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Mother of slain Humboldt State University student Josiah Lawson continues fight for justice four years after he was stabbed to death at college party

Her son was stabbed to death four years ago. Why has no one been charged in his death?

April 14, 2017 landed on a Friday that year. At around four in the afternoon, Charmaine Lawson, 47, left work and headed to a doctor’s appointment in Perris, California. Between raising her two kids at home and working full time at Kaiser Permanente, Charmaine had to find time between errands to call her son Josiah, who was attending college over 700 miles away.

Charmaine Lawson sits in her living room in Perris, California.Photo by Terrell Tangonan

“Oh, man. If I am ever in jail, I am not calling you, ‘cause I only get one call,” she remembered saying as she left a voicemail in her Jamaican accent. “Call me back."

Charmaine parked her car at the doctor’s office and walked inside. Upon entering the building, she got a call from Josiah.

“I will call you right back, son,” she said.

“For sure,” he replied, not knowing those would be the last words he ever said to his mother.

She never got around to calling. She got caught up in the day-to-day tasks of being a mother. She picked up her other son Anthony from school and started filling out a college scholarship application for Josiah and dozed off around 10 p.m.

At around three in the morning of April 15, Charmaine was jolted awake. Her phone was ringing incessantly.

“What’s wrong?” she asked the caller.

On the other end was Annalicia Johnson, Josiah’s roommate. Josiah had been stabbed.

Charmaine first came to the United States when she was 14 years old. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, she spent her childhood in Trelawny Parish just outside of Montego Bay. Like most mothers, Charmaine wanted the best for her kids and worked hard to give it to them. Josiah, her oldest, was always there to help out.

“Being a single mom, he was my helper,” Charmaine told Dateline. “He saw how hard I worked. I bought my first home and we had dinners together, movie nights and game nights.”

In 2015, Charmaine and Josiah attended a college fair at a local high school. Charmaine remembered that Josiah called her over to the booth for Humboldt State University, a school with about 6,300 students nestled among giant redwoods in the town of Arcata, 90 miles south of the Oregon border. Growing up in Southern California, Josiah was more accustomed to city life, but the natural beauty of Humboldt County intrigued him.

Scenic Drive in Trinidad, Calif. A popular hangout spot for Humboldt State students 15 minutes north of Arcata.Photo by Freddy Brewster

Josiah was accepted to Humboldt State and moved to Arcata in August 2015. He selected criminal justice as his major; he wanted to be a lawyer, Charmaine said. He joined Brothers United, a cultural group at Humboldt State whose membership included predominantly Black male students. His first year was marked with new friendships, trips to the beach, skateboarding and living life like any other college freshman.

When Josiah returned for his second year at Humboldt State in August 2016, he moved in with a couple of girls he was friends with in a house a short walk from campus. That same month, Josiah met Renalyn Bobadilla, a biology major, and the two began dating.

Renalyn later testified in court that on April 15, 2017 at around 2 a.m., she, Josiah, Annalicia and two brothers named Kyle and Kristoff Castillo, went to a party at 1120 Spear Avenue. They stayed for about an hour and just before 3 a.m., the group of five began to leave.

When they stepped out of the front door, Renalyn testified, they encountered a young woman named Lila Ortega, her boyfriend Kyle Zoellner and their three friends. According to witnesses, Zoellner told the group that Ortega had misplaced her phone, a rose gold iPhone 7. Renalyn and Kyle Castillo testified that they remembered Ortega accusing them of stealing the phone and that Ortega demanded they turn out their pockets.

“I don't say anything to her, I say something to [Zoellner], though,” Kyle Castillo testified. “I told him, ‘Yo, can you just, like, tell her to relax? Because she doesn't really know me like that, and for her to accuse me of something like that, that’s pretty deep.’”

Right after that, Kyle Castillo said a fight broke out between Renalyn and Ortega which caused Josiah and Kyle Zoellner to fight. After a few minutes, the fighting ended and the two groups parted ways. Josiah, Renalyn and the Castillo brothers walked away from the house toward Spear Avenue as the other group stayed near the front of the house.

Once they reached the street, Renalyn testified, she realized she had been pepper sprayed. She said that her face was burning and turned back towards the house where she confronted Ortega and one of her friends.

Around this time, a man named Paris Wright walked out of the house and toward the end of the 109-foot-long driveway where he saw Josiah standing on Spear Avenue, Wright was friends with Josiah and testified that he told Josiah that Renalyn was arguing with the two young women and it wasn’t that serious.

Wright later testified in court that he remembered Josiah saying, “OK, cool. I’m just going to go get her and we’re gonna leave.”

