Dead Man Walking – A Witness and Song Come Forward

“In times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

In the days and weeks following the murder of John Hartman many, many people who came forward to tell the truth were treated poorly by police, threatened, and terrified by their experiences. In barely veiled threats, some were even made to believe that if they stuck with their story they may become suspects in the murder as well.

“You keep asking me for the truth, I keep telling you the truth, I don’t understand…” cried one fifteen year old being interviewed. Incarnations of her fear, tears, confusion, and BRAVERY when being pressured to give up the truth and accept someone else’s lies are echoed in many, many interviews with the case.

Why? Because by telling the truth in a climate of deceit, these ordinary people were threatening to tear down all that the investigators thought they had built in the early days following John Hartman’s murder.

The police had a lot of things going for them in the moments, hours, and days immediately following John Hartman’s death. They had four men in custody, two of whom relented to some degree to the aggressive and relentless interrogation and had arguably implicated themselves in a murder. They had collected shoes and boots, pants and shirts, jackets and caps, and the alleged getaway car. All evidence was sent to a crime lab, and they likely expected the tests performed there to confirm their theory. Early, brief conversations with the a handful of the people the men claimed to have spent the evening with made it seem at least possible that all four of the men had been at the Eagles’s Hall at 2 am or shortly after. The police theorized that they had met up at that point, taken a short drive down the street, beaten and sexually assaulted John Hartman for being white, then parted ways. Perhaps they expected that as time went on more witnesses would come forward to confirm their theory. They announced that the crime was solved, and maybe they believed it was. A story of the beating appeared on the front page of the local paper, followed the next day by mug shots of the four arrested. And then, the station was flooded with calls. Witnesses did come forward, including one call that would throw the first of many, many wrenches into the case the investigators were building.

The call came from Melanie Durham, a resident at the women’s shelter adjacent to the crime scene. A house where women and children go to escape fists and feet and men that would hurt them. A place women go so that they do not have to hear children plead weakly for help. On the deck outside this place, Melanie heard a murder.

Melanie said that she knew what time John Hartman had been killed. She had been watching the Late Night with Conan O’Brien show that night, and David Bowie was the musical guest of the evening. She is not a Bowie fan. As he began his performance at 1:30 am, she stepped outside for a cigarette. As the door shut behind her, David Bowie played the first acoustic notes of his song for the evening. He played “I’m Afraid of Americans,” and  “Dead Man Walking.”

Melanie could not hear Bowie’s voice haunting the air inside, “I’m gone, gone gone, like I’m dancing on angels. And I’m gone, through a crack in the past…”

Outside the air was freezing cold and dead empty, silent. Melanie lit a cigarette. Then, she heard a smacking sound, a crack in the silence. A familiar sound. Violence had brought her to this place, she knew its soundtrack. She heard one smack, another, another. She heard a small voice plead for help. She heard darker voices respond without mercy. And then, a return to silence.

Melanie rushed inside, told a night shift worker at the shelter what she had heard. The two stood outside together for a moment, listening. They heard nothing. So, they did not call for help.

Inside, perhaps  David Bowie crooned the last of his song, “I know who’s there, when silhouettes fall…… and I’m gone..”

When Melanie saw the article about the boy in the paper, she called the police to tell them her story, to tell the truth. Her timeline was strong, and through it, police established that John Hartman was beaten to death in an assault that lasted the length of a song. 1:30 to 1:35am

This information changed things. All of a sudden, it was crucial to know about time, to the minute. Naturally, these investigators returned to their notes, the others they had interviewed, to verify that the four in custody had no strong alibis during those critical five minutes. But what they found, probably much to their surprise, was that all claimed to have been elsewhere at 1:30am. And initial interviews with the witnesses who had seen them appeared to confirm that claim.

So, they returned. More interviews, more people. People who would continue, by and large, to tell a very simple truth. Only this time they would be treated as criminals. As revolutionaries, threatening the powers that be. Because, when the police heard the truth, a time of deceit had already begun. These small truths were cracks in the theory, threatening to break apart the entire story.

In the days to follow we will provide details of the police interviews that came in the early days of the investigation, and letters from some of those who were interviewed, who have graciously and bravely agreed to tell their stories again.

“Time” – A Letter from Eugene

Human beings can feel honesty. Which is why this post is so important. There is much information about this case available. Transcripts, trials, interrogations, articles, and the like. And in those, you have to search for the truth. But in Eugene’s own words you can feel the truth. Not because he is the next great American novelist, not because he reaveals shocking new information, but simply because he is telling his story and you can sense that it is honest.

