What IS Kevin Pease? Ethnicity vs. Culture in the Fairbanks Four Case

KevinMompicSince the beginning of this case there has been a tremendous emphasis on race as it pertained to the crime itself and its potential impact on motive. We have caught plenty of heat for not shying away from discussing that, but is worth mentioning that we didn’t bring that emphasis here we simply exposed the opposing vantage point on it. The first articles in this case and nearly every one written since identifies the races of those accused very specifically.

Kevin is fair-haired and blue-eyed. His family has Crow in its ancestry, but it is not his dominant ethnicity, and at the end of the day Kevin would easily and always be identified by appearance and ethnicity as white. Reporters have expressed ongoing confusion as to Kevin’s ethnicity, and one reporter recently asked, “What is Kevin? Some articles call him white, some American Indian, but all of my interviews with the supporters would lead you to believe his is Athabascan.”

It is an interesting element of the case and one to which Eugene and some supporters have spoken directly. Ethnicity and culture impacted this case from many angles. Although this is not the most pressing or urgent issue in this case, it is thought-provoking and deserves to be addressed. This post contains their well articulated thoughts on the topic.

“I don’t like this idea that  outsiders get to define who we are for us. That’s up to us. It’s like Kevin isn’t Native enough for the newspapers, but he’s Native enough for the Natives, and he’s enough of an Indian to be stuck in here with us, right? Blood quantum and all, I think that’s just a way to control people. Tell them who they are. Our words in almost any tribe for ourselves in our languages mean, the people. It doesn’t mean, the people who BIA says are of the people. It means, the people who are of, basically, each other. Us. Kevin was raised with us, around us, he’s one of us, he just is. He’s as Athabascan as anyone can be right that word just means “us”, and I don’t like reading different in the paper. Like why do they want to always make that a big point. And I don’t care they call him white there’s nothing wrong with it not like its offensive  I just care they always want to make it like, he’s different. They don’t get it. But it’s always kinda like bugged me.” – Eugene

“The idea of adoption, in Athabascan culture, is an old concept. A lot of people were adopted in. The historical and cultural fact is that Athabascans never defined themselves in the way of birth order or pedigree. That is the white man’s way of thinking. It was never ours. Our generation isn’t seeing this some new way, we are seeing it the old way.” – Ricko DeWilde

“There is a critical and misunderstood difference between ethnicity and culture. Kevin’s ethnicity and his cultural identity may be different. His perception of his place in a community or culture versus the perception of the community’s view of him may differ as well. As in, Kevin may not see himself as culturally Athabascan while the Koyukon Athabascan community may see him as a member. To Kevin specifically he grew up with Athabascans through a series of events which he did not control as a young person which is not much different than a birthright. We are born into cultural identity in the sense that we are born into a specific culture. For many and most people this may align with their ethnic makeup and for some it does not. Through experience and sustained contact he was raised culturally Athabascan. Kevin does not look at a Native person and see a ‘Native.’ Kevin sees a person and often a person he knows through a relational concept of identity (again a concept which he was exposed to culturally). This is a tricky concept to articulate but I hope at least some blog readers can and will follow.

Fundamentally, Kevin is a cultural Alaska Native. At least, that is my perception of Kevin and I know it is widely shared in the Interior Native culture of Fairbanks in particular. Kevin for example is far more culturally Athabascan than an ethnic Athabascan who was raised by Swiss Italian American parents in New Jersey and never exposed to our way of life. That person is ethnically Alaska Native and culturally not. Those adopted in are more culturally a part of a society than those adopted out.

I want to find a way to make the frustration when it comes up over and over in newspapers that identify him as white or outside Indian understandable to any random reader. When, while that may be true from a genetic or ethnic perspective, it is dismissive to us as a culture to instruct who we can consider part of our people, and further dismissive of our individual value as just human beings. The emphasis on race in these publications does not have the goal of identification although that may be the stated goal or the only motivation consciously known to the author, the categorization on this level has to do with othering the subjects. The ‘othering’ of Kevin in the beginning of this case was important. The media and community were hung up on this notion of the players. They couldn’t make a sound case for the guilt of innocent men in a crime so they had to attack their essence as a way to attack their credibility based on the social psychological perception of the situation. They placed them into roles that met the social normative and were therefore more readily accepted. They made these human individuals into archetypes – Eugene the stupid savage, Marvin the savage nature, underscoring the notion that even cloaked in apparent assimilation (valedictorian, etc) there is a savage nature; a difference which is past skin deep, George as the wild savage, and Kevin was the disturbed race traitor who associated with them.  Then there did not have to be actual motivation the public would accept the motivation was simply their nature, so different from the reader. In reality these identities were a construct which had almost nothing in common with who these people were as individuals and was only an articulation of  racial archetypes.

