Arcata City Council Holds First Meeting Regarding Josiah Lawson Murder Investigation

Photo courtesy of the Lawson family

Charmaine Lawson drove 12 hours from southern California to Humboldt County to attend last week’s Arcata City Council meeting.

At the meeting, she presented a petition with over one thousand signatures asking the city council to put her son on their meeting agenda moving forward.

In response, the Arcata City Council held a special meeting yesterday which aimed to update the public (in ways that were appropriate) on the murder investigation of David Josiah Lawson and to discuss concerns over student of color safety.

The city council has also agreed to hold meetings concerning Lawson’s murder the last Thursday of every month.

Lawson, 19, was a second-year student at Humboldt State University from Perris, CA. He was stabbed at an off campus party Easter weekend and died as a result of his injuries.

Arcata Police arrested Kyle Zoellner, 23, of McKinleyville, CA at the scene, who admitted to being involved in a fight with Lawson that night.

After five days of preliminary hearings, Zoellner was released due to a lack of physical evidence, in a ruling by Eureka judge Dale Reinholtsen. Zoellner is not an HSU student.

Tomorrow September 15, will mark five months since Lawson’s murder and no one is currently being held accountable for his death.

Everyone present at yesterday’s meeting at City Hall wanted to see change and accountability in the city of Arcata. Violence and community safety in the small college town has become a pressing issue.

About 70 people attended the meeting which was facilitated by a moderator. He made sure that questions and concerns raised by the audience were addressed by City Manager Karen Deemer and Arcata Mayor Susan Ornelas.

APD Lieutenant Richard B. Silvers and City Attorney Nancy Diamond were also in attendance to answer questions. 

“What is the plan moving forward to make sure that students and people of color feel safe in this community?” An HSU professor asked.

One person asked for clarity of police protocol when arriving on the scene and another inquired about diversity training for the police department.

Some questioned when EMT response and police conduct on the night of Lawson’s murder would be investigated.

The meeting also intersected with homeless issues as various community members voiced their concerns over the treatment of the homeless community in Arcata.

Ongoing Investigation

Lieutenant Bart Silvers offered an overview of where they are in Lawson’s murder investigation:

“The case is still ongoing. I want to make sure that people understand that it can be a slow grind and people get frustrated with that. We are still working with the outside investigator Tom Parker. We also have a witness that was brought to us some time ago by her friend. They did not feel comfortable providing us contact information. They were going to tell them to contact us and that still has not happened,” Lieutenant Silvers stated.

“We need information, we need any information we can get. It does not matter what you saw, where you were, at this point, we need to know. We try to seek out any witnesses that we can and pretty much that’s where we are at with this. We need people to come to us. It is critical,” Silvers ended.

City Attorney Karen Deemer took over and gave insight into how the city is working to ensure that Lawson’s murder investigation is thorough.

“We were looking for homicide detectives that had more experience. From the help of the Lawson family and their local attorney, we brought in recently retired FBI investigator Tom Parker,” Deemer said.

“He has had access to everything in the case and has taken that with him to pour through. He has indicated it would take probably 4-6 weeks and we are at about the 4-week mark of his review.” 

Deemer said she hoped Parker’s review can produce new leads and that the city is looking for additional investigators who would be interested in coming in and reviewing the case. She also mentioned they have received some of the forensic analysis back from the DOJ and that they are still waiting for additional testing.

In response to questions over the investigation into EMT and police conduct on the night of Lawson’s murder, Deemer stated once Parker is finished with the case review, maybe he can look into police and EMT misconduct or recommend somebody who can.

Lawson’s Girlfriend

Questions concerning why Lila Ortega and her friend Naiya Wilkins have not been arrested for the assault on Lawson’s girlfriend the night of his murder were also raised.

Lawson’s girlfriend was left with bite marks on her breast which required a tetanus shot and a puncture wound on her arm. This is from the assault of both Kyle Zoellner’s girlfriend Lila Ortega and her friend Naiya Wilkins–which they both testified to in the preliminary hearings.

“The entire totality of that evening is what remains under investigation. That includes other potential charges that could be brought if they are deemed warranted,” City Attorney Nancy Diamond said in response to these questions.

“You have a card in your pocket. The lead suspect’s girlfriend committed a vicious crime. There are teeth marks in another person. It isn’t allegedly, it is only allegedly because you guys haven’t done your job,” said a person in the audience.

Concerns over the attack of Lawson’s girlfriend with a lax response from APD briefly became the focus of the meeting.

“His girlfriend was assaulted and the person who did it is still walking around. What have you guys been doing for five months? You are asking for investigators from other places, what do your investigators do who are here?”

“Plus the trauma she experienced, watching her boyfriend die and getting stabbed and bitten I think she might feel safer if the person who did that to her was in jail. I don’t understand why we are waiting to make our community safer,” a woman in the audience relayed.

Deemer also clarified for the audience per request, as to why Zoellner was released before all forensic evidence came back from the DOJ.

She explained how the defense waived the prosecution’s request for more time and our right to a fast and speedy trial meant that Zoellner had the right to a preliminary hearing with 14 days of his arrest and all available evidence had to be presented.

“In this case, the judge said no, we don’t have enough,” Deemer said.

A Mother’s Pain

The meeting took an interesting turn when Charmaine Lawson’s voice came through a conference call speaker during the later part of the meeting.

“I would like to thank everyone for being there and for being supportive. I can not thank you guys enough,” Ms. Lawson said.

Ms. Lawson began to relay an experience she had when she came to town last week and was walking over to APD to meet with Sergeant Dockweiler, the lead investigator in her son’s murder.

“Lila Ortega was walking towards me with a friend of hers and this is the second time I ran into her. She saw me and she immediately ran. As I got to APD, Lila is sitting in the lobby although it was after hours,” Ms. Lawson began.

“Dockweiler walked out of the police station and raised his hand saying Charmaine, what are you doing? He came at me as if I was a suspect as if I did something to Lila Ortega. It was very frightening for me and my cousin,” Ms. Lawson continued.

Ms. Lawson then relayed how Lila Ortega and her friend were escorted home by APD in a police cruiser.

“He didn’t ask me how I was doing, did I want a cup of water. Yet this person who viscously attacked my son’s girlfriend and caused extreme damage to her is still walking the streets of Arcata. If APD is working on behalf of my family and my son, Dockweiler did not present that to me on that Thursday evening.”

“I cry every day for my son,” Ms. Lawson said through tears over the conference speaker.

Through the tears, Ms. Lawson relayed the celebration of life that will be held in honor of Lawson tomorrow at the D Street Neighborhood Center in Arcata from 4:00-6:00 p.m.

Members of the Lawson family will make the 12-hour commute from southern California to be in attendance.

The event will have free food, raffles, and music. Donations are accepted, which will be donated to a local homeless shelter in Arcata.

About slausongirl

Slauson Girl is a South Central native who has a love for journalism, history and all things Hip-Hop. She holds a B.A in Critical Race & Gender Theory & a Minor in Journalism.

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