This story was first published in the Daily News-Miner on July 12, 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 7 of 7

FAIRBANKS—She wanted to believe the right people are paying for her son's 1997 murder.

But Evalyn Thomas had doubts.

"I do believe there were quite a few people not telling the whole truth," she e-mailed in April 2005. "Too many people with stuff to hide."

Thomas later described a recurring dream she and a friend shared following the murder. John Hartman's mother saw herself concealed in bushes behind Chris Stone, her son's 14-year-old friend. He was watching her boy's beating. And it had to do with something Chris had done.

"Who knows about dreams, but it still makes me curious that two of us had the exact same dream," observed Thomas in another e-mail from upstate New York shortly before she died in a four-wheeler accident.

The mother's living nightmare began early Saturday, Oct. 11, 1997, when a motorist came upon a teen sprawled unconscious over pavement and curb. Medics raced the unidentified victim to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. That evening, about 8 p.m., Thomas identified the 15-year-old on life support as her son.

Within hours, police received the first tips about Stone, the last person seen with Hartman prior to the crime.

Police heard two teens describe Stone's controlling influence over Hartman during a party at Noah's Rainbow Inn. An older family friend urged police to investigate Stone's own recent beating.

But detectives already had a group of suspects, backed by two confessions. By the time Hartman died that Sunday evening, police were moving to arrest four current and former basketball players from Howard Luke Academy, Fairbanks' largely Alaska Native alternative high school.

Hartman's last night out received little attention.

Two of the arrested young men — Eugene Vent and George Frese — later recanted their confessions. Other evidence gathered against the group of four was mainly circumstantial. Three Anchorage juries, weighing evidence against the various suspects in separate trials, each returned guilty verdicts before anyone learned of Stone's attention-drawing actions while his friend lay dying on a nearby street.

Courts still ponder that point a decade later.

'Known to run'

As Hartman lingered in a coma that Saturday night, police investigator Peggy Sullivan heard friends describe Hartman slumping onto the motel room floor in an apparent seizure. Band mate Trent Mueller told her he urged Hartman to leave with him. But Hartman elected to stay with Stone and the latter's friend, Elijah "EJ" Stephens.

Mueller didn't like the influence the pair seemed to hold, according to the police report. "John was just sitting there with Chris and EJ, just dazed," he said, "just like he was a robot and they were controlling his body."

Sullivan also noted that Mueller referred to Stone as a "crack head" who had recently suffered a beating.

Earlier that morning, Stone had left a message at Barbara Ann Higgins' home, pleading for a place to stay. The 41-year-old bartender found the message on her answering machine when she arrived home from El Sombrero, a restaurant and tavern where she worked with Stone's mom.

The teenager and his mom were often at odds, and it wasn't unusual for Chris to bunk at Higgins' place. But this was the first time he had called in advance, and the tone of the message concerned her. Though it was late, Higgins called Stone's mom. She was curtly informed the teen was already home.

The following evening, Thomas' boyfriend called Higgins from the hospital relaying the news about Hartman. Higgins knew he was Stone's friend. Aware that Chris had recently suffered a beating that sent him to the hospital, she wondered if the two assaults might be connected.

After work that Sunday, about 1 a.m., she visited police headquarters and made a full-page, hand-written report. "I have some names in Chris' assault that will probably be included in this case," she wrote.

"Chris is known to run away," she added. "So if he thinks he's in trouble, he will."

Higgins preserved Stone's recorded message for at least two months. Police didn't follow up, she later testified, and a power failure erased it.

Detective Aaron Ring, chief investigator on the Hartman case, later said in court he didn't recall seeing Higgins' written statement or the Alaska State Troopers report on Stone's assault. The detective had heard Stone was roughed up over a girl. "It wasn't connected with this case," he testified.

Wouldn't name names

One night three weeks earlier, an employee at the Fort Knox gold mine, about 20 miles northeast of Fairbanks, came upon a battered youth hitchhiking by the company's front gate. Mine security provided cold packs and contacted Stone's family.

"He had bruising about his face and head and down his back," noted trooper Richard Quinn, who interviewed Stone at the hospital shortly before 2 a.m., Sept. 18, 1997.

The teen said he couldn't remember what happened.

EJ Stephens didn't come home that night until after Stone landed in the hospital. Quinn contacted him. "Stephens indicated that Chris had 'gone to the store with friends,'" reported the trooper. "Not cooperative with AST," he added.

Though Stone's memory eventually cleared, he refused to name his assailants. "It will just happen again," he told Quinn.

