FAIRBANKS — Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle heard of two more alleged jailhouse confessions by the men who were convicted of killing a Fairbanks teenager in 1997 on Thursday. One was accepted without much issue while the other was challenged.

The two were presented as part of the state’s case to uphold the murder convictions of Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent as they seek a declaration of innocence. The four were convicted in three separate trials for the fatal beating of 15-year-old John Hartman in downtown Fairbanks in October 1997.

The first confession was retold by Chris “Sean” Kelly, the older brother of Hartman.

Kelly said he was in jail for a parole violation and confronted Vent while Vent was in his cell. 

“I found Eugene Vent’s room and kicked the door until he got out of bed and came up to the door,” he said. 

“He recognized me or saw exactly who I was and he said, ‘We didn’t know it was your little brother.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care whose little brother it is, you don’t go doing that type of stuff to other people’ and I went off on him.” 

Over the examination and cross-examination, Kelly said the rest of his memory of the event, just what else was said and the correctional officers breaking up the fight was unclear.

“Maybe it was a longer conversation, I just remember the beginning part where he said ‘We didn’t mean to kill your little brother’ or ‘We didn’t know he was your little brother,’” he said. “That did it for me in my brain. I don’t remember the rest of it. I was on a lot of adrenaline, you know what I mean? I was angry at the time also.”

When asked under cross-examination by an attorney representing the petitioners whether any of the new information about an alternate theory of the killing — that five Lathrop High School students killed Hartman — changed his mind about what he heard, Kelly said it didn’t. 

The second account of a jailhouse confession came from James Wright, who said he heard both Vent and Pease bragging about the murder in 2001. He relayed the confession to Alaska State Trooper James Helgoe later in the year. 

But the credibility of the claim was challenged and it’s unclear what Lyle, the judge, will do with it. 

Lyle heard about 20 minutes of legal arguments about whether or not the court would hear a recent video deposition in which Wright says he doesn’t remember the event because of memory loss.

Michael Grisham, a Dorsey & Whitney attorney representing Frese, objected to the admission of the video deposition because he said it was only a discovery interview and he would have asked questions challenging Wright’s claim of memory loss, thereby showing Wright to be an untrustworthy witness.

“It’s our position that Mr. Wright’s memory loss is feigned,” he said. 

Grisham also suggested that Wright’s credibility is generally poor because he has committed a handful of crimes that were based on not telling the truth. 

Lyle ultimately told the state to produce Wright, who special prosecutor Adrienne Bachman said has been an unwilling witness, to appear in court or take their chances and have Lyle review case law to decide on admitting it. 

Because of time constraints, Lyle allowed Helgoe to testify but noted that his testimony would only be accepted if Wright’s testimony was also allowed. 

In taking the testimony, the state played the 12-minute audio recording of Wright’s 2001 statement. 

In it Wright said that during a game of cards Vent and Pease were reveling in newspaper coverage of Roberts’ attempt to reverse his conviction, stating that they would likely be freed if he was freed. They said, however, that Roberts was just as involved in the attack as the others. 

“’Marvin was right there with us doing the whole (expletive) thing, doing every (expletive) thing right with us and just as guilty as all of us,’” Wright said of their alleged statements. “’George Frese was a (expletive) and didn’t want to get involved in that.’” 

Wright later added that both Pease and Vent had become tough and violent while in prison.

“They were proud of being accepted as murderers into the prison society,” Wright said of Pease and Vent.

Like other witnesses that the state has put forward, Wright in 2001 said he feared for his safety because of the statements he was making and he asked Helgoe to not have to do his time at the same facilities as Pease and Vent. 

However, it’s unclear what will happen to his testimony altogether. Lyle said he could rule on it Friday.

 

Evidence trail

 

The petitioners have a number of additional claims against the state, including a challenge that the original police work wasn’t thorough.

That came under question on Thursday, when former Fairbanks Police Department Detective Leonard Brown took the stand. Brown served as the evidence custodian on the Hartman case, responsible for collecting evidence under search warrants and cataloging everything that was collected.

He went over many details of how the case was handled and his involvement in searching different houses of the four men looking for signs they assaulted Hartman, such as blood, hair or Hartman’s belongings. 

He said he found no physical evidence such as blood or fingerprints to link them to the crime. 

Brown noted, however, that because of the cold, fingerprints would be unlikely to be found because of people wearing gloves and also because there’s little moisture in the air.

He also said that, with the nature of Hartman’s injuries and the subsequent autopsy work, there was little chance of finding any blood. He said blood on the scene looked like it had leaked out of an orifice such as the mouth or nose. 

“My hopes were nominal. I didn’t think we’d find any but by George we sure tried to look,” he said.

Questioning by Jahna Lindemuth, another Dorsey & Whitney attorney representing Frese, did reveal some gaps in the evidence gathering. 

Brown said Vent’s home was never searched, that the tire treads at the scene were never compared to the tire treads of the vehicle driven by person who found Hartman, that a cellphone found in Roberts’ car was never turned on or searched for calls or contacts, and that Hartman’s possessions weren’t searched or properly cataloged until years after he was killed. 

 

Wallace takes the stand

 

Jason Wallace, a former Lathrop student convicted of murder in an unrelated case , is expected to take the stand Friday to talk about claims that he and four other Lathrop students were responsible for the attack on Hartman.

The theory was put forward in a confession by William Holmes, who is serving a double-life sentence for a pair of murders that were done in connection to the murder Wallace committed. Wallace also allegedly made a similar confession nearly a decade earlier to an investigator working for his public defender. 

Wallace already took part in a deposition but claimed his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination throughout most of it. He has been given transactional immunity by the state for his testimony, meaning they’ve agreed not to prosecute him for anything from his testimony unless he lies on the stand. 

The hearing was expected to last through Friday but will continue at least into next week. It resumes Friday at 8:30 a.m.

 Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter:

@FDNMpolitics.