Let the Circus Begin – The First Days of the Hartman Case in the Press

For those of you that have read this blog from the beginning, consider for a moment that most of the events we have discussed here represent mere hours of real-time. If this blog took place in real-time, the victim in the crime would still be on life support in ICU, not yet identified. The evening news would come on with a picture of his badly beaten face, identifying him only as John Doe, and pleading with residents of Fairbanks to help identify the boy.

Eugene would be in Fairbanks Youth Facility, just beginning to sober up, no doubt terrified and confused from many hours of interrogation with the Reid Method. He would be spending the first of the more than 5,300 nights in jail to come.

George would still be in interrogation. Later that night he would go home, tell his girlfriend’s brother about the interrogation, how terrified he had been, that he felt like they had made him agree to a crazy story, that he was afraid. Then he would  lay down and let his small daughter fall asleep beside him for the last time.

Marvin would be at home with his mother, bewildered and shaken by his interview with police but confident that the ordeal was over, and with no idea that the police were coming to arrest him in mere hours.

Kevin would be at home with his mother and girlfriend, watching that broadcast, not yet aware that the police were already using his name in their theories and as a device in interrogations of others.

And in the press room of the local Fairbanks Daily Newsminer, the first articles about this case were being checked for typos. Headlines were being written. And as those first words went to press, the saga of the Fairbanks Four began in earnest, as did the decades long role of the media in this case.

Our next posts will be copies of the original newspaper articles in the case.

“In a sense, words are encyclopedias of ignorance because they freeze perceptions at one moment in history and then insist we continue to use these frozen perceptions when we should be doing better.”
– Edward de Bono

The first newspaper article on the case appeared on Monday, October 13th. The front-page article was titled “Teen dies in hospital after downtown attack” and contained little information. It said that four men and one juvenile were being held on $1 million bail, and that the motive for the attack was unknown. They promised details would follow the next day.

The next day, on October 14th, the case was front page news again, this time with details that ignited a deep and widespread rage throughout the small Alaskan city. Most of the details would prove to be fiction in the days and weeks to follow, but the damage was done. These details would be the ones that Fairbanks residents remembered about the case forever – these details would inspire randomized attacks on Native Alaskans with crowbars downtown in the days to come. These details would create a divide that may never be healed.

The headline of that article was “Attack called “random violence” and beside it was a picture of John Hartman, aged 13 in the photograph, kneeling in his Redskins Youth Football League Uniform.The caption of the photo was “Random Victim John Hartman.”

The article began with a sentence that no doubt made most readers shudder: “The 15-year-old boy beaten to death by four assailants early Saturday was kicked in the head at least 15 times and then sexually assaulted in what the police say was an act of ‘random street violence.’ ”

The article goes on to say that the four had attended a wedding reception, and that a string of random violent assaults began there and culminated with the fatal beating and sexual assault of Hartman. The article insinuates that the four were together, began a string of violent attacks at the wedding reception, attacked Hartman, and then attacked a hotel clerk. The article is short – very short  – with an astounding number of inaccuracies and contradictions. Among the most important:

1. The victim was “kicked in the head at least 15 times and then sexually assaulted.” In reality, there was no confirmation of any kind that there had been a sexual assault. The manner of death remained unknown, and the number of blows suffered remained unknown. The victim had been found with oversized pants near his knees(belonging to Chris Stone, the last person to see him alive), creating speculation among hospital staff that he may have been sexually assaulted.  Ultimately the medical examiner would state there was not evidence of a sexual assault. Other experts to review the report would agree that there had been no sexual assault.

2. “Paramedics found him lying in a pool of blood.” Although this is likely true, and corroborated by the statement of the college student Calvin Moses who found the victim, no photographs were taken of the scene. Police would later claim that there was almost no blood, or an “insignificant” amount of blood, and offer that as the explanation as to why there was no DNA evidence of any kind to tie the accused to the crime.