An attack on the identity of a cultural group weakens the position of the group. It is psychological genocide, it’s a way of eliminating a culture to take away the group’s own right to define themselves. Kevin likely views himself from many angles and in many ways, and probably has a cultural identity that is dynamic and made up of all of these roles and experiences. But from my perspective, and I know from the perspective of many within the Athabascan culture, Kevin is a member of our community and culture. He understands the traditions, the nuances of the language, the social strata, the modern history, the interconnection, he just is one of us as a people, as a specific group of people in the world. And being allowed to define yourselves does not in any way take from a person or group’s right to discuss discrimination. Quite the opposite because in fact these parameters put on a group from without are their own form of discrimination, and a under-discussed racial microaggression.” – Misty Nickoli

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Big Bad Wolf IV – Who Killed Mohogany Davis?

Mahogany DavisWho would still be alive today if the right men had been arrested and convicted for the killing of John Hartman?

Often discussed in the realm of the innocence movement are the consequences of wrongful conviction on those who are wrongfully convicted. The pain and suffering, the damage to the justice system, the social ramifications for a false sense of justice, the difficulty of rebuilding a life after years of imprisonment – these are topics that the innocence movement gives great consideration. Less discussed is the effect it has to leave the guilty on the streets. As this case has progressed we have become more and more aware of that impact, and as the Fairbanks Four approach a trial date we want to recount as many of the damages as we can. The Fairbanks Four have lost pieces of their lives, years. But they have not lost all. Some have.

Three of the five suspects now believed to have killed John Hartman are currently serving long sentences for other murders. The other two have long criminal records for drugs and violence but remain on the streets. John Hartman was the first person they killed, but within five years the body count of their known victims had risen to five. Five murders which could not have happened if these men were arrested and convicted on the timeline that the Fairbanks Four were instead arrested and convicted of the crime. Teaka Bacote, Hakeem Bryant, Christopher Martin, Victor Torres, and Julie Ann Wilde would be alive today if the right people were arrested in October of 1997.

In addition to the known victims, there is the concerning list of the missing which surround these perpetrators. One crime to which they had distressing and memorable proximity is the killing of Mahogany Davis.

Mogohany Davis was a 21-year old mother of three, including a three-week old, when she ran bleeding and barely dressed into the parking lot of the Little Dipper apartments. She collapsed onto the pavement and a neighbor called 911. The call came in at 4:13am on May 11, 2002. Mahogany lived nearly two hours past the 911 call, and Fairbanks Police officer Jim Geier, who was instrumental in the Fairbanks Four arrest and convictions, was able to speak to Mahogany before she passed. An excerpt from a May 13, 2002 Juneau Empire article confirms that Mahogany did speak.

Sgt. Jim Geier said officers were able to talk to Davis before she died at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital about 90 minutes later.

“We did have the opportunity to obtain information from the victim,” Geier said. “We also obtained some information from witnesses and are pursuing leads.”

If Mahogany, barely clinging to life, was able to speak, what did she say? What would you say? Those unknown words have long unsettled her family, who believe she would have used her last moments on this earth to reveal the identity and motivation of her killer in an effort to protect her children as a final act. They are haunted by a troubling and lingering question – if one of the lead detectives on the Hartman crime heard deathbed revelations that named alternative suspects in the Hartman killing, would that story have died with Mahogany? If there were reputations at stake, would this young mother’s case be allowed to fall cold? It is a weighty accusation, and one that cannot truly be known. But what she said and why it did not lead to her homicide being solved weighs heavily on her surviving family. It is only know that she spoke, but because her murder investigation remains open, the contents of the file are confidential, and her family knows little more today than they did in the days after her death.

According to Davis’ mother, Rhonda Davis, the crime scene was horrific. The apartment opened to a short hallways that was splattered and smeared with blood.

Jason Wallace, 2004

Jason Wallace, 2004

The family believes Mahogany Davis was killed by someone she knew since there was no sign of forced entry. Mahogany was attacked in front of her three sons, aged 4 years, 20 months, and 3 weeks at the time of her murder. Mahogany’s youngest son was fathered by William Z. Holmes and she was a close associate of Jason Wallace. According to Mahogany’s mother, the oldest of the children described the assailant as a yellow-skinned black man. They also said her wounds were stabs, but did not appear to be from a knife. Wallace was arrested later in 2002 for attacking and killing a woman in her home with a hammer, and attacking and stabbing another man in his home with a screwdriver. They see parallels between these non-knife stabbing murders and the death of Mahogany. Rhonda Davis points out that Jason Wallace, longtime Holmes associate and convicted killer, has a “yellow complexion.”

Mahogany had a long relationship with William Holmes, was his ex girlfriend, and mother to his son. Her family believes Mahogany was killed by William Holmes or his associate Jason Wallace because she had information about them – either about upcoming large drug deals or their involvement with John Hartman’s murder, or any other incriminating information.

Today, Mahogany’s case is cold. No suspects were ever arrested, and if William Holmes or Jason Wallace were ever investigated, the Davis family was never informed. Local station KTVF 11 reporter Stephanie Woodard ran series on the Mahogany Davis killing called “A Look Into the Cold Case Murder of Mahogany Davis,” which we have linked to below.

