Now that the Fairbanks Four have been released, Alaskans still have questions, like who killed John Hartman? And what’s next for the investigation?
Saturday evening, Fairbanks Police Chief Randall Aragon sat down with KTVA for what he says is the last interview he’ll give on the case of the Fairbanks Four.
“There’s got to be a calm,” he said. “A cloud has been hanging over our great city. It’s kind of going away.”
When asked if he believes the four are innocent, he didn’t respond directly, but said he stands by the police department’s actions, and the prosecution. And unlike what an attorney for the Fairbanks Four has said, he insists they are not exonerated.
“This is not an exoneration,” he said. “This is just, they’ve settled that we’re just going to vacate it and move on.”
Chief Aragon was in the courtroom Thursday, and explained the Attorney General vacated their convictions, and Judge Paul Lyle ruled he had the legal power to do that. He said they’re no longer convicted murderers. Now only the arrests will show up on their records.
“It’s like a person gets deferred adjudication for a traffic ticket, you know?” Aragon said. “You do well and [if] after a year you haven’t got any more tickets, the conviction disappears.”
But a speeding ticket and a murder charge are two different things. He said the settlement was based on many different factors, and whether they’re innocent or guilty “really doesn’t matter at this point.”
He said the settlement vindicates the police department and prosecutors, and the state released the four not because they believe they’re innocent, but because of political pressure.
“I’ve been doing this 37 years, been a chief for 27, never seen anything like this,” he said of the movement of supporters that’s only grown stronger over the last 18 years.
Unless they find a new viable lead, the investigation is closed. The settlement stated if new evidence was found that pointed to the group, they waived their right to a speedy trial and double-jeopardy, or being tried for the same crime twice.
“Whatever happened on that case, they’re no longer incarcerated. They’re turned loose,” Aragon said.
Now he says his focus is rebuilding a relationship that became strained 18 years ago. He proudly showed KTVA a photo on his office wall of Steve Ginnis, executive director of the Fairbanks Native Association, and himself, and a chief’s necklace that was a gift.
“We wanna build a bridge and walk across it all together,” he said. “And that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
As part of the “unprecedented” settlement, the four can’t sue the city or the state. But Chief Aragon said he wishes them well, and he’s confident with all of the community support they have, they’ll be able to find work and possibly further their education.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this report incorrectly identified a photo of Steve Ginnis as Victor Joseph, president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference. This has been corrected.