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

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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.

State of Alaska Caught Lying AGAIN (Yawn)

liar2It is becoming routine and almost boring to get on a blog and explain that the State of Alaska is deliberately, illegally, criminally fighting to keep innocent men in prison. It is not a boring topic at all – it is an important topic. Yet, no matter how many times the media reveals another deception, the State does not get any better at lying or hiding, and shows no signs of ceasing.

William Holmes passed a lie detector test. HERE is the well-written article that revealed this latest development. William Z. Holmes has confessed multiple times over a handful of years to the murder of John Hartman, a crime for which the Fairbanks Four were convicted of and have served nearly eighteen years for despite their unbroken insistence on their innocence and a distressing lack of evidence against them. The Holmes confession was publicly revealed for the first time in September 2014 when the Innocence Project filed their case asking for the Fairbanks Four convictions to be overturned based on the innocence of the four men. This claim of innocence was evidenced in part by the guilt of William Holmes and the accomplices he named – Jason Wallace, Marquez Pennington, Shelmar Johnson, and Rashan Brown.

The State of Alaska’s Department of Law came out with a press release immediately following the September 2013 filing, saying that they had no reason to think that there was any problem with the conviction of the Fairbanks Four. What no one knew then was that they had been in posession of a confession from Holmes and one of his accomplices  in the case for years, and kept it hidden. Holmes confessed to a Fairbanks corrections officer in 2011 who then passed the confession on the the Fairbanks Police Department. The FPD then shared the confession with the Fairbanks DA’s office. The DA was legally obligated to disclose this but elected to withhold it. The FPD could have elected to investigate it, but by their own admission simply shrugged it off.

When the Innocence Project unearthed this outrageous act they filed misconduct allegations against the state, and Detective Nolan, the police officer who received the confession said (and yes, pay attention, this is an actual quote) that he “”got it and basically, uh, I didn’t write anything up.”

Sitting chief of police Laren Zager described the receipt of a murder confession in a high-profile alleged case of wrongful conviction “basically a shoulder shrug,” in a May 2014 interiew with the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer. While an alternate murder confession sat on his desk, Zager boasted to the cameras during the KTUU documentary “The Fairbanks Four” that he had reviewed the case and considered it “model police work.”

After a seven month delay the State of Alaska responded to the original filing by the Innocence Project that contained the Holmes confession. The twenty-three-page response (so….just over one page per month in productivity) was a disorganized, hurried, odd attack on the Holmes confession, alternately attacking its credibility and its admissibility.

Over a year later, we now know that the State of Alaska had not only already covered up Holmes involvement by sweeping his confession under the rug, but had the gall to administer a lie detector test to the man, and after he passed it, continue to insist he was not telling the truth.

We didn’t need a lie detector test. It as been clear for a long time who is lying and hiding and who is telling the truth.

The argument could be made, and would likely be made by the State, that failing to disclose information or making an argument that a piece of evidence should be ruled technically inadmissible even though it is important and true is not as simple as lying. The procedures, loopholes, standards of practice, and theories of the court cloud and complicate things which should be in their nature quite simple. For example, they were under no obligation to disclose the lie detector test to the public. But the strategic withholding of information and deliberate proliferation of misinformation, however cloaked in orders or procedures, is at its core simple dishonesty. To create filings and statements that argue a murder confession should be suppressed because it isn’t credible while you hold back a lie detector test that demonstrate it is credible is lying, no matter how buried in technicalities the core is simple. William Holmes is telling the truth, the State of Alaska through many of its assigns knows that, and is still fighting to dismiss and hide that.

liedetectorWilliam Holmes has killed two people and participated in the murder of at least one more. Yet, he appears to be more capable of telling the truth about that than agents of the State of Alaska who have taken an oath to uphold justice. The State of Alaska is less ethical and honest than a convicted double murderer serving life in a maximum security prison. And we have the statements, videos, photos, lab reports, newspaper articles, science, forensics, witness statements, and now add to that list the LIE DETECTOR RESULTS to prove it.

When I was a little kid my dad used to say, “if you’re going to lie to me, lie to me. But don’t insult my intelligence by telling me a stupid lie.”

This entire case has become an exercise in humiliation, incompetence, incredible fiscal irresponsibility, moral bankruptcy, and stupid lies on the part of the State of Alaska. I am not sure whether or not the constant deceit will ever change, but it has come to a point where it seems the most insightful thing to say to the State of Alaska is, if you are going to lie to us, lie to us. But don’t insult our intelligence with another stupid lie.

