Days 20 and 21 – Aaron Ring Returns to Court in Fairbanks Four Case

Days 20 and 21

ring, aaron on standAaron Ring was the star witness in two days of testimony characterized by a long cross-examination heavy on video and audio from the original case.

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.

ring, aaron 2015The 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.

timeschanging“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.”

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Day 11 – Testimony of Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent

KevinCourtTwo of the Fairbanks Four, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent, took the stand during the 11th day of proceedings. The two men spoke to a packed courtroom and recounted the events of the night of October 10th, the early morning of October 11th, and the series of interrogations and events that lead to their wrongful arrest and conviction for the murder of John Hartman,.

Pease and Vent joined Marvin Roberts at the petitioners table, dressed in street clothes and flanked by attorneys. It was clear the three were happy to see each other, but the mood quickly turned somber. Pease and Vent were chained at the waist, and barely able to lift their hands high enough to be sworn in. They are aged. Both men look old enough now to be the fathers of the boys pictured in the photographs the last time they appeared in a Fairbanks Courtroom some eighteen years ago.

Pease took the stand first and described, as his alibi witnesses described in initial 1997 police contact, the original trials, and recently on the stand again, a night spent mostly at a party across town. Pease also described his background, life in 1997, and the police interrogation.

In initial questioning about family background Pease testified that he is an orphan. His father was murdered some six months before Kevin was sent to prison. His mother passed away while he was in custody. In 1997 he was living with his mother in downtown Fairbanks and both of them were grieving the sudden loss of his father. The mood in their house, he said, was tense. Different. Kevin was spending most of his free time with girlfriend Jessica Lundeen, who had to babysit the night of October 10th. So Kevin agreed to attend a party with friends, among them Eugene Vent, Kevin Bradley, Shara David, and Joey Shank. Kevin testified, as have many others, that they remained at a party in the Bradley residence until near 2:00am, then returned to downtown. Kevin was dropped off at home. When he went inside he woke up his mom, who was angry at him for making noise, and even angrier when she saw he was drunk. In his testimony, Pease described an argument that escalated into yelling, with Pease eventually punching the wall. He took off on his three-wheeler and his mother called the police on him. It was this call that led police to bring Pease into the investigation.

Pease described riding the three-wheeler to the home of friends Conan and Shawna Goebel, who both testified to the same series of events and the police behavior during their eventual questioning.

A large amount of testimony and cross-examination was spent on Kevin’s interrogation – specifically his initial choice to lie to detectives. By the time the police picked him up late on October 12, 1997, Pease had already heard rumors that Vent had been implicated in the a serious crime and that police wanted to speak to him about it as well.

“I was scared. I didn’t know what time I came back to town, I didn’t know what time this happened to that kid, I didn’t know what time it was when I walked home alone,” said Pease, his voice cracking into tears. “I was scared.”

It was fear, Pease testified, that motivated him to lie and deny having been out drinking or driving around that night. His girlfriend Jessica Lundeen had suggested he say he was with her all night, and he did. She testified to as much just days before Pease took the stand. Much of cross-examination focused on what State Special Prosecutor described as Pease’s “big whopping lie.” Pease remained adamant that he had lied to detectives out of fear, knew right away it was a mistake when he understood the seriousness of the charges, asked for an attorney, and corrected it.

As cross-examination continued, Pease was asked if he knew a James Wright. Pease testified that he did not, but that he saw that he was aware of his reputation as a snitch due in part to the words “James Wright is a snitch” being carved into the wall of Fairbanks Correctional Center.

Bachman used this line of questioning to accuse Pease of understating his understanding of prison politics.

Pease countered that he understood but preferred not to take part in prison politics, and that it was “common knowledge” that snitches are thought poorly of in prison culture. The line of questioning was interesting in that it likely points to an upcoming snitch witness for the Sate. Perhaps they found him after reading of his snitching abilities on the prison walls.

Kevin Pease was followed by Eugene Vent. Vent was seventeen and had a blood alcohol content of twice the legal limit when Officer Aaron Ring interrogated him for nearly 12 hours. Vent eventually agreed that he “probably” assaulted Hartman. Eugene Vent’s interrogation was the focus of cross-examination by Bachman.

EugeneVentCourtVent testified that a lack of confidence in his memory due to intoxication, police insistence that his “footprints were in the blood” and fingerprints at the scene, that witnesses placed him there, and other lies police used in interrogation eventually persuaded him he could have been there.