Mahogany’s family yearns for justice and as much closure as that can bring. Please hold them and the families of other victims in prayer, because the wrongfully convicted may come home someday, but the victims of the wrongfully free will never return. They have paid a terrible price at the hands of wrongful conviction. In this regard the Fairbanks Four and their families are blessed, although their suffering has been significant and long, they woke up today with their lives, and although family may have to visit them through windows and in chains, they are still with us.

If any reader has tips about the murder of Mahogany Davis please do call Crime Stoppers at 907-450-6500.

Big Bad Wolf III – The Police Killing of Henry Kettendorf

badcop In 1994 the words “viral post” would have meant nothing. There was no status update, no like or share buttons, and to the common Interior resident, no internet. It was in this era that the Golden Heart City saw the height of city and police corruption and lived with violence against Native people by the police force as a social norm.

Activism and advocacy journalism in this time was not for the faint of heart. Gene George, then a resident of North Pole, Alaska, ran a small publication Athabascan Reports. He was known for reporting on controversial topics. Today we are posting Volume 5, Issue #1 of Athabascan Report titled “Fairbanks Cops Out of Control.” This issue contains a transcript of a conversation between two city police officers following the killing of Henry Kettendorf.

Kettendorf, a 32 year old Native male, was wanted on burglary charges out of Anchorage. He was unarmed and killed by a single shot through his heart fired by Officer Aaron Ring. Civilian witness accounts differed from the police report. Troopers investigated the shooting and concluded it was justified, although they also “declined to release their findings” according to a February 13, 1995 article in the Sitka Sentenial.

A coroner’s inquest was eventually held, and Officer Aaron Ring was represented by none other than former Fairbanks District Attorney Bill Murphy, who went on to represent Eugene Vent through a trial which ended in his wrongful conviction. If this constitutes a conflict of interest it was never disclosed. The death of Henry Kettendorf all but disappeared into obscurity after the coroner’s inquest found in favor of Officer Aaron Ring and FPD and has remained a topic of conversation largely through the efforts of a determined and controversial local activist.

Athabascan Reports published articles on this Kettendorf killing, but none were so controversial as the report below. In this issue, Gene George published the full transcript of a conversation between two FPD officers in which they berate the female reporter from the Daily Newsminer for publishing an unflattering article, calling her a cunt and bitch among other gender-specific slurs. They go on to make light of the shooting of Kettendorf, joking that they would not have tried to save him, but said “die, motherfucker” to him as he bled out. The two officers also discuss retaliation on the witness.

By this account, the last sight Henry Kettendorf saw while he was alive was Aaron Ring’s face, after Kettendorf cried out, “you shot me!” Officer Ring apparently answered, “Yep.” The men in the transcript think this is hilarious.

It is not fair nor logical for us to weigh in on whether the shooting of Kettendorf was justified. It appears that it was not – he was an unarmed man in a well-lit parking lot. But without complete information, which has proved difficult to find, we will withhold a conclusion. But the death of Henry Kettendorf certainly took place inside an unacceptable police culture. The fact that officers would speak about a person this way, talk of retaliation through inappropriate use of police power against witnesses, and that the climate in general was so destructive dispatchers felt the need to secretly record and expose officers, and that when they did, the tapes provided to the City Council and Mayor simply went missing, exposes a lot about the power structure in Fairbanks in the 1990’s. The events which led to the wrongful conviction of the Fairbanks Four took place on this same stage with all the same players. Rumor has it that shortly after this leak the dispatchers were fired and replace by the wives of Aaron Ring and Jim Geier.

Inside this climate people like Gene George reported these events when that was so much harder than it is today. We owe a debt to people like him.

Below, his work speaks for itself.

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Introducing The Big Bad Wolf I – Officer Clifford “Aaron” Ring

justicequoteThe decision to fight for the Fairbanks Four has not come without hardship. Many of us who chose to take a stand have, and will continue to, come under attack. One of the hardest things to do is speak out against people who we know are powerful, at least in the worldly sense. However, it is also one of the most important things we have done and will do. This is one of those difficult posts.

We are not fighting against an accident. We are not rallying against an injustice of coincidence. The Fairbanks Four were not the unfortunate four harmed by chance. They were the victims of deliberate actions taken by human beings. We do not believe that means they were forsaken by their maker or tossed aside. Instead, they came under the hardship they were born to bear, and we were given the responsibility of freeing them and exposing the anatomy of injustice in our hometown so that a greater good could come of it.

We have discussed some of the noteworthy corruption in a previous post HERE  and we do not plan to stop talking about corruption in this case until it is fully revealed, until those who committed the crime of deliberate injustice are exposed, and until amends are made to all who were hurt.

We will never be able to make a completely comprehensive post about the players in this case whose mistakes or deliberate actions led to this injustice. It is not possible to know the heart and mind, and therefore the intentions, of another human being. But we can tell you what we know and what we have been told about the men and women whose actions and choices paved the road to this injustice. It is not our wish to enact revenge on them. It is only our wish that the whole truth be known someday so that there may come a time when there is indeed justice for all.

