Fairbanks Four file federal suits over their release terms
The “Fairbanks Four” freed after years in prison for the 1997 beating death of a teenage boy are suing the City of Fairbanks in federal court, saying the terms of their release two years ago were meant to protect officials who obtained their convictions against a backdrop of racism and corruption.
Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease and George Frese filed a U.S. District Court suit last week, following a separate but nearly identical filing earlier this month by Marvin Roberts. Both suits name the city, as well as Fairbanks Police Department detectives James Geier, Aaron Ring, Chris Nolan and Sgt. Dave Kendrick and up to 20 other unidentified FPD officers and supervisors.
The suits stem from the Oct. 11, 1997 death of 15-year-old John Hartman, whom the plaintiffs were found guilty of killing by a jury at trial. After nearly two decades behind bars and jailhouse confessions linking a different group of suspects to the crime, Roberts’ conviction was overturned and Vent, Pease and Frese were released under an agreement in which all four men agreed not to sue over their confinement.
The suits cite law allowing federal courts to address the “deprivation under color of law” of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. They seek declaratory judgments that the release agreements are not enforceable, as well as a jury trial to determine compensation and punitive judgments against the Fairbanks police members.
Statements outlining the suits allege that the plaintiffs – Pease is American Indian and the others are Alaska Natives, while Hartman was white – were “targeted by the FPD based on racial animus.” To that end, Geier, Ring and Kendrick performed “coercive interviews” with the men, only partially recording them.
“As a result of the coercive interrogation tactics, FPD was successful in coercing Frese and Vent to make false confessions, which they soon recanted,” Roberts’ counsel wrote.
The investigators also pressured witness Arlo Olson into saying he had seen Roberts and the others assault another man on the night of Hartman’s death, then leave in a blue two-door car. Olson committed suicide in Alaska Department of Corrections custody earlier this year, after apologizing to the Fairbanks Four for testimony which proved pivotal in securing their convictions.
The case occurred amid a wave of bad press for the department, the plaintiffs alleged, including a never-solved $500,000 theft of guns, drugs and cash from FPD’s evidence room discovered in early 1996. The city council spent 1996 and 1997 “trying to put out one fire after another in the FPD” according to the plaintiffs, who alleged that members had told then-police chief Mike Pulice to operate in a “gray area.” The mayor at the time, Jim Hayes, was later convicted on federal conspiracy charges of diverting charitable funds into the construction and furnishing of a church.
“Against this backdrop of rampant corruption, intimidation, and coercion, perpetrated and endorsed at the highest levels of city government, John Hartman was murdered,” counsel for Vent, Pease and Frese wrote. “The city used the Hartman murder to divert the public’s attention away from the various scandals enveloping city government. The police department was under enormous pressure to make an arrest and secure a conviction, by any means available.”
In addition, the suits note, Alaska Natives continue to make up nearly 45 percent of Fairbanks Correctional Center inmates despite the city’s population being just under 12 percent Native. FPD’s roster hasn’t included a single Alaska Native officer, either now or in 1997.
The plaintiffs outlined various pieces of potentially exculpatory evidence in the wake of the verdict which may have freed them sooner, including a confession from William Holmes to a California prison guard that he and four other men had killed Hartman. The guard relayed the confession, which became a centerpiece of the Alaska Innocence Project effort on the plaintiffs’ behalf, to Fairbanks police.
“[The unnamed FPD defendants] assigned FPD Detective Chris Nolan to follow up on Holmes’ 2011 confession,” counsel for Vent, Pease and Frese wrote. “FPD took no action for four years. FPD never shared Holmes’ 2011 confession with the plaintiffs.”
After Roberts was released from prison, he and the other Fairbanks Four members began seeking post-conviction relief in the case. A judge said it would take him at least eight months to fully evaluate their case, and in late 2015 the state offered to free Vent, Pease and Frese in time for Christmas after 18 years in prison – if they and Roberts signed away their rights to sue more than 50 government entities over their incarceration.
“Marvin’s signature on the release dismissal agreement was as coerced and involuntary as someone paying a ransom to a kidnapper,” his counsel wrote.
“The bargaining position of the parties to the release dismissal agreement was so exceedingly unbalanced that plaintiffs effectively had no choice but to sign,” the others’ counsel wrote. “Plaintiffs’ signatures were coerced and involuntary.”
Soon after their release, then-FPD Chief Randall Aragon stressed that the Fairbanks Four hadn’t been exonerated, saying future developments in the case didn’t matter because they had been “turned loose.” Aragon later apologized for his remarks, which he said came before he had been fully briefed on the agreement.
Teal Soden, a spokeswoman for current Fairbanks mayor Jim Matherly, said Thursday that city attorneys were examining the legality of the lawsuits given the release agreements signed by the Fairbanks Four in 2015.
"[The mayor] has full faith and confidence in FPD officers, and he appreciates the work that they're doing right now," Soden said.
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