No easy answers: The Fairbanks Four
Lakeidra Chavis/Sun Star Editor in Chief
Oct. 1, 2013
At 6:37 p.m. on Oct. 12, 1997, 15-year-old John Hartman was pronounced dead from a brutal beating that caused serious head trauma.
At approximately 3 a.m. that morning, Hartman was found on the corner of Ninth Avenue and Barnette street lying in the middle of the street badly beaten.
Hours later, police found and arrested four suspects: Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease and George Frease.
That night, Frese, 20, had been drinking and kicked out of a wedding party. He had a record of domestic violence. He went to the hospital the next day complaining of a foot injury. A nurse thought that he was suspicious.
Pease’s farther had been killed earlier that year and the night of Hartman’s beating, Pease’s mother called the cops of her son after getting into an argument with him.
Vent, 17, had been drinking all night and was kicked out of the Alaska Motor Inn, due to his behavior. The police interviewed Vent for over 11 hours. At the time of his arrest, he had a .159 alcohol blood level.
Roberts, 19, was the valedictorian of his high school and had no criminal record.
The only connection between the individuals was that they attended the same high school, Howard Luke High School, now known as Effie Kokrine High School. The school has historically been predominantly Native.
The four were found guilty of Hartman’s murder and given prison sentences that ranged between 33 and 79 years.
However, this isn’t where the story ends.
The trial was based entirely on circumstantial evidence.
Those confessions from Vent? He was interviewed while highly intoxicated and the “confessions” were highly implied from the police officers’ questions. Some came after the recorder used up all of its tape, according to research done by the Journalism Department’s Extreme Alaska.
One witness reported identifying two of the suspects from 500 feet away.
To test his assertion, juries went out and did an experiment to see if they could identify someone from 500 feet away. This is against jury ethics and the experiment was unauthorized. The Innocence Project also criticizes this claim.
Police linked Frese to the murder by comparing the shoes he wore to the hospital with the head injury on Hartman’s head.
This was the only evidence linking the boys to the murder.
“What hit us all in October 1997 was the horrific beating of John Hartman, a 15-year-old! That’s what the town was talking about,” journalism professor Brian O’Donoghue said in an email. “Few complained when police made quick arrests, backed by a pair of what were described as confessions.”
When O’Donoghue started teaching at UAF in 2001, he thought that the Hartman case would be a good opportunity to teach fact-checking and accessing public records to his students working on “Extreme Alaska,” the Journalism Department’s online magazine.
The class created an online website with information about the victim, the suspects, their bios and an interactive map that shows the events of what happened the night of Hartman’s murder with the time and location.
In 2011, a man serving a double-life sentence in California wrote a letter confessing that he, along with three other friends from Lathrop High School, committed the murder.
The 33-year-old Fairbanks man said that he and his friends had been driving around looking for Natives to beat up, and saw Hartman walking down the road, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
The Alaska Innocence project, a group dedicated to freeing wrongly convicted people, says it has new evidence in the investigation in a press conference last Wednesday.
But the answers aren’t easy.
Although evidence is still being questioned, memories are fading. It’s been nearly two decades since that night in October and the four boys who were sent to prison are now men in their mid-thirties.
Although new questions keep arising through journalistic and individual efforts–there is nothing definitive.
Unfortunately, the truth, if proven innocent, can only set them free.
The truth can’t make up lost time or even lifetimes.
Updated Monday, Oct. 7, 2013: The editorial incorrectly stated that Marvin Roberts was driving the getaway car. Roberts was not driving a getaway car the night of the Jon Hartman’s murder. The error has been corrected.