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.

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.

 

Never Forget to Remember John Hartman

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We grieve John Hartman.

The hardest, most painful part of writing the story of the Fairbanks Four is to trespass on the memories and recall the horrific final moments of a young boy we never knew.

In the graphic court photos, the mountains of expert affidavits analyzing his cause of death, explorations of causative instruments, manners of death, autopsies, soft tissue, timelines, witnesses, pants, the photographs of him ailing in a hospital bed aired as he lay dying in an effort to identify him, the letters to the editor, the newspaper articles, the school picture, the photo of him kneeling in his football uniform run over and over in the articles not about his life, but his terrible death…..in all of these documents someone’s child became a court exhibit. But never, ever forget, those who fight for the Fairbanks Four fight for this boy as well.

ImageIn those terrible photographs, below the wounds, was the face of someone who was loved. A son, a brother, a friend, a person. He was a baby once, freshly born, and surely his mother marveled over his little wrinkled fingers as all mothers do, so impossibly small. So perfect. His birth was the most common and divine miracle that any life is. He came into being. He smiled for the first time. He laughed. He learned to walk, tumbled on unsteady feet. Someone ran their hand over his forehead to check for a fever, someone kissed him goodnight. Maybe he wrestled with his brothers, made his friends laugh. He blew out candles on birthday cakes, he woke up in delight on Christmas mornings. He smiled toothless into those early elementary school photos. John Hartman grew out of chubby cheeks and freckles sprinkled across his nose, the winds of hundreds of summer days swept over him, the sun warmed his skin. He had a first kiss, a crush, secret dreams, unique hopes. Surely, his life contained all of these typical moments, and the thousands of moments unique to him known only to those who truly knew him. He became a boy, then a young man, grew into that middle season where childhood is waning, and the future is wide open.

And then, he was so unfairly interrupted. His life came to an end. They say that all of those moments flash before the dying, that the last thing we do before we leave our bodies is remember the life we lived in them. Hopefully, that is true, and the life that flashed before him was a happy one.

I wish we could articulate how it is impossible to work to prove the innocence of the Fairbanks Four and to tell their story without grieving the child whose death they were accused of causing – how often the reality and weight of his suffering and the magnitude of his pain and the grief of his loss weighs on us.

George Frese said he thinks of him every night, that he prays to him simply, expressing sorrow that his life ended so terribly, and implores him for help from the other side. These four men all understand that their lives are inextricably connected to the life and death of a boy they never knew, and what has arisen from that is a kind of powerful and sad kinship.

To fight for justice is to fight for justice. That four young men who committed no crime are imprisoned is a terrible injustice. That whoever killed John Hartman has never been held accountable is a terrible injustice. Every time his death is examined, discussed, his name is said out loud, the fact that he was murdered is discussed without equal understanding that he also lived – all of that is an injustice. The wrongful convictions that followed the murder of an innocent child have, perhaps, prevented him from resting peacefully, which he deserves. But the greatest injustice of all is that John Hartman died while he was just a little boy, and that the endless possible futures in his path were taken from him. In his obituary his family shared that John wanted to attend college in Michigan, where he hoped to play football and become a vet. In a world with true, pure justice, this young man would be in his thirties now, perhaps with a child of his own, marveling at the miracle that life is.

To anyone who loved and knew this boy, we are so sorry. We are so deeply sorry for your loss, and so sorry if the fight to prove the innocence of the Fairbanks Four hurts you. We are sorry for the greatest injustice of all in this story; the loss of his life and the hurt it brought upon you all.

Please remember that we never forget John Hartman. We are fighting for him, too, and doing everything we can to tell this story with tenderness and respect to the truly innocent boy who died in that long ago October.

 

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Bloody Photos of the “Bloodless” Crime Scene Emerge

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ImageWhen Calvin Moses and his passengers came upon a young John Hartman badly beaten, barely alive, and draped over a curb around 2:50am on that cold night in October 1997, the sight of his body was so frightening that the four adults did not get out of the car for fear the attackers were still nearby. They rushed to a nearby apartment complex and called 911. In fact, John Hartman was so bloody and badly beaten that they could not tell if he was a boy or girl, face up or face down. Only that if he was alive, he was barely alive.

One EMT who responded to the call was so badly shaken that he called home, woke his wife, and pleaded with her to lock the door. In the first newspaper article about the case (HERE) the lead detective described the crime scene as “horrific.”

