This story was first published in the Daily News-Miner on July 8, 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 Daily News-Miner reporter Brian O'Donoghue and his journalism students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, with support from the News-Miner.
Part three of seven.
FAIRBANKS—By 3 a.m., Alaskan Motor Inn's beleaguered night clerk sounded fed up.
"I have a party out of control in these rooms," Mike Baca informed police. "And they're nothing but minors, dude."
"We'll be over."
"And do you know how long that will be?"
The question earned a chuckle on the Fairbanks Police Department's tape of front desk calls that second Saturday of October 1997. "We've got a lot of things going on right now," a dispatcher said. "But we'll be over as soon as we can."
It was Alaska Permanent Fund dividend time. The $1,296 being paid to qualifying Alaskans turbo-charged downtown. As usual, the money drew shoppers into Fairbanks from surrounding villages. That fall, many timed their visits around the McCotter-Jones wedding.
The bride, Audrey McCotter, was a Fairbanks gal then living in the Norton Sound village of Unalakleet. The groom, Vernon Jones, hailed from Koyukuk, a small Athabaskan community overlooking the Yukon 290 miles west of Fairbanks. Friends and relatives streamed into town from virtually everywhere in between.
Permanent fund dividends had a dark side. The windfall unleashed a surge of disturbances associated with free spending and substance abuse. Within Fairbanks' criminal set, some took aim at "check nights," which brought people out on the town with wallets fattened with dividend bucks.
"Rollers call it the dividend season," said Chris Stone, who was 14 that fall, during his testimony at the third Hartman trial.
"Rolling people," he explained, "is an individual will come up to somebody, hit them or knock them out and take their money; it's strong-arm robbery."
Between midnight and dawn on Oct. 11, 1997, Fairbanks police were overwhelmed. Off-duty personnel were summoned back to work as the thinly staffed department grappled with armed assaults, street fights, robberies, domestic violence and drunken driving.
Then came the discovery of a battered teenager whose injuries commanded the attention due a homicide case.
Detectives reasonably concluded they caught an early break when the motel clerk reported his run-in with a pistol-waving assailant. Police had no way of knowing—in those early stages of investigating John Hartman's presumed murder—that the clerk's story expanded in each retelling, particularly during those first hours around the motel.
As Baca, the clerk, later acknowledged from the witness stand, a degree of "bragging" and "distorting" colored his boastful banter in the lobby.
"It was all part of the job," the clerk said. "I had to look like the tough guy."
By dawn, the clerk's claims had prompted the interrogation of a drunken teenager whose subsequent confession—later recanted—resulted in arrests and a declaration the murder case was solved.
Rash of robberies
Police logged Saturday's first assault 13 minutes into the new day. A theft and another assault call followed within 10 minutes. By 1 a.m., the night shift also chased reported burglary, DWI and disturbing the peace calls.
Strolling Third Avenue about midnight, Raymond Stickman spied three black teenagers running from a man sprawled on the sidewalk. The group fled in what Stickman later described to police as a "grayish" car, about the size of an older four-door Ford.
Police took about 20 minutes responding to a reported assault on south Noble Street. "Now the neighbor, a white male, is out in the parking lot in his underwear," a dispatcher relayed to the patrol car en route.
At 12:44 a.m., the officer at the scene requested an ambulance for a pistol-whipped victim along with backup. The man in his skivvies had fled inside an apartment building. "He's extremely intoxicated," the officer reported, "and was running around chasing a female with a firearm as well."
Police soon put a name to the suspect. "You guys use caution there," advised the station, "if we've got the right person, he's got an extensive criminal history, including weapons offenses and a couple felonies."
Approaching 1:30 a.m., police logged an assault at Arctic Bowl, followed by a reported robbery near the Eagles Hall.
Looking back, that robbery phoned in from the payphone at the hall, where the McCotter-Jones reception remained in full swing, looms particularly large. It marked the beginning of what police soon would term a "spree of random violence" that culminated in John Hartman's fatal beating.
Critics of the murder investigation likewise regard that 911 call as pivotal, providing as it does a time reference for Marvin Roberts' claimed alibi. If valid, that alibi undercuts the crime spree scenario, which depends on Roberts supplying a getaway car.
At the time, however, the station's night watch focused on south Noble, where a dozen-member Tactical Team was assembling outside the apartment building.
Force stretched thin
Approaching 3 a.m., domestic violence on the lower end of Fifth Avenue added to the shift's burdens.
"I need someone to come to the house and get my son," a woman pleaded on the 911 line.
