Monday, November 5, 2018

APD Interim Chief: There is 'Unequivocal Physical Evidence' in Lawson Case

Posted By on Mon, Nov 5, 2018 at 1:39 PM

click to enlarge David Josiah Lawson - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • David Josiah Lawson
The Arcata Police Department is preparing to submit its investigation into the 2017 stabbing death of David Josiah Lawson to the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office this week and Interim Police Chief Richard Ehle says he thinks there is “unequivocal physical evidence” linking a specific suspect to Lawson’s death.

Ehle declined to discuss the evidence or identify the suspect in an interview with the Journal.

“The more I discuss the case or the more I get into any specifics, the less inclined the DA is to charge this case,” Ehle explained.

The interim chief said the investigative report stops short of making a charging recommendation to prosecutors in the case. But he said it will be “rather obvious” when prosecutors read through the case report, which walks them through DNA and fingerprint evidence and details the suspect’s “motive, opportunity and means” to commit the crime.

Lawson, a 19-year-old Humboldt State University sophomore, was stabbed several times, including once to the heart, at an off-campus party in the early morning hours of April 15, 2017. A suspect — Kyle Zoellner of McKinleyville — was arrested at the scene and charged with Lawson’s murder but the charges against him were dismissed several weeks later after a Humboldt County Superior Court judge found there was insufficient evidence to support them.

The case seemed to languish thereafter. Former Police Chief Tom Chapman and a former FBI agent brought in to consult on the case both resigned abruptly in April as the anniversary of the slaying approached. And Lawson’s mother, Charmaine Lawson, filed a claim for damages — the first step toward filing a lawsuit against the city — around the same time, alleging that the police department had botched the investigation. (Zoellner has also filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging officers violated his civil rights by denying him medical attention and falsifying police reports following his arrest.)

But under Ehle, the department has brought in additional investigators, with the city devoting at least $100,000 in additional funding to aid the effort. News of the investigation nearing its conclusion was first reported by the Times-Standard’s Dan Squier last week.

click to enlarge Charmaine Lawson places roses in two hearts drawn in the sand at a recent vigil held for her son. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • Charmaine Lawson places roses in two hearts drawn in the sand at a recent vigil held for her son.
Journal attempts to reach Charmaine Lawson for comment on the recent developments have been unsuccessful. Ehle said he’s kept the slain teen’s mother in the loop as the investigation has moved forward.

Ehle also told the Journal that while there’s been some clamoring in the community to see charges brought against a variety of individuals involved in a variety of physical altercations that night that proceeded and followed Lawson’s stabbing, APD’s investigation focused solely on Lawson’s death.

“We’re looking at the murder, almost exclusively,” he said. “That’s our primary focus.”

While there was also speculation in the days and weeks after Lawson’s killing that the crime may have been racially motivated — as Lawson was black and Zoellner is white and witnesses said Zoellner’s girlfriend repeatedly used a racial slur in reference to Lawson as he lay bleeding to death — Ehle said he found no evidence the stabbing constituted a hate crime.

“I don’t think it was racially motivated. Some terrible things were said after the fact that were picked up on and probably the genesis of (that speculation),” Ehle said, adding that he even brought the FBI in to review the case and it determined the killing was not racially motivated.

Ehle said he and his investigative team hope to sit down with District Attorney Maggie Fleming by the end of the week to discuss the case. From there, prosecutors could opt to re-file charges against Zoellner, charge another suspect, deem charges aren’t warranted or undertake further investigation.

In related news, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California sent a letter to the Arcata City Council last week calling on it to reduce the “excessive and intimidating police presence” at council meetings in advance of its regularly scheduled Wednesday meeting.

click to enlarge Arcata Interim Police Chief Richard Ehle offers an update on the investigation into the stabbing death of David Josiah Lawson after protesters disrupted a council meeting in August. - CARMEN PENA-GUTIERREZ
  • Carmen Pena-Gutierrez
  • Arcata Interim Police Chief Richard Ehle offers an update on the investigation into the stabbing death of David Josiah Lawson after protesters disrupted a council meeting in August.
Tensions in the council chambers bubbled over in August when protesters demanding justice for Lawson and updates on the investigation effectively shut down two consecutive council meetings, pledging to disrupt any “business as usual” in the city. Following the second meeting derailed by protesters, Ehle stationed multiple APD officers inside council chambers and outside city hall for the next two meetings in an effort to ensure the council could conduct city business.

In its Oct. 31 letter, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California called on the city to keep officers out of its governing process.

“City council meetings must provide a forum where the public is afforded the opportunity to address the council and speak directly with the members of a government body without fear of police intervention and criminal prosecution,” the letter states. “Whether intended or not, Arcata City Council’s latest practices discourage public participation, particularly from dissenting voices. Accordingly, immediate steps should be taken to eliminate or significantly reduce the visible police presence … .”

In an interview with the Journal last week, Ehle said the council felt the increased police presence was necessary after the two August meetings were shut down by protests because the city needed to conduct its business, noting that the shuttered meetings almost resulted in the city missing grant application deadlines. The bottom line, Ehle said, is protesters’ repeated disruptions of the meetings necessitated a police response to ensure the safety of council members and city staff and to allow the council to meet and make decisions in the public’s interest.

“They violated the law, and they violated the law over and over again,” Ehle said of the protesters. “And no one was arrested, which is a credit to this council and how sensitive they are.”

But the interim chief said he believes tensions have eased and there is no further need for officers to be present for council meetings moving forward.

“We don’t want to be there, plain and simple,” he said.
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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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