Big Bad Wolf VII – Rashan Brown and the Murder of John Hartman

Rashan Brown, 1997 Lathrop High Yearbook

Rashan Brown, 1997 Lathrop High Yearbook

In 1997, Rashan Brown was, by all outward appearances, a typical high school student. He was a senior at Lathrop High School, where he at one point served on the school paper. Brown once published an interview with classmate William Holmes. Holmes would include Brown in his own nonficiton account some fifteen years later. In his written confession, Holmes named Rashan Brown as a fellow participant in the brutal kicking death of Jonathan Hartman. According to Holmes, he and Rashan Brown along with fellow Lathrop students Marquez Pennington, Shelmar Johnson, and Jason Wallace, left a house party on in the early morning hours of October 11, 1997, and drove to downtown Fairbanks and killed John Hartman for fun. Hartman was discovered draped across a curb, fatally wounded and comatose. He died the following day. Four other young men were swiftly arrested for and convicted of Hartman’ killing and remained imprisoned despite their unbroken insistence that they are innocent, no physical evidence linking them to the crime, and significant evidence to include Holmes’ own confession, that link the alternate suspects to the crime.

Rashan Brown was the son of a local community leader and city councilwoman and has no public criminal record in Alaska. What is known of Brown is that some months after the Hartman murder he is rumored to have had a mental breakdown of sorts. He was sent to live with his father in Oregon, where it seems things did not improve.

Rashan Brown was arrested on August 5, 2004 in Umat County, Oregon. Brown was charged on 10 total counts, including "MURDER AGGRAVATED", "", "MURDER AGGRAVATED", "", "MURDER AGGRAVATED", "", "MURDER AGGRAVATED", "", and ""

Brown was charged on 10 total counts

On December 13, 1999, Rashan Brown met up with Julie Ann Wilde and Victor Torres, aged 18 and 19, with the victims believing that the meeting was for the purposes of Brown purchasing drugs. Evidence indicates that Brown had planned a murder of this type for some time, and intended to kill Torres and Wilde to steal any drugs and money they had. Brown indeed shot both victims at close range and left their bodies where they fell. He threw away the bicycle he had been spotted on driving to and from the crime scene and reported it stolen. He went to the home of an acquaintence and offered him $20 to tell police he had been there all night. Brown became a suspect in the killing. His bicycle was found in a dumpster, a handful of witnesses came forward to implicate Brown in the crime, the murder weapon was recovered, and blood from the victims was found on his underwear.

Brown was tried for aggravated murder as well as conspiracy. During trial he was extremely disruptive. He engaged in many yelling and screaming courtroom outbursts, hunger strikes, was repeatedly removed from the courtroom, and his state of mind was debated back and forth by defense and prosecution. Although the defense asserted that Brown was mentally ill and not fit for trial, the prosecution believed he was, and not only that Brown was fit, but that his outbursts and behaviors were a farce.

Brown was ultimately convicted of his crimes and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He filed many appeals, all predicated on accusations of procedural missteps, but received no decisions favorable to his position and has exhausted his appeal process.

The blood spilled in the injustice that began with the killing of John Hartman and was followed by this wrongful conviction is incredible. Brown demonstrates well the ultimate price of leaving the guilty on the streets. Had the right men been arrested in 1997, many people who are dead would be alive. This includes the victims of Brown – Julie Ann Wilde and Victor Torres – whose families must live with incredible loss and grief, and may not even know how their personal injustice is interwoven with an injustice many miles north.

As to Brown, it is impossible to say who is was in 1997, and further impossible to know the contents of his mind and heart before the night John Hartman was killed. It is clear that his life took a dark turn. It is, again, sad to consider who Rashan brown may have been had justice found him in 1997. In the Holmes account of the Hartman killing, five high school aged boys left a house party with a plan to assault “drunk Natives” for fun. When they could not fund a suitable victim, they happened upon Hartman and said, “we got one!” Holmes pulled the car up to the child, and the other four young men jumped out and attacked him. They knocked him to the ground and kicked him. And, then, Jason Wallace kept kicking. And stomping. And kicking. The boy shuddered his last while Jason Wallace kicked and Marquez Pennington rifled through his pockets. And, once back to the car, Wallace sat silent while the other boys screamed.

What if? Those may be the two saddest words in the English language, used to number losses unknown. What if they had been pulled over just moments after they pulled away? What if John Hartman had gotten medical treatment in minutes, not hours? What if they had told the truth that night, and not lived under the burden of a terrible secret? What if Jason Wallace had been sentenced to life for the unimaginably brutal kicking death of a child? What if the others, with less involvement and still minors, had received sentences that reflected the gravity of the events, but included rehabilitation? Who might they have been? And who may still be alive?

We will never know if Brown may have grown up to be okay had he been caught that night. We may never know whether he became ill under the weight and trauma of a terrible secret and the fear of killers, or if he was destined to break. But we do know that had he been incarcerated in December of 199, as he absolutely should have been for his role in the killing for John Hartman, that Julie Ann Wilde and Victor Torres would be alive today. Our hearts are with those families. In a few short days the Fairbanks Four will have another chance in court. Someday, they will come home. There is no such relief for the families of the other victims, and the permanency of their loss is a tragic reminder of our blessings. May they heal, hope, and see a greater justice someday.

