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.
We were deeply saddened to receive news of Arlo Olson’s passing and further disheartened to learn that he took his own life while in custody.
Arlo was the victim of a terribly dysfunctional justice system that did not take his humanity into account when arranging for a wrongful conviction, just as it did not consider ours. Today, it is his humanity alone that matters.
Arlo Olson struggled for nearly a lifetime with mental illness as well the addiction and behavioral issues that often follow in its wake. To the degree that his choices were his own in regards to our case, he was given forgiveness long ago. His last act toward the Fairbanks Four was one of bravery and honesty and it is that act we will choose to remember.
Arlo Olson had a family who loved him dearly. He was a son, a father, a brother, and there always was and always will be much more to his story than its interconnection to this case.
As survivors of systemized injustice we will continue to advocate for true justice, which includes the humane treatment of inmates and access to dignified and quality mental health services within our prison systems.
Our hearts are with the Olson family today, and we hope they receive an outpouring of love and support in this time of grief. Arlo is with his Creator now who knows the contents of his soul and will no doubt receive him with love beyond our understanding.
Rest in peace, Arlo.
Below is a memorial written byAdrienne B. who graciously shared it here. This friend of Arlo’s reveals a star-gazer and cook, and her words are stronger than ours:
My grandma Alma couldn’t say Arlo. Every time he’d cook her a meal, she’d say “Orville, you’re a real good cook. You should open a cafe and call it Orville’s.” He was very particular about his clothes, down to matching his hat to his shoelaces. I went to visit him in Valdez one summer when he was a supervisor for Peter Pan. When I showed up, he was wearing a large pink Alaska tourist themed sweatshirt and some highwater green pants with that really big eye smiling, childish grin. He had done his laundry the previous night and didn’t want to smell eau de fishy so he added a small bottle of bleach to his whites and his jeans. At least he separated them. He finished his shift and we ran into town to only be able to find Lee jeans and Hanes white tshirts with a wool flannel shirt. He went from being dressed like an old lady to an old man with suspenders the week I was there. Those little Phillipino ladies took him under their wing and helped him with his laundry and made sure he ate for the rest of the season. He liked cream in his tea and couldn’t wait go the fall time so he could watch the stars. Godspeed my friend. Those of you reading this that are feeling sad, I pray you too find your place of love and gratitude for being blessed with such a kind soul. He wouldn’t want you to be sad, that’s why he always made you feel important and loved. It’s and good day to celebrate that love. Rest assured from the Heavens above, his loved ones know his sissy Tass has her big brother to hold hands with and run in the tall grass by the river to visit grandpa Aggie and Grandma Marylene. The four of them I’m sure have stopped in to visit my grand alma and grandpa Roland. In good time, in good faith, God promises I too will join them. Until then, I’ll continue to look for them in the stars. Ill speak up about the stigma of mental illness, fight for fair treatment in the system for those suffering from their own minds and let the memory of his beautiful hands be a part it. He may no longer be here in flesh, but a part of him will continue to live through so many wonderful memories. Bless and be blessed my friends.
Prison is just a few short weeks in the past for the four men who served eighteen years for a crime they did not forget. With freedom has come the opportunity to begin what will surely be a lifelong task of reflecting on their experience. They like to focus on the victory and its blessings more than the difficulty of enduring eighteen long years of incarceration. But today, the men discuss what it felt like to be locked up.
“Freedom was surreal,” Eugene says, “but nothing like getting locked up for something we didn’t do.”
Marvin agrees. “That was way more unbelievable. It was unreal. We just could not believe that it was happening. Being freed made sense, it was crazy, but it made sense because we are innocent. Being locked up? That was just unbelievable,” Marvin adds.
George, who says he passed time and coped with imprisonment largely by reading history, business, and psychology texts, adds a more academic answer.”You do get used to it. That is the human mind, you can adjust to almost anything. From a psychological perspective, they say human brains can adjust to almost any conditions in two weeks.”
The others look skeptical.
