Fatal stabbing a Rubik’s Cube of riddles

When people are fighting, who knows what happens?

– APD Detective Sgt. Todd Dokweiler

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

ARCATA – The Easter weekend stabbing that transmuted a humble Arcata cul-de-sac into a bewildering and chaotic crime scene resulted in an abortive legal case, riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies.

The reigning paradox of the stillborn charges against McKinleyville chef Kyle Zoellner combines a weapon and a stabbing no one saw.

Case dismissed.

It’s as if the stabbing and the legal wrangle focused all eyes on a phantom, on Banquo’s ghost; as if a knife animated itself as a motive-free automaton against a random target in total stealth.

The knife conundrum borders on the absurd, legally and existentially.

A protest during Saturday's Farmers' Market. KLH | Union

Compounding the senseless death of Humboldt State African-American student David Josiah Lawson – set in train by a petty, juvenile fight over a missing iPhone – are the mystery and frustrations of an unsolved homicide (was it an accident, self-defense or murder?) and the inability of his grief-torn mother and siblings to find closure.

In ironic parallel are the tension and legal uncertainty that gall the nerves of Zoellner and his family as they await the outcome of further investigation and its unforeseeable results.

All concerned are left hanging in animated suspension by a judge’s decision last week to usher out the complaint against Zoellner for want of evidence, physical and otherwise.   

As if this were not enough, the calamity has thrown the door wide open on Humboldt racism, inside the closet and out. Race hatred was so venomous and unrelenting in the anonymous comments section of the online news outlet Lost Coast Outpost that manager Hank Sims had to shut it down in the immediate aftermath of Lawson’s death.     

Arcata’s political leaders and police department, the Humboldt State administration of President Lisa Rossbacher and local businesses are under fire amid classic white-black animosity of long-standing that is well-known, yet tenaciously denied and resolutely ignored.

Calls for action have been countless and publicized, but to date have been largely empty of particulars except recommendations by HSU’s student newspaper for more campus bureaucracy (page 4).

The wish for speed is up against an archaic, cumbersome and heavily overburdened county court system, although Zoellner’s preliminary hearing moved forward with alacrity at the behest of his lawyers.

Concerted action is perennially hostage to evident public indifference in a lily white coastal region. Action is hostage as well to feelings of helplessness among people of color, to fiercely held attitudes on all sides, to diametrically opposed perceptions, daggers-drawn cultural assumptions and sacred notions of entitlement.

The politics of division ruthlessly exploited in the 2016 presidential campaign seem likely to reverberate in the nation’s consciousness for years. The national nastiness feeds into a closed racial loop with the death of a black teenager in a provincial village cloistered obscurely in the northern reaches of the California redwoods.       Arcata police who took the witness stand at last week’s preliminary hearing said they met with repeated taunts and unremitting hostility until the crowd of some 50-100 party goers dispersed from 1120 Spear Ave. in the wee hours of Saturday morning, April 15.

Officers heard someone yell, “This is Compton all over again,” igniting the fuse of racial animosity that has enveloped Lawson’s killing and seems likely to persist, doggedly so.

The invoking of Compton was a cultural reference to the economically devastated inner ring suburb that was notorious in the 1980s and 1990s for gang violence.

The name, loaded with symbolism, also invoked the iconic rap group N.W.A (abbreviation of N*ggaz wit’ Attitude) that comprised among other performers Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Easy-E.

Compton was majority white in the 1950s, majority African-American in the 1970s and majority Latino in the 1990s. It is a synonym for the traumatic social dislocation and the fast-changing racial demographics of California, as the state becomes minority white and more people of color populate the HSU campus.

Minority students say university recruiters keep them wholly and irresponsibly ignorant of the ostracism and lack of inclusion they will confront while living in local society. They say they feel unsafe and marooned.

Whatever the validity of last week’s dismissal of the case against Zoellner, HSU students of color and their friends, whether at the deadly house party on April 15 or not, feel profoundly and passionately that they are not understood.

Women of color were weeping and crying bitterly as they left the courthouse Friday afternoon after the ruling by Superior Court Judge Dale Reinholtsen. They denounced HSU President Lisa Rossbacher and reviled Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer as they walked from the lobby at the same time. “All of you are sick!” a black HSU alum, Tina Sampay, cursed and cried.

Both officials attended the ruling and Rossbacher listened to most of the 17 witnesses called by the prosecution last week.   

After a two-and-a-half hour review of the evidence and four plus days of marathon testimony, Reinholtsen laid out his reasoning in dismissing the murder charge against Zoellner, 23.     

At the forefront of the judge’s ruling was that only 16 days had gone by since Lawson’s death. Time had been too short for anything approaching an exhaustive investigation.

The preliminary hearing turned up no one who saw a knife or witnessed the stabbing. No forensic evidence lifted from a knife confiscated at the scene – one fingerprint and some fibers – linked Zoellner to the alleged weapon.

No evidence was presented that a 10-inch knife recovered by police underneath a red Mustang was used in stabbing Lawson twice. No witnesses could say who owned it, whether Zoellner brought it to the party, where it came from or how it wound up underneath the car. It was parked in the cul-de-sac just a short distance from the two front steps of a small, single family dwelling which is part of HSU’s off-campus housing network. It is listed by  California Lifestyles Realty in Arcata for three students at $500 per month per student.

