It was 2012 and I had just changed my major, for the umpteenth 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.” The four, Eugene Vent, George Frese, Marvin Roberts and Kevin Pease are Native Alaskan boys (now men), wrongfully convicted of the 1997 murder of John Hartman. Convicted in 1999, in large part to police coerced confessions and one highly intoxicated witness Arlo Olson. Professor O’Donoghue, said 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 downt
own 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 drunk and high and over 450 feet away.
This is where I come in. My class that night was to be a different sort. It was almost 15 years to the day of the Hartman murder. Professor O’Donoghue was looking for volunteers to head downtown and reenact the incident Arlo Olson allegedly witnessed. With a mild sense of interest and extra credit as an incentive I was the first to sign up. This was not where the murder had happened 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 venturing the 450 feet to the scene of Olson’s alleged sighting of the “Four.” With similar variables in place such as time of year, weather and location we set out. 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 was who. I continued, stopping again at the halfway mark. Now, I pride myself on having 20/20 vision but I was starting to have a hard time making out my classmates. By the three-quarter mark any defining features were lost. If I stared hard enough I may have caught glimpses of coat colors, though I can’t be sure. By the time I lay in our final pose, the people waiting back for us 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. The fall of 2015, I assisted with UAF Journalism’s video documentation of a five-week hearing weighing evidence of “actual innocence” put forward by Alaska Innocence Project. I cried buckets Dec. 17, the day charges against all four were erased, and Frese, Vent and Pease were released, This case, tainted from the beginning, resulted in four innocent Native boys incarcerated from their 20s, or younger, into their late thirties. Some believe it was race, coerced confessions, shoddy police work or a broken legal system that enabled such a gross injustice to occur.
I believe it was all of the above.