Another meeting melts down over Lawson case

LISTENING Lorna Bryant of the NAACP and KHSU-BBC; Randi Darnall-Burke, dean of students; Karen Diemer, Arcata city manager; Lisa Rossbacher, HSU president; and Tom Chapman, Arcata chief of police. KLH | Union

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – A wall was lined with butcher paper filled with previously brainstormed student safety and social justice initiatives, and several tables were stocked with blank sheets and marking pens to receive fresh suggestions.

But all of that went unused as an Arcata City Council study session intended as a community safety forum and review of the David Josiah Lawson homicide case quickly descended into a two-hour verbal brawl last Thursday at the D Street Neighborhood Center.

Mayor Susan Ornelas kicked off the session, the second of a planned six in response to demands that the city focus on students safety and resolving the unsolved killing of the 19-year-old Humboldt State student.

David Josiah Lawson

“The council’s goal is to listen and move on with solutions,” Ornelas said. She then introduced facilitators Rachel Montgomery and Aristea Saulsbury.

The two set forth a framework for the evening. It would honor Lawson, Saulsbury said, work toward safety and social justice solutions and receive updates on the investigation of his killing. Montgomery urged attendees to “take space, make space” with concise comments, and to “listen to hear” rather than just to respond.  

But attendees, including numerous African-American students and other concerned community members, were eager for any news on the Lawson investigation. Charmaine Lawson, Josiah’s mother, gave the nod to that being disclosed first.

City  Manager Karen Diemer first noted that recent donations have boosted the reward for information directly leading to the arrest and conviction of Lawson’s killer to $55,000.

The bulk of the forensic evidence has been returned from the California Dept. of Justice, except for what Police Chief Tom Chapman indicated was some special DNA testing with techniques still being developed, and “critical” evidence that requires additional testing.

All key witnesses have been interviewed, but there are “potentially others that we believe exist,” Diemer said. Attendees at the fateful party where Lawson was killed may not understand the value of their information, which could involve important corroboration of other information.

While still ongoing, the entire investigation file to date has been turned over to the District Attorney’s Office for review and analysis. Retired FBI investigator Tom Parker, hired as a consultant, is also conducting his own “very in depth” review and analysis.

Charmaine Lawson

Then the questions began. Why, wondered several attendees, hadn’t the women who had been brawling with Lawson’s girlfriend, Renlyn Bobadilla, just before his death – former suspect Kyle Zoellner’s girlfriend Lila Ortega and Naiya Wilkins – been arrested?

Chapman said that the brawl was “mutual combat,” not assault, and not immediately chargeable.

Unsatisfied with the responses, questions and comments from the crowd took on an increasingly accusatory direction. A number of quality of life issues for African-American students, matters not directly related to the Lawson case – were also voiced.

One questioner suggested that a “racist conspiracy” may be afoot – that or a botched investigation by an incompetent APD.

Diemer said the police hadn’t botched the case, and that while it’s frustrating not to be able to reveal details, the investigation must remain confidential for the time being. Ornelas said she had spoken to Parker, who wouldn’t tell her anything because if details leaked out, they could undermine the case and be a disservice to the victim.

Questioners said that DA Maggie Fleming should have been present. One man suggested that she is consumed with her recently announced reelection campaign, and distracted.

One young woman asked what information on the case was available for incoming HSU freshmen. University President Lisa Rossbacher said the UPD crime report is available online. Randi Darnall-Burke, dean of students, said on-campus fora were being held in conjunction with the Equity Alliance to provide a “safe space for students to speak freely.”

A man accused of sending UPD officers “undercover” to mingle with and pose as students, UPD Chief Donn Peterson said that was fiction. “I do not have any undercover officers posing as students,” he said.

Peterson said he is setting up a ”chief’s advisory panel” composed of students to give him direction.

He was asked what UPD officers who responded to the Lawson stabbing did at the scene. “They tried to save his life,” Peterson said.

