Broken Justice

11.28.15 5:13 AM ET

Are 4 Native Alaskan Men In Jail For A Murder They Didn’t Commit?

Racist investigators and a lack of evidence have cast doubt on the conviction of 4 native teens in a 1997 Alaska murder. So why are they still in jail?

It was around 2:45 a.m. when the grisly sight came into view. Three friends in Fairbanks, Alaska were heading home from a bar when they discovered a teen lying on the curb, kicked in the head so many times he was unrecognizable.

John Hartman was weeks past his 15th birthday that night in October 1997, when he was savagely beaten and left for dead. The driver who found him later testified, “I could see his breath was still coming out. I could still see it in the cold air.”

The next evening, Hartman was taken off life support and died.

Police arrested four suspects soon after: Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Eugene Vent. The men, ages 17 to 21, had attended Howard Luke Academy, a predominantly Alaska Native high school, and played on the basketball team. Roberts was the valedictorian of his class and had no criminal record.

The Fairbanks Four have spent half their lives in prison. But 18 years later, questions about their guilt still haunt this remote city of just over 32,000 people. Supporters believe they were wrongfully convicted, thanks to shoddy police work and racism—all four men are Alaska Natives—that pervades the state justice system.

No physical evidence tied the Fairbanks Four to the crime, the state’s star witness recanted his testimony after trial, and two convicted murderers have since claimed responsibility for the fatal beating, the defense attorneys charge.

But authorities stand by the convictions. Three separate juries in three different trials in Anchorage found the men guilty. Two of the suspects also confessed, they say. (Defense lawyers say those were false confessions.)

Pease was sentenced to 77 years in prison, Frese to 75 years, Vent to 39, and Roberts to 33. Roberts was released on parole last summer.

Now, after a five-week hearing that concluded earlier this month, a judge will review the evidence that supporters hope could ultimately exonerate the Fairbanks Four.

April Monroe, a supporter who grew up with the men and runs the blog Free the Fairbanks Four, called their convictions “mind-boggling.”

“No physical evidence ever connected them to it. There’s no evidence they were together that night,” Monroe said. “The only witness presented was a troubled criminal who has actively been trying to recant his testimony.”

“These men could spend the rest of their lives in prison,” Monroe told The Daily Beast. “It’s not of consequence to state of Alaska. [Prosecutors say] the convictions were good. They want this to go away.”

Rounding up suspects

The Friday night of Hartman’s fatal attack, Fairbanks cops were inundated with calls.

That year, many Alaskans had received $1,296 permanent fund checks distributed as part of the state’s oil revenues. For some, the celebration turned into spending sprees and substance abuse, leading the cops to grapple with robberies, drunken driving and other incidents.

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Among the 911 calls was Pease’s mother, who begged police to take her son away. He was drunk and hit her, she said. Pease, 19, whose juvenile rap sheet included armed robbery, fled to a friend’s house, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

After-parties from a big wedding also fueled the wild night. Some caroused at the Alaskan Motor Inn, where noise prompted the motel clerk to call police and pepper spray and chase away some rowdy youths.

Vent had been at the wedding hall, where relatives said he was “staggering” drunk before reaching the Alaskan. Hours later, he would make a stunning confession that sealed the fate of himself and three others.

Motel clerk Mike Baca told dispatchers one kid had pulled a gun on him. When teens fled the scene, officers collared Vent and brought him back to the motel. Baca peered into the squad car and identified Vent as the alleged gunman. (Vent stood trial for the alleged assault in 1999 but was acquitted.)

Overhearing the arrest on police radio, Fairbanks’ chief detective suspected Vent might have had a hand in the deadly beatdown of Hartman. He asked Baca if he’d seen a teen that night wearing camouflage matching Hartman’s attire.

Unbeknownst to cops however, that night Hartman had been across town at Noah’s Rainbow Inn, the News-Miner reported. The last person to have seen him was his friend, Chris Stone, a 14-year-old reported meth addict who had been brutally beaten weeks before.

Vent’s blood alcohol level was 0.158 percent, or twice Alaska’s legal limit, when police brought him in for questioning around 6 a.m. The teen had waived his right to speak to an attorney or his mother.

During the first two-hour interrogation, detective Aaron Ring told him a friend was injured and other witnesses were talking. “How’d your footprint get in the blood?” Ring goaded Vent with a lie, before showing him photos of Hartman in the hospital.

“I guess I was there,” Vent eventually replied, according to the News-Miner. Another cop mentioned Vent’s classmates, including Kevin Pease, were also suspects.

“You’re starting to make me think like I killed somebody, man,” a floored Vent told the police. “You’re trying to fill my brain with things I didn’t do.”

Cops hammered Vent at another interview at 1 p.m. Ring showed Vent a photo of the Luke Howard basketball team from a yearbook. “These guys are friends of yours,” Ring said, according to the News-Miner. He added, “I’ve already talked to people. OK? They were involved in this.”

Ring had utilized an interview tactic criticized for producing false confessions when police lie about having witnesses and evidence against a suspect and assure them they’d feel better if they’d only confess.

