Demands for justice for David Josiah Lawson increase as the anniversary of his death arrives and his life is celebrated with family, friends and community members.
Charmaine Lawson gave everything she had to make sure that her son David Josiah Lawson was safe, secure and educated for 19 years. Within a matter of minutes, at a house party in Arcata, one individual decided to take all of that away by plunging a 10-inch kitchen knife into the abdomen of her child. It was around 3 a.m. on April 15, 2017, when David “D.J.” Lawson was murdered over the loss of a cell phone.
“I sacrificed so much to make sure my children were safe,” Charmaine Lawson said. “There’s absolutely nothing I wouldn’t do for my children.”
It has been a year and there is no one in custody for the murder. Tension on campus and in the community for justice to be served has been building since the event. Kyle Zoellner, a McKinleyville local, was originally arrested at the scene and later released by Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Dale Reinholtsen for insufficient evidence.
Protest from the Lawson family, Justice for Josiah Committee, community members and students began following the release, and efforts have been increasing as the one-year mark of the incident was arriving.
The Justice for Josiah Committee began 12 days of action leading up to the anniversary ending with a Celebration of Life for Lawson on April 15. As the week continued, pop-up events occurred after developments in the criminal case.
From August of last year until April 9, retired FBI and licensed private investigator Tom Parker had been assisting the Arcata Police Department in the Lawson investigation. Parker had joined the case after receiving a call from a friend telling him the details. Parker specializes in expert witness work on police practices, mostly for wrongful convictions.
Parker came up from Santa Barbara and met with the police department. He said he would see the case, but only if they would allow him to review all of the police files.
“I could see a lot of problems with the way the police had handled the case,” Parker said.
Parker agreed to take the case pro bono if the city would pay his expenses, and began working toward solving this case. He provided suggestions for improvements on protocol. He said he was met by resistance and obfuscation from the Arcata Police Department.
“I had been telling chief Chapman and detective Wiler that they were not moving the case the way they needed to,” Parker said.
He said his recommendation to Karen Diemer, the city manager, was to get a new police chief and that a lack of leadership was impacting the entire department. Parker threatened to quit, but Diemer asked him to wait. On April 9, after hearing nothing from Diemer, Parker resigned from his position.
He said though his official position is terminated, his involvement with the case is not over. Parker will continue to make the trip from Santa Barbara regularly until justice for Josiah is served.
Less than 24 hours after Parker resigned, Arcata chief of police Tom Chapman resigned from his position after 24 years with the department.
In Chapman’s statement to coworkers in an email, he said this decision was driven by what is best for himself and his family, as well as the department.
There has been no confirmation on whether his decision to resign was related to Parker in any way.
On April 12 at noon, the Justice for Josiah committee held a rally in light of the new developments within the APD and the Lawson case. Daniel Segura, 23, a critical race, gender and sexuality major, was leading the rally.
“I have a lot of information on the case of Josiah Lawson,” Segura said.
Segura began informing the crowd about the resignation of Parker and Chapman, saying that himself and other individuals went to City Hall to ask Diemer how these resignations would impact the Lawson case. Segura said they were met with resistance and gaslighting, continually being placated. He claimed the cases were undeniably related.
“I remember [Diemer] laughed at one of our questions,” Segura said.
At the rally, quotes from Parker were provided and read, and Segura read a personal letter he had written to Humboldt State President Lisa Rossbacher, challenging her involvement in this case.
“She needs to stop this silence,” Segura said. “When you silence, you silence with the voice of the oppressor.”
Students were allowed the opportunity to share testimonies of their experiences dealing with racism in Humboldt. Student Rahkiv Lewis, 23, said he has been here for five years now, and as much as he loves this community, he can’t deny that people of color are targeted. He challenged students to step up and make a change now to improve the situation for further generations.
“Once we leave, people will forget. That’s how history happens,” Lewis said.
The protest ended with more information being provided to students, including the plan for Josiah Lawson’s vigil to be held on April 15, one year after his death.
In the early afternoon of April 15, friends, family and community members began filling the D Street Neighborhood Center as the rain continued to fall outside. The protest had been moved from the Arcata Plaza due to the torrential downpour. As people arrived, the Marching Lumberjacks were performing outside and a large grill barbecuing meat was set up under a pop-up tent.
