The story of the Fairbanks Four has remained alive for so long in large part thanks to the Alaska Native community in the Fairbanks region, where activists backing the men imprisoned for Jonathon Hartman’s 1997 death have created websites, staged protests and held fundraisers.
There's a reason they call Fairbanks the Golden Heart City: It's because feelings here run deep. For Alaska Natives, feelings about Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent and George Frese also run deep, but they've taken years to come to the surface.
‘THAT'S ALL IT TAKES IS ONE VOICE’
Although the Alaska diocese has no official position on the Fairbanks Four, St. Matthew's Episcopal Church has helped to plant the seeds of what has become a growing civil rights movement, drawing inspiration from slain activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“‘That injustice anywhere diminishes justice everywhere,’” said the Rev. Shirley Lee. “Which was a quote from his letter that he wrote when he was in jail in Birmingham.”
Lee works in the church's prison ministry, which looks after inmates who serve time outside Alaska -- like the prison in Hudson, Colo.
“My son is incarcerated there -- I know from a mother's perspective, how hard it is,” Lee said.
It's not unusual for Native families in the church's congregation to have children in prison, but it wasn't her son which led Lee to champion the Fairbanks Four. It was a woman who shared her name, Shirley Demientieff, whose last request was that Lee carry on her fight to free the four men.
“Probably about a month before she passed, she called me to her house and had me sit down on her bed,” Lee said. “She was having me go through quite a list of things. She didn't ask -- she told me what I was going to do.”
Not long afterward, Demientieff died of cancer -- but her cause lived on.
“That's all it takes is one voice, to go out and gather more voices,” Lee said. “Because I'm a person of color, I know how non-Native assumptions about your personality can affect people's conduct towards you and how they deal with you.”
Lee points to inconsistencies in initial accounts of Hartman’s death as causes for doubt in how the case was handled.
“There was an article in the paper that said the young victim suffered 15 blows to the head and was sexually assaulted,” Lee said. “Well at that time, nobody knew how many blows were dealt to him -- and the medical examiner would later say there was no evidence of sexual assault.”
According to Lee, the media’s coverage at the time tipped the scales of what should have been a fair trial.
“People read what they saw in the paper and took that as truth,” Lee said. “The victim is not going to have true justice by the wrongful conviction of four men.”
‘WE ARE STILL CHAINED TO THE NIGHTMARE’
Lee regularly visits families of the Fairbanks Four. At first, she too was a skeptic about their innocence -- but as she delved into the transcripts of the interrogations and court records, and got to know the young men, her feelings changed.
Every year, Lee reads letters from the Fairbanks Four at the regional tribal gathering of the Tanana Chiefs Conference.
“‘Thank you for believing in my co-defendants and I,’” Lee said, reading from a letter from Marvin Roberts. “‘Countless battles have been fought to try and free us, but to no avail. We are still chained to the nightmare.’”
Roberts' family is also bound, although Lee has helped bring them to Colorado to visit him.
“And I'd never wish this on anybody – anybody,” said Roberts’ mother, Hazel Roberts. “But the leaving part is torture -- it kills me, it just kills my heart, just hurt. It's so bad, I try not to cry 'til we get outside but it's too hard.”
“He was my age when he got arrested, and now he's a grown man -- that's a big effect in my life,” said Marvin Roberts’ nephew, “Little” Marvin Mayo. “What I've learned from this is that every day is a blessing.”
Marvin Roberts is up for parole next year. If he admits guilt, it might help him go home sooner.
“It's been 15 years now and he'll never say he's guilty, for anything,” Hazel Roberts said.
‘WAIT A MINUTE, I MEAN -- I DIDN'T HEAR THIS ON THE NEWS’
Fifteen years is a long time in the life of a city, where it's hard to find people who remember what happened.
“We had just moved here and I think we were just appalled ‘cause we have three sons -- so it was scary,” said Fairbanks resident Sandy Threlkeld.
“I think it's already gone to trial, it's already been said, it's already been heard -- everything's been presented,” said resident Lisa Beyers.
But those who have studied the case say there's a lot that needs to be pointed out.
The Tanana Chiefs Conference is pushing to exonerate the Fairbanks Four. The office of the regional tribal government is just a few blocks from where the murder took place, at the corner of 9th Avenue and Barnett Avenue.
“Our people don't condone really cruel behavior,” said TCC president Jerry Isaac. “I was like anybody else: I read the papers, I heard the newscasts on it.”
Isaac says it's unusual for the TCC to advocate on behalf of Native men in jail, because there are so many. He was initially convinced the Fairbanks Four were guilty, until he read an online project on the case by journalism students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“Wait a minute, I mean -- I didn't hear this on the news,” Isaac said, describing his reaction to the project.
Isaac says he was disturbed to learn about a boot print on Hartman's face which prosecutors said matched up with one of the Fairbanks Four -- but a forensic expert for the defense said did not. He says the most disturbing detail is the number of alibis the men had that night which weren't taken seriously -- and when he read about what the prosecutor said during the trial, he got angry.
