A celebration and fundraiser for the men known as the Fairbanks Four — who were released from prison Thursday — was held in Anchorage at the Cook Inlet Tribal Council Sunday afternoon.
Event organizer Rodney McCord says the goal was to raise money for the men to buy Christmas gifts for their loved ones and to help them get back to life outside of prison.
“Eighteen years they spent in there, and who knows what happened?” said Annie Huntington, Eugene Vent’s aunt, speaking to the crowd gathered at the event. “They are smiling now, but we don’t really know what happened.”
Some have already heard stories about what it was like. Kevin Pease’s aunts, Debbie Leach and Billie Buckingham, say Pease, Vent and George Frese were recently told to sleep outside because the Anchorage Jail was overcrowded.
“Churches open up for the homeless at 40 degrees, and the jail guards are telling the inmates, ‘Just take your blankets and go sleep outside,'” said Buckingham.
It was Pease’s aunts that saw the men at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport last week and spread the word there was movement on the case.
“We got right on our phones, and Kevin knew everyone was going to know because he saw us taking pictures of him,” said Leach.
The men were freed without compensation from the state. While some are still outraged by the deal, Leach said Pease is just happy to be out.
“He said, ‘I know it’s going to be hard, I know it’s not going to be easy and even if my record’s wiped clean, there’s always that question of — Where have you been the last 18 years? What’s your work history for the last 18 years?'” said Leach. “But he says nothing’s going to be harder than the last 18 years.”
Family of the men say there’s a long road ahead, as they adjust to life on the other side of the prison walls, and all of the things that didn’t exist 18 years ago, when they went in. Leach and Buckingham say Pease has never used a cell phone, Facebook, GPS or online banking.
Huntington says the men are now in need of the community’s support to “free them from the potential lifestyle they could get into.”
“Justice is still waiting to be served,” Huntington added.
Leach says she’s sure there are many people wrongfully imprisoned in Alaska and says this case is an example.
“They had no evidence, and they had alibis, and they were still convicted,” said Leach. “That’s pretty scary.”
Sunday’s event featured food sales and a silent auction, which organizers say raised more than $7,000 for the men.