At the hearing last month, Vent said he caved after hours of aggressive questioning. At the time, he believed the cops and considered they might be right. Once he sobered up, he says, he regretted the confession.

“I’m responsible for dragging Marvin and Kevin and George into this and there’s not a day that I don’t think about that,” Vent said.

“He told me my footprints were in the blood numerous times,” Vent added. “I got confused.”

Years later, Ring would defend the technique of supplying suspects with information, including fake evidence. He recently testified, “Sometimes you have to give them information to get information back. I think Eugene Vent called it a negotiation in our first interview.”

Detectives used the same methods on Frese, who was arrested sometime after he visited an emergency room for foot pain. The 21-year-old told a doctor he drunkenly kicked someone the night before but didn’t remember much else. A nurse aware of Hartman’s beating called police. Investigators took Frese’s boot—which authorities later presented as evidence.

Before Frese reached the police station for questioning, a detective told him Vent was already cooperating with cops.

After Frese confessed, investigators went for Roberts, who was also at the Alaska Motor Inn that night. They told him his car’s tires matched skid marks left near the scene and played a recording of Vent’s statement implicating him in the crime.

“I’m innocent,” Roberts repeated over and over again, according to the News-Miner. “I wasn’t even there.”

Still, police had their motive: a group of four friends embarking on joyride with a robbery gone wrong.

No physical evidence

Much that is known about the case outside of police accounts comes from reporter and University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Brian O’Donoghue, whose students started researching the Hartman murder in 2001.

Their findings, many which are detailed here, helped shape O’Donoghue’s seven-part investigation published by the News-Miner in 2008.

“I thought it would be a good semester project, to find out why the right people were convicted,” O’Donoghue told The Daily Beast. He added, “Confessions and portions of them had been suppressed. Police told me if we got the full confessions, we’d know the right people were in jail.”

The one-off project has become a 14-year probe. Their intrepid discoveries are named in the Alaska Innocence Project’s exoneration case for the men. The students also revealed jury misconduct that led to Pease’s conviction being overturned in 2004, though it was reinstated by the state’s supreme court.

“Each time we started knocking on the door, we found more,” O’Donoghue told The Daily Beast, “and that’s because it’s a bad case.”

After the confessions, authorities acting on search warrants obtained a slew of possible evidence, including Roberts’s vehicle, believed to be the “getaway car,” a bloodied shirt, and a marijuana operation at Pease’s residence.

But months later, nothing collected by cops matched the suspects. The blood on Pease’s shirt was his own. Photos of skid marks didn’t match Roberts’s tires. Fingerprints and fibers collected from the car were inconclusive.

In another blow to investigators, nothing in Hartman’s autopsy could match bruises to specific footwear or sizes.

That didn’t stop police and prosecutors from fashioning their own unscientific photo transparency that compared Frese’s boot to Hartman’s bruises. Juries were shown a hospital photo with an overlay of the crime lab’s boot impression.

A state crime lab expert later told the News-Miner something left out of his reports: “There were not enough characteristics to distinguish that this one boot made the marks, or even that it was an obvious boot print or pattern.”

In an affidavit, John Cayton, a forensic expert hired by Frese, called the state’s exhibit “extremely misleading” and a “misrepresentation.” The Fairbanks Four raised the display in several of their failed appeals.

The second key piece of evidence came in the form of Arlo Olson, a drug-addled man who claimed he saw the suspects rob a different man the night Hartman was jumped. Olson recanted his statements after the trials.

Olson, then 20 years old, had been drinking for hours, smoking pot, and snorting cocaine the night of the robbery. In court, he conceded he couldn’t see the suspects’ faces from 550 feet away but he identified them through their profiles and haircuts.

Police never presented other witnesses to the robbery. Jurors later told University of Alaska Fairbanks students that Olson was “courageous” and “very convincing.”

At the final trial, then-prosecutor Jeff O’Bryant told jurors, “Simply put, if Arlo didn’t see what he saw, and you throw out some of the state’s evidence, the state doesn’t have a case. No doubt about it.”

In jailhouse interviews years later, Olson reportedly said, “I didn’t want to testify. I told them I wasn’t sure. And they kept showing me bits and pieces [of interrogation statements]. I guess to make me… feel sure of what I was doing.”

Last month, Olson claimed Ring coached him on his trial testimony. “I kept memorizing it and memorizing it and after a while, you start believing it,” he said. “Ring and O’Bryant said they had the right people and that they were guilty.”

The flawed testimony apparently trumped Roberts’s alibi. Several people—including pregnant and sober women—testified they saw Roberts on the wedding’s dance floor or giving people rides home around the time someone pummeled Hartman.

O’Bryant told jurors the conflicting reports weren’t coincidence. Instead, the prosecutor claimed Alaska Natives were lying for each other—a statement never forgotten by the tribes.

“It reminded me of the movie where the Romans have a bunch of prisoners, slaves, and there’s an uprising amongst the slaves because of the conditions,” O’Bryant said during the trial, referring to the Stanley Kubrick film. “And the leader of the uprising, apparently, was Spartacus.”

