Four Native men convicted and sent to prison in the fatal 1997 beating and robbery of John Hartman on a cold Fairbanks street corner did not attack the teenager, who was instead killed by an entirely different group of people, according to sworn affidavits by two other men. The statements, filed in court Wednesday by attorneys working with the Alaska Innocence Project, are by one man who says he was the getaway driver for the murder and another who says one of the participants admitted his involvement.
Former Lathrop High School student William Holmes, 33, wrote in his affidavit that he was driving his mother’s leased maroon Ford Tempo with four classmates looking for drunk Alaska Natives to harass, beat up and rob that night. Fairbanks residents remember the time as the first raucous weekend after Permanent Fund Dividends delivered more than $1,200 into Alaskans’ bank accounts and pockets.
Instead of throwing eggs or fighting with Natives, as Holmes said he and his friends were apt to do, they found a "white boy" whose pockets they emptied while one of them kicked his head.
"Mentally, I have lived as if that night never happened since that time," Holmes wrote from a California prison, having been convicted of killing two people five years after Hartman. "I was able to observe the boy cross the street in front of us and got a good look at him. He matched the pictures and the descriptions I later saw of John Hartman and I am sure the boy who was chased down and stomped that night was John Hartman."
Affidavits filed Wednesday
The affidavits filed Wednesday in Fairbanks accompany applications for post-conviction relief, requesting new trials for three of the four men known as the Fairbanks Four: George Frese, 36; Marvin Roberts, 35; Kevin Pease, 35; and Eugene Vent, 33. In Vent’s case, a similar filing is expected soon as an amendment to a previous application for post-conviction relief.
All four of the men went to Howard Luke, an alternative academy in Fairbanks, and played on the basketball team. Three came from Athabascan village families. The court filings Wednesday follow years of unsuccessful appeals and are the latest arguments in a racially charged 16-year battle by the men and their supporters to have Alaska courts take another look at the case.
The sidewalk outside Fairbanks’ Rabinowitz Courthouse was crowded Wednesday with a couple of hundred people as representatives of the Innocence Project described the court filing.
Attorney Bill Oberly, the Innocence Project’s executive director, called the investigation a "long and arduous" process over a five-year period that led to Holmes.
"What we filed was a document claiming newly discovered evidence that established the actual innocence of our clients," Oberly said to cheers.
"This has been 16 years of a nightmare for me and this is the happiest day of my life, well when they come home it will be the happiest, but right now you can’t imagine how happy I am," said Hazel Roberts Mayo, Roberts’ mother.
Oberly said the affidavit and an interview he conducted with Holmes tell what actually happened to Hartman. But aside from questions raised by University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism students and professor Brian O’Donoghue, the story most people have known since 1997 is the one told by Fairbanks police and believed by three separate juries.
It was in the early morning hours of Oct. 11, 1997, when a man driving by found Hartman -- 15 and not quite yet a freshman at West Valley High School, having not met requirements for finishing 8th grade -- near the corner of Ninth Avenue and Barnette Street, just outside Fairbanks’ main downtown area. Police said later it appeared someone had kicked Hartman’s head a dozen times.
Doctors took Hartman off life-support the following day after finding no sign of brain activity. Fairbanks detectives investigating the assault-turned-murder developed a theory that Frese, Roberts, Pease and Vent had gone on a drunken joyride from a wedding downtown and mugged Hartman and another man. The idea seems to have first come together when a medical examiner in the emergency room noticed marks from a boot tread on Hartman’s face and a detective compared them to a boot worn by Frese, who’d come into the same emergency room early the morning Hartman was found, complaining of a hurt foot from kicking someone.
Police later said Frese and Vent confessed to the attack in interrogations the night of Hartman’s beating. Attorneys for the men have attacked their supposed admissions of guilt, calling them the products of a questionable, unreliable and unfair interview technique not used anymore because of past wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence.
Without any physical evidence putting them at the murder scene, prosecutors convinced juries in three separate trials to convict the four men of murder. Prosecutors used transparencies to show jurors Frese’s boot overlaid on Hartman’s face. They also connected the Fairbanks Four to one another through the account of a man who said he witnessed them assault and rob another man downtown nearer the wedding.
All four maintained innocence
Roberts later received a sentence of 33 years, with 38 years for Vent, 60 for Frese and 64 for Pease. All four maintained their innocence. After a complicated and ultimately unproductive appeals process, the men have remained behind bars in Arizona, Colorado and now back in Alaska for about 15 years.