“I was listening to everything he told me. And eventually, I just believed him, Vent said. “I was feeling terrible, guilty.”

“Why?” Vent’s attorney, Whitney Glover, asked.

“Because I believed I had done something real bad,” Vent said, breaking into tears.

Vent went on to describe in greater detail how the Reid Method interrogation he endured led him to a state of such confusion he didn’t know what happened. Although he maintained innocence for many hours, he said, by the end of the process he was confused, felt obligated to help the officers any way he could, and ultimately followed their lead in agreeing he had “probably hit and kicked” a young John Hartman, and that he “guessed” he had been with George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Marvin Roberts.

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

Adrienne Bachman made it clear that she expects his cross-examination to be long and continue through the twelfth day of proceedings.

Although Vent’s eventual acquiescence to the police officers and subsequent implicating statements are often touted by the State of Alaska as the smoking gun in this case, experts in false confessions have called his statements a “textbook false confession.” Experts on the Reid Method, the method of interrogation used on Vent, caution that the method should not be used on minors, people who are intoxicated, or people who have any gaps in their memory. Under any of those circumstances, of which Vent had all three, the method is known to lead to false confession.

Vent’s attorney is expected to call a false confession expert to testify as to the psychology behind Vent’s statements. Continued cross-examination of Vent and the false confession expert testimony are likely to consume the twelfth day of proceedings.

Although revisiting imperfections and bad decisions is embarrassing – discussing a decision to lie to the police, a decision as a teenager to drink, and all the small sins that surface in this case – it is necessary. Because the whole truth is that no one is perfect. The whole truth is that being drunk, poor, Native, and in the wrong place at the wrong time made this possible. The whole truth is what needs to be told, even in moments that it makes the Fairbanks Four or their alibis look imperfect, because the whole truth is that no one is perfect. It is high time for the courts to recognize the truth, for the family of John Hartman to receive the truth, and these men to have opportunity to tell it. Nothing but good will come from that.

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Back in court – Opening Arguments and Witnesses in Fairbanks Four Hearings

MArvininCourtOctober 5, 2015 marked the first day of proceedings in the evidentiary hearing the Fairbanks Four, their attorneys, and supporters hope will ultimately lead to their exoneration.

Inside the courtroom, Marvin Roberts was flanked by attorneys, his traditional beaded moosehide vest among the black suit jackets underscoring his singularity in the courtroom. His three – sat a few miles away at Fairbanks Correctional Center, where the State had been ordered to transport them. The court was, however, unable to force the State to transport them under guard the few remaining miles to the courthouse each day when the State refused. Equally alone, and every bit as tasked with the burden of representing those who could not be there in person, was Chris “Sean” Kelly, the elder brother of victim John Hartman.

Nearly eighteen years have passed since the last time this case was in court, and the years have altered many in the crowd. Accused man Marvin Roberts, the only one of the four to achieve parole, and Hartman’s brother Sean Kelly are middle-aged men now. Hazel Roberts, mother to Marvin, has gray streaking her hair now, and is on the doorstep of 60. The last time she sat behind her son proclaiming his innocence she was nearly the age he is today. Hartman’s mother is long deceased. Also present at court was George Frese’s daughter with her daughter on her lap. Today, she is twenty years old, and her daughter is three. In 1997 she was a three-year old on her mother’s lap and her father George was twenty. The years calculated in their alteration of the human beings involved are painfully visible. The rows of spectators listened carefully as the case began. Immediately prior to proceedings, journalist Brian O’Donoghue, whose investigative reporting first revealed the many issues with the original convictions to the public, was unceremoniously ejected from the courtroom. State prosecutor Adrienne Bachman deposed both O’Donoghue and blogger April Monroe, making them witnesses to the case, in what many suspect was an effort to execute control over coverage of the proceedings. The crowd shook their heads as O’Donoghue rose and walked from the courtroom, unable to cover the story for the first time since its inception.

During opening statements attorneys for the men and the State of Alaska outlined their respective cases. The Fairbanks Four, as George Frese, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent, and Marvin Roberts have come to be known, are visibly well represented on this return trip to court. The eighteen years that have elapsed since their original conviction have virtually inverted the appearance of the courtroom – a reflection of the change in public sentiment about the case. The attorneys for the Fairbanks Four sat two tables deep, and opening statements were given in turn by the lead counsel for each of the men. The Fairbanks Four, their attorneys argued, are entirely innocent of the murder of John Hartman. In an opening bolstered by a series of video clips – William Holmes unemotionally confessing to the murder of Hartman in detail, his co-conspirator Jason Wallace implicated by both Holmes and his own statements cockily invoking his right against self-incrimination when asked about his role in the killing, and former star witness Arlo Olson recanting his original testimony – attorneys for the Fairbanks Four argued passionately that their clients were absolutely innocent, as they themselves have insisted since the first day of incarceration and maintained these many years.