“Much like the witnesses here,” O’Bryant continued, “slaves one by one stepped forward to say, ‘I am Spartacus.’”

It wasn’t the only racially charged testimony. One state witness said she heard an “intoxicated” and angry voice with a “Native accent” in the distance as Hartman pleaded for help.

Monroe told The Daily Beast that people outside of Alaska are shocked by the case’s “transparent racism.”

“This is America,” Monroe said. “How is it possible [a prosecutor] argued in a court of law that you can’t believe natives because they lie for each other? It’s not as if that kind of thinking was acceptable in 1997, but shows how little progress has been made.”

The last frontier

In September 2013, the Fairbanks Four landed a new break in their fight for exoneration.

The Alaska Innocence Project filed affidavits claiming a different group of high-schoolers had killed Hartman. One of the men, William Holmes, said he was a junior at Lathrop High School when he and some classmates cruised around seeking drunk natives to beat up and rob.

Instead, the crew jumped a “white boy,” Holmes wrote from a California prison, where he is serving two life sentences for fatally shooting two men on Christmas Eve 2002, the Alaska Dispatch News reported.

“Mentally, I have lived as if that night never happened… I am sure the boy who was chased down and stomped that night was John Hartman,” wrote Holmes, who said he was the getaway driver.

Holmes said Jason Wallace, his buddy and future cocaine-dealing partner, mercilessly stomped Hartman. (Both the former friends have pointed fingers at each other in Hartman’s beating.)

A second affidavit from a former Lathrop student, Scott Davison, claims Wallace copped to the crime one day while they smoked marijuana. “Jason then said if we told anyone about the Hartman assault, he would kill both of us,” Davison said, according to the News-Miner.

Wallace is serving a 70-year sentence for killing an Ester, Alaska woman with a hammer. Both he and Holmes committed the murders for which they’re serving time in an attempted takeover of a cocaine-trafficking business, the News-Miner reported.

Judge Paul Lyle is considering their involvement as part of the latest post-conviction proceedings. An exoneration or new trial requires “clear and convincing” evidence, he said. (Lyle has indicated he isn't ruling until July, so he has time to carefully weigh all evidence and transcripts associated with the case.)

During the hearing, the state argued that Holmes has a reason to lie about Wallace’s involvement in the Hartman killing. Wallace’s testimony helped put Holmes behind bars for life for the drug-murder conspiracy.

Wallace, who was granted immunity in the Hartman case, testified for the state that he hadn’t heard about Hartman’s brutal beating until recently and had nothing to do with it.

At closing arguments, Fairbanks Four attorney Kate Demarest said Holmes’s story was corroborated by 12 witnesses and more solid than Wallace’s denial, according to the News-Miner.

It’s Wallace who has more to lose by confessing to another murder, even if he can’t be prosecuted, Demarest said. He’s eligible for parole in 2025 and a criminal disclosure could affect the parole board’s decision.

Adrienne Bachman, a special prosecutor for the state, claimed there was evidence of collusion by witnesses who are “reconstructing history” for the Fairbanks Four. She accused Roberts’s relatives of covering up a claim by his brother’s ex-girlfriend, who testified that she helped the brother dispose of Roberts’s bloody shoes.

“We all understand what the agenda is here,” Bachman argued, according to Alaska Public Media. “The agenda is to somehow undermine the court’s confidence that due process was served in… the three trials in which 36 jurors deliberated and came to unanimous verdicts based on the highest standard of proof in the land.”

The state attorney also grilled Professor O’Donoghue on the stand, questioning whether he gave legal advice to a witness and also helped get him intimidated in prison.

Bachman also tried to subpoena all of O’Donoghue’s communications, police tapes, and other records from his decade of reporting on the case. His attorney, whom he has paid for out of pocket, prevented most of the requests.

John Skidmore, the director of the state law department’s criminal division, said O’Donoghue has “continued to try and drive this case” by reaching out to people like Holmes.

“In this case it was clear the journalism professor had taken it upon himself to call these individuals and continue to work on this investigative reporting,” Skidmore said, adding that he possibly pressured witnesses and did “the very thing law enforcement is criticized for doing.”

Monroe, too, was subpoenaed, and said state attorneys asked about her sexual partners and drug and alcohol history during a deposition.

“It’s shocking and strange to think big targets in this have been journalists and activists,” Monroe told The Daily Beast. “It’s retaliatory and a warning. I think it’s a warning that we’ve just made too much noise.”

Bob Bundy, an attorney for the Fairbanks Four, told the court that it’s “hard to believe” that all the suspects’ alibis worked together to create and stick to a false timeline for 18 years.

He asked for justice for the young native men who’ve spent their adulthood behind bars.

“We’re told that they should be kept there. Why?” Bundy said, according to the News-Miner. “Well to uphold the verdicts of jurors who had never heard of Holmes or Wallace or the true nature of Arlo Olson’s tortured path to his testimony.”

 

An original version of this article listed April Monroe as April Monroe Frick. Her name has been updated.