We will post a series of pieces on individuals who played a critical role in the arrest, investigation, wrongful conviction, and illegal incarceration of the Fairbanks Four.

Clifford “Aaron” Ring

aaron ringIt seems fitting to make Aaron Ring first in the “Big Bad Wolf” recounting of the key players in the wrongful conviction of the Fairbanks Four. If this was a movie, he would be the bad guy. He was extremely active in the case, from the initial arrests to the court trials, and touched almost every aspect of the case.

George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, and Kevin Pease have spent most of the last 18 years in 5X8 concrete prison cells, often for 23 of 24 hours in a day. For the duration of their time in prison, and indeed since their arrests, all four have procalimed their innocence in a case that has long been one of the most contested and controversial in Alaska’s history.

AaronRingsHouseBy contrast, Aaron Ring lives here. The only thing these accommodations have in common is, of course, that both are funded by the State of Alaska. The retired FPD officer lives in Florida now on a comfortable pension where apparently he can wake up every morning, put his shoes on one at a time, eat breakfast, and apparently go about life with no outward betrayal of regret, if it is there at all.

The goal of this case-specific wrongful conviction blog has been to tell a wrongful conviction story in great detail to create a broader awareness of the issue at large and this case. We have long implored the public to come forward with any information related to this case and enter a public dialogue. What we receive in response to that request perhaps more often than anything else is information on or complaints about Officer Aaron Ring. We have had multiple source accusations of race-based hate crimes by Aaron Ring as a juvenile and young adult at Lathrop High School, two accusations of sexual assault on an underage victim, one while a uniformed officer and one not. We have had many unsolicited reports by people who had contact with officer Aaron Ring as juveniles that they consider abusive. These range from actual assaults (being thrown on the ground, hit, tripped, knocked off a bicycle, slammed on a car door, etc.) to pseudo-assaults (being cuffed in the back of a police car while the breaks are repeatedly slammed), to psychologically abusive contact. Keep in mind, these accusers all have one thing in common –  they were CHILDREN when these events occurred.

This is not the first time that dozens upon dozens of alleged adult victims of child abuse have come forward to finger an individual who held a trusted position in the community. The Catholic Church had a whole scandal. Teachers, boy scout troop leaders, favorite coaches, priests, pastors…….this is recognizable territory. A scandal tends to deepen as more and more alleged victims surface with their claims. In general, mounting accusations are often perceived as confirmation that there is after all “something to it.” We have all seen that before, and on our side of the internet we are seeing it again here.

We are neither qualified nor prepared to evaluate or determine the veracity of these statements. But we want to acknowledge that they have been made.

What we can document and verify is the conduct and speech on record by Officer Aaron Ring as he investigated the Fairbanks Four case, and we have. These pages ultimately together just tell a story, and Aaron Ring is a character that appears over and over. Here are some of the more stand-out moments of his conduct.

  • Aaron Ring lied to the people being interviewed and threatened them. He made up evidence, told people that their friends or families had placed them there or told the officers they were lying, threatened people with jail or other harm if they failed to agree.
  • Aaron Ring, according to multiple witnesses, turned the tape recorders off and on during police interviews. Ring used the times the recorder was off, according to these witnesses, to threaten them more directly, provide more extreme false information, or reassure them that if they just said what he wanted them to say it would not be a big deal. Alaska law requires interrogations be taped in their entirety.
  • When George Frese said, “I want to go home,” Aaron Ring claimed he had said it alone in an empty room. Ring would have been obligated to stop the interrogation if George (which he indeed did) asked to go home.
  • When Eugene Vent, drunk and only seventeen, said “I want my mama,” Ring downplayed the statement and continued with the interview.
  • Played the major part in some of the most harrowing interviews in the case, including Shara David, Edgar Henry, Antonio Sisto, Eugene Vent, George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts, and conducted the first interview with Chris Stone, which is “missing,” and with EJ Stephens, likewise “missing.”
  • Aaron Ring made a damning and misleading exhibit with the help of prosecutor Jeff O’Bryant. This exhibit was called “totally unscientific” by the only expert who saw it in trial, but he was not called to testify. The exhibit was not to scale, and consisted of an overlay of George Frese’s boot print overtop of a photo of the victim. The size had been adjusted to create an appearance of a match. The lab logo was left on the boot print, creating the misleading impression that the exhibit had been created by scientists.

We must preface the following with a statement that we have no comment as to the veracity of the accusations made below. We have no idea if the accusations below are valid, but can only report that the following accusations have been made against Aaron Ring in statements to us by others.

