Courtesy of the Arcata Police Department
Kyle Christopher Zoellner's booking photo.
Kyle Zoellner, the 24-year-old McKinleyville man accused last year of fatally stabbing a Humboldt State University student on April 15, 2017, has filed a lawsuit against the city of Arcata alleging police and city officials violated his civil rights.
Zoellner — who was arrested
at the scene of an off-campus party where David Josiah Lawson, 19, was stabbed to death during an altercation but was later released from custody after charges were dismissed — filed the lawsuit
last month seeking damages in excess of $25,000 and alleging officers failed to get him proper medical attention after he was detained at the scene, that they falsified police reports and that the city defamed his character. Zoellner is representing himself in the case, which is evident in the filing. (The Journal
was unable to obtain a copy of the lawsuit for weeks as the case file was with Humboldt County Superior Court judges who were, evidently, having some trouble determining who would preside over the case, as three of them worked in the public defender’s office when it represented Zoellner and a fourth heard Zoellner’s criminal case.)
In his complaint, Zoellner makes four basic allegations: That officers lacked probable cause to arrest him, that they filed false reports in order to get prosecutors to charge Zoellner with murder, that they failed to provide Zoellner with “necessary” medical attention when he was detained and that the city defamed him with its public statements. Zoellner is representing himself in the case.
Criminal charges against Zoellner were dismissed
May 5, 2017, when Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Dale Reinholtsen found after a five-day hearing that there was insufficient evidence to hold him to stand trial on a charge that he murdered Lawson. In explaining his ruling, Reinholtsen said prosecutors had been unable to present a single witness who saw a knife in Zoellner’s hand that night, much less one who claimed to have seen the fatal stabbing. Additionally, he said they had failed to present any physical evidence connecting Zoellner to a 10-inch kitchen knife found at the crime scene or the killing.
David Josiah Lawson
In the year since Reinholtsen’s ruling, an investigation into Lawson’s killing has continued and, based on a variety of public statements, it appears Zoellner remains the only suspect in the case. The open homicide case — the only one in Arcata dating back decades — has caused wide fissures in the local community and brought racial tensions to the forefront, as Zoellner is white and Lawson was black, and some have alleged racial bias may have played a role in the various altercations that preceded Lawson’s stabbing that night.
On the eve of the anniversary of Lawson’s death, Tom Parker, a retired FBI agent who was volunteering his time to consult Arcata police on the investigation, stepped down from that role, later telling the Journal
he did so because he came to feel the department wasn’t following his recommendations, was actively withholding information from him and being dishonest with him. Less than 24 hours after Parker notified the city he was stepping away, Police Chief Tom Chapman abruptly resigned
his post with the city, effective immediately.
Lawson’s mother has since filed a claim for damages
with the city — the first step toward a civil lawsuit — essentially alleging Arcata police have botched the investigation into her son’s death.
Zoellner's court filing notes that the incident began when Zoellner arrived at a residence off Spear Avenue around 3 a.m. to pick up his girlfriend and her three friends, who had been attending a party there. Zoellner’s girlfriend had lost her new iPhone and Zoellner writes that he was heading inside to ask the “owner of the residence” to give him a call if it turned up when he came across Kyle and Kristoff Castillo near the front porch and “politely asked” the brothers about the missing phone.
Zoellner alleges that the Castillos “got agitated” and a fight ensued. (Testimony at the preliminary hearing indicated it was Zoellner and Lawson’s girlfriends who first turned the confrontation physical.)
According to Zoellner’s complaint, Lawson joined the Castillos and the three of them started beating him up.
“Zoellner was assaulted and beaten by the three men and didn’t even have a chance to defend himself,” the complaint states. “One person ran into the house and got others. People poured out of the house and at least 10 to 15 people joined in and the assault continued. He was unconscious and on the ground in a fetal position with the girls trying to protect Kyle from the barrage of punches and kicks from the assailants. … There were multiple fights that broke out at the party and a person was stabbed. The Arcata Police Department arrived on the scene and without probable cause detained the plaintiff at the scene.”
Arcata police have indicated that when officers arrived on scene witnesses at the party fingered Zoellner as Lawson’s assailant.