"I need someone to come to the house and get my son," repeated Carol Pease, 47, gasping out the words between heavy breaths.
Her son, Kevin, was "freaking out," she said. He'd been drinking and had hit her.
Between the apartment standoff and other calls, more than a third of Fairbanks' commissioned police force was on the street. Two more officers were awakened at home.
"Can you come in to work?" a shift supervisor said, outlining the situation.
"I don't know," a sleepy voice replied.
"Please, please, please, we're short-handed," the supervisor coaxed.
"I guess I can come in for a little while."
By then, the Alaskan Motor Inn's night clerk had been seeking assistance for 30 minutes or more. In one call, he referred to "at least seven" people fighting in the street fronting the motel.
Police had no one to spare.
A motel surveillance video documented the clerk's growing impatience. Clad in a lumberjack shirt, black hair trailing behind his hunter's hat, 27-year-old Baca paced to and from the lobby window, then bolted from the office. Minutes later, he returned and reached for the phone. "Cancel that," he told police.
He'd chased those kids off.
A mother's regret
Updates kept coming on the family violence over on Fifth.
"Kevin Pease, 19 years of age," a dispatcher said, "has assaulted his mother, Carol Pease. He's supposed to be tearing up the downstairs apartment at this time. There are several warrants for his arrest."
Police were familiar with the family.
Six months earlier, Carol's estranged husband, John Pease, had been gunned down in a bizarre triple-homicide. Jimmy Ray Price, a 53-year-old Bible-quoting loner, calmly turned himself in after shooting Pease and two fellow boarders at his 18-unit rooming house. "Excessive noise" coming from the TV in Pease's nearby room had upset him, the shooter explained.
The victim's son, Kevin Pease, was just shy of 6-feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. He possessed a considerable juvenile record, including a past conviction for armed robbery, and a temper. A traffic stop that August added to the teen's reputation. Early Aug. 23, a patrol officer saw Pease roll though a stop sign. Additional citations came for the badly cracked windshield, using studded tires out of season, and evidence of pot possession: "To wit, a brass colored marijuana pipe with burnt residue."
Pease, whose driver's license had already been suspended, was bound for jail.
A final charge underscored his explosiveness. "Pease started kicking the driver's-side rear door, breaking the interior padding," noted the criminal complaint regarding the estimated $400 damage to Patrol Car No. 92.
Police radios now carried word of Kevin's flight from his mother's house on a three-wheeler.
About that time, officer Matt Soden heard, then glimpsed, a three-wheeler approaching his Tactical Team position from downtown.
"The vehicle appeared to speed up when it saw the police cars," he wrote in his supplemental report.
Pease eluded police and eventually claimed a spot on a friend's floor on Turner Street joining other teens winding down from the wedding reception. That night a friend noticed Pease trembling in his sleep; the prosecutor later attributed that to Pease's guilt.
Shortly before 3 a.m., an unconscious youth clad in a camouflage jacket was reported near Barnette and Ninth. "Ambulance crew states he's a critical trauma patient," a dispatcher soon relayed to police, along with a code signaling that the location represented a likely crime scene. "They don't know if it's a hit and run. Or an assault. Or what. They're going to have to transport."
Amid radio traffic about the Tac Team operation over on Noble, dispatch clarified the seriousness of that Barnette assault. The victim was a "possible 10-79," medics had warned, indicating the youth was expected to die.
Lt. Paul Keller, Fairbanks' chief detective, was summoned from home.
Years later, Carol Pease, the mother who called police on her son, frequently berated herself. "He (Kevin) was mad because he didn't get to see his girlfriend. I was mad because he woke me up."
From her perspective, a family row had escalated from harsh words and overturned plants to making good on an old threat. "I've been meaning to call 911 on you for a long time!" she recalled shouting.
Pease, who died several years ago, remained convinced her call caused police to eye Kevin for the murder. "It's just so stupid," she said, sobbing. "And it's all my fault."
Fresh-brewed coffee and an all-night supply of cigarettes, priced at $5 a pack, kept the Alaskan Motor Inn's lobby jumping. Baca, the clerk, ducked in and out; the motel phone kept him on a short leash.
Not far away, the McCotter-Jones wedding reception was breaking up. By 3:15 a.m., staff locked the doors at the Eagles Hall. Word spread of a party over at the Alaskan.
Baca's ongoing hassles with the crowd in Room 107 spiced the chatter captured in the surveillance camera's grainy black-and-white video.
