Please join us in watching this short form look at the Fairbanks Four case presented as part of Vice’s Red Right Hand series. We are excited to participate in amplifying the stories of indigenous fights for justice and equality.
Please join us in watching this short form look at the Fairbanks Four case presented as part of Vice’s Red Right Hand series. We are excited to participate in amplifying the stories of indigenous fights for justice and equality.
The State of Alaska’s position of record is that has never been and will never be any wrongful conviction in their justice system. The notion that the government institution operated by human beings is free from all human error is bizarre but not unusual as many leaders and governments have attempted to avoid scrutiny through claims of divinity or innate perfection. This is a view notably shared by such leaders as David Koresh, Charles Manson, Stalin, Kim Jong-il, and a host of other nuts. And, just as in other situations of bureaucratic corruption, those who have spoken out against their absurdity have become the targets of inappropriate and vulgar displays of power.
The average citizen of the free world tends to understand and accept that attacks on freedom of speech happened unabated through history, yet still believe that such attacks are part of the past. That is because the average citizen goes to work, comes home to catch some prime time television, throws the occasional political meme up on their Facebook wall, and expresses their more radical beliefs at their own tables. In short, the average citizen does not live in a state of oppression, and does not speak out in high visibility situations about the oppression or unjust actions taken by the government that they observe. And thus, tales of attacks on civil rights leaders, corruption, abuses of power, are relegated to the history channel documentaries on the 60’s or Richard Nixon and the like.
This still happens today. Those who speak out publicly and effectively against the government, their agents, institutions, and policies still come under attack. Here. In our town, in your town, in any town. And it is critically important that you pay attention when it happens under your nose, because our progress as the human race depends upon ordinary people with perfectly average and kind sensibilities making sure that the founding principles of their nations are upheld.
It is inside the context of sharing a larger lesson about the importance of speaking out that we have chosen to share precisely how this blog and the leaders of the innocence movement in Alaska came under attack by the State of Alaska.
If you call up the leaders of this great state they will absolutely assure you that no one was attacked, that they support freedom of speech, and that all contact, subpoenas, recordings, etc. of those affiliated with the Fairbanks Four movement were done appropriately, for the right reasons, and inside the confines of the law. And they would be lying.
In July of 2015 the State of Alaska served a “subpoena duces tecem” on this blogger for testimony and collection of my personal AND work emails, letters, communications of all kind, writings, and more. The full scope of the subpoena is pictured here. A subpoena duces tecem is used to take property and information into the custody. It is a Latin phrase which translates as “you will bring with you under penalty of punishment.”
So, I produced years of letters, messages, emails, blog writings, and more. Under threat of arrest, and in a sincere effort to allow transparency. I also attended the demanded interview for taking of my deposition.
Depositions are a virtual legal free-for-all. An attorney, in this case Adrienne Bachman for the State of Alaska, can conduct a deposition on virtually anyone based on their own opinion that the interview MAY lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. It is such a vague standard that it is a loophole easily exploited for the purpose of harassing or spying on activists.
At the deposition interview, here are some things the State asked me:
1.) Fully described directions by landmark to a particular elder’s house (weird and actually the scariest question because I could not imagine what they would do once they got there, like was Adrienne Bachman going to be standing over her bed at the witching hour?).
2.) People who I had sexual relationships (easy – the people I decided have sexual relationships with #noregrets).
3.) The details surrounding a specific arrest for minor consuming alcohol at the age of 17 (I don’t remember really, I was drunk and seventeen).
4.) What drugs she had done as a teenager or seen other people do (as many as I could get my hands on with whoever was available).
5.) Why I had custody of previous foster care children (Sincerely inappropriate question under any circumstance).
6.) Whether I had ever used the term “sugar mama” (I really can’t remember but that sure sounds like something I would say), and then, why I was laughing at the use of the term “sugar mama” (well…because it’s funny, especially in context).
7.) HOW I drank as a teenager (to excess, and unfortunately I don’t have a lot of details beyond that, because I was pretty much drunk for the entire mid to late 90’s).
And so on…
The beauty here for me is that I am perhaps less uncomfortable with my past than the average person, and although I found the process truly invasive and uncomfortable, I did not find it debilitating. I am a nonfiction writer. I have invaded my own privacy in the name of telling a story for my entire life, and to me the value in sharing the brutal truth greatly overrides the embarrassment of it being public. We are all human. But that is not necessarily typical, and the reality is this experience could be terrible for many people.