By 7:30 p.m., the audience had thinned by about half, but the tension between students and the representatives only intensified. Two starkly different narratives emerged. The city and campus leaders asserted that they were deeply concerned about student needs and safety, and eager to listen and act on their behalf.

The students maintained that the authorities were disinterested in their well being, out of touch, even corrupt and incompetent.   

A man complained that the lack of activities for students in Humboldt leaves them with little to do but attend parties. “There’s nothing to do but whack-ass football games,” he said.

“We don’t trust y’all,” said one woman, demanding that the authorities do outreach to students rather than having them attend official functions. “Stop requesting that we show up. Earn our trust,” the woman said.

But trust was elusive. In the face of increasingly hostile questions and accusations, the authorities present pleaded for unity and understanding.

“We’re here because we care about the diversity that the students bring to the campus and community,” Rossbacher said.

Lorna Bryant of the Eureka NAACP branch stressed the importance of cooperation. “If we want to see change, we need to work together,” she said, standing among the HSU and city representatives. “If we’re being combative, we’re going to go in a circle forever and ever.”

But the students were implacable in their outrage. “The community ignores people of color” and Native Americans, one man said. “They don’t want people of color here.”

Several men who’d briefly attended the previous night’s meeting of the Public Safety Task Force at City Hall had heard a discussion of homeless issues. A few referred to it as the City Council. “You spend more time on the transients and homeless [than people of color],” one man said. “Why is all the funding going to homeless trimmers?”

Another said that Humboldt State is only interested in diversity and recruiting students of color on order to make it eligible for funding. Rossbacher countered that. “Our goal is to reflect the composition of the State of California,” she said.

A student complained that she never sees Rossbacher circulating among students. “If I made $200,000 a year I’d be at home too,” said a young man.

Rossbacher said that her work often keeps her stuck in her office. “I’m sorry our paths haven’t crossed,” she said.

Saulsbury said that many local groups are in motion, working on equity issues.

Charmaine Lawson offered final remarks. She thanked attendees for participating, noting that the meeting’s purpose was student safety. “I don’t want another parent to get a phone call,” she said.

“I lost my son,” the bereaved mother said. “If you knew him, you would have loved him,” she said.

She said Darnall-Burke was the only person to keep in touch with her during the initial ordeal. While calling for everyone to be respectful, she said she was “disappointed” in Rossbacher, and told her, “Lisa, you have to be more involved with students.”

Lawson said that if the university and city don’t make positive change and become more responsive to students of color, she will make a point of going to high schools where Humboldt State is recruiting and dissuade  possible students from attending because “the city of Arcata will not protect you.”

Four more Thursday night student safety sessions are planned. Their dates are Nov. 30, Jan. 25, Feb. 22 and March 22, 2018.

Zoellner files claim

Kyle Zoellner, initially charged as a suspect in the killing of David Josiah Lawson, has filed a claim against the City of Arcata. The charges against Zoellner, who attended the April 15 party at which Lawson was stabbed to death, were later dismissed.

In a statement, the McKinleyville resident alleges arrest without probable cause, creation of a false police report, malicious prosecution and wrongful imprisonment, illegal search and seizure and defamation of character in public statements and city press releases.

Zoellner’s claim, which was filed Oct. 13 and appears on this week’s City Council Consent Calendar, lists damages as lost wages, medical bills, loss of personal property, defamation of character, pain and suffering and emotional distress.

It names numerous public officials and city staff members as being responsible, including all of the City Council, Chief Tom Chapman and five APD officers, plus other unnamed city employees who are allegedly complicit.

Zoellner’s statement also states that he was “assaulted and brutally beaten unconscious” by multiple assailants at the party and was placed in an APD car at the scene “for an extended amount of time” in a semi-conscious state and without medical treatment.

He says APD filed a false report with the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office, but then failed to file a supplemental report to the DA regarding the assault when one was requested.

The City Council routinely refers all damage claims to its municipal insurance carrier.

Chapman declined comment on the substance of the claim because it includes pending litigation or a threat thereof.

He said the claim had been reviewed by city officials.


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