Episode 102: Josiah Lawson

January 15, 2024

When a fight breaks out at a college party, no one can agree on what really happened. Years later, the question still remains: Who killed Josiah Lawson?

Episode Media
David Josiah Lawson (justiceforjosiahlawson.com)
Josiah and Ren (justiceforjosiahlawson.com)
Map of the crime scene
Knife found at the crime scene (North Coast Journal)
Kyle Zoellner (Mad River Union / Arcata PD)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a case recommended to me by a listener, so a big thank you to Sherman in Eureka for the suggestion. This case is a complicated one, with conflicting statements, very little evidence, and a botched investigation. I’m going to try to lay it out as clearly as I can, starting with the night Josiah Lawson was murdered. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

In the early morning hours of April 15, 2017, multiple calls came into the 911 dispatch center in Arcata, California. Someone had been stabbed during a fight at a house party. When the first two officers from the Arcata Police Department arrived at the scene, they found 19-year-old Josiah Lawson lying in the grass, covered in his own blood. His girlfriend Ren was pressing a shirt into his side in an attempt to staunch the bleeding, while his friend Elijah administered CPR.

Officers later described the scene as chaotic, with dozens of party-goers “running, screaming, yelling.” After calling for backup to help secure the scene, one officer knelt down beside Josiah and began applying pressure to the wound. The other officer turned his attention to a small group of people who were holding on to another young man. They said he was the one who stabbed Josiah. The officer handcuffed him and put him in the back of his police car.

Meanwhile, it took nearly 15 minutes for paramedics to arrive, and by the time they got Josiah onto a stretcher and into the ambulance, he had been unconscious and losing blood for over half an hour. Josiah was later pronounced dead at the Mad River Hospital.

How did this happen? How did a bright young college student go from hanging out with friends at a party to dying in the front yard of a stranger’s house?

David Josiah Lawson grew up near Riverside, California, about an hour east of Los Angeles. His mom Charmaine described him as happy and joyful. She told the Times-Standard, “He was an awesome son, he was kind, he was sweet, he was compassionate, he was just a generous individual that loved life.”

In high school, Josiah played varsity football and studied hard in all his classes. At a college fair during his senior year, Josiah met a representative from Humboldt State University and knew that was where his future lay. He enrolled for the fall semester, deciding to major in criminology and psychology. He had dreams of becoming a police detective or maybe a civil rights attorney, something that would allow him to give back to his community.

Charmaine was a bit nervous about sending her oldest son to a college on the other side of the state, but when they toured the campus in Arcata, she was impressed and ultimately gave her blessing. So in the fall of 2015, Josiah packed up and left home.

He quickly settled into college life, finding friendship and community in Brothers United, a cultural club for young black men who are, according to the club’s website, “dedicated to community service, unity, and brotherhood.” Josiah thrived in this new environment, and by his sophomore year, he was elected president of Brothers United. The young men became a true family: they were there the night Josiah died, they were the ones trying to save him, they were the ones who held his mother’s hand during the memorial service. They presented Charmaine with Josiah’s BU hoodie, framed and signed by all the members of the club. Katauri Thompson spoke for all of them when he told Charmaine, “You lost one son, but you gained 15 more.”

As Josiah’s family and friends mourned his loss, another young man sat in jail, accused of his murder.

Twenty-three-year-old Kyle Zoellner had been arrested the night of the party and booked into the Humboldt County Correctional Facility. Witnesses at the scene saw Kyle and Josiah fighting, and when they were eventually pulled apart, Josiah was bleeding from multiple stab wounds. They grabbed Kyle and held him until police arrived. Kyle admitted to the arresting officer that he had been involved in a physical fight – his face was bruised and bloodied and one of his eyes was swollen shut – but he denied stabbing Josiah.

Getting to the truth would prove nearly impossible. There were as many versions of the story as there were people at the party. Every witness had a different view of the night’s events; how do you determine who is telling the truth, who is lying, and who might just be misremembering?

Let’s start with what we do know for sure: On the night of April 14th, Josiah, his girlfriend, and some members of Brothers United were attending a house party at 1120 Spear Avenue where one of their friends was DJing. It was a typical college party – music, dancing, drinking – and it lasted into the wee hours of the morning. Around 3am, Kyle Zoellner arrived at the party to pick up his girlfriend Lila and three of her friends. When he got there, Lila was mad – she couldn’t find her phone and thought someone had stolen it.

Here’s where stories start to diverge. Lila claimed that she and her friends went around the party, asking politely if anyone had seen a blue and gold iPhone, when suddenly, some guy got really angry and punched her in the face. Lila said she was disoriented, that she may have blacked out for a minute. When she came back around, Kyle was squatting down, searching for his keys and phone; she figured they must have fallen out of his pocket. Lila said they tried to leave the party, but all at once, they were surrounded. A group of girls – including Josiah’s girlfriend Ren – started fighting Lila and her friends, while Kyle was on the ground getting beaten up by a bunch of guys. After that, Lila claimed that she and Kyle got separated. When she saw him again, he was unconscious on the ground, then he was being loaded into a police car.

