Birthday Letters – Happy Birthday George

George Christopher Frese turned 38 years old on January 17, 2015.

His birthday marked the 6,296th day of his incarceration for a crime he didn’t commit.

Npaper1In prison George has grown from adolescence to middle age. He entered prison at a time in life where we all thought thirty was old. Now gray streaks our hair and thirty is just a memory. He is a grandfather. His daughter is older today than he was when he was taken away. The loss and tragedy of the situation are enormous, but he rarely focuses on that. George has managed, against the odds, to grow in other ways during those years. He has managed to find peace and acceptance for this life path, and has kept a steady determination to fight toward exoneration. His absolute faith that the suffering he and the other three men he was convicted with means something has long been an inspiration and source of solace to the family, friends, and supporters who fight for his release. If, George has said, their wrongful conviction and incarceration leads to changes in the system and the social concept of justice and equality in Alaska, even if it is only enough to prevent one wrongful conviction, it is a suffering he is willing to endure.
George received the longest sentence in the case. There is no rhyme or reason behind the sentencing disparity, but there are some real consequences. George will only leave prison if he is exonerated. There is no second chance – no side door for him. If he is not freed, he will spend his last birthday on Earth there.

Yet, George has kept his sense of humor. He has kept the desire to learn, kept standards. He has held on to his love for his family and friends on the other side, and has fought the hard battle to keep faith and mostly won. He has voraciously studied the fields of philosophy and psychology, with an emphasis on cross cultural communication and social psychology. He has spent the time bettering himself, playing cards, drawing, letting time pass without letting it pass him by entirely. He is remarkably well read, articulate, and as steady and funny as he ever was.

And out here, he is just missed. There is an empty space where George should be in so many lives and places, and that space will always exist and it will always hurt until he comes home.

Happy Birthday, George. Whatever life brings, or means, or throws your way or ours, just know we are in it together. We’re still fighting and waiting, and one of these birthdays we will see you at home.

Below are letters from George that have arrived throughout the years for the blog, links to the Fairbanks Four documentary by KTUU, and a radio interview by George.

Letters from George HERE and HERE

KTUU 49th Report “The Fairbanks Four” special Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw6mAJvzzIg

Radio interview HERE.

The “Secret Confession” Alaska Courts Failed to Unwrap this Christmas

statueThe snow-covered courtyard that stretches from the doors of the Fairbanks Superior Courthouse to the meandering bank of the Chena River twinkles with Christmas lights throughout the late winter months. The clock tower chimes the time. In the shadow of the clock lies the cernterpiece of the plaza – a large bronze statue of an Inuit family. It is meant as a tribute to the first peoples of Alaska who for years have gathered at the courthouse doors asking for justice. In summer months the statue is the centerpiece of a busy downtown, but in the silence and snow they appear determined, but alone.

Inside the courthouse, on the desk of Paul Lyle, sits what is likely to be one of the most controversial court rulings in the history of Alaska. The ruling is another layer in the web of bureacratic secrecy that has troubled the Fairbanks Four case for many years.

Judge Lyle has made a ruling on the “secret confession,” and that ruling now sits hidden from public view while the appeal courts consider the secret appeal to the secret ruling on the secret document contained in the Alaska Innocence Project filing from September 2013. The document is widely assumed to contain a murder confession by Jason Wallace in the 1997 death of John Hartman, the crime for which the Fairbanks Four have been imprisoned for over 17 years and which they have claimed to be innocent since their arrests.

In recent weeks, a long-awaited sign of activity on the Fairbanks Four case appeared on the docket of the Fairbanks Superior Court. The court records available to the public are scant, but have put the community on notice that there is indeed activity behind the closed doors.

Court documents released in early January indicated that Judge Paul Lyle has indeed made a decision on some element of the case, but the decision has been stayed – the legal equivalent of a pause button. The reason for the stay is to allow for a person named only as “The Affected Party” to perfect an appeal. Although the nature of sealed proceedings is inherently vague, the press was quick to deduce that the affected party was Jason Wallace, a man whose “secret confession” is at the heart of the sealed brief, the closed courtroom proceedings, and much controversy.

jason wallacLittle is known about the details of the statements made by Jason Wallace and filed under seal. But enough is known about Jason Wallace, his crimes, his actions, his habits, and circumstances, that coupled with the reporting surrounding the issue, that supporters have long been able to read between the lines.

