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.

 

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Bloody Photos of the “Bloodless” Crime Scene Emerge

Aside

ImageWhen Calvin Moses and his passengers came upon a young John Hartman badly beaten, barely alive, and draped over a curb around 2:50am on that cold night in October 1997, the sight of his body was so frightening that the four adults did not get out of the car for fear the attackers were still nearby. They rushed to a nearby apartment complex and called 911. In fact, John Hartman was so bloody and badly beaten that they could not tell if he was a boy or girl, face up or face down. Only that if he was alive, he was barely alive.

One EMT who responded to the call was so badly shaken that he called home, woke his wife, and pleaded with her to lock the door. In the first newspaper article about the case (HERE) the lead detective described the crime scene as “horrific.”

Perhaps Detectives Aaron Ring and Jim Grier (who did the bulk of the police work on this case) believed that when the lab results came back from the car, the clothes, boots, shoes, hands, and feet of the four young men they had arrested in the hours immediately following the girssly discovery of the murdered boy, that the lab results would show what any reasonable person would expect to find on the people and car used to commit a violent stomping and beating death – DNA. And lots of it. But the lab results didn’t tie the Fairbanks Four to the victim. So, they tested, and retested. They took Marvin’s car apart to the point that it cannot be reassembled, searching for blood. And they found NONE.

NO DNA EVIDENCE HAS EVER LINKED THE FAIRBANKS FOUR TO THE CRIME THEY ARE CHARGED WITH COMMITTING.

When the police realized that there was no physical evidence linking Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent, or George Frese to the murder of John Hartman, they did not begin looking for other leads. They did two things – they shopped for jailhouse snitches and “lost” a lot of evidence that would have supported claims of innocence by the four young men and pointed to the guilt of others.

So many things have been lost in the Fairbanks Four case. Life. Time. Freedom. Hope. Memory. Intangible things.

But a lot of other things were lost. Tangible things. Evidence. For example, the first interview police did with Chris Stone. That was “lost.” The transcript of the police interview with EJ Stevens simply directs the reader to the audio recording. Somehow, it was lost. Perhaps no coincidentally “lost” piece of evidence stands out more than the missing crime scene pictures. With no photographs of the crime scene, the public and juries had to rely on the word of the investigators who examined the crime scene (primarily Ring and Grier).

For many in the Native community the moment that the crime scene went from “horrific” to “virtually bloodless” was the moment when it became completely clear that something was extremely wrong with this case. These are, after all, a people who have many times seen a death on the first winter snows when they are blessed with a moose to feed their families. The idea that place where a boy was kicked and beaten to death would be bloodless has long seemed to be a deliberate lie. We can now confirm that anyone who saw the crime scene and later described it as bloodless was lying, and readers can confirm that for themselves by looking at the recently unearthed photograph above.

When KTUU Channel 2 Anchorage did their documentary The 49th Hour: The Fairbanks Four, they were granted access to the historical footage shot by KTVF. During this same KTUU documentary (which you can watch HERE) the CURRENT Fairbanks Police Department police chief applauds the exemplary work of the detectives who investigated the murder of John Hartman, even calling it “model” police work. In that film footage from KTVF that KTUU producers unearthed, buried in the long-forgotten reels of film shot the day that John Hartman died, were a series of images of the crime scene the police and DA described as bloodless. This photograph of the place John Hartman was killed looks exactly as we would have imagined.

Those of us that live with the land and feed our children with what we can gather and hunt know something about blood and snow. We have seen the warm blood of an animal hit snow and race across the surface, frozen. We have seen it seep, and spread slowly from a wound. The place where a life is taken, even when taken respectfully with one swift and cordial wound, is marked on the snow until spring washes it away. We know the way that snow makes blood sticky, how the course hair of moose cling to your hands and boots and resists any attempt to cast it away.

To take a life is to spill blood, and blood remains there where life poured out, and upon those who touched it. It tracks on boots and pants, fingers and hands. Life does not disappear without a trace. John Hartman did not lose his life without leaving a mark behind. Those who killed him did not leave the scene of the crime without the blood of John Hartman on their feet, in their car, on their clothes, their shoes, and hands.

