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Lewis-McChord soldier faces premeditated murder charges

December 28, 2011 |  6:00 am

Scarlett paxton photo 1

To the string of suicides, assaults and slayings plaguing Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, add one more: A soldier stationed there faces charges of premeditated murder in the death of 19-year-old Scarlett Paxton, who was stabbed to death after returning from a late-night walk with her boyfriend.

Army Pfc. Dakota M. Wolf had been scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday on charges of premeditated murder, but authorities announced that the arraignment had been indefinitely postponed -- presumably to allow the military to proceed first with possible charges of assault, being absent without leave and failing to report for a training exercise.

The case has horrified residents in the comfortable Seattle suburb of Juanita, near Kirkland, where Paxton was attacked Nov. 30 just outside her apartment door. Authorities said Wolf, also a 19-year-old from Kirkland, was a soldier with the 2nd Stryker Brigade. He had enlisted in the Army in 2010 and arrived at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in early 2011. He had never deployed overseas.

Although there were some signs that Paxton and Wolf had visited the same teen center in Kirkland, police said they had not determined whether they were acquainted. "We have not been able to put a link to them as far as knowing each other in any way at this point," Lt. Mike Murray of the Kirkland Police Department told The Times. "Right now the best we can determine is it's still just a random assault."

Paxton's mother, Michelle Diggins, said her daughter had gone out for a late-night walk with her boyfriend, Michael Lawson, also 19, shortly after 1:30 a.m. But she became upset and returned home, believing he had suggested the stroll because he thought she needed to lose weight.

"She wasn't heavy. And that's not the way he meant it at all. He really loves her. But she always took things personally," Diggins said in an interview with The Times.

Lawson watched until she neared the apartment he and Paxton shared, and then he continued on his walk, Diggins said. When he returned shortly before 3, she was collapsed in front of their apartment door, not breathing, with a deep stab wound to her neck and several cuts to her hands, leg and chin.

The case was a mystery at first. But then residents of the home where Wolf had been staying contacted police, saying they believed he might have been involved.

According to their account and those of several others, described by police in the charging documents, Wolf had been out with a friend on the night of the slaying and called him about 11:30 p.m. after returning home, saying he was restless and couldn't sleep.

The next day, the friend said, Wolf twice asked him to drive him to the scene where Paxton's body had been found; he "displayed a fascination with the news coverage surrounding the murder," the friend told police.

Meanwhile, residents of the home where Wolf had been staying said they were also struck by Wolf's "high level of interest" in the media coverage of Paxton's killing. They said he had emerged from his room the morning after the slaying wearing blood-soaked shorts from a bad cut on his leg, which he said he had sustained during a fall on broken glass.

Suspicious, the residents notified police, who reportedly found clothing splashed with blood matching Paxton's on the floor next to Wolf's bed. Later, bloody fingerprints matching Wolf's were found at a dumpster near the murder scene, police said, and surveillance cameras showed a figure resembling Wolf walking toward Paxton's apartment near the time of her death.

Police said a kitchen knife found near the murder scene matched a set of knives in the room where Wolf was staying, which included an empty sheath matching the size of the knife.

Wolf denied any involvement with Paxton's death, but he admitted being in the same general area. He told detectives he had been smoking synthetic cannabis that night and had for some time been suffering from "paranoia, hallucinations, anxiety and memory issues," along with problems with anger management, according to prosecution documents.

Army Maj. Christopher Ophardt, a spokesman at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, said Wolf had been scheduled to go on a training mission to Ft. Irwin, Calif., but failed to report, and then went absent without leave "for good" on Nov. 15.

Diggins said Paxton was attending an alternative high school in Kirkland to finish her diploma and was also an accomplished artist. She said she had no reason to think Paxton knew Wolf well, if at all.

"I'm sure they had run across each other at the teen center in downtown Kirkland. She was there all the time. But there was no association. He had never been to our house or anything like that. I never heard her talk about him," she said.

"She made friends with everybody she knew," she said. "She just was really sweet, kind of quirky. Really an innocent soul. Maybe too trusting."

Police in the nearby military town of Bremerton are looking at two unsolved cases last year in which two people were stabbed in the neck, one of them fatally.

On May 3, Sara Burke, 19, was walking about 9:30 p.m. when she was attacked and left mortally wounded. On June 20, Kenny Cobb was accosted and stabbed by an unidentified man with a knife about 3 p.m., but survived.

Cobb told the Kitsap Sun his assailant repeatedly stabbed him in the neck. "I was stunned and dazed at that point, but then he knifed me some more ... up here in the carotid area," Cobb said. A nearby motorist intervened, and the attacker escaped. "You could tell by looking in the guy's eyes; this was not his first time, not even close," Cobb told the paper. "And it wasn't going to be his last."

Police have made no connection between the cases in Bremerton and Juanita, but Bremerton police spokesman Andy Oakley told The Times they are in the process of comparing the incidents there to other stabbings. "We have been in contact with other departments for any similar activities," Oakley said. "It's still a full-time investigation, an open case."

Ophardt said Wolf is in pretrial military confinement pending the expected military charges. The King County prosecutor's office is expected to proceed with the civilian charge of premeditated murder once military charges are processed, Kirkland police said.

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-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

Photo: Scarlett Paxton. Credit: Family photo

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