How the Fairbanks Four Finally Found Freedom - Pacific Standard

How the Fairbanks Four Finally Found Freedom

George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts, and Eugene Vent — better known as the Fairbanks Four—spent 18 years in prison for a murder they didn’t commit. On the anniversary of the crime, a look at how their incarceration exposed the deep racial divides within the local community.
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Fairbanks, Alaska.

Fairbanks, Alaska.

There are signs lining the path that runs along the Chena River through downtown Fairbanks, Alaska, advising any and everyone to “WALK WITH A FRIEND.” These signs are not some sort of cheery reminder to roll through life with people you love; they are a warning: The streets of Fairbanks have not historically been a safe place to be alone. When I grew up there in the 1970s and ’80s, my friends and I were taught to walk always in twos and threes.It certainly wasn’t safe for 15-year-old high school student John Hartman.

The bare facts of the Hartman Murder case are as follows: On the night of October 11th, 1997, Hartman was found unresponsive, lying unconscious across a curb at the intersection of 9th Avenue and Barnette Street. He had been brutally beaten, stomped on, and kicked. He died two days later at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.

Four young men, George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts, and Eugene Vent — now known as the “Fairbanks Four” — were arrested within a couple of days on suspicion of the murder, based on eyewitness testimony and a bootprint on Hartman’s face that appeared to match the tread on the boots worn by Frese. Interrogations the night of the attack and into the next day resulted in confessions from Frese and Vent. Separate trials for each of the Four ensued.

The Fairbanks Four had a pretty strong case. There was no physical evidence linking any of them to either Hartman or the scene. And Roberts, accused of driving the car that the Four were allegedly in together, had an alibi: He was at a wedding reception that night, seen by multiple people dancing and celebrating around the time of the attack. But the prosecution, building its case on Frese and Vent’s confessions, insisted that the witnesses providing Roberts’ alibi were lying to protect him. Pease had an extensive juvenile record; Frese was also known to local law enforcement. (Frese and Vent recanted their confessions, saying they were pressured and misled into giving them. There were other issues there: Namely, both were intoxicated at the time they issued the confessions, and Vent was only 17 at the time of his arrest — but more on that later.)

In February of 1999, Frese was convicted of Hartman’s murder. Vent, Roberts, and Pease were also found guilty, and the Fairbanks Four were issued sentences ranging from 33 to 79 years. Frese’s was the longest: He would not be eligible for parole until 2050.

On December 17th, 2015, those convictions were all vacated. The state acknowledged “if the defendants were retried today it is not clear under the current state of the evidence that they would be convicted.” The Four had to agree that “the original convictions were properly and validly obtained” if they wanted to be released. At that point, the Fairbanks Four had spent 18 years in prison. They’re now left trying to piece back together some semblance of an ordinary life: While Vent spent a few weeks studying for his driver’s test, Frese celebrated his 39th birthday with his family. All the while, the underlying racial tensions unboxed by the crime and its investigation continued to fester between those who believed from the onset that the Four were innocent, and those who believed that Hartman’s murderers were who the authorities said they were.

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On October 11th, 1997, the night Hartman was assaulted, Audrey McCotter married Vernon Jones. Friends and relatives came to Fairbanks from Native villages all over Alaska. The ceremony was held at St. Matthew’s; Scott Fisher officiated.

The wedding was scheduled right around Permanent Dividend Fund check time. The Permanent Dividend is an amount of money, adjusted annually based on the state’s oil revenues, paid to each Alaska resident who has lived in the state for a full calendar year. In 1997, that amounted to $1,296. Excitement always runs high around Alaska when checks come out, and people often head into Fairbanks from surrounding villages to go shopping.

That night in particular “you could feel the energy level in the town,” Fisher recalls. “I remember standing there, after the wedding, after everyone rushed over to Eagles’ [Hall, an event site where the reception was held]. You could feel the place pulsing. Too much energy. Too much something, one way or the other.”

Police say the extra cash flow brought in by the dividend checks always leads to a spike in crime, and that year was no different: “Between midnight and dawn on Oct. 11, 1997, Fairbanks police were overwhelmed,” wrote Brian O’Donoghue in a 2008 series on the case, published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “Off-duty personnel were summoned back to work as the thinly staffed department grappled with armed assaults, street fights, robberies, domestic violence and drunken driving.”

From left: Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent, George Frese, and Marvin Roberts stand in front of Malcolm Alexander’s Unknown First Family sculpture.

From left: Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent, George Frese, and Marvin Roberts stand in front of Malcolm Alexander’s Unknown First Family sculpture.