Perhaps Detectives Aaron Ring and Jim Grier (who did the bulk of the police work on this case) believed that when the lab results came back from the car, the clothes, boots, shoes, hands, and feet of the four young men they had arrested in the hours immediately following the girssly discovery of the murdered boy, that the lab results would show what any reasonable person would expect to find on the people and car used to commit a violent stomping and beating death – DNA. And lots of it. But the lab results didn’t tie the Fairbanks Four to the victim. So, they tested, and retested. They took Marvin’s car apart to the point that it cannot be reassembled, searching for blood. And they found NONE.

NO DNA EVIDENCE HAS EVER LINKED THE FAIRBANKS FOUR TO THE CRIME THEY ARE CHARGED WITH COMMITTING.

When the police realized that there was no physical evidence linking Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent, or George Frese to the murder of John Hartman, they did not begin looking for other leads. They did two things – they shopped for jailhouse snitches and “lost” a lot of evidence that would have supported claims of innocence by the four young men and pointed to the guilt of others.

So many things have been lost in the Fairbanks Four case. Life. Time. Freedom. Hope. Memory. Intangible things.

But a lot of other things were lost. Tangible things. Evidence. For example, the first interview police did with Chris Stone. That was “lost.” The transcript of the police interview with EJ Stevens simply directs the reader to the audio recording. Somehow, it was lost. Perhaps no coincidentally “lost” piece of evidence stands out more than the missing crime scene pictures. With no photographs of the crime scene, the public and juries had to rely on the word of the investigators who examined the crime scene (primarily Ring and Grier).

For many in the Native community the moment that the crime scene went from “horrific” to “virtually bloodless” was the moment when it became completely clear that something was extremely wrong with this case. These are, after all, a people who have many times seen a death on the first winter snows when they are blessed with a moose to feed their families. The idea that place where a boy was kicked and beaten to death would be bloodless has long seemed to be a deliberate lie. We can now confirm that anyone who saw the crime scene and later described it as bloodless was lying, and readers can confirm that for themselves by looking at the recently unearthed photograph above.

When KTUU Channel 2 Anchorage did their documentary The 49th Hour: The Fairbanks Four, they were granted access to the historical footage shot by KTVF. During this same KTUU documentary (which you can watch HERE) the CURRENT Fairbanks Police Department police chief applauds the exemplary work of the detectives who investigated the murder of John Hartman, even calling it “model” police work. In that film footage from KTVF that KTUU producers unearthed, buried in the long-forgotten reels of film shot the day that John Hartman died, were a series of images of the crime scene the police and DA described as bloodless. This photograph of the place John Hartman was killed looks exactly as we would have imagined.

Those of us that live with the land and feed our children with what we can gather and hunt know something about blood and snow. We have seen the warm blood of an animal hit snow and race across the surface, frozen. We have seen it seep, and spread slowly from a wound. The place where a life is taken, even when taken respectfully with one swift and cordial wound, is marked on the snow until spring washes it away. We know the way that snow makes blood sticky, how the course hair of moose cling to your hands and boots and resists any attempt to cast it away.

To take a life is to spill blood, and blood remains there where life poured out, and upon those who touched it. It tracks on boots and pants, fingers and hands. Life does not disappear without a trace. John Hartman did not lose his life without leaving a mark behind. Those who killed him did not leave the scene of the crime without the blood of John Hartman on their feet, in their car, on their clothes, their shoes, and hands.

That DNA evidence probably washed over time, as seasons changed. But blood is on the hands of many in the case of the Fairbanks Four: Those who really did kill John Hartman, those who chose to deliberately wrongfully convict the Fairbanks Four believing they had so little value that they would never be remembered and fought for, and those who “lost,” altered, hid, corrupted, and lied. Those people have blood on their hands that cannot be washed away with water or with time. For all those in our community and world who have blood on their hands through murder, corruption, conspiracy, or through the crime of silence, we have a prayer always on our lips and in our hearts for you – that someday you will be free from the prison you built for yourself. That you will choose to redeem yourself as best you can during your time on this earth. That you remember that every day that innocent men spend in prison for a crime they did not commit, you commit another crime, and your guilt grows.

You can try to bury the truth. You can try to outrun it, you can try to lose it by forcing it deep into the darkest theatres of the mind. But you cannot destroy it. You can take a lot from another human being – their life, their time, even their hope. But you cannot take their story, and you cannot take the truth. Truth has a power of its own, and someday, the truth will FREE THE FAIRBANKS FOUR.

Who Killed John Hartman?

That is a question that I cannot answer. But it is a question that many people in our town can answer, and this post is for them.