  • A woman contacted us to tell us that she had known Aaron Ring as a young man, from adolescence to his late teens. She was substantially younger than him and claims he sexually assaulted her on multiple occasions.
  • Several individuals claiming to have known Ring in high school have contacted us to claim that Ring was widely known as a racist, and was extremely and overtly racist against Native students.
  • A woman contacted us to tell us her now-deceased daughter claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Aaron Ring as a teenager and while Aaron Ring was on duty as a police officer. According to this woman, Ring made contact with her teen daughter and picked her up for underage consumption of alcohol, but agreed to let her go in exchange for sex acts, and threatened her with severe legal consequences if she did not comply. Her story was apparently taken and preserved by a local journalist.
  • A man contacted us to tell us that as a young person he was arrested by Aaron Ring and was physically assaulted during the arrest. The man claims that while he was in the back of the squad car Mr. Ring repeatedly and deliberately slammed on the breaks to cause injury to the him.
  • More than a dozen individuals have contacted us to report that Aaron Ring used unnecessary force.
  • A Fairbanks resident alerted us to the existence of the Henry Kettendorf case – a young man named Henry Kettendorf was shot and killed by Aaron Ring in downtown Fairbanks. The case created some controversy at the time. An eyewitness to the shooting described it very differently than the officers at the scene. A transcript was later published by reporter Gene George of “The Athabascan Report,” in which officers can be heard mocking Kettendorf, his death, and threatening to conspire against the witness to the shooting. After years of searching for this particular edition of the publication and finding it was removed from nearly every library in the state, we finally procured a copy.

There was a time when we believed, or at least wanted to, that this was all one big mistake. But the more information that surfaces about the case, the more it seems that the wrongful conviction of the Fairbanks Four was not a mistake so much as an event on a timeline of terrible deeds committed against the young and vulnerable of Alaska for minimal personal gain. We can choose to believe, and for now we will, that the actions that harmed so many were not so much intentional as they were the byproduct of a kind of thinking so ingrained that it produced great harm. If someone as a young person believes an entire race to be animalistic or below them it is not hard to imagine that deep seeded thought growing into a tree of injustice as the person’s schemas hardened and their power grew. Whether a source is corrupted or bad is impossible to say, but there is wisdom in the verse that says “Ye shall know them by their fruit.”

To change the landscape of our community or country as it relates to biased thinking inside the justice system it is not enough to attack the tree or judge the fruits, we have to ensure that the seeds of racism and bias are not sown into the minds of the next generation and find a way to articulate their visibility in our current social structures. There comes a point where an individuals intentions in a series of actions do not matter nearly as much as the fact that they were capable. In other words –  maybe didn’t know better. And if that is the case perhaps the people most responsible for the damage he did are those who surrounded him, knew better, and stayed silent.

Many children were harmed in the making of this wrongful conviction. The players in this game who moved them like pawns failed to calculate the outcome now at hand – they didn’t crush ALL of those children. Some persevered. Some found self-worth against the odds. Some of those kids didn’t fall into addiction,early graves, fold into the small town inside a small town and disappear into the familiar. Some did not bow down under shame. Some of them grew up. And they remembered.

As for Aaron Ring, accountability is not ours to assign. As is often the case, there is probably not as much peace inside the beautiful Florida home as there appears to be from outside. All we can do is wish him well, hope that if he indeed struggles with the demon of pride or racism or rage that he wrestles it and prevails, and that if he is guilty of any actions that were illegal that the justice system may find him and treat him fairly. After all, our wish is the same for him as it is for you, or for the Fairbanks Four. Justice for all.

Race in the Case – The Hartman Murder was a Hate Crime

bookertwashingtonJohn Hartman was killed in the commission of a premeditated racial hate crime.

 “A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, Congress has defined a hate crime as a ‘criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.’” – F.B.I.

According to William Holmes who confessed in detail to his role in killing John Hartman, he and four friends went out onto the streets of Fairbanks the night they attacked Hartman to physically assault Native Alaskans.

Holmes and his fellow conspirators “decided to go downtown and have some fun.” Their idea of “fun”?

Harassing “drunk natives by throwing eggs at them, or 2 or 3 guys from the car would jump out with the driver still in the running car and punch them. We’d laugh at them falling or a cigarette flying from their mouth upon impact. The thrill came from running away, speeding off and messing with these drunks barely able to walk.”

holmesletterOn the night that they killed John Hartman, Holmes describes patrolling downtown looking for Native victims. The group found at least one victim, but their attack was thwarted when others appeared on the scene. When they were unable to find the victim they were looking for – a vulnerable Native person walking alone – they decided to end their “fun.” Sadly, as they were driving out of the downtown area they spotted “a white boy” walking alone and decided he would have to do. The group fell on the young boy with no warning, knocked him to the ground, and kicked him into a coma that would prove fatal.

John Hartman was kicked and stomped to death with violence so callous it defies explanation. He was killed because five young men carried with them a racial hate so strong and dehumanizing that group beatings of vulnerable Natives was a form of recreation. John Hartman was killed by hate directed toward a race of people he did not belong to in life. But in death, he joined a long list of the persecuted. He is not the first boy to die at the hands of race-based violence, but he may be the only white child to die in the cross-hairs of racism against Alaska’s first people.

