Landlord charged in woman's death

Posted: Thursday, May 27, 2004

ANCHORAGE - An Anchorage man was charged Wednesday in the death of Bethany Correira, the 21-year-old woman who disappeared last year from an apartment he managed.

Michael Lawson, 46, was arraigned in state District Court on seven criminal charges, including first- and second-degree murder, kidnapping, arson and tampering with evidence. He did not enter a plea.

Magistrate Sam Adams set a $2 million cash-only bail for Lawson, who sat with his chair swiveled away from the gallery during the brief hearing.

"We had all hoped the outcome of our investigation would be to return Bethany Correira to her family," Police Chief Walt Monegan said later at a news conference. "A case like this takes a toll on everyone."

According to charging documents, Michael Lawson told his brother he shot Correira when his gun went off during a struggle May 3, 2003, inside a duplex near an apartment rented by Correira. Robert Lawson told police his brother told him to bring some plastic bags and other items to the duplex, located in the city's Bootlegger Cove neighborhood.

Police began investigating Correira's disappearance the following day after her family reported her missing when she failed to show up for plans with her mother and brother.

Robert Lawson, 48, told police he found his brother and the body of a nude woman in the garage of the duplex. Together that night they drove north in Michael Lawson's Mercedes SUV to dispose of Correira's body - wrapped in plastic and duct tape - at a gravel pit outside Talkeetna, according to charging documents.

Michael Lawson insisted that the duplex had to be destroyed and around midnight, the brothers drove there, Robert Lawson told police. While Michael Lawson waited in his car, Robert Lawson used an accelerant to start a fire in the downstairs bedroom where Correira was killed, court documents said.

The brothers then went to Blues Central, a midtown club, to establish an alibi, according to Robert Lawson.

Correira's disappearance triggered a widespread search by law enforcement officers and volunteers. Searchers blanketed the area with posters of the dark-haired woman.

Authorities linked the arson to Correira's disappearance, and the Lawson brothers were investigated by federal authorities in an unrelated case.

Lawson and his brother pleaded guilty this year to federal fraud and gun charges. They were accused of applying for preferred status from an insurance company for their roofing business without revealing that Michael Lawson had been convicted in Illinois of raping his girlfriend at knifepoint.

After his Feb. 19 arrest in that case, Robert Lawson agreed to discuss Correira's disappearance with Anchorage police and federal authorities.

"Robert has always had great consideration for the Correira family," said his attorney, Sidney Billingslea. "It was very difficult to keep his brother's secret. He had struggled between his desire to help the family - who he knew was suffering - and his loyalty to his brother."

Billingslea said Robert Lawson will face criminal charges in the Correira case, but would not elaborate. She said he's not in custody but is staying at an undisclosed location in Alaska.

The day after Robert Lawson agreed to cooperate with authorities, he took them to the gravel pit off the Parks Highway, but authorities were unable to thoroughly search the area because of heavy snow.

Meanwhile, authorities obtained a search warrant that allowed them to tape telephone conversations between the brothers. On April 2, Michael Lawson was taped telling his brother that he was the only one in the apartment when Correira was killed, according to court documents. Robert Lawson asked why Correira had been naked and Michael Lawson responded, "so Bethany could not run," the court papers said.

On May 3, one year after Correira vanished, the snow had melted enough to let authorities resume their search at the gravel pit.

Skeletal remains found there were identified as those of Correira.

At Wednesday's arraignment, defense attorney Rex Butler attempted to turn suspicion from Michael Lawson to his brother.

"My client is innocent," Butler said.

Sharon Marshall, an assistant district attorney assigned to the case, said she will take the case against Michael Lawson before a grand jury and expects an indictment within a week-and-a half.

"This has been an emotional case," she said at the police news conference. "But it's not over. We still have a long way to go."

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