In the United States, we believe that anyone accused of a crime will recieve a fair trial. However, anyone who has been wrongfully convicted knows a trial is only as fair as the investigators and prosecuters make it.
In 1997, four Alaskan teenagers were arrested and charged for the murder of a 15-year-old boy. After being wrongfully convicted, they were sentenced to prison. Almost 2 decades later, the truth about what crooked cops did during the investigation has finally been revealed…
Police Respond To An Attack
Just before 3 in the morning on October 11, 1997, the Fairbanks Police Department received a call about a 15-year-old who had been attacked in the street. When they arrived at the scene minutes later, they found the teenage boy unconscious on the ground.
The Investigation Begins
The 15-year-old, who was later identified as John Hartman, had been so badly beaten that the officers who first arrived at the scene rushed him to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. While doctors were fighting to save John’s life, police started looking for the person or people responsible…
A Noise Complaint
At about 4:30 a.m. that same night, officers from the Fairbanks Police Department were called to break up a teenage party at the Alaska Motor Inn. 17-Year-old Eugene Vent had been at the party, and like almost everyone else, he ran off when the cops showed up.
Waving A Gun
According to the hotel clerk, Eugene had waved a gun at him earlier in the night. So when an officer found the former high school player at 5 a.m., they detained him and brought him to the Fairbanks Youth Center, where they started interrogating him…
The First Arrest
When Eugene was arrested in the early morning of October 11, 1997, he was still drunk. A breath test taken at the time of his arrest showed he had a blood alcohol level of .158. Clearly, the 17-year-old was in no condition to answer the officers’ questions, but that didn’t stop them.
For the next 11 hours, officers fed Eugene facts about the attack, and even lied about finding his bloody shoe print at the crime scene. The cops hounded Eugene, who repeatedly replied, “I don’t remember,” and “I was drunk.” He begged to go home, but the police wouldn’t stop…
The Breaking Point
During the never-ending interrogation, cops even fed the 17-year-old the names of 3 other young men, Kevin Pease, George Frese, and Marvin Robert, who they claimed had taken part in the assault. Eugene was drunk and now hadn’t slept for over a day. He would have done or said anything at that point, and police knew it.
Hours after the interrogation started, Eugene finally broke down and gave police a muddled confession where he also named Kevin, George, and Marvin as his fellow assailants. Kevin and George had played on the basketball team with Eugene and Marvin had been the valedictorian of their class. They had no idea at the time, but the police were on their way to arrest them…
The Other Assailants
Each of the boys were taken into custody and interrogated like Eugene had been. Officers repeatedly fed them facts about the crime, lied about evidence that didn’t exist, and told them they have witnesses that saw them at the scene of the crime.
Taking Advantage Of Teenagers
George had an alibi but had blacked out the night before. He had absolutely no memory of what happened and police took advantage of it. Marvin and Kevin, on the other hand, had been sober that night and denied everything the cops were claiming…
Assault Turns Into Murder
The four teenagers, 3 of which were Alaska Natives and a Native American, were being held together in a Fairbanks jail after their interrogations. On the night of October 12, they were told that John Hartman, the boy who they allegedly assaulted, had passed away from his injuries.
The boys were charged with murder soon after even though they all insisted they were innocent. “We called a meeting, and we said we know we’re innocent and we’re not going to ever say that we’re not and take a deal,” Marvin said. “We’re going to fight this to the end…”
During the trial, the boys plead not guilty to the murder and sexual assault of John Hartman. Because there was literally no physical evidence that linked any of them to the crime scene, victim, or getaway car, the prosecution relied on witness accounts to prove their case.
At the trial, a woman claimed she heard the victim crying out for help and claimed she heard one of the attackers speaking with a Native accent. The state’s star witness, Arlo Olson, testified that he saw the four boys attack John Hartman. Olson was 550 feet away from the scene of the murder, it was pitch black, and he was high on drugs…
In 1999, all 4 boys were found guilty of murder and were sent to prison. Their sentences ranged from 33 years to 97 years in prison. “I thought it was complete bullshit. I thought it was dirty. They fabricated it to make it look how they wanted it to look,” said Marvin. “Those boys were railroaded,” said Don Honea, ceremonial chief of over 40 villages from interior Alaska.
Attempts To Appeal
The defense attorneys for the Fairbanks Four, as the boys have come to be known, filed appeals but they were rejected every time. In the meantime, the boys were trying to come to terms with what had happened. It wasn’t until years later, that the state’s case started unraveling…
The Star ‘Witness’
In 2002, Arlo Olson, whose testimony swayed the jury to convict the boys, came forward to recant his testimony. According to Olson, detectives threatened him with perjury if he didn’t say exactly what they wanted him to while on the stand.
However, the biggest breakthrough came when William Holmes, a convicted killer and former Fairbanks resident, confessed that he and his friend attacked the 15-year-old boy that October night in 1997. In 2015, a 5-week hearing was held and a state judge heard all the new evidence…
Instead of being exonerated, the Fairbanks Four were offered a settlement. They would immediately be released from prison if they all signed the settlement. By signing, however, they would agree to give up their right to sue the state for being wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years and withdrew their claims of prosecutorial misconduct. For Marvin, the choice was especially hard since he was out on parole for 6 months by that point. “It was an all or nothing deal. We all signed it, or nobody,” Marvin said. “All the cards were in the state’s hands. They’d been wrongfully convicted of a crime and had served 18 years, and they just wanted to be out with their families. The state knew that and took advantage of them,” says Victor Joseph, president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference.
Still Fighting For Justice
Ultimately, they all decided to sign the settlement, and have all been released from prison. Today the 4 men have all filed lawsuits against the city of Fairbanks for coercing their settlement which prevents them from suing for damages. “It is not good public policy to coerce a citizen to give up something valuable in exchange for vacating wrongful convictions and releasing innocent men,” their complaint says.