In the days after Hartman was killed, when his face and the faces of the young men wrongfully accused of his murder appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, someone bought that paper and brought it back to Midtown Apartments, where a group of people acquainted with the four accused gathered around to read in disbelief. An elderly woman looking over our shoulders said, “I bet they were looking for a Native boy, I wish they had found one.”

For the majority of Fairbanks residents the idea that a young person could be attacked at random and assaulted simply for walking alone was unfathomable. Yet, for another sector of the community, it was routine. The other side of the story in a community where violent beatings are a form of recreation, and a person’s ethnicity is what makes them a target, and in turn makes them invisible to the rest of the community, was that there was a legion of kids who were familiar with the attacks. Scores of boys who were on guard, who slipped into the bushes when a car approached, who ran like hell when they heard the sound of tires slowing down behind them because those kids knew it was the cops or the people who jumped Natives, and that both were dangerous. Kids who curled into a ball and protected their heads if they didn’t run fast enough. If they had found the victim they meant to find, maybe no one would have died.

Eugene. Eugene was walking alone that night. They wanted Eugene, but the timing was off.

George. George walked downtown the very same evening, and George was exactly who they were looking for.

Pick a name off the witness list. Pull a name from the wedding guest book. Nearly every person whose life would intersect with the wrongful arrest, trials, conviction, and decades long fight to overturn it was guilty of the crime of being Native that night, and it was hate directed at them that motivated the men who killed John Hartman. It was that same hate, woven into the fabric of the community and its institutions, which allowed for the immediate arrest and wrongful conviction of people who were guilty of nothing besides being Native.

This hate is alive and well, virtually unchanged since 1997. Ask any Native man if they have been physically attacked in the streets of Fairbanks at random, and you will hear the stories. Read the crime statistics, sexual assault statistics, human rights reports. Read. Open your eyes, look. Open any Alaskan Craigslist and word search the term “Natives,” and you will read the thoughts of the community members who carry this hate. The posts below are chosen at random, and simply some of the most recent posts on the topic in the local Craigslist. We include them simply as a reminder that this hate remains, and offer it as “proof” of racism to those readers who believe that racism does not exist, or that conversations about race undermine the credibility of our cause. We are not playing the race card. We are playing the had we were dealt.

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The newspapers continue to describe the assault as random, when in reality the assault that killed John Hartman was premeditated, and the motivation was racial hate. The fact that he was walking at that moment, at that intersection, that the men responsible had not been able to find their ideal victim, that the assault proved fatal – perhaps all of that can be considered the product of coincidence. But his murder was not random violence – it was very specific and intentional violence.

The two most common pieces of advice we receive in writing this blog are to avoid writing about race or John Hartman, because it makes people uncomfortable. But we are not here to make anyone comfortable, we are here to tell the truth. And the truth is, race was a huge factor in this case.CL6

Racial hate motivated the crime, it motivated the wrongful arrest and conviction of innocent young men, and it was the overtly stated factor used to dismiss the testimony of many witnesses.

John Hartman deserves justice. He was killed in hate and denied justice in hate, and that is not an acceptable legacy for a loved and innocent child. Nearly every person who speaks of this young man in life emphasizes his kindness and open-mindedness. He deserves better than this. His family deserves the truth. The community that rallied around his memory and his family to demand justice deserve the truth.

The answer to hate is not silence. The answer to hate is not fear. The answer to hate is not regret, grief, shame, and it certainly is not hate. The only counter to hate is love. So with love, we think it is time to start an honest conversation about race in this case, race in our community, and what we can do to change the future for the better.

Readers, we want to hear what you have to say. Leave a comment, tell your story, share your thoughts.

We heard the advice loud and clear to stay away from the topic of race so that people feel comfortable, and it reminded us how very important it is to make people uncomfortable. This post will mark the first in a series about race in this case, because if we can’t even say the words, we will never be able to change the story. We welcome contributors.

Appeals Court Reveals Second Murder Confession in Hartman Murder

In a ruling made public today, the Alaska Appellate Court has shot down the efforts of inmate Jason Wallace to keep his confession to the murder of John Hartman out of court.

Although the exact statements of Jason Wallace related to his participation in the 1997 murder for which the Fairbanks Four were convicted and remain incarcerated have yet to be revealed to the public, the ruling confirms that Jason Wallace made statements to “an investigator working for his attorney which, if true, would tend to exculpate four defendants who were previously convicted of the same crime that J.W. described.” Wallace, currently incarcerated for another murder and represented by Fairbanks attorney Jason Gazewood who was most recently in the news after being held in contempt of court, has fought the release of his confession since the Alaska Innocence Project entered them under seal as part of a Post Conviction Relief filing based on actual innocence on behalf of the Fairbanks Four. Marvin Roberts, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease, and George Frese were arrested and convicted of the Hartman murder in October of 1997. the four young men were convicted despite a wealth of alibi evidence and with no physical evidence of any kind linking them to the victim or each other.