The truth is a simple thing. Funny how it is always the simplest things that make life complicated.

I know many truths about the Fairbanks Four. Lots of small ones, and some big ones.

The way that Marvin loves his mother and sister as if there was only ever them on the Earth, how when he speaks about them every aspect of him softens.

I know Eugene’s easy laughter – so genuine and enthusiastic that it can brighten any day.

I have seen the depths of grief Kevin reached when he lost his mother, the piece of her that will always linger with him.

I know, for example, the way that George’s eyes light up for a split second before he cracks a joke, the sadness that flickers there when he hugs his daughter goodbye.

I know that one night, in what has come to feel like a time very long ago and far away, these four spent a snowy night in the company of friends. I know where each of them were the moment that a boy none of them had ever seen lay dying, the last of him ebbing out of this cold world. I know the names of the girls Marvin danced with at a wedding reception with hundreds of guests as that boy died. I know faces of the boys, now men, that walked drinking and laughing against the cold alongside George on the snow-packed sidewalk at that moment. I know the license plate number of the borrowed mini van that Kevin and Eugene rode in; the corners and turns and pot holes that they passed over in those fateful minutes.

I know, I think, more than I ever wanted to about these four men. I wish that they could have aged with the rest of us out of the October night and into adulthood. Into the time in life when children clamber at your feet, and the bills are barely paid, and you share meals with people you love more often than you appreciate. The age when you come home tired every night, and the passage of time begins to show itself white at your temples and in creases around your eyes. When your years number into a trinity of decades and you begin to accept the rhythm of the every day. The rise, the fall. Still young enough that you mostly fail to be grateful for the endless tiny blessings, yet live your life so surrounded by them. An age where restlessness fades and who you were as a teenager on some October night long ago is nearly forgotten. When the names and faces of the girls you danced with then are blurred, like a photo taken in dim light from too far away. Because if they had not been interrupted there, in that early hour of life, the details of their movements on October 10th of 1997 would not matter. They would have been forgotten. Probably, that they ever corresponded to a time when a boy much like them lost his life would be unknown. These details, minutes, names, faces, temperatures, routes, guest lists……they would be absorbed into the anonymity of long ago, where they belong.

But, it didn’t happen that way, so here in my mind, and in these pages, are many small truths which all add up to one large truth. A truth that must be borne by any who possess it: Marvin, Eugene, Kevin, and George are innocent men, wrongfully imprisoned. Unfairly interrupted. I know that much is true. More importantly, I want you to understand that I wish I didn’t know. Partly because I wish it wasn’t true at all, and partly because it is a burden. Because to hold that truth means I will be held responsible for what I did with it, and because doing what I know is right is both exhausting and scary. But I, and so many others, are doing our best with the truths we have, which is what gives us the right to ask the same.

For all the things that I know about the boys who were convicted of killing him, there is little that I know about the 1997 murder of John Hartman. That is not my truth to carry. But it is someone’s.

There are people who know the details of that killing because the moment that boy began to die they were becoming something else, too – murderers. And more likely than not, those truths are ones they wish so badly to cast off of themselves that they will never speak them aloud and accept judgement. We foolishly fear things in the places they are most harmless – to fear judgement here on Earth is like fearing shark attack in a hotel pool. Life is like that. The truth is like that.

But there are others. There are people among us who know the names and the faces of the men who killed John Hartman. There are people who know the truth about those men, and the truth about how they killed that boy. And I bet they wish they didn’t know. I imagine they wish that they had never heard the details, heard the rumor, seen the faces. But we often are born for burdens that we would never wish for, and that truth is in their possession because it has to be. Is meant to be.

The truth that they hold could set these four innocent men free and being the peace to dead boy’s family that they deserve. The silence that they choose is the prison in which these men live.

The opposite of love is too often considered to be hate. But I have heard it said, and believe completely, that the opposite of love is apathy.

Likewise, the greatest enemy of the truth is not a lie. It’s silence.

All great men begin simply as the bearers of a truth that overwhelms them. A truth that feels like a burden. They become heroes when they listen, and understand that to hold the truth is already a form of greatness. A test. In silence, many transform that greatness into a great evil. In courage, with the wisdom to bear witness to the truth they hold, some become heroes.

I wish I could choose for you – for those of you that know the truth about who killed John Hartman. I wish I could implore you, trick you, cut away your story and steal your truth because I believe myself to be more capable of using it wisely. Yet the universe believes otherwise. I know, and you do too, that is not how life is. I hold my truth, and you hold yours, and that is one of those simple things we all know about life.