Ren’s story is that Lila and Kyle came up to her and Josiah and their friends and aggressively accused them of stealing the phone, going so far as demanding they turn out their pockets. Ren felt that they were being accused because of the color of their skin. The conversation escalated, and within seconds, it was an all-out brawl. Ren ended up with bite marks on her breast and puncture wounds on her left arm. Someone unleashed a can of pepper spray to break up the fight, and in the chaos, Ren and Josiah got separated. The next thing she knew, someone was shouting that Josiah had been stabbed and she was pressing a shirt into his bleeding side.

There’s some confusion about whether there was more than one fight during the course of the evening, but there is one thing that most witnesses agreed on: at some point during the melee, Josiah and Kyle ended up fighting each other. Some say that Josiah threw the first punch, but not even that is clear. Most witness accounts pick up towards the end of the fight. Josiah’s friend Paris testified that when he came upon the scene, Josiah and Kyle were on the ground, and Josiah had Kyle in a headlock. Paris managed to pry them apart, and when he did, he noticed the blood. Realizing that his friend had been stabbed, Paris began punching Kyle until he was pulled away. He then ran back to the house and started telling people that Josiah had been stabbed.

Multiple witnesses stated that when Josiah was stabbed, he was lying in the grass in front of the house near a red Ford Mustang that was parked in the cul-de-sac; but when Paris and Kyle were fighting, Josiah somehow moved to the other side of the street, lying down in the grass under some bushes. It’s an odd detail that suggests that Josiah was disoriented after the stabbing and may have tried to get away. Whatever the reason, Josiah was soon surrounded by friends as Ren tried to stop the bleeding and Elijah administered CPR. Paris called 911, and they waited for help to arrive.

Out of all the witness statements in the public record, only one claims to have seen the actual stabbing. A college student named Jason testified that he and some friends were walking from the main road up towards the house when he saw Josiah and a guy he didn’t recognize arguing with each other in the front yard. He heard someone say, “Oh shit, he has a knife,” and saw the other guy “take action with their right hand” and presumably stab Josiah in the left side multiple times. Jason then saw Josiah run to the other side of the cul-de-sac and dive into the bushes.

There are some holes in Jason’s statement. First of all, it seems to contradict what everyone else saw. Almost every other eyewitness recalled that Josiah and Kyle were on the ground during their fight, but Jason said that Josiah and the guy he saw were standing up. He also couldn’t remember what happened after Josiah ran across the street – he didn’t know whether the other guy left the scene, whether anyone else was standing around, or whether any other fights were taking place. In fact, when reading through the court transcript of Jason’s testimony, I counted 49 times where Jason said he didn’t remember something. It could just be that he was mixing up some of the details – he didn’t come forward with his statement until two days after the party, so his memory may have been fuzzy.

Neither of Jason’s companions claimed to have seen the stabbing that night. During an interview with police on April 17th, Jason’s friend Ace corroborated his statement about someone yelling “He has a knife,” but he didn’t turn to face the house until the stabbing was already over. He did tell investigators that he saw someone knock something out of the attacker’s hand, but he couldn’t definitively say that it was a knife. The attacker was then subdued by the growing crowd and held until police arrived.

As if all of this isn’t confusing enough, let’s break down what happened afterwards. From the very first moment officers arrived at the scene, the investigation was nothing short of a mess. Some of it was captured on police video, a chaotic scene with voices calling for help while officers try to calm frightened and angry party-goers. A woman’s voice shouts over and over, “We need an ambulance!”

As police were arriving, Elijah and Ren stayed by Josiah’s side. In an interview with the Lost Coast Outpost, Elijah recounted how the responding officers seemed more concerned with controlling the crowd than with helping Josiah. “There are about seven cops standing around at this point. The police showed up in record time – and did nothing. They were there for crowd control. The dispatcher was always telling them they needed all available units for crowd control. They never once mentioned that someone had been stabbed.”

Recordings from the Arcata police scanner seem to support Elijah’s account. Officers at the scene requested backup to help with crowd control, and there was a four-minute gap between when the first officers arrived and when they said, “medical may proceed to victim.”

Elijah felt that the police were scared of the crowd, which was largely composed of people of color, but no one ever did or said anything threatening to the officers. The only threats he heard came from Lila and her friends, making racially-charged statements and saying that they hoped Josiah died.

According to court testimony, the first officer on the scene, Officer Devon Nilsen, never made it to the spot where Josiah lay. The minute he arrived, people in the crowd were pointing at Kyle Zoellner and saying that he was the one who stabbed Josiah. Officer Nilsen put Kyle in handcuffs and placed him in the back of his patrol car. Dash cam footage recorded their conversation, in which Kyle told Nilsen that he was “so out of it” and felt like he had gotten hit really hard.

