All charges against Kyle Zoellner dropped in the murder of Humboldt State student David Josiah Lawson

Humboldt State faculty organized a walkout Tuesday in response to the murder charges of Kyle Zoellner being dropped. “I think there’s been a lot of information withheld,” said Associate Dean for Student Engagement and Leadership Tay Triggs. “Many of us just don’t even know what’s going on. Someone knows what happened, so I’m hoping that that person who knows will come forward and tell the truth, even if they are in trouble, but tell the truth. There’s a whole community here that’s hurting here. There are lots of students who felt that it was racially motivated. Can all those people be lying?” – Photo: Carmen Pena-Gutierrez

by Slauson Girl

Kyle Zoellner, the suspect accused of stabbing Humboldt State University student David Josiah Lawson to death at an off-campus party Easter weekend, was released from Eureka’s jail on Friday, May 5.

Humboldt County Judge Dale Reinholtsen ruled that due to a lack of physical evidence, there was no need to require a trial. All charges against Zoellner were dropped.

I sat through the preliminary hearing all five days from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., and I heard all of the witness testimonies and the evidence presented.

It weighs heavy on my mind some of the information that was revealed in court through cross examination and witness testimonies. The fact judge Reinholtsen was still able to make this ruling is slightly horrific to me.

Zoellner relied heavily upon the rules of the court system. The defense refused to sign a time waiver and Zoellner’s right to a speedy trial meant that he had to have his preliminary hearing within 10 days.

According to the testimony of Sgt. Todd Dockweiler, who is the lead detective on the case, there is still evidence that has not been processed yet, such as Zoellner’s bloody jeans.

Kyle Zoellner, David Josiah Lawson

When people read headlines on the coverage of this case within the limited media outlets that we have in the area, they will read about the fingerprint and fibers on the knife found at the scene not matching Zoellner’s. Many will become immediately convinced that Zoellner has no involvement or knowledge of what happened to Lawson that fatal night.

The more I sat in court and heard the witness testimonies, the more I was convinced that there was no way Zoellner and the girls he was with that night do not know what happened to Josiah. During the hearing, when things did seem to shift a bit from Zoellner, it all shifted to the girls who were with him that night.

The problem lies in the fact that Zoellner’s girlfriend and her friends were never looked at as suspects, but witnesses rather.

Black lives cannot matter as long as non-black people and their word is held in a higher regard than Black people. Black lives cannot matter within the realm of white privilege so long as the stereotypes of Blackness allow for others to use Black bodies as scapegoats.

I watched Zoellner’s girlfriend and her friends lie under oath about what happened the night Josiah was stabbed. This was evident in their contradicting testimonies under cross examination. The only thing all three of the women were consistent upon was painting young Black men out to be monsters.

In their contradicting testimonies under cross examination, the only thing all three of the women were consistent upon was painting young Black men out to be monsters.

The judge couldn’t understand logically how Zoellner could have done this because, in my opinion, he held the testimonies of Zoellner’s girlfriend and her friends in higher regard than everyone else’s – when in reality, these girls should have been looked upon as co-conspirators in Josiah’s murder investigation.

There is no physical evidence, yet I still believe Zoellner and the party he was with had some sort of involvement. Probable cause for trial, in my opinion, was definitely there due to the alarming amount of circumstantial evidence revealed in court which led me to form this opinion.

How does Judge Reinholtsen note in his ruling that the only people who had motive, means and opportunity to murder Josiah were Zoellner and the girls that he was with – yet proceed to release him?

How does Judge Reinholtsen note in his ruling that the only people who had motive, means and opportunity to murder Josiah were Zoellner and the girls that he was with – yet proceed to release him?

Black bodies as scapegoats

Much like police brutality, within the small area of Humboldt County, white people have taken to online platforms playing the “reverse racism game.”

They debate over slain Black bodies – in this case Josiah – and show their disdain for Black people and their complete disregard over the circumstances leading to their deaths. While white people debate online whether racism is real or not, the fact that someone lost his life gets lost in translation.

The mindset of some of some of the locals in the surrounding community is never mentioned by college recruiters and Humboldt State University’s website.

Josiah was president of Brothers United, the cultural club for men of color at HSU, and the members are not only mourning the lynching of their brother – here at his memorial service – but being slandered online and labeled a “gang.”

Brothers United, the cultural club for men of color at HSU, which Josiah was president of, are mourning the loss of their friend and brother yet find themselves receiving online slander and being labeled a “gang” by locals.

These online attacks on Brothers United are a recurring theme in America and shows the continued ways that white people and the media aim to justify the murder of Black people by associating them with racial stereotypes.

Josiah was not in a gang.

Why aren’t the people of Humboldt County talking about Josiah as the second year college student who overcame extreme adversity to attend college? A young, Black man who left the comforts of his hometown to attend school in a rural and secluded town up north.

Instead, why are they so focused upon attacking Josiah’s character?

Why aren’t the people of Humboldt County talking about Josiah as the second year college student who overcame extreme adversity to attend college? Instead, why are they so focused upon attacking Josiah’s character?