Zoellner further alleges that he was detained at the scene for nearly two hours when police should have gotten him medical attention. While Zoellner refused an offer of medical attention at the scene, the complaint alleges he was “in shock and incapable of making medical decisions for himself, causing undue pain and suffering.” The complaint includes a narrative from Zoellner’s father, Eric Zoellner, who recounts arriving at the scene at around 4:20 a.m. to find his son in the back of a police car, “a bloody mess … partially slumped to the side” and appearing to be “semi-conscious and in shock.”
The allegation that police falsified a report in the case stems the account of witness Jason Martinez, who testified during the preliminary hearing that he saw someone making “jabbing motions” in an altercation with Lawson before Lawson ran across the driveway and collapsed where he was ultimately found bleeding to death from multiple stab wounds. Former Arcata police detective Mike Losey testified at the preliminary hearing that he’d made “an error” when writing his police report on the case, which said that Martinez had identified Zoellner as the man making the “jabbing motions” when he apparently had not.
“Zoellner alleges that the Arcata Police Department purposely falsified arrest documents and police reports in violation of Zoellner’s civil rights,” the complaint states, later alleging that “Losey filed a false police report.”
The complaint also takes aim at some statements detective Todd Dokweiler made in an April 21, 2017 report filed with the district attorney, which reportedly included one indicating that witnesses said Lawson was “fighting solely with Zoellner” immediately before the stabbing and that witnesses indicated “Zoellner was holding an object in his hand that appeared consistent with a knife.”
Finally, Zoellner’s complaint alleges that city officials defamed him and put his life in danger by naming him as the suspect in the case and making statements that implied his guilt and that the killing was a hate crime. The complaint points to two statements to support this allegation. The first was one Chapman made to the Journal
when asked if Arcata police were investigating whether there was a racial motivation to Lawson’s killing: “We have a white male who stabbed and killed a black male — I think it’s prudent and logical to look at race as an issue, and I think it absolutely is and should be a part of our investigation.” The second came from Dokweiler, who said “numerous witnesses had detained Zoellner and indicated he had stabbed” Lawson and that “Zoellner had admitted he was involved in a physical fight with the victim.”
As noted above, Zoellner is representing himself in the case — a fact that is evident in portions of his filing. At various points, uses exclamation marks — “This did not happen!!” and, “This is a false statement!” — which isn’t customary in legal filings. In certain portions of the complaint that recount preliminary hearing testimony, he also seems to have cut and pasted from news stories about the case. And a portion of the complaint that recounts his father’s recollection of the events of April 15, 2017, the complaint uses the pronoun “I” in reference to his father, a seeming indication that Zoellner cut and pasted from a statement his father provided.
University of California Hastings law professor David Levine reviewed the complaint at the request of the Journal
and said Zoellner clearly made some mistakes in crafting it — he mixes up the language of state and federal complaints and misuses the pleading rules for including unknown defendants, for example — but those likely aren’t catastrophic.
But there appear to be larger problems, Levine said. First off, while Zoellner’s complaint attempts to name specific officers as defendants, Levine said police officers have widespread immunity under state and federal laws.
Further, because Zoellner declined medical care at the scene, he will have to prove that he was so obviously incompetent to make that decision that a “reasonable officer” would have known he was incapable, Levine said, stressing that the threshold is what an average officer should have known, not what a medical professional might have decided.
When it comes to the allegations that Arcata police falsified reports in the case, Levine said simple errors or even negligence are generally protected. “The plaintiff would have to show a higher level of bad intent,” Levine said, indicating that Zoellner would have to show that officers knew the statements were incorrect but filed them anyway in an effort to see Zoellner charged.
The city of Arcata still has not been legally served with a copy of the lawsuit and City Manager Karen Diemer declined to discuss it, instead offering a brief statement: “The complaint subject is still the matter of an ongoing investigation. As such, the city cannot comment on any specifics and has referred the matter to outside legal counsel.”
Responding to a message left on Zoellner's cell phone seeking comment for this story, an unidentified man left the following message at the Journal
's office: "Do not ever call this number ... ever again. If you do, I will get you for harassment."
Editor's note: This story was updated from a previous version to reflect the return call we received from Zoellner's cell phone.
Thadeus Greenson is the
Journal’s news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.