The second officer on the scene, Officer Jacob Mckenzie, was the first one to reach Josiah. He testified that he took over for Ren, applying pressure to Josiah’s wounds. A short while later, Officer Krystle Arminio arrived and administered CPR.

Oddly, Elijah’s account differs here. He told the Outpost that none of the police officers offered assistance, that it was the paramedics who came and took over. But I think it’s possible that in the stress of the moment, he may have confused one uniform with another. According to official reports and audio transmissions, Officers Mckenzie and Arminio began rendering aid at 3:05, and at 3:10, paramedics from the Arcata Fire Department showed up to assist. The ambulance finally arrived at 3:15, and Josiah was on the way to the hospital by 3:19.

That being said, one of the most frustrating parts of this whole story is that it took so long for the paramedics to arrive, and when they did, they were met with chaos. Elijah alleged that the first two paramedics who arrived at the scene were turned away by the police because the crowd was considered dangerous, but that hasn’t been corroborated. However, when the ambulance finally showed up, the scene was blocked by police cars. The paramedics had to park the ambulance on the main road, delaying their response time even more.

Elijah also alleged that the firefighters dragged Josiah’s body out of the bushes, and when the onlookers protested, the police threatened them with tasers. He said that the paramedics weren’t even administering CPR correctly, and when they finally got Josiah into the ambulance, they wouldn’t allow anyone to go with him to the hospital. Again, none of this has been corroborated, but it is clear that the entire situation was messy and chaotic.

Now we get to the most infuriating part of the story: the mishandling of the investigation. There are so many things that went wrong that the National Police Foundation issued a report on the systemic failure of the Arcata Police Department in relation to this case.

First, the officers failed to secure the crime scene. They roped off parts of the driveway where large pools of blood were found, but didn’t rope off the grassy areas where the fight had taken place and where Josiah had ultimately been found. This caused a lot of confusion for investigators later on, not knowing where the actual crime had taken place, and evidence was missed.

Second, witnesses were allowed and encouraged to leave the scene. Multiple people, including the police officers, stated that there were upwards of 100 people at the party that night, but by the time officers got around to questioning anyone, over half of the potential eyewitnesses had left. According to the report, “officers on scene were concerned with clearing people from the chaotic scene, rather than identifying witnesses… Minimal attempts were made to detain or identify parties that may have been involved in the altercation or who may have witnessed the incident.” And it wasn’t because they didn’t have backup – officers from the Humboldt campus police had arrived by 3:05 to offer support, and by 3:20, there were also officers from the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol on the scene. Yet by the APD’s own admission, in the first three days of the investigation, they had only interviewed 25 witnesses. I can’t help but wonder how much more information they could have gotten if they had been able to secure the scene in a more timely manner.

Of the interviews they did conduct, some of the interview reports were inaccurate. One report stated that a witness said Kyle had never had a knife and never stabbed anyone, but when the report was compared to the audio recording of the interview, the witness actually told police that she saw Kyle stab Josiah with a knife. This kind of discrepancy is absolutely baffling and borders on corruption.

Speaking of witnesses, officers allowed Lila and her friends to talk to Kyle while he was being detained in the back of Officer Nilsen’s police car. Even after the girls said that they were involved in the fight, officers did not separate them before getting their statements. This is basic protocol and could have majorly impacted the investigation.

Other than his brief conversation in the back of Officer Nilsen’s vehicle, Kyle Zoellner only had one other interview that night. After he was taken to the police station, the detective sergeant in charge questioned him for 15 minutes in an interview the report called, “curt instead of exploratory.” Kyle had waived his Miranda rights and was willing to talk, but the sergeant ended the interview quickly and booked Kyle on murder charges.

The evidence collection was also a disaster. Ten minutes after Josiah was taken away in the ambulance, Officer Arminio located a knife under the red Mustang that was parked in the cul-de-sac, approximately 10 feet away from where the stabbing took place. Officer Mckenzie retrieved the knife, but when questioned under oath, couldn’t remember whether he had used gloves when handling it. Officer Arminio, who was in the role of acting sergeant at the scene, was heard on audio recordings debating whether or not the knife could have been the murder weapon since it didn’t have blood on it. The report stated that Arminio was not properly trained in evidence collection and that neither the officers on the scene nor the detectives who took over the investigation had “considered or discussed the possibility that the knife had been wiped off or moved by a third party.”

There’s also the issue of potential evidence being lost or removed from the scene. In addition to evidence not being collected from the grassy areas, the report indicates that one of Kyle’s friends actually retrieved his belongings and took them home. Kyle’s car was also removed – a friend’s mother was allowed to drive the car back to Kyle’s apartment. It was never processed for evidence.