That DNA evidence probably washed over time, as seasons changed. But blood is on the hands of many in the case of the Fairbanks Four: Those who really did kill John Hartman, those who chose to deliberately wrongfully convict the Fairbanks Four believing they had so little value that they would never be remembered and fought for, and those who “lost,” altered, hid, corrupted, and lied. Those people have blood on their hands that cannot be washed away with water or with time. For all those in our community and world who have blood on their hands through murder, corruption, conspiracy, or through the crime of silence, we have a prayer always on our lips and in our hearts for you – that someday you will be free from the prison you built for yourself. That you will choose to redeem yourself as best you can during your time on this earth. That you remember that every day that innocent men spend in prison for a crime they did not commit, you commit another crime, and your guilt grows.

You can try to bury the truth. You can try to outrun it, you can try to lose it by forcing it deep into the darkest theatres of the mind. But you cannot destroy it. You can take a lot from another human being – their life, their time, even their hope. But you cannot take their story, and you cannot take the truth. Truth has a power of its own, and someday, the truth will FREE THE FAIRBANKS FOUR.

The Times They Are A Changin’ – Eugene Vent Granted an Appeal Today

“I praise the ones who persevere in seeking justice through the law. I caution there are those who felt abandoned and betrayed by what they saw. Some stood in halls of silence, with icy hints of violence, when they went to seek justice from the law.” – Dar Williams, from the song “Write This Number Down.”

This morning the State of Alaska Court of Appeals has ruled that Eugene Vent should receive a new hearing based on his claim of ineffective counsel. The ruling comes just two short days after Eugene was featured on KTUU’s 49th Report: The Fairbanks Four.

Eugene had argued in an appeal that his attorney was ineffective in arguing to allow an expert in false confessions and the Reid Method of interrogation to testify at trial. (Read about Eugene’s interrogation HERE and the Reid Method HERE) His appeal was denied when it was presented in Fairbanks Superior Court to Judge Ben Esch. The Alaska Court of Appeals ruled today that judge Esch erred in making that ruling, and cautioned that the denial created the “appearance of partiality.”

We agree. Big time. Judicial conduct in the cases of the Fairbanks Four has created the appearance of partiality. It has contained actual partiality toward the prosecution, and conduct which unbecoming of any public servant or person on God’s Earth, and sometimes conduct which reaches far beyond partiality into corruption. (Read about some concerning conduct HERE)

The ruling is welcome news, and a step in the right direction. We caution all that it is one small step, but in the right direction. It is also a reminder why we fight INSIDE the justice system even though we have seen it fail. The justice system is ours. It is as imperfect as we are, as vulnerable, as corrupt, as sinful. But it is also just as capable grace. Peppered amongst the worst and most biased rulings in this case have always been rulings that contained strength and independence of intellect.

We have said many times over, echoing Martin Luther King, that we know the moral arc of the universe to be long, but also that it bends toward justice. Someday, maybe in a series of events that begins with today’s ruling, and maybe not, our system will bend toward justice in the case of the Fairbanks Four. It will bend toward justice because of the goodness of people. People like all of you. Reporters like Brian O’Donoghue, Rhonda McBride, Steve MacDonald – members of the press who remember their calling as bearers of the truth. It bends because of people like you who have given time in prayer, work, donated a dollar, and hour, or a thousands of each. The list of names would be so long that I could never write it out. Long enough to change the moral direction of our community and court system. So, thank you, all of you, for today’s ruling.

At the conclusion of the ruling the court states that:

“We conclude that vacating the judgment in this case will promote justice in future cases: It will clarify the proper scope of judicial notice and encourage judges to avoid ex parte investigations that may create an appearance of partiality.“We also conclude that, when a judge reaches outside the record to marshal evidence that benefits one party, the unfairness of the resulting decision is apparent. A failure to act in these circumstances could undermine public confidence in the judicial process.”
We could not agree more.

Dear Silent Holders of the Truth – A letter from Eugene

One incredibly frustrating, heartbreaking, difficult reality about the murder of 1997 is that THERE ARE PEOPLE OUT THERE WHO KNOW WHO DID IT. One investigator after another has identified a small handful of people that have information about this case, and knows that there are others. There is a $35,000 reward for information. ANYONE with information can call Bill Oberly with the Innocence Project at 907-279-0454 and come forward anonymously or on the record, and PLEASE, PLEASE, if you or someone you know has information about the killing of John Hartman, DO come forward.