Inside, there were tables for guests, as well as a bouncy castle for kids. In one corner, a long table is covered with plastic baggies filled with toiletries and snacks.
Christina Accomando, HSU professor and member of the local NAACP, said it was Charmaine Lawson’s idea to package toiletries for students of donated supplies, which they called “starving student care packages.”
The celebration of life began with Charmaine getting onto the stage and giving a powerful speech. She described for the crowd her experience, beginning at 3:37 a.m. on April 15. She describes being asleep on the couch when she received a call from Josiah’s phone. Surprisingly, it was not her child on the other end of the line, but rather one of his friends.
Charmaine hears from the girl, “He’s here at the Mad River Hospital and they’re not telling us anything.”
The hospital told Charmaine Lawson her child was in surgery, but refused to give any information to Josiah’s girlfriend, regardless of Charmaine encouraging them to do so. She said the person on the phone told her there was over 100 students present at the hospital.
Within a matter of hours, she would get the call that her child was dead.
The emotional weight in the room is tangible as Charmaine Lawson is unable to keep her composure for another moment. She gathers herself as family members rush to comfort her, and continues telling how Josiah valued education, for not only himself, but for both of his younger siblings. She said he wanted them to know how important getting an education was.
“I was so proud of my son,” Charmaine Lawson said. “We are still proud. We are still proud of D.J.,”
She then took the time to thank Humboldt County, HSU and College of the Redwoods students, as well as a number of individuals from her family and friends. Charmaine Lawson thanked Diemer as a mother, saying exuberantly, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Charmaine Lawson also took time to talk about the recent tragedy that impacted HSU. On April 13, two HSU students were killed in a car crash on the southbound 101 freeway, south of Myers Flat.
The driver of the car was Emely Selina Carreno-Arenas, 20, and the passenger of the vehicle was Michelle Segundo, 19. Charmaine Lawson told the crowd the two girls were friends of her son that would have attended the vigil, had it not been too difficult for them to bear.
“We are going to celebrate Emely, Michelle and David Josiah Lawson,” she said.
Pastor Roger Williams and Lorna Bryant, community liaison and officer manager at KHSU spoke, and the celebration began. Food was served to the crowd. Charmaine Lawson helped the kitchen staff to cook up a celebrated meal of chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, as well as vegan options, pink lemonade and baked goods at the end.
Students were entered into raffles for care packages, and donated supplies from community members, including a skateboard, which one of Josiah’s fraternity brothers from Brothers United received.
Randi Darnelle Burke, HSU dean of students, was the next guest to speak. He was announcing the university’s decision to designate a memorial grove on campus to honor and celebrate and a memorial will be held there in Josiah’s memory.
Individuals took the stage and told stories about Lawson’s life. Angel Sylva and dancer Ayanna Wilson came up stage and performed a powerful poem written by Sylva and an interpretive dance by Wilson.
“No matter what, we are going to thrive. No matter what, we are going to survive,” Sylva said.
Charmaine returned to the stage and began discussing the criminal aspect of her son’s case, saying she was pleased with former chief Chapman’s resignation. She also passionately thanked her lawyer and Tom Parker, who both made statements to the crowd.
Parker addressed his resignation and reassured that though he had officially resigned, he would still be present in attaining justice for Josiah.
“It should have been solved 30-45 days after this tragic incident happened,” Parker said.
Lorna Bryant returned to the stage and gave Charmaine Lawson praise in her efforts, and told her she was tied with her own mother as the best she had met.
Charmaine Lawson continues to drive every month from Southern California to Humboldt County seeking justice for her son’s unsolved murder.
Bryant announces a podcast, which will be going live the following day, April 16, on KHSU and can be streamed and shared anytime at KHSU.org.
Within a matter of hours of the release of the KHSU podcast with Tom Parker, the City of Arcata sent out a press release, also available on KHSU.
In a quote from the press release, the city stated, “The events of the last week have not deterred the investigative team from their ultimate purpose, which is to deliver a prosecutable case on behalf of David Josiah Lawson.”