Adrienne Bachman argued for the State of Alaska that jury trial is the “bedrock of the justice system,” that the judge had no business being a super-juror in the case, and went on to say she would call witnesses who bolstered the original case, including a cab driver who came forward in 2014 to claim she saw four “Asian-looking men” in the Barnette area the night of the murder, and “felt a catch in her heart.” She outlined a basic argument for countering the admissibility of anything she deemed hearsay, communicated her intention to stand by the boot print exhibit created by controversial figures Jeff O’Bryant and Aaron Ring, and exhibit repeatedly described as misleading and totally unscientific by experts, reiterated that alibi witnesses should not be called because if “they were not believable the first time, they are not believable now.” Bachman also revisited the testimony of Melanie Durham, a women’s shelter resident in 1997 whose testimony about hearing the Hartman beating has long been used as a reference for the time of the crime. Durham came forward when she realized the beating she heard had resulted in a death, claiming to have heard “dark” voices and a smaller voice plead for help. After the Fairbanks Four were arrested and she had a conversation with officer Aaron Ring, accused by supporters of significant misconduct in the case, Durham altered her story to be that although she was not close enough to hear audible words, and she saw nothing, that she was still able to identify the voices as Native due to an accent (as an aside – none of the Fairbanks Four have a “Native” accent, all are verified city boys). Durham’s  illogical but racially charged testimony was effective the first time, and Bachman argued that Durham did not hear a black man, despite Holmes’ having a classic “African-American speech pattern.” It was an interesting addition to the theory that witnesses can distinguish Natives in the dark distance by indistinguishable speech – the State expressed their stance that this is also true of African Americans.

In the end, both sides argued what is to be expected – the attorneys for the Fairbanks Four argued based on fact and witness testimony that their clients are actually innocent of the crime for which they have spent the last 18 years in prison, and Adrienne Bachman argued that she did not want to be there and did not think it was fair that her opponents were presenting this information in court. Oh, also that her witness has the superpower of identifying people by ethnicity without seeing them, and that she has a witness who may have seen four Asians in 1997, because that is close enough, right? In all reality, it is dismaying to say the least to hear bigotry presented as fact in 2015 as in 1997.

Opening arguments were followed immediately by the in-person testimony of one of the most critical and controversial witnesses in the current case – William “Bill” Holmes. The crowd sat in absolute silence as Holmes, in horn rim glasses, orange prison garb, and flanked by troopers, described with apparent ease his role in John Hartman’s death. He discussed attending a high school part at classmate Regent Epperson’s house, and leaving when it was “boring.” He described the plans to assault Natives, repeatedly referring to the Alaskan indigenous as “drunk Natives” as he relayed the series of attempted assaults that culminated in the fatal assault of Hartman. He described the other teenagers running back to the car, near hysteria because “little J was just trippin,’ stompin’ the old boy out.” He describes discovering a few days later that the assault proved fatal, that others had been arrested for the crime, Wallace showing off and laughing at Hartman’s blood still on his shoes, and how Holmes threatened the other teenagers present with murder should they ever come forward.

When describing his motivation, Holmes insisted that God had moved him, nothing more and nothing less.

William Holmes TestimonyHolmes proved a difficult witness to undermine for Bachman, who focused heavily on his ability to identify his route through arial photographs and his definition of “U-turn.” The line of questioning ultimately backfired as Holmes described by landmark with great accuracy the corner of 9th and Barnette. Bachman also sought to undermine Holmes’ claim of faith by grilling him about sexual conversations had via contraband cellphone with a woman. Bachman insisted Holmes could not be both coming forward for spiritual religions and ‘talking dirty’ to a woman. She ended her cross examination with a brief commentary about his testimony being hearsay, prodding Holmes with the claim that he didn’t see anything or commit a crime. Holmes responded that he thought driving the car for premeditated assaults, driving the getaway car for a murder, threatening witness/participants with death if they came forward, and destroying evidence was indeed a crime. In the end, Holmes had the better end of that argument.

