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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Big Bad Wolf VI – Marquez Pennington and John Hartman’s Murder

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Marquez Pennington

When William Holmes confessed to his role in the brutal murder of John Hartman, he named four accomplices: Jason Wallace, Rashan Brown, Shelmar Johnson, and Marquez Pennington. The press, as a rule, has excluded mention of the two named by Holmes who are not in prison. Holmes, Wallace, and Brown are all serving time for murders they committed as individuals. Pennington and Johnson are free and residing at least part-time in Alaska. We do not see any reason to shelter them and have never excluded them from reference.

Mr. Pennington appears to have used the eighteen years that have elapsed since his alleged participation in the beating death of John Hartman to pursue other criminal activity. His criminal record is extensive. Marquez Pennington has been arrested more than 30 times between 1998 and 2012, or 2.14 times per year. His record can be viewed HERE. These arrests have often contained multiple charges, and his record exposes a long history of drug sales, use, and violence. Despite many significant charges being brought against him, including multiple drug related felonies, Mr. Pennington has apparently avoided harsh prosecution. He did serve some time in prison alongside the men currently incarcerated for the murder of John Hartman, and was apparently unmoved by the process of looking innocent men serving time for his sins in they eye.

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Marquez “QB” Pennington

In addition to his relatively brazen work as a drug dealer apparently conducted without significant law enforcement interference, Mr. Pennington has enjoyed a long if unremarkable career as an amateur hip-hop artist. When rapping, Marquez Pennington goes by the stage name “Q.B.” and “Q.B. of Choldhustle.” His work appears on Myspace, and a compilation album titled “Interior’s Most Wanted,” produced by Redd Dott studios, or Alaska Redd, the studio of Josh “Red” Silva, a Fairbanks rapper who has collaborated with Marquez Pennington as well as Bill Holmes and Shelmar Johnson. On this particular album, distressingly dedicated to both William Holmes and his slain ex-girlfriend Mahogany Davis, Marquez Pennington is featured as Coldhustle. Other self-imposed monikers associated with the middle-aged Pennington include Cube, Q, Quadruple, and so on.

Holmes is not the only source who links Pennington to the murder of John Hartman.

A source who spoke on the condition of anonymity relayed the following story about  Mr. Pennington:

“In 1998, early 1998 I think, I was in FYF (Fairbanks Youth facility – the local juvenile detention center) with Marquez. Everyone knew he killed Hartman. He told people, he bragged about it, that they curb stomped this kid. And here, we were doing time for little stuff. Curfew, weed, drinking. Nothing big. And he was getting out ahead of us, before all of us. We were there and he was leaving, and that’s when I remember hearing about it. Because that was what caused people to really talk, their frustration that a murderer is just walking out the door. Guys being like, man that’s messed up, killers getting out of here and we are stuck here. No one thought it was okay what he did, but we were just young and scared. Still scared. When a person will do that to a little for nothing what would they do to you?”

A recent filing on behalf of the Fairbanks Four revealed another source linking Marquez Pennington to Hartman’s murder. According to the filing, Fairbanks man Takory Stern contacted investigators in March 2014 and requested a meeting. Once there, he gave statements indicating that Marquez Pennington had confessed to his role in the murder directly to him in 1997. At the time Stern would have been 14 years old. The officer who conducted the interview recorded only small portions of the interview. In this article about the statement, Officer Avery Thompson alleges that it is normal practice to only record portions of interviews. It seems contrary to basic investigative skill to record a statement only partially, but it is safe to say that for this case at least, it is routine for interviews to be truncated, partially recorded, or missing altogether.

Takory Stern is reported to have killed himself during a police chase several months after giving his statement. Whatever his troubles, we are grateful that he chose to do the right thing and come forward with his information, and glad he was able to relieve himself of this burden before his time on Earth was finished. It was clear from his obituary that he was very loved and is missed.

holmesMarquez Pennington is a man with a long criminal record who has been named as the killer of John Hartman by one of his accomplices and other witnesses. He is a resident of Fairbanks and North Pole, Alaska, and remains entirely free in the community he has been harming since at least 1997. In the Holmes account of the Hartman killing, Marquez Pennington was rifling through John Hartman’s pockets when the young boy shook and went limp. In that story, a child’s soul fled his body during an act of unspeakable violence, and Pennington was there hoping to steal a few dollars. Someday, he will answer for that, and it would do him well to get right with his maker before that day comes.