Wright then walked toward his roommate’s car, but turned around when he heard screams coming from the house. As he walked closer, he saw Josiah and Kyle Zoellner wrestling in the grass behind a red 1990s-era Ford Mustang.

He saw Josiah laying on his back with Kyle Zoellner’s back on his chest. Josiah had one arm around Zoellner’s neck and the other around Zoellner’s arms, Wright testified.

“I tried to separate him, because it was my impression that Josiah might have just snapped and decided he wanted to choke him, and I didn't want to let him do something stupid,” Wright said during the preliminary hearing. “So I was just trying to diffuse the situation.”

Once he separated the two, he reached a hand down to Josiah, but all he got back was a blank stare.

“Josiah had said something, but I didn't hear it, because at that point, I saw blood,” Wright testified.

He lifted up Josiah’s shirt and saw a wound on his left side close to his hip. Wright later testified that he asked Zoellner if he’d stabbed his friend, but got angry and punched Zoellner before he could answer.

Renalyn found Josiah laying on the ground in the bushes. Another friend was applying pressure to Josiah’s wounds as police arrived on the scene and arrested Kyle Zoellner. After about 15 minutes, an ambulance transported Josiah to the hospital.

Down in Perris, Charmaine was trying to understand what Annalicia had just told her. Annalicia was screaming that Josiah had been stabbed and that he was on his way to the hospital.

Charmaine and Josiah.Charmaine Lawson

“It’s OK. It’s OK. He is going to be fine,” Charmaine remembered telling her.

Charmaine thought Josiah had just been nicked by a knife. But he wasn’t just nicked, he was stabbed multiple times, including once to the heart. Charmaine called the hospital at around 3:30 in the morning. She left a message and began figuring out how she was going to make it to Arcata. At around 4:00 a.m., her phone rang. It was the Arcata Police.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am. We did everything,” she remembered hearing. Josiah died at 4:07 a.m. on April 15, 2017.

Kyle Zoellner’s preliminary hearing started on May 1, 2017, just two weeks after the stabbing. During a preliminary hearing, a judge acts as a neutral arbiter to determine if there is enough evidence for a case to go to trial.

According to court transcripts, a witness named Jason Martinez testified that he saw Josiah and someone he couldn’t identify in a confrontation outside the party house.

“As soon as I hear, "Oh, shit, he has a knife," I look up, and the person that was talking to Josiah just takes his right hand and I see him go one on the lower part, left lower part of his stomach, and another one on his chest,” Martinez said.

A 10-inch kitchen knife was found under a red Ford Mustang parked near the area where the fight between Zoellner and Josiah happened.

Casey Gleaton, a friend of Kyle Zoellner who was at the party, testified that the next day she was at the apartment Zoellner shared with Lila Ortega. Gleaton remembers Ortega went outside to the car Zoellner had driven to the party the night before and came back in with a bag of chef’s knives. Gleaton testified that she remembered Ortega saying there should be four knives but there were only three in the bag.

On May 5, 2017, after five days of testimony, Judge Dale Reinholtsen dismissed the charges against Zoellner. He said there was insufficient evidence for the case to advance to a jury trial. Reinholtsen said witnesses contradicted each other, that a bulk of the evidence provided was still being analyzed, that no one directly saw the stabbing, and there was no proof the knife was Zoellner’s.

“We know [Josiah] was killed, we know he was killed by a knife and we know somebody at the party did it, but I don’t think at this point we have sufficient reason to think the defendant did it,” Reinholtsen said at the conclusion of the preliminary hearing.

In February 2019, Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming reviewed the evidence and commissioned a criminal grand jury. The 19-member jury heard from 25 witnesses and forensic analysts. They learned about the fight, the foggy memories of the witnesses and that Kyle Zoellner’s DNA was found on the weapon that killed Josiah. Twelve of the jurors needed to vote for charges for the case to proceed, but the jury ultimately declined to indict Zoellner.

But the way the grand jury hearing unfolded didn’t sit right with one grand juror. The grand juror alleged that the decision not to indict hinged on the possibility of self-defense, a statement Zoellner apparently never made when questioned at the police station after the incident by then Detective Sergeant Todd Dokweiler.

“He said he would rather take a beating than stab somebody,” Dokweiler testified during the preliminary hearing.

In an email to Dateline, District Attorney Fleming said that giving grand juries information about the possibility of self-defense is required by law.

“In the Lawson case in particular, given that testimony from the preliminary hearing indicated that the initial physical altercation was an assault on the person initially charged in the homicide, there is no question that self-defense would be raised during the presentation of evidence at any trial, not just during jury instructions,” Fleming said in an email to Dateline.

