First Moments of Freedom – Interview With the Fairbanks Four Part I

In the first of a three-part interview series with Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease, and George Frese, the men reflect on the first moments of freedom. 

 

Fairbanks fourFor over eighteen years George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts, and Eugene Vent languished in prisons cells, locked away for a crime they did not commit.

How many days does that add up to, one of the men wonders? This is the smart phone era, and with just three weeks of freedom behind them the four men have already learned that the internet can quantify almost anything. Seven thousand and nine days –  ten million, ninety-two thousand, six hundred minutes.

“And believe me,” Marvin says, “we felt every single one.”

fairbanksfourfreeThe four men, who were freed through a settlement agreement with the state of Alaska on the heels of a five week post-conviction relief hearing, sat down together for the first time to speak out about their experience and update supporters on their progress, answer reader and supporter questions, and discuss their lives since their recent release.

Eugene says it is important for the four to assure those who supported them they are doing well. “When we were there trapped in these cells hoping and praying, there were all these people right there with us in a sense. We felt that and I still feel that. They are such a blessing. An incredible blessing and I want them to know we are doing alright.”

Freedom, the four men agree, was on their minds constantly during their time as wards of the State of Alaska. “It was the thought that never went away,” George says. “It was the dream inside the nightmare. We kept faith and we knew someday we would be free, we just didn’t know when, or how. And the worst times, whether or not we could endure the journey there. But we knew it ended in freedom. But how? When? That was the thought that was always there sometimes in desperation and sometimes in anticipation. When?”

That question was finally answered on December 17, 2015, when a judge signed the settlement agreement from the State of Alaska that ended eighteen years of wrongful incarceration for the men. Freedom came like a flood, suddenly, and changed every aspect of the landscape of their existence. And just as their lives had been altered without warning all years ago, the doors to the Fairbanks Correctional Center opened in the other direction and the men walked free.

George describes the first moments of freedom in one word – “Surreal,” he says.

Kevin agrees. “You’re almost not even in the moment,” he says, “ it was like an out of body experience it was so surreal.”

Eugene contrasts the first moments of freedom to years of imagining the moment. “When I used to imagine our release it was always like more scripted,” Eugene says, “like a gavel comes down and we the judge ordered us unlocked, that’s how it was in my daydreams. But the actual moment was perfect. It felt so special, so comforting, just as it was meant to be. ”

Marvin had his custody altered to parole and had been out of prison half a year on the day of exoneration. He picked up his co-defendants in his recently purchased truck and they spent the first hour of freedom together.

Marvin considers the moment they left the jail together the moment of exoneration. “They unlocked the doors, unshackled them, simple as that. They let us all walk out the front doors and for the first time in eighteen years it was like things were as they should be,” he recalls. “Even though I had been out on parole, I was not a free man until that moment, until my brothers were free and we were exonerated. And I felt free, I felt light. Like a weight coming off my shoulders. The weight of being innocent men convicted, the weight of being out here waiting for them. It just felt okay for the first time in a very long time.”

After the men walked out the front door together, Kevin says they “drove around. We just cruised around. It was the first time we had been together in a car.”

Kevin shakes his heads at the irony.

“Isn’t it crazy?” he says, and laughs.  “Eighteen years’ worth of people talking about us riding around together, and here the first time we are in a car together it’s the day we are released after all that time as innocent men in jail. That was surreal too.”

After spending their first hour of freedom together the men went to the David Salmon Tribal Hall, a traditional Native community hall where supporters and community members had spontaneously gathered upon news of the men’s release. The hall was filled to capacity. Supporters of the men prepared a meal to feed hundreds within an hour of their release and were gathered to welcome them home.

George recalls entering together through a side door. “It was crazy walking in and you just see it totally packed.”, he says.  “There was just enough room to walk in with people all around. And I felt like right then at that moment we had come home. We were there two hours. So release, the hall, all of that was three hours total and it felt like one moment. I went from a cage, home. I can’t even describe it.”

Kevin takes an elongated pause before describing the welcoming at the tribal hall. “The sound,” he says, “I will always remember the sound. After eighteen years incarcerated and this limited number of sounds, it was like there was every sound in the world at once – voices, clapping, drums. Standing on that stage and looking at the smiles and tears, and listening to everyone applaud. And then maybe more than the noise was the silence. When we stood up to talk the noise was gone and the whole room was taken with this deafening silence. Looking out there on the silent crowd, just seeing our attorneys who fought for us, faces I ain’t seen in years. Seeing people smile, people with tears running down their face, knowing these people fought for us and brought us home, and we were home. That silence was powerful. Most powerful thing I ever heard.”

 

Donations are being accepted HERE to assist the Fairbanks Four in reintegrating. Their release conditions stipulated that they may not seek compensation for the 18 years of wrongful imprisonment.

 

 

 

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Can DNA Evidence Set the Record Straight?

