Arcata vows upcoming announcement on Lawson-related crimes

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

ARCATA — The city has now gone on record that it will address two highly charged issues connected with the Easter weekend homicide of Humboldt State University student David Josiah Lawson, 19, a native of Perris south of Riverside.

At the next special Arcata City Council meeting late this month on racial justice and student safety, the authorities will disclose whether they will file cases in connection with other alleged crimes at the Spear Avenue college party where Lawson was fatally stabbed.

Second, the city will announce whether first responders will be investigated for alleged lapses and neglect at the crime scene.

Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman and city authorities face implacable political demands for action on both fronts in the interests of racial justice.        

“There was a significant amount of fighting and potential assault that occurred that night [of the stabbing],” City Manager Karen Diemer said at last week’s special city council meeting.

A poster in the window at the Arcata Police Dept. KLH | Union

Tenacious questions have been raised whether additional charges would be filed against others at the party and if so, at what point they would be lodged as the homicide probe goes on.

“We are working on that and by the next meeting we will have an answer for you,” Diemer affirmed.

Regarding the actions and procedures of the first responders, Diemer said, “That is also an answer we will have by the next meeting. We’ll be meeting with Tom Parker on some of that,” she said, referring to the retired FBI agent from Santa Barbara who is conducting an independent, top-to-bottom review of the entire homicide investigation.

Joining Diemer at last week’s special city council session, Chapman said he had spoken with Parker days before and that the veteran homicide investigator expects to complete his review “in the next couple of weeks. He will be coming up [to Arcata] and present his findings and recommendations.”

“From that point,” Chapman said, “a decision will be made about what investigative steps he’s coming up with, ideas that he may have.”

In the meantime, the chief continued, “there are still investigative steps that are being taken” and additional forensic testing must be wrapped up. When is an open question.

“This week we received an additional report from the DoJ [Department of Justice] that other testing had been completed,” said Chapman, who is not at liberty to disclose the findings at this point, to avoid compromising any judicial proceedings that might follow from an arrest. At present there are no new suspects.

Mayor Susan Ornelas said in an interview just before the special meeting that a portion of the forensic evidence that the city had to return to the department last summer for clarification has still not come back. She too said she had no idea when it might be returned.

One of the Arcata residents who attended last week’s special meeting, Zera Starchild, mother of two teenagers, said it strained credulity that “it would take this long to get a forensic report.”

Forensic turnaround times differ from state to state and laboratory to laboratory. By one estimate, the nationwide average is slightly more than four months. How far urban and rural wait times diverge is unclear.     

Variables include whether the tests pertain to DNA, forensic biology (non-DNA analysis of biological fluids), fingerprints, trace evidence (fibers) or, in the Lawson case, whether a knife recovered from underneath a car at the crime scene was connected to the homicide or was merely lost and without evidentiary value.       

Generally forensic findings are returned more slowly in homicide cases in which there are no suspects. There is no pressure to bring a case to trial. Possibly that might be affecting the Lawson probe, although no one in authority has said so.

Police took a McKinleyville man into custody at the crime scene in April but he was freed for lack of probative evidence. Moreover, witness testimony at the preliminary hearing by those who attended the Spear Avenue party was extremely contradictory. At times, accounts of what happened were diametrically opposed.

Decisively, the prosecution had no witnesses who saw either the stabbing or the knife. Some testimony suggested that the freed suspect was unconscious on the ground when Lawson was being fatally wounded a few feet away.    

Concerning delays, Arcata investigators have yet to see the Lawson autopsy report.   

“There is no ETA [estimated time of arrival] on when,” Chapman revealed.

He explained that although the investigation is entering its sixth month, Humboldt County has no medical examiner. Autopsies have to be contracted out. That can result in wait times of six to eight months for the autopsy report, even if the surgical examination has been completed long since.

As in recent months, the chief reported yet again that no new witnesses have come forward in the case.

But he said he had been in touch with a third party who relayed word that two potential donors want to augment the reward fund, which stands at $21,000.

“I’m hoping that will be finalized in the next few days; we will make an announcement,” Chapman said.        


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