“Yeah,” Kevin interjects, “But it didn’t take no two weeks. It took years and we had to force ourselves to get used to it. So we wouldn’t go crazy. When you’re in there innocent it’s all unreal.”
For the most part, the men say, they avoided discussing the hardship of their time in prison because they did not want to worry their families and friends. But with prison behind them and freedom ahead, they are more willing to discuss the suffering contained in the eighteen years of incarceration.
George says that 2008 marked the most difficult year of incarceration for him.
“It was a bleak time, ” he recalls. “I had 97 years, earliest possible release date of 2050, I had just lost the last of my appeals and was told basically that I had to start the entire process over. That was the point for me that I wanted to check out. Kill myself. And that lasted a few years. I wasn’t talking to anyone on the outside. Everyone was worn out, you know, it had been long for them too. I couldn’t talk to my daughter, I would dial the number and call and call but the phone was always off. I felt totally alone.” George pauses to gather his thoughts, the weight of recalling such a dark time evident on his face.
“And then to think, ” George continues, “I had to face another eleven years, or more, it almost did me in. The attorneys meant well but once they lose they are gone too, during the appeal process they were people I spoke with, they provided hope and I relied on this hope, and it fell through, and they disappear. Just extreme isolation. The hopelessness. But I know why I pulled through – easy. My daughter. I didn’t want to hurt her, and that was my only reason. It was enough for me at that time I was willing to keep going, even if all that was ahead was suffering, if it spared her. I read about suicide, and it discussed the impact suicide has on other people and the psychology that fuels you. It underscored that my actions could affect her. So I stayed. I survived.”
For Kevin, one of the biggest blows came in 2006 when his mother died suddenly in a home accident.
“The hardest time for me is when I lost my mom,” Kevin says. “She was all I felt I had at the time. We had developed a different relationship with me being in. I had grown up some, a lot, and we were close. She was all I had. And when she passed away it was sudden, and very unexpected. I spoke with her before she died every other day, damn near. She was out there fighting for me, believing in me, and she was my only link to the outside world. When she died it just felt like I lost the entire world, and I lost all hope.”
“You will never feel more alone in your life than in a prison,” Kevin continues. “You fight thinking about it, but hell yeah you think about your situation. Distraction is one thing during the day, but night comes. Or you get thrown in solitary in a tiny cell with nothing but the walls and your thoughts. How did I get here? When will this end? One minute can be an eternity in there. In some ways the hardest, longest part of the experience was those dark minutes. So you keep the faith, but it is a struggle.”
It isn’t easy for the men to watch each other recall the darkest hours of their experience as innocent men in prison. They look at the ground as each in turn recalls the specifics of their individual hardships. For Marvin, it was those first days, months, and years.
“The hardest point of my prison sentence was the first five years while I was adjusting to prison and trying to accept that it could be years before I saw freedom,” Marvin says. “It’s a miracle, it really is, that we survived. Because you can’t even describe it. No one will ever really know who hasn’t been there. No words, no movie, no book, no interview, could describe the suffering.”
Eugene watches Marvin intently as he speaks and after some says, “Me, too. The beginning. The hardest part for me was from like the time I was arrested to our conviction. I was the youngest when we went in, and I was just this little kid taking big hits. Arrested for something I didn’t do. Indicted. Tried. Convicted. And then in the midst of that I lost my brother, my cousin Corwin, but we were raised together. And everything I ever knew or counted on in the world was crumbling apart. You know after that I just became used to the environment, but it’s not like that was better because now I was in prison. I was innocent, but I had this void from not knowing my father. I was vulnerable. I grew up in there, made decisions an adolescent would make”
“But it has all been a blessing,” Eugene adds after a moment of reflection.”We all know we are blessed, like we don’t want to complain.”
The men agree unilaterally that beyond all hardship, they feel blessed. Each insist that they had absolute faith they would see freedom someday.
George laughs at what he sees as the good fortune inside their worst nightmare. “What’s clowning is that we hardly knew each other when we went in. But we were perfect people for this, for each other, there was no better combination,” he says. “And even in the beginning I would thank God, for real, because he chose us so perfectly for each other. The anguish we faced, and yet he let us face it with three people we each needed. Perfectly formed. I always knew God had his hand on us, was guiding our path.”
