ANCHORAGE — The mayor of Fairbanks, Alaska, said Wednesday he is seeking an independent investigation of how police handled the Fairbanks Four case in which a teenager was beaten to death nearly two decades ago.
Mayor John Eberhart disclosed his effort nearly a week after four indigenous men finalized a settlement with the state that throws out their murder convictions in the 1997 death of 15-year-old John Hartman. As part of the settlement, the three men remaining in jail were freed. All four agreed not to sue government entities.
Eberhardt said he wants to involve Alaska Native leaders in how to proceed with the investigation, including how it should be paid for and who should conduct it.
Native leaders had long advocated for the release of the men, saying the convictions were racially motivated and an example of how Alaska Natives have been treated by the justice system.
The three Alaska Native men and an American Indian — George Frese, Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts and Kevin Pease — had been convicted of second-degree murder even though they maintained their innocence in Hartman’s death.
Eberhardt and Fairbanks Police Chief Randall Aragon also said Wednesday the investigation of the death remained open, marking a step back from previous comments by Aragon to a TV reporter that it was closed.
Aragon also said during the TV interview that it did not matter at this point whether the Fairbanks Four were guilty or innocent.
Aragon apologized and said he had felt ambushed by the suddenness of the settlement and a lack of knowledge about details of the deal. Eberhardt and Aragon said state prosecutors did not share information before the deal was reached, despite numerous attempts to be updated on the case.
“You know where my heart is,” Aragon said to Alaska Natives who attended the Wednesday briefing.
Native leaders could not immediately be reached for comment later in the day.
Eberhardt acknowledged that allegations of police wrongdoing, including questionable interrogation tactics, need to be examined. He pointed out that a former Fairbanks man, William Z. Holmes, who is serving time in a California prison for murder, told a correctional officer he knew people who were involved in the killing of Hartman.
A memo from the correctional officer sharing the information was forwarded to Fairbanks police in 2011, with no action taken for three years, Eberhardt said.
“That’s a black eye on the department,” the mayor said.
The alternate theory was presented by the Alaska Innocence Project, which advocated for the men and sought post-conviction relief in civil court this year. The group’s case was based on Holmes’ recollections.
Holmes was a senior at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks in 1997 and said he was present when Hartman was fatally beaten by four of his Lathrop classmates. He testified about his memories and he attributed quotes to a friend. Prosecutors said it was hearsay.
Eberhardt noted that prosecutors don’t consider the people accused in the alternate theory as viable suspects. But he noted that police are free to investigate.