Sixteen days, barely more than a fortnight, were not adequate time to test all of the physical evidence, Reinholtsen underscored. Neither autopsy findings nor autopsy photographs were available as exhibits admitted into evidence. Coroner Dr. Mark Super, who has performed more than 10,000 autopsies in his lengthy career, was not called to testify.   

Reinholtsen noted that Super’s finding was yet to be returned if the blade of the recovered knife matched the depth and shape of Lawson’s stab wounds on his left side in the chest area.

No blood analysis had been made of Zoellner’s clothing, other than his hoodie, which reportedly was faced with a kangaroo pocket. If he had a knife in it, no one saw it fall out.

It’s an open question whether blood on Zoellner’s clothes was Lawson’s or Zoellner’s own. The defendant was bleeding from punches in the face in an initial fist fight over the missing phone, a squabble apparently incited by his girlfriend with Lawson’s girlfriend. He was beaten up again in a second fight, this time with Lawson and others piling on, according to testimony.

In the decisive encounter, a witness, African-American Paris Wright, said he feared Lawson might strangle Zoellner because he had seized him in a combined headlock and body lock with both arms. Zoellner was lying on top of Lawson, Wright said, and he struggled to pry them apart, such was Lawson’s grip on his adversary. (Lawson played high school football.)

Yet, like other witnesses, Wright said he did not see a knife, even though the one recovered at the scene was 10 inches long and readily observable. He said he punched Zoellner twice in the face after asking him, “Did you stab my friend?”   

Investigators examined a sizable pool of blood on the pavement of the cul-de-sac driveway, hard by the Mustang. Yet paradoxically, no blood was found on the confined grassy area a few feet from the house where witnesses saw Zoellner and Lawson clash.

In sum, none of the physical evidence gathered to date has connected the McKinleyville catering chef to the crime.

“I assume further evidence will be pursued,” Judge Reinholtsen said quietly but pointedly.

He suggested more witness interviews were in order, given the large number of people at the party. Presumably many more cell phones warrant examination for photos and text messages transmitted at the scene and after.

As of last week, Arcata police had examined only seven phones.  Officers admitted they allowed most of the crowd of 50-100 people to leave before taking their statements or asking to see their phones. Police offered little explanation and were not taxed about the oversight.

The judge did not mention it, but a fellow officer said a detective had handcuffed Zoellner simply because the crowd turned him over, without taking witness statements that would have justified sequestering him in a squad car parked on Spear Avenue.

That raised the issue of officers’ unquestioned assumptions, a subject placed front and center by Deputy Public Defender Luke Brownfield when he began his final statement before the murder charge was dismissed.

From the beginning, argued Brownfield, a savvy and cogent lawyer, everybody assumed without foundation that Zoellner stabbed Lawson – that this was an open-and-shut case. Yet witness testimony had been “wildly inconsistent” and “no two stories really match,” he said.

“All the testimony is fractured,” so much so that even some of the corroborative statements are in conflict, he observed.

The only reasonable conclusion was that someone else must have committed the murder and that unknown person must be found.

That conclusion echoes a statement by Zoellner’s family before the preliminary hearing, warning that a murderer is on the loose.

“I don’t know who stabbed Josiah,” Brownfield said in closing, “but the court should not hold Kyle.” Instead, he urged, the court “should direct the DA to continue the investigation, find out who the fingerprint and fibers belong to, and talk to all the witnesses” who have not been interviewed.

District Attorney Maggie Fleming has directed the investigation to continue, as has Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman.

Prosecutor Roger Rees maintained that the only reasonable conclusion – 180 degrees opposite Brownfield’s – was that Zoellner had stabbed Lawson, perhaps moments before the two men tangled for the final time. The pair had scrapped on a patch of grass and rolled off each other as Paris Wright intervened.

A knife of unknown origin was found under the Mustang, parked curbside, scarcely a few feet from where the men struggled on the grass.

Yet Rees, a canny and incisive prosecutor, offered no theory of how a sizable knife made its way underneath the car instead of being arrested by the grass patch.

How far could a 10-inch knife roll across rough, scratchy blades of grass and come to rest near the Mustang’s left front wheel on the pavement? How did it transit an abrupt change of surface and textures, from grass to asphalt, with a consequent change in the coefficient of friction?  (The front of the car was facing the house).

Mortally wounded, Lawson, ironically a criminal justice/psychology major, made his way across the cul-de-sac, crawling according to one witness and trailing blood on the asphalt before collapsing on another small grassy area on the other side of the cul-de-sac. He lay bleeding to death, grasping feebly at the low hanging branches of a flowering bush that lap down over a high wood fence.

Rees turned to semantics to paint the defendant’s guilt. When detectives asked Zoellner, who agreed to talk when he was read his Miranda rights, if he had stabbed Lawson, the suspect replied, “I didn’t know anything about it.”

That is not a denial, Rees said with emphasis, implying that Zoellner was being consciously disingenuous and tactical.

Yet multiple witnesses testified that the McKinleyville man had been left unconscious by the fight for several minutes. The officer who handcuffed him said he appeared dazed.

Zoellner’s family contends he could not have stabbed Lawson because he was unconscious.

That is yet another paradox. Like the “phantom” knife, it typifies the case, edging on the theater-of-absurd dramas of Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht, who wrote, “The man who laughs has not yet heard the terrible news.”


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