It is worth noting that the questions were not relevant to the Fairbanks Four case, and were stereotypical attacks of a power figure against a woman. Revelation of deviant past behavior, attacks on maternal identity, and sexual relationships or sexual history, though certainly not relevant to the case, are a classic targets when attempting to discredit any woman. And we should all be concerned at the idea of the government slut-shaming outspoken women. That said, look backward, and look forward. There has always been an organized overkill response to women who are too outspoken or who possess political power that makes the powers that be uncomfortable. The Salem Witch trials come to mind. Scarlet letters. Stolen children. The many thousands of land owning widows who faced execution, wrongful conviction, displacement. The woman, who, right now as you read this, is being hung or stoned to death or beheaded or otherwise silenced by death for failing to accept the terms of her specific oppression,. Beheaded and deposed is a far cry from one another. Yet, we cannot regard any action on the spectrum as acceptable without condoning the ideology that fuels attacks on the outspoken. And my specific experience is worth talking about only because it is universal, and because I am so ordinary. If the government can go through all of my stuff and ask me those questions, they could do that to anyone. And I was far from the only person under scrutiny in this case.
By the time that the Fairbanks Four proceedings were nearing completion and the state had failed to present a case that supported the guilt of the wrongfully convicted men, they presented an unsubstantiated theory that the “Fairbanks Four” activists, specifically myself, business owner Ricko DeWilde, and pastor Shirley Lee had conspired with a prison gang to have Arlo Olson intimidated.
Let me take a quick break to say, as absurd as I feel writing this sentence, I am not in a prison gang. I frankly have my doubts as to whether or not I would qualify for admission into an all-male prison gang even if it was my aspiration. I do not know or care whether or not any of the Fairbanks Four have affiliated with prison gang members in the last eighteen years of living in prison. I am certain that Pastor Lee and Mr. DeWilde are not in a prison gang. We have not, would not, and did not conspire to intimidate or harass anyone, and haven’t even conspired to hurt their feelings. We have, openly and publicly, encouraged people with information to come forward in this case and vowed to stand by them if they are attacked for doing the right thing. Because their own government WILL attack them for doing the right thing, and has (see Scott Davison or Arlo Olson). We have bribed no one, paid no one, threatened no one, hurt no one. Still, the State of Alaska presented that theory in a court of law.
Pastor Shirley Lee, a longtime activist and member of the Episcopal clergy, was mentioned in deposition and again in trial testimony. The State of Alaska insinuated that the pastor was part of a conspiracy to intimidate, bribe, or harass witnesses. A pastor. This grandmother, pictured here to your left. She runs a homeless shelter, leads services on Sunday, and holds memorial services for people who are unclaimed or whose deaths are unsolved. Pretty gangsta.
Unlike Shirley, who may qualify for sainthood, Ricko and I are not perfect angels, but we are good human beings. Our horns may be holding up our halos, but they are there nonetheless. And the reality is that the innocence movement is controversial and unpopular – of course it was pioneered by rebels.
Ricko DeWilde, owner of Native art themed clothing line HYDZ, was repeatedly named in the vague but bold conspiracy touted by the State. Adrienne Bachman said, in court, as if it were fact that Ricko had assaulted Arlo Olson when they were together in jail. This is really problematic. First, Ricko and Arlo were never in jail together. Second, Arlo was not assaulted in jail according to any records, staff, or perhaps most importantly by Olson himself. Olson did say that he was picked on and treated poorly in prison after a news article revealed him to be an informant, but lent no credibility to the idea that he was the victim of a gang conspiracy or any assault.
And, according to Bachman, it was I who ordered the beating, as part of my role as a prison gangster.
One piece of evidence was introduced, and then rejected by the court, as “evidence” of my gang affiliation. It was a letter from Eugene Vent some years ago. In a six-page diatribe about the evils or racism and how the prison system encourages the internalization of racist stereotypes as a means of control, how that same prison system is a microcosm of society, and racism and identity by ethnicity is a construction of the majority to oppress the minority, Eugene used the word “brotherhood,” and once he capitalized it. He also capitalized words like “defense,” “potential,” and “tomorrow.” To my sincere frustration, Eugene does not use capital letters or quotation marks appropriately all the time. Yet, that does not mean I am in a gang, only that I was correct when I warned him that alternative grammar has unintended consequences (or “Consequences” as he might say). Nor does it mean that anyone was assaulted.
Judge Paul Lyle, who presided over the hearings, was quick to squash the theory. He asked Prosecutor Adrienne Bachman whether she “had any evidence at all linking the petitioners or this witness to a gang or an assault,” to which she had to answer truthfully, “no.
Yet, despite the admitted absolute lack of evidence, our names have appeared in the newspaper alongside these accusations. Our personal belongings and communications have been scrutinized and, as of today, remain in the possession of the State of Alaska.
A secondary goal of subpoena may have been to keep myself and reporter Brian O’Donoghue out of the courtroom in an effort to control media coverage of the trial. The State invoked a rule banning named witnesses, which just happened to include the most prominent reporter and blogger covering the case. If that was an intention, it was simply another gift, as without the subpoena we would not have had an opportunity to reflect on what such a display of power means and, in turn, write about it.