What the investigators continually hear from people with information is that they are afraid of retaliation or being labeled as snitches, most especially afraid of retaliation or hardship if they themselves end up in prison. Although their choice to remain silent is their choice to make, it is heartbreaking. In order for the Fairbanks Four to get a new trial, these people would HAVE to come forward.

Below, Eugene speaks to THEM. To people that have information in this case but choose to stay silent.  Spread this letter everywhere you can, most especially to anyone you think it might apply to. Hopefully their heart is softened by Eugene’s plea and they are encouraged by his words of support.

Endess Graditude – An Interview with Eugene Vent

When reporter Dan Bross of KUAC did his short radio story on the reward in the Hartman Murder being increased to $35,000 he provided us with the unedited audio so that we could share it here on the blog.

We are pleased to bring you a longer conversation with Eugene Vent, who talks at length about how much the movement to free the Fairbanks Four has lifted his spirits, and of his gratitude for all of you!

A conversation with Eugene will always leave a smile on your face – his optimism is heartening, his laugh is contagious, and we are lucky to have one friend who can do that for is. It is a wonder that Eugene can be such a beacon of light from such a dark place.

Below, Eugene speaks from prison, where he has grown up. Where he was sent at an age that most young men are looking forward to getting their first car, to summer, to moving out of their parents house. Where he has pondered for a decade and a half the nature of injustice, of social segregation, the nature of racism, and the corruption of power, in the years where most young men are able to ponder such things on college campuses, or over dinner with friends. Where he was waited for the arc of justice to bend in his favor. All of this in prison – where he could grow into an old man unless this injustice is corrected.

Didn’t Do It – Poem by Eugene Vent

Eugene Vent, a short time before he was wrongfully convicted of murder.

Below is a poem by Eugene Vent. We included a picture of both handwritten pages and typed it for easier reading as well. Imagine the incredible grief and pain that would come from being wrongfully accused and incarcerated. All of the things you cannot do – hug someone, stand out in the snow and see the lights, eat a meal, run into a friend, hold a hand, see you home, your family, stand on the banks of the river. For Eugene that river would be the Koyukon. A few days ago I found myself heartsick for that sight – I haven’t seen it in a few years, and then it dawned on me that Eugene has not seen the places he yearns for in over 14 years. Freedom is everything….freedom is the foundation on which nearly all things in life are built upon. All things except, perhaps, faith. These four young men have seen nothing but injustice, have been the victims of the worst in people. Yet, there they sit, with absolute faith. Faith in destiny, in love, faith in the goodness of people, faith in their friends, family, supporters, faith in prayer, FAITH IN JUSTICE. So much of their strength comes from all of you. We were blessed with two successful fundraisers this week, and are blessed with incredible generosity from so many people. To hear their story would cause anyone to lose faith, but to see the legions of people band together and fight for them restores it. Thank every one of you who reads, donates, hopes, and prays for these men. It keeps their hopes high, their faith strong, and someday soon we hope it WILL bring them home where they belong.

                                           “DIDN’T DO IT”

                                            by Eugene Vent

“Didn’t do it,” that’s what I told the detective, but still he chose to put me through it.

“Didn’t do it,” told my mother and she believed me – continued to have my back like countless others.

“Didn’t do it,” I told my first lawyers. “Take a deal,” they’d plead, instead of fighting like warriors.

“Didn’t do it,” what I told the judge, NOT GUILTY what I pled…..and on that I’ll never budge.

“Didn’t do it,” I told my trial attorney and he told me it could end up being a very long journey.

“Didn’t do it,” I told the D.A., and also the jury…..when found guilty I felt so much fury.

“Didn’t do it,” I told the judge that was going to sentence me…ultimately got 48 years in the penitentiary.

“Didn’t do it,” what I told some antisocial human beings, they didn’t care because they’re heartless machines.

“Didn’t do it,” I told the Parole Board that continued me to 2014; just another chapter in the saga that I know will end in the freeing of the Fairbanks Four!

“Didn’t do it,” what I tell anybody who will listen and do something with it.

“Didn’t do it,” that is our story and we will forever continue sticking to it because the Truth always comes out in the wash.

Thank you so much for reading this, I always loved poetry and being able to create my own style in writing it. Thank you to everyone for cooperating in this battle and never quitting, even in the hardest times.

I believe in the efforts of all of you, I feel extremely confident it will pay off soon and we can finally get what we truly deserve……Freedom.