The fact that a mother sent her son off to college to better himself and he returned in a casket should strike a different chord in people, but it seems that racism clouds people’s judgment in such a way that even these facts are disregarded.

The huge problem in this case is that more people need to be looked at as suspects who were with Zoellner. I believe only then will the truth come out about what really happened to Josiah that night.

In regards to the judge’s ruling to dismiss the charges against Zoellner, I was left with many questions from five days of witness testimonies that for now remain unanswered but are important to note:

Who exactly stabbed Josiah? Was it Kyle, his girlfriend Lila, or her friends Naiya (who testified she supplied cocaine to her friends that night), Casey and Angelica? Did one of them wipe off the knife? Is the knife recovered from the scene the knife that Josiah was stabbed with?

Why was Zoellner’s car allowed to leave the scene driven by Angelica’s mother, who was called to the scene after the stabbing? Why was Zoellner’s car not entered into evidence?

Whatever happened to Angelica McFarlane, who was with Lila and Zoellner at the party? How come she and her mother were never called to testify in court?

Why did Zoellner’s girlfriend feel the need to lie under oath when she said that she never touched Zoellner’s knife bag that he uses for his job as a chef?

Lila’s friend Casey Gleaton testified that Lila grabbed the bag of knives from Kyle’s car (that the police allowed to be driven from the crime scene) after she arrived home from the hospital the next morning where Zoellner was before he was taken to jail. According to Gleaton, Lila opened the bag and said something about the number of knives and that one was missing.

Casey testified that she heard Lila say multiple times that she hoped Lawson died. Why did Lila want Josiah to die so bad? Lila testified in court that she never said this.

Arcata Police Officer Jacob McKenzie, who has been on the force for only nine months, was the first cop to arrive at Josiah’s body and testified that he only grabbed one glove before exiting his patrol vehicle.

He also could not remember if he wore a glove when collecting the knife found at the crime scene.

This leads one to wonder:

  • Was the crime scene properly secured and assessed?
  • Was the evidence collected properly?

Media coverage of Josiah’s murder glosses over the fact that Josiah’s girlfriend was jumped by Lila and her friend Naiya after she confronted them about pepper spraying her, Josiah and the people they were with.

A previous fight happened minutes before between them all.

In the incidents leading up to the first fight, Lila and her friends approached Josiah, his girlfriend and the two brothers they were with inquiring about Lila’s missing phone as Josiah and his friends exited the party.

The first fight ended with pepper-spray being sprayed by Naiya or Angelica. Josiah and his friends then began making their way down the driveway to the street where the car was parked.

Josiah’s girlfriend testified in court that she began to have a panic attack and ran back up the driveway. She believed the girls had thrown some drugs in her face “because they looked like coke-heads.”

Media coverage focused heavily upon the testimony of Perris Wright, who said that Josiah’s girlfriend was “doing what she always did” and he thought nothing of it when her saw her arguing with Lila and her friends.

When Ren, Josiah’s girlfriend, approached the girls, she was immediately attacked. While she was being jumped by these two girls in the second fight, Josiah, who had been maced, was making his way up the driveway to find her.

What happened next, only the people who were outside at the time know. Casey, Zoellner and Angelica are unaccounted for during this moment.

In a fight between Ren, David Josiah Lawson’s girlfriend, and Lila, Kyle Zoellner’s girlfriend, Lila bit Ren’s breast, leaving this wound.

Josiah’s girlfriend was left with severe bite marks on her breast due to Zoellner’s girlfriend biting her like some sort of savage animal.

In addition, Josiah’s girlfriend has a puncture wound on her left arm which shows someone was trying to stab her or jabbed at her with something sharp.

The fact that this was never mentioned by the prosecution in their closing arguments or never touched on in the judge’s ruling baffles me.

Josiah’s girlfriend, Ren, was also, like Josiah, the victim of a vicious attack. Understanding this puts a lot into perspective about what may have happened that night.

When asked about fighting Josiah’s girlfriend in court, Lila testified that they had a hair pulling match for five minutes. Naiya then joined and helped Lila pull Ren’s hair for another five minutes before they all agreed to let go.

Arcata Police Officer Krystle Arminio testified that she talked to Ren at the hospital and took pictures of her injuries.

There are so many complexities in this case, but I do understand that this is an open investigation and, although Zoellner was released, there is still a possibility that he and his accomplices could be re-arrested if new evidence was introduced or a witness comes forward.

What are the chances of this really happening however?

Ren also suffered a puncture wound on her left arm.

History has shown us time and time again that white men are rarely sought after and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law when it comes to the killing of Black bodies. This is true whether the killer was the police or a civilian like George Zimmerman.

What happened to Josiah is heartbreaking. Beyond his murder, the judge deciding to free Zoellner and thinking more about the best interests of a group of tweaked out locals than a college student with a promising future is beyond me.

Humboldt County is no place for students of color because they will have no one within real positions of power who are working towards their best interests.

Do Black lives matter in the face of white privilege?