And now that I have been asked questions, under threat of penalty under the law, about things as incredibly unrelated and inappropriate as whom I have had sex with, I have something to say about that. Two things, really. First, readers, just know that this still happens, even today and even in the country that worships at the altar of personal freedom. Second, and more importantly, thank you to the State of Alaska and thank you Adrienne Bachman. Everything is an opportunity. You have given us an opportunity to turn to those who came forward and say, look, we kept our promise. We were right there in the crosshairs alongside you and you were not alone. You gave me a chance to turn to my children and say, we do not participate in rape culture and shaming of other people by agreeing to play the game. We are not and will not be ashamed of our pasts or our mistakes; we will own our choices and celebrate our lessons. Watch me, learn. The world says be afraid and be ashamed, and part of me wants to listen to that. But my better angels say, screw those guys, set down that shame it belongs to them, and do not agree to play a losing game. Always listen to that voice.
After that speech my son said, “You’re a really good mom.”
My oldest daughter said, “Haters gonna hate, just keep your head up like #noshame.”
And my youngest said, “I wanna come next time, I’ll bring popcorn.” And then she gave me a hug and we all laughed and were better for it.
At church another pastor remarked about Shirley that you could always find the true disciples in the newspaper making waves.
While the state was busy hypothesizing that Ricko was the muscle of the conspiracy, he was busy welcoming a new son to the world and hosting yet another fundraiser to make the world a better place.
We are blessed.
The bearded and bespectacled man on the witness stand looked every bit the part of reporter and professor as eyes darted from one end of the courtroom to the other, following the volley of words between attorneys arguing about the man’s very presence in the courtroom. The notion alone of a reporter on the witness stand who has neither witnessed a crime nor participated in one, but has simply researched and written articles, is unsettling enough to spark debate. Over the objections of media attorney John McKay, to the horror of fellow journalists, and the great fascination of spectators, the reporter was indeed called to testify in the evidentiary hearing for four men who are widely believed to be wrongfully convicted of an eighteen year old murder.
O’Donoghue came to cover the murder of John Hartman and the convictions of four Native American youth quite by accident. The reporter was not assigned the story when a fifteen-year-old found brutally beaten to death on a downtown Alaskan street corner and four young Native men were swiftly arrested for the crime, but he recalled shrugging off the early gaps in the case narrative. In general, he said, the case seemed straightforward and properly covered.
“I will defend the paper’s coverage as free of bias and largely driven by official statements, typical of any high-profile event. The tone was set in the police press conference that Monday following the crime. Detective Keller announced the case solved through confessions, attributing the crime to a ‘spree of violence.’ That seemed definitive.”
But, the reporter would soon discover, the case conclusion was anything but definitive. In addition to writing as a senior reporter, O’Donoghue was the editor of the opinion page at the local newspaper, where letters to the editor insisting the four accused were innocent did not slow down even as the guilty verdicts rolled in. By the time O’Donoghue looked at the case the four accused had already been arrested, indicted, tried, and convicted in three separate trials, and on the surface the case was open and shut. The verdicts were so widely accepted as fact by the press that the case would likely have disappeared from the media entirely if not for the letters landing so persistently on the reporter’s desk.
“I was fact-checking a letter to the editor from a man named Curtis Sommer. He raised so many potentially libelous questions that I had to keep digging deeper and deeper into court files for verification, in the process finding more and more truth to his claims about the investigation, flaws and testimony conflict unresolved in court.”
O’Donoghue’s initial casual research into the case would spark an investigative reporting project that spanned more than fifteen years. His decision to fact-check the letter would ultimately lead the reporter from the comfortable anonymity of the newsroom, into a courtroom, and into the news himself.
The convictions of the four accused rested very heavily on the eye witness testimony of a man named Arlo Olson, whose testimony was the subject of the letter to the editor that sparked O’Donoghue’s curiosity. Olson was presented at trial as a moral man doing his rather heroic civic duty by coming forward with his account of seeing the four accused men together that night. But O’Donoghue rapidly uncovered a more complex vision of the star witness than the one presented at court, and subsequently printed in the media. Olson was facing charges for beating a pregnant woman when he came forward as a witness. Some months later he was granted a sentence with no jail time, with the judge’s stated motivation for the leniency that Olson had “assisted authorities.” Olson was a far cry from the academic and clean-cut young man the jury was led to believe stood before them, and in fact had a long and troubling criminal record. O’Donoghue also realized that Olson had been standing 550 feet away from the assault he claimed to have witnessed, in the dark, drunk, and in a crowd of people who all claimed to have seen nothing. O’Donoghue’s earliest research into the star witness produced even more startling revelations that the transcripts and public records. Olson had recanted, multiple times, including to the prosecuting attorney for the state who threatened Olson with perjury if he refused to testify.