Marvin Roberts attended the McCotter/Jones wedding and reception; he was seen by numerous people at the supposed time of the attack on Hartman. This was a largely Native event; the people providing Roberts’ alibi all had deep ties within the Native community.

Many questions remain about the way the Fairbanks Police Department and the State of Alaska handled the case. For one, the early confessions by Frese and Vent were obtained via the Reid technique, a now-discredited interrogation approach that has been shown to lead to false confessions, particularly when used on children (and remember: Vent was 17 at the time of his interrogation).

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Fairbanks is a boomtown that has experienced three major phases: First, a gold discovery in the early 20th century resulted in the establishment of a trading post, where Fairbanks sits today. Some 30 years later, while Alaska was still a United States territory, the construction of an Army airfield in Fairbanks fostered population and economic growth during the New Deal and World War II. The 1968 discovery of oil on the North Slope of Alaska and the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the ’70s saw another significant influx of people from the Lower 48. There is a common theme linking each of these phases: the surge of outsiders, coming to extract whatever benefit they might from the land and bringing with them new cultures and customs. Through every economic boom, the Native people in the area, Athabascans of various language groups, have been forced to adjust and assimilate as best they could.

Tensions have long simmered. Fisher believes one of the reasons the Hartman case has resonated so deeply is that Alaska Native people have always felt discriminated against, going back to the early history of whites coming into the country: “People know what this was. Native men used to get thrown down the stairs at the jail, way back when Fairbanks was just getting started, and they would die, and nobody did anything.”

This collision of cultures, colonial and indigenous, is still playing out in many ways. When I was in high school, groups of unhinged white boys would drive around with eggs and 2x4s, looking for Natives to harass and assault. With the Hartman case, the idea that a group of Native guys might attack a white kid caught alone wasn’t hard for some people to imagine.

And though Fairbanks is a beautiful city — nestled at the bottom of a river valley, with the Alaska Range towering in the distance, it can seem an invigorating, shimmering place; there’s also an impressive offering of museums and restaurants — life can be hard there. The winters are long and dark, and the remote geography — Anchorage is 350 miles away — can create feelings of isolation. It’s not a place where just anyone can live and thrive; you either belong there, or you don’t. Its tight-knit community can border on cliquishness; high priority is often paid to one’s political leanings or the expanse of one’s genealogy.

There’s also a very real feeling of disenfranchisement among many of the indigenous locals, a direct and poisonous residue of colonialism. There isn’t much solid data on hate crimes in Fairbanks; it’s one of several communities in Alaska with years-long gaps in reporting from local law enforcement agencies. But racism is an everyday reality, according to Native people who live there.

The murder of Hartman and the subsequent investigation divided the town. Letters to the editor of the local paper, the News-Miner, illustrate this tension. Some expressed outrage at the authorities for not preventing the attack on Hartman and argued that the death penalty should be imposed on the Four. Other readers pleaded with the community to withhold judgment, and to not rush to the assumption that the Four — three of them Athabascan, and one who identifies culturally as Athabascan — were guilty.Hoping to stem any more controversy, officials moved the trials to Anchorage.

“When we first got arrested, the city of Fairbanks … pretty much went with it,” says Vent, the youngest of the Four. “Terrible crime, and I think everybody was like, ‘Wow, man, the police solved it.’ It really created a lot of tension and racism … between people who supported us and people who didn’t.”

It didn’t help that the trial itself was rife with bigoted undercurrents. In one particularly headline-worthy instance, the prosecutor compared Roberts’ witnesses — all of them with close connections to the indigenous community — to slaves conspiring against their owners in the film Spartacus.

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For the past 19 years, the Four have maintained their innocence. Years of appeals and efforts on the Four’s behalf seemed to go nowhere, but, in September of 2013, the Alaska Innocence Project filed motions with the state claiming that the Four were innocent of the crimes for which they had been convicted. The AIP offered an alternate theory in the case: Two other local men, William Holmes and Jason Wallace, Lathrop High School students at the time of Hartman’s death, have said they were responsible for the killing. They are both serving time for other murders. (Holmes and Wallace have not been charged with Hartman’s murder; it is now an open file in the Fairbanks Police Department, but it is not clear how actively it is being investigated.)

Roberts, out on parole a few months prior to the agreement that set the Four free, addressed the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in October of 2015: “Imagine the worst day of your life. Then imagine living that day every day of your life. That’s what it feels like when you are innocent in prison.”

