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Languishing or Progressing?

Arcata and its former investigator both say David Josiah Lawson's murder is solvable, but that's about all they agree on

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Tom Parker, a retired FBI agent who recently stepped down from assisting the Arcata Police Department's investigation into David Josiah Lawson's murder, says he's convinced the case could be solved in just a few months, if not weeks, if he were able to bring the right people on board.

"We'd have this thing finished up," he says, during a far-reaching KHSU interview the North Coast Journal was invited to join and which aired Monday with host Lorna Bryant. "That's not patting ourselves on the back. That's the reality of this case."

Joined by attorney Shelley Mack, who represents Josiah's mother Charmaine Lawson pro-bono, both Mack and Parker expressed frustration with the lack of progress and by what they see as initial missteps by both APD and the District Attorney's Office.

The interviews came on the heels of Parker's resignation, which was followed by APD Chief Tom Chapman's less than 24-hours later on April 10, and a claim being filed against the city by Charmaine Lawson, who is seeking at least $500,000 in damages, as the community was preparing to mark the one-year anniversary of Josiah Lawson's death. (See NCJ Daily, page 19, and "Unresolved," April 12, 2018.)

Parker says the case — which he has also been working on pro-bono — continues to languish with basic investigative steps left untaken and the recommendations he was retained to provide ignored, including collecting evidence and conducting a specific forensic test on the murder weapon that he believes could be vital to the case.

Instead he believes the department is intent on pursuing an investigative technique that "may have been logical in the very beginning but it had outlived the likelihood that it was going to work."

Parker says when he began raising questions about why other avenues were not pursued, "I basically got blank stares back from them."

After conditions he set down to stay — which included bringing on his own team to take over the investigation — went unfulfilled, and convinced that Chapman was at best withholding information and at worst lying to him, Parker says he was left with no choice but to resign.

The Arcata City Council released a statement Monday, which reiterated the city's "commitment" to resolving the case, while raising concerns about how the KHSU interview and others in recent days are impacting the investigation.

The statement acknowledges "certain case strategy and information" were withheld from Parker because the city "became concerned about potential disclosure of confidential case information."

"Breaches of his non-disclosure agreement would be damaging to a fragile investigation and as a result the city took steps to protect the integrity of the case," the statement reads, adding that Parker "painted a picture of the investigation that is very contrary to his recent media commentary" when he met with the council in December.

Parker says his initial look at the case seemed to indicate the APD touched on the basic cornerstones of a homicide investigation but he became more concerned after a deeper review and follow-up discussions with Chapman and the lead detective.

He also disputes any violation of the non-disclosure agreement, saying all he did was tell Charmaine Lawson about his unfollowed recommendation on the forensic test that he believes needs to be done, something that was not a risk to the investigation in his view.

And, he says, he had been upfront with Diemer and Chapman about his conviction that the city was making a mistake by not communicating more with the family.

"They deserve to know, they have a right to know what's going on," Parker says, adding that should always be the "first priority" in homicide investigations and family can often be an important source of information.

It's a choice, he believes, that has fostered discord in the community.

The way Mack sees it, the response to Parker's disclosure shows that city officials chose to keep the "victim's mother in the dark rather than to advance the investigation and I think that's one of the problems that has plagued this investigation the entire time."

The death of Josiah Lawson, who was black while the only named suspect is white, has laid bare undercurrents of racial tensions in the college town, with students of color coming forward at council meetings and city-sponsored forums to share their experiences with overt and subtle racism that has left many of them feeling unsafe.

Charges against the only person arrested, then 23-year-old Kyle Zoellner, were dismissed by a judge last year after a five-day preliminary hearing due to contradictory testimony from witnesses.

Parker and Mack both questioned why the District Attorney's Office put nearly two dozen people on the stand instead of just the lead investigator and the witness or two needed to meet the lower level of probable cause required to hold a suspect over for trial.

"To me, it's inexplicable," Mack says, "other than they just decided to throw everything they had at the wall to see what would stick at the end of the day. That's not a strategy."

Parker says he believes there are several possible reasons why the case hasn't progressed since then — including laziness or a belief that after Zoellner's arrest the ball was in the district attorney's court — but the most pervasive was a lack of leadership on Chapman's part.

Noting that training was also a likely factor, Parker continues on to say there was one other possible addition to the list: "Is there a subtle racism that is like a wet blanket over this investigation? I don't know."

Mack was less couched in her assessment.

"I do have to say it's hard for me to believe, if the tables were turned, if it was Kyle Zoellner who had bled out on a cold cul-de-sac that night and Josiah was the one arrested, that we wouldn't have already seen a very quick trial and a conviction and a lot of public lamenting of the wasted life of the poor white man," Mack says.

The attorney says she hopes more public pressure being put on Arcata Mayor Sofia Pereira, District Attorney Maggie Fleming, City Manager Karen Diemer and other members of the city council to "switch up the team that's in charge of the case."

She says the investigators currently tasked with the job are "essentially waiting for the phone to ring with someone to tell them the answer," but it's been clear the call isn't going to come.

"So, they need to work the case and if they are not willing to work the case, the city needs to hire police officers who are," Mack says.

Diemer tells the Journal in an April 13 interview that she's confident the investigation is progressing. She also says many of Parker's recommendations were followed, but over time he began to ask for things APD didn't feel it could do —like obtaining warrants for specific types of work and requiring people to engage with law enforcement or come in to speak with investigators.

"The investigative team, I would say, is all in complete agreement that the best investigative strategy is being pushed forward on this case," she says. "I think there is an impression out there that it's not advancing, and that impression is really inaccurate, based on what I know."

The council also states there is "an active and committed investigative team in place between the Arcata Police Department and the investigators with the District Attorney's Office."

Fleming wrote in an email to the Journal last week that: "At this stage, we are involved by providing support, resources and input as it relates to the ongoing investigation."

Mack and Parker disagree, saying they see the current investigation on a course that's just "not going to work," with Parker, who retired as assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office, strongly disagreeing that his requests were out of APD's bounds of ability.

"That's bullshit," he says, noting those are all common investigative tools. "It happens all the time. These are phony baloney excuses."

Meanwhile, Parker says he would have to think long and hard if he was offered an opportunity to resume his official role in the investigation but there are still ways he can contribute.

"I am still firmly committed to justice for Josiah. I am still firmly committed that this case could be solved and should be solved," he says.

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