Pennington was allegedly distressed at the events, screaming in the back seat as they sped away from the crime scene. It is sad, really, to consider he may have been a misguided but scared teenager in way over his head in 1997. It is sad to think about the man he may have been had he received the intervention as a boy he so clearly needed at the time, and the harm to others that it may have prevented. No one did Marquez Pennington any favors when they arrested the wrong men for the crime. As it stands, he has made no public comment about the murder of John Hartman. If the accounts of Stern and Holmes, who passed a lie detector when his claims were tested, are correct, then Marquez Pennington is also guilty of the murder of John Hartman, a 14-year-old young boy who was mercilessly kicked and stomped to death for no reason in October of 1997. If so, he has lived the last 18 years without a shred of decency or honor, failed to take responsibility for his actions, and sad idly by while innocent men do his time. It is way past time for Marquez Pennington to stand up like a man to whatever events took place in 1997, and it is our hope that he does. It is extremely unlikely that he or anyone will ever face charges for the killing of John Hartman – the State is unlikely to prosecute after 18 years of publicly taking the position that someone else did it. But Pennington and the others could still come forward like men and own their decisions, give peace to the family, and assist in justice for four innocent men.Time grows short. Please keep Marquez Pennington in your hopes, thoughts, prayers, dreams, or whatever you do. He still has time to come clean before the Fairbanks Four trial begins October 5, and if life is providing him a chance at redemption, let’s hope he takes it, steps into the light, and can live the remainder of his days out with some peace.

Marquez, if you read this, please look into your heart and ask yourself what the right thing to do is. Do that. Think about how 18 years would feel locked up for anything, let alone something you didn’t do. Think about George’s baby girl, 3 when he went away. George is a grandpa now, and he missed almost all of it. Trust that good does come from choosing the right thing. It is never too late to find forgiveness, and there is always more shame in hiding a truth than owning it. We are rooting for you, hoping for you, praying for you, believing in you. Please do what you believe in your heart to be right.

If you or anyone you know has information about Marquez Pennington and his role in the 1997 murder of John Hartman, please call Alaska Innocence Project at 907-279-0454, or Fairbanks Police at 456-2583. Please do ask that they record your entire interview.

Appeals Court Reveals Second Murder Confession in Hartman Murder

In a ruling made public today, the Alaska Appellate Court has shot down the efforts of inmate Jason Wallace to keep his confession to the murder of John Hartman out of court.

Although the exact statements of Jason Wallace related to his participation in the 1997 murder for which the Fairbanks Four were convicted and remain incarcerated have yet to be revealed to the public, the ruling confirms that Jason Wallace made statements to “an investigator working for his attorney which, if true, would tend to exculpate four defendants who were previously convicted of the same crime that J.W. described.” Wallace, currently incarcerated for another murder and represented by Fairbanks attorney Jason Gazewood who was most recently in the news after being held in contempt of court, has fought the release of his confession since the Alaska Innocence Project entered them under seal as part of a Post Conviction Relief filing based on actual innocence on behalf of the Fairbanks Four. Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease, and George Frese were arrested and convicted of the Hartman murder in October of 1997. the four young men were convicted despite a wealth of alibi evidence and with no physical evidence of any kind linking them to the victim or each other.

Jason Wallace has been fingered as an alternate suspect in the Hartman killing since at least 2004, but a substantial statement related to his involvement proved elusive. Finally, in a sworn affidavit to the Alaska Innocence Project dated in 2008, high school acquaintance of Wallace Scott Davison detailed the statements about the killing Wallace had made to him just days after the murder. Davison was absolutely bullied and berated by the State of Alaska for coming forward.

According to oral arguments made during a recent misconduct hearing on the case, in 2011 William Holmes, a Fairbanks man serving a double life sentence in a California prison for unrelated murders, developed a relationship with correctional officer and chaplain Joseph Torquato. Holmes told Torquato about his life in Alaska and his troubled past. On December 5th, 2011 Holmes detailed to Torquato his role in the stomping murder of a young boy for which four innocent men were imprisoned. Torquato was so compelled by the statements of William Holmes that he went home the same night and used the internet to research similar murders in Alaska. He came upon the Hartman case, and the next day when he saw Holmes he asked him, “Does the name Hartman mean anything to you?” to which Holmes replied, “Do you mean John Hartman?” The inmate confirmed that the murder he had confessed to the previous day was indeed the Hartman murder. Torquato implored Holmes to come forward to Fairbanks authorities, but he refused.

The correctional officer then took the information to his supervisor and together the two composed what is now referred to in proceedings as the “Torquato Memo.” Torquato sent the written account of the confession by Holmes to the Fairbanks Police department. They forwarded it to the District Attorney’s office. Ultimately, neither party took action.