No one can alter the past, but anyone can change the future. At any point in time the State of Alaska could drop charges against the Fairbanks Four, and perhaps even use that money to prosecute the men who actually killed John Hartman, some of whom still walk free. And this case reached a point long ago when that was simply the right thing to do. Instead, it appears they are absolutely unwilling to change course, and will spend millions of more dollars of Alaska’s money during a budget crisis to defend a prosecution they know is fatally flawed, completely fail to protect the public from accused thrill killers, and fail to pursue charges against criminals who should be in prison for killing a child.

truthMeaningful change does not come easily. There is a bias and a sickness in the justice system of Alaska that must be changed. Every door that is kicked down or pried open in this case will remain open for all those who come after them. The precedents that will be set while one grant-funded, underpaid, dedicated attorney for the Alaska Innocence Project faces off against the entire Alaska legal system will be relied on for the forseeable future. The Fairbanks Four case is and has always been about more than one case or four wrongfully convicted men. It is about all Indigenous people, all people, all Alaskans, all of the lives that have been lost to the bias in the system, and all the lives that will be saved when it is changed.

Thank you all for your continued dedication to the innocence and justice movements in Alaska. Never be discouraged – let each of these revelations, however troubling, be a reminder of why you have taken a stand. And brace yourself for more – I would love nothing more than to write the blog post that says the State has acted honorably and in the interest of justice, but expect that change will have to be brought upon them, not led by them.

The truth makes a formidable enemy, and one against whom the State has no chance. Truth prevails in the end, there is not enough money or deceit in the world to defeat it. The truth makes a powerful ally – be glad to stand on its side.

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Seventeen Octobers – The Anniversary of John Hartman’s Murder

spruceAs the dwindling blue-gray light casts shadows off spruce trees onto the new snow this October night in Fairbanks, Alaska, those who live here know that soon the light will heed to darkness. Night will fall, and each day that we move toward winter solstice the night will fall a bit earlier. This place – the vast expanses of sky and land that make up the last frontier – will be nearly swallowed by darkness for months. It is this time of the year that it is hard to truly remember that the light will return. The days move forward and we arc, always, back toward spring. Toward light. Yet in October, we can feel the darkness on our heels.

It was on an October night exactly seventeen years ago that a darkness came upon many lives. It changed us. It changed too many to enumerate. It altered something, and for so long it seemed a darkness that would never lift. Even now, as we greet the anniversary of a night that changed so many lives, there are moments it is hard to truly remember that darkness will eventually give way to light.

Yet, it is a gift to fight. It is a gift to be here, in darkness and light, in moments of faith and doubt. No matter the hardships, no matter the darkness, to live is a wonderful thing. Life is so ephemeral. A bright light like a flash, a fleeting glance at all that is brilliant and real. And although a book could be written – countless articles have been written, a blog is being written at this moment – about all the people who lost something to the darkness on an October night exactly seventeen years ago, only one person lost all.

JohnHArtmanJohn Hartman was killed on the corner of 9th Avenue and Barnette seventeen years ago tonight. He was a boy. He was nothing but boundless potential and he was full of life. That light ebbed and went out seventeen years ago. John Hartman has been gone now more years than he was alive. And nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever eclipse the importance of his existence, the tragedy of his death.

Tonight we pause to remember. We remember to never forget John Hartman. And into the darkening night we deliver this prayer – may all that were altered or harmed on the night of October 10, 1997 feel peace. May this prayer find its way to the sky and into the awareness of those who have moved on from this earth. May the legacy of John Hartman be peace, justice, and above all, a reverence for life. Live. Live honestly, and live well, every day hold to the gift it is to simply be alive.

As darkness falls tonight and any night, never let it rob you of the knowledge and faith that morning always returns. The light is coming.

 

True Murderer Comes Forward – A Letter from William Holmes

story1We have a long tradition of letting people tell their own story.

Today, the Innocence Project walked into the courthouse and filed a motion for Post Conviction Release on behalf of George Frese, Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts, and Kevin Pease. These men have maintained their innocence for almost sixteen years, and today definitive evidence of their innocence has been made public.

This court motion contained a lot of information – testimony by experts that George’s boot did NOT match the wounds on the victim, proof that Arlo Olson lied, proof that it would be scientifically impossible for someone to have seen what he claimed. But, the most important thing it contained, in our view, is a story. A handwritten confession, by a man named William Z. Holmes who confesses in detail the murder of John Hartman.

We have said many times that we believe people can feel the truth, see it, sense it, recognize it. And that is why we believe so strongly in the power of truth told by those who hold it. We believe the best we can do to help any injustice is to make a space where people can tell their truth. There will be plenty of articles, news, updates, and headlines about this case today, we will let them fill their purpose, and fill ours.

With that in mind, below is the handwritten confession of William Z. Homes. We will let that stand alone for today. You can judge for yourselves if it is the truth. We believe it is.

We believe in redemption. That anyone can do all they are able to change themselves during their time upon this Earth and that no matter how dark or low a place life takes us to that we can still seek light. So, we publish this with a great sadness for the heartbreaking manner in which John Hartman died, but also a hope for the individuals who did kill him, and every single one of those who helped to hide the truth and further lies, that they may use this time to come forward and begin what must be a very long journey toward redemption.

