FAIRBANKS — Four months before he killed himself last year during a police chase on Airport Way, a Fairbanks man gave a police interview about the 1997 John Hartman murder that lawyers now want to use as evidence to help topple the convictions of the four men found guilty in the case.
In 1997, Takory Stern was 14 years old and living at the Alaska Motor Inn in downtown Fairbanks when a “hyped up” young man came in and talked about having just “jump(ed) a white boy,” according to a partially recorded interview Stern gave to police officers in March 2014.
A transcript of the interview was included in a recent court filing. Stern was an inmate at Fairbanks Correctional Center at the time on a 2013 evasion conviction and he made an appointment to give police information at an office at the Rabinowitz Courthouse. Police recorded only a short part of the interview.
In a three-page transcript of the interview, Stern gave few details and didn’t specifically name the 15-year-old Hartman as the white boy who had been attacked. But lawyers for the four men convicted of killing Hartman want to use the Stern interview because, if true, it would corroborate parts of an alternative theory of Hartman’s killing that blames a different group of teenagers — a group of five 11th-graders from Lathrop High School.
The third-hand admission by the “hyped up” man mentioned in the police tape could be excluded from an October trial in the exoneration case based on an evidence rule that excludes hearsay.
In their court filing last week, attorneys for Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts, George Frese, and Kevin Pease — the men trying to win exoneration in the case — submitted the Stern transcript and argued it should be allowed because Stern is dead and can’t, therefore, be called as a witness.
“In light of Stern’s untimely death and this case’s procedural posture, Stern’s statement must be admitted in the interest of justice,” the court filing states. “Four men have been incarcerated for 18 years for crimes they did not commit. In the interest of justice, Stern’s statement should fall within the residual hearsay exception.”
Three of the four men have been in jail since their convictions. Roberts was paroled this summer.
Stern died early in the morning of July 31, 2014. Recently released from jail at the time, Stern was a suspect in a domestic violence case the previous night and led Fairbanks police on a short chase on Airport Way. He reportedly shot himself during the chase.
Stern’s interview is one of several accounts offered as corroboration of an affidavit William Z. Holmes made for the Alaska Innocence Project in 2013 on behalf of the four convicted men. In this centerpiece testimony to the four convicted men’s claim of “actual innocence,” Holmes wrote he was driving around Fairbanks on Oct. 10, 1997, with Jason Wallace and three other classmates. Holmes said Wallace and his classmates saw Hartman walking alone on Barnette Street and got out of the car to beat him up.
The person Stern describes as saying he was among those attacking Hartman is also mentioned by Holmes as a participant.
Skeptics of Holmes’ account argue Holmes had nothing to lose in making the statement and that he had something to gain by writing the affidavit about the Hartman murder. Holmes is serving a double life sentence in California for two murders committed in a 2002 attempt to take over a cocaine dealing business. Wallace, who’s serving a 70-year sentence for a related 2002 murder, testified against Holmes in Holmes’ trial.
As they prepare for their October trial on the exoneration claim, attorneys for the men known by supporters as the Fairbanks Four have been assembling testimony that supports the Holmes’ narrative.
In addition to Stern’s account, there is a 2008 affidavit from Wallace’s high school friend, Scott Davison, who said Wallace admitted to him when they were in high school together that he was involved in Hartman’s killing.
Additionally, a former Public Defender Agency investigator reportedly told another investigator that Wallace said to him in 2002 that he was involved in the Hartman murder. Wallace reportedly made that statement as he was headed to trial for beating an Ester woman to death with a hammer. The account Wallace reportedly gave to the investigator matches parts of Holmes’ narrative but differed in details, including how many people were involved and who was driving the car.
Stern, the subject of last week’s court filling, gave the interview to three police officers in March 2014. One of those officers, Avery Thompson with the Fairbanks Police Department, previously had heard Davison’s account blaming Hartman’s murder on Wallace. But the 2014 Stern interview didn’t make a strong impression on Thompson, who said he didn’t remember it when he was deposed this year in the civil exoneration lawsuit.
Thompson said during depositions that he has conducted numerous interview with inmates who say they want to give police information. He said it’s standard practice for police to only record part of the interview. To protect the inmate, police don’t record background information about the illegal drugs business, but they turn on the recorder when specifics of a violent crime or property crime come up.
Contact outdoors editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.