Author: Heather Penn
It was 2012 and I had just changed my major, once last time, to my latest passion, Journalism. I had signed up for my first journalism class with Brian O’Donoghue. It was then I first heard about the “Fairbanks Four,” Eugene Vent, George Frese, Marvin Roberts and Kevin Pease.
The Fairbanks Four are Native Alaskan boys (now men), wrongfully convicted of the 1997 murder of John Hartman.
Convicted in 1999, in large part to police compelled confessions and one highly intoxicated witness Arlo Olson. Professor O’Donoghue, the families of the accused and numerous supporters had worked tirelessly since the “boys” incarceration to prove they were innocent.
Our class had been looking at several cases in the media but none more closely than the Fairbanks Four.
The main witness, Arlo Olson, claimed that while at a wedding downtown he had witnessed three boys jump out of, what he believed to be, Marvin Roberts car and attack a man. Later that night in another part of town Hartman’s dying body lay still, having been beaten and stomped by unknown assailants.
Olson was hardly a credible witness. He made his claims to police even though he was admittedly intoxicated and over 450 feet away.
That night my class was to be a different sort.
It had been almost 15 years since the murder of Hartman. Professor O’Donoghue was looking for volunteers to meet downtown and reenact the incident that Arlo Olson allegedly witnessed. With a mild sense of interest and extra credit as an incentive I was the first to sign up.
Downtown was not where the murder had taken place so I hadn’t thought the scene would disclose much but, almost 20 years later I was about to find out how wrong my assumptions were.
We arrived outside the Eagles Hall where Olson had attended a wedding reception the night of Hartman’s death. We split into two groups, one staying put as the “Olson” witness and the others walking 450 feet to the scene were Olson’s alleged sighted the “Four.”
With similar variables in place such as time of year, weather and location the reenactment would be close to spot on.
I being part of the latter group started walking away from the Hall. A quarter of the way to our site I stopped and looked back, I could still make out who everyone was. I continued, stopping again at the halfway mark. Now, I was starting to have a hard time making out my classmates.
By the three-quarter mark any defining features were lost and at the final position, the people posing at the Eagles Hall were all but invisible.
I couldn’t even determine how many people there were.
It was then I became hooked. I followed the “Fairbanks Four” case and volunteered as much as I could to help Professor O’Donoghue.
I was able to film the retrial and subsequent release of the “Four” in 2015.
I felt a sense of compassion and relief the day four men were released yet I had no ties to any of them. This case tainted from the beginning left four innocent boys incarcerated for the rest of their teens and twenties.
Some believe it was race, compelled confessions, substandard police work or even a broken legal system.