Many prominent exonerations have come after Innocence Projects re-tested DNA evidence collected from a crime. Unfortunately, that is not an option in this case. The summary of physical evidence connecting George Frese, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease, and Marvin Roberts to the murder for which they were arrested and convicted is contained below:

That’s right – nothing. No physical evidence. Zero, Nada, Nothing. There are many points of this case on which people disagree and can present a compelling argument. The point of physical evidence is not one of them.

Perhaps, if we assume the best of the investigators, they may have believed during the earliest points of the investigation that they had the right men. Kevin Pease, for example, had blood visible on his shirt when he was questioned. He claimed that the blood was his from a nosebleed. Labs would confirm that was the case.

Police collected the shoes and clothes that George, Marvin, Eugene, and Kevin were wearing the night of October 12, 1997 and sent them to a forensic lab, most likely hoping or assuming that some physical evidence would link them to the victim. Nothing did. No blood, no DNA, nothing.

Police dismantled Marvin’s car looking for evidence that would at least place the four young men together in the vehicle. Nothing.

Despite the accusation that these four men had spent the evening together on an unprovoked spree of violence, culminating in the kicking/stomping murder of John Hartman, no physical evidence of any kind has ever linked them to the victim, the crime scene, or each other.

According to the national Innocence Project, eye-witness misidentification, snitch testimony, and false confessions are often the key ingredients to wrongful conviction. All of these elements would be used to build a case against the four. Missing from this case is physical evidence of any kind, the most reliable form of evidence, and in a crime of this nature, the most obvious type of evidence to look for in the search for the responsible parties.

It seems logical to assume that there was indeed physical evidence on the people who committed this crime. Unfortunately, such evidence was never collected. No other suspects were ever pursued in this case. The physical evidence of this crime probably existed in those crucial hours following the murder, on the shoes, vehicle, and clothing of the actual perpetrators. And it was probably washed away a decade and a half ago.

These four will have to proceed toward exoneration without physical evidence, a notoriously difficult and complex fight.

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Introducing the Fairbanks Four

On the same evening that John Hartman lived his last night on Earth, four other young men also spent a normal day with their friends and families, with no idea as evening fell that October 10, 1997  would be the last normal day. No premonition that the night and early morning hours of October 11, 1997 would contain the moments that changed their lives forever; the line that now divides their lives into two parts –  before and after.

None could have possibly predicted that each movement they made would be scrutinized for a decade and more. Not one of the looked into the faces of those around them knowing that these friends, family members, acquaintances, and strangers were about to become alibis. That some of them would be threatened, that some of them would be courageous, that some would be afraid, that some would become activists, that some would sink into their sorrow. No. It was an ordinary night.

 The four boys knew each other. They were not close friends, but had all played on the same basketball team for Howard Luke, a predominantly Native high school. They did not spend the evening together, but each saw the others at least for a moment at some point that evening. The  times their paths crossed that evening they would not have known that soon they were to be each others only friends – the only familiar faces in a foreign place, and an all encompassing nightmare.

 The Four Were:

                                                          

                                                           

Marvin Roberts. Marvin was 19, had been valedictorian of his class that spring, a basketball enthusiast, a doting older brother to his toddler brother, and best friends with his sister. A gentle person. He was not a drinker, and unlike most of his classmates and friends, had a car.

Eugene Vent. Eugene was 17 that fall and a basketball enthusiast. He was funny guy, always smiling, and kind. He was young, and like many young men he drank too much and too often. He had, just days prior, revived a ticket for drinking underage. Like so many other teenage boys Eugene was finding his way from boyhood to manhood, a road not without challenges, but on the whole was a good guy.

                                           

                                                                                          

 

George Frese. George was 20 at the time, and the oldest of the four. He was a doting father to his three year old daughter Tiliisia, and most who knew him at this time will talk first of his dedication to his daughter. George and his partner faced challenges common for teenage parents, but met most of them with grace. George did not drink often, but when he did he drank to great excess

 

 

Kevin Pease. Kevin was 19, smart, an athlete, and a kid who was doing his best to transcend hardships at home. His father had been murdered just a short time before this pivotal night. One friend, asked to describe Kevin, said “Fun. Brave. But if I had one word I would say fun. It was hard not to smile when Kevin smiled.” Kevin had had a series of small run-ins with the police. He was the baby of his family.

How they spent that fateful night:

Marvin spent the bulk of the night at a wedding reception, where many tens of people saw him throughout the evening. He was the only one of the four that did not get drunk that night. Earlier in the evening he cruised around aimlessly with a few friends, looking for girls. He gave a few people rides. No less that 10 people insist that they saw him dancing and mingling between the hours of 1 am and 2am.

