Judge Lyle

During a scheduling conference in Courtroom 401 of the Rabinowitz Courthouse, Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle set a November date for his first evidentiary hearing on bids to overturn murder convictions for John Hartman’s 1997 murder. Brian O’Donoghue photo

 

FAIRBANKS - Stakes are high. If the claims of a California inmate are true, the four men incarcerated since 1997 for the murder of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman were wrongfully convicted.

Potential ramifications of the claimed confession, detailed in the Alaska Innocence Project’s legal challenge a year ago of verdicts in the murder case, go far beyond exoneration of the so-called Fairbanks Four, the men who have already served 17 years for the crime. If the account of Fairbanks rapper William Z. Holmes occurred as he described and he and others had been apprehended at that time, five people later killed by “Dolla B” and his high school pals might have escaped harm.

Holmes is serving a double-life sentence for his part in those later killings.

It’s no secret that Holmes and former Lathrop High School classmate Jason Wallace partnered in a bloody 2002 interstate conspiracy that left three dead and both in prison. For months now, the court considering the Alaska Innocence Project’s claimed “new evidence” in Hartman’s murder has wrestled behind closed doors with the admissibility of confidential statements about the pair’s earlier murder. Uncertainty surrounding the outcome “potentially confounds” the state review underway.

No angel

of mercy

The rapper whose confessions claim would, if true, exonerate George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent, the four convicted of murdering the 15-year-old Hartman, has a darker side. He alluded to it in a CD released in 2002, the year his schemes in a failed drug-ring takeover exploded.

“It’s strattergize,” Holmes, 22 at the time, rapped, “I got no friends, nothin’ but foes, keep my enemies close because you never know…”

The song, “The Stakes’r High,” is from “Clearer than Black & White,” a joint project featuring “Dolla B” Holmes and Fairbanks studio owner and DJ Redd Dott. Each penned verses.

That Christmas Eve of 2002, Holmes shot two men in the head, tossing their bodies off the sides of a California highway. One of those he killed, Hakeem Bryant, 25, was a one-time West Valley High School quarterback looking to score with $80,000 to spend smuggling cocaine to Alaska. The other victim, Holmes later told a prison officer, was just in the “wrong place, wrong time.”

The murders stemmed from a plot, hatched with Wallace, to seize control of Bryant’s drug ring. Assistant District Attorney Scott Mattern outlined the conspiracy for the court during Wallace’s sentencing years later.

Wallace, also 22 at the time of the murders, was supposed to take care of loose ends back in Alaska.

He started by killing Bryant’s girlfriend, 25-year-old Teacka Bacote, with a hammer as she slept. He then went to the house of a “close friend,” as the prosecutor put it, also sleeping at the time, and stabbed him in the throat with a screwdriver. Returning to Bacote’s apartment in Ester, Wallace doused the place with gasoline and torched it. The fireball blasted him outside. Residents of other units fled for their lives.

In the aftermath, Wallace’s scorched face and gasoline stench kindled suspicion at Fairbanks International Airport, where he tried to change his ticket for an earlier plane out of Alaska. Detained, then arrested, he confessed by week’s end.

Wallace’s confession helped authorities in three states sort out the mayhem.

He later testified against Holmes in a plea bargain that garnered his current 60-year sentence.

To some, the partner’s betrayal invites suspicion that Holmes’ confession, implicating Wallace and three other Lathrop pals in Hartman’s murder, amounts to payback.

In February, Alaska State Troopers fact-checking Holmes’ confession as part of the state’s current case review, learned from the inmate that he first confided Hartman’s murder to a prison guard in California.

Correctional Officer Joseph Torquato, of Calipatria State Prison, backs up the story.

He explained to troopers that Holmes opened up over a period of months they spent working together in the prison chapel. The inmate spoke of his fleeting fame as rapper “Dolla B,” the CD he cut, the lifestyle he associated with that word “Strattergize,” his confrontations with rival dealers and his rising reputation in the Fairbanks drug game.

“You gotta, get in, get out, make moves,

Strattergize,

‘cause the stakes’r high.”

The Fairbanks teen’s murder only came up, Torquato told troopers, when he questioned why Holmes had ever trusted Wallace — the man who’d ratted him out.

Holmes pointed to their years of shared silence about a murder committed back in high school. “More or less Wallace had kept his mouth shut,” the guard recalled.

Holmes didn’t name the victim. The guard turned to the Internet wondering if the inmate was posturing. He found stories about a Barnette Street murder and other facts that fit the inmate’s account.

“The following day after inmate Holmes reported to work, I asked him if the name Hartman meant anything to him,” wrote Torquato in the 2011 memo a supervisor forwarded to the Fairbanks Police Department, from where it was emailed to Mattern at the Fairbanks District Attorney’s Office.

Holmes confirmed the name but spurned the guard’s insistence he take the Christian path and come forward.

