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Crime & Justice

With new suspects eyed, Fairbanks Four await word on freedom, fresh start

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published December 16, 2015

They are known as the Fairbanks Four, three Alaska Native men and one from the Lower 48.

They were ages 17 to 20 at the time John Hartman -- just 15 years of age -- was beaten on a dark corner of downtown Fairbanks in the early morning of Oct. 11, 1997. He died hours later. Their convictions in the beating death have long troubled activists who see the four as symbols of a legal system with a history of unjust treatment of Alaska Native people.

At a five-week evidentiary hearing in Fairbanks that ended Nov. 10, lawyers for the men laid out their best evidence in an effort to free George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent. The fourth man, Marvin Roberts, was paroled from prison earlier this year after serving nearly 18 years but remains on probation until 2030, according to his lawyer.

A new main witness, Bill Holmes, says he went carousing that night with a different group who attacked Hartman. An eye witness in the original case, Arlo Olson, has recanted his testimony from the three 1999 trials that was used to put the Fairbanks Four at the scene of a separate attack in Fairbanks. He now says that testimony was coached, rehearsed and untrue.

Prosecutors have underlined discrepancies and holes as they've picked apart the new version of events, as well as new information the men's lawyers say erodes the old case.

Both sides have been working on a settlement to free the men. They must convince Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle, who presided over the hearing, that there is a legal basis to do so. Two paths are possible. Gov. Bill Walker could pardon the men, or the decision could be left to Lyle, who before the settlement talks were publicized had said he would need at least six months – once he received the hearing transcripts.

The painstaking, fresh examination of what happened one night in 1997 contrasts with the hurried investigation at the time. Fairbanks police identified the four as suspects within 24 hours of the assault. Within two days, all were arrested. Just four days after Hartman was killed, a grand jury handed up an indictment. What may have looked like swift police work at the time also closed off a search for other killers.

"At a minimum you can say it was a rush to judgment," said Jahna Lindemuth, one of four Dorsey & Whitney attorneys on the team.

Supporters have held rallies and vigils and faithfully attended court proceedings over the years. A Fairbanks journalism professor and his students generated leads that were picked up on by the legal team and published in stories in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. The Alaska Federation of Natives at its convention in Anchorage this fall approved a sharply worded resolution denouncing the police investigation and prosecution, and pushing for the men's freedom.

Seven lawyers are working for the four. Bill Oberly, the executive director and sole employee of the Alaska Innocence Project, has spent six years and thousands of hours on it. Four lawyers from Dorsey & Whitney are on the case pro bono, an investment of $1.8 million counting $100,000 in hard money and the value of hours that couldn't be billed, Lindemuth said. The case is the international firm's major pro bono effort this year. The state Office of Public Advocacy, estimates it has put about $250,000 into it, said Rick Allen, the state's public advocate and one of two lawyers with the state agency working on the case.

Five on the team sat down with the Alaska Dispatch News to explain the case. Prosecutors declined to do the same.

At the hearing, 64 witnesses were called, 39 of them for the Fairbanks Four.

The men are now in their late 30s. They have spent their adult lives in prison.

Well-rehearsed witness

Flash back to Friday, Oct. 10, 1997, the start of a rowdy, and for some, dangerous weekend in Fairbanks.

There were house parties, at least two carloads of wilding teens unrelated to the Fairbanks Four, and a big wedding with a reception at what was then the Eagles Hall downtown. Hartman wasn't the only person beaten on the streets that night.

One group of teens was cruising for people to beat up and rob, according to Brandy Whittenton, who was then 15 and didn't go along, but told the story at the recent hearing. Those teens were white and, Whittenton testified, in a four-door tan car.

A man named Franklin Dayton had been at the wedding reception then stepped outside the Eagles Hall. Just before 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 11, he was attacked and robbed. The Fairbanks Four were convicted of that assault, along with Hartman's murder, which happened moments later and a half-mile away.

Olson, the eye witnesses who put four men at the scene of Dayton's mugging, now says he was wrong when he testified in 1999 that they were in a blue car. He now says he first told Fairbanks police detective Aaron Ring that he saw a light-colored beige car. But Ring told him he must be wrong because Roberts was driving his car, which had two doors and was blue, Olson testified, through a video deposition.

Ring even showed him Roberts' car at the police garage, Olson said.

"Once the story started shaping up, that's when he said he was going to start recording it," Olson said. The 13-minute recording that resulted is mainly static, with Ring doing most of the talking, Lindemuth said.

Olson was given his grand jury testimony to study before the trials. He read it over and over, memorizing the words.

"After a while you start believing it," he said.

If the muggers were in a beige car, they could have been the teens at the party with Whittenton, the lawyers for the Fairbanks Four say.

Eye witnesses often have questionable memories. Olson says he was drunk that night. It was dark. And he was nearly two football fields away.

He testified in 1999 that he couldn't see the faces of the attackers from where he stood in front of the Eagles Hall but he had spotted them in the car earlier, and knew their haircuts and profiles, according to a story in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Still, Olson recanted his eye witness testimony once before, then took back the recant.

