A closer look at the party where David Josiah Lawson died

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

ARCATA — Police radio recordings logged what Arcata officers and medics found on arrival at the scene of an alleged stabbing on Spear Avenue that left a Humboldt State University teenager dead early on the Saturday morning before Easter.

Audio scanner traffic recorded on April 15 from 3 to 4 a.m. documents a series of officer/dispatcher exchanges. First police at the scene variously reported “a very aggressive crowd,” “a large group of angry individuals” and “possible violence involved.”

Officers did not indicate if the revelers, which they estimated to number 100, were feuding among themselves, with law enforcement or with neighbors, interlopers or onlookers.

Within two to four minutes, post-3 a.m., as sirens wailed in the background, police radioed that a woman had been stabbed, that multiple units were responding and that Arcata medical had been alerted.

David Josiah Lawson

Shortly thereafter came word via the California Highway Patrol of “at least one report that a man was down,” evidently referring to the fatally wounded student, HSU sophomore and criminal justice major David Josiah Lawson, 19, of Perris in Riverside County.

The wounded female may have been Lawson’s girlfriend, Ren, reportedly stabbed twice on one arm, according to an eyewitness.

Charged with murder is Kyle Christopher Zoellner, 23, of McKinleyville.

Between 3:08 and 3:10 a.m. (all times are approximate due to recording lags), Arcata Police confirmed that the scene at 1120 Spear Ave. was secure, that “a man is down, possible stabbing” and “CPR is in progress.”

A minute or so later, officers repeated that the scene was secure and that “one patient” was receiving CPR.

Between 3:14 and 3:15 a.m., Arcata Police reported “a very aggressive crowd.” An unidentified woman could he heard screaming in the background, sounding hysterical.

At about the same time the scanner traffic, preserved online by Lost Coast Outpost and furnished to the Union, recorded that no more units were available from Humboldt State University police, that Humboldt County Sheriff’s officers were en route and that more Arcata units were en route at about 3:20-3:21 a.m.

Shortly before 3:30 a.m., a female officer radioed for the second time, “I think I found the weapon,” apparently a knife allegedly wielded by Zoellner. He has admitted being in a fight with Lawson, but pleaded not guilty to the murder charge at his mid-April arraignment.

His family insists he is innocent, contending based on hearsay that he was just becoming conscious after being knocked out in a scuffle when he heard a voice saying, “Someone’s been stabbed.”

The second half of the hour-long scanner audio carries no more transmissions pertaining to the stabbing. The terse exchanges concern routine matters, a disabled vehicle, license tag checks and so on.

Evidently the crime scene quickly quieted down. There were no more reports of aggressive behavior or angry individuals, nor any suggestion of violence.

Nor is there any scanner record that the crowd taunted, rebuked or challenged police with words, gestures or other hostile behavior. An early radio call mentioned crowd control, but it did not come up later. There was no suggestion that the scores of attendees were a manifest threat to law enforcement.

The scanner traffic is equally devoid of insights as to whether the stabbing was accidental, intentional, an act of self-defense, an alcohol-fueled caprice or the result of racial intrigue. Zoellner is white, Lawson was black.

The court is determining if Zoellner should be held for a jury trial, pending the findings of this week’s preliminary hearing.

An eyewitness said, unconfirmed by detectives, that the prelude to the fatal clash centered on a missing Iphone that prompted a row between two females, one of them said to be the late Lawson’s girlfriend, Ren. Men and women are said to have joined the fray and one of the women reportedly unleashed a mace attack.

Zoellner’s family contends multiple fights broke out, that Zoellner himself was the victim of a beating and that pepper spray was employed by a woman to defend him, not to disable others.

An eyewitness, HSU student Elijah Chandler, a friend of Lawson’s who administered first aid at the scene, was asked by the Union shortly afterward if anyone in the crowd had aimed threatening words, gestures or actions at police and he answered, “No. All of my brothers were either subduing the assailant [to block his escape] or by my side, helping and talking to Josiah so he’d stay alive.

“The only thing I heard – it was monstrous, in my opinion – is the two Caucasian women, now that the police had arrived and were just making sure the assailant was going to be OK and that nobody touched him, they were saying, ‘I really wish that nigger does die. I really hope that nigger dies.’ They just kept repeating it and I heard this as I am giving Josiah compressions to fight for his life.”

If the crowd estimate of 100 is accurate, the house, driveway and backyard at 1120 Spear Ave. must have been jam packed the night of the invitation-only party. A small, single family dwelling with a garage attached at a perpendicular angle, the compact, one story structure has a tiny, unkempt backyard with a shabby, stooped greenhouse in one corner. The backyard is overlooked by a scruffy, narrow porch, fringed with an overgrowth of ferns.

A short asphalt driveway snakes to the left slightly in a confined cul-de-sac that terminates at 1120’s front door. The exterior paint is an exceptionally pale green with dark green trim. The house sits astride the top of a semicircle of several other homes tucked close together.

The short driveway gives on to Spear Avenue, hard by the single lane traffic circle where St. Louis Road, West End Road and Spear Avenue converge.

A young man who answered the front door Saturday and identified himself as an HSU student declined to say who organized the Easter party or name the owner, but said the house belongs to a property management company. An online search of an off-campus housing website showed the residence listed by California Lifestyles Realty in Arcata, monthly rent $1,500.


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