FAIRBANKS — The star witness in the 1999 trials that found four young men guilty of murdering a Fairbanks teenager now says he was carefully and deliberately manipulated into telling a story he didn’t believe.
In a recorded deposition played in court Friday, Arlo Olson said he was pressured into telling the juries he was “110 percent” sure about the identity of the four men committing a robbery even though it was far away, dark and Olson was drunk.
The deposition was made this year as part of a lawsuit to overturn the murder convictions of George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent. The four, who’ve come to be known as the “Fairbanks Four,” were convicted in three separate trials of fatally beating 15-year-old John Hartman in 1997 as he walked near Barnette Street and Ninth Avenue.
Olson’s importance to the 1999 trials was his believable eyewitness account of an assault and robbery by four men against Franklin Dayton on the night Hartman was killed.
At the trials, Olson identified the four, and police and prosecution used that as evidence of a violent crime spree that ended with Hartman’s beating.
“Simply put,” then-prosecutor Jeff O’Bryant told jurors during the joint trial of Pease and Roberts, “if Arlo didn’t see what he saw, and you throw out some of the state’s evidence, the state doesn’t have a case. No doubt about it.”
But the testimony played in court Friday painted a far fuzzier picture of a night of drinking, partying, smoking pot and snorting cocaine.
The deposition was peppered with statements like “I don’t know,” “I guess” and “I don’t remember” about the night of Oct. 10, 1997.
When asked if he could have identified the people committing the robbery or even their race, he said he couldn’t.
“No, it was far,” he said. “It was dark. I was drunk.”
The testimony he gave so confidently in 1999, he said, was largely the work of O’Bryant and Fairbanks Police Department Detective Aaron Ring.
After the death of Hartman, Olson reluctantly came forward to give police a statement about what he saw that night. He said Ring told him police already had the killers in custody.
Olsen said he then gave a lengthy interview that by his account sounded a lot more like the one played Friday in court than the one used to convict Pease, Roberts, Frese and Vent.
He described an unrecorded interview process where Ring filled in the “I don’t know”s, “I guess”es and “I don’t remember”s with plausible suggestions, which included them showing him a vehicle he didn’t recognize as the one that was used in the robbery of Dayton on First Avenue.
“I remember being scared,” he said. “They knew more about where I was than I did myself.”
He said once it appeared Ring was satisfied with the series of events, Ring produced a tape recorder.
“I remember when the story started shaping up, he started recording it,” Olson said.
Asked if he thought it seemed unusual, he said at the time, he was scared but now, upon reflection, it did seem out of the ordinary.
“I thought it was weird,” he said. “I didn’t know better, but over the years, it was weird.”
He said from that testimony, O’Bryant and Ring created a transcript of the recording and then began carefully coaching Olson to make sure he could repeat it in court.
“I would study that in my room and study that at the DA’s office,” he said. “I would be lying on the floor just reading it over and over.”
He said, for him, the version presented in the transcripts eventually became truth to him.
“I kept memorizing it and memorizing it and after a while, you start believing it,” he said. “Ring and O’Bryant said they had the right people and that they were guilty.”
Each time there was a trial, he said, he was told to arrive early so he could practice and memorize the details of his testimony.
One time, he said he slipped up and placed the robbery of Dayton on the wrong side of the road. He was told afterward not to make the same mistake.
He said he trusted O’Bryant and Ring had the killers.
Jurors, interviewed after delivering the guilty verdicts, praised Olson’s ability on the stand.
One juror even said, “This Arlo guy is either the world’s best liar, in my opinion, or he saw what he saw. He was very convincing.”
Olson attempted to retract his statements in 2000, when talking to an attorney representing Frese. But a visit from Ring scared him away from changing his story.
“I remember them (Ring and O’Bryant) telling me to tell them I wanted out of jail, that’s why I said what I said,” he said.
A cross-examination by Alaska Assistant Attorney General Adrienne Bachman focused on Olson’s life after the trials.
Olson’s attempt to recant his story came to light in a 2008 News-Miner story about the case. He said it forever labeled him as a snitch in prison, where he’s been multiple times, including during the filming of the deposition.
Initially, Olson seemed to cheer up, remembering some events surrounding the rest of the night more clearly. But when questions began to show the intent of undermining his credibility, he appeared to sink into his chair and focused his attention in his lap.
At one point, when going over details he was having difficulty remembering, he suggested Bachman look at the printed testimony.
“I’m trying to probe through your memory as opposed to anything that somebody may have tried to plant in your memory,” she said.
Later, Bachman asked about the Native Brotherhood, an Alaska Native prison gang that has been mentioned in other witnesses’ testimony, suggesting Olson might be influenced by the hard time they could have given him for working with the state to put the four men behind bars.
“You mentioned the ‘Fairbanks Four.’ That causes me to wonder: Have you ever been confronted by members of the Native Brotherhood about being a rat?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“And if you knew, you wouldn’t tell me would you?”
“Nope,” he said.
“The Native Brotherhood is a prison gang, isn’t it?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“And you wouldn’t tell if you knew?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
When asked about why he wanted to take back the testimony he said was carefully crafted by O’Bryant and Ring, Olson said it has always weighed on him, both in prison and out.
“I don’t know. I know this case — it’s been bugging me for years,” he said.
When asked how it’s been bugging him, he said, “Because I don’t think they did it.”
When asked if he regretted the testimony he gave, he looked into his lap and paused for a moment before saying, “Yep.”
The trial completed its first week of hearings on Friday. The case is expected to last a month and will resume Monday in front of Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.