George Frese has been a free man for five months now.
He's taken his daughter shopping for shoes, plucked geese in Beaver, gone four wheeling in Fort Yukon. He's told his story in tribal halls and school gymnasiums across Interior Alaska.
After more than 18 years in prison, it took a while for it all to feel real.
"Up until about two months ago, it was almost a disassociation with reality," Frese said in a recent interview at a downtown Anchorage coffee shop. "You're just like, wow, I'm here."
Frese is the oldest of the men known as the Fairbanks Four. He went to jail at 20 years of age and left in December a 39-year-old grandfather. In Alaska, their story is well-known: Frese, Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent were convicted of the 1997 murder of a Fairbanks teenager.
The men fought for their freedom for more than 15 years before work by the Alaska Innocence Project and a team of pro bono attorneys led to a deal with the state prosecutors that threw out the convictions and freed the men. In the meantime, their case became a civil rights cause by people who saw the men's convictions as racially motivated.
When Frese stepped out of the Fairbanks jail on Dec. 17, he'd been incarcerated for 18 years, 2 months and 5 days. Every one of those days was just about the same.
"Concrete and steel and kicking it with the homies," he said.
Life after prison, by contrast, has been a feast of new experiences: travel, work, time with family, public speaking and pursuing the mundane joys he missed out on for so long. At times all the newness is so overwhelming it keeps him from sleeping more than three or four hours a night.
"We're all glad to be out and experiencing life," he said. "We're not taking anything for granted."
Frese's new life started on Dec. 17, when a Fairbanks judge accepted a deal brokered by attorneys that threw out the men's indictments and convictions. The Fairbanks Four walked out of jail in new clothes from Fred Meyer and Big Ray's. Marvin Roberts, who had been paroled earlier that year, came to pick them up in his truck, Frese said.
In their first hours of freedom, the four of them drove around Fairbanks for an hour or so, looking at the small and big ways the city had changed in their absence.
"We were just soaking it all in," Frese said.
The irony is not lost on Bill Oberly, Frese's attorney through the Alaska Innocence Project: The prosecution's original case hinged on whether the men had been driving in a car together the night of the murder. In fact, Oberly says, they had never been in a vehicle together until the day of their release.
That night, they arrived at the packed David Salmon Tribal Hall in Fairbanks for a feast and celebration. For weeks, people fed Frese as if he hadn't eaten in years: salmon, caribou, moose. He went to four different Christmas dinners.
Frese began discovering the subtle and profound ways the world had changed while he was in prison. A McDonald's Big Mac meal cost $10 now. Cellphones and social media offered immediate, nonstop contact with anyone and everyone. He joined Facebook and amassed thousands of friends. Perhaps most importantly, the daughter who was a toddler when he was arrested just turned 21, a mother now herself. One thing hasn't changed since he got out: His relationship with the other members of the Fairbanks Four. Pease, Roberts and Vent are his "brothers," Frese says. They talk frequently.
"We rely on each other," he said. "We talk to each other about everything."
After the early excitement died down, Frese moved in with his mom in Fairbanks and caught up with his family. He fell asleep going to see "Star Wars" in 3-D with his daughter. He celebrated his grandson's birthday. Frese has embraced offers to speak to audiences in Interior villages. He's been to Birch Creek, Beaver, Fort Yukon, Arctic Village and Venetie in the past five months. In each place, he talks to children and adults about some of the things he learned in prison: how psychological processes shape our everyday actions, and how self-awareness can lead us to make better choices. Sometimes the audiences are quiet, but he knows his message is getting through. He also signed a contract to work for an effort to increase Native voter turnout with public speaking gigs and appearances.
In February, he traveled to a conference of exonerees from all over the country. There he met a man who spent nearly twice as long as him behind bars before his conviction was overturned. Members of the Fairbanks four are barred from suing the state for their years of imprisonment by the terms of the settlement. Some people have asked him why they signed the deal.
"It was time to go home," he said. "We could have still been there waiting on it."
Frese says he wants to go everywhere — to coastal villages the Koyukon Athabascan has never visited, to other states. He wants to go to Las Vegas and play in a poker tournament, ride in a car going 200 mph and learn to fly a plane. (First he must get his driver's license. He's the only one of the four who hasn't applied for one yet.) He wants to bungee jump and almost went skydiving in San Antonio, but it was too cloudy. This week, he's in Anchorage for an Alaska Innocence Project fundraiser. The group — which has one paid staff member — worked on his case for six years with the help of pro bono attorneys before negotiating the deal that freed the men.
Part of being one of the Fairbanks Four is answering the same questions over and over. What was it like being in prison for so long? But he says he doesn't really mind. He wants to share his story. He'd even go back into jail to talk to inmates. The idea of crossing the threshold of a prison doesn't bother him.
"As long as it isn't through booking," he said.
He feels a little guilty that he hasn't written to some of his friends who are still in prison. Everyone says they will. Nobody does. He keeps telling people he can't take prison home with him, or spend the rest of his life being angry.
He's missed enough.
"I ain't trying to take away," he said. "From all this."
Frese and the other members of the Fairbanks Four will speak at a fundraiser for the Alaska Innocence Project. The event is from 5-7 p.m. May 19 at the CIRI Fireweed Business Center, 725 E. Fireweed Lane in Anchorage.