"This case is closed pending cooperation from the victim," noted the trooper's final report, dated four days after Hartman's assault.

A brother's burden

Chris "Sean" Kelly, then 26 and wanted for parole violations, hid inside his mother's house when he saw police approaching the front door that Saturday. But police weren't calling about the older brother's transgressions. They had reason to believe the unidentified boy in critical condition at the hospital was Thomas' youngest son, John Hartman.

A "terrible groan" from his mom brought Kelly flying downstairs.

Kelly didn't mention it to police until months later, but he had been tipped the previous night that his kid brother might be in bad company over at Noah's Rainbow Inn. He had spoken with a pair of sisters he knew at the low-rent motel and was assured "JG" appeared OK. So he put the warning out of his mind, he recalled in a 2004 interview.

Liann Peryea, who was then living at Noah's with her younger sister, is pretty sure the warning came from her end. "People usually like to look out for their little brothers." In those days, she said, the motel now known as College Inn was "not a great place for anyone to be hanging around."

Peryea is reluctant to discuss the conversation she had that night. "Anything that could have been done should have been done that night," she said in fall 2006.

With his younger brother still clinging to life, Kelly stormed over to Noah's. By then, he knew JG's friends had alerted police about Friday's party. He expected yellow crime tape across Room 244.

He was angered that nobody in the hallway had seen police nosing around.

Guilt magnified the older brother's distress. Not long before, according to Kelly, he had ripped off Calvin Bollig, a Fox drug dealer busted later that fall for running a $1 million cocaine operation.

Was JG stomped in retaliation, he now wondered?

The ignored warning ate at him. As Kelly told police following his arrest in January 1998, "I was too busy doing what I was doing to go get my little brother."

Officers mainly wanted to know what the victim's brother had heard through the prison grapevine about the four suspects already charged. Kelly described what he took to be an incriminating apology from Vent. He also urged police to look into the recent beating suffered by his brother's friend, "Chris Stoneman."

Memory improves

Available police records indicate Stone wasn't interviewed until Monday, more than 48 hours after Hartman's fatal beating. The teen calmly described sharing a cab to Stephens' house on Laurene Street. He said he last saw Hartman when they parted company at the end of the block.

"Higgins said you sounded upset," Ring said in that taped session.

Stone blamed his agitation on the prescription pills taken at Noah's.

"You're not just afraid?"

"No," Stone said.

"Because that's the information we have — that you might have been there when he was assaulted," the detective said. "Saw what happened and were threatened by these guys."

Stone repeated that he left Hartman and went looking for his mother at El Sombrero. Finding the place closed, he said he continued to Carrs-Foodland, made a few calls and eventually caught a cab home.

But Melissa Stephens had lingered by the window after her son EJ arrived home from Noah's. Her front alcove offered a view up Laurene Street to Airport Way's access road. She watched Hartman and Stone turn right, striding off together.

"It looked like they were going somewhere with a purpose," she testified in the final Hartman trial.

A few months after the murder, Stone was arrested as an accessory in a rape case. In August 1998, Ring and then-Sgt. Dan Hoffman visited the 15-year-old at Fairbanks Youth Facility.

"I did see Kevin Pease that night," volunteered Stone, who credited newspaper photos with jogging his memory of the suspect's presence near the supermarket payphone.

Nine months had elapsed since the murder. For the first time, Stone recalled a small blue car, packed with "white or Native kids," hovering by the liquor store entrance. He had a good look at the car, he said, when he walked back outside through that door.

Witness faces scrutiny

Prosecution of the Hartman suspects was delayed more than a year by legal battles over the admissibility of Frese's and Vent's confessions, the district attorney's failure to inform grand jurors of possible alibis, and complications arising from the extensive pre-trial publicity.

To ensure fairness, the trials were eventually moved to Anchorage. In February 1999, Frese became the first to face a jury. Vent's turn came in July. Marvin Roberts and Kevin Pease were tried together that August.

Stone, the last person known to have seen Hartman alive and the witness who later placed Pease with a blue car outside the supermart, held a major part in the state's case. The teen's reluctance to name his own assailants, meanwhile, garnered attention with each courtroom appearance.

"We stopped at, like, a dead end," Stone testified during the first trial, describing a joyride with friends that suddenly exploded. "When we were getting back in, I was assaulted. They hit me, like, with (billard) balls. They were wrapped up in socks."

Prosecutor Jeff O'Bryant elicited Stone's declaration that none of the Hartman suspects were involved.

"Who was it?" defense attorney Bob Downes asked under cross-examination.

