A motion filed Wednesday by the Alaska Innocence Project claims the Fairbanks Police Department and Fairbanks District Attorney’s office had information about a prison inmate confessing to the 1997 murder of John Hartman as early as 2011.
A quartet of men -- Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease, George Frese and Eugene Vent -- known as the “Fairbanks Four” are currently in prison for the killing, but an inmate confessed to Hartman's death in a sworn affidavit late last year. The Innocence Project has been working to free the men for several years.
According to the documents filed Wednesday by the Innocence Project, William Holmes, who is currently in prison for another murder, confessed to Hartman’s killing to a corrections officer in California. The corrections officer, who was a prison employee for nearly 20 years, was convinced enough the information was credible that he took the information to his superiors.
Included in the filing is a sworn affidavit by an investigator from the Innocence Project, who traveled to California to interview prison officials.
“Morally, you know, you gotta do something,” the officer said in an interview with the investigator and two California State Troopers. “I ain’t just gonna pretend it didn’t happen.”
California prison officials then reportedly contacted the Fairbanks Police Department by phone and fax. A copy of the memorandum was obtained by AIP dated Dec. 5, 2011.
Capt. Michael McNair of the State of California Department of Corrections told the AIP investigator that he had spoken with the Fairbanks Police Department. “I told him we didn’t know if the information is accurate or not… we just felt it was our moral responsibility to pass it on in case someone was in prison who shouldn’t be.”
Fairbanks police confirmed in court documents that Lt. Dan Wellborn took the initial information from McNair, and passed it on to Detective Christopher Nolan to “check it out.”
At that time, Wellborn sent the information to Scott Mattern of the Fairbanks District Attorney’s office. Nolan said he has copies of the email correspondence between the two, according to the affidavit filed by AIP’s investigator.
Nolan told investigators that he “essentially didn’t do anything else” besides follow up with McNair.
When news broke in the fall of 2013 about the Innocence Project’s post-conviction relief filing, which cited Holmes’ confession, Nolan says he brought it up to his supervisor, Lt. James Geier.
“I told him, ‘Hey, I can’t interview anyone ‘cause I don’t know, I wasn’t here at the time of the Hartman case and I’d have to review the case and interviews, pretty much the whole case to find out what’s going on’ and basically, uh, never completed it,” Nolan told investigators.
Bill Oberly with AIP says that what’s important about the confession is the fact that it came six months before the Innocence Project was even involved in the case.
“Before we made any contact with him he had told somebody these details, and we think that’s information that the judge should have before him while trying to determine Holmes’ credibility and whether his statement is corroborated,” Oberly said.
Calls requesting comment made to Fairbanks Police Department Chief Laren Zager and Assistant Attorney General Adrienne Bachman, who is reviewing the Fairbanks Four case, weren't returned as of Wednesday evening.
Roberts, Pease, Frese and Vent have been in prison for the murder for more than 15 years. The deadline for the state to respond to the earlier filing for post-conviction relief is May 15.