As the case grew holes, the protests supporting the Fairbanks Four grew louder. Picture: Eric Engman/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
As the case grew holes, the protests supporting the Fairbanks Four grew louder. Picture: Eric Engman/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Innocents jailed: ‘Had no chance’

IT took police just a matter of hours to pin the 1997 brutal bashing murder of teenager John Hartman on two of his high-school classmates.

It took less than two days to interview them - both drunk and without a lawyer in sight - to squeeze another two names out of them.

About two years to find George Frese, Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts and Kevin Pease guilty of a murder they swore they didn't commit.

And then it took 18 years to free them.

Now, the Fairbanks Four wants the state of Alaska to pay - literally - for the 18 years stolen from them.

They want the deal they signed in exchange for immediate freedoms two years ago - in which they agreed not to sue anyone for the almost two decades they shouldn't have spent in jail - thrown out.

And they want the police officers who put them behind bars - and the city and police force that allowed it - to finally admit they were wrong.

This is a tale of forged evidence, unreliable witnesses, false confessions and four teenagers thrown in jail always protesting their innocence.

They are now free men, struggling to get used to life outside. They have freedom. Now they want real justice.

THE "CRIME"

The men make up the Fairbanks Four - a group of Alaska Native and Native American men - who say they never stood a chance from the night 15-year-old white school student Hartman was found, unconscious, beaten almost beyond recognition, on a street corner in downtown Fairbanks October 11, 1997.

Hartman died in hospital the following day.

With 48 hours, police said they had his killers, arresting the Fairbanks Four. alleging they had spent the night careering around town in a violent crime spree which ended with the murder of Hartman, Vice reports in a documentary about the killings it published earlier this month, released on February 2.

Despite the fact they weren't the only teens attending parties downtown that night, the four were scooped up by police. One lied about having an alibi. One admitted he was too drunk to recall how he'd hurt an ankle. One was arrested near where Hartman was found.

For police and a community who wanted answers, it was enough.

Fresh and Vent confessed to the murders, and would later recant those confessions.

Both "confessions" came after 12 hours of being interrogated, and both men say during that time they were so drunk they could not recall anything, police suggested things they had no idea about, and then they seemed to reluctantly concede, "maybe".

Six months later, despite questions over a lack of physical evidence or motive, it seemed nobody was interested in the cracks appearing in the story.

From the time they were arrested it was “like a zombie state”, said Roberts. Picture: Daily News-Miner
From the time they were arrested it was “like a zombie state”, said Roberts. Picture: Daily News-Miner

In a public statement ahead of filing Robert's lawsuit, his lawyer described Fairbanks at the time as a place with a corrupt government and an allegedly discriminatory police force, including, "a mayor who was later convicted of stealing from his church, and a police chief who had threatened to frame two innocent men who reported him for lying on time sheets".

"The police chief was also implicated in the theft of guns, drugs, and $510,000 in cash from the police evidence room."

As Roberts told Vice: "It was all kind of like a nightmare when it first began".

"It was like in a zombie state. You can't believe it ... it was shock ... you'd be walking in handcuffs and shackles ... the media blew it up, they fed whatever the cops and prosecutors were saying about it. It's almost like we didn't even have a chance."

The Native American community was abuzz. They were hearing about the holes in the story. When the Fairbanks Four were jailed anyway, protesting all the way, the movement in support of them would grow across the country.

Meanwhile, the first of almost two decades in jail were hitting home.

"I cried a couple of times [that first night]," Roberts said, "I prayed".

The first year, he said, was the hardest.

Frese was already losing sense of time.

"Time loses its essence in prison," he says.

"You are just in a mode. Every day is the same."

Frese says jail made them the "Fairbanks Four". They weren't that close going in. But they knew the "native" American community had their collective back.

"We knew our family believed us. And of course we always knew that everybody's going to find out the truth.".

They just didn't think it would take so many years.

The rallies, the investigations exposing false confessions, and "actively concealed" evidence grew into a movement which spread across Alaska as their incarceration stretched from months to years.

The Alaska Innocence Project, secured a new appeal which succeeded where so many others had failed.

It uncovered a confession from Jason Wallace, another prisoner, who said he and another friend, William Z. Holmes, not the Fairbanks Four, killed Hartman.

It was enough for the 2015 appeal to culminate in an offer from the State that the men who had been jailed for almost two decades would find impossible to resist.

Freedom: The Fairbanks Four, from left, George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, and Kevin Pease, raise four fingers, displaying the symbol of their struggle, during an event in the honour. Picture: Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch News
Freedom: The Fairbanks Four, from left, George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, and Kevin Pease, raise four fingers, displaying the symbol of their struggle, during an event in the honour. Picture: Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch News

THE "DEAL"

Roberts was already out of prison on parole, but for the other three to be released immediately and have their murder convictions "vacated" they had to sign a deal agreeing not to sue.

Even as it freed them, the State of Alaska wouldn't concede there was anything wrong about the 18 years the men had spent behind bars.

Alaska Attorney-General Craig Richards, who represented the state at the hearing, emphasised the deal was "not an exoneration".

"The parties have agreed that original convictions were rightfully and fairly obtained, valid and proper," he said after it was signed.

So the Fairbanks Four could have waited - another eight months or so - for another trial which proving their innocence.

Or, sign an offer giving immediate freedom. They could walk out today.

Be home in time for Christmas.

They signed and were freed on December 17, 2015.

Then came the overwhelming adjustment to life outside: standing transfixed in a supermarket - overwhelmed by the carry of chocolate on offer. Being lauded as a hero for native Alaskans and Americans - after 18 years with no voice.

THE NEW FIGHT

Roberts' new lawyer, Michael Kramer, now likens the deal to a "ransom".

He says Roberts' settlement was "coerced" because - even though he was already out of prison - the State would only let the other three men go if Roberts also agreed not to sue.

"The settlement itself was a violation of civil rights," Kramer told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

"The state held the keys to the steel cage his three brothers were locked in.

"The only way they were going to get out for Christmas, or maybe ever, was if Marvin signed that agreement."

By late December, the remaining three of the Fairbanks Four had added lawsuits of their own - standing together as they signalled they were suing the city of Fairbanks and two dozen of its police officers.

Vent, Frese and Pease, who are representing themselves, filed their lawsuit on December 18 last year.

Their 24-page complaint includes much of the same material as Roberts'; it says the state negotiated the Fairbanks Four settlements "for the purpose of preventing civil claims that it knew were valid," The Anchorage Daily News reports.

"It is not good public policy to coerce a citizen to give up something valuable in exchange for vacating wrongful convictions and releasing innocent men," their complaint says.

Both lawsuits ask for the settlements to be set aside, as well as for a jury trial and damages.


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