It wasn’t until several months later that Holmes, after receiving a personal letter from Roberts, one of the men convicted of murdering Hartman, reached out to the Innocence Project.

In his sworn confession, Holmes names three other partners besides Wallace, including one former classmate convicted of murdering a couple in Washington. The other two he named as alleged accomplices in Hartman’s murder remain free. All are identified in the Innocence Project’s court filings.

Vent’s attorney, Colleen Libbey, recently added “prosecutorial misconduct” to her case arguments, faulting the district attorney’s silence on the memo during her client’s pending appeal.

Behind the doors

Public portions of the case before Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle offer one direct reference and other clues about the nature of the legal logjam inside Rabinowitz Courtroom 401.

The big issue is a confidential file offering claimed evidence of statements from Wallace, Holmes’ old classmate and criminal partner, that purportedly back up his recent confession.

Where and why Wallace may have been comfortable discussing an old murder with candor is suggested by references to “attorney-client privilege” in the open pages and case docket.

It starts with this explanation, in the Innocence Project’s Sept. 25, 2013 filing, of a motion being offered under seal: the Innocence Project argues that certain unspecified “statements made by Jason Wallace” are “no longer confidential” and asks the court to rule they be considered in the proceedings.

In his first pre-trial conference on the case last January, Lyle indicated he hoped to resolve “thorny” issues posed by that confidential file within a month. “That’s the wood that needs to be sawed,” he said during an open portion of the session.

That day, and during subsequent conferences in March and August, when discussion tuned to issues raised in the sealed file, Adrienne Bachman, the special prosecutor heading the state’s review, and the public were shooed from the room or dropped from teleconference links.

That initially limited discussion to the judge and lawyers for the four convicted men. It isn’t Wallace’s case, but the inmate was permitted to dial-in from Spring Creek Correctional Center. In one of his first moves, Lyle appointed local attorney Jason Gazewood to defend Wallace’s privilege claims.

The case docket, a public registry of court proceedings, shows that more than two dozen motions and judicial orders on the sealed file have circulated among the select few since last fall. Only the date, title description and the party behind each action is listed.

Early on, the docket shows, the Alaska Public Defender Agency also had access to the secret files trading hands while the judge weighed the agency’s request to intervene. The agency sought to keep Wallace’s alleged statements under wraps with motions opposing the Innocence Project’s request that attorney-client privilege be waived.

In late June, Lyle dismissed the Public Defender Agency from the case. The agency has declined repeated requests for comment.

Open sections of the Innocence Project’s 131-page filing present Wallace as an alleged participant with Holmes in the killing of Hartman and list him as the friend who delivered the most vicious kicks to Hartman’s head and later bragged about it when skipping school.

Another public portion of the file notes that Wallace declined to answer questions from the Innocence Project. The sentence that follows signals a fight underway over evidence not usually allowed in court: The “office of the trial counsel of the case for which he is currently serving time has done the same, citing the attorney-client privilege.”

Until recently, professional rules governing lawyers in Alaska, as elsewhere in the nation, placed attorneys at risk of losing their license for breaking a client’s confidence other than to report perjury by a witness or to prevent imminent harm. In 2009, Alaska joined Massachusetts as the only states with bar rules granting attorneys discretion to waive confidentiality if “reasonably necessary” to prevent “wrongful incarceration.”

Bill Oberly, executive director of the Alaska Innocence Project, said the Hartman case was in mind when he pushed for that amendment to Alaska Bar Rule 1.6.

Wallace, following his arrest in the 2002 interstate drug-ring murders, was represented by then-Public Defender Geoffrey Wildridge. Now in private practice, Wildridge takes attorney-client privilege most seriously. Thirty years as a criminal defense lawyer leaves him convinced that confidentiality is essential to ensure every client receives the best possible representation.

Discussing Alaska’s bar rule change a few years ago, he said he wasn’t sure he’d waive confidentiality without permission, even for a dead client.

He also expressed support for work by the University of Alaska Journalism Department on the Hartman case.

In her six-month report to the court this May, prosecutor Bachman signaled that her team’s lack of access to the sealed files created problems. “Although the court predicted action on the confidential filing by now, the state is not aware of any final conclusion about the release (or not) of the confidential filing.” That situation, she noted, “potentially confounds the state’s response.”

The prosecutor has requested “permission to respond to anything released” about the confidential file. “Beyond that,” she commented by email, “it would be irresponsible/inappropriate to comment.”

In late August, Lyle briefly reopened the doors of Courtroom 401 to the public and announced the first evidentiary hearing is set for Nov. 10.

The hearing, some 13 months after the case was filed, isn’t expected to go beyond matters raised in the sealed brief, meaning those doors may again close.

Brian O’Donoghue, a UAF professor and former News-Miner reporter, has been researching the Hartman case with the help of journalism students since 2001. Over the years, results of UAF’s public service investigation have been shared with all interested parties, including tribal organizations, Alaska Innocence Project, Fairbanks Police Department and the district attorney’s office.