This day could have never come without the faith, hope, and hard work of many, and we thank you all. Our journey to justice is far from over, but today we begin a walk down a new road.

This is a sad story. Listen, listen.

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Murder on a Winter Night

Although the story of the Fairbanks Four has roots in history, both recent and distant, the story we are attempting to tell begins in the early morning hours of October 11, 1997 with the brutal murder of a teenaged boy on a on a freezing cold Alaska night.

He was found alone, draped over a snow covered curb, bleeding, barely breathing, life leaving him. His pants were around his knees. He was transported to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital where he would die the next day. He remained unconscious and had no identification. It was many hours before anyone knew his name, but eventually the people of Fairbanks, Alaska would remember that name forever.

John. John Hartman. It is important to say his name singularly, alone. Partly because it is never wise to speak the name of the dead lightly, partly because it is wise to remember that there is power in a name spoken aloud. It reaches the living, and hurts them again. Touches them where they were hurt once, on the wound that never heals. It echos into the air and the wind takes it through leaves, past branches, to heaven, to the other side. The dead hear us say their name and we should never forget that.

He was just a boy, caught in the season of change, where you play at being a man because you almost are.  On October 11, 1997 he walked toward home one last time and something terrible happened. Feet and fists and hatred of unknown origins landed on his body over and over and over until he was very still, cast away and left for dead on the streets of downtown Fairbanks.

This is what we know of his last night on Earth, gathered primarily from newspaper accounts, police reports, trial transcripts, and the work of reporter Brian O’Donoghue alongside his UAF journalism students. Their detailed account of John Hartman’s last night can and should be read here. We have distilled it to the very basics below.

 John spent most of the evening with his two friends, EJ Stevens and Chris Stone, at the Rainbow Inn Motel. It is a place not unlike many across the country, and strikingly similar to a motel across town called the Alaska Motor Inn that also became a crucial location in the murder investigation. In 1997, both motels had dull gray exteriors, peeling paint, and bad reputations. The rainbow that dominated the sign at the Rainbow Inn made a mockery of the slum that waited inside. In 1997 it was known as a good place to score drugs, and a bad but cheap place to live. The floors were tilted and the carpet stank.

John’s friend EJ was there babysitting a toddler that night at the Rainbow Inn. John and Chris went there to hang out. It has been alleged that they took LSD, perhaps meth, and antidepressants, and that John had a seizure there. At the Rainbow Inn, and throughout the day, John was wearing very distinctive camouflage pants. This orphan fact has troubled many who followed the case closely enough to know that a short time after leaving the Rainbow Inn John would be found dying with his friend Chris’ corduroy pants around his knees, the camouflage pants missing. From the time that EJ, Chris, and John departed the Rainbow Inn, a countdown to his murder begins.

1:12am  When the parent of the toddler returned home, he was not happy to see that EJ had invited John and Chris over. He paid for the boys to take a cab to EJ’s house across town.

1:20am (approximately).  EJ’s mother watched the boys get out of the cab. Her son came inside and, she says, John Hartman and Chris Stone walked off together. Chris Stone claims the opposite, that they headed in separate directions, with John Hartman walking down the road toward the site of his murder, and Chris heading the opposite way.

1:30am John Hartman was beaten and viciously murdered at the corner of 9th Avenue and Barnette Street.

1:45am Chris Stone ran into Foodland, a grocery store a few blocks from the murder site, panicked, saying something about his friend being hurt. Around this time Chris left a terrified-sounding message for family friend Barbara Higgins. She tried for weeks to persuade police to get a copy of the message. They were not interested, and eventually it was accidentally erased.

2:50am A car full of people leaving a downtown wedding reception (a location that would become central to the investigation) found John Hartman barely clinging to life on the curb. He was not wearing his camouflage pants, but Chris Stone’s blue corduroy pants, and they are down around his knees. The motorists called 911 and John Hartman was transported to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.

6:30am After many hours of care in the ICU, and hours spent searching for his family who thankfully were located in time to wait at his deathbed, John Hartman was declared dead. At that moment John Hartman officially became a murder victim. He left this world for the next. The lives of his loved ones changed forever. The lives of many, many people changed forever.

There will be many future posts in which will discuss the flaws of the investigation, the way that racism appears to have figured into the arrests and convictions of the Fairbanks Four, what we see as corruption, and much more. But for now, we want to let the very sad story of what happened to this young man stand separately, as it should.

Keep in mind that we are not reporters, but activists. There is ample, incredibly detailed reporting on this case. Please visit Extreme Alaska to read a detailed account of John Hartman’s last day. You can also read details of Chris Stone’s movements, his testimony, the story of how he had suffered a similar and severe beating a few weeks earlier, and much, much more information than we could provide here in the Newsminer series about the case published in 2007.