Baase’

Your Friend,

Eugene Vent

"Didn't Do It" by Eugene Vent, p. 1

Dead Man Walking – A Witness and Song Come Forward

“In times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

In the days and weeks following the murder of John Hartman many, many people who came forward to tell the truth were treated poorly by police, threatened, and terrified by their experiences. In barely veiled threats, some were even made to believe that if they stuck with their story they may become suspects in the murder as well.

“You keep asking me for the truth, I keep telling you the truth, I don’t understand…” cried one fifteen year old being interviewed. Incarnations of her fear, tears, confusion, and BRAVERY when being pressured to give up the truth and accept someone else’s lies are echoed in many, many interviews with the case.

Why? Because by telling the truth in a climate of deceit, these ordinary people were threatening to tear down all that the investigators thought they had built in the early days following John Hartman’s murder.

The police had a lot of things going for them in the moments, hours, and days immediately following John Hartman’s death. They had four men in custody, two of whom relented to some degree to the aggressive and relentless interrogation and had arguably implicated themselves in a murder. They had collected shoes and boots, pants and shirts, jackets and caps, and the alleged getaway car. All evidence was sent to a crime lab, and they likely expected the tests performed there to confirm their theory. Early, brief conversations with the a handful of the people the men claimed to have spent the evening with made it seem at least possible that all four of the men had been at the Eagles’s Hall at 2 am or shortly after. The police theorized that they had met up at that point, taken a short drive down the street, beaten and sexually assaulted John Hartman for being white, then parted ways. Perhaps they expected that as time went on more witnesses would come forward to confirm their theory. They announced that the crime was solved, and maybe they believed it was. A story of the beating appeared on the front page of the local paper, followed the next day by mug shots of the four arrested. And then, the station was flooded with calls. Witnesses did come forward, including one call that would throw the first of many, many wrenches into the case the investigators were building.

The call came from Melanie Durham, a resident at the women’s shelter adjacent to the crime scene. A house where women and children go to escape fists and feet and men that would hurt them. A place women go so that they do not have to hear children plead weakly for help. On the deck outside this place, Melanie heard a murder.

Melanie said that she knew what time John Hartman had been killed. She had been watching the Late Night with Conan O’Brien show that night, and David Bowie was the musical guest of the evening. She is not a Bowie fan. As he began his performance at 1:30 am, she stepped outside for a cigarette. As the door shut behind her, David Bowie played the first acoustic notes of his song for the evening. He played “I’m Afraid of Americans,” and  “Dead Man Walking.”

Melanie could not hear Bowie’s voice haunting the air inside, “I’m gone, gone gone, like I’m dancing on angels. And I’m gone, through a crack in the past…”

Outside the air was freezing cold and dead empty, silent. Melanie lit a cigarette. Then, she heard a smacking sound, a crack in the silence. A familiar sound. Violence had brought her to this place, she knew its soundtrack. She heard one smack, another, another. She heard a small voice plead for help. She heard darker voices respond without mercy. And then, a return to silence.

Melanie rushed inside, told a night shift worker at the shelter what she had heard. The two stood outside together for a moment, listening. They heard nothing. So, they did not call for help.

Inside, perhaps  David Bowie crooned the last of his song, “I know who’s there, when silhouettes fall…… and I’m gone..”

When Melanie saw the article about the boy in the paper, she called the police to tell them her story, to tell the truth. Her timeline was strong, and through it, police established that John Hartman was beaten to death in an assault that lasted the length of a song. 1:30 to 1:35am

This information changed things. All of a sudden, it was crucial to know about time, to the minute. Naturally, these investigators returned to their notes, the others they had interviewed, to verify that the four in custody had no strong alibis during those critical five minutes. But what they found, probably much to their surprise, was that all claimed to have been elsewhere at 1:30am. And initial interviews with the witnesses who had seen them appeared to confirm that claim.

So, they returned. More interviews, more people. People who would continue, by and large, to tell a very simple truth. Only this time they would be treated as criminals. As revolutionaries, threatening the powers that be. Because, when the police heard the truth, a time of deceit had already begun. These small truths were cracks in the theory, threatening to break apart the entire story.

In the days to follow we will provide details of the police interviews that came in the early days of the investigation, and letters from some of those who were interviewed, who have graciously and bravely agreed to tell their stories again.