Most memorable in the Holmes testimony, however, was simply the easy demeanor with which Holmes reflected on Wallace “stomping the ol’ boy out.” For the many people whose lives were turned upside down when Marvin, Eugene, Kevin, and George were imprisoned for the killing, hearing the details of the brutal death of young Hartman for the first time were overwhelming.

FairbanksFourrallySpectators exited the courtroom visibly shaken by the Holmes testimony, and as Marvin Roberts and TCC President Victor Joseph stepped into the large crowd gathered to protest outside the courtroom, the mood turned somber.

“We need to pray for John Hartman, for this little boy, and his brother who is here today. We need to lift him up,” Joseph began, and continued to urge the crowd to support the Four and continue their work.

Marvin thanked the crowd, tears catching in his throat as he listed his co-defendants still in jail by name.

The crowd of supporters, which included the UAF chancellor and bishop of the Alaska Episcopal church, played drum and sang traditional songs in a circle around the courthouse steps.

“Two years ago,” Father Scott Fisher said in closing prayers, “we gathered in this same place, with faith, and insisted, the light is coming. Today, it is sunrise.”
Below are some of the many articles and videos about the first day of the Fairbanks Four proceedings. We will update you as trial continues.

KTUU – Fairbanks Four Hearing Begins (article/video)

KTVF – First Day of Trial

Indian Country Today ‘Fairbanks Four’ Seek Truth, Freedom

NPR – Dan Bross – Bill Holmes Testimony

Washington Times – Fairbanks Four Want Convictions Overturned

Big Bad Wolf III – The Police Killing of Henry Kettendorf

badcop In 1994 the words “viral post” would have meant nothing. There was no status update, no like or share buttons, and to the common Interior resident, no internet. It was in this era that the Golden Heart City saw the height of city and police corruption and lived with violence against Native people by the police force as a social norm.

Activism and advocacy journalism in this time was not for the faint of heart. Gene George, then a resident of North Pole, Alaska, ran a small publication Athabascan Reports. He was known for reporting on controversial topics. Today we are posting Volume 5, Issue #1 of Athabascan Report titled “Fairbanks Cops Out of Control.” This issue contains a transcript of a conversation between two city police officers following the killing of Henry Kettendorf.

Kettendorf, a 32 year old Native male, was wanted on burglary charges out of Anchorage. He was unarmed and killed by a single shot through his heart fired by Officer Aaron Ring. Civilian witness accounts differed from the police report. Troopers investigated the shooting and concluded it was justified, although they also “declined to release their findings” according to a February 13, 1995 article in the Sitka Sentenial.

A coroner’s inquest was eventually held, and Officer Aaron Ring was represented by none other than former Fairbanks District Attorney Bill Murphy, who went on to represent Eugene Vent through a trial which ended in his wrongful conviction. If this constitutes a conflict of interest it was never disclosed. The death of Henry Kettendorf all but disappeared into obscurity after the coroner’s inquest found in favor of Officer Aaron Ring and FPD and has remained a topic of conversation largely through the efforts of a determined and controversial local activist.

Athabascan Reports published articles on this Kettendorf killing, but none were so controversial as the report below. In this issue, Gene George published the full transcript of a conversation between two FPD officers in which they berate the female reporter from the Daily Newsminer for publishing an unflattering article, calling her a cunt and bitch among other gender-specific slurs. They go on to make light of the shooting of Kettendorf, joking that they would not have tried to save him, but said “die, motherfucker” to him as he bled out. The two officers also discuss retaliation on the witness.

By this account, the last sight Henry Kettendorf saw while he was alive was Aaron Ring’s face, after Kettendorf cried out, “you shot me!” Officer Ring apparently answered, “Yep.” The men in the transcript think this is hilarious.

It is not fair nor logical for us to weigh in on whether the shooting of Kettendorf was justified. It appears that it was not – he was an unarmed man in a well-lit parking lot. But without complete information, which has proved difficult to find, we will withhold a conclusion. But the death of Henry Kettendorf certainly took place inside an unacceptable police culture. The fact that officers would speak about a person this way, talk of retaliation through inappropriate use of police power against witnesses, and that the climate in general was so destructive dispatchers felt the need to secretly record and expose officers, and that when they did, the tapes provided to the City Council and Mayor simply went missing, exposes a lot about the power structure in Fairbanks in the 1990’s. The events which led to the wrongful conviction of the Fairbanks Four took place on this same stage with all the same players. Rumor has it that shortly after this leak the dispatchers were fired and replace by the wives of Aaron Ring and Jim Geier.

