Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The Arcata City Council voted 4–0 Wednesday night to look at options other than the Arcata Police Dept. for investigating the unsolved killing of Humboldt State student David Josiah Lawson.
The decision followed demands of multiple speakers who reviled the city, the council and Arcata Police for failing to identify a suspect in Lawson's stabbing death, which took place more than a year ago, on April 15, 2017.
Council Chamber overflowed with citizens, some bearing signs, there to demand justice for Lawson. To accommodate them, Mayor Sofia Pereira rearranged the Oral Communication segments of the meeting to allow an unlimited number of people to speak during Early Oral Communication, which is normally limited to five speakers. But that extended period was to become the entirety of the meeting.
Many of the Lawson advocates – including the slain student's mother, Charmaine – cited statements by ex-FBI agent Tom Parker, who had been assisting with the case. In town for Lawson's Life Celebration Sunday night, Parker gave a round of news interviews where he deployed explosive allegations against the Arcata Police Dept., saying APD had mishandled evidence, shown no real interest in solving the case, refused repeated offers of outside assistance, and may be tainted by racism.
Speaker after speaker castigated the council, one stating that the council risks looking like "racist murderers." "You are total accomplices to this," she said. Many singled out Councilmember Michael Winkler for his characterization of the Feb. 21 council meeting attendees as a "lynch mob," which many consider a racist reference.
Speaker Syvia DeRooy said the push for justice is a "mother's march," pointing out that Lawson's mother has pleaded for justice "month after month after month," and had been reduced to a "beggar for justice" by the council.
Others remembered Lawson as a warm, bright, young man whose life had been cut short by racial violence. One said he had been betrayed by the city and Humboldt State. Another said that had he been whte, the case would have been solved.
Several speakers promised to vote the current councilmembers out of office for failure to act. "We can replace you, and we will replace you – all of you," said one speaker. Others mentioned the McKinley statue as a related issue in terms of symbolizing racism, and many acknowledged the genocide against the Wiyot people during Arcata's settlement era.
But the main focus was on rehiring Parker, perhaps the sole law enforcement member in whom the Lawson advocates have any confidence.
Parker has stated that the Lawson case is solvable, and that he and some trusted colleagues likely could identify a suspect. Lawson's advocates want him in charge.
"Please bring back Tom Parker and his investigative team and give him complete control, because that's the best chance we have at this point," said one speaker.
Charmaine Lawson – as she has at multiple meetings over the past year – told the council of her living nightmare over the loss of her son, and the agony of the killing being left unsolved. Last week she, through her attorney Shelley Mack, filed a claim seeking at least $500,000 for the emotional distress and anxiety she suffered due to APD's "negligent" investigation.
"What is APD hiding?" Lawson asked. "Why don't they want my son's murder to be solved?" She demanded that Parker be hired to solve the case. "Do the right thing," she pleaded.
"I'll never be able to go to his wedding, or hold his child," Charmaine said of her son.
City Manager Karen Diemer said she could bring back investigative options for councilmembers to consider. Councilmember Paul Pitino said, "If not Tom Parker, then maybe some alternative assistance that's sophisticated beyind what the city has. I'd be interested in that."
Councilmember Michael Winkler agreed, saying that it was "totally warranted under the circumstances." Councilmember Brett Watson agreed, as did Mayor Sofia Pereira.
Pitino said that Parker may not be the right person for the job. "It's easy to say that somebody is an expert and they can solve something. I don't know that that is actually accurate," he said. "I'm not sure that he would be the best person."
Pereira called a 10-minute recess, but returned after the break only to adjourn the meeting.
Parker: cease and desist
Contacted Thursday morning, Parker said he was "open to any ideas that they have" insofar as being rehired by the city. "It would depend on what shape that takes. I certainly haven't slammed the door shut, unless things stay as is, then it's closed and locked."
Prior to being dismissed, Parker said he had made three demands of Diemer, two of which have been met. One was to dismiss now-resigned Police Chief tom Chapman, another was to put his contract under the purview of the City Manager's Office, which was done, and the third was to allow him to hire his own trusted colleagues to handle the case.
Parker pushed back against a statement issued by the city, which stated that "The City is concerned about how the timing of Tom Parker’s departure from the case coincides with the filing of a claim by Attorney Shelley Mack and their multiple interviews with the media."
He said that if the city was suggesting coordination with Mack, there was none. "They can imply all they want, but I had no idea she was going to be on [Lorna Bryant's KHSU interview, recorded Saturday and aired Monday]. There was no coordination. I had no information at all as to what she was going to do."
Parker said City Attorney Nancy Diamond had sent him a cease and desist letter warning him not to make public comments in breach of the confidentiality clause in his contract. He said he referred the letter to his attorney.
Parker said that the comments to which the city objected had to do with testing of the weapon used to kill Lawson, but that that had already been discussed in open court, neutralizing the city's claim. "What I'm accused of - violating the confidentiality clause – was discussed at the preliminary hearing," he said.
While Lawson's killing is commonly referred to as a "murder," even by the City of Arcata, Parker said "that's a layman's term." He said the stabbing death more accurately fits a charge of voluntary
Technicalities aside, Parker said Lawson's killer has to be brought to justice.
"This case needs to be solved," he said "It's not fair to the community, to Charmaine and to the memory of DJ."
Wednesday, Humboldt State President Lisa Rossbacher sent the city a letter expressing her concerns about the handling of the Lawson case.
"I am troubled by developments over the last week, and especially by what I have heard from Mr. Parker in various interviews," Rossbacher said. "A year later, this case remains unresolved and it is incumbent on the City to provide reassurance that it is being handled in a way that will lead to justice."