! Arcata and the Saturday Farmers’ Market.
Though just 10 percent of Arcata’s 9,611 registered voters must sign the petition in order to qualify the ballot measure, Winkler said that petitioners are hoping to obtain 1,200 signatures, since some will likely be invalid.
But the previous deadline for gathering the signatures, May 29, has been moved up to May 1, cutting an entire month out of the planned signature-gathering window. That is forcing the statue-keepers to scramble to enlist qualified petitioners to gather the 1,200 signatures in just 2 1/2 weeks.
The reasons, according to Humboldt County Elections Manager Judy Hedgepeth, involve the various deadlines the petition must meet in order for a measure to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.
She said the signature-laden petitions will arrive at the county elections office “right about when the June election is happening, and we can’t jump all over it and push it out as we normally would.”
Once the petitions are delivered to the elections office, Hedgepeth and her staff have 30 days to ascertain their validity. Signatures are compared to those on file, and voters’ addresses may also be checked.
If the petition is certified, Hedgepeth said, it is then kicked back to the Arcata City Council, who must declare a special election and ask the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors to consolidate that special election with the regular election.
Hedgepeth confirmed that the petitions are not public records and signatories will be kept confidential.