Jason Wallace has been fingered as an alternate suspect in the Hartman killing since at least 2004, but a substantial statement related to his involvement proved elusive. Finally, in a sworn affidavit to the Alaska Innocence Project dated in 2008, high school acquaintance of Wallace Scott Davison detailed the statements about the killing Wallace had made to him just days after the murder. Davison was absolutely bullied and berated by the State of Alaska for coming forward.

According to oral arguments made during a recent misconduct hearing on the case, in 2011 William Holmes, a Fairbanks man serving a double life sentence in a California prison for unrelated murders, developed a relationship with correctional officer and chaplain Joseph Torquato. Holmes told Torquato about his life in Alaska and his troubled past. On December 5th, 2011 Holmes detailed to Torquato his role in the stomping murder of a young boy for which four innocent men were imprisoned. Torquato was so compelled by the statements of William Holmes that he went home the same night and used the internet to research similar murders in Alaska. He came upon the Hartman case, and the next day when he saw Holmes he asked him, “Does the name Hartman mean anything to you?” to which Holmes replied, “Do you mean John Hartman?” The inmate confirmed that the murder he had confessed to the previous day was indeed the Hartman murder. Torquato implored Holmes to come forward to Fairbanks authorities, but he refused.

The correctional officer then took the information to his supervisor and together the two composed what is now referred to in proceedings as the “Torquato Memo.” Torquato sent the written account of the confession by Holmes to the Fairbanks Police department. They forwarded it to the District Attorney’s office. Ultimately, neither party took action.

The State’s failure to disclose the confession of Holmes when first received was the subject of the July 30th hearing in Fairbanks Superior Court, where the state argued that the wording of the Code of Ethics as written in 2011 should have allowed the prosecutor to withhold the confession, although they conceded that such conduct would not be acceptable in 2014. They further argued that because the Fairbanks Four had been convicted by 2011 that they did not have any remaining constitutional due process rights.

Counsel for the Fairbanks Four argued that there were indeed state and federal constitutional rights violated through the withholding of the Holmes confession, and that the ethical obligation to disclose the confession was so clear that it was “offensive to justice” to have withheld it. Attorneys for the Fairbanks Four discussed the harm that had come to the four men’s case as a result of the State’s decision to hide the Holmes confession. Among other things, they cited the 2014 deaths of two witnesses who had heard confessions from Marquez Pennington. Had the State revealed the confession as obligated, the argued, the witnesses may have been alive to testify that Marquez Pennington made admissions in the case as well. This small comment was the first reference to yet a third confession – the confession of Marquez Pennington. 

A decision as to whether the actions of the District Attorney violated the rights of the men known as the Fairbanks Four is forthcoming from Judge Paul Lyle.

Despite the State decision to withhold the confession, it eventually came out. Holmes confessed directly to the Alaska Innocence Project. In 2012, Holmes mailed a detailed and handwritten confession to his role in the killing of John Hartman in which he named Jason Holmes, Marquez Pennington, Shelmar Johnson, and Rashan Brown. The five teenagers, according to Holmes, went out that night hoping to assault “drunk Natives” for fun, and after being unable to find the ideal victim happened upon John Hartman. According to Holmes Jason Wallace was the ringleader of the vicious assault, but all four of the other men he named attacked and killed Hartman, while Holmes served as driver. (Read the Holmes confession HERE). IMG_7092

The Holmes confession provided answers long-sought by the Fairbanks Four and their families and friends who for nearly two decades have insisted on their innocence. It also corroborated the affidavit of Scott Davison, and became the centerpiece of the 2013 Alaska Innocence Project filing for Post Conviction Relief on behalf of the men. Also contained in the filing were statements made by Jason Wallace said to “corroborate the confession of William Holmes.”

The statements by Wallace, potentially subject to attorney-client privilege, were filed under seal and it was never known if they would be made public. Jason Wallace can, and likely will, appeal the decision to release his confession to the Alaska Supreme Court, although it seems unlikely that they would opt to hear the case. The decision by the Court of Appeals only applies to the narrow issue of whether or not the judge CAN consider it for admission. It is still possible that Judge Lyle will not declare it admissible. It is possible that he may admit it and keep it confidential.

This wins a battle, but the war is long.

story1Whatever the legal meanderings of this case through the maze of a truly sick justice system, we have as much faith today as we did when we wrote our first post. The first time anyone ever used the term “Fairbanks Four” we used it with this promise beside it  –  “This is story of injustice, a plea for help, for understanding, and above all a story of faith in the power of stories, of the truth. Writing this blog is an act of faith, a testimony to the power of the truth, spoken, read. We may not be experts in journalism, in law, or many other things. But the contributors here come from Alaska, from a culture that has a long tradition of storytelling, and a belief that the truth holds incredible power. This is a long story, and we will have to tell it the old way, the slow way, in pieces as they come.”

This story is unfolding as we knew it would and know it will because we have known the ending since the beginning. This blog is still a story, told in pieces as they come. Today, this is a new piece of a long story. This movement is still a plea for help. We need you to share this story and do what you can to right a wrong.