Teen drinking party

Holmes was part of a clique of African-American students at Lathrop High School. He was a military kid who had moved to Fairbanks a couple of years earlier.

He later went into the cocaine trafficking business with a Lathrop friend and classmate, Jason Wallace. They tried to get control of the drug operation in 2002 but failed. Holmes now is serving double life in California for shooting two rivals. Wallace acknowledges his own history of violence. He used a hammer to kill a woman associated with the drug conspiracy, tried to burn down an apartment complex to cover it up and stabbed a man in the neck with a screwdriver, he said in sworn testimony. He is serving time for murder in Alaska.

After the 2002 killings, Wallace testified against Holmes at his murder trial. Now it's Holmes naming Wallace in connection with Hartman's death.

That October night in 1997, a small group was partying at the apartment of a teenager whose mother was out of town. Holmes and his best friend went to the apartment in the hopes of sex, he said at the recent hearing.

One of the kids there, Rashan Brown, passed out for a time with his leopard print briefs showing. Others laughed at the sight.

"Most of us didn't wear drawers like that. That's what made it so funny," Holmes said during earlier videotaped testimony.

The leopard print also stuck in the mind of the teen hostess, Regent Epperson who testified through a video deposition. But she didn't think Holmes would have come to her home. She didn't approve of how he treated girls.

Others testified that they remembered seeing Holmes and at least some others in his group at her apartment, and that Holmes was the driver that night of a car full of his friends.

In all, 11 witnesses corroborate at least a piece of Holmes' story of the real killers, according to Kate Demarest, one of the lawyers for Frese.

'Little J went too far'

That night at the party, Holmes said "nobody was putting out," so he left in his maroon Ford Tempo with four other guys: Wallace, Brown, Marquez Pennington and his best friend, Shelmar Johnson.

Holmes and his group began cruising "deep downtown, where the bars are." As Holmes told it, they were going to "mess with some drunk Natives." At one point, Holmes remembered an older Native man ducking into an alley. They drove around then spotted about 15 to 20 Native people there, so took off rather than be outnumbered.

The older man was Robert John, son of the revered late elder Katie John who fought in court for subsistence fishing rights.

John, now 82, testified at the recent hearing that he remembers at least three men, all black, getting out of a dark car and coming after him. One just missed kicking him. He made it into what was then the Pastime Card Room, not far from an alley, and told what happened. Some people there called police though John didn't make a report.

By now it was after midnight and the Lathrop teens were still cruising.

They spotted a solitary male crossing a street and Holmes pulled over. The others bolted out of the car and around the corner, he testified. He did a U-turn and parked. He couldn't see where they went because of bushes or trees, but remembers seeing a school or clinic. After a few moments, they rushed back to the car.

"Go, go, go, go, go!" they told Holmes.

The guys seemed hysterical and started talking over each other, Holmes said in his earlier sworn testimony. "They were saying 'Little J went too far. Little J was tripping.'"

Little J was Jason Wallace, Holmes said. The others said that Wallace "stomped" the boy, Holmes testified.

That Monday at school, Wallace showed Holmes a story in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner about a beating death that happened early Saturday in downtown Fairbanks at the intersection of Barnette Street and Ninth Avenue, Holmes said. The victim was 15-year-old John Hartman. Suspects were in custody but Holmes said he knew who really did it.

"We went into panic mode," Holmes said.

He told everyone who had been in his car to never speak about what happened.

For years, Holmes stuck to that. Then at Calipatria State Prison in California, the double-lifer become close with a correctional officer, Joseph Torquato, who supervised his work as a janitor. He told Torquato about his life, about a rap CD he made, and about the killing of John Hartman. They talked like friends, Holmes said.

Torquato testified that he was torn up inside thinking about four innocent men in prison. He wrote a memo to his boss in December 2011 about Holmes' admissions, a letter that was forwarded to the Fairbanks Police Department.

It stayed hidden in the police files until two cold case investigators with Alaska State Troopers found it in January 2014, according to their testimony in court. They soon were on their way to California to talk with Holmes.

Their work began to raise questions about the guilt of the four, and the investigators testified for the Fairbanks Four, not the state. Randy McPherron, who had the lead on the cold case investigation, said at the new hearing he was taken off the case in January 2015, before the work was done.

Did the cold case unit find any evidence that Roberts, Frese, Pease and Vent were at the corner of Barnette and Ninth when Hartman was killed? Lindemuth asked in the hearing.

No, McPherron told her.

Prosecutor Adrienne Bachman, who has been leading the state's effort to uphold the convictions, told the Fairbanks judge the timing is suspect. If Holmes knew all this in 2002, why wouldn't he have used it then, to take out his accuser? He could have researched the Hartman case after the fact, she said.

But lawyers for the Fairbanks Four say the way Holmes came forward, as well as the fact other witnesses support his story, show he wasn't lying to get back at Wallace. The California prosecutor said at the new hearing he had ample evidence, even if Wallace hadn't cooperated, according to Oberly.

Confession of a killer?