The other men shake their heads in agreement.
“I kept faith, always,” Marvin says. “They couldn’t take that away.”
Eugene agrees. “I always believed, even during the worst times, I knew someday we would be free.”
“I never lost faith we would get out,” Kevin agrees, “When? How? I didn’t know that. But I always knew we would get out.”
George echoes the others. “I never lost faith,” he says. “I mean, there is a voice of doubt that tries to say ‘never,’ but I kept faith. I knew we were innocent, the case was a bad case, no DNA, alibis, all of that. I knew that Brian (O’Donoghue) was writing about the case, I knew you (April Monroe) were, and I knew people were reading. I knew someday, someone would do the right thing, that someday, something would happen. And that’s faith right there, because even after watching people do the wrong thing over and over, I knew that God is good, his children are good. I knew someday we would be free.”
The men are ecstatic to be out. This is, they say, a dream come true. Gratitude and excitement dominate all conversation about freedom or the future. But they acknowledge that there is a lot of adjustment after eighteen years of incarceration, and that nothing could have fully prepared them for the transition.
Police chief Randall Aragon, who heads the Fairbanks Police Department that has long been accused of racial bias and misconduct in the Fairbanks Four case and others, made a series of shocking remarks following the release of the wrongfully convicted men known as the Fairbanks Four. The comments made in two separate interviews to Alaska media outlets KTVA and the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer marked a sharp departure from the chief’s pervious position and left supporters of the innocence movement wonder who directed his new position.
The four men at the heart of the case- Eugene Vent, George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Marvin Roberts – maintained their innocence for the entire eighteen years of their imprisonment, and refused to sign any terms of release that would not allow them to continue professing their innocence. After a five week evidentiary hearing on the case in which newly unearthed evidence that exposed incredible police and prosecutorial misconduct in the original case, undermined the credibility of the information prosecutors and police used to convict them, and revealed not one but two confessions from the alternate suspects known to the police for many years, the State of Alaska released the men in exchange for a promise from them not to sue the State, city, or individual police officers and prosecutors responsible for wrongfully convicting the men.
Although the State of Alaska, Fairbanks Police, and City of Fairbanks have reached excruciating levels of ridiculousness in their efforts to deny having made any mistakes in the case, and with eighteen years of absurd commentary from officials, the police chief’s remarks following the release of the men still managed to be uniquely offensive to the very concept of justice and every advocate who demanded it.
We will break this down real easy and respond to each of his comments individually.
“It’s like a person gets deferred adjudication for a traffic ticket, you know? You do well and [if] after a year you haven’t got any more tickets, the conviction disappears.”
No, actually, it turns out that being an innocent person convicted of a brutal murder and released after 18 years of fighting back against a deeply troubled system is a little different than a parking ticket disappearing on its own. Like, in every possible way. First there is the difference between committing a traffic infraction – as minor as it may be – and NOT committing a murder. Not only are these two different they are actually opposites. Guilt and Innocence are not the same. Should we all be worried we have a police chief who does not know that? (YES. The answer is YES, that should freak you all out – that is kinda how we got here). Then there is of course the difference between a traffic infraction like, say, running a yellow light, and the brutal kicking murder of an innocent child. They are both illegal, yet, it feels like maybe not comparable? Yes. Totally not comparable. And last but not least there is the glaring difference between a conviction “disappearing” after one year and eighteen years of wrongful imprisonment, day after day after day locked behind bars and chains, the violence, blood, lack of health care, psychological torture, missed moments, utter torment, and the unrelenting fight of a lifetime by yourself, your loved ones, thousands upon thousands of civil rights activists, hundreds of tribes, dozens of attorneys, the Innocence Project, political resolutions, politicians, all culminating in a evidentiary hearing that reveals precisely how you were wronged and who was actually responsible for the brutal murder, and the full dismissal of charges and release by your captors. Those things are pretty different.
