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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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.

I Shall Be Released – Video Post

This short video covers the most basic information about this case. This is a great thing to pass along, link to, post on Facebook, tweet, text, and spread far and wide. Many people who do not have the time to read the case files have three minutes to watch a video.

The soundtrack is I Shall Be Released as sung by Walter Trout and the Free Radicals

They say everything can be replaced

But every distance is not near

So I remember every face

Of every man who put me here

They say ev’ry man needs protection
They say ev’ry man must fall
Yet I swear I see my reflection
Some place so high above this wall
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd
Is a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

 

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.

The Beginning of Our Story

It is hard to introduce a story so specific yet universal, so young, yet so old. It is not enough to say that this is a blog about four young Native men wrongfully convicted of a brutal murder.

It is not enough to say that this blog is about racism or hate, or faith or hope. This is the story of Alaska. Of America. A 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.

In telling this story we hope to achieve one small justice for four men, but also to contribute to building justice for all Native people. For all people. In the weeks and months to come we will introduce a brutal murder, a shocking investigation, and the stories of heartbreak, determination, and hope from many people that have all sprung from one terrible night.