Meantime, Holmes and those he says are truly responsible for Hartman’s death vowed to never speak about what happened. That is, until now, while he has little to lose serving two life sentences for shooting and killing two people in Shasta County, Calif. According to the Associated Press, prosecutors said Holmes was arrested in Centralia, Wash., on an arson charge for torching the rental car he and the two men he killed Christmas Eve 2002 had driven from Washington to California to get cocaine.
Holmes’ affidavit says the Hartman beating went down like this:
Holmes met up with four others he knew from Lathrop High the night of the attack on Hartman, he wrote in the affidavit. They were all juniors, 17 years old, and would drive around harassing people, usually Alaska Natives, for fun.
At one point, they chased two apparently drunk men into an alley. They cruised for another 20 minutes, Holmes wrote, and turned onto Barnette Street where they saw a "white boy."
"Everyone got excited and said, 'We got one,'" Holmes wrote.
He stopped the car and the other four jumped out. (The men in Holmes’ affidavit are named, but Alaska Dispatch has chosen not to publish them at this time, as they are not charged criminally related to the attack on Hartman).
Holmes parked in another spot, and as he was getting out of the car the others ran back telling him to "Go, go!"
"As we drove away from the scene, (name omitted) was in the front and the other three were in the back seat yelling hysterically. I asked what happened and all three in the back seat simultaneously told me that after knocking the boy down, (name omitted) began stomping him repeatedly," Holmes wrote.
Holmes says the one who allegedly did the stomping brought him a newspaper the next time they were at school. The five teenagers decided together to not say anything and "act like that night never happened," Holmes wrote.
He later saw another news article about the four Natives arrested for the killing and, "I realized that we could keep from being held responsible for what had happened to this boy," Holmes wrote.
Holmes contends he doesn't stand to benefit
At the end of his affidavit, Holmes reveals that he decided to come forward and do the right thing 16 years later after Roberts, the one serving 33 years, wrote to him upon hearing Holmes knew something about the case. Holmes says he does not stand to benefit in any way by telling his version of the story and, in fact, could now be held accountable for his role in Hartman’s death.
Holmes’ affidavit in the Innocence Project filing is both handwritten and typed, as well as signed. "I do not know Marvin Roberts, nor any of the other people convicted of this crime," he wrote.
A second affidavit in the filing is by another former Lathrop student, Scott Davison, now 34, who says the man Holmes identified as the one stomping on Hartman’s head admitted the crime to him. It was a few days after Hartman died and Davison and another kid named Matt were skipping school and smoking marijuana, Davison wrote in his affidavit.
"We were riding around Fairbanks when (name omitted) said to Matt and me that he had been involved in the attack on John Hartman," Davison wrote. "They approached the individual on Barnette Street, beat and kicked him and left him on the side of the road. (Name omitted) then said if we told anyone about what he had said about the Hartman assault, he would kill both of us."
"I have carried this information with me since 1997, knowing that four innocent people were in jail for a crime they had not committed," Davison wrote. "I make this statement voluntarily in the hopes that this injustice will be corrected."
'A long road'
The next step is a review by the district attorney and the courts.
"We are sure that they will find as we have found that the evidence that is contained in this document and the evidence that’s out there proves that Marvin, George, Eugene and Kevin are innocent and that we will prevail in that regard," said Oberly, director of the Innocence Project.
He called upon state officials who investigate the documents to "keep in mind that we’re dealing with the lives of four innocent men who are in prison so that they undertake this investigation with a manner and a speed that it deserves."
Oberly said there was a conference with a member of the district attorney’s office and the Fairbanks chief of police Monday about the information, but there has been no official response at this point.
The state has 45 days to respond to the application by the Innocence Project.
Oberly said it is likely that there will be a hearing in front of a judge as the next step and "that will take a long time."
"It’s not a short street," he said. "It’s a long road."
Asked whether Holmes' comments are credible, Oberly said he found Holmes to be believable. He said that Holmes’ name came up along with the names of two other people who are in jail for murder. He said the two others did not grant interviews, which led to another approach.
"It doesn’t make sense that he would make this up," Oberly said. "I decided on a different tack. I had Marvin Roberts write William Holmes a letter, saying 'I'm in prison for a crime I didn’t commit. We have information that you might know something about this.'"
Three or four months later, Oberly wrote to Holmes, and then a couple of months after that he wrote him again.
"Lo and behold he wrote us back and that started the process of our communication," said Oberly, who interviewed Holmes in prison.
The four other people identified by Holmes have not cooperated with the investigation, Oberly said.
Two of them are in prison and two are not. He said they decided not to contact the two people who are not in prison "for fear that we might in some way harm the police investigation that we hope arises out of this."