Jason Wallace currently resides in Spring Creek Maximum Security Prison in Seward, Alaska, where he is serving a 60 year sentence for the 2002 murder by hammer of Fairbanks woman Teacke Bacote, the stabbing of Fairbanks resident Corey Spears, and his part in the conspiracy that led to the killings of Hakeem Bryant and Christopher Martin. The bloody crime spree planned by Wallace and his associate William Holmes was interrupted before they were able to kill thier last three intended victims – Michale Keys, Jaqueline Godfrey, and Godfrey’s young daughter.

Wallace and Holmes had a relatively simple plan – the two were involved in a planned $80,000 drug purchase, along with a handful of friends. Wallace was to stay in Alaska to kill the two people in Fairbanks who knew the details of the buy, Teacka Bacote and Corey Spears, while Holmes flew to California with their fellow buyers, Hakeem Bryant and Christopher Martin, to kill them. Then, Holmes and Wallace would reunite in Washington to make the purchase and kill the last targets – Michael Keys and Jaqueline Godfrey along with her young daughter (presumably to prevent witnesses) -allowing them to keep the drugs and cash. William Holmes and Jason Wallace were willing to kill their own friends, women, and an innocent child for $80,000 in cash and another $80,000 worth of cocaine. The plan did not end as planned and fate spared the lives of the last three victims.

William Holmes, 1997

William Holmes, 1997

Holmes killed Martin and Bryant in California. He shot them execution-style on the side of the freeway on Christmas Eve. Their bodies along with the charred remains of the rental car the three were travelling in were discovered the same day.

On December 27, Jason Wallace went to the home of Teacka Bacote, an unarmed 22 year old woman and friend, and killed her with a hammer. He then went to the house of friend Corey Spears and stabbed him in the neck with a screwdriver as the man slept. Although it was Wallace’s intention to kill him, Spears survived the brutal attack. After attacking Spears, Jason Wallace returned to the home of Teacka Bacote to set her body and fully occupied apartment building on fire.

Wallace was apprehended at the Fairbanks International Airport when he arrived burned and reeking of gasoline and attempted to board a flight. He confessed nearly immediately to his crimes. He cried and talked often of his mother and God in his interviews with troopers. His tears were not for his victims, but for himself. Having planned the deaths of seven people, stabbing his friend, and murdering a woman by hammer, Jason Wallace was overcome with self-pity. It is clear in transcripts that Wallace wanted to do as little time as possible, and he immediately began providing information on his codenfendent as well as many other associates. He, for example, names Shelmar Johnson as the man who supplied the weapons for the crime spree he and Holmes planned. He named many individuals as drug users, sellers, and showed an extreme willingness to provide any kind of information he could to negotiate for leniency.

Sometime between the night he was arrested and early 2004, Wallace said something else. The Alaska Innocence Project refers to “statements of Jason Wallace” that corroborate the written confession to the Hartman beating death by William Holmes, and goes on to say that the court must determine whether these statements are still subject attorney client privilege.

Given that Jason Wallace only had one attorney, public defender Geoffrey Wildridge, and only had communication with the attorney from spring of 2003 through the end of his trial, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that Wallace must have confessed to killing John Hartman to his attorney. Because Jason Wallace provided so much information, and so openly negotiate information for leniency, it is easy to imagine that Wallace may have confessed only in an attempt to trade the information for more leniency. It seems not only possible but very likely that many people under State of Alaska employ inside the justice system may have known about alternative confessions in the Hartman case as far back as 2002 or 2003.

Do Not EnterYet, unless and until the words of Jason Wallace currently buried inside a secret filing and caught up in a secret appeal are ever released, the truth about Jason Wallace remains a carefully kept secret.

