No new suspects in Lawson case

REMEMBERING DJ Charmaine Lawson and a friend decorate the stage at a life celebration for David Josiah Lawson at the D Street Neighborhood Center last Friday. KLH | Union


Paul Mann
Mad River Union

ARCATA – The five-month-old investigation goes on, but there are no new suspects in the David Josiah Lawson killing probe, nor have any new leads turned up in the past 60 days.

The latest information is four-pronged:

• Arcata authorities are hoping a known but reluctant witness will come forward at last.

• An outside ex-FBI investigator’s report is due in two weeks or so.

  A final forensic determination is pending, time indeterminate.

• Law enforcement retains possession of the personal belongings of the initial suspect, Kyle Zoellner, 23, of McKinleyville, in the event he is charged again.

  Zoellner was released for want of evidence following a preliminary hearing last spring.

The latest case brief was presented at a special meeting of the Arcata City Council Sept. 13, attended by some 60 people who sat round-robin in the well of the council chamber and the rear foyer. The session was billed as a review of the homicide investigation and a discussion of student safety strategies.

The Lawson case took up most of the two-and-a-half hour session.

As in prior public discussions, participants voiced strong objections to the failure of law enforcement to arrest the killer and charge him, despite a $21,000 reward.

Several speakers protested the futility of discussing student and public safety when Lawson’s killer remains at large, with no fresh leads as to his identity or whereabouts.

A number of students told the forum they could not possibly feel safe downtown or in the off-campus community with the Lawson homicide unsolved.

On a related front, frustrated attendees sought repeatedly to pin down City Manager Karen Diemer and Arcata Police Lt. Bart Silvers on why no charges had been filed in the concurrent assault last April of Lawson’s girlfriend and fellow Humboldt State student, Renalyn Bobadilla.

Why hasn’t Bobadilla’s alleged female assailant, Zoellner’s girlfriend Lila Ortega, been arrested, critics wanted to know.

Allegedly Ortega bit Bobadilla on the breast and assaulted her minutes after Zoellner arrived at the Spear Avenue homice scene to pick up Ortega and her companion, Naiya Wilkins (Union, May 8).

Zoellner, 23, did not attend the college party where the knife slaying took place, but admitted afterward that he had scuffled with Lawson shortly after arriving in the Spear Avenue cul-de-sac.

Taken into custody at the scene, the McKinleyville chef denied killing the 19-year-old HSU student.

Testimony at the preliminary hearing suggested, albeit not definitively, that Zoellner was unconscious on the ground and therefore innocent when Lawson was stabbed and lay bleeding to death.

Again last week, critics faulted the City Council and the police department for failing to expedite an investigation of the officers and the emergency medical technicians who responded in the early hours of April 15, Easter weekend.

“What have you been doing for five months?” an exasperated young man asked incredulously.

City officials temporized, insisting the “entire totality of events” remains under investigation, including the Bobadilla/Ortega confrontation.

Officials carefully sidestepped particulars about when or what kind of investigation might be ordered, and by whom. Nor did they say if police and EMTs will be held accountable in the event the Lawson case is not solved.     

According to testimony at the preliminary hearing, it was an argument over a missing phone among the women that triggered the fatal fracas among the men.

In the immediate aftermath of Lawson’s death, witnesses at the party alleged that Arcata police neglected to hold potentially dozens of witnesses on site to be interviewed before they dispersed.

At least one Spear Avenue witness, HSU student Elijah Chandler, trained in first aid and CPR, asserted that EMT assistance was incompetent and that Lawson’s life might have been saved if police and medics had responded with alacrity in more concerted fashion.

Hence the insistent public and student demands for accountability in a probe of police and EMT performance.

Police Chief Tom Chapman has stated that some members of the crowd at the party were loudly hostile to first responders, and that the police and paramedics had their hands full that night securing the crime scene and stabilizing Lawson. Chapman noted that because of their efforts, Lawson was delivered to the hospital still alive.

Further answering suspicions that the Arcata Police Department has been lax or fitful in pursuing the murder investigation, Lt. Silvers said the case is discussed every day at headquarters; that witnesses are still being sought; some are being re-interviewed and fresh clues may turn up in the exhaustive, independent review of the entire case record by retired FBI agent and veteran homicide investigator, Tom Parker, 73, of Santa Barbara.

Parker is acting as a consultant to the Arcata Police Department and reporting to the APD’s lead investigator in the case, Sgt. Todd Dokweiler.

Despite Silvers’ representations, concerns are deepening that the Lawson case may stand or fall on the outcome of the forensics, barring the tardy appearance of a reliable and knowledgeable witness.

None of the witnesses who testified at Zoellner’s preliminary saw either the stabbing or a knife.

Police recovered a 10-inch knife at the scene from underneath a car parked in the driveway, but no evidence was adduced as to its ownership or whether it might have matched Lawson’s stab wounds. Autopsy photographs were not yet available at the time of the hearing.   

If the crime lab forensics ultimately prove inconclusive or non-existent—some had to be sent back for clarification—the Lawson case could go cold indefinitely.


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