Aragon said the settlement “vindicates the police department and prosecutors, and the state released the four not because they believe they’re innocent, but because of political pressure.”
Hahahahaha. What a hilarious, if tasteless joke. Because it is a joke, right? I mean, there is no way that an agent of the law believes they were granted some kind of immunity against responsibility for the violation of civil and constitutional rights through extortion of unlawfully imprisoned citizens, right? And no one in their right mind could have seen the contents of the five week trial where the officers and prosecutor responsible here stammered and lied on the stand and then the state released the wrongfully convicted men before they could be freed by a court and sue, “vindication,” so this is definitely a joke. Well played, chief, for a second we thought you were serious. But be sure to tell that one to the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation, they will LOVE it.
Aragon went on to explain that the FPD would NOT be investigating John Hartman’s murder because it is closed (ie they still consider the Fairbanks Four guilty) and they have “no viable leads.”
“If anything ever pops up, any viable leads that would be workable that would lead us to believe someone else was involved, we would begin further investigation,” Aragon said. “At this point, we don’t have anybody else to look at as far as further investigation.”
“Whatever happened on that case, they’re no longer incarcerated. They’re turned loose,” Aragon said.
OHHHHHH MYYYYYY GOOOOOODDDDD How is this even real?
The Fairbanks Four were freed because they are innocent. The State of Alaska does not arbitrarily free killers. They did not kill John Hartman and any comment which insinuates that for the purpose of preventing liability or pleasing a higher up is a morally repugnant thing for any human, let alone one purporting to be an agent of justice, to say.
A fight for justice is a fight for JUSTICE. John Hartman was beaten to death for no reason, in a hate crime, as a little kid. He deserves justice. Bringing his killers to the court should trump any pursuit of ego, money or reputation. The FPD should investigate ALL leads. Investigate the Fairbanks four and the rest of the innocent all you like. But by all means, if you have not been able to find a viable lead, we can help there.
Jason Wallace, Shelmar Johnson, Marquez Pennington, and William Holmes killed John Hartman. There’s a lead that just “popped” up. We know that because TWO OF THEM CONFESSED. Their SWORN testimony is part of the public record and the chief himself sat and listened to it. William Holmes passed a lie detector to prove his confession was true, and even wrote it down and sent it directly to FPD who “basically, uh, didn’t do anything with it,” according to the officer who received it.
Perhaps not so into the reading? The mountain of evidence against the people who actually confessed to the crime was lost on you in person? Here is Holmes ON VIDEO if that helps.
If this murder cannot be solved we are all in serious danger, because this is as easy as an investigation gets. When the original officers failed to do it properly, the Alaska Innocence Project and the Alaska State Troopers came along and did it for them, then handed them the answer. If they can’t figure this one out then we have more problems within our justice system than even we knew about, and we are jaded over here.
“We questioned it, too. We aligned with the prosecution, me and my investigators,” Aragon said. “There were doubts that was credible. My staff has never felt, at any point, that they were traveling in the wrong direction.”
Okay, well then you are going to want to fire those people that never felt they were maybe headed in the wrong direction. For incompetence. It is very important to question ones direction when all empirical evidence indicates the direction is dead wrong, especially when lives are at stake. They should be fired for some seriously disturbing confirmation bias driven incompetence.
“There’s got to be a calm. A cloud has been hanging over our great city. It’s kind of going away,” Aragon said.
We really want it to go away too, but somehow reading your comments served as the huge reminder that there is no end in sight. For real, please, knock it off. Actions and words against justice by agents of justice hang over this golden heart city like an unlifting fog, and we would super appreciate it if you guys would just stop.
At this point in the interview the chief shows off a photo of himself with a Native leader and a necklace, and basically insinuates that he and the Native community are all cool, and that indeed perhaps agree with him, saying, Natives “Wanna build a bridge and walk across it all together. And that’s what I’m looking forward to.” Because, you know, a comment made to him by one man in a completely different context on a totally different topic means every indigenous person in town agrees with him forever now.
Oh, dear. We think maybe you mistook BURNING bridges for building them.