"Now they're trying to get in the cab," announces Baca, gazing out the window. He provides a play-by-play as the drunken hooligans he had shooed from the room earlier seek to leave with the women who just checked out of Room 107. "Ha-ha-ha! Cab took off on them! They're standing there yelling at the cab."
The clerk and a friend kibitz by the window. Guitar riffs of a Neil Young song muffle the conversation, but the video shows the clerk motioning with one hand, as if shaking something. "Pepper them," Baca says, penetrating the background radio. "Give them a little pepper with their meal."
The phone rings. The clerk takes a message and leaves the lobby.
Young is still wailing about "the woman in you that makes you want to play this game" when Baca returns, heading for the phone.
"Hate to bother you guys," the night clerk informs police in a call logged at 4:19 a.m. "But, ah, those guys came back. And I have two of them I Maced that are out here. Yeah, they tried to attack me and I Maced them."
The assailants are sitting in the street, the clerk says. "I've got some of that s---- all over me, man," he adds. "I've got that s---- up in my eyes."
Baca heads outside.
"Mother f------!," he exclaims on his return. "F------ pulled a gun on me."
Everyone gathers by the window. "They're here," Baca says within about a minute, then rushes outside to greet police.
A few blocks south, the apartment standoff ends about 4:40 a.m. with a suspect's arrest.
Inside the lobby, the clerk shares new details about his confrontation.
"I said, 'You want to fight?"
According to Baca, the kid responded to his invitation by whipping out a gun. "That's when I, whooo!" He mimes diving toward a parked car, drawing laughs. "Threw a little dust behind the car."
Gunplay takes root
The gun figured ever more prominently in accounts of the police response. "I'd already called them like three or four times through the night," Baca told grand jurors. "The second I told them, 'Hey, I just got a gun pulled on me.' They were there."
That sequence doesn't jibe with the motel's video and the station tapes. Those indicate the squad car was dispatched as soon as the clerk reported being "attacked." The gun isn't mentioned until after the squad car's arrival at the motel.
Police had the video, yet two years later continued to echo Baca regarding the gun's role in the station's response.
"'I just Maced these guys. They tried to cap me,'" then-Sgt. James Geier described the clerk saying on the video, confusing the word "attack" with "cap," a slang term for shooting someone.
Vent's defense attorney, Bill Murphree, objected. "That's a mischaracterization of what's on the tape."
Vent stood trial in July 1999. By then, Baca, though only 29, suffered from a stroke and recurring seizures. He now recalled the squad car coming down the street when the kid in the parking lot pulled his gun.
Though Vent was acquitted of the alleged motel assault, the clerk's accusations hold lasting significance through the murder investigation.
Confirming a hunch
Keller retired within months of Hartman's murder. He now lives in Arizona, where he recently fielded questions about the case via e-mail.
"When Vent got picked up it seemed that it was logical that we should speak to him," wrote the detective.
"Mike Baca's ID of Vent did not have anything to do with the actual homicide investigation," Keller added. "He was reporting a separate incident."
Vent emerged as a murder suspect, according to the detective, when the "puzzle pieces" began providing shape to the investigation.
Police detained Vent at about 4:30 a.m. near Fifth Avenue and Barnette Street. The intoxicated teenager packed no weapon and, according to the arresting officer, displayed no signs of being Maced. Police fetched the motel clerk. From inside a squad car, Baca identified Vent as the gunman.
Amid the radio traffic on the arrest, Keller is heard speculating about possible connections with the unidentified youth savaged four blocks south._The detective cruised over to Alaskan Motor Inn, where the clerk recounted his troubles with Room 107.
The video shows Keller, who was unaware Hartman had spent the night partying across town, asking, "Did you happen to see earlier that there was a guy in brown camos?"
"Yeah, there was," Baca say, nodding affirmatively. "I know there was."
He took police to inspect the room.
Returning to the lobby, Keller directs the clerk to secure Room 107. "Maybe we'll take those beer bottles, something like that. I want to see if it fits together first."
Another officer present asks if this has to do with tactical team's quarry over on Noble Street.
Keller shook his head. "Same description of the guy we got," said the detective, alluding to the similarity between the kid Baca recalled and the Barnette victim's attire.
"I don't know if they're old friends or whatnot," he said of Vent's possible connection with the boy left for dead. "Maybe they were having a spot of trouble earlier."
• Tomorrow: Case solved through confessions
Brian O'Donoghue is a UAF assistant professor of journalism. Former student Nate Raymond contributed to this report.