Easter killing in Arcata inflames racial tensions

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

ARCATA – The alleged white-on-black murder of a Humboldt State University sophomore on Easter weekend is reverberating through the North Coast’s long history of racial hostility and through Humboldt State’s reputation among students of color for careless white paternalism and an aloof, inaccessible administration – especially at the highest levels and including President Lisa Rossbacher.

Kyle Christopher Zoellner, 23, of McKinleyville, was arrested at the crime scene on the 1100 block of Spear Avenue in Arcata shortly after 3 a.m. on April 15, the day before Easter. He is in jail on $1 million bail for the alleged knife murder of David Josiah Lawson, 19. Lawson was pronounced dead at Mad River Community Hospital after a fellow student, Elijah Chandler, made repeated efforts to keep him alive as he lay dying.

Arcata Police recovered a knife at the scene. Multiple witnesses described the murder as racially motivated, but investigators have produced no evidence of it.

Arcata detectives say they have interviewed more than 25 witnesses; interviews are continuing.

Lawson would have celebrated his 20th birthday next month. In one of the ironies of the murder, he was studying criminology.

A native of Perris, a fast-growing community of almost 70,000 some 18 miles south of Riverside, Lawson had planned a career centered on advancing criminal justice in the inner city.

Equally poignant, classmates said, Lawson was acutely conscious of whether he would survive into his 20s in light of the high racial tensions nationwide, stoked and embittered by last year’s presidential campaign.

“Race is all up in this, it’s sad,” Corliss Bennett-McBride, director of HSU’s Cultural Centers for Academic Excellence, said at a prayer service on the campus early last week. “It shouldn’t have to take a doggone tragedy to bring us all together.”

Responding to a Union query, campus spokesman Jarad Petroske said, “Multiple HSU students and administrators have spoken to me that they consider this a de facto hate crime.”

No hate charge has been filed, however. District Attorney Maggie Fleming said there was no admissible evidence to justify it.

Rossbacher issued a prepared statement to the press saying, “We will insist that everything possible will be done [sic] to pursue justice for Josiah."

Arcata Councilmember Sofia Pereira, an HSU alum, echoed Rossbacher, declaring that concerted action must be taken to deal with the community’s racist depths and the suspected deficiencies in the performance of first responders at the crime scene, police and medics alike.

Lost Coast Outpost Editor Hank Sims told the Union he decided to disable the online comments section because anonymous individuals were posting blatantly racist comments in the wake of the website’s coverage of the murder.

“It was really grim,” he said. “LoCO did not want to provide a platform for racists to spew their hate. On the flip side, LoCO was criticized for shutting down the comments, which some people said covered up Humboldt’s racist underbelly.”

Pastor Roger Williams of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Eureka delivered a homily at the university prayer vigil, calling for racial reconciliation founded on “responding rather than reacting.”

He elaborated in a subsequent email, “Responses tend to be governed by thoughtful reflection, not by impulse. Responses tend to be sustainable and enduring, while reactions often are quickly birthed from emotionally charged information,” untempered by patient and detached appraisal.

Regarding reconciliation on campus, Petroske said the administration has been working closely with professors whose students were either at the party where Lawson was killed or were among those close to him. Those students are being given time to grieve and allowed to make up missed assignments or exams.

“We realize we're very close to the end of the academic year and we want to make sure these students have the chance to finish their work and not get off track because of these tragic circumstances,” Petroske said.

Asked to address complaints by students of color that campus recruitment practices are not as honest and forthcoming as they should be, and the wider community not nearly as inclusive as advertised, Petroske answered, “Our admissions counselors don't target any high schools or areas specifically, but rather try to cover as broad an area as possible in California. We don't have diversity quotas to meet. What we do is try to reach as many high school students as possible and give them the opportunity to enroll at HSU.

“Obviously, we have to work to do on campus as far as being welcoming and inclusive – I think the Cultural Centers are a testament to that. However, we know there is much to be done. We need to continue to do a better job of supporting our students of color, as well as our staff and faculty of color.”   

He did not specify how the “better job” would be achieved.


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