Another roadblock for the FPD in investigating the alternate suspects? They claim they do not know where they are. We can help there, too.
Rashan Brown is in prison, in Oregon State penitentiary, because after you failed to arrest him for killing John Hartman he killed a pregnant woman and a young man. That’s one of the reasons we need to arrest killers – they kill people.
Shelmar Johnson, longtime drug dealer, burglar, who supplied weapons for at least one murder, is currently in Orlando, Florida.
Marquez Penninton, longtime drug dealer and woman beater, is here in the greater Fairbanks area, sharing streets with our children, exactly where the entire community was terrified the killers of John Hartman would end up back in 1997.
William Holmes is in prison in California, because after you failed to arrest him for killing John Hartman, he killed two young men execution style an dumped them on the highway before heading off to execute his plan to kill an entire family including a little girl. Again, it’s important to arrest killers. They kill people. Like human people. Kind of a huge deal.
Jason Wallace is in prison in Seward, which the FPD and state know, because they’re in pretty tight with him. And he is there because after they failed to arrest him for killing John Hartman he….yes, he killed more people. Again, we need to arrest killers because of the killing. But Wallace is in a category all his own. Last time he was in a squad car it was for killing an unarmed woman with a hammer, after which an officer took him to McDonalds because he felt bad Wallace would not be eating a burger for a long time. Unfortunately, he cannot be prosecuted for killing John Hartman because the State gave him immunity in the obscene effort to keep innocent men in prison. He CAN however be prosecuted for the perjury for lying on the stand. Oh, and it’s pretty obvious that he killed Mahogany Davis, three weeks after she had a baby and in front of her kids. And in general he seems to be super dangerous sociopath. So maybe look into that.
If all else fails and you cannot find Marquez Pennington and Shelmar Johnson with outside records, check your own. We are pretty sure they should be easy to find on your own informant list.
When reporters informed Bill Oberly of the Alaska Innocence project that the FPD Chief Aragon claimed to have no viable leads to investigate he said, “That’s ridiculous. We know who did it, a guy got up on the stand and confessed to it, and another guy told four other people he did it. And that’s not viable?”
We could summarize what Police Chief Aragon said that way and save you time – it’s ridiculous.
So now, Aragon and other agents of justice, we imagine you are off to celebrate the birth of the most famous man in the world. A wrongfully convicted man. You may want to read up on that.
Readers, we are so sorry that this isn’t over, but we know you already knew that.
The story of the Fairbanks Four is much older and much bigger than four young men. It is our story, the story of this place, this people, this country. And you have to keep fighting, because we have to be the ones to write the ending.
Hundreds or people filled the hallway of the fifth floor of the Fairbanks Superior courthouse yesterday, gathered around two closed doors bearing the words “Confidential Hearing Do Not Enter.” They came one by one, trickling in to wait together, again, for justice. Grandmothers with their scarves and crochet needles, babies hanging from their mother’s hips, teenagers playing on their phones, nurses on lunch break, a relocated e-board meeting, beggars, CEO’s, activists, priests, people – they all came, and they waited.
For the last eighteen years people have stood diligently in the halls – pilgrims at the doorstep of a justice system that will not let them all the way in. And they have waited. They have raised money one dollar at a time, cake walks and spaghetti feeds, auctioned diamond willow walking sticks, and paintings, and hundreds of thousands of glass beads sewn to moose hide, and they have never given up.
Because eighteen years ago men in power took away four boys for a crime they did not commit on a whim and a terrible miscalculation. Four boys. Children. They did not care whether or not they were guilty, just believed they were disposable. That they would be forsaken and forgotten because they could not see them as human beings with value equal to their own children, because that is the dehumanizing reality of racism and bias. They were so, so wrong. It’s beautiful, really, how wrong they were.
“I go cover to cover on the case, and I just don’t see anything that would account for its staying power, its longevity, its life,” a former police chief said in reference to the case in 2012.
They forgot to account for the staying power of the truth and the longevity of love. For eighteen years no one who loved those boys, or loved people who loved those boys, or loved someone they could see in those boys forgot. Their persistence grew. The truth spread. Years of hard work led back to the courtroom where the case began, barred from entry to the room where fates would be decided, back to the hallway to wait.