Inside this climate people like Gene George reported these events when that was so much harder than it is today. We owe a debt to people like him.

Below, his work speaks for itself.

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Introducing The Big Bad Wolf I – Officer Clifford “Aaron” Ring

justicequoteThe decision to fight for the Fairbanks Four has not come without hardship. Many of us who chose to take a stand have, and will continue to, come under attack. One of the hardest things to do is speak out against people who we know are powerful, at least in the worldly sense. However, it is also one of the most important things we have done and will do. This is one of those difficult posts.

We are not fighting against an accident. We are not rallying against an injustice of coincidence. The Fairbanks Four were not the unfortunate four harmed by chance. They were the victims of deliberate actions taken by human beings. We do not believe that means they were forsaken by their maker or tossed aside. Instead, they came under the hardship they were born to bear, and we were given the responsibility of freeing them and exposing the anatomy of injustice in our hometown so that a greater good could come of it.

We have discussed some of the noteworthy corruption in a previous post HERE  and we do not plan to stop talking about corruption in this case until it is fully revealed, until those who committed the crime of deliberate injustice are exposed, and until amends are made to all who were hurt.

We will never be able to make a completely comprehensive post about the players in this case whose mistakes or deliberate actions led to this injustice. It is not possible to know the heart and mind, and therefore the intentions, of another human being. But we can tell you what we know and what we have been told about the men and women whose actions and choices paved the road to this injustice. It is not our wish to enact revenge on them. It is only our wish that the whole truth be known someday so that there may come a time when there is indeed justice for all.

We will post a series of pieces on individuals who played a critical role in the arrest, investigation, wrongful conviction, and illegal incarceration of the Fairbanks Four.

Clifford “Aaron” Ring

aaron ringIt seems fitting to make Aaron Ring first in the “Big Bad Wolf” recounting of the key players in the wrongful conviction of the Fairbanks Four. If this was a movie, he would be the bad guy. He was extremely active in the case, from the initial arrests to the court trials, and touched almost every aspect of the case.

George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, and Kevin Pease have spent most of the last 18 years in 5X8 concrete prison cells, often for 23 of 24 hours in a day. For the duration of their time in prison, and indeed since their arrests, all four have procalimed their innocence in a case that has long been one of the most contested and controversial in Alaska’s history.

AaronRingsHouseBy contrast, Aaron Ring lives here. The only thing these accommodations have in common is, of course, that both are funded by the State of Alaska. The retired FPD officer lives in Florida now on a comfortable pension where apparently he can wake up every morning, put his shoes on one at a time, eat breakfast, and apparently go about life with no outward betrayal of regret, if it is there at all.

The goal of this case-specific wrongful conviction blog has been to tell a wrongful conviction story in great detail to create a broader awareness of the issue at large and this case. We have long implored the public to come forward with any information related to this case and enter a public dialogue. What we receive in response to that request perhaps more often than anything else is information on or complaints about Officer Aaron Ring. We have had multiple source accusations of race-based hate crimes by Aaron Ring as a juvenile and young adult at Lathrop High School, two accusations of sexual assault on an underage victim, one while a uniformed officer and one not. We have had many unsolicited reports by people who had contact with officer Aaron Ring as juveniles that they consider abusive. These range from actual assaults (being thrown on the ground, hit, tripped, knocked off a bicycle, slammed on a car door, etc.) to pseudo-assaults (being cuffed in the back of a police car while the breaks are repeatedly slammed), to psychologically abusive contact. Keep in mind, these accusers all have one thing in common –  they were CHILDREN when these events occurred.

This is not the first time that dozens upon dozens of alleged adult victims of child abuse have come forward to finger an individual who held a trusted position in the community. The Catholic Church had a whole scandal. Teachers, boy scout troop leaders, favorite coaches, priests, pastors…….this is recognizable territory. A scandal tends to deepen as more and more alleged victims surface with their claims. In general, mounting accusations are often perceived as confirmation that there is after all “something to it.” We have all seen that before, and on our side of the internet we are seeing it again here.

We are neither qualified nor prepared to evaluate or determine the veracity of these statements. But we want to acknowledge that they have been made.

What we can document and verify is the conduct and speech on record by Officer Aaron Ring as he investigated the Fairbanks Four case, and we have. These pages ultimately together just tell a story, and Aaron Ring is a character that appears over and over. Here are some of the more stand-out moments of his conduct.