Above all, it is still an act of faith and we have absolute faith in the good of people like you and the power of the truth.

State of Alaska Pulls Funding for Eugene Vent’s Attorney

obstaclesColleen Libbey, after 11 years working on one of the most complex and high-profile cases in the state of Alaska, has been removed from the case without warning.

This alteration in counsel, which the Department of Administration has attributed to budget cuts, comes deep in the midst of disovery, and days before Eugene vent’s scheduled deposition.

When the public defender’s office is too busy, conflicted, or otherwise engaged, the Office of Special Advocacy regularly assigns the work to private defense attorneys. It is a basic tenet of our justice system, so much so that it is incorporated into the Miranda rights…”If you can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed to represent you….” Colleen Libbey was assigned to Eugene Vent as a court appointed attorney.

Vent, the only one of the Fairbanks Four who had an ongoing active appeal at the time of the September 2013 Innocence Project filing, has had the same attorney since 2004. The litigation has dragged on these eleven years primarily because of delays and appeals within the system, and in part because of the complexity of the case.

When the Alaska Innocence Project filed their motion for post-conviction relief, the State immediately asked for an extension of just over seven months simply to review the case. By the time the case reaches court for the evidentiary hearing the original motion will be more than two years old. Although we have consistently found these extensions and delays to be extravagant, they are an appropriate measure for what kind of time the State of Alaska has determined is necessary for an attorney to prepare for even a singular action on the case. Now, days before he was scheduled to be deposed, and a handful of months before the evidentiary hearing, the State of Alaska has terminated Vent’s attorney.

The impossible task of preparing for a case in which the other attorneys have required years to gain familiarity is now left to Whitney Glover. Glover is a Office of Special Advocacy attorney, employed by the State of Alaska. Prosecutor Adrienne Bachman, in an interview with journalist Brian O’Donoghue, commented that Vent’s new attorney Whitney Glover currently has upwards of twenty other PCR actions pending and has repeatedly filed in other cases indicated that her “docket is so full she may not be able to meet deadlines.”

It is not uncommon for a public attorney to have an extraordinarily high caseload, and it is likely that Glover is indeed coping with a full docket, to which one of the most significant cases in Alaskan history was just hurriedly added.

It is impossible to know the motivations of the individuals who made the decision to remove Eugene Vent’s attorney from this case. The timing is so poor that it is difficult not to see the removal as strategic.

Other recent moves by the State seem equally strategic. The witness lists, for example. The State of Alaska did not include any information or clue as to the nature of the testimony of the sprawling list of witnesses they named in discovery. A move like this, as small as it may seem, is impactful. That means the Alaska Innocence Project, a tiny nonprofit with one attorney and limited funds, will have to investigate each and every name on that list just to know what the person may testify to. MY name, among other names, made that list. Right next to the kitchen sink….

Sometimes, the appearance of indiscretion is as good as the real thing. The State insists this is all a clean, above-board search for justice. Yet, it certainly seems like something else.

On this blog, we often refer simply to the State of Alaska. The state is, of course, composed of many branches, departments, task forces, offices, etc. That said, the State of Alaska is indeed an entity. State monies and priorities are delegated, and all of these many branches belong to the same tree. The State of Alaska through the actions of its many agents and agencies is engaging in a series of actions and deceptions which, if taken at face value, at best seem incompetent or reckless. If considered as a whole they seem strategic.

The State of Alaska was eager to share this figure as justification for the decision – in the eleven years that Colleen Libbey served as Eugene Vent’s counsel, Alaska spent $104,000.00 on his attorney. Roughly $25.00 per day that she worked on the case. Here is a figure they are not so eager to share – by the time the evidentiary hearing begins this October, the State of Alaska will have spent $896,400.00 housing him as an innocent man in prison. They will have spent about $3,585,600.00 incarcerating all four.*

As menacing as the incarceration figure is, there is another dollar amount we believe will be much higher. The figure that we would love to see, and one the State of Alaska has refused to share, is the total cost of the prosecution of the Fairbanks Four.

The State of Alaska has spent millions of dollars prosecuting, incarcerating, and fighting the release of Eugene Vent, yet suddenly cannot afford for him to have an adequately prepared attorney.

got thisWhitney Glover, Vent’s new attorney, deserves as much support and votes of confidence as she can get. Luckily for her, she is inheriting a lot of quality evidence, and above all will find herself fighting for the truth. There have been many moments over the last eighteen years where those close to the case and the four men themselves have come close to feeling defeated. It is not going to happen, no matter the obstacle, it can and will be overcome. We have learned that over and over – we have been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

Colleen Libbey – thank you, thank you, thank you for eleven years of work on a hard case you surely deserved to see come to completion under your watch. We appreciate every moment you gave.

Whitney Glover – we believe there is a rhyme and a reason to all things, and a higher purpose in this story. Congratulations on being the person our maker selected for the job, you must be the one meant for it. Fate brought you here, so it is here you belong. Welcome!

Read this story in the news!

 

 

 

*Costs of incarceration found HERE