I say to you, and only because I am certain that I have earned the right, do what you were sent for. Become what you were born for. Be worthy of the burden you carry. It will not be easy. It may not be safe. It may cost you all and earn you nothing.

Do it anyways.

The reward is now over $35,000 for information leading to the exoneration of the Fairbanks Four. You can call in to (907) 279-0454 with any information.

Kevin’s Last Night – Timeline

Kevin Pease spent most of the night of October 10th and the early morning hours of October 11th with other teenagers at a house party. Much of the night is painfully ordinary – he of course could have had no idea as he went through his night that each moment would come under scrutiny. That as he climbed into a car stuffed to the brim with teenagers, laughing and enjoying the night, across town a boy had never met was being beaten to death. That he would come to be wrongfully convicted of that crime. That this night would become the one that divided his life into a before and after.

One of the kids he was with for much of the night was Eugene Vent, who of course would be accused as well. Below is a detailed timeline of his activities and movements, derived from police transcripts of interviews with others, and testimony from his trial.

10:00 pm – Kevin is with a group of kids who are all getting a ride from Christy Moses in a van who stop by Eugene’s house to pick him up. They are all headed out to a party at Kevin Bradley’s house off Chena Pump Road.

10:30 pm – The group arrives at the house party, where they play drinking games, listen to music, and hang out for the next several hours. One of the people there is Joey Shank, who doesn’t drink and is the designated driver that night.

1:30 am – A group of nine kids, including Joey Shank (sober driver), Kevin, Eugene, Shawna, Allen, Shara, Eddie, Nathan, and Dana pile into Kevin Bradley’s mother’s car and drive toward town. Kevin Bradley was ready to have the party end, and the group was hoping to meet Conan at the Eagle’s Hall. About this same time, across town, Hartman is attacked. Read his timeline HERE.

1:50 am – Joey Shank and his passengers arrive at the Eagle’s Hall. All of them, except for Shara and Nathan, get out of the car. Kevin, Eugene, and the rest stand outside on the porch talking with people who are outside. Only Dana goes inside, and looks for Conan (Everyone was! See the PAGING CONAN post). Joey estimated that they stayed for five minutes.

1:55 am – After Dana determines that Conan isn’t at the reception, the group all jumps back in the car. Eugene hopped in the front seat even though Kevin had called shotgun, so Kevin got Eugene to move and Kevin rode in the front, Eugene squeezed in with the rest in the back. They left to drive  to Conan Goebel’s house.

2:05 am – The group arrives at the Goebel Residence, but Conan isn’t home. Shawna Goebel, Kevin Pease, Eddie, and Nathan get out at the Goebel house. Joey Shank drives the rest of his passengers (Eugene Vent, Shara, and Allen) back to the Eagle’s Hall. Kevin hangs out at the Goebel residence briefly

2:15 am – Kevin walks home.

2:50 am – Kevin is at home and gets in an argument with his mother, the late Carol Pease. He woke her up when he came in, she was angry, and the two argued. Kevin overturns some potted plants  in anger. He then gets upset and leaves on a three-wheeler.

3:00 am – Carol calls the police to tell them that Kevin left on the three wheeler without permission. Of course she would have had no way to know that this call would in part cast suspicion her son’s way, and deeply regretted ever having made the call. In an interview in 2001, she sobbed while explaining to reporter Brian O’Donoghue how trivial the incident had been and how sincerely she blamed herself for her son later being framed in the Hartman case.

3:15 am – (approximately) Kevin arrives back to the Goebel residence, where settles to sleep on the floor. Conan, Shawna, Shara, and a handful of others confirm that Kevin arrived by three wheeler and spent the remainder of the night sleeping there at the house.

The testimony of a crowded house party and packed car, with the especially time-aware testimony of Joey Shank, place Kevin across town at a party and in a crowded car during the crucial times surrounding the assault of John Hartman. Like the others, Kevin is not linked to the crime by physical evidence of any kind, and has an abundance of abilis for the critical time.

In the flurry of press and speculation, the community of Fairbanks made these four young men into monsters in their minds, and were so blinded by the desire for closure that they did not consider the facts, and the gaping holes in the police theory. But dehumanizing these young men came first – perhaps if anyone had remembered that these young men were sons, brothers, friends, human beings, none of this could have ever happened. So, we will close with this picture of a young Kevin Pease as a reminder to all that these four accused were human. As a warning that this could have happened to anyone’s child, still can today. That Free the Fairbanks Four movement is a human rights movement at its core. Sign the petition to end this injustice here.