"Dale Lapue, Mike," Stone mumbled. "God, I can't remember the rest of the guys. Mike something. And Chad something. And there was another guy I didn't even know."

Stone described the car used joyriding as brown or tan. He swore he didn't know why "friends" had turned on him.

Candor follows arrests

Five months after Frese's trial ended with a guilty verdict, the News-Miner reported arrests in another murder case. "Trio pleads innocent in death of cabbie," read the headline.

Dale Depue, Sean Aldridge, both 18, and 28-year-old John Holloway were accused of killing a cab driver missing since the previous summer. Maurice Smith's taxi had been pulled from the Tanana River loaded with rocks. That spring, a hiker stumbled across his body in the woods north of town.

The arrests coincided with the opening of Vent's trial, at which Stone described his own beating in greater detail. He portrayed Dale Depue as the instigator. Stephens was present, he said, but hadn't joined in the assault.

Further details emerged during Stone's final Hartman trial appearance that August and from his testimony at Holloway's trial in 2000. Why had he protected the kids who beat him up?

Stone explained at the final Hartman trial that his "close friend" Sean Aldridge begged him to shield the person he viewed as his brother. "He was like, can you not go tell?"

Aldridge and Depue, who were raised in the same household, eventually confessed to chasing and beating Smith after luring him into the woods. It was Holloway, their martial arts teacher, according to the pair, who slit the cabbie's throat. Both testified for the state.

Holloway and Aldridge were each convicted of second-degree murder. Though Depue's plea bargain resulted in a lesser charge of manslaughter, Judge Charles Pengilly gave him 15 years, triple the usual sentence. "He has an unbroken criminal record since he was 9," said the judge, adding that Depue was capable of repeating such violence "in an instant."

Unopened door

The final Hartman trial featured legal skirmishes over defense attempts to portray Depue and his associates as alternative suspects. "They're trying to just make Depue look like a bad guy," said O'Bryant, objecting to a defense disclosure of his arrest as a suspect in the cabbie's murder.

"He's a bad guy," countered Judge Benjamin Esch, citing Stone's account of Depue's role in the Fort Knox assault.

The judge instructed jurors to disregard the references to Depue being locked up, but he refused to block the defense from trying to link the two assaults. "We'll get a chance to maybe see if they can make me believe it."

Toward that end, the defense attempted to put Brandy Hudspeth on the witness stand. She was prepared to testify she had heard Depue and his friends talk about "knocking heads" the night of Hartman's assault. The date stood out, she stated at an evidentiary hearing, because that Friday, Oct. 10, marked Depue's 17th birthday.

Before heading out that night, recalled Hudspeth, who was 15 at the time, Depue and his friends groused about being broke. They returned home with $160 in cash, she said. Though Hudspeth saw the cash, the rest amounted to hearsay, Esch ruled, so no jury ever heard what she had to say.

Troopers handled the cabbie's 1998 homicide. Fairbanks police had jurisdiction in Hartman's 1997 murder. As lead prosecutor for both cases, then-Assistant District Attorney O'Bryant was positioned to ensure possible connections were explored.

"I believe there was inquiry," O'Bryant said in a 2002 interview. "Not obviously that night. But later on, when that information surfaced, I believe there was inquiry made. To what extent? Or how in depth? I don't recall."

Paul Keller, the detective who headed the Hartman investigation until his retirement in fall 1997, agrees police looked into Stone's assault and Depue's possible involvement in the murder. "All this was investigated and sorted out," Keller said in a recent e-mail for this story.

But even after Depue's arrest, Detective Ring saw no need to delve further, not with trials already under way for those he deemed responsible for Hartman's murder. "There was no evidence that there was anyone but these individuals there," he said in a 2002 interview.

His testimony in the final Hartman trial that August established that Fairbanks police never looked beyond associates of the group prosecuted. "Did you ever investigate any other suspects?" Ring was asked.

"Initially, other friends of Eugene's," said the detective, referring to Vent. "Names he had given me that turned out to be false, that sort of thing."

"Only people associated with these — somehow associated with these four boys?"

"Yes," testified the lead detective on the Hartman case.

In his closing argument, Roberts' attorney complained that the investigation's tight focus left open questions regarding a possible connection between the murder and Stone's earlier assault.

"Coincidence?" Dick Madson asked jurors. "Who knows? But strange. But we'll never know because that's an avenue that was never driven down, and it was a door that we never looked behind."

New evidence

From her booth overlooking checkout stands, money counter Karan Bilyeu warily eyed the teenager who had come rushing through Carrs-Foodland's front door about 1:45 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, 1997.