  • Aaron Ring lied to the people being interviewed and threatened them. He made up evidence, told people that their friends or families had placed them there or told the officers they were lying, threatened people with jail or other harm if they failed to agree.
  • Aaron Ring, according to multiple witnesses, turned the tape recorders off and on during police interviews. Ring used the times the recorder was off, according to these witnesses, to threaten them more directly, provide more extreme false information, or reassure them that if they just said what he wanted them to say it would not be a big deal. Alaska law requires interrogations be taped in their entirety.
  • When George Frese said, “I want to go home,” Aaron Ring claimed he had said it alone in an empty room. Ring would have been obligated to stop the interrogation if George (which he indeed did) asked to go home.
  • When Eugene Vent, drunk and only seventeen, said “I want my mama,” Ring downplayed the statement and continued with the interview.
  • Played the major part in some of the most harrowing interviews in the case, including Shara David, Edgar Henry, Antonio Sisto, Eugene Vent, George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts, and conducted the first interview with Chris Stone, which is “missing,” and with EJ Stephens, likewise “missing.”
  • Aaron Ring made a damning and misleading exhibit with the help of prosecutor Jeff O’Bryant. This exhibit was called “totally unscientific” by the only expert who saw it in trial, but he was not called to testify. The exhibit was not to scale, and consisted of an overlay of George Frese’s boot print overtop of a photo of the victim. The size had been adjusted to create an appearance of a match. The lab logo was left on the boot print, creating the misleading impression that the exhibit had been created by scientists.

We must preface the following with a statement that we have no comment as to the veracity of the accusations made below. We have no idea if the accusations below are valid, but can only report that the following accusations have been made against Aaron Ring in statements to us by others.

  • A woman contacted us to tell us that she had known Aaron Ring as a young man, from adolescence to his late teens. She was substantially younger than him and claims he sexually assaulted her on multiple occasions.
  • Several individuals claiming to have known Ring in high school have contacted us to claim that Ring was widely known as a racist, and was extremely and overtly racist against Native students.
  • A woman contacted us to tell us her now-deceased daughter claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Aaron Ring as a teenager and while Aaron Ring was on duty as a police officer. According to this woman, Ring made contact with her teen daughter and picked her up for underage consumption of alcohol, but agreed to let her go in exchange for sex acts, and threatened her with severe legal consequences if she did not comply. Her story was apparently taken and preserved by a local journalist.
  • A man contacted us to tell us that as a young person he was arrested by Aaron Ring and was physically assaulted during the arrest. The man claims that while he was in the back of the squad car Mr. Ring repeatedly and deliberately slammed on the breaks to cause injury to the him.
  • More than a dozen individuals have contacted us to report that Aaron Ring used unnecessary force.
  • A Fairbanks resident alerted us to the existence of the Henry Kettendorf case – a young man named Henry Kettendorf was shot and killed by Aaron Ring in downtown Fairbanks. The case created some controversy at the time. An eyewitness to the shooting described it very differently than the officers at the scene. A transcript was later published by reporter Gene George of “The Athabascan Report,” in which officers can be heard mocking Kettendorf, his death, and threatening to conspire against the witness to the shooting. After years of searching for this particular edition of the publication and finding it was removed from nearly every library in the state, we finally procured a copy.

There was a time when we believed, or at least wanted to, that this was all one big mistake. But the more information that surfaces about the case, the more it seems that the wrongful conviction of the Fairbanks Four was not a mistake so much as an event on a timeline of terrible deeds committed against the young and vulnerable of Alaska for minimal personal gain. We can choose to believe, and for now we will, that the actions that harmed so many were not so much intentional as they were the byproduct of a kind of thinking so ingrained that it produced great harm. If someone as a young person believes an entire race to be animalistic or below them it is not hard to imagine that deep seeded thought growing into a tree of injustice as the person’s schemas hardened and their power grew. Whether a source is corrupted or bad is impossible to say, but there is wisdom in the verse that says “Ye shall know them by their fruit.”

To change the landscape of our community or country as it relates to biased thinking inside the justice system it is not enough to attack the tree or judge the fruits, we have to ensure that the seeds of racism and bias are not sown into the minds of the next generation and find a way to articulate their visibility in our current social structures. There comes a point where an individuals intentions in a series of actions do not matter nearly as much as the fact that they were capable. In other words –  maybe didn’t know better. And if that is the case perhaps the people most responsible for the damage he did are those who surrounded him, knew better, and stayed silent.