The State’s failure to disclose the confession of Holmes when first received was the subject of the July 30th hearing in Fairbanks Superior Court, where the state argued that the wording of the Code of Ethics as written in 2011 should have allowed the prosecutor to withhold the confession, although they conceded that such conduct would not be acceptable in 2014. They further argued that because the Fairbanks Four had been convicted by 2011 that they did not have any remaining constitutional due process rights.

Counsel for the Fairbanks Four argued that there were indeed state and federal constitutional rights violated through the withholding of the Holmes confession, and that the ethical obligation to disclose the confession was so clear that it was “offensive to justice” to have withheld it. Attorneys for the Fairbanks Four discussed the harm that had come to the four men’s case as a result of the State’s decision to hide the Holmes confession. Among other things, they cited the 2014 deaths of two witnesses who had heard confessions from Marquez Pennington. Had the State revealed the confession as obligated, the argued, the witnesses may have been alive to testify that Marquez Pennington made admissions in the case as well. This small comment was the first reference to yet a third confession – the confession of Marquez Pennington. 

A decision as to whether the actions of the District Attorney violated the rights of the men known as the Fairbanks Four is forthcoming from Judge Paul Lyle.

Despite the State decision to withhold the confession, it eventually came out. Holmes confessed directly to the Alaska Innocence Project. In 2012, Holmes mailed a detailed and handwritten confession to his role in the killing of John Hartman in which he named Jason Holmes, Marquez Pennington, Shelmar Johnson, and Rashan Brown. The five teenagers, according to Holmes, went out that night hoping to assault “drunk Natives” for fun, and after being unable to find the ideal victim happened upon John Hartman. According to Holmes Jason Wallace was the ringleader of the vicious assault, but all four of the other men he named attacked and killed Hartman, while Holmes served as driver. (Read the Holmes confession HERE). IMG_7092

The Holmes confession provided answers long-sought by the Fairbanks Four and their families and friends who for nearly two decades have insisted on their innocence. It also corroborated the affidavit of Scott Davison, and became the centerpiece of the 2013 Alaska Innocence Project filing for Post Conviction Relief on behalf of the men. Also contained in the filing were statements made by Jason Wallace said to “corroborate the confession of William Holmes.”

The statements by Wallace, potentially subject to attorney-client privilege, were filed under seal and it was never known if they would be made public. Jason Wallace can, and likely will, appeal the decision to release his confession to the Alaska Supreme Court, although it seems unlikely that they would opt to hear the case. The decision by the Court of Appeals only applies to the narrow issue of whether or not the judge CAN consider it for admission. It is still possible that Judge Lyle will not declare it admissible. It is possible that he may admit it and keep it confidential.

This wins a battle, but the war is long.

story1Whatever the legal meanderings of this case through the maze of a truly sick justice system, we have as much faith today as we did when we wrote our first post. The first time anyone ever used the term “Fairbanks Four” we used it with this promise beside it  –  “This is story of injustice, a plea for help, for understanding, and above all a story of faith in the power of stories, of the truth. Writing this blog is an act of faith, a testimony to the power of the truth, spoken, read. We may not be experts in journalism, in law, or many other things. But the contributors here come from Alaska, from a culture that has a long tradition of storytelling, and a belief that the truth holds incredible power. This is a long story, and we will have to tell it the old way, the slow way, in pieces as they come.”

This story is unfolding as we knew it would and know it will because we have known the ending since the beginning. This blog is still a story, told in pieces as they come. Today, this is a new piece of a long story. This movement is still a plea for help. We need you to share this story and do what you can to right a wrong.

Above all, it is still an act of faith and we have absolute faith in the good of people like you and the power of the truth.

Old Ways in a New Time

The story of the Fairbanks Four is old. So, so very old. This happened in 1997, but it was happening long before that, has happened each day since that, is happening now. 1492, 1513, 1667, 1897……in every numbered year this country counts as its own this same story is told. This story is older than any who are reading it today. As old as the first broken treaty, as old as the first proclamation. This proclamation is from 1513, but it could be from any year. They all say the same thing:

But, if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.

Proclamations are the only promises made to Indians that never got broken. They all contain a singular threat – one hundred romantically penned variations of the same violent proclamation: cast away your story, strip away all that you are, shed yourself of the past. Take our ways into yourself so completely that you forget you ever had a story separate from the conquerer.Come to us as pilgrims, empty-handed and lost. And if you do not, we will be certain that you suffer in every imaginable way. And this suffering will be your fault.