It took a long time for a lot of people in the white community to come around to the idea that these guys were innocent, Fisher says. “I remember lonely marches, with the boys’ parents…. Somewhere along the line it had to tip over from, ‘Oh that’s a Native thing’ to, ‘No, it’s all of us,’ and with the (post-conviction relief) hearing last October, it finally did.”

After that five-week evidentiary hearing during the fall of 2015, the Four were released from prison via an agreement with the State of Alaska that they would not be allowed to sue for prosecutorial misconduct. As of right now, they will receive no compensation whatsoever for what happened to them. (Disclosure: I donated to a fund for their support, after the terms of their release were revealed.) The Fairbanks mayor’s office is now discussing with local Native leaders the possibility of an independent review of the case — and how it was initially handled.

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When the Four were released last winter, there seemed to be a tremendous lack of coordination between the state, the mayor’s office, and the Fairbanks Police Department. In a television interview with KTVA three days after the release, Chief of Police Randall Aragon emphasized that the agreement was “not an exoneration,” and said he stood by the actions of the police department and the prosecutors. He added that, whether they were innocent or guilty “doesn’t really matter at this point,” and that, “whatever happened on that case, they’re no longer incarcerated. They’re turned loose.” Many found his language disturbing: Not freed; turned loose.

Fairbanks Mayor John Eberhart backed away from those statements in a press conference a couple of days later, but he also blamed the state for a lack of information, and he criticized the reporter at KTVA for putting “some words in the chief’s mouth.” Aragon’s subsequent apology was itself a source of division within the community: “The jury is still out [on Aragon],” says one Fairbanks resident who wished to remain anonymous. “He doesn’t know this place. I don’t think he understands the impact of what he said.”

It’s late spring when I pull into the parking lot of the Fairbanks Police Department.

I arrive just after Aragon does, and I watch as he gets out of his car and saunters to the building. Two people who appear to be Alaska Native hail him from across the street: “How ya doin’, chief?” He stops and waves back.

Clockwise, from top left: George Frese celebrates his first birthday as a free man. | Eugene Vent studying for his driver’s test. | Marvin Roberts crosses off items on his shopping list. | Kevin Pease getting dressed in his room.

Clockwise, from top left: George Frese celebrates his first birthday as a free man. | Eugene Vent studying for his driver’s test. | Marvin Roberts crosses off items on his shopping list. | Kevin Pease getting dressed in his room.

Aragon welcomes me into his office with effusive Southern manners, his voice rich with an Alabama drawl. He’d been chief of police in communities all over the U.S. before coming to Fairbanks in late 2014. As we talk, he points to a wall map with different parts of the city outlined, detailing a new community policing program. He proudly shows me a picture of himself with a traditional chief’s necklace, a gift from local Native leaders, and is eager to explain a national accreditation program the department is undertaking. He also shares a report documenting the 27 percent decrease in crime Fairbanks has seen in the last year.

I am not allowed to record any of our conversation, as this was not a formal interview; since the KTVA debacle, all media requests around the Hartman/Fairbanks Four case are now handled by the mayor’s office, I’d been informed.

When I interview Aragon and Eberhart together via Skype the following week, it becomes immediately apparent that Eberhart and Aragon are not necessarily of one mind regarding the possible independent review of the Hartman murder. Eberhart referred more than once to the different “sides”:

You’ve got arguments like the chief says: “You know, why is this necessary? This is so long ago, most of the people are gone, what’s the use, this is opening old wounds.” Some people don’t want, you know, the light of day shown in certain places. But we’ve always expressed to the Alaska Native leadership a willingness to help pay for this.

Aragon is currently on administrative leave pending an investigation into conflict-of-interest allegations around his private security business. Eberhart, up for re-election on October 4th, 2016, appears to have been voted out of office, though an official result has not yet been declared.

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The Fairbanks Four themselves do not seem angry. A few days after sitting down with the police chief, I meet with Frese, Vent, and Roberts; Pease says he is “burned out” on interviews.

Frese, lanky, with a perpetual smile and long hair descending down his back in a braid, describes feeling bewildered by all the people who have offered support, all the elders who prayed for them over the years:

I’m just so grateful. How do you repay that? You don’t even know these people, and they’re praying for you. Being part of the Native community, and then being in prison, not seeing your people … you’re so far away, you become totally assimilated to prison life, and then you have your Native community, all these people out here … you can’t even fathom it. I didn’t understand the impact, going through this process, that it would have on our community.

Vent still looks like the teenager he was when he went to prison; he is a big man with a youthful face. He is very personable, and maybe a little shy too, as though he’s still absorbing all that’s happened. There is a lot of obvious affection among the Four, and they are very interview-savvy, noting right away the phone on the table and protectively alerting each other that they are “mic’d up.”

