House party turned to tragedy in minutes

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

ARCATA – The horror and pathos that engulfed a Spear Avenue cul-de-sac on Easter weekend showed again how chance, impulse and drugs have ruined human lives since time immemorial.

Centuries of racial enmity, graven in historical memory, stalked the cramped, 60-foot cul-de-sac as well.

Rushes to judgment prevailed, based on the instantaneous conclusion that a white man murdered a black man. Past is ever prologue.

Equally, the death of Humboldt State University student David Josiah Lawson dramatized the old and venerable axiom that the first intelligence from a conflict is often wrong, incomplete and oversimplified, as it is in military battles.

"No justice, no peace," chanted protesters on the Plaza during Saturday's Farmers' Market. KLH | Union

Many facts remain missing, but human nature cannot resist instant judgments. In consequence, the legal complaint against Kyle Zoellner was dismissed for want of evidence. Defense lawyers Luke Brownfield and Kelly Neel were obviously confident about proceeding promptly with the preliminary hearing instead of seeking a continuance. That would have allowed detectives more time to gather vital evidence.

Partygoers jumped to conclusions at the scene. More rushes to judgment followed in the days immediately after Lawson was stabbed to death. Emotions overrule facts.

Caucasian Arcata police officer Krystle Arminio heard someone exclaim “This is Compton!” amid the screaming, yelling, running and jostling that confronted her as she crouched by Lawson and administered chest compressions. She and the dying student, foaming at the lips and gasping for breath, were surrounded within a few feet by 10-15 vociferous and angry witnesses, Arminio testified last week.

Days later, African-American Corliss Bennett-McBride, a nine-month HSU administrator, raised the specter of the infamous Rodney King beating in 1991 and the six-day riot that followed the acquittal in 1992 of the four Los Angeles police officers accused of assaulting him after a high speed chase. Video of the beating became a worldwide sensation, but no video or cell phone photographs were introduced by prosecutors in the Zoellner case.

Bennett-McBride spoke at a meeting of the recently established Arcata Public Safety Task Force, of which she is a member. She warned that violence comparable to that surrounding the Rodney King episode could make its way to the redwoods in reaction to complaints about the police department’s and medics’ handling of the Lawson crime scene.

“You’re just pissing people off more and more,” she cautioned Police Chief Tom Chapman. “Folks will roll up here and they’re already going to be pissed with the 12-hour ride.” Lawson was from south central Los Angeles, as are some other African-American HSU students who were at the party.

“When they get here,” Bennett-McBride fumed, “you all thought you saw something when Rodney King went off, ironically on April 29, 1992 ... that will come here in a heartbeat because of the unjust pieces that are getting out, because the true stories are coming from the people who were there [at Spear Avenue], and how that’s not parallel with what the police are saying.”    

At an on-campus HSU prayer vigil prior to the committee meeting, Bennett-McBride had decried the experience of being African-American in Arcata and getting a dirty look for requesting an extra slice of cheese at a Subway shop. In response, the African-American students she mentors urged a boycott of local businesses.

Ignoring the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” the HSU student newspaper, The Lumberjack, leaped to the conclusion, “This was a racially motivated attack” that should have been charged as a hate crime as well as a murder.

District Attorney Maggie Fleming hastened to confirm that she received no admissible evidence that warranted a hate charge.

The many conflicting elements of witness testimony included the absence of agreement on whether a Caucasian woman blurted out, only a feet from where Lawson lay dying, “I hope the nigger dies” or “I hope his friend dies” – or if either was uttered. African-American witnesses were divided on that score, some saying they heard no such thing.

Witness testimony confirmed the presence of alcohol, one “bump” of cocaine and some marijuana at the party. Lawson’s girlfriend, HSU senior Renalyn Bobadilla, said the two each quaffed five shots of vodka from shot glasses in the 40 minutes between midnight and 12:40 a.m. at his Lincoln Avenue apartment. She said Lawson smoked marijuana at the subsequent Spear Avenue bash and she drank “a sip” of red wine from a bottle.

Officer Arminio testified that she met with a hail of screamed obscenities when she reached the crime scene: “Fuck you, you stupid bitch! Fuck the police!”

She had difficulty keeping the crowd at bay, although “no one was blocking me from Josiah’s body.

“I do remember the EMT had difficulty getting through the crowd,” she added.

Arminio was among the three officers who drew up initially and she was the first to start lifesaving efforts. It took her three minutes to race from the McDonald’s in Valley West to the scene. On arrival, “nobody would speak to us” in an atmosphere of obvious hostility. She went straight to Lawson amid some jostling.

Yet a belief took root among spectators and HSU students of color that police and medics were negligent, incompetent and racist. Many were alarmed at what they saw as laggard ambulance service. Some were watching Lawson struggle to breathe as he lay bleeding profusely.    

HSU student Elijah Chandler, the soft-spoken but steely friend of Lawson who aided in life-saving efforts (he is CPR trained), told the Union before last week’s hearing that although the police arrived in record time, they focused entirely on crowd control, not on helping a dying black man. He and Arminio gave diametrically opposed accounts.

Chandler said he had to give Lawson mouth-to-mouth resuscitation because he could see how reluctant either Arminio or an unidentified female EMT was to put her lips on the lips of an an African-American male. To him, their reluctance was obviously racist.

“Why am I doing her job?” he wondered to himself.   

On the witness stand, the lanky and astute geology major engaged in a tense exchange with Deputy Public Defender Kelly Neel during cross-examination. Visibly impatient with repetitive questions already raised by the prosecution and perhaps feeling he was being patronized, Chandler became laconic and brusque with his answers.

Sensing his disquiet, Neel asked sympathetically if he were frustrated.

Chandler reflected for a few seconds.

“No, I’m not frustrated,” he replied in a monotone, expressionless.

What then? Neel pursued.

“I feel like people don’t care.”


“I feel like YOU don’t care,” Chandler sallied, quietly but forcibly. There was muted pain in his voice.

Neel flushed slightly as the judge ordered the salvo stricken from the record as argumentative.



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