That night, Kevin and Eugene went to a house party in the hills above Fairbanks. Their friend had the house to himself with his parents out if town, and the predictable party and mayhem followed. A house party full of people of course saw them at the party, drinking and mingling. Both Kevin and Eugene drank heavily; Eugene drank to the point that he blacked out much of the night. A sober driver eventually drove a car packed with teenagers like sardines back toward town. He remembers looking at the clock frequently he says, because he was nervous about getting pulled over with a car full of drunk teenagers out past legal curfew. He says that the arrived in town at about 2am. This is notable because it is a full half hour after John Hartman was attacked.

Once in town, they stopped by the wedding reception, and ultimately went their separate ways, with Eugene heading to a part in a room at the Alaska Motor Inn and Kevin heading home.

George spent the first part of the night at home drinking with some friends and his girlfriend Crystal. Three sober babysitters watched George and Crystal’s daughter while they visited with their company. Another sober friend, the late Patrick Henry, older brother of Edgar Henry, said he was with George and his little brother all night. He says that they left George’s apartment as a group at about 1:30am, and walked as a group first to a friend’ s house, and then to the large wedding reception downtown. He said his brother and George were so drunk he had to “babysit” them, and consequently remembers their actions that night well. He says they arrived a the reception at 2am, and were together until after 3am.

How did they become suspects?

Eugene was arrested first, walking home from the part at Alaska Motor Inn. He ran when the police car pulled up on him, which they considered the first indication of his guilt. In reality, he ran because he was a young drunk kid, and the police were behind him. Clearly, his whole life would be different if he had run faster.

Kevin was brought in next.  When he got home to is mother’s house, they had a huge fight, and he smashed up the house – punched Sheetrock, broke a few things. His mother called the police, a decision that she went to her death-bed regretting. He was a teenage troublemaker, already known to the police. When they realized he knew Eugene, a theory began to develop.

George was the third one taken. He woke up the next day still drunk and with a hurt foot. He was limping around in it complaining, and went to the E.R. to have it looked at. An ER nurse who had treated both the white boy dying upstairs and the Native boy with a hurt foot downstairs decided that the two patients were linked and alerted police. At some point the police did enough research to determine that George had played on the same high school basketball team as Eugene and Kevin. They came to the hospital for him.

Marvin was last. They showed up at his home, where he was sitting with an uncle, and took him in for questioning. During his interrogation he said he was innocent dozens of times, apologizing when an officer accused him of being disrespectful for saying it, and calling both officers “sir” through the entire interview, but never wavered for a moment in his insistence that they had the wrong person. Marvin was in that same yearbook photo, and probably the only one who had managed to get a car since graduation, and for the scenario that the police were building there had to be a driver.

A child was murdered at 1:30am, at which time four Indian boys were dancing at a wedding, walking to a friend’s house, and driving in a car packed like a sardine can. Yet, by the next morning the police are taking a victory lap for the local press, theorizing that these Indians probably killed the kid because he was white, or else that it is simply in their savage nature.

If you have read this far, you are likely left with nothing but questions, most of which boil down to why and how. If what we wrote above is true, and it is, why did they arrest these four men? Why were these alibis discounted? How were they convicted?

The answers can be long, or they can be short. The short answers are that they were arrested by chance, and guilty of being Native before the first question came. That they were drunk, terrified, with no idea what their actual legal rights were since they were not raised in the Law and Order culture, but the culture of Interior Alaska, where in the late 90’s most Native kids understood that once the cops picked you up whatever came next was up to the cops, and that resistance made things worse.

Their alibis were dismissed as not reliable, because their alibis were Indians. The D.A.’s closing argument was that, much like in the “I am Spartacus” scene, that Natives will lie for Natives, take care of their own kind, and can’t be trusted. Similar to the decrees long issued in this country that the savage is different.

They were convicted in puppet show trials by juries not made of their peers, with no physical evidence, and plenty of corruption. And the trials didn’t matter. Despite the fact that no one here had ever seen any prisoner from Fairbanks Correctional costumed that way before, they marched them out chained together and dressed in orange for their arraignment. The public defender of course voiced his shock and called it grandstanding, but it was too late. The picture was snapped of the four chained together in orange, and it would run beside the smiling school picture of a victim that could be anyone’s child in every early article and news story run in Alaska and was the stock image for years to come. And the story, see, made sense. It didn’t have to make factual sense to make sense in the hearts of many. The official statement may as well have been, “Four Indians savagely killed a child, because he was white. No one’s children were safe, but now they are. We are protecting you from a fear you felt but could never substantiate. There will be no further questions.” They didn’t come up with any motivation beyond hoping that the public would assume these four were just senselessly violent people.

The LONG answers? Will be here, in this blog, and are partially addressed in the links below. You do not have to take our word for it, because we wouldn’t expect you to, and because we don’t need you to. All we ask is that you remain, hear this story, and take from it what you will.

If you want to do further reading, please take  a moment to look at the work of journalist Brian O’Donoghue and the UAF Journalism Department Students via their website, or the “Decade of Doubt” series that ran in the local paper.