Man charged in axe killing of homeless man in El Cerrito

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Larry Lawson, a 58-year-old homeless man, was found hacked to death with an axe on busy San Pablo Avenue near Potrero Avenue in El Cerrito. 

"This was a very violent crime, and it was against a basically a defenseless homeless person," said El Cerrito police Lt. Lauren Caputo. "So even though that this person was homeless, our detectives worked this case as if it was anybody else."

The victim wasn't disabled, but used this wheelchair as a cart to move his things around.

On the night of March 30, someone hit Lawson in the chest and face with an axe.

Police found surveillance video showing a man accosting the victim.

"We were able to see the suspect approach close to the victim, and he waited there until he could find the opportune time to go in and attack with the axe," Caputo said. 

It was BART police officer Jonathan Smith who recognized the man on the video on April 6. That same day, Smith went to the Richmond BART Station and arrested the suspect, 37-year-old Michael Hill of Richmond. 

"I was just happy, and just knowing that hey, this is someone I've seen before and that we can possibly get this person off the streets, and we can make this a better and safer community," said Smith, who previously worked as a Contra Costa County sheriff's deputy.

El Cerrito police also found surveillance video showing Hill stealing the axe less than two hours before the killing.

"We were able to learn that the suspect had stolen the murder weapon at Home Depot here in Richmond," Caputo said. "We were able to track the suspect's movements from Home Depot to the area of where the murder occurred."

Police said suspect hid the axe in a drainage pipe along the Ohlone Greenway not far from the El Cerrito del Norte BART Station.

Investigators don't know why Lawson was killed.

"The motive is unclear at the time," Caputo said. ""We haven't substantiated whether or not there's a relationship between the victim and the suspect."

Prosecutors have charged Hill with murder and the special circumstance of lying in wait. If convicted, he could potentially face life in prison without the possibility of parole, or the death penalty, which is now on hold in California because of an order by Gov. Gavin Newsom.