As always, Alaskans, remember that there are many who walk among you with secrets about this case. Sadly, that includes some members of society we are told to trust the most. But it also includes scores of individuals who heard directly from William Holmes, Shelmar Johnson, Marquez Penningotn, and Jason Wallace about the killing of John Hartman. If you or anyone you know has information about this case please contact the Alaska Innocence Project at (907) 279-0454.

Want to read more? Do!

Local Reporters Visited Wallace at FCC in 2004. In this article, they describe his response to their questions about the case. Read that HERE

Local reporter Brian O’Donoghue released an article recently in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer. It is as detailed as any article is likely to be regarding the appeal process.HERE.

HERE, HERE, and HERE are a few articles on the murders Wallace and Holmes committed in 2002.

Wallace was hardly the only one talking. Bill Holmes confessed to the murder of John Hartman first in 2011 to an officer at the correctional facility where he is serving a double life sentence, who sent the confession on to the Fairbanks Police Department, who passed it on to the District Attorney. They then worked together to hide the confession, but it was eventually revealed. Read about that HERE. Holmes eventually got a confession to the Alaska Innocence Project as well. Read about that HERE.

A Life Split in Half – Happy Birthday Eugene Vent

TEugeneoday, Eugene Vent has officially spent more years as an innocent man in prison than he spent in the outside world.

Seventeen Novembers have passed since Eugene Vent turned 18 inside a holding cell in Fairbanks Correctional Center. He was kept in isolation because of the very real and persistent threats of violence from other inmates. Jail records recall how inmates would lean up to the small slat in his door and whisper graphic threats to Vent, alone for 23 hours per day in the cell. Imagine how it must have felt, alone and away from family for the first time in his young life, on a birthday considered the passage into adulthood, in a concrete room with faceless voices that whispered a hundred ways to die.

“You know,” Vent said, “It took me a long time to forgive myself for not being stronger. Like, years and years walking around knowing that if I hadn’t broken under the officer’s pressure, if I hadn’t falsely confessed, how many lives would be different. Better. I was mad at myself for not being more of, like, a man. But over time I realized I was just a kid then. When I think back on that kid so scared, so stupid, so young, man, just so young, in that interrogation room, now I think, I forgive you. I forgive that kid. I forgive myself. It seems so long ago it’s hard to even remember who I was at 17. A lifetime ago. I’ve missed a lot of life. But, you know, if all this time we have done and our story out there, if it stops this from happening to even just one kid like I was, it’s worth it. I will know my life had meaning.”

Life. Fresh cut grass, dinner on the table, babies crying, sisters laughing, grandma’s hand on your face, Christmas morning, scraped knees, pretty girls, mom’s voice, falling asleep on the couch, sick days, boot prints on fresh snow, high-bush cranberries, dead leaves in the fall, melting snow, mud, puddles, bicycle wheels over gravel, running on dusty roads, first kisses, first loves, last chances, thunderstorms, birthday cakes, moose soup on the stove, woodsmoke, fish, summer, fall, spring, winter, life, life, life. Seventeen years of living in color, until one night in the seventeenth year, so scared, so young, it changed. Everything changed.

It makes sense that the first life, the other life, is one so far away that he can hardly remember himself back then. Like a photograph out of focus. A dream slipping away in the space between awake and asleep. For seventeen years there was one life. And for seventeen more there has been the other. The smells, the voices, the people, the faces, the seasons – all gone. Concrete and barbed wire, every day the same as the last, the threat of violence pulsing down constantly like the florescent flickering light in any institution. Yet, somehow, there Eugene has found forgiveness. He has found faith. He has, absent all the tiny pieces that contentment is made of, has found assurance that his life has meaning.

Birthdays are not eulogies for the life that came before them. They are not a time to mourn the past.They are not celebrations of the present alone. Birthdays are markings of the passage of time – acknowledgment that time is moving forward, that we are moving with it, and that time has circled one more year, leading us where it will.