The reporter sought out the star witness for an interview and found Arlo Olson in jail and willing to talk. Olson admitted that his testimony had been false and that he had not seen the four accused that night. He had a series of lengthy conversations with Olson, who wove stories about his troubled life and relationship complaints into his account of how his trial testimony came to pass. Olson told the reporter that he had legal troubles and was struggling with addiction in October of 1997, when police officer Aaron Ring approached him to see if he had seen anything the night in question. Officer Ring, Olson claimed, fed him information and pressured him until he agreed to the officer’s version of what Olson saw. Then, Olson claimed, Officer Ring and prosecutor Jeff O’Bryant worked together to coach Olson’s testimony and threatened him with prosecution for perjury if he refused testify in court. O’Donoghue recorded the conversations, lawfully, a process he eventually described in detail in his writing, and continued to research the case.
O’Donoghue reached out the convicted men. He corresponded with Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease, George Frese, and Marvin Roberts. All four of the men remained steadfast in their claims of innocence. He corresponded regularly with Roberts.
As the research progressed, O’Donoghue left the Newsminer and began teaching journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He used his investigative journalism course as a lab for the complex and evolving work on the Hartman case. His students dissected the case, constructed timelines, interviewed witnesses, and ultimately secured access to interview the convicted men in prison.
O’Donoghue’s continued investigation into the case with the help of energetic would-be journalists would ultimately reveal that Olson was hardly the only facet of the case that seemed riddled with contradictions and was vastly different than what had been presented in such an open-and-shut fashion in the early media accounts and trials. His work culminated in the 2008 publication of a newspaper series called “Decade of Doubt.”
The articles consumed the front page of the paper for seven consecutive days and revealed the many inconsistencies in the investigation, the Olson inconsistencies, unearthed an illegal jury experiment, explored the details of the alleged confessions, presented the possibility of alternate suspects, and generally revealed to the community of Fairbanks that the case that had shocked them all in its brutality yet strengthened their faith in local justice may not be what it initially appeared. The series also gave a public voice for the first time to many Native community members and leaders who had long held the four were innocent.
The community was as polarized by the series as they had been by the crime. Although the assertions from a sector of the community that the men were innocent were as old as the case, the “Decade of Doubt” series brought the controversy into the mainstream community, and it was clear that the case was not going to go away any time soon. The series landed O’Donoghue and his work in the line of vision of powerful prosecutors, police officers, and politicians who all had a vested interest in the convictions of the four men.
As the years went on and more and more information came out about the case, O’Donoghue continued to cover the case. The revelation about illegal jury experiments during the original trials contributed to a successful appeal. O’Donoghue continued to cover the case as it wound through a maze of legal victories and failures, ultimately terminating when the Alaska Supreme Court was given the case and after years of consideration simply declined to make any decision at all.
O’Donoghue covered the inception of the Alaska Innocence Project, their decision to take on the case, the renewed effort to expose the wrongful conviction within the legal system, and the huge grassroots social movement in support of the men now popularly known as the “Fairbanks Four.” Indeed, the reporter’s coverage spanned a decade and a half, and saw the convicted men from youth to the cusp of middle age. The reporter himself had gone all gray by the time his coverage was interrupted by a subpoena from the State of Alaska demanding his letters, interviews, phone calls, research, notes, emails, and more.
The reporter refused to hand over materials which he believed disclosing would violate the constitutional right to freedom of the press, but was still forced to hand over a large volume of the information demanded.
Brian O’Donoghue’s work as a journalist secured him a place on the State of Alaska’s witness list.
They called him to the stand and the asked a series of questions aimed, presumably, at insinuating the journalist was somehow responsible for Arlo Olson recanting his testimony and that in general his press coverage of the case had contaminated the case to such a point that the witnesses he spoke to should be discounted. Embedded in the questions were a series of accusations.
The State accused O’Donoghue of recording his interviews with Arlo Olson secretly. They had no evidence to back the claim. In reality, O’Donoghue clearly indicated to Olson that they were on the record. “I lawfully recorded them and I had put on the record that I was interviewing him on the record,” O’Donoghue said on the stand.
Although the conversations were clearly recorded within the confines of the law and ordinary trade practices, it was striking that the State found it so objectionable. They of course did not deny that Olson had repeatedly recanted his testimony in 2001, as he had just days earlier in the same proceedings, but just insinuated that they didn’t like it. The move likely backfired as it led to the admission of Olson’s previous statements, which match his 2015 claims that his testimony was false, underscoring the likelihood of an alternative motivation in calling the reporter.
The State accused O’Donoghue of providing Olson legal advice. Olson had repeatedly told the reporter that he falsified his testimony because, among other reasons, he was threatened with prosecution for perjury if he recanted. O’Donoghue suggested to Olson that other sources had told O’Donoghue that Olson’s recantation was unlikely to be believable to most courts, save for his assertion that he feared prosecution. O’Donoghue did not tell Olson what he should do, only what others had said about the general reception and what his research had revealed. His exact words to Olson were, “It would be very difficult for them to, for the court to, accept that one way or another that you would change what you’ve said and sworn to already. The only kind of thing that would really persuade them about this, apparently, is for you to really persuade them that you were really scared about the whole perjury thing.”