This case is complex and the details can be overwhelming. Because Eugene’s letter is specific to his night, here is some background for reference:

Eugene Vent left a a party at the Alaska Motor Inn on foot when the police were called by the hotel clerk. The hotel clerk had called repeatedly to ask police to break up a loud party in one of the rooms. They were slow to respond. So slow, in fact, that the clerk was eventually so frustrated that he called and falsely reported that one of the party goers had pulled a gun on him. The police responded immediately, and the kids at the party took off on foot. They caught one of them several blocks away – Eugene Vent. They then drove Eugene to the hotel clerk and asked him if he could identify Eugene as the gunman. He did. They also showed him a photograph of the clothes that John Hartman, now fading in ICU, had been found wearing a earlier in the night and asked the clerk if he recognized the clothes. He said that he did, and that the kid wearing them had been one of the partiers at the hotel.

Ultimately, all of those things were false. John  Hartman had not been at the Alaska Motor Inn that night (Read about his last night HERE). No one pulled a gun on the clerk, that story was a lie. The clerk did recant his statements about the gun reasonably quickly, but it was too late. His identification of Eugene as a gunman created suspicion in the police that Eugene may have been involved with the assault on John Hartman, and over the course of eleven hours police aggressively interrogated Eugene until he eventually made incriminating statements about himself and the three others. (Read Eugene’s Interrogation HERE).

There is a lot of information about this case out there. Transcripts, articles, news stories, interrogations, interviews, timelines, blogs, websites, and the like. But sadly absent from all of that information is the voice of the four young men to whom the cost of this case has been so real. Anyone can take many things from you against your will, including your freedom. But they cannot take your voice and they cannot take the away the truth.          No one can take your story. Below is Eugene’s story, written this October from the Hudson Correctional Facility:

“Time is what I took for granted early on in my life. I made decisions based on the fact that I would have plenty of time. On the October 10, 1997 I left my family to go drink alcohol with my friends from school. I drank beer, drank hard liquor, and even smoked marijuana. I attended a house party, a wedding reception, and last but not least… an Alaska Motor Inn party.

At this party there was a lot of noise and the clerk did his job by telling us to leave. We refused, and this clerk called the police before an altercation eventually developed in which this clerk sprayed my friend with mace.Immediately following this the police showed up; I chose to run…as did everybody else. My thoughts were I cannot get caught drinking again and that I could make it home without getting caught. Boy, was I wrong.

I got apprehended a few blocks away. But then things took a turn for the worst. The clerk accused me of pulling a gun on him and I was charged with assault in the third degree. I never had a gun on me and I didn’t pull a gun on this man. Of course this man was caught on tape telling a coworker that he lied about the whole story to the police, resulting in a not-guilty verdict. Needless to say, the damage was done and it changed the course of not only my life but of countless others…

I was seventeen at the time. I registered a .168 blood alcohol level and I was taken to the youth facility. Police had a busy night with assaults, robberies, and a kid was in the hospital on life support. The police had a hunch that maybe I was involved in some of these crimes so they came to question me, especially since the clerk said I had a gun on me and he also identified the clothes of the kid on life support as having been at the hotel party with us. Of course, I made things worse for myself by being defiant and even lying to the detective. The Detective exercised tactics of interrogation on me including lies, lies, and more lies. After a few hours I was confused, not sure of myself and even afraid of these accusations.

I ultimately (falsely) admitted to participating in the assault of the kid, who I later learned was named John Hartman. I also implicated my three co-defendents Kevin, Marvin, and George during these interviews. I feel ashamed to this day for letting this happen, but I am the one it happened to so I am responsible for my actions.

The next few days were a nightmare, but I knew that in no possible way was I responsible for these terrible crimes……No possible way!!!! I pled not guilty to all charges and even the judge dismissed the charges only to see them reinstated by the Alaska Court of Appeals.

I refused a deal offered by the State Involuntary Manslaughter and robbery in which the State wanted me to lie against the other boys. I had no hesitation in saying “No”  and I went to trial July 1999.

The trial lasted almost a month, witness after witness, no DNA evidence, alibi witnesses…my expert in false confessions was not allowed to testify… I believe that ruling changed the whole Trial.

I was convicted of Murder, RobberyX2, and Sexual Assault…all this with no physical evidence. My admission hurt, and eyewitness testimony from 550 feet away sealed my fate.  I was sentenced to 38 years, and at my recent parole board hearing I maintained my innocence in front of a Board that had the power to release me. I received a continuance until 2014.

Through all this, I still believe that time will reveal the Truth and that the four of us will be cleared of these convictions. I will say this, I’ve heard many names over the last fourteen years; so I strongly believe that the efforts of our supporters will bring the real perpetrators to light. I am so blessed to have so many people on our side, I cannot say Thanks enough. So many names, thank you for never giving up on us and believing in our innocence. Time will tell all the Truth. Thanks so much!!!

Thank You,

Eugene Vent


Can DNA Evidence Set the Record Straight?