Advertisements

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.

IMG_7115

BillFiling

William Holmes Confession in Hartman Murder Supported by Others, Evidence

decadeSince the moment the Fairbanks Four were arrested for the murder of John Hartman in 1997 the case has been plagued by questions, community concern, and accusations of corruption. As the years passed the movement to exonerate the men convicted in the locally notorious beating death has not faded, but grown larger and more persistent. These efforts have raised funds for rewards, appeals, litigation costs, awareness campaigns, and to support the work of the Alaska Innocence Project. Many events, speeches, news articles, television specials, and rallies have been held over the course of the sixteen years that the Fairbanks Four have been incarcerated, and the case has long been a line dividing the residents of Alaska’s “Golden Heart City” between those who believe the four are innocent and those who do not. In all the years that the case has worked its way through the Alaska court system and the court of public opinion, there is no question that the most explosive development in the Hartman murder and plight of the Fairbanks Four has been the confession of convicted killer William Holmes, who names himself and four other men as the true perpetrators of the murder of John Hartman.

Holmes ConfessionThe handwritten confession, received by Alaska Innocence Project in late 2011, is the most shocking revelation of the application for a post conviction relief file on behalf of the “Fairbanks Four” on September 25, 2013. However, the handwritten three page confession is only a fraction of the contents of the 138-page filing. (READ CONFESSION).

 

Following the filing the State of Alaska’s representatives, Jason Skidmore on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office and Fairbanks Police Chief, were dismissive of the confession. Their criticism was essentially that the confession was not credible given the source – that the character of a known murderer was suspect and Holmes had nothing to lose. In this post we seek to counter that position and give a brief overview of the supporting statements of others and documentation that bolster the validity of Holmes’ confession.

In the days and weeks to come we will take a more detailed look at each of these piece of the Alaska Innocence filing. But for now, we want to outline the contents of the filing that corroborate the confession.:

1.) The affidavit of Scott Davison, who provided a statement to Alaska Innocence Project in 2008. In his sworn affidavit Davison details the confession that Jason Wallace gave to him in 1997 in the days after the murder of John Hartman. The details of the confession Davison recalls and the confession of Holmes, each given without the knowledge of the other and some 14 years apart, match closely. Scott came forward with no motivation (reward was not yet in place) beyond doing the right thing.

2.) The DMV records supporting that Holmes in fact owned and was driving the vehicle he describes in the confession. When a confession is not credible, small details are incorrect. For example, a person fabricating a confession often does something like name a car that they owned, but not at the time of the crime.

3.) Records from the FNSB School District affirming that the five accused were, as Holmes claims, classmates. They all attended Lathrop Highschool, as did EJ Stevens and Chris Stone, the last two people to see Hartman alive. Again, this is the kind of small detail that a false confession often misses.

4.) The filing also indicates that sealed statements made by Jason Wallace likely corroborate the confession of William Holmes. Reporter Brian O’Donoghue recently wrote an article that addressed this sealed statement in detail. His speculation, backed up by jailhouse interviews with Wallace and some thinly veiled comments from a few local public defender’s, is essentially that Wallace confessed to the Hartman murder sometime around 2002-2004 to his public defender, but that the attorney has kept quiet under the guise of attorney-client privilege. Unless and until a judge orders the “sealed” evidence to be opened, its contents cannot truly be know. But O’Donoghue’s work provides a strong hint to the contents of the evidence under seal. Read the article HERE.

5.) The details in the confession of William Holmes closely match what is known about the crime, victim’s injuries, and crime scene. Holmes describes spotting Hartman as he turned off of Barnette Street. He describes how Jason Wallace stomped Hartman over and over, despite the protests of the others present. He describes how, as Marquez Pennington rifled through the contents of Hartman’s pockets, the boy was shaking and then went limp. Hartman was found with the contents of his pockets scattered about, his wallet missing, laying face up with his knees on the curb, torso in the street, his baggy pants down near his knees, and other clothing in place. Hartman was displaying deceberate posturing, a body state that is indicative of severe brain injury, and often brain death. It is likely that the moment when Hartman stopped shaking was the moment of brain death. His belongings were scattered as they rifled through his pockets. His position was consistent with the assault type.

6.) Holmes does not mention a sexual assault. There was early police speculation and a “satanic panic’ style community belief that Hartman was sexually assaulted. In reality there was no determination of sexual assault by anyone besides one under-qualified nurse who likely mistook the anal dilation associated with brain trauma for a sign of sexual assault. The state medical examiner and other experts brought in to look for indications of sexual assault found none. The fact is that the physical evidence of the crime never supported a claim of sexual assault, although the press and community clung to it. Given that there is more evidence that Hartman was not sexually assaulted than that he was, there is credibility in a confession that does not contain this element.

