SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The mother of a 19-year-old black man who was stabbed to death in the sleepy college town of Arcata claims the city’s police department bungled her son’s murder investigation and repeatedly lied to cover up its incompetence.
David Josiah Lawson, a sophomore at Humboldt State University, died in the early morning hours of April 15, 2017, after he was stabbed multiple times outside an off-campus party on Spear Avenue in Arcata.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday night, the victim’s mother, Michelle Lawson, claims the city sent inexperienced officers to the site who failed to secure the crime scene, interview witnesses or obtain their contact information, or provide life-saving care to her son before an emergency medical team arrived.
Lawson also claims former Arcata Police Chief Thomas Chapman repeatedly misled her and the public about getting other local police departments to help investigate the murder, even as the department refused to follow leads and pursue evidence that might convict her son’s killer.
“Rather than perform the police work necessary to properly investigate and solve Mr. Lawson’s murder, defendants instead conspired among themselves and with others to allow the investigation to languish without progress – hoping the public, plaintiff, and Mr. Lawson’s friends and family would quietly put the matter behind them,” the 33-page complaint states.
The main suspect, 24-year-old Kyle Zoellner of McKinleyville, was arrested on the night of the murder, but a Humboldt County judge found insufficient evidence to try him for murder in May 2017.
According to the complaint, witnesses saw Lawson and Zoellner fighting after their girlfriends and friends got in an argument over a missing cellphone. Lawson had reportedly placed Zoellner in a headlock before a witness tried to break up the fight and immediately noticed Lawson bleeding from stab wounds. Police later found a 10-inch, Henkel-brand knife near the crime scene that was identified as the murder weapon.
In October 2017, former FBI agent Thomas Parker agreed to help investigate the murder on a pro bono basis. According to the lawsuit, Parker went to the catering kitchen where Zoellner had worked and found knives matching the murder weapon, but police never obtained or analyzed those knives, despite Parker’s recommendation to do so. The catering company has since shut down, “destroying any opportunity to collect those knives,” according to the complaint.
Parker worked 130 hours on the case and delivered a written report recommending additional tests on the knives and “what appeared to be a bloody knife swipe” on the suspect’s pants. But Ms. Lawson says the former Police Chief Chapman never followed up on those recommendations.
Frustrated with the department’s reluctance to act on his suggestions, Parker resigned from his contract with the city in early April 2018. The next morning, Chapman also resigned as chief of police, according to the complaint.
Before resigning, Chapman announced at a city meeting that he was holding “weekly meetings” to update other local police departments on the investigation’s progress. In reality, Chapman held only one meeting with other police departments, and he repeatedly refused offers of assistance, according to the suit.
“Defendant Chapman intentionally misled plaintiff about the investigation of her son’s murder by representing that outside agencies were assisting the APD with their investigation,” Ms. Lawson states in her complaint.
Ms. Lawson also claims that after she started openly criticizing the police department at city meetings and in local media, the police retaliated against her by effectively halting the investigation into her son’s death.
The grieving mother further accuses the police department of continuing to deny her access to her son’s autopsy and police reports relating to the murder investigation.
The complaint names Chapman, Police Lieutenant Tod Dockweiler, Police Detective Eric Losey, Officer Krystle Armino, and City Manager Karen Diemer as defendants.
The lawsuit’s counts include denial of equal protection under the Fourth Amendment, deliberately indifferent policies and customs, conspiracy to deprive Lawson of her constitutional and civil rights, gross negligence and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Ms. Lawson is represented by Kyndra Miller of CannaBusiness Law in Petaluma and Shelly Mack of Martin Mack Law in McKinleyville.
Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Friday afternoon.