“Love one another and you will be happy. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.” ~Michael Leunig
Location became central to the investigation into the night of October 10, 1997. No location is mentioned more frequently in study of the case than the wedding reception that took place at the Eagle’s Hall that night.
A wedding is a time for celebration. The joining of hearts, of families, of paths. The beginning of children, futures, sorrows and happiness unknown – and a promise by two people to stick together through whatever may come. A wedding is a a time when people gather to witness love, to share in love, to be a part of that hopeful moment when two lives are woven into one.
We have spoken before about the pain and the shame that came with this case and how it touched so many in our community. When the Fairbanks Four were wrongfully accused, investigated, interrogated, and convicted of the murder of John Hartman, what should have been a night remembered as all brides remember their wedding was transformed into a criminal investigation. One wedding guest, while being interrogated for hours and hours, answered simply when he was being pressed about why he wanted to attend the reception, “Because Audrey is my family – because, I love her.” And it should have been love, after all, that was remembered of that night, without the shadow of pain and a complicated web of deception and hardship.
For Audrey McCotter and the late Vernon Jones, whose wedding became central to the Hartman investigation, there would always be something in the background of those happy wedding photos. No one knew, as they danced and laughed, smiled and cut cake, reunited with friends and family gathered there to celebrate – no one knew that this night would change lives. That a series of events was about to be set into motion that would change the Native community of Fairbanks and force the examination of society, of the concept of justice, and ignite a struggle to assert a place in it. That night, it was just a wedding between two people who loved each other dearly. Yet by morning, things had changed. In the police theory the Fairbanks Four were accused of having met up at the wedding reception, left briefly to commit a murder, and return to dance as if nothing had happened. On the day that her wedding announcement should have appeared in the local paper, Audrey’s wedding reception was referenced over and over in articles about a brutal killing.
Audrey speaks out below for the first time publicly about how her life intertwined with this case, about her wedding night, her personal struggle with the events that unfolded, and the heartbreaking loss of her late husband Vernon Jones.
We applaud Audrey for her courage. She is taking a brave step onto a new path. Knowing her personally I can assure all of our readers that Audrey’s hardships have made her a person of incredible strength and compassion. The gifts she has given to those around her after rising from the ashes of her own pain are incredible. We are grateful for her support, and humbled by the strength it took to share this deeply personal part of her life with the world. Here is her story, in her words:
My marriage began and ended in blood. Our wedding was in Fairbanks but we lived in Unalakleet so it was hard to plan long distance but we did it. A lot of special family members were there that are passed on now such as Teddy Luke, Morris and Thelma Thompson, and James Grant, Sr. My whole family and my husband’s whole family from the Koyukuk River area were there. We planned it during dividends so our family could afford to fly into Fairbanks to celebrate our happy day. It was precious to us, but that day has been remembered for something entirely different. It was October 10, 1997 the day John Hartman was murdered and subsequently when the Fairbanks Four were found guilty of murder.
One year and eleven months later my husband committed suicide. Life is not fair. I started a battle the day he died. I battled depression, alcoholism and thoughts of suicide. I’ve been sober eleven years now, I’m remarried, my two children are happy and healthy. I consider my life to be blessed and I’ve not only survived trauma but I’ve excelled.
I want the Fairbanks Four to rise from the ashes of loss and destruction and be blessed and excel as well, but they are still in the battle. I am no legal eagle, so my support of the Free the Fairbanks Four Movement will have to be my weapon.
Public humiliation and shame will now be turned around back on the courts. We did nothing wrong. I got married and my guests were happy young people celebrating with us. An important and less known fact is that Marvin Roberts, one of my guests at the reception, had a reputation as a responsible young man who was sober that night and he wasn’t known to get into trouble the way kids occasionally do. We will continue to celebrate when they all walk again as free men. I’m tired of death and injustice when it’s within our power to stop it. Treat others as you wish to be treated and we have not treated these four men well.
~Audrey (McCotter/Jones) George
We know this much is true: the story of the Fairbanks Four will ultimately be remembered as a story of the power of love and truth. Someday, a story of the enormity and power of love will be the one in the background of those wedding photographs, as it should be. It is love we fight for and with. Thank you Audrey for being part of the fight.