Critical reaction to APD’s new Lawson outreach

Arcata Police say these individuals may be witnesses with information helpful to solving the killing of David Josiah Lawson. APD photo

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – Seeking to relaunch the investigation into the killing of Humboldt State student David Josiah Lawson, Arcata Police Wednesday released hitherto non-public images of individuals who were at the April 15, 2017 party at which he was stabbed to death.

The intent is to identify individuals at the party who haven’t yet spoken to police, but who may have information that could help the case. The tactic has raised both questions and some negative reaction.

A press release sent out Wednesday included photos of attendees at the party where the fatal stabbing occurred, asking the public for help in locating more witnesses.

For many, the effort prompted a question.

"Why are these only now being released?" asked a commenter on APD's Facebook page, reflecting the thoughts of many who offered similar comments on other fora.

Meanwhile, Lawson’s mother, Charmaine, also questioned the tactic and demanded that the state take over the investigation. She termed the new APD initiative “beyond outrageous” and Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming’s actions “beyond absurd.”

PRESS RELEASE: For Immediate release

Charmaine Lawson, mother of David Josiah Lawson:

In response to APD’s Press Release

Dear Humboldt County Community Members,

I, Charmaine Lawson (Mother of DJ Lawson), was disheartened and outraged at the press release issued yesterday from the Arcata Police Department (APD). For the first time after almost two years of allegedly investigating the murder of my first born son, APD set up a 24-hour tip line and released images of potential witnesses. Why weren’t these actions taken two years ago? And, why is the APD primarily releasing images of African American attendees of the party?

As a Mother who raised two ambitious, amazing, brilliant, outstanding, young Black men (that both went to college), I am deeply disturbed by the recent actions of the APD. When I viewed the blurry images from the press release, all I saw was Black and Brown young people leaving the scene. Why didn’t the officers on the scene that night obtain their names, contact information and statements at the time of the murder? Why – after two years – is the APD just now trying to identify people in attendance at the birthday party? This is beyond negligent.

I was told by the three chiefs of police from APD and a city official that Kyle Zoellner’s DNA is on the knife that was used to murder my son. It is time that Humboldt County residents call out and address the Arcata City officials and Humboldt County DA Maggie Fleming regarding DNA evidence appearing on the knife that was used to murder a young college student. I cannot bring my son back, but we can help take a murderer off the streets. Why should a murderer walk the streets with your loved ones? If he killed once, he will kill again. Do you feel safer as a result of the actions the APD has taken in connection with this case? If not, then I encourage you to demand answers from your local representatives.

***I demand that the DA’s office hand over a copy of the official Grand Jury transcript to my lawyers.***

This case must be immediately turned over to the CA Department Of Justice (DOJ). DA Fleming has previously called in the FBI and State Attorney General for help during the Sheriff’s Office corruption investigation. Fleming emphasized the urgency of the need for assistance to these outside agencies during that investigation. Why did she not push for the DOJ to take over the investigation of the murder of my son (especially after she failed to present adequate and/or sufficient evidence at both the preliminary hearing and grand jury proceedings)? The DOJ will not decline a county official request.

I have been informed that there are only two major DNA contributors on the knife. DNA does not LIE. But, the DA has decided that in order to take any further action on this case the investigators need to find an eye witness. In other words, District Attorney Fleming wants the public to believe that eyewitness testimony is more reliable than the results of scientific DNA forensic testing. This is beyond absurd.

  • Ann O’keefe was 11 years old when she was strangled to death in Southern California in 1973. DNA evidence brought her murderer to justice about 3 weeks ago.
  • Anna Hiavka was found murdered in Portland in 1979. DNA evidence identified her killer as Jerry “Animal” McFadden.
  • Grim Sleeper, serial killer Lonnie Franklin, responsible for decades of murders, was caught through DNA evidence.
  • The Golden State Killer – 13 murder counts from 1970s to the 1980s – was caught through DNA evidence.

These are just a few examples of how DNA evidence can identify a person(s) responsible for committing crimes. How long will I have to grieve before my son’s murderer is brought to justice?

Two years ago, my son and his friends were leaving a birthday party when they were approached by a young woman and her friends about a missing cell phone. My son lost his life over a cell phone. A phone that was later found by Lila Ortega.

I will fight for justice for my son. I will fight for justice in Humboldt County. There are many murder cases on DA Fleming’s desk that she is unwilling to prosecute. I am fighting for those families as well. The failure of the APD to protect and serve this community is an issue that is greater than my son. I will not accept the lack of justice for families (like mine) that have suffered as a result of incompetence, lack of proper training, and/or intentional or negligent mishandling of serious criminal investigations. My son is not the only murder victim whose case has been buried and swept under the rug in Humboldt County, California. Enough is enough. It is time to speak truth to power.

I would like to offer my condolences and heartbreak to the family of Brandon Brocious, for the loss of your son, and miscarriage of justice today. The Lawson family stands with you. Justice for Brandon.

“To be a man is to be responsible, is to feel shame at the sight of unmerited misery” – David Josiah Lawson, my beloved DJ.


In love and justice,

Charmaine Lawson

APD chief details efforts

Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn said the press release is just the beginning of the Lawson investigation’s relaunch. “The Grand Jury has spoken, but it’s just not enough,” Ahearn said. “We understand and respect that, but we’re at that phase where we need to make an additional plea on behalf of Charmaine, DJ, his friends and the community. We have to go back to work.”

According to the press release announcing the Humboldt County Grand Jury’s decision not to charge anyone in Lawson’s killing, that body interviewed 25 witnesses. But Ahearn noted that the party was attended by more than four times that many people.

“Upwards of 100 people were present around the time of the stabbing,” he said. “Based upon witness statements, we have not talked to even half that amount.”

One of the dash cam images released by APD.

Ahearn said he hoped the pictures would jostle memories, and motivate party attendees to step forth on their own, or get others to identify more witnesses.

He said partygoers who have been identified have been interviewed several times, but that “there were people there who have information that we’re still seeking. By releasing the images, we’re trying to bring those who were there back to that time.”

The city has had an open plea on its website for some time urging more witnesses to step forward, offering a $55,000 reward and directing those with information to a confidential tip line.

As to why the photos were just now being released, he said it’s simply something that hadn’t been tried yet, and that even if it works, there may be more photos to come as part of the renewed campaign.

“We’ll continue to use every resource,” Ahearn said. “We’re not going to stop until we build a case that goes through the process.”

Ahearn said he wasn’t aware of any further physical evidence required to advance the case, just testimony.

Another new initiative is paid advertising in major California media markets where some of the partygoers may have returned.

This will take the form of posters on public transportation, including buses, trolleys and rail. In addition, audio PSAs will be broadcast via ad purchases on radio stations.

Ahearn said witnesses won’t be judged or penalized for coming forth now. “There’s no judgment there” he said. “We just need the information,”

As to what the ad campaign will cost, he said that’s a secondary consideration. “We’re going to be very smart in terms of money, but we can’t forget about DJ and I don’t want to put a price on what it’s going to take.”

City Manager Karen Diemer said Ahearn’s investigative experience and fresh perspective could prove helpful to advancing the case. “He’s a new set of eyes on the case, and he has a lot of experience,” Diemer said. “He’s recommending that for the time being, we need to get back out.”

A letter requesting state assistance was sent to the state attorney general and FBI in October. Those authorities have indicated that they could become involved if all local resources have been exhausted.

Ahearn said he’s open to outside assistance, but he’s not counting on it.

“I am ultimately responsible for ownership of this case and bringing it to a conclusion,” Ahearn said. “We’re all committed to this.”


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