The state insinuated that O’Donoghue had been too friendly to Marvin Roberts. Not that he had conspired with him, influenced him, and engaged in any activity beyond correspondence….simply that O’Donoghue had been too friendly. The questioning was so irrelevant and absurd that it would have been a hilarious parody of itself had the stakes not been so high. Because when our press is under fire, democracy is under fire.
Alongside the reporter and professor under fire in the courtroom, the very concept of freedom of the press and freedom of speech in Alaska came under scrutiny. As the reporter’s phone calls were played and his emails were read line by line, there was a message between the lines clearly communicated to the press of Alaska – if you write something your government doesn’t like, there are consequences.
The court proceedings in 2015 something important in common with the original troubled trials in that there was much more than met the eye to nearly every witness and exhibit presented. And that underscores the necessity of a free press in making the truth public. In the confines of a court, under the auspices of regulation and procedure, only part of the story can ever be told. If we are ever to see justice, and see revelation of the absolute truth, it requires a press free to report the truth without fear of retaliation.
When O’Donoghue was released from the witness stand he took his place in the gallery among the rest of the press. Previous to his release as a witness it would have been illegal for him to sit there and cover the story he had covered for more than fifteen years.
A lesser journalist would have backed down from this story long ago. Great journalists write until the story ends. Great journalists fear the end of the free press more than embarrassment. Brian O’Donoghue is certainly that kind of journalist, and we owe him a debt of gratitude as a community and state. Thank you, Brian O’Donoghue, for reporting the news, for not taking sides, for not worrying about ruffled feathers or bruised egos, and thank you for teaching the next generation of journalists to do the same.
Jim Geier was instrumental in the arrest and conviction of the Fairbanks Four. When he returned to the courtroom it was clear he was no longer the rookie cop and lackey of Aaron Ring. He had been promoted. He came into court with the title of lead investigator for the Fairbanks Police Department. And he was there to discuss the case that made his career, and ruined innumerable lives.
Geier testified that he was patient, respectful, and nice to the witnesses he interviewed. Cue tape of 14-year-old Shara David crying.
“I’m sorry I am crying,” she said between sobs, “I want my mom, please.”
“Get a hold of yourself,” Geier barked back at the little girl.
And so it went….
Geier justified keeping a murder confession from the actual perpetrators under wraps because, he said, he “just assumed it was on the internet.” Ugh.
In an attempt to defend the boot print exhibit used in the original trials, a piece of non-science created bu Geier, another cop, and a prosecutor, an exhibit which has been called “shocking,” “reprehensible,” “deliberately misleading,” ” not science,” and a host of other obvious things a scientist would say about not-science presented as science and used to run lives. The exhibit, which was used to convince jurors there was a match between the wounds on Hartman’s face and George Freese’s boot, was compared to one of those 3-D optical illusion posters.
“I hate to give this analogy, but they sell photographs, or posters, that you’re supposed to see a dolphin in, but you don’t notice it till you look at it for a long time and then there’s the dolphin,” Geier said. “Well, that was those tread marks.”
And indeed, the exhibit was an optical illusion. But the outcome was not that the onlooker saw a surprise dolphin. The outcome was that people were sent to jail as kids for a crime they did not commit. The outcome was that people died. Even after eighteen years to think it through, the gravity of that outcome remains entirely lost on Geier.
The day was long, and this post could be equally long, but the reality is that nothing very important was said. Jim Geier, in the face of mountains of facts and actual science, defended the “science” of pretending something is true because you want it to be. The sad truth is that the men most responsible for the harm done here are too afraid to truly look behind them at what was left in the wake of their misguided zealotry.
“I hate to give this analogy, but they sell photographs, or posters, that you’re supposed to see a dolphin in, but you don’t notice it till you look at it for a long time and then there’s the dolphin,” Geier said. “Well, that was those tread marks.”
The majority of the proceedings on the twenty-second day of proceedings in the Fairbanks Four centered around the testimony of Trooper Lance Dahlke.
Dahlke was introduced as a witness to attack the credibility of the Alaska State Troopers who handled the investigation into the original case and testified that their investigation, conducted under the supervision of Adrienne Bachman, and ultimately testified that their investigation supported the innocence of the Fairbanks Four. Their testimony was a huge blow to the State’s case. The troopers were the state’s own investigators and they not only testified to the defects in the original case, that their investigation supported the innocence of the Fairbanks Four, guilt of the others named, improbability of the original eye witnesses testimony being correct, but also implicated their own supervisor and State prosecutor Adrienne Bachman in misconduct during their investigation. Some time into their investigation, as it became clear to Bachman that they were not going to produce a conclusion in her favor she allegedly terminated the investigation. In apparent anticipation of the trooper’s damning testimony the prosecutors brought in Dahlke to review the work of the troopers.
