Disbelieved Fairbanks Four alibis show how anti-Native bias taints justice

Eileen Whitmer knew Marvin Roberts wasn't guilty of murder in 1997, because when the Fairbanks Four were supposedly on a rampage killing teenager John Hartman, Roberts was sitting at a table with her at a wedding reception.

The Fairbanks Four defendants had many alibi witnesses, but they were convicted of murder anyway and spent 18 years in prison until being exonerated in December.

"My testimony was fairly short, and they asked direct questions," she said of the trial. "But after the fact, it was — all these witnesses are just community people rallying behind these Native kids. And I said, what? That doesn't make any sense. I didn't know any of these kids. I hardly knew Marvin."

"What was unbelievable to me was that the jurors didn't believe what we had to say," Whitmer told me Friday.

An Athabascan and Inupiat from Rampart, Whitmer, then with the name Newman, was working for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. She has been a legislative staffer and a leader in her village corporation. Today she is business manager for Teamsters Local 959 in Fairbanks and president of the Fairbanks Joint Crafts Council.

She has never changed her story.

If Whitmer had been a white woman at a wedding reception with other white guests and had given her statement, I don't think we would ever have heard of the Fairbanks Four. The true killers might have been caught.


The facts of the Fairbanks Four case are exceptional. Unfortunately, the cultural and racial divide it represents is not. Alaska's prisons hold twice as many Natives as would be expected by their population. There are many reasons for that disparity, as I'll explore in my next column. But I think one reason is unconscious racial bias.

In October 1997, Fairbanks police assembled a case against Roberts, George Frese and Eugene Vent, all Natives, and Kevin Pease, a non-Native, without physical evidence or a witness to the act. After bullying and tricking confessions out of two drunk teenagers, Vent and Frese, police and prosecutors worked to discredit contrary evidence.

I'm going to focus on the alibis. It easy to imagine being falsely accused. But you would expect that maintaining your innocence and establishing you were somewhere else would protect you.

Roberts, the valedictorian at his high school, did all that. The Fairbanks Four had many alibis. It didn't help.

Whitmer saw Roberts at the reception at the Eagles Hall in Fairbanks. She was sitting at the "Party Poopers" table, with a pregnant woman and others who wanted to avoid drinking too much. She said Roberts was sitting across the table when she got up to called her fiancé, creating a record of the time.

Over the next half hour, the critical period in the case, Whitmer and at least five people continued to see Roberts at the reception, according to an article by Brian O'Donoghue, a journalism professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which was published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in 2008.

Whitmer realized the importance of what she saw after the four boys were arrested.

"The police never contacted me, it was an investigator for the defense attorney," Whitmer told me Friday. "I actually contacted the police early on. But they disregarded me and they didn't even have a record that I called."

Whitmer's time on the witness stand was brief. But prosecutors attacked all the alibi witnesses as a group, citing inconsistencies and suggesting they were lying because they were Natives sticking up for other Natives.

Prosecutor Jeff O'Bryant told Roberts' jury the alibi witnesses reminded him of the Roman slaves in the movie "Spartacus," who all claim to be the leader of a revolt to shield the real leader.

I asked Joe Masters if that made sense to him. Masters, who is Inupiaq, worked his way up through a career in rural Alaska as an Alaska State Trooper before serving as Commissioner of Public Safety from 2008 to 2013.

He hasn't studied the Fairbanks Four case and doesn't have an opinion on the men's guilt. But he rejected the "Spartacus" theory.

"I don't agree with that," he said. "I don't agree that culturally Natives will lie for other Natives to keep them out of trouble. I think that culturally, they are less apt to lie when talking to police. At least that's my experience."

But jurors seem to have bought the theory. When O'Donoghue's students interviewed two non-Native jurors who voted to find Roberts guilty, they said all the defense witnesses were unbelievable, but the single witness supporting the prosecution's theory about a rampage was "courageous" for going against the other Natives.

Other defendants had various alibis, too. Conan Goebel, a Han Athabascan from Eagle now studying out of state, said he spent the night of Hartman's murder with Vent and Pease or in contact with them. But when he told police that at the time, a detective threatened to arrest him for the murder if he didn't admit he was lying. He was interviewed several times.

"I told him this information over and over again, but it wasn't matching up with the story they were trying to create," he said. "They were trying to get me to change my story."

Goebel believes he was subjected to the kind of questioning that elicited false confessions from Vent and Frese. But he held firm to his story. And then, he was never called to testify. He only got to the courtroom during the hearing last year that led to the men's release.


This case shows how bias can affect Natives in the justice system, which could lead in various ways to more Natives being in prison. Without realizing it, members of the dominant culture can easily place negative categories on minority groups, and act accordingly. The Fairbanks Four case is just one vivid example.

Goebel and Whitmer have been vindicated. And Native distrust of the police and courts has been vindicated.

"I have two sons," Whitmer said. "Neither of them has gotten in any kind of trouble, but I've told them if you ever find yourself sitting down with a police officer, you ask for me or an attorney. I don't care if you did anything. And then we talk about this case. Innocent people can go to jail."

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. He is on facebook at www.facebook.com/wohlforthadn

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.