Many prominent exonerations have come after Innocence Projects re-tested DNA evidence collected from a crime. Unfortunately, that is not an option in this case. The summary of physical evidence connecting George Frese, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease, and Marvin Roberts to the murder for which they were arrested and convicted is contained below:

That’s right – nothing. No physical evidence. Zero, Nada, Nothing. There are many points of this case on which people disagree and can present a compelling argument. The point of physical evidence is not one of them.

Perhaps, if we assume the best of the investigators, they may have believed during the earliest points of the investigation that they had the right men. Kevin Pease, for example, had blood visible on his shirt when he was questioned. He claimed that the blood was his from a nosebleed. Labs would confirm that was the case.

Police collected the shoes and clothes that George, Marvin, Eugene, and Kevin were wearing the night of October 12, 1997 and sent them to a forensic lab, most likely hoping or assuming that some physical evidence would link them to the victim. Nothing did. No blood, no DNA, nothing.

Police dismantled Marvin’s car looking for evidence that would at least place the four young men together in the vehicle. Nothing.

Despite the accusation that these four men had spent the evening together on an unprovoked spree of violence, culminating in the kicking/stomping murder of John Hartman, no physical evidence of any kind has ever linked them to the victim, the crime scene, or each other.

According to the national Innocence Project, eye-witness misidentification, snitch testimony, and false confessions are often the key ingredients to wrongful conviction. All of these elements would be used to build a case against the four. Missing from this case is physical evidence of any kind, the most reliable form of evidence, and in a crime of this nature, the most obvious type of evidence to look for in the search for the responsible parties.

It seems logical to assume that there was indeed physical evidence on the people who committed this crime. Unfortunately, such evidence was never collected. No other suspects were ever pursued in this case. The physical evidence of this crime probably existed in those crucial hours following the murder, on the shoes, vehicle, and clothing of the actual perpetrators. And it was probably washed away a decade and a half ago.

These four will have to proceed toward exoneration without physical evidence, a notoriously difficult and complex fight.


Introducing the Fairbanks Four

On the same evening that John Hartman lived his last night on Earth, four other young men also spent a normal day with their friends and families, with no idea as evening fell that October 10, 1997  would be the last normal day. No premonition that the night and early morning hours of October 11, 1997 would contain the moments that changed their lives forever; the line that now divides their lives into two parts –  before and after.

None could have possibly predicted that each movement they made would be scrutinized for a decade and more. Not one of the looked into the faces of those around them knowing that these friends, family members, acquaintances, and strangers were about to become alibis. That some of them would be threatened, that some of them would be courageous, that some would be afraid, that some would become activists, that some would sink into their sorrow. No. It was an ordinary night.

 The four boys knew each other. They were not close friends, but had all played on the same basketball team for Howard Luke, a predominantly Native high school. They did not spend the evening together, but each saw the others at least for a moment at some point that evening. The  times their paths crossed that evening they would not have known that soon they were to be each others only friends – the only familiar faces in a foreign place, and an all encompassing nightmare.

 The Four Were:



Marvin Roberts. Marvin was 19, had been valedictorian of his class that spring, a basketball enthusiast, a doting older brother to his toddler brother, and best friends with his sister. A gentle person. He was not a drinker, and unlike most of his classmates and friends, had a car.

Eugene Vent. Eugene was 17 that fall and a basketball enthusiast. He was funny guy, always smiling, and kind. He was young, and like many young men he drank too much and too often. He had, just days prior, revived a ticket for drinking underage. Like so many other teenage boys Eugene was finding his way from boyhood to manhood, a road not without challenges, but on the whole was a good guy.




George Frese. George was 20 at the time, and the oldest of the four. He was a doting father to his three year old daughter Tiliisia, and most who knew him at this time will talk first of his dedication to his daughter. George and his partner faced challenges common for teenage parents, but met most of them with grace. George did not drink often, but when he did he drank to great excess



Kevin Pease. Kevin was 19, smart, an athlete, and a kid who was doing his best to transcend hardships at home. His father had been murdered just a short time before this pivotal night. One friend, asked to describe Kevin, said “Fun. Brave. But if I had one word I would say fun. It was hard not to smile when Kevin smiled.” Kevin had had a series of small run-ins with the police. He was the baby of his family.

How they spent that fateful night:

Marvin spent the bulk of the night at a wedding reception, where many tens of people saw him throughout the evening. He was the only one of the four that did not get drunk that night. Earlier in the evening he cruised around aimlessly with a few friends, looking for girls. He gave a few people rides. No less that 10 people insist that they saw him dancing and mingling between the hours of 1 am and 2am.