So, why would Dahlke be the right man for the job? He does not seem like a corrupt man, just one with a morally insurmountable bias. Dahlke was the trooper who investigated and ultimately arranged for considerable leniency in the murders Jason Wallace committed. As such, Dahlke certainly has a vested interest in confirming his original conclusion – that Wallace was a one-time offender whose crime was largely circumstantial and who was a candidate for immunity and leniency. In all reality, it was a terrible call, and that was painfully obvious as the Dahlke testimony continued. Dahlke read portions of Walalce’s interrogation when he flattered the trooper transparently
“I have never trusted anyone in my life, but I trust you. I look into your eyes and see a good man, God is telling me to trust you,” Wallace dripped.
The investigator described driving Wallace to the place where he disposed of the hammer used to kill unarmed friend Teacka Bacote. Wallace, he said, pointed to the snow bank, and the bloody hammer was retrieved. Dahlke testified that he then took Wallace out for McDonald’s, as he knew Wallace would be going to prison and not getting a burger for a long time. Um…..wow. You know who will never have another burger ever again? All of the people who Wallace killed. It is truly unthinkable that a serial killer was rewarded with a happy meal for guiding investigators to the bloody hammer he used to kill a woman.
And as for the hammer, Bachman lead Dahlke down a line of questioning that ultimately led to the trooper justifying the hammer as a murder weapon. Petitioner’s attorneys have referenced the murder of Bacote as unnecessarily brutal. But, Dahlke argued, it made sense for Wallace to not use the .40 caliber gun intended for the murder but the hammer, “because it would be quieter in the fully occupied apartment complex.” You know, the one fully occupied with human beings Wallace attempted to burn alive a few hours later. Not only is there not rationale for killing an unarmed woman with a hammer, we will state the obvious: gunshots make noise, but so do the screams of a woman who wakes up to a fatal hammer attack.
It is not surprising that those who worked closely with Wallace were so persuaded by him, perhaps even fond of him. It is because Wallace moved them around like human objects. That is his game. Wallace is a high functioning and manipulative psychopath who manipulated the investigators he was working with in 2002 into providing him very lenient prosecution, immunity, and all manner of favorable treatment. His co-defendant, who killed two adult male drug dealers, received a double life sentence with no chance of parole. Wallace, who killed an unarmed woman with a hammer, stabbed a friend with a screwdriver before returning to the woman’s corpse to set it ablaze in a fully occupied apartment building, and then boarded a plane bound for a campground where he planned to kill a man, woman, and eight year old little girl, may be eligible for release as early as 2025 due to the investigator’s judgement that he was trustworthy. He provided testimony against his codefendant and was handsomely rewarded. The notion that he killed John Hartman, likely killed Mahogany Davis, and threatened to kill several others, demonstrates that Wallace is the most dangerous kind of offender and calls into question the judgment of the officers who judged him rehabilitatable. Dahlke was one of those men.
So…now it is time to use one of Bachman’s favorite terms correctly. Dahlke was very prone to what is called confirmation bias. That is, Dahlke has a desire to confirm his original judgment, and with that bias is likely to seek information that confirms his theory and ignore information which contradicts it. Which is why Dahlke was an obvious yet very inappropriate choice for the unnecessary double-check of the troopers who made the state mad.
What did Dahlke find? One planted but irrelevant ten-dollar bill and “dirt” that labs confirmed was not only irrelevant, but not actually dirt.
Marvin Roberts car was taken apart and tested six ways to Sunday in 1997 and 1998, and then again in 2001. Cold case troopers looked at it again in 2013 and 2014. And then, Adrienne Bachman and Jim Geier, the prosecutor tasked with upholding the convictions and one of the primary detectives who achieved them, led Lance Dahlke back to the car. There, in plain sight, apparently invisible in all previous photographs and inspections, was a ten-dollar bill, and Dahlke “found” it. This was a transparent and pathetic attempt at evidence planting and we are confident that he ten-dollar bill will some day be an important exhibit….in the investigation into the misconduct of Geier and Bachman. While Dahlke was on the stand Bachman pointed to original testimony that John Hartman’s mother had given the boy a ten-dollar bill on the day he was killed. She failed to mention, or perhaps did not realize, that Hartman took the ten-dollar bill to McDonalds and a corner store. The ten-dollar bill was relevant only in an exhibition of how desperately far the state will go. The discovery of the ten-dollar bill was also meant to discredit the work of the troopers, insinuating that they should have found it. Had it been there, we imagine they would have.