There are so many more issues with the investigation, but this would not be a bite-sized episode if I listed them all. I’ve linked the report on the podcast website if you’d like to dig into it yourself. Suffice it to say, the investigation into Josiah’s murder was doomed from the beginning.

Many in the community blamed the botched investigation on the fact that Josiah was black and Kyle was white. Although the university was fairly diverse, Humboldt County as a whole was not. Josiah’s friends and family believe that if Josiah had been white, the police response would have been much different. He likely would have received better, faster medical care, and police wouldn’t have spent so much time worrying about crowd control instead of helping the victim. The situation wouldn’t have been racially-charged, adding to an already chaotic scene. It’s also possible that the fight wouldn’t have started in the first place. Ren’s statement that she felt like Josiah was being accused of stealing the phone because of his skin is a sad reality for so many people of color. It’s not hard to imagine how things would have been different if the circumstances were changed.

On April 19th, Kyle Zoellner pleaded not guilty to all charges, and his bail was set at $1 million. His family released a statement, claiming that Kyle was being convicted by the media and denying all allegations against him. “All the family wants at this time [is for] the truth to come out and the actual person that committed this crime apprehended and held responsible… The family is heartbroken that a young man’s life was lost and our family, which is a family of Faith, has continually been praying for all the family and friends of Josiah.”

A preliminary hearing took place just two weeks later. Witnesses testified about the night Josiah was killed, and the conflicting stories took center stage. The prosecution argued that there was probable cause to believe that Kyle Zoellner had fatally stabbed Josiah Lawson during a fight. Multiple witnesses saw them fighting, and at the end of it, Josiah was on the ground with stab wounds in his side.

They specifically focused on the murder weapon. During a search of Kyle’s apartment, officers had located a carrying case for a set of knives. Kyle worked as a chef for a catering company, and when Officer Nilsen showed the case to Kyle’s boss, the man stated that a paring knife was missing from the case. Was it possible that Kyle had the knives in his car and grabbed one when the fight broke out?

The defense maintained that no one had seen the stabbing, no one could place the knife in Kyle’s hand that night. How could everyone at the party have missed a ten-inch blade? When shown a picture of the knife, Kyle’s boss hadn’t recognized it; plus, it was much bigger than a paring knife and didn’t seem to match the rest of the set from the carrying case. The single fingerprint found on the knife was not a match to Kyle Zoellner, and the small fibers found on the blade didn’t match the clothing he had been wearing that night.

After five days of testimony, Judge Dale Reinholtsen dismissed all charges against Kyle Zoellner, citing a lack of evidence. The investigation had been rushed, he said. There hadn’t been any DNA testing done on the knife; they didn’t even know whether it actually was the murder weapon. They didn’t yet know if the blood on Kyle’s clothing belonged to Josiah, and there hadn’t been any blood found in the grass where they had fought. The conflicting witness statements only exacerbated the problem. Kyle Zoellner was released, and Josiah’s friends and family were left without justice.

After the charges were dropped, protests broke out in Humboldt County. Dozens of people marched in front of the courthouse, holding signs and shouting for justice. The hashtag #JusticeForJosiah spread on social media, and Charmaine Lawson met with the Humboldt County District Attorney to talk about next steps. She told a gathering crowd, “I’m going to continue coming until I get justice for my son.”

But as time passed, justice didn’t come. Results from the forensic testing were in limbo, and police were still searching for eyewitness accounts that could lead to answers. Racial tensions in the community were high, and many were angry at the city’s handling of the case. They believed that a murderer walked free because of police negligence.

In March of 2019, two years after Josiah’s death, a grand jury was convened to look at the case once again. They heard testimony from 25 witnesses and examined the forensic evidence. But after everything was laid out before them, the jury declined to issue an indictment in the case. Again, Josiah’s family was devastated.

After the decision, District Attorney Maggie Fleming spoke with a reporter from North Coast News. When asked what was next for the case, she said, “I have formally requested that the California state attorney general take over the case. It will be up to that office to decide what further action will be taken.” Ultimately, the state refused to take up the case, and it was put on the shelf.

It’s been almost seven years since Josiah Lawson was killed. In that time, both Kyle Zoellner and Charmaine Lawson have filed lawsuits against the city of Arcata. Kyle alleged that he was arrested without probable cause and that his character was defamed with falsified reports and public statements made by the police. His case was ultimately denied. Charmaine sued the city over the negligent police investigation and was awarded $200,000 in damages. But as she told the North Coast Journal, no amount of “blood money” could bring her son back. Josiah is still gone, and there has been no justice.

Josiah’s family is determined to keep the case open and active. If you have any information about the death of Josiah Lawson or the events of the party on April 15, 2017, please contact the Arcata Police Department’s tip line at (707) 825-2590. It’s not too late to get justice for Josiah.