Happy Birthday Eugene, and many happy returns. May the next seventeen years of your life be a joining of the last 35. May you someday know the simple joys of life coupled with the wisdom that suffering gifted you. For all the things that are hard to recall from those first seventeen years we know one remains clear – love. The love was real, the love remains, and we know you feel it there too. We are still holding a candle for you, brother, we always will.

 

Secret Court Hearing in Fairbanks Four Case Held

IMG_1857 A nearly silent crowd of Alaskans flanked by reporters filled the hallways of the Fairbanks Superior Court this morning. They passed methodically through security and made their way to courtroom 401. The crowd lingered around a closed door, and on that door hung a sign that said “Confidential Hearing – Do Not Enter.”

Behind the doors the crowd was barred from entering, Judge Paul Lyle heard arguments from attorneys for the Fairbanks Four and the opposing counsel on the sealed brief, or “secret confession,” of Jason Wallace. The statements of Jason Wallace, filed under seal so that the court could determine if the statements could remain sealed under attorney-client privelage, have become a focal point for supporters of the men known as the Fairbanks Four. Those supporters gathered beside the doors sealed against them and prayed.

secrethearing1“Our Creator,” Reverand Fisher said solemnly, “can pass through any door.”

No one there expected to be admitted to the courtroom. Instead, they came simply so the world could watch them linger. Watch them locked out of the court from which they have sought justice for seventeen long years. Stand there simply so that the human beings who together make up the justice system would have to walk through a gauntlet of humanity – so that all who were admitted into the room would see the faces of so many who are shut out. Those who feel abandoned and betrayed by what they have seen inside a system whose promise is blind justice, and equality for all. Those who live in limbo, those who are used to doors they cannot enter.

Do Not EnterBehind those closed doors, secrets stayed secret. Attorneys argued, witnesses were called, and under the cloak of anonymity and the protection of a seal, one side fought to keep a murder confession hidden for more than a decade a secret, and the other side argued for an end to the era of secrets in the Fairbanks Four case.

nodogsorindiansNo one likes the “race card,” which is a way of saying no one likes to talk about race. Sometimes the truth is hard to hear. Rarely is it harder to hear than it is to say. Always, it is important to do both. But for the first peoples of Alaska and those who live among them, doors have been built, locked, closed, and labeled in ways that change lives for generations. It is important to understand that in order to understand the depth of common pain that resides in those hallways, and the determination to not remain unseen. It was not long ago at all that children were stolen away and locked behind the doors of mission schools where they were tortured and altered. Many never walked out. It wasn’t long ago that the stores that line the downtown avenues just beside the courthouse had signs hung in the windows that said “No Dogs or Natives Allowed.” It was not many years ago that a sign in Tanana prohibited Natives from crossing the “mission line” that cut their ancestral home in two.

secrethearinghazelAnd it was seventeen years and one month ago exactly today that four young men were taken away for a crime that they didn’t commit and locked behind doors. Doors that they cannot walk out of. Doors their family cannot cross over. Doors that, deep down, everyone gathered in the hallway knows they may never walk out of. Behind locked doors are secrets, opportunities, histories, loved ones, strangers, stories, and in this case, the truth.

“It reminded me,” said supporter Misty Nickoli of the somber scene in the hallway, “of the gatherings at a person’s house, after they die. They way people hold onto dignity and do what they have to do even when it is a time of grief. It’s hard. Those times when you just know that the future isn’t always fair. But we have to keep going.:”

Do Not EnterIn this case, in the case of the Fairbanks Four and the case of equality in Alaska, it is time for doors to open. It is important to fill those hallways and linger outside the doors so that someday, some bright day, our children will not have to. Until then, the hallways will remain full if people who know there are forces that pass through man made doors and lines, and that they are part of that power.

Photo credit goes to the lovely and talented Carey, sister of George Frese.