His hasty entrance commanded attention, agreed night manager Sheryl DeBoard. "I thought 'people are going to come in running after him.'"

Jan DeMasters had the front register. Stone appeared "agitated," she recalled, in a way that put the night crew on alert. "He wasn't obviously walking in for a loaf of bread and peanut butter."

More than anything else, employees agree, the youngster radiated fear. "Looked scared to death," recalled Marney Osborne in a 2004 interview. "I have three boys. So I can tell that it was obvious he (Stone) was very afraid."

The night manager inquired if there was someone she could call.

"You can't call my mom," DeBoard recalled being told by the teen. She thought she also heard him mention a friend being hurt — though his exact words later escaped her.

He had her call El Sombrero, in case someone remained inside the closed tavern, as well as the Greyhound Lounge. She couldn't reach the people he wanted, so DeBoard called his mother.

Maggie Stone had a cab fetch her son.

"Teen dies in hospital after downtown attack," proclaimed the headline in Monday's News-Miner.

"Oh my God," DeBoard recalled wondering. "Did this have something to do with him?"

News accounts indicated the case was solved. No one from the store called police.

Following the trials, the night manager mentioned the terrified kid's memorable entrance to Shirley Demientieff, a longtime customer. The Native activist alerted defense lawyers. Stone's behavior while his friend lay dying came under scrutiny for the first time.

Only a 'paranoid feel'

In May 2001, Esch again presided as Roberts' lawyer argued for a new trial citing jailhouse retractions from Arlo Olson, the state's key witness, and DeBoard's encounter with Stone at the supermarket.

The store manager assured the judge that Carrs Foodland's liquor store door was locked by that time of night, casting doubt on Stone's claimed encounter with Pease. She said he dashed into her store in a panic.

"I did not come running into the store. I walked into it," Stone countered. "Yes, I had a paranoid feel about me, because I was very high on pills that I took. It had nothing to do with anything real."

Esch struggled reconciling their conflicting accounts.

"She (DeBoard) was very believable about her perception that Stone was fearful," the judge noted. "However, such an observation is consistent with Stone's own testimony that he was paranoid because he used drugs earlier, that he was afraid of the person who stared at him near the pay telephones or both."

He denied Roberts' request for another trial.

In a 2003 opinion upholding the exclusion of Hudspeth's testimony and Esch's evaluation of what DeBoard had to say, Alaska's appellate tribunal summarized defense arguments suggesting Stone engaged in a cover-up.

"Roberts' theory was that Depue ... and Aldridge were actually the people who had robbed and killed J.H. He represented that Stone had been assaulted by Depue and others approximately three weeks before J.H.'s death. He also represented that they drove a tan or beige four-door car similar to the one observed by (Franklin) Dayton and Stone before they were assaulted." Roberts further contends, the court noted, "that Stone had lied about not being present" during the attack that claimed his friend's life.

In a 2004 interview at Seward Correctional Center, Depue said he had nothing to do with Hartman's death. He also said he was out of state at the time of the Fort Knox assault, though both Stone and Stephens portray Depue as the one who started it. Depue said he is aware the group convicted of Hartman's murder professes to be innocent. "Who knows?" he said. "It could all be show."

"I'm guilty of my crime," the former Lathrop High student added. "But it was just kid stuff that got out of hand. Maybe that's what happened to them."

Juvenile's disclosure

No one involved in the original Hartman trials appears to have known about Stone's comments in an unrelated juvenile criminal proceeding.

Under a plea deal in a December 1997 rape case, Stone was required to discuss how he and another teen detained a girl at knifepoint while her friend was sexually assaulted in another room. She played along, he insisted, and hadn't acted scared.

"You ever been scared, Chris?" a trooper asked in that March 1998 interview.

"Yes, I have," Stone responded. "I've been scared to death. I was scared when I was in jail. I was scared when I got the hell beat out of me. I was scared when my best friend died."

"So you know what fear's like right?"

"Yes."

"So," the trooper said, "do you whimper or whine?"

"Yes, I do."

"Every time?"

"When I'm scared to death, as she puts it, I do," Stone said. "I'm not calm. I'm not just sitting there. I'm looking around my shoulder — I am freaking out."

The juvenile's statement first surfaced through a public records request for an adult co-defendant's files. In 2006, the eight-year-old interview with Stone was cited by Vent's current attorney as further cause for a new trial.

In a motion arguing against that request, Assistant District Attorney Helen Hickmon characterized Stone's comment as so open to interpretation as to be meaningless. She emphasized her point with a list of ready explanations:

* Stone could have been scared because his friend had been killed.

