Murder on a Winter Night

Although the story of the Fairbanks Four has roots in history, both recent and distant, the story we are attempting to tell begins in the early morning hours of October 11, 1997 with the brutal murder of a teenaged boy on a on a freezing cold Alaska night.

He was found alone, draped over a snow covered curb, bleeding, barely breathing, life leaving him. His pants were around his knees. He was transported to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital where he would die the next day. He remained unconscious and had no identification. It was many hours before anyone knew his name, but eventually the people of Fairbanks, Alaska would remember that name forever.

John. John Hartman. It is important to say his name singularly, alone. Partly because it is never wise to speak the name of the dead lightly, partly because it is wise to remember that there is power in a name spoken aloud. It reaches the living, and hurts them again. Touches them where they were hurt once, on the wound that never heals. It echos into the air and the wind takes it through leaves, past branches, to heaven, to the other side. The dead hear us say their name and we should never forget that.

He was just a boy, caught in the season of change, where you play at being a man because you almost are.  On October 11, 1997 he walked toward home one last time and something terrible happened. Feet and fists and hatred of unknown origins landed on his body over and over and over until he was very still, cast away and left for dead on the streets of downtown Fairbanks.

This is what we know of his last night on Earth, gathered primarily from newspaper accounts, police reports, trial transcripts, and the work of reporter Brian O’Donoghue alongside his UAF journalism students. Their detailed account of John Hartman’s last night can and should be read here. We have distilled it to the very basics below.

 John spent most of the evening with his two friends, EJ Stevens and Chris Stone, at the Rainbow Inn Motel. It is a place not unlike many across the country, and strikingly similar to a motel across town called the Alaska Motor Inn that also became a crucial location in the murder investigation. In 1997, both motels had dull gray exteriors, peeling paint, and bad reputations. The rainbow that dominated the sign at the Rainbow Inn made a mockery of the slum that waited inside. In 1997 it was known as a good place to score drugs, and a bad but cheap place to live. The floors were tilted and the carpet stank.

John’s friend EJ was there babysitting a toddler that night at the Rainbow Inn. John and Chris went there to hang out. It has been alleged that they took LSD, perhaps meth, and antidepressants, and that John had a seizure there. At the Rainbow Inn, and throughout the day, John was wearing very distinctive camouflage pants. This orphan fact has troubled many who followed the case closely enough to know that a short time after leaving the Rainbow Inn John would be found dying with his friend Chris’ corduroy pants around his knees, the camouflage pants missing. From the time that EJ, Chris, and John departed the Rainbow Inn, a countdown to his murder begins.

1:12am  When the parent of the toddler returned home, he was not happy to see that EJ had invited John and Chris over. He paid for the boys to take a cab to EJ’s house across town.

1:20am (approximately).  EJ’s mother watched the boys get out of the cab. Her son came inside and, she says, John Hartman and Chris Stone walked off together. Chris Stone claims the opposite, that they headed in separate directions, with John Hartman walking down the road toward the site of his murder, and Chris heading the opposite way.

1:30am John Hartman was beaten and viciously murdered at the corner of 9th Avenue and Barnette Street.

1:45am Chris Stone ran into Foodland, a grocery store a few blocks from the murder site, panicked, saying something about his friend being hurt. Around this time Chris left a terrified-sounding message for family friend Barbara Higgins. She tried for weeks to persuade police to get a copy of the message. They were not interested, and eventually it was accidentally erased.

2:50am A car full of people leaving a downtown wedding reception (a location that would become central to the investigation) found John Hartman barely clinging to life on the curb. He was not wearing his camouflage pants, but Chris Stone’s blue corduroy pants, and they are down around his knees. The motorists called 911 and John Hartman was transported to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.

6:30am After many hours of care in the ICU, and hours spent searching for his family who thankfully were located in time to wait at his deathbed, John Hartman was declared dead. At that moment John Hartman officially became a murder victim. He left this world for the next. The lives of his loved ones changed forever. The lives of many, many people changed forever.

There will be many future posts in which will discuss the flaws of the investigation, the way that racism appears to have figured into the arrests and convictions of the Fairbanks Four, what we see as corruption, and much more. But for now, we want to let the very sad story of what happened to this young man stand separately, as it should.

Keep in mind that we are not reporters, but activists. There is ample, incredibly detailed reporting on this case. Please visit Extreme Alaska to read a detailed account of John Hartman’s last day. You can also read details of Chris Stone’s movements, his testimony, the story of how he had suffered a similar and severe beating a few weeks earlier, and much, much more information than we could provide here in the Newsminer series about the case published in 2007.