Many children were harmed in the making of this wrongful conviction. The players in this game who moved them like pawns failed to calculate the outcome now at hand – they didn’t crush ALL of those children. Some persevered. Some found self-worth against the odds. Some of those kids didn’t fall into addiction,early graves, fold into the small town inside a small town and disappear into the familiar. Some did not bow down under shame. Some of them grew up. And they remembered.

As for Aaron Ring, accountability is not ours to assign. As is often the case, there is probably not as much peace inside the beautiful Florida home as there appears to be from outside. All we can do is wish him well, hope that if he indeed struggles with the demon of pride or racism or rage that he wrestles it and prevails, and that if he is guilty of any actions that were illegal that the justice system may find him and treat him fairly. After all, our wish is the same for him as it is for you, or for the Fairbanks Four. Justice for all.

Forensic Expert Contends Fairbanks Four Footwear Did Not Cause Injuries of John Hartman

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES OF INJURIES USED AS A COURT EXHIBIT. CONTENT MAY NOT BE SUITABLE FOR ALL READERS.

During the trials of George Frese, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease, and Marvin Roberts, known collectively as the “Fairbanks Four,” there was only one physical exhibit. The exhibit was a transparency of George Frese’s boot print laid over a photograph of the injuries on John Hartman’s face.

When the Fairbanks Four were arrested their footwear, clothes, and an incredible array of other belongings were sent to the lab to be examined for DNA evidence and examination to determine whether or not any of the footwear could have been the causative instrument/agent in the kicking death of John Hartman. Ultimately, the state lab was not able to make any determination that the footwear caused the injuries.

Boot PrintAs part of their examination of evidence, they made prints of the shoes and boots belonging to the Fairbanks Four. These images were created by the state forensic lab, and therefore were marked with a lab logo. The lab created these prints in order to use them to compare against the injuries on the victim, They made the comparison and were not able to link the footwear of the Fairbanks Four to the injuries, and the prints were ultimately not useful to create a scientific exhibit that supported the guilt of the four accused.

The lack of corroboration by any outside source of the police theory that George Frese had injured his foot by kicking John Hartman was hugely problematic to the prosecution’s case. Without ANY physical exhibits created by a scientific source and no DNA evidence of any kind, prosecutor Jeff O’Bryant and police officer Aaron Ring made the unorthodox decision to make their own exhibit to demonstrate a correlation between the victim injuries and the boot of George Frese.

Although Frese had come to the emergency room with an injury to his left foot (read George’s timeline HERE), which the police and prosecutors contended was evidence of his guilt in the crime, they used an image of his right foot to make the exhibit. This exhibit was made overnight in a hotel room by O’Bryant and  Ring, and introduced to trial the next day. The exhibit consisted of the transparency of George’s boot taken by the state, and laid over a photograph of the victim’s face. The exhibit bore the state lab logo, creating the appearance that the exhibit had been created by a lab and was scientific in nature. In reality, the exhibit had no more scientific merit than an average craft project, And it was, essentially, no more than a craft project. Neither O’Bryant nor Ring had any training of any kind in forensics, let alone in the highly specialized field of causative instrument forensics. (Read about their exhibit-making HERE)

Court Display

Court Display

During the first trial, the trial of George Frese, the exhibit was introduced unexpectedly. Frese’s attorney, Robert Downes, made no objection to the exhibit. This is surprising, given that the exhibit was nonscientific, and even common sense would indicate that it was not a valid piece of evidence. However, Downes had more to rely on than just his own common sense and judgment in making the determination of whether or not to object to the admission of this exhibit. His own hired expert, a man named John Cayton later filed a detailed affidavit you can read HERE expressing his concerns about both the unscientific evidence allowed into court and the conduct of Frese’s attorney, told Downes as soon as the prosecutor attempted to introduce the exhibit that even without any preparation he could successfully argue against its admission because it was so grossly misleading and without scientific merit.

John Cayton was not allowed to testify, oddly blocked by the same attorney who hired him to help defend Frese. In a 2003 interview with reporter Brian O’Donoghure, Cayton said, “In 30-plus years, I can’t think of other trials where such techniques were used to convict a suspect.”