After more than seven hours of waiting, the doors opened. The judge allowed the courtroom to fill to capacity, and warned the spectators that the court was a solemn institution of justice, and that he would not tolerate outbursts or demonstrations. The court was silent as the judge outlined the terms on which the four would be exonerated.
The State of Alaska agreed to release the men by dismissing the original charges, which from a legal perspective makes it almost as if the case simply never happened. As if they were never arrested or charged at all. As if the entire thing was, after all, only a nightmare.
The State further required that the four men agree to not sue the state for their wrongful imprisonment or the police and prosecutorial misconduct that led to it.
What are eighteen years of life worth?
There are some that believe the four should have waited in prison until they were offered monetary compensation. And certainly are owed better from the very system predicated on the notion that accountability should be calculated and exacted through the court of law. But money is only money. (You CAN donate money to them HERE).
No one lays awake at night an innocent man in a prison cell and has their heart break a thousand times because they miss money. People miss their mom, their brother, their best friend, their dad, their child, their lover, their sister. They miss Christmas and pancakes and birthday candles and coffee and giggles. They miss time. They miss love.
No one thought about money when the judge announced the immediate release of Eugene Vent, George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Marvin Roberts. They erupted into cheers. They cried. And they sang and danced a powerful song and a strong dance.
All of those people went home, cooked, and met at the tribal hall an hour later and put on one of the largest potlatches Interior Alaska has ever seen. With nearly no notice they prepared a feast, gathered, and waited one last time to welcome home the men who were taken so long ago, back when they were still just boys.
The four men came home. They walked into the tribal hall where for many years chairs have waited empty for them. And the people danced again.
Nuchalawoyya was the song. Literally translated from Koyukon Athabascan it means “where two rivers meet.” Much of meaning, in many things, is lost in translation. It also means a confluence – a place where people meet, where two things become one thing. The meeting of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers is called by the same name. It was a traditional meeting place for chiefs for more time than history can record, and it was place that saw gatherings in celebration and despair alike. It was the place that the Tanana Chiefs conferred so long ago to negotiate collectively for their people. The place is very near the modern day village of Tanana, a place where two worlds collided long ago. After the first settlers came they divided the place along an invisible barrier called the “mission line.” On one side, the church, the school, the clinic. On the other, the houses and forest. No Natives were allowed to cross the mission line after 5pm. The world is cut up with invisible lines. A mission line runs right across the courthouse steps. Nuchalawoyya is that place, and it is a song that remembers all of that and more.
It is a song that has been sung at many fundraisers and protests and times where these men were mourned or rooted for or lifted up. It has long been a cry for justice and last night the men for whom the song was sung so many times came home and walked right into that circle and sang that song, too.
The Fairbanks Four were exonerated and released because of the hard work and faith of people like you. To all of you who have read this blog, heard this story, donated, baked, dance, sewed, sang, hoped, listened – thank you.
George’s daughter was three when he was taken away. She is twenty-one now. The sound of her yelling “Dad!” across a room and run to hug her father – thank you for that.
Eugene’s mom holding onto him – this small woman whose son grew to a big tall man away where she could not reach him – touching his face and saying, “Is it really real?” – thank you for that.
Kevin flanked by his aunts, the sisters of the beloved mother he lost while in prison, shaking the hand of a little boy who wanted to meet him, who came and said “I did a current events report on you for school and got a hundred percent and that’s how come I knew you were innocent and am happy you are home.” Thank you.
Marvin’s mother peering through a locked door for the last time, tears finally of happiness on her face when he stood a free man for the first time in eighteen years – thank you for that.
And none of that could ever be purchased. The Fairbanks Four deserve better than what they got, but what they got is better than what those who did them wrong will ever see or feel or understand in a lifetime. They won.
The fight for justice is not over. It will not end in this lifetime or the next. But it is a privilege and a blessing to fight.
To Eugene, Kevin, George, and Marvin – welcome home.
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.