“The utterance of ‘You can't trust the Natives, because they'll stick up for one another,’ I -- I find that to be a racist opinion,” Isaac said. “And it was allowed in the court of law. It was not struck. The judge did not say, ‘Hey that's an, a opinion, a matter of opinion, and I would like it struck from the record’ -- he didn't say that.”
While concerns about racism caught Isaac’s eye, he says the Hartman case comes back to equality before the law.
“Racism is alive and well, but my concern here with these four young men is not racially based,” Isaac said. “It's the due process that they have a guaranteed right to. We have to be ever vigilant in the protection of human liberties -- that's what made this country as great as it is today.”
‘IT'S CONTROVERSIAL AND IT'S RACIAL, AND IT'S UNFORTUNATE’
Tradition is something Alaska Natives have struggled to hold on to, and the tradition of coming together at gatherings like the Athabascan Fiddle Festival is helping the Fairbanks Four. Musicians like Peter Captain Sr. have volunteered to play at dances to help free the quartet.
“(The) Fairbanks Four kind of piggybacks off that,” Captain said. “I really feel for them -- what happened to them was totally, totally wrong.”
In the festival’s tribal hall, the past, present and the future come together. Each has a role to play, as seen in a T-shirt designed by Rico DeWilde with Hydz Clothing, who grew up with one of the Fairbanks Four, to show his support.
“This is the beauty and the strength of Native culture -- and then there's the sad part of it,” DeWilde said, explaining his design. “In those days I was drinking and hanging out and kicking it a lot, and maybe getting blacked out drunk from time to time. They could have easily picked me up and pinned me with a charge like that.”
As Rico's older brother, Ray DeWilde, dances with retired Episcopal priest the Rev. Anna Frank, they say they’re in step on the Fairbanks Four despite their age difference -- and hope that by talking about what happened, things can change.
“It's controversial and it's racial, and it's unfortunate,” Ray DeWilde said. “I’m learning to step back and say, ‘I'm gonna answer this with grace, not answer anger with anger.’”
“If someone loses their life out on the river, we never give up until we find that person -- and I hope the community doesn't give up on this one,” Frank said.
‘THERE IS A LACK OF EVIDENCE THERE THAT HAUNTS ME’
It’s that support for the Fairbanks Four that helped catch the attention of the Alaska Innocence Project. The group is part of a nationwide organization that has won the release of more than 300 wrongfully convicted people.
At the urging of many outside and inside the legal system, the Alaska chapter of the Innocence Project has taken up the cause of the Fairbanks Four.
Kevin Pease, one of the four, says ignorance about their case is an obstacle they’ve faced since they were arrested 15 years ago.
“One of the hardest things to do is convincing people of our innocence when they don't understand, or don't want to understand, the events that led to our convictions,” Pease said.
They've now exhausted nearly all their appeals, but just as all seems lost there might be a glimmer of hope for the cause of Pease, Vent, Roberts and Frese.
Bill Oberly isn’t just the head of the Alaska Innocence Project -- he effectively is the Alaska Innocence Project, the lone member of the Anchorage-based non-profit group formed in 2006, formed to intervene in cases like those of the Fairbanks Four.
“There is a lack of evidence there that haunts me,” Oberly said. “Our job, as we see it, is identify people who are potentially innocent, who are in prison, who are convicted and in prison -- and that we might be able to show that they are innocent and exonerate them.”
To the Innocence Project, the men convicted of killing Jonathon Hartman have that potential. Normally it's the people behind bars who contact the project, but Oberly says that's not what happened in this case.
“Obviously, we heard from a number of people in the Native community in Interior Alaska,” Oberly said. “There have been various people in the legal community that have been involved in this case from the trial attorneys, appellate attorneys, post--conviction attorneys -- we heard from them as well.”
‘THOSE FACTORS MAKE HIS IDENTIFICATION QUESTIONABLE’
According to the national Innocence Project, there are six common causes of wrongful convictions. There's misidentification by eyewitnesses, mistakes made while processing forensic evidence, false confessions by suspects, testimony from jailhouse snitches, misconduct by police and prosecutors, and incompetence by defense attorneys.
Oberly says four of the six causes of wrongful convictions are evident in the case against the Fairbanks Four. The biggest, he says, is with the linchpin of the prosecution’s case -- eyewitness Arlo Olson.
“He'd been drinking alcohol and apparently consumed marijuana, and those factors make his identification questionable -- or, I guess, improbable if not impossible,” Oberly said.
In three separate trials, Olson testified that he recognized all four suspects at night, from 550 feet away, while they allegedly committed an assault on the night of Oct. 10, 1997 on Frank Dayton -- who told police he didn’t see his assailants.
It was Olson who put Vent, Pease, Roberts and Frese together in Marvin Roberts’ car that evening, the same night on which Jonathon Hartman was fatally beaten.