The next portion of Dahlke’s testimony was even stranger. Dahlke also testified that when he examined John Hartman’s pants he saw dirt. No previous investigators, nor the troopers currently assigned, had ever seen the dirt in the photographs. But Dahlke felt certain that there was dirt visible in the photos of the young victim’s pants. Dahlke also saw, under eighteen years of dust, markings on the hood of Marvin Robert’s car that he believed matched the corduroy pattern of John Hartman’s pants. He testified that he saw these things, the other two troopers did not, and that they were not willing to send the car hood and pants to a lab for trace soil matching forensic testing. Ostensibly, this testimony was meant to hint that there may be missed physical evidence, and that the cold case troopers ignored that. But the train of argument fell apart in a rather complete fashion when the petitioners revealed that the hood and the pants had indeed been tested. The “dirt” Dahlke saw on the pants? Not dirt, the lab concluded, just a discoloration in the blue pants because of wear. It did not match the dirt on the car because it was not dirt. There was, of course, no new physical evidence linking the Fairbanks Four to the Hartman crime, just as there has never been physical evidence, because they are innocent.
Bachman argued against the admission of the lab results from the test she herself had ordered. The state does not want science in the courtroom when the forensics of police officer’s imaginations are available. Not a new strategy, just a crappy one.
Previous to his testimony, Dahlke had not seen the lab report. It was a strange and sad scene, and left the impression that the state had encouraged and validated Dahlke’s theory to strengthen his testimony but withheld the forensics from him. In all, it was just another wasted day. And Dahlke did not come off like a bad guy. He came off like a guy who is easily manipulated by people like Jason Wallace or Aaron Ring, and had been used by Bachman in a rather pathetic attempt to dodge actual science and replace it will contaminated and biased theory.
And that is the science of pretending there is no science.
And that is the art of pretending that killing a woman with a hammer is okay, if the person talks nice afterward.
Days 20 and 21
Ring, the lead detective during the original investigation, has come under severe scrutiny during the hearings in the proceedings the Fairbanks Four hope will lead to their exoneration. A former FBI agent testified that Ring used improper interrogation techniques and failed to investigate the murder properly. Two cold case Alaska State troopers who investigated directly under the prosecutor Adrienne Bachman turned on the state and provided damning testimony. The troopers criticized ring’s work as well, and were especially critical of the aggressive prolonged interrogations of alibi witnesses. The three weeks that preceded Ring’s testimony not only undermined his original work but painted a picture of an investigation so off track that it reinforced the long-held belief by Fairbanks Four supporters that the wrongful conviction was a result of misconduct, fraud, and corruption as opposed to error.
Ring took the stand to defend his work. He testified that he remained confident in the quality of the investigation, and that he was a calm and patient man who kept a respectful demeanor while questioning suspects or witnesses. He reiterated that he was sure he had the right people, based on the information he gained in interrogation, and specific clues. Eugene Vent, he reminded the court, admitted to having gum. An unopened pack of gum was also found at the crime scene. Ring admitted to using “portions” of the Reid Method, and generally insisted that his demeanor had been nonthreatening and that the children being interviewed had supplied him the information.
The cross-examination of Aaron Ring was methodical and almost painful to watch. Cross-examination followed the case in chronological order and walked through Ring’s participation in the investigation from the beginning moments through the eventual convictions of the men. It was death by a thousand cuts, as Dorsey and Whitney attorney Jahna Lindemuth painstakingly revealed one inconsistency after another – the officer’s statements of his qualifications or training versus reality, his recounting of order versus the record, the hours long interviews he admitted to and witnesses testified to versus the recordings that sometimes spanned only minutes, and aggressive questioning of how Ring came to be so certain.
Ring came under relentless questioning regarding his misrepresentation of the physical evidence in order to achieve an indictment in the case. He attempted to defend his false grand jury testimony, during which he testified that there was physical evidence linking the four to the crime. It was one of many attacks regarding Ring’s false characterization of evidence in the case.
“We saw the match,” he said, insinuating that his belief there was a match between wounds and footwear was itself physical evidence.
“Yeah, but there are forensics to back that,” Lindemuth countered. “And there were no forensics on the sexual assault yet either were there?”
“Uh..there had been a sexual assault exam and I think there was findings,” Ring answered.
“There were no forensics. And you said, ‘forensics.'”
But perhaps most damningly, audio of the actual interrogations which provided a sharp contrast against the calm demeanor and subject-directed interviews Ring had described. In the audio Ring can be heard yelling at witnesses, threatening them with arrest, demanding that they not interrupt him, that they agree with him, and so on. The audiotapes verified the accounts given by the now-adult alibi witnesses that they were threatened and harassed.
Lindemuth played interviews with three teenage girls, questioned alone and without their parents present. Audio revealed what these now grown women testified to earlier in the trial – that they experienced threatening and terrifying accusatory interrogation performed on children. It confirmed the testimony of the FBI agent and Alaska State Troopers. In fact, the only witness who seemed to think Aaron Ring was calm, investigated appropriately, or professional was Aaron Ring.