* He saw who did it.

* He could identify the perpetrator and feared reprisals.

"Or perhaps," the state's attorney concluded, "Stone was afraid he'd be attacked in jail for his own crimes against humanity."

DeBoard reviewed the teen's statement for this story. Stone's description stopped her cold.

"That is what Mr. Stone looked and felt like when he walked — no, ran! — through that door," the former supermarket manager said. "He was freaked out.

"And I think it's natural for another human being to heed another human being if they're scared. That's why we were so drawn to him."

Dread he can't explain

A letter from a county jail in Washington hinted at a break.

"Prosecutors, investigators, detectives and reporters all hunted me as a kid," Stone wrote in fall 2005, "wanting to get the facts of that night — to keep remembering about it. None cared how I was affected by it all."

Stone, then 22 and serving time for passing a stolen check and other charges, agreed to be interviewed about the crime he said drove him from Alaska.

"I think maybe the Lord has set this up for you to help me."

March 9, 2006, a jailer escorted the lanky, big-shouldered inmate into a cleared cafeteria at Monroe Correctional Complex, a 95-year-old state prison housing 2,500 male inmates.

"I just woke up," he said sheepishly.

Much of that night in October 1997 is a blur, Stone said up front. Seizures he dates to the Fort Knox assault affect his memory, he said. He's left with bits and pieces: Drinking wine elsewhere in the motel; glimpses of a kid who later gave him a hard time; Hartman's seizure.

Parting company with Hartman — that's Stone's sharpest memory. But he's not entirely sure.

"I really even," Stone paused, "doubt that things happened the way from, you know, after we left the hotel. I mean, just everything from we left the hotel till my mom being in my face waking me up — telling me JG's dead. It seems just like a one terrific nightmare."

Stone said he didn't see Hartman's beating. "Wasn't there with him," he said, adding more firmly: "I wish I was. I mean as I wasn't as big then, but I don't think it would have happened. I was still 6 foot tall ... I was a big kid, 185, 200 pounds."

He hadn't gotten over the traumatic events of that year.

"When I see a car drive by, a car full of people and late at night," Stone said, "I panic."

He can't point to a cause.

"I don't live in an actual fear of anything in particular," Stone said. "But I live in fear of the abstract things that I don't know."

And he's nagged by the questions over Hartman's last steps. "I just want this all to be done with, figured out and, hopefully," Stone said, "I can figure out why I'm a spaz. Why I freak out."

The inmate talked for more than an hour, resolving little. Like so many others ensnared in the crime's aftermath, his memories of that night churn from drugs, booze and time.

"I told you all I know," Stone wrote from prison following the interview. "Maybe there were keys there and we just don't know it. Like I said in the interview, whoever hurt my friend, I want justice to find them — if it hasn't already."

Lives lost

For Hartman's mother, the continuing litigation remained an open wound until her death in 2005.

"Each time I go through everything all over again," Thomas said in 2003 upon learning jury error might result in a new trial for Roberts and Pease.

"Do you know what that's like?"

Time's passage left others mourning as well.

"They took my boy's life away for no reason," Hazel Roberts said several years ago. "Somebody needs to pay for that."

Marvin Roberts, who turned 30 in November, would have been paroled by now had he taken the state's offer and testified against his former teammates. He sticks by that choice. "I'm innocent," he said in a telephone interview from Red Rock, the private prison in Arizona housing Alaska's long-term offenders. "I wasn't going to say I did it."

Years ago, discussing the case with a student video crew, Roberts alluded to blue moments when his patience snaps and when he, too, can't resist pointing the finger.

"I can't always control it. Some days, I do get angry at them."

He meant Fairbanks Police.

"I figure it all started with them," said Roberts, looking straight into the student crew's camera. "They had this case solved from day one. They wouldn't look at other leads. They put four of us together. Said, 'You guys did it. That's it. Case closed.'"

From the state's perspective, those four guilty verdicts, representing the collective judgment of 36 Anchorage jurors, certify that justice was delivered in fair measure.

And don't try to tell the former Fairbanks district attorney the case he brought against Hartman's murderers held room for reasonable doubt.

"You tell his mother," O'Bryant said last spring, "there wasn't evidence in the bruises on her son's face."

Brian O'Donoghue is a UAF assistant professor of journalism. Former students Cary Curlee, Robinson Duffy, Mark Evans, Laurel Ford, Russ Kelly, Theresa Roark, Frank Shepherd and Abbie Stillie contributed to this report.