This story was first published in the Daily News-Miner on July 7, 2008
CONTENT WARNING: This series contains references to vulgar language and violent acts that may be objectionable to some readers and that parents may find inappropriate for their children.
Editor's note: This series is the product of a six-year investigation by former News-Miner reporter Brian O'Donoghue and his journalism students at University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Part two of seven.
FAIRBANKS—Melanie enjoyed reading in bed, but restlessness often sent her back to a television for company. The pattern held true at the local women's shelter on this Saturday in October 1997.
It was her 15th day taking refuge from yet another explosive relationship. Past midnight she hunkered down reading. Within the hour, though, she was back in the living room, watching Conan O'Brien's late-night show.
The show featured an animal trainer and a bunch of his critters. Hearing pop singer David Bowie touted as the next guest, Melanie, being no fan, lost interest.
Slipping on a heavy sweater, she stepped onto the second-floor balcony, an airy structure screened from public view by heavy lattice.
It was "Northern Lights cold," as Melanie put it during one of her appearances as a witness against John Hartman's accused slayers.
Hardly any traffic moved on Barnette Street, a main thoroughfare nearby.
Melanie briefly settled on an empty chair and had a few puffs. Then she climbed the outdoor stairs to the top balcony, which offered better vantage should the aurora dance.
Leaning on an upper railing, smoking, Melanie heard what she—a woman familiar with domestic violence—recognized as a "bad" smack.
The sound came from the direction of Barnette; trees and the roof of a neighboring building blocked direct view.
She heard another smack or slap, followed by a voice: "Help me. Help me."
"It was just really, really very scary," Melanie later said from the witness stand.
The faint pleas gave way to what sounded like damaging blows. "As loud as they were, it had to be extremely hard," she recalled, testifying at the trial of Eugene Vent, a 17-year-old whose confession provided early direction to the Fairbanks Police investigation.
She heard three, maybe four smacks. Then she heard another voice, deeper than the victim's. "I'd say older, and very intoxicated. And it had a Native accent."
Emotion colored that second voice. "I couldn't tell what he was saying, but it was in anger," she told grand jurors within days of the crime.
Her racial characterization drew questions when the case came to trial.
"There's no question in your mind, even though you could hear no words spoken? You know, distinct words," pressed defense attorney Dick Madson, "that it was a Native doing the speaking?"
"I heard a Native accent," the witness said.
Sounds of "horrendous punches" or kicks continued at what Melanie described as a measured pace, as if the assailant, or assailants, gave consideration to solidly landing each blow.
The pleading ceased.
She raced for the shelter office. "I said, 'somebody's getting beat out there. I said 'I can hear it connecting... it's really, really, bad.' "
The counselor on duty followed as Melanie opened the shelter's front door. The pair stood in the threshold, listening.
The street was quiet.
Returning inside, the counselor left summoning police up to Melanie, who shied from making that call. Her own domestic problems frequently ended with police at the door; several times Melanie had been the one charged.
She retreated to the balcony for another cigarette.
"I had a really, really, bad feeling, but I sat down for about five minutes to see if I did hear anything else," she recalled.
Passing cars weren't slowing down, which seemed reassuring. If someone down there needed help, she figured at the time, surely someone would notice.
About 2 a.m., Calvin Moses left a wedding reception at the Eagles Hall downtown. He drove to the Arctic Bar, a few minutes away. A Fairbanks resident born in the Yukon River village of Tanana and raised in nearby Allakaket, Moses knew he'd find familiar faces in the bar's Native crowd.
Moses stayed at the Arctic a half hour or so before departing with two women in need of a lift. Louise Lambert and her sister were bound for the Townhouse, a motel and apartment complex off 10th Avenue. Moses first swung by another apartment, where one of the women collected a few belongings. About 2:45 a.m., the trio cruised east on Ninth Avenue, passing the women's shelter.
Approaching Barnette, Lambert later told police, "I just had this flash of somebody lying on the ground."
Her eyes stopped on a prone form stretching across the curb into the roadway.
"Look right there," Lambert recalled shouting. "Look, look, there's a little boy."
Moses slowly rolled within about six feet of the stricken youth.
"I could see his breath was still coming out," the driver testified. "I could still see it in the cold air."
Moses thought the victim faced his car, but later he wasn't entirely sure. "He had so much blood on his head."
Lambert, in her taped interview with police, said nothing about blood. She mainly remembered wanting to help.
The others talked her out of it. "No, No," she recalled them saying. "Whoever did this might still be around."
That morning in 1997 no cell phone was available for calling 911, but the apartment wasn't far. They left to fetch help.
Pulling away, Lambert noticed the boy's pants appeared to have been pulled down.
"And it looked like he had either long underwear or boxer shorts on," she told police
"Man down" was the description accompanying the 2:50 a.m. ambulance call out.
That could mean just about anything. Most likely the call involved a drunk. Or so paramedic-in-training Mike Gho figured, drawing upon his five years as a local firefighter.
The ambulance took off from the Seventh Avenue building that was then doubling as Fairbanks Police headquarters. It was three blocks to the victim's reported location. The three-member crew reached the scene within three minutes of the initial summons.
They had to hunt for the victim. "It was kind of hard to find because the lighting was low and it was dark out," testified Gho, who described the ambulance run in detail at all three trials.
Once they found the young man, draped over the curb, the crew sought to determine if he was merely sleeping off a bender.
He didn't react to questions and shouts.
It was 8 degrees out, so hypothermia remained a possibility. Of more immediate concern, bruising and indentations were apparent on the patient's head, which rested on pavement by a small pool of blood.
"There was some kind of trauma involved," the medic recalled. "We didn't know whether the person got hit by a car, whether he was beat up, but it was obvious some kind of trauma took place."
The medics observed as Hartman straightened his arms and curled, a behavior known as "decerebrate posturing." The movements, symptomatic of head injury, were noted in the run report, along with his pupils' lack of response to a flashlight, another sign of cerebral distress.
Working swiftly, the crew cut away the young man's camouflage shirt pullover, exposing his chest for closer examination. Other than the bruises found about his head, the medics found no other obvious injuries. Using a "C-collar restraint" and a backboard to protect against neck or spine injury, they readied their patient for rush transport to the hospital.
Nearly two years passed between the "man down" incident and the Hartman trials. Though the medic acknowledged he didn't remember every detail, the victim's pants caught his attention. "Pants around knees," Gho had noted in his report alongside the patient's half-on-the-sidewalk, half-in-the-street position. The pants were corduroy, he added in court. It stuck in his mind that they were a "baggy type."
As the gurney was loaded, another medic advised dispatch they were dealing with a potential crime victim.
"ASSAULT, 9THAVE& BARNETTE," states the 3:04 a.m. entry in the Fairbanks Police activity log.
The ambulance crew naturally focused on caring for the victim—normal procedure in an emergency medical response—but inevitably disturbed a potential crime scene.
"Our concern, I guess," Gho explained in court, "was more on the patient."
• Tomorrow: Wild night downtown
Brian O'Donoghue is a UAF assistant professor of journalism. Former students Gary Moore and Gabe Scott contributed to this report.