Kyle Zoellner maintains his innocence and has a civil suit pending against the City of Arcata. It alleges that his arrest, detention and prosecution were unlawful; that his constitutional rights were violated and that he was defamed by officers within the Arcata Police Department. The City and Police Department dispute these claims and are contesting the lawsuit.

A February 2020 review of Josiah’s case by the National Police Foundation, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. that works to advance police techniques and accountability, found shortcomings in the Arcata Police Department’s initial investigation.

The report found that the commanding officer on the night of the stabbing had no specialized training in crime scene management; the lead investigator had no prior experience with homicides; the site of the stabbing was only partially cordoned off; the suspect’s car was allowed to be driven home; one witness changed her story on what she saw three times; and “[k]ey witnesses and potential suspects were allowed to leave the scene or communicate with one another,” the report states.

The report also says that the main suspect, Kyle Zoellner, was only interviewed for 15 minutes by Detective Sergeant Dokweiler.

“The interview could have yielded significant information but it lasted only approximately 15 minutes and was curt instead of exploratory,” the report alleges. “The arrested suspect did not refuse to answer additional questions.”

Dokweiler was the detective sergeant in charge of the case and questioned Zoellner hours after the stabbing. He told Dateline that he kept the interview brief in part because of short staffing in the police department.

“Ideally, that interview would go longer, as long as he was willing to talk to me,” Dokweiler said. “In this case, we just didn’t have the luxury of having other investigators to do other perishable tasks that needed to be done.”

The Arcata Police Department has since increased its staffing and implemented 34 out of the 36 recommendations from the National Police Foundation report, according to Brian Ahearn, Arcata’s current chief of police. Ahearn joined APD in November 2018. He and Charmaine speak often about where the case is at and where it is headed. Charmaine and Ahearn put out a public service announcement asking for those who were at the party to come forward and talk about what they saw with a reward of $55,000 for information leading to an arrest.

Ahearn also said Zoellner has not been reinterviewed, but he is confident he knows who killed Josiah.

“I believe that we arrested the right person initially, and the evidence shows that,” he told Dateline. “I have to make my decisions based on facts and the facts are there are two DNA profiles on the murder weapon. Those two profiles are the victim and the person we arrested that night. Until there is other evidence to suggest differently, we arrested the right person.”

Elizabeth Zareh, attorney for Kyle Zoellner, said that her client went through two court proceedings and both found a lack of evidence to bring the case forward.

“Yet, the chief of police continues to say the opposite only because they are facing a civil lawsuit from my client,” Zareh told Dateline in an email. “His comment shows incompetence and is only intended to put pressure on my client to dismiss the civil case.”

Charmaine tried to get former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to take up the case, but his office declined to prosecute. With the help of U.S. Representative Mark Takano, Charmaine is trying to schedule a meeting with the new Attorney General Rob Bonta. She says the love and support she receives every time she is in Humboldt has kept her fighting on.

Charmaine Lawson with her daughter Chloe, left, and son Anthony, right, beneath a mural of Josiah in their home in Perris, California.Photo by Terrell Tangonan

“I know [Josiah] would have done the same thing, stand in solidarity,” she said. “It is a great feeling to know that the support is still there and they are not going to let this rest until we get justice.”

District Attorney Fleming said she needs more evidence in order to bring charges.

“I am furious and disappointed that people continue to withhold evidence in the Lawson case,” she told Dateline. “Years after the fact, not everyone at the party where Josiah Lawson was killed have come forward to share what they know.”

Charmaine sued the city of Arcata and its police department, alleging they violated her Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law, arguing that APD’s investigation was inadequate, inept and racially biased. The city recently settled for $200,000, without admitting wrongdoing. They also agreed to create a mural of Josiah and donated $25,000 to a scholarship fund made in her son’s honor. Although the suit is settled, Charmaine has no plans to cash the $200,000 check.

“I think it is blood money and I will continue to say that,” she told Dateline.

Charmaine tries her best to keep the memory of her son alive in Humboldt County. There are monthly vigils for Josiah on the 15th of every month in Arcata and with the help of Humboldt County activists, Charmaine set up a winter coat drive for the homeless community.

“The community gives me the strength to keep going back,” Charmaine said. “Without them this wouldn’t be possible. I do it for the community, because I know that I am not the only hurting mom. There are a lot of parents out there that are hurting.”

With the help of the local NAACP chapter, she set up the David Josiah Lawson Scholarship that gives $500 each to three students who reside in either Humboldt County or attend the Val Verde Unified School District where Josiah went to high school. She also plans on building Josiah’s House in Arcata -- a place where students attending Humboldt State can find help with housing, financial difficulties or finding friends.

“I just want to make sure my son’s name is never forgotten in Humboldt County -- never, never,” Charmaine said. “That is the legacy I am going to strive to make sure is upheld.”