Lawson case: Harsh words, sudden fight started it all

Fortune... can bring about great changes in a situation through very slight forces.

– Julius Caesar

Chance rules an empire that renders choice a fool’s illusion.

– George Eliot, Middlemarch

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

ARCATA – A chance tiff over a common iPhone led to the violent death of David Josiah Lawson, 24 hours before the High Holy Day of the Christian spring.

Women propelled fortune’s wheel at the outset.

Renlyn Bobadilla, “D.J’s” girlfriend, stepped from the threshold of a small bungalow at 1120 Spear Ave. at about 2:30 in the morning. She was accompanied by Lawson and two of his many friends, brothers Kyle and Kristoff Castillo.

Immediately the four saw three people about 10 feet away from the two-step wooden stairs to the front door.

The three were later identified as Kyle Zoellner, thin, tall and almost gaunt, with a wispy goatee and brown hair; his long-time partner, Lila Ortega, petite and stocky with blue-dyed hair; and a tall, slender woman with short blond tresses, Naiya Wilkins.

Bobadilla testified that the trio of strangers questioned her and her companions about Ortega’s missing phone. A search by Ortega and her friends had turned up nothing as they waited for Zoellner to come pick them up.

By several accounts, Zoellner was the first to speak on his girlfriend’s behalf, inquiring courteously as to the phone’s whereabouts. Had the four come across it by any chance? He was believed to be holding his car keys in one hand.

Bobadilla began her narrative on the witness stand pointing to Ortega, not Zoellner. Bobadilla and her three companions felt they were being accused of theft.

“I know you stole my phone, you piece of shit!” Bobadilla quoted Ortega as mouthing off.

Ortega had testified previously that when she asked about her phone, the four “got mad, got very aggressive.

“We weren’t trying to accuse them,” she told the court. “I was being very polite.”

Not so, Bobadilla testified. Ortega ordered the three men to turn out their pockets. “I yelled she shouldn’t be saying that to my boyfriend!”

Bobadilla called herself “highly protective” of people of color. Like Lawson, the Castillo brothers are African-American.

The HSU senior said she didn’t remember how, but suddenly Ortega was biting her breast, sinking her teeth into Bobadilla’s flesh and holding on. Photography exhibits placed in courtroom evidence documented the bites, scabs and bruising she suffered on and underneath her left breast. She also suffered a tiny, unexplained puncture wound on one forearm.

Bobadilla said she did not see Zoellner throw punches. She did not say whether any of her male friends landed the first blow as she and Ortega squabbled.

Zoellner’s girlfriend, Ortega, testified, “They punched me in the face,” blackening her left eye and cheek bone. But she could not distinguish who threw the punch.

Bobadilla said the scuffle, however it began, trailed off in short order. She couldn’t explain why or if someone had intervened to break it up.            

Within moments she realized, “My face was burning. We all realized our faces were burning.”

Ortega’s friend, Naiya Wilkins, testified independently that she and another woman used pepper spray on Zoellner’s alleged assailants, one or more of the men with Bobadilla. Apparently the men skirmished separately as the women fought, pulling each other’s hair and raining mutual blows with abandon.

Zoellner admitted to detectives after his arrest that he had fought with Lawson, but it is not certain whether they clashed once or twice in the two skirmishes that early morning, separated by an indeterminate number of minutes. Deputy District Attorney Roger Rees argued that the stabbing occurred in the second showdown during a “window” of 20-25 seconds and that Zoellner was the perpetrator.

Kyle Castillo said his brother Kristoff was sprayed directly in one eye and took the hardest hit, but the entire group was affected, he testified.

Bobadilla, in shock, walked with her companions from the doorstep to Spear Avenue, a distance of some 60 feet along an asphalt cul-de-sac. It terminates just short of the house. Two parking aprons jut to the left and right, opposite one another, by the front steps. Each cramped parking space is fringed with small, narrow patches of grass where a good deal of blood was found.

“I was freakin’ out when we made it to the street,” Bobadilla continued. Lawson was on her right, while the Castillo brothers headed to a car parked farther down the avenue to see if their driver was there and ready to leave.

Abruptly, Bobadilla sprinted back toward the house and saw two women, curious and panicky about what was burning her face. “I asked, ‘What the fuck did you throw in my face?’”

At that, one of the women bit her breast again “and I punched her in the face,” Bobadilla said without hesitation. “I grabbed both by their scalps. They were biting me and punching me.”

Lawson, left behind on the avenue to drain his eyes and recover his bearings, turned immediately and headed back toward the house when a third party confided that Bobadilla, Ortega and Wilkins were at it again.

“Josiah was behind me somewhere and I screamed out to him and he screamed ‘babe’” in a worried tone, Bobadilla recalled.

Evidently Lawson proceeded past the women as they mutually agreed to retreat from brawling with each other.

His life about to end, Lawson became caught up, voluntarily or not, in a second skirmish, again close to the house and the nearby grassy areas and involving, on and off, as many as 10-15 combatants.

In his last seconds, was the 19-year-old out for revenge for the pepper spray assault? Was he feeling mounting fury that his girlfriend was being mocked, insulted and roughed up?   

It is about these fateful, final minutes that witness testimony at the preliminary hearing split sharply, ranging from inconclusive to irreconcilable.

The one undisputed fact for now is that no one saw a knife or witnessed Lawson’s mortal stabbing.



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