You can and SHOULD read news on this hearing. Many times, the press does their job spreading information, and we do our job telling a story. Here are some articles and newscasts.

http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/10/23/evidentiary-hearing-scheduled-november-10-fairbanks-four-case-157431

http://www.newsminer.com/fairbanks_four/hearing-opens-on-secret-file-in-john-hartman-murder-case/article_00538486-692f-11e4-b775-db35eafa7519.html

http://www.webcenter11.com/story/hearing-set-review-new-fairbanks-four-evidence

http://www.ktuu.com/news/news/group-claims-officials-knew-of-murder-confession-years-before-fairbanks-four-filing/25862168

Seventeen Octobers – The Anniversary of John Hartman’s Murder

spruceAs the dwindling blue-gray light casts shadows off spruce trees onto the new snow this October night in Fairbanks, Alaska, those who live here know that soon the light will heed to darkness. Night will fall, and each day that we move toward winter solstice the night will fall a bit earlier. This place – the vast expanses of sky and land that make up the last frontier – will be nearly swallowed by darkness for months. It is this time of the year that it is hard to truly remember that the light will return. The days move forward and we arc, always, back toward spring. Toward light. Yet in October, we can feel the darkness on our heels.

It was on an October night exactly seventeen years ago that a darkness came upon many lives. It changed us. It changed too many to enumerate. It altered something, and for so long it seemed a darkness that would never lift. Even now, as we greet the anniversary of a night that changed so many lives, there are moments it is hard to truly remember that darkness will eventually give way to light.

Yet, it is a gift to fight. It is a gift to be here, in darkness and light, in moments of faith and doubt. No matter the hardships, no matter the darkness, to live is a wonderful thing. Life is so ephemeral. A bright light like a flash, a fleeting glance at all that is brilliant and real. And although a book could be written – countless articles have been written, a blog is being written at this moment – about all the people who lost something to the darkness on an October night exactly seventeen years ago, only one person lost all.

JohnHArtmanJohn Hartman was killed on the corner of 9th Avenue and Barnette seventeen years ago tonight. He was a boy. He was nothing but boundless potential and he was full of life. That light ebbed and went out seventeen years ago. John Hartman has been gone now more years than he was alive. And nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever eclipse the importance of his existence, the tragedy of his death.

Tonight we pause to remember. We remember to never forget John Hartman. And into the darkening night we deliver this prayer – may all that were altered or harmed on the night of October 10, 1997 feel peace. May this prayer find its way to the sky and into the awareness of those who have moved on from this earth. May the legacy of John Hartman be peace, justice, and above all, a reverence for life. Live. Live honestly, and live well, every day hold to the gift it is to simply be alive.

As darkness falls tonight and any night, never let it rob you of the knowledge and faith that morning always returns. The light is coming.

 

Deranged State of Alaska Insists that Innocent Men Should Remain in Prison

queenofheartsThe State of Alaska filed their response to the Innocence Project filing that rejected their claims. You can and should read about that HERE. Because, honestly, the state’s response is so stupid that it isn’t even fun to write about and probably no picnic to read about either. And it has left me thinking about the crazy, mean Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. Remember her? I am feeling pretty convinced that if we put her in charge of the justice system in the State of Alaska we would be making a fair trade in terms of ethics and competence. But at least we would have painted roses and maybe a catchy theme song.

The State of Alaska started this response period of with….wait for it….yet another request for an extension! When they requested an extension I had high hopes that they may have something at least new to say. Alas, it appears they needed more time to simply regurgitate their last filing, with the spelling errors mostly cleaned up, and the rather embarrassing, tasteless, dishonest attack on a witness removed.

But the basics are the same. The State of Alaska is willing to have an evidentiary hearing on the Fairbanks Four case. They just don’t want any of the evidence to be allowed in. They surmise that in this evidence hearing they do not want any evidence that will bring Alaskans “closure” on this issue. Apparently, they honestly believe their citizens are so unaware or stupid that we will accept an evidence hearing without the evidence as closure and go on with our lives, pretending that they didn’t lock up innocent children. Pretending that they didn’t leave serial killers on our streets. Pretending that they didn’t lie, hide, cheat, and bribe. We cannot have justice, so they offer “closure” through a review of evidence with no evidence allowed.