3. “The suspects confronted the victim shortly before 3 am as the teenager walked home from a friend’s house.” No one had described any circumstances surrounding the attack – there was no indication of any kind of confrontation. The victim was walking with a friend, and was not walking home from a friend’s house. More importantly, the assault took much earlier, near 1:30 am, and at a time the men had alibis. Read about that HERE.

4. “A key break in the Hartman investigation came when a hotel clerk reported he had been assaulted by three males in a hotel room.” Although the hotel clerk Mike Baca rapidly confessed to having fabricated the story of the gun-weilding attack, even in his original fictitious report he did not describe being assaulted by three males in a hotel room.

5. “One of them was Vent, who pulled out a handgun.” Eugene Vent did not have any altercation with the hotel clerk. No one pulled a gun on the hotel clerk. The hotel clerk admitted that he made up the story in an effort to get police to respond to a loud and out of control teenage party at his hotel. Security cameras confirmed there was no assault, and no gun. Read more about that HERE and directly from Eugene about that night HERE.

6. “Vent told police he participated in the Hartman assault…..” Read about Eugene’s interrogation and read the transcript of the interrogation HERE.

7. “Frese corroborated Vent’s statement…” Read about George’s interrogation HERE. Hear about that night from George directly HERE.

8. “No one tried to intervene but police have witnesses who heard the assault.” The second title of the story was “FATA:L ASSAULT: Witnesses.” No witnesses had come forward, and witnesses (plural) never did. One ultimately would, but her time-specific testimony would be upending to the police timeframe and theory. Read about her HERE.

9. The four suspects were “probably drinking.” Police knew that Eugene and George had been extremely intoxicated during interrogation, and also  knew that Marvin had been sober the night in question. The insinuation that they were “probably drinking” insinuates that they were together, drinking together, and indicates intoxication as a motive even though the police know it was not a factor that night for all four men. It also reinforces sterotype.

10. “All four defendants…attended a wedding reception at the Eagle’s Lodge.” In reality, only Marvin attended the reception. George was in the parking area at one point, Kevin was in a car that stopped at the reception, and Eugene walked through the reception briefly looking for a friend. The four did not attend the reception together, and three of the four did not truly attend at all. For more information, read their timelines.

11. “The first in a string of assaults occurred in the lodge parking lot.” No assault occurred at the lodge or in the lodge parking lot. Frank Dayton walked to the parking lot of the busy lodge after he was assaulted to get help. Read about that HERE. That said, there was a troubling amount of violence that night, with a car and suspects that did not match the description of the four accused. Read about them HERE.

12. “Some of the people at the reception attended a separate party at the Alaska Motor Inn.” This information is attributed to the hotel clerk, who would not have known if the hotel room party and reception were connected. They were not connected events. One was a wedding reception for a respected and responsible family, the other was simply a teenager’s party.

13. “20 people were drinking in one of the rooms.” There was never any indication that 20 people were present at Alaskan Motor Inn.

14. The article went on to identify Hartman as home schooled (in reality, he was not enrolled in school) and as a football player (he had not played on any sports team for more than a year). The picture used was out of date, exaggerating the contrast between the accused and the victim.

Ultimately, the article was little more than a fictional yet sensational story that would be repeated over and over in the community of Fairbanks until it was universally accepted as true. It was easy to accept that it was true, even though nearly all of it was embellished, because the story woven from half-truths and lies took advantage of racial stereotypes hundreds of years older than any of the people writing or reading it. Four drunk Native men killed a white all-American boy and raped him for no reason, he just happened to be in the way on a night when they were on a spree of random violence. Savage. Attacking children, white children, for no reason. Four on one. Merciless.

America created itself with the Declaration of Independence, which contains the following sentence: ” the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

The first newspaper articles on this case printed lies. Lies told by a bored hotel clerk named Mike Baca and  police Lt. Keller who was desperate to solve a crime and save face. The sensational plot line was never plausible, accurate, or backed up by facts. Yet, this story was accepted because it had already been written into this town. Into this country. In newspapers, hearts, minds, souls, history, the future. It struck a chord in a population with a bias, and in shock over a brutal crime, that bias blinded them.

The Fairbanks Four were tried and convicted in the newspaper October 14, 1997.