When lawyers for the Fairbanks Four first put Wallace under oath earlier this year, he took the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions about that night in 1997. At the recent hearing, the state called him as a witness and granted him immunity so that if he confessed, he wouldn't be charged.

Wallace said he remembered nothing about that night. He said he didn't even remember most of the people involved, including some that the defense team says he was close to at the time. Confessing to involvement in another murder could affect his chance at parole, lawyers for the Fairbanks Four say.

Yet three witnesses – besides Holmes -- testified that Wallace earlier told them of his involvement. Two, Scott Davison and Matt Ellsworth, were also Lathrop students at the time. One day soon after the killing, they cut class to smoke pot with Wallace in his car. Wallace had the newspaper story and started talking about it, Davison said.

"That he was the one who did it, him and some other names," Davison said in earlier sworn testimony. He figured at first that Wallace was joking. Then Wallace said if they told, he would kill them too, Davison testified.

"He killed my buzz, basically," Davison said. "I was relaxed, smoking weed and then all of a sudden it got serious." He told a girlfriend in 2002 about Wallace's admission, which she confirmed at the hearing. And he told a Fairbanks police officer about it in 2008, an officer who sent the information to another investigator. Davison said they weren't interested in pursuing it, according to the Fairbanks Four legal team.

Davison, struggling to remember what he heard back in 1997, has thrown out the name of a man named Harold as being in the car with Holmes and Wallace but that doesn't match other versions, prosecutors have noted.

Ellsworth, also in the car that day, for years refused to talk about it. Prosecutors called him as their witness at the recent hearing, expecting he would negate Davison's testimony.

Instead, for the first time publicly, he told a story similar to Davison's.

The third person who heard Wallace's version was Tom Bole, who learned of it back in early 2003 when he was working as an investigator for Wallace's public defender in the cocaine murder case. Bole told others in the public defender's office. For years the information was considered confidential between an attorney and client. Eventually, Bole told another investigator, Richard Norgard, who was one of the founders of the Innocence Project and who also had worked for the state public defender agency. That individual's position at the time is in dispute.

Judge Lyle allowed Bole to testify at the recent hearing about what Wallace told him. Bole said Wallace was crying and talking about God and his wife. He seemed to regret what he had done.

In that account, Wallace admitted being involved but says he was the driver and Holmes and Brown are the ones who jumped out and attacked Hartman. In Holmes' version, he was the driver and Wallace the attacker.

"You will not have clear or convincing evidence of who was involved in the alternative explanation," Bachman told the judge.

Possibility of pardon

The Fairbanks Four – Roberts, Pease, Vent and Frese – weren't even together that night, their lawyers say. Roberts, who was class valedictorian at Howard Luke Academy, an alternative school that has since closed, was at the wedding reception. When mugging victim Dayton returned to Eagles Hall, Roberts was there, according to alibi witnesses.

But Bachman said those witnesses could just be covering for Roberts, a friend and family member.

Pease and Vent were at a different party together, they testified at the hearing. Vent, the youngest of the four and then just 17, was still drunk when detective Ring questioned him for hours that weekend. He testified that he came to believe Ring's version of events, and thought he was guilty. But he soon recanted.

Frese, the oldest at 20 and also drunk that night, had spotty memories of going to the wedding reception, a bar and a party that night and somewhere along the way, hurting his foot. He similarly confessed in the hours after the killing, then took it back.

The team's lawyers say Frese was in a blackout state that night. Both Frese and Vent gave in after a lengthy police interrogation, their lawyers say.

Now, lawyers for the four and prosecutors are trying to negotiate a settlement. If that isn't approved, the matter will be back before Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle to rule on whether to grant new trials.

Meanwhile, Walker is considering pardoning the men, a power that hasn't been used since 2006 when then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, as one of his last acts in office, pardoned a company that had been convicted of criminally negligent homicide in the death of a worker killed in an avalanche.

A law put in place during the Palin administration in response to Murkowski's controversial action establishes a somewhat cumbersome process for clemency. The governor must notify the parole board, which would then investigate, at least 120 days before a pardon were issued. The board must notify a short list of others, including victims of certain crimes.

Those notifications haven't yet happened in the case of the Fairbanks Four, said Grace Jang, a spokeswoman for Walker.

A pardon relieves defendants of further punishment and is considered "an act of grace which represents forgiveness for the particular crime," according to a definition provided by Walker's office. Under his powers of clemency, the governor also could commute, or wipe out, part or all of their remaining sentences. But he doesn't have the ability to void a conviction, according to lawyers for the Fairbanks Four.

Governors also can add conditions to pardons and sentence commutations that can extend beyond the original sentence.

Roberts, already out of prison, and Vent both have been granted discretionary parole. Vent is scheduled for release in 2019, according to his lawyers. Both were approved while maintaining their innocence, which is unheard of, said Whitney Glover, part of the Fairbanks Four legal team.

Pease is scheduled for release in 2042 and Frese, in 2050.

Alaska Native leaders with the Tanana Chiefs Conference say they hope the men are out by Christmas.

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