Soldier based in Washington state suspected in teen's fatal stabbing

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 after returning from a late-night walk with her boyfriend.

Private 1st Class Dakota M. Wolf had been scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday, 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 19 and 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.

There was evidence that Paxton and Wolf had visited the same teen center in Kirkland, but police said they had not determined whether the two 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 said. "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 Paxton became upset and returned home, believing Lawson 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 … like most young women, Scarlett could be self-conscious," Diggins said.

Lawson watched until Paxton neared the apartment they shared, then continued on his walk, Diggins said. When he returned shortly before 3, he found her crumpled 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, detailed by police in the criminal charging documents, Wolf had been out with a friend on the night of the slaying and, after returning home, called him about 11:30 p.m. to say 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.

The suspicious residents notified police, who allegedly 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 trash bin near the scene of the killing, police said, and surveillance cameras showed a figure resembling Wolf walking toward Paxton's apartment near the time of her death.

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

Wolf has denied any involvement with Paxton's death, but 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, 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 added. "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 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 mortally wounded. Then on June 20, Kenny Cobb was accosted and stabbed by an unidentified man with a knife about 3 p.m., but survived.

Police have made no connection between the cases in Bremerton and Juanita, but Bremerton police spokesman Andy Oakley said they were in the process of comparing the incidents there to other stabbings.

kim.murphy@latimes.com

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