I turn to Roberts, who seems to be the quiet leader of the group; his eyes seem the most sorrowful. He says that there are “pros and cons” to their high visibility. He has another thought, but he doesn’t quite finish — Vent has jumped in to add: “But it’s awesome because people feed off our story, they learn from it. The effect we have on children, communities, when they hear it … when we’re talking, it’s quiet in there. It’s like I’ve found my purpose, found a reason to keep speaking out.”

More than the rest of the Four, Frese seems to have an agenda: He has very definite ideas about what sorts of things need to go on in prisons to help people prepare for the outside world. Throughout our conversation, he repeatedly expresses frustration that the things he’d said about prison in a recent TV interview were edited out of the final footage. “I believe they’ve got Kindles now in Seward [Spring Creek Correctional Facility] and I believe they should be downloaded with required reading where inmates will become psychologically self-aware, being able to identify their own emotions, for example, their psychological processes,” he says. He quotes extensively from books he’s read, straight from memory, and throws out multiple names of writers and neuroscientists he thinks are worth reading.

Eventually, the conversation turns where we always knew it would — to Fairbanks.

Roberts: “There is more unity for the Native community as a whole now than there was back then.”

Vent: “There’s more education, more communication.”

Frese: “The communication thing is huge. Now you’re in instant communication with anybody.”

Vent: “Over the years, people got involved and started spreading awareness, and it brought the city closer together and it healed a little bit.

Roberts: “Very few were there with us in the beginning. And it seems like now that we’re out there’s a lot more people behind us.”

Because Roberts was released on parole, he was free to sue the state for compensation, but as he toldNewsweek earlier this year: “It was an all or nothing deal. We all signed it, or nobody.” He was adamant, then and now, that “the three guys left inside” had the ultimate say in what happened. “I like what Kevin [Pease] said once, that this case has opened a lot of eyes to violations, civil, criminal, police misconduct,” he tells me, “and that hopefully this story will help prevent a future exoneree or future wrongly convicted person from having to take the deal that we took.”

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Inside the Bunnell Building, right in the center of the University of Alaska–Fairbanks’ main campus, Brian O’Donoghue sits in his cluttered office talking to me about his role in the Fairbanks Four case. A journalism professor, O’Donoghue, along with a group of his students, spent years investigating it; his seven-part series in the News-Miner in July of 2008 was one of the major turning points on the path to the Four’s eventual release.

“I have no doubt that the terms would have gotten better and better as we got closer to the legislature,” O’Donoghue says. “I know that the governor [Bill Walker] wanted this off the table. I think the prosecutor [Adrienne Bachmann] did a great job of putting the fear in [the Four] that the state would fight and fight and fight, and I think it was a bluff. I think the settlement is indefensible morally. The state’s conduct in this is deeply disturbing, and it’s not going to go away. The process has left a deep wound.”

Julia Madeline Taylor is one of O’Donoghue’s students. She has intensively researched the case, and live-tweeted the entire proceedings last fall. “As someone who sat in the courtroom every day, the justice system in Alaska that was put on trial during that time was certainly proved to be unreliable and racist and incompetent, within just what was said and what happened during those 26 days,” she says. I contacted Bachmann, the prosecutor, for comment; a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Law responded, indicating that they were not giving interviews but were preparing a statement on the case. It was not received by publication time.

In June of 2016, Governor Walker named Jahna Lindemuth, an attorney who worked on the Fairbanks Four case with the Alaska Innocence Project, to the position of attorney general for the state of Alaska. Many see it as a tacit acknowledgement of the wrong done in the case. “It sends the message that should have been true from the beginning, that Alaska Natives and indigenous Americans are indeed every bit as much citizens as the settlers, and the sincerity with which we demand equality should not be underestimated,” says April Monroe, an activist who also works for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a Native organization based in Fairbanks.

In the near-constant light of late spring and summer, Fairbanks is an achingly vibrant place to be. The blue of the sky seems to pulse from deep within the spectrum of light. The birch leaves had just unfurled into their urgent, life-affirming, almost luminescent, green. People are up at all hours, working, gardening, and socializing under the midnight sun, determined to pack as much into the short season as they can before the sun begins its headlong descent into winter.

I ask Frese, Roberts, and Vent about the future — where they want to live, what they want to do. They all smile and seem to collectively shrug:

Frese: “Fairbanks is definitely home, despite all that’s happened.”

Roberts: “Every day is different. I don’t know if we’re ever going to have regular lives.”

Vent: “I don’t know about the future. I’m happy right now. I just want to stay in this same spot for a long time.”

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