Several jurors told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that they found olson very convincing -- but it’s what he said after the trials that got even more attention. Olson recanted his testimony, claiming it was the police who pressured him, but when he was brought in for another court hearing he stuck with his original testimony.
“Because he contended at his recantation that he was pressured into saying what he said,” Oberly said. “So it really raises an issue if that was really a valid witness identification or not.”
Veteran Fairbanks police detective Peyton Merideth wasn't a member of the force yet when Jonathon Hartman was murdered, but he's reviewed the case thoroughly and says it's solid police work.
“That system of checks and balances in this case worked,” Merideth said. “I mean, you had a lengthy investigation conducted by very seasoned investigators who looked at the case as a whole. You had it prosecuted by experienced prosecutors, and there were multiple trials in this case -- it’s not like all four in this case went to one trial and there was one guilty verdict.”
Still, Oberly wants Arlo Olson to clarify what he saw that night. He's been searching for him for months, and just last month Oberly found him -- once again in an Anchorage courtroom, this time admitting to violating terms of his parole after serving a two-years prison sentence for beating his wife.
“You are a danger to the community,” a judge told Olson during the Oct. 31 hearing. “Isolation has to be a priority any more.”
Olson was sentenced to another 215 days behind bars for the violation. According to the prosecutor in the case, since 2001 Olson has spent 65 percent of his time in jail.
Recently, Bill Oberly paid Olson a visit at the Cook Inlet Pretrial Facility. During questioning, Oberly says Olson once again recanted his testimony given during the trials.
For Kevin Pease and the others, the latest development comes as no surprise.
“I knew he was lying -- a lot of people knew he was lying,” Pease said. “How are you going to see this fight going on, and there's 300, 400 people at this wedding reception, and you're the only one who saw it?”
The question now: Is another reversal by Arlo Olson, the state's key witness, enough to get a new trial?
“So I basically have to go into court and prove that these four individuals are innocent, and that's a big mountain to climb,” Oberly said.
For the four men in prison who claim they are innocent, Bill Oberly could very well be their last glimmer of hope.
‘YOU ARE ALWAYS AT THE MERCY OF THE RECORD’
As for the Hartman family, it suffered another tragic loss not long ago. Evalyn Thomas, Jonathon Hartman's mother, was killed in an all-terrain vehicle crash on June 26, 2005. The crash happened in Leads, N.Y. where she was living at the time. She was 50 years old.
In 2003, a Fairbanks Superior Court judge awarded Thomas $6 million in a wrongful-death suit filed against the four men convicted of killing her son. At the time, the judge said because of their lengthy sentences and inability to pay, it was doubtful Thomas would ever receive any money.
There’s at least one more group of people impacted by Jonathon Hartman’s murder and the controversy surrounding his death: the Fairbanks Police Department, which has received its share of criticism over the years.
The detectives who worked the Hartman investigation have long since retired. Channel 2 tried to reach them, but some couldn’t be contacted and the others refused to comment on the case.
That means the department’s official face on the Hartman case is that of Laren Zager, who became FPD’s chief three years ago. He says the case is still a source of frustration for his department.
“That generation that was here, is a little bit of frustration -- the more extreme might be characterized as disgust,” Zager said.
While Zager wasn’t on the force in 1997, he did inherit the emotions the Hartman case still conjures up.
“It's not too much one of defensiveness, it's just one of, ‘Huh, they're still at it’ kind of attitude,” Zager said.
Zager has reviewed the Hartman investigation, and feels officers back then did a thorough job.
“You are always at the mercy of the record -- the record is written by people and you always have to take it at face value,” Zager said. “The record at hand not only leads me to believe that the Fairbanks Police Department did an adequate job, (but also) in some parts of it a model job of performance.”
That belief leaves Zager wondering why the doubts still linger after all these years.
“What's not happening is, ‘Oh -- oh, I see where their concern lies,’ and come to a conclusion on that,” Zager said. “I go cover-to-cover on the case, and I just don't see any avenue that would account for its staying power, its longevity, its life.”
The chief says he keeps an open mind, however, and if someone uncovers significant and compelling new evidence he'll reopen the investigation.
“I have no personally strong feelings about it -- I don't feel defensive about it or anything,” Zager said. “I would, under the right circumstances, reopen that case or a portion of that case.”
After all these years, the legal process in the Hartman murder is nearly at an end. Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease and George Frese have exhausted all their appeals.
In August, Eugene Vent filed his final appeal with the state, challenging a judge’s decision to deny his call for a new trial. The appeal is based on what Vent calls “ineffective assistance” by his attorney during the murder trial.
Vent's court-appointed attorney planned to call an expert witness to explain how a person can confess to a crime he didn't commit. According to the appeal, Vent claims his attorney mishandled the introduction of the expert which caused the judge to reject his testimony.
The appeal of that ruling is now before the Alaska Court of Appeals. A decision isn't expected until sometime after Jan. 1.