Why is there always a debate within white America when a Black person or other melanated peoples are senselessly murdered by police and others? No matter the situation, dead Black people are forced to go on trial within white-dominated, online spaces – and it sickens me to my stomach.

These debates, however, tell us a lot about the psychology of white America when it comes to them understanding and addressing the complexities of racism and white supremacy.

Humboldt County is not exempt when it comes to these debates that white people tend to have over slain Black lives. We see you all. Even in the minds of those in Humboldt County, dead Black people have somehow brought death upon themselves.

We see y’all’s thoughts, biases and hatred spewed online while you hide behind Facebook and Twitter accounts along with anonymous comment threads within y’all’s favorite websites such as Lost Coast Outpost.

As students at Humboldt State, we are left with not knowing who these people online are, and it leaves us distrusting many of the white faces that we see around town.

As students at Humboldt State, we are left with not knowing who these people online are, and it leaves us distrusting many of the white faces that we see around town.

In 2017, most white people still seem to not understand that we as Black people hurt and have feelings despite what the media shows of us. We are not some foreign species incapable of a wide range of human emotions.

Yet our lives and emotions are not taken into consideration, while our deaths are the hot topic of online debates for white people.

Supporters of Kyle Zoellner, the 23-year old McKinleyville man who is accused of stabbing HSU student David Josiah Lawson to death Easter weekend say Zoellner is being unfairly tried and prosecuted by the public and media.

A large auditorium in the Humboldt State University Center was filled for Josiah’s memorial service on April 20. – Photo: Indian Casarez, The Lumberjack (the HSU student newspaper)

To that I say, what about the Black people who are dead and forced to go on trial within the media and online conversations as if their lives meant nothing, Josiah included? At least Zoellner has his life to plead his innocence and disprove the allegations against him. Josiah and so many Black people and other melanated peoples of the world do not.

Yet in death, they too are tried by the public and media.

White privilege serves many purposes for those who are fortunate to find shelter under its umbrella. So again I ask, do Black lives matter in the face of white privilege?

From what I have seen in my almost 25 years of life in America, white privilege is unequivocally more powerful and important than Black life.

As long as white people continue to hold public debates over slain Black lives and hold the power to always portray Black people as the aggressor in every dispute, I do not believe that Black lives matter in the face of white privilege.

Black lives will continue to not matter in the face of white privilege as long as white people continue to hold the power of discrediting the words of Black people. As long as white people and their words continue to be held as truth above anything a Black person says, Black lives will never be able to matter in the face of white privilege.

As long as white people and their words continue to be held as truth above anything a Black person says, Black lives will never be able to matter in the face of white privilege.

As long as the words of Black people continue to be looked at as illegitimate, we will never be a match for white privilege. White people will always have the power to discredit and demean Black lives in everyday life and even a court of law.

This is why students of color can speak to the media expressing their feelings of negligence on behalf of the police and emergency response on the night of Josiah’s murder and they are still ridiculed and seen as untrustworthy in the face of white privilege.

That does not mean, as Black and melanated peoples of America and beyond, that we just accept these atrocities and live with them as a fact of life. How are we as women supposed to breed children within a world that tells us that our lives are “less than” due to a racial hierarchy?

As Black and melanated peoples of America it is up to us to constantly call out these structures of our society that work to discredit our words and lives. The more we just accept these paradoxes as a fact of life, the deeper and more concrete they become.

Slauson Girl’s blog, where this story first appeared, describes life through the eyes of a girl born and raised in South Central Los Angeles. She has received multiple awards including first place in the Society of Professional Journalists competition for her weekly column, Slauson Girl Speaks. A recent graduate of Humboldt State University with a degree in Critical Race and Gender Studies and a minor in Journalism, she writes about current events, pop culture, racism, Hip-Hop, economics and history. Email her at

Arcata’s progressives speak up

Some progressive residents in Humboldt County have rallied around the students, and several attended Zoellner’s preliminary hearing. One of them writes:

“It is horrific what the system is allowing Zoellner and his girlfriend to get away with. Young Josiah’s death was painful. I pray Josiah’s spirit has peace, and his loved ones do too. We honor his life by fighting for justice and caring for the people he left behind. Josiah’s murder was an unconscionable hate crime.

“There is no good reason that Lila Ortega, Zoellner’s girlfriend, is not in jail right now for her involvement in the killing of Josiah and also for her gruesome attack on Josiah’s girlfriend that APD (Arcata Police Department) and the DA know all about. Second, APD needs to admit, at least, that it failed in its investigation, failed in its preservation of evidence and the crime scene, and, for instance, allowed Lila Ortega to drive the car of the suspects, and take it away without any forensic inspection of her clothes, possessions or the car.

“APD will never tell the truth about its failure to save Josiah’s life, but at least they should admit these investigative failures. But, covering up and schmoozing the public is, instead, what the police are doing.”

Another supporter was quoted in Lost Coast Outpost: “There was no justice for Josiah today,” said Michael Fennell, blaming the outcome on poor police work and a judge “with no imagination.”

KMUD radio coverage broadcast May 5, 2017