They were not innocent until proven guilty.

They would be convicted with lies and sensationalism a hundred times in the press before they were convicted with lies in a courtroom that had made its mind up long ago.

In a few short months, newspaper articles would begin to unearth inconsistencies in the case. Ten years after the murder the first ray of hope – the largest and most serious effort to expose the injustice the Fairbanks Four had suffered would be a series of articles, covering the front page of the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer for weeks in a row, just as the case had in those early days. But this series would focus on the many indications that the Fairbanks Four had been wrongfully convicted.

Perhaps they will be exonerated in the press a hundred times before they are exonerated in a courtroom, just as they were convicted first in the press.  Either way, the local press is one of the most compelling characters in this story, one that plays a fascinating and always-changing role – a character we introduce in this post and will write about many times before this story is over.

9 thoughts on “Let the Circus Begin – The First Days of the Hartman Case in the Press

  1. I wrote a letter to the Editor immediately after this story was published. In that letter I said that the News Miner was guilty of sensationalism and creating racial tension and that they were convicting these boys without any kind of due process. My letter won me a telephone call from the Editor who tried to convince me that the paper had no racial bias in reporting (while in actuality, the paper often reported stories involving Alaska Natives in a biased manner). He went so far as to tell me that he took my criticism as a personal affront because some of his “best friends” were Alaska Native. I wrote many letters to the Editor during the course of the trials, but most of them were not published.

  2. Yawn, give it up, they are where they belong. Doesn’t it seem odd that the stomping deaths has gone to zero since these thugs have been locked up? But you still believe that there was “another” gang of thugs cruising around that night, if they got away with one, why stop? Your claims of “whitey” keeping these poor “Native” boy unlawfully locked up is really getting old. They have been judged by a jury of their peers and duly sentenced by the law.I personally think of this whole “Free the Fairbanks four” is a black mark on our Native community and should stop. P.S don’t hate me for my opinion.

    • Hi Mr. Bowne,

      I would simply encourage you to read more. Those who consider this a wrongful conviction case number into the thousands – among them a huge contingency of attorneys and judges in this town, the National and the Alaskan Innocence Project, respected elders and leaders, the victim’s own family members, and many, perhaps most, of the people who have thoroughly reviewed the case. We do not hate anyone for their opinion, we simply encourage them to take the time to become well informed on the issue. Thanks for reading, hope you keep it up!

    • Also, Frank, please read the post “other crimes that night,” and consider that no, deaths by unprovoked beatings continued at an alarming rate until the arrests of several others. Information is power – seek it. The questions you ask are valid, but the answers are different than your assumptions.

  3. It really saddens me when people still think these young men are guilty.I read about this story everyday and I would wonder how these kids(at the time they were kids) could be found guilty.I spent many a sleepless night over this and I have never met any of them.As a mother I would think about how my son could be wrongly convicted and locked away from us.I do think that one day the truth will come out but these young men can’t get back the time they have lost.I Never fail to pray for them and the families.It must be so hard for them.

    • Agreed, Becky. I don’t think we have ever heard from someone who has read on the case extensively and thinks they are guilty, but the perception created out there still certainly lingers. It is easy to look at only the surface of this or any case and draw a quick conclusion. Thank you for your ongoing support and prayers, it means so much to these guys!

  4. They have no evidence for which they have done wrong they have no write to keep them in there, For sure the D.A or anyone has no proof of what they did they where all in differnt locations when they got them so how the hell are they supposed to know. They have no right! FREE THE FAIRBANKS FOUR!!!!! They shouldnt even keep them in there, They dont have proof or evidence for which it was them they all got picked up in different locations dosent that give them a freaking hint! They didnt do it, SO FREE THEM!!!!!

  5. I was in high school with all 4 of these guys. I remember being so upset that I just couldn’t understand how anyone could believe THESE 4 boys were even capable of such an act & that the “powers that be” weren’t just satiating our need for a finger to point. How do you ever pay them back for this atrocity? You CAN’T!!! You just CAN’T!!!

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