I can see why – it is evidence likely to set innocent men free. It is evidence likely to make it crystal clear that the Fairbanks Police Department chief hid a murder confession. That the DA hid a murder confession. That the courts are still hiding what appears to be a separate murder confession. That witnesses were harassed. That witnesses were bribed. And, most horrifyingly, that if the people sworn to seek and uphold justice in 1997 had tried even a little bit to do that, not only would four innocent men be free, but at least five other lives could have been saved, perhaps more. It’s the brutal and unflinching truth, and the truth is the rattling skeleton in the State of Alaska’s gleaming mansion of lies.

The State argues that the confession of William Holmes should be thrown out and considered hearsay. We discussed that at length HERE the last time they made the argument.

The State argues that the scientific evidence should not be allowed in because progression in the forensic sciences is not relevant to post conviction relief filings. I mean, who needs science, right? The progression in the sciences has more than doubled our life expectancy and led to such revelations as the world not being flat, the existence of space, and the cure to the diseases that used to kill nearly all of us. But, scientific progress isn’t for the State of Alaska.

In a nutshell, the state believes a confession of murder from the murderer is “hearsay” and that modern science has no place in a courtroom. Even though the filing is full of words and legal references (as a matter of fact, in one jewel of a statement they attempt to discuss precedent by citing an unpublished opinion that they then acknowledge does not set precedent), all I can picture is that crazy queen. Our system indeed seems that absurd, deranged, and sick with power. It would be easy to make fun of that for 5,000 words. Yet, the state opinion is so ridiculous it is essentially a parody of itself. And, they are spending your tax dollars to do this absurd work, much more slowly than necessary!

In the end, there is nothing funny about it. This isn’t a movie and it isn’t a joke. Lives are at stake, and our justice system is sick, sick, sick. It remains sad, it remains shocking, it remains heartbreakingly painful that the State of Alaska is so invested in protecting themselves from embarrassment that there is no limit to the lives they will ruin, deaths they will turn a blind eye to, and lows they will stoop to. But, it has been made clear that they have no plan to change their tactic.

It’s an election year. Alaskans, you might want to ask your politicians about this issue. Surely, we can do better than this.

 

Motion In Fairbanks Four Case Condemns State Response, Accuses State of Prosecutorial Misconduct

 

The Alaska Innocence Project lead counsel Bill Oberly and attorney Colleen Libbey filed silmoutaneous motions in Fairbanks Superior Court accusing the State of Alaska of accomplishing little more than “wasting paper” in their controversial response to the Fairbanks Four case. In a filing on behalf of Eugene Vent, Libbey further accuses the State of Alaska of violating Vent’s constitutional right to a fair trial and prosecutorial misconduct by withholding a murder confession in this case.

The filings, which come less than sixty days after the State’s response, trump the State response itself in simple length and drastically outshine the State in the merit of their respective arguments. The contrast between the aimless and sometimes bizarre content of the State of Alaska’s Motion to Dismiss and the succinct and well substantiated arguments in the Alaska Innocence and Libby filings are stark.

The Innocence Project filing undermines the credibility of every piece of information alluded to in the State filing and casts serious doubt on the intention and merit of their work. Libbey’s motion details the prosecutorial misconduct surrounding the decision to hide a murder confession in the case during ongoing legal actions, and at one point in reference to the State’s most vigorous assertions says, “This argument does not make sense.”

It is hard to imagine a court in the free world that would not grant the Fairbanks Four a new trial in light of the ever-mounting pile of evidence that William Holmes, Jason Wallace, Marquez Pennington, Rashan Brown, and Shelmar Johnson killed John Hartman, or the overwhelming and ever-growing evidence that the State of Alaska has engaged in misconduct and corruption at nearly every level of this case, from the first moments of the investigation up to today. Yet, it is indeed this terrifyingly corrupt and unapologetically deceptive system that the Fairbanks Four must leave their fate to.

There are people in this case who have information and are currently, right now, refusing to come forward. Those who fail to come forward take the side of the oppressors. They assist the state in keeping innocent men in jail. If you know someone who has information in this case, ask them to come forward. If they will not, turn them in. The time for inaction is long over.