Many of the young people who were interviewed during the original case, now on the cusp of middle age with teenage children of their own, sat in the gallery of the courtroom during Ring’s testimony. If he recognized them from the witness stand or had any grasp on the impact he had on their lives, his face did not betray it.
“I spent more than half of my life now thinking about that man, having the bad dreams, and the hard memories of this man,” one of the alibi witnesses said. “And he was just a man. Not a good man, but just a man. I have been afraid for, what, eighteen years? Afraid of seeing him again. So I kept wondering why I wasn’t scared after all when he walked in. And I think it’s because I am an adult now. I thought back then I was grown, but I was a little girl then. To hear the tapes I didn’t feel like this happened to me, I felt like it happened to a little kid because it did. And we cannot allow people in power to do this to our kids. It was good to see him, because I think all I wanted was to see him when he didn’t have power over me. It’s not a little girl and a police officer. It’s a strong woman and a weak man. I have the power now.”
Day 18 – October 29, 2015
The State of Alaska called Hazel Roberts, the mother of accused Marvin Roberts, as the first witness of the day. In disjointed and wandering videotaped testimony aired earlier in the week, former Roberts acquaintance Margaretta Hoffman claimed that on the night John Hartman was killed she was at the Roberts home doing cocaine, getting drunk, and was ultimately part of a conspiracy to throw away shoes. Hoffman, a self-confessed user of methamphetamine and cocaine since 1993, provided testimony which did not comply with any testimony given by any others in the case. Hazel Roberts was called to the witness stand in response to the Hoffman claims and reiterated her original testimony, which matches those of the other household members and has been consistent from her first contact with police in 1997 through today. She knew Hoffman, Roberts said, and did hang out with her a few times, but not the night in question. None of the things Hoffman testified to happened. When a 19-year-old Marvin Roberts came home the night in question everyone was in bed, there was no remarkable entrance, no shoes thrown out, nothing but a quiet return. Marvin Roberts turned off the light above the stove and went to bed.
The testimony of Hazel Roberts was followed by Chris “Sean” Kelly, John Hartman’s brother. Although in earlier filings special prosecutor described Sean Kelly’s testimony as “words he could never forget,” and indicated some absolute proof would come from Kelly as to the guilt of the Fairbanks Four, his testimony was focused mostly on forgotten words, gaps, heartbreak, confusion.
Kelly took the stand dressed in gray, his clean-cut and angular face unmistakably similar to the pictures of victim John Hartman. Unlike Hartman, who has remained frozen at the entrance to adolescence in his death, the years were evident on Sean Kelly, who is no longer the lanky teen brother from the original case footage, but a middle-aged man.
Kelly testified that shortly after his brother’s death he was incarcerated at Fairbanks Correctional Center with the Fairbanks Four. According to Kelly, he approached Eugene Vent one night and confronted him. Kelly recalls Vent saying, “We didn’t know that was your little brother.” Kelly was unclear on any other words exchanged. To the clear frustration of Prosecutor Adrienne Bachman, he could not recall portions of earlier statements about the incident. Bachman alleged that Eugene Vent had made more incriminating confessional statements to Kelly.
“It didn’t go down like that, I wouldn’t…No, that’s….it’s not what I remember,” Kelly said.
“It would help that the truth comes out, no matter what. I would like some closure,” Kelly said in an interview after testimony.
After his testimony was complete Kelly discussed the process with reporter Stephanie Woodard. He said that testifying brings back the pain of his brother’s murder. He talked about his mother crying, this very specific and unforgettable cry, a bedside vigil for a beloved little brother who was so brutally attacked that footprints remained on his skin.
Chris “Sean” Kelly seems to still believe that the right men are in prison for his brother’s death. Petitioner’s attorney Whitney Glover attempted to open with condolences from her clients to Kelly, which he bristled at. After a long list evidence pointing toward the alternative suspects, Kelly countered, “well they’re not the ones sitting in jail for it.”
And if Kelly believes the right men are in prison, that is okay. None of us can possibly imagine what it would be like to live through what he has. He lost a baby brother at the hands of really horrible people who committed a disgusting awful unthinkable crime. The pain of losing a loved one to that kind of violence is beyond understanding. In his grief and pain he was assured by the people in power that his brother would get justice, that they had the right guys, and those guys would pay. It is only natural that he is attached to the story, it is how they made sense from something that does not make sense. There is a life path for him, he is on it, and if God sees fit to change Kelly’s mind he will. Until then, we hope advocates for the Fairbanks Four can see Kelly simply as a grieving man who suffered a serious loss, who is willing to face it down, remember his brother with honor, and a man who deserves our kindness.
For eighteen long years this case has never, despite the sincerest desires of the State of Alaska, “gone away.” For John Hartman’s family the violence that took their loved one remains splashed across headlines, a hot topic on social media, the subject of films. It must be extremely painful.
Injustice reaches across many lives and leaves much pain in its wake. It is time for the story of this injustice to end.