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Fairbanks leaders seek way forward after Fairbanks Four deal

  • Author: Chris Klint
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 23, 2015

In a wide-ranging press conference Wednesday, Fairbanks' mayor and police chief responded to the aftermath of a deal last week that freed the Fairbanks Four, a quartet of defendants previously convicted of murder in the beating death of a teenage boy nearly 20 years ago.

Speaking to reporters in an hourlong press conference, Mayor John Eberhart and police Chief Randall Aragon criticized the state's handling of the settlement, reiterated their commitment to an independent investigation, and, in the case of Aragon, apologized for remarks made after the deal's announcement.

On Thursday, state prosecutors finalized a deal with George Frese, Eugene Vent, Keven Pease and Marvin Roberts, all convicted -- despite maintaining their innocence -- in the 1997 murder of 15-year-old John Hartman. Roberts had previously been released on parole, but Frese, Vent and Pease were still in prison when the state agreed to vacate all four convictions in exchange for a promise that they wouldn't sue over police or prosecutors' handling of the case.

Eberhart criticized the state Department of Law's handling of the settlement's release Thursday. Nobody with the department provided city officials with an advance copy of the settlement before it was announced by Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle, Eberhart said, despite the fact that people had been waiting for hours outside Lyle's courtroom.

"Before Thursday, nobody sent us a copy of the proposed settlement document, despite several requests by Chief Aragon," Eberhart said.

Eberhart said he visited the courthouse at one point and left, due to the lack of information. Following the settlement, Eberhart said, some of what Aragon relayed to the press was based on initial information provided by prosecutors.

Eberhart laid some of the blame for Aragon's statement in a television interview that the case was closed on that information.

"We were (later) told the Hartman case was considered open by the state, so Chief Aragon was wrong when he said the case was considered closed," Eberhart said.

Eberhart said the state's announcement also caught him and five local Alaska Native groups -- which had been discussing whether to open an independent investigation of the Hartman case -- off-balance.

"Frankly, that sort of put us in a holding pattern," Eberhart said.

Aragon -- who took over as Fairbanks' police chief in November 2014 -- asked residents to look at his record, as well as outreach attempts to Fairbanks' Native community, in considering the strength of his apology.

"I apologize for letting us down, but I didn't do it intentionally," Aragon said. "Everybody who knows me knows that my heart's in bringing us together."

Aragon said he had been quoted out of context in a Saturday story from Anchorage TV station KTVA. Eberhart said the story "really at times put some words in the chief's mouth."

KTVA wrote of Aragon that "He said the settlement vindicates the police department and prosecutors, and the state released the four not because they believe they're innocent, but because of political pressure."

"I've been doing this 37 years, been a chief for 27, never seen anything like this," Aragon said.

On Wednesday, Aragon said he was referring to the entirety of the settlement process.

"There was a big ambush on the newscast that night," Aragon said. "I watched it three times, four times dissecting what happened."

Eberhart defended both Aragon's reputation and his statements Wednesday, with Eberhart citing his own support of an independent review of the Hartman case.

"If you call that 'political pressure,' then there was some," Eberhart said. "Our police chief is a good man; he means well."

Eberhart also said the police department was setting up an Office of Professional Responsibility, under Detective Alana Malloy, to investigate any citizen allegations of police misconduct. He pointed out that many of the department's 80 members had not been with the force in 1997, but said any police employees discovered to have acted wrongly by either Malloy's unit or any review of Hartman's death would face harsh repercussions.

"If as a result of the hearing, as a result of the (independent) review, it's found that an employee has engaged in inappropriate or illegal activity, there will be a review and potential disciplinary action -- up to and including termination," Eberhart said.

Eberhardt acknowledged that allegations of police wrongdoing, including questionable interrogation tactics, need to be examined. He pointed out that a former Fairbanks man, William Z. Holmes, who is serving time in a California prison for murder, told a correctional officer he knew people who were involved in the killing of Hartman.

A memo from the correctional officer sharing the information was forwarded to Fairbanks police in 2011, with no action taken for three years, Eberhardt said.

"That's a black eye on the department," the mayor said.

Holmes was a senior at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks in 1997 and said he was present when Hartman was fatally beaten by four of his Lathrop classmates. He testified about his memories and he attributed quotes to a friend. Prosecutors said it was hearsay.

A decision on whether to independently investigate the Hartman case will likely come from the Fairbanks City Council, Eberhart said. He said all four council members who were at a recent meeting of the city's Finance Committee favored the idea when he brought it up.

Eberhart also said police will examine any potential links between the Hartman murder and the 2002 cold-case death of Mahogany Davis, who died after she was found injured outside a Fairbanks apartment building. He said "there have been names that have surfaced" in both cases.

In the meantime, Eberhart appealed to the community to contact his office, police investigators or the media with more information about Hartman's death.

"We ask each and every one of you and the public: If you have any evidence of who killed John Hartman, let us know," Eberhart said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.