It was and is a threat impossible to bow under, no matter its gravity. Because we, as humans, cannot shed all that we are. No matter how time marches, no matter how the world around us changes we are, all of us, born into something. Born into a story that began long before we came to this earth, that will continue long after we depart.

In Athabascan culture, in nearly every indigenous culture, there is a story. An idea. A truth. So old it cannot be cast away. It lives inside all the people who were raised with it. Taken at a mother’s breast, breathed in like a smell that can bring you to your knees with homesickness. Stained like a white porcelain cup that has held many years worth of tea. Soaked in like the faint smell of salmon on hands that have worked on the fish all day and all night. Lingering, like the scent wood smoke clings to long hair. Pieces of your distant history that remain. Traces of the place you came from. Bits of long-ago. They cannot be beaten, threatened, or proclaimed away. They remain.

The old ways. For hundreds and thousands of years, those with authority had earned it. These people lived through winters of suffering and summers of laughter, season after season of a life not lived by chance. They spent many hours in work and silence. They found stories in dreams and memory, through all of these things, they were listening. And in this way, authority came to them. A kind of medicine. Chiefs. Healers. Elders. Old warriors. Grandmothers.  Among this people, authority was bestowed by fate and by time onto those who deserved it. And authority of this kind could be trusted. They, above all others, could be trusted. Their truth held more power than yours, their truth is more true. And that was the old way.

Yet, it is a new time. And in the new time came authority in new forms, it came to these en differently. Strong-armed, stolen, grabbed, wrestled from the hands of others. A kind of authority taken through vows, seminary, schools, presented in paper certificates, draped on in sashes, pinned on as badges.

You can scream at the top of your lungs, claw at the earth, write until your fingers bleed, and it is still so hard, so very very hard, to show someone a story like this one – so old, so buried, so deep. A story that refuses to rise out of the dream realm, a story that lingers in the in-between, a story that seems never told, just known or not known.

I have to tell you that story. Somehow.

No one wants race to be an issue in this case. No one wants race to be an issue at all. But in some ways we are all beholden to our history. When authority as defined by colonialism encounters children from a culture with a different concept of authority entirely, history bursts into reality. The two parts do not fit they way we wish they did. And it doesn’t make anyone wrong, it simply proves that everyone is human, and that we are not after all exactly the same.

In 1997 in Fairbanks, Alaska there were men in power who issued a proclamation. Not written, not official. Unspoken. Painfully familiar. So very real. We heard it – all the kids that ran around those dismal streets in the 90’s, always afraid, always looking over our shoulders. It shuddered through the air when the cars rolled into Midtown, crept through our streets. When they screeched toward us we could hear it between the pulses of the siren. It came from the static on their radios. We could hear it in our bones……we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Police and of their Court; we shall take you, and your women and your children, and shall make slaves of you all. We shall sell and dispose of you as the Court may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can – and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, not ours.

We were afraid of these men. We had fair reason to be. Nothing but little kids, chased and caught, pushed and harmed, by grown men. A deeper reason, too. Something like the way the fish moves from just the slight shadow of the spear, the way any animal knows when what would end it lurks near. We feared these men who were somehow also people with authority.  We knew that there was something in us they sought to punish. And it shames me still to say it, but if we could have cast it away and freed ourselves of the dogs at our heels, I think we would have. But we couldn’t. And we didn’t know how to stand up against it.

Inside us with that fear –  lingering, stronger  – was a very old way. A way that whispered a contradiction: these men have authority. They possess a truth greater than our own. Perhaps not earned, but there nonetheless. They will tie you to a chair. Lock you away. Steal you from your family. Cut your tongue, take your breath, try, try to take away the story.

So, when they came to take away the simple truth from a dozen and more young Indians, they got what they wanted. Or at least, they thought they did.

Underneath, the truth remained. Proclamations were fulfilled and treaties broken, but still something kept the people and their story alive.The truth waited. It never changed and it grew only stronger. Because in these last fourteen years we did the work of remembering. Remembering that you cannot take away a person’s story. You cannot abduct, handcuff, beat down, or lock up the truth.

Some of us do not make proclamations or treaties. Some still prefer to lay in wait, to rely on truth and prophecy, to do our work and let the world do its work. So, we will not proclaim to you that something has changed. But we will be here, as present and as peaceful as shadows in the grass, because we have never left. And we are content simply to know, to feel the years blow through like winds, the push of something coming up through the soil. There is no proclamation, only the truth. We know what comes next. See, this is still our story, this is still a story where truth outlasts and outsmarts deceit.

We know the ending.

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