That night, Kevin and Eugene went to a house party in the hills above Fairbanks. Their friend had the house to himself with his parents out if town, and the predictable party and mayhem followed. A house party full of people of course saw them at the party, drinking and mingling. Both Kevin and Eugene drank heavily; Eugene drank to the point that he blacked out much of the night. A sober driver eventually drove a car packed with teenagers like sardines back toward town. He remembers looking at the clock frequently he says, because he was nervous about getting pulled over with a car full of drunk teenagers out past legal curfew. He says that the arrived in town at about 2am. This is notable because it is a full half hour after John Hartman was attacked.

Once in town, they stopped by the wedding reception, and ultimately went their separate ways, with Eugene heading to a part in a room at the Alaska Motor Inn and Kevin heading home.

George spent the first part of the night at home drinking with some friends and his girlfriend Crystal. Three sober babysitters watched George and Crystal’s daughter while they visited with their company. Another sober friend, the late Patrick Henry, older brother of Edgar Henry, said he was with George and his little brother all night. He says that they left George’s apartment as a group at about 1:30am, and walked as a group first to a friend’ s house, and then to the large wedding reception downtown. He said his brother and George were so drunk he had to “babysit” them, and consequently remembers their actions that night well. He says they arrived a the reception at 2am, and were together until after 3am.

How did they become suspects?

Eugene was arrested first, walking home from the part at Alaska Motor Inn. He ran when the police car pulled up on him, which they considered the first indication of his guilt. In reality, he ran because he was a young drunk kid, and the police were behind him. Clearly, his whole life would be different if he had run faster.

Kevin was brought in next.  When he got home to is mother’s house, they had a huge fight, and he smashed up the house – punched Sheetrock, broke a few things. His mother called the police, a decision that she went to her death-bed regretting. He was a teenage troublemaker, already known to the police. When they realized he knew Eugene, a theory began to develop.

George was the third one taken. He woke up the next day still drunk and with a hurt foot. He was limping around in it complaining, and went to the E.R. to have it looked at. An ER nurse who had treated both the white boy dying upstairs and the Native boy with a hurt foot downstairs decided that the two patients were linked and alerted police. At some point the police did enough research to determine that George had played on the same high school basketball team as Eugene and Kevin. They came to the hospital for him.

Marvin was last. They showed up at his home, where he was sitting with an uncle, and took him in for questioning. During his interrogation he said he was innocent dozens of times, apologizing when an officer accused him of being disrespectful for saying it, and calling both officers “sir” through the entire interview, but never wavered for a moment in his insistence that they had the wrong person. Marvin was in that same yearbook photo, and probably the only one who had managed to get a car since graduation, and for the scenario that the police were building there had to be a driver.

A child was murdered at 1:30am, at which time four Indian boys were dancing at a wedding, walking to a friend’s house, and driving in a car packed like a sardine can. Yet, by the next morning the police are taking a victory lap for the local press, theorizing that these Indians probably killed the kid because he was white, or else that it is simply in their savage nature.

If you have read this far, you are likely left with nothing but questions, most of which boil down to why and how. If what we wrote above is true, and it is, why did they arrest these four men? Why were these alibis discounted? How were they convicted?

The answers can be long, or they can be short. The short answers are that they were arrested by chance, and guilty of being Native before the first question came. That they were drunk, terrified, with no idea what their actual legal rights were since they were not raised in the Law and Order culture, but the culture of Interior Alaska, where in the late 90’s most Native kids understood that once the cops picked you up whatever came next was up to the cops, and that resistance made things worse.

Their alibis were dismissed as not reliable, because their alibis were Indians. The D.A.’s closing argument was that, much like in the “I am Spartacus” scene, that Natives will lie for Natives, take care of their own kind, and can’t be trusted. Similar to the decrees long issued in this country that the savage is different.

They were convicted in puppet show trials by juries not made of their peers, with no physical evidence, and plenty of corruption. And the trials didn’t matter. Despite the fact that no one here had ever seen any prisoner from Fairbanks Correctional costumed that way before, they marched them out chained together and dressed in orange for their arraignment. The public defender of course voiced his shock and called it grandstanding, but it was too late. The picture was snapped of the four chained together in orange, and it would run beside the smiling school picture of a victim that could be anyone’s child in every early article and news story run in Alaska and was the stock image for years to come. And the story, see, made sense. It didn’t have to make factual sense to make sense in the hearts of many. The official statement may as well have been, “Four Indians savagely killed a child, because he was white. No one’s children were safe, but now they are. We are protecting you from a fear you felt but could never substantiate. There will be no further questions.” They didn’t come up with any motivation beyond hoping that the public would assume these four were just senselessly violent people.

The LONG answers? Will be here, in this blog, and are partially addressed in the links below. You do not have to take our word for it, because we wouldn’t expect you to, and because we don’t need you to. All we ask is that you remain, hear this story, and take from it what you will.

If you want to do further reading, please take  a moment to look at the work of journalist Brian O’Donoghue and the UAF Journalism Department Students via their website, or the “Decade of Doubt” series that ran in the local paper.