Downes declined to object or allow the testimony of his own expert against the exhibit. This choice, along with the choice to not call any witnesses on behalf of the defense, coupled with the fact that Downes worked as a prosecutor for many years prior to being assigned to represent George Frese, and the fact that he was appointed a coveted judgeship in Fairbanks following the guilty verdict in the Frese trial, has long created speculation by supporters of the Fairbanks Four that Downes did not properly defend Frese, and the more troubling speculation that he may have failed to represent his client deliberately.

Critics of the prosecution in the Fairbanks Four case have long pointed to the exhibit made by Ring and O’Bryant as a deceptive exhibit, and argued that it may have played a significant role in the wrongful conviction of the four men. The request for post conviction relief based on a claim of innocence submitted on behalf of the Fairbanks Four by Alaska Innocence Project contains the affidavit of a renowned causative instrument forensic scientist Lesley Hammer (read her qualifications HERE) who concludes that there is no correlation between the boot of George Frese and the injuries on the victim.

Image Hammer’s report, alongside the affidavit of Bill Oberly, also unveils a disturbing series of events that took place during the investigation by Alaska Innocence Project in this case. According to the filing, Alaska Innocence Project requested access to copies of the court exhibit and victim photographs, and were denied access to them by the Fairbanks Police Department. Fairbanks Police Chief Laren Zager has been consistent in his public statements regarding this case that the police intended to behave with transparency and would cooperate with the Innocence Project. However, the filing makes it clear that the one and only request made for reasonable access to the evidence used to convict the Fairbanks Four was denied by the Fairbanks Police Department. The actions of the FPD police chief are in direct contradiction to his previous statements. Not only did he not encourage transparency and a careful look at this case, he actively prevented men whose claim of evidence is backed by representation from the Innocence Project, thousands of community members, community leaders, and social equity organizations from having access to the materials used to convict them.

Image                                                                                                            Expert Lesley Hammer goes on to draw a number of other concerning conclusions, including that the late Dr. Fallico, medical examiner for the state of Alaska during the Fairbanks Four trials, did not demonstrate even the most basic understanding of the procedures, techniques, and evaluative processes of causative instrument forensics, including the basic standards used to create footprints and make comparisons.

Causative instrument forensics is a complex and highly specialized field. Human skin is elastic, and marks made on human skin have to be very carefully evaluated in consideration of force, skin condition, temperature, and many other factors. For lack of a better example, consider the task of determining what knife caused a stab wound. It is not as simple as holding a knife up to a picture of the wound and deciding these are about the same size, so this must be the wound. There is a lot involved – serration, knowing what the scale of the photograph is so you can accurately understand size, depth of the wound, etc. Determining what object caused an injury is a complicated scientific task. There are many experts qualified to make these determinations. The expert whose findings are contained in the filing is a well known causative forensic instruments specialist. Those involved in the Fairbanks Four case were not. The only testimony given regarding the “match” of the injuries to Frese’s boot was Lt. Paul Keller, who had no forensic training of any kind.

The observations on the inadequacy of the people involved in collecting and evaluating the evidence is concerning and raises questions about the potential problems with the validity of procedure and testimony in other criminal cases as well as the Fairbanks Four case. The revelation that Police Chief Zager refused access to the materials is equally disturbing. However, those elements of the filing are incidental.

The central and most important conclusion in the filing regarding the court exhibit and footprint evidence is simple and straightforward: First, the exhibit presented at court was indeed completely unscientific. Second, even without access to the best possible materials, the causative instrument forensic specialist was unable to make any correlation between the boot of George Frese and the injuries on John Hartman. The bottom line is that for the first time a truly qualified specialist has made a comparison between the boot print and the injuries central to this case and determined that the boot of George Frese does not match the injuries on the victim. The report concludes by saying that more accurate, definitive results could be achieved and the report completed if the expert is allowed to access the actual evidence.

READ THE ENTIRE PCR FILING, INCLUDING THE FORENSIC EXPERT AFFIDAVIT HERE

*We feel it is necessary to always address an aspect of reporting on this case that remains troubling to all of us, which is the explicit discussion of the manner, cause, details, and, in this post, photographs, of the injuries to and death of John Hartman. We apologize to any who knew and loved him, as we know that the continued discussion of his death must bring you terrible pain. We want to take a moment to tell readers that one of the hardest parts of discussing this case will always be revisiting the heartbreaking suffering and death of John Hartman. We recently posted about that HERE and encourage all readers to hold this boy in respect and love, with prayers and healing thoughts for his family and all who suffered because of his death.