7.)  Holmes states that Jason Wallace, the ‘ringleader’ in the account give by Holmes, had a substantial amount of blood on his clothes and shoes. Although the crime scene was described as bloodless by police, and had not been seen until the image on this blog was unearthed (HERE), the nature of Hartman’s injuries, statements by the people who found him, and recollection of responding EMTs always lead most who considered it to assume that whoever committed the crime would have had a substantial amount of DNA evidence on themselves and any getaway vehicle.

8.) The Holmes confession meets all litmus tests used to determine if a confession is legitimate. He provides details on location, the victim, the motivation, and shares the chilling details that have remained with him through the years. He does all of the talking, and is not prompted with leading questions or supplied details to repeat. No one forgets a murder. Holmes has spent the last eleven years without access to the internet, to news about this case, with no contact with the others he names, and had to draw his confession from memory alone, and memory that was a decade and a half old. That he was able to provide so much detail is indicative credibility. The experience of participating in a killing as a teenager would be traumatic. Even though he says “mentally, I lived as if that night never happened,” the details were likely so clear and accessible because they were so traumatic and remained vivid.

The filing corroborates every independent and verifiable statement made by Holmes. However, the State of Alaska has still chosen to question the credibility based on the character of William Holmes as well as the “nothing to lose” factor (Holmes is serving a double life sentence for unrelated killings). We would like to address both attacks on the credibility of the confession.

First, let us say that the ONLY credible confession of murder comes from a murderer. When a false confession of murder is elicited it is, in fact, not particularly credible (read about that HERE). It is a sad irony that the Fairbanks Chief of Police would make the statement that confessions of murder by known murderers is not the kind of confession he finds credible, in light of the fact that the FPD was quite willing to take confessions in this case from innocent men that were clearly not credible. It is impossible to receive a credible confession of murder from anyone except a killer. That three of the five men named have committed other murders does not detract from the credibility of the confession, it strengthens it. It is a tragic revelation. The moment that John Hartman stopped shaking these men became killers. Three of the five went on to become serial killers. That these men are capable of the crime is clear. We find this unimaginably sad, but also very true.

The second attack on the credibility of the confession is that Holmes has nothing to lose by confessing. He is serving a double life sentence, so it is absolutely true that the threat of additional time is probably not the kind of disincentive that it would be for a free man. That said, Holmes lives in a maximum security prison in California, which has the highest rate of murder of incarcerated men by incarcerated men in the country. It is well-known that in prison culture the most hated and attacked prisoners are snitches and child molesters (there are thousands of killings and articles and studies to underscore that, look on your own if you like, HERE is a relatively random one if you would like to read about snitching in prison).

William Holmes, 1997

William Holmes, 1997

The reality is that William Holmes has nothing to gain, and everything to lose. He has put his life on the line, and although we will not defend his character, he has risked the only thing he still has – his life. Assuming he is not killed for snitching, he has certainly sentenced himself to a life of isolation, fear, and assault.  It is impossible to say what motivated Holmes, but the most likely one is perhaps the most simple – for 16 years he has lived knowing that innocent men are in prison for a crime they did not commit and he chose to right that wrong. He has committed the sin of murder, and there is nothing he can do to bring the people he killed back to their families. But he does have the ability to do what he can to end his part in the ongoing victimization of the Fairbanks Four. For all of these many years people have hoped, prayed, and dreamed that the hearts of whoever killed John Hartman would be called to come forward. We choose to believe that those prayers certainly can permeate concrete and pass through prison walls, and that they reached William Holmes and called him to do the right thing.

If Holmes came forward just to clear his conscience, he would hardly be the first. Many wrongful convictions have been resolved after the true perpetrator confesses (read those stories HERE and HERE). Sadly, initial reactions to the confessions that eventually freed the innocent in those cases were met with the same predictable response that the State of Alaska has expressed in the Fairbanks Four case.

It is extremely uncommon for a prisoner, even a lifetime prisoner, to arbitrarily confess to a crime he did not commit. Voluntary false confessions are rare as well. It is reasonably common for the wrongfully convicted to be cleared or unsolved crimes to be solved when a perpetrator voluntarily confesses years later. These confessions usually come from prison cells, because the perpetrator went on to commit similar crimes and were eventually caught.

William Holmes’s confession is credible. And, contrary to the sentiment expressed by the state of Alaska, no one has to take his word for it in isolation. The confession is backed up by hard corroboration, the matching statements of others given at other times without collaboration, and mounds of anecdotal evidence that indicates that this is what a credible confession looks like. (Read about credible confessions HERE).

Regardless of his past misdeeds, William Holmes made a decision to tell the truth. And, as we have said many times, the truth will prevail. The truth will FREE THE FAIRBANKS FOUR.

 

*Footnote – it remains necessary, although painful, to write about the details of the last moments of John Hartman’s life. To those who knew and loved him, we are sorry if our words bring you pain. We have posted about that HERE and encourage all of our readers to pray for John, his family, and remember to honor his memory as best you can.