ARIZONA PRISON INTERVIEWS
University of Alaska Fairbanks student Jade Frank visited three of the four men convicted for the murder of John Hartman in March 2004. (The fourth, Kevin Pease, is in a prison in Seward, Alaska, awaiting a new trail.) This report holds her account of the experience, transcripts of the interviews and clips from videotaped portions of the sessions.
Florence, Arizona, is a small town nestled away from the major highways in the cactus-rich Sonora Desert. Surrounded by farmland, the city consists of several small streets downtown and a Circle K gas station.
Driving into Florence late one night in March 2004, the day before I had an appointment to interview three of the men convicted of murdering John Hartman, I noticed a road sign that warned in bold black letters, “Do not pick up hitchhikers.” Located on the off-ramp rather than the on-ramp, it was also a sign of what sets Florence apart from other U.S. towns: the seven prisons within its city limits.
Alaska sends most of its prisoners with long sentences to the Florence Correctional Center because it's cheaper to keep them there than in Alaska. Interestingly enough, many Arizona prisoners are sent to Florida for a similar reason. Of the four men convicted for the John Hartman murder, only one, Kevin Pease, is still in Alaska, at the prison in Seward. There he awaits an appeal.
Due to the not-so-welcoming hitchhiker warnings and my general nervousness about the interviews, I didn’t sleep well in my motel room at the Blue Mist in downtown Florence—the motel where, it turns out, families of inmates stay while visiting. In the morning, I asked the front-desk woman, the gas station clerk and several locals filling their gas tanks at the Circle K for directions to the Florence Correctional Center. They each looked at me dumbfounded and replied, “Which one?"
After pulling in and out of the parking lots of several large buildings surrounded by rows of barbed wire, I found the right prison and parked out front. It was a windy day in the desert, yet I was perspiring in the 90-degree heat under the baggy clothes that my professors had advised me to wear to deflect any sexual attention from the guards and inmates. It was a drastic change from the minus-20 degree weather I had left behind in Alaska.
I approached the prison entrance, which was a series of three large sliding gates. I was alone in the parking lot. I noticed an intercom by the door, and after I identified myself to the voice in the speaker box, the gates opened one by one until I was inside the facility.
The receptionist's smile set me at ease, and I introduced myself as the journalism student from Alaska who came to interview Marvin Roberts, George Frese and Eugene Vent. The public information officer wasn’t in that day, so there was a bit of confusion about the interviews. The receptionist informed me that I would be interviewing the inmates through a glass window and using a telephone to speak with them. I knew that this wouldn't work for the purposes of my interview, so I insisted on face-to-face interviews at a table somewhere with few distractions.
Officer Cockrill escorted me through more gates into the visitation room, where we set up a table and chairs in the kiddy corner. Paintings of Mickey Mouse and 101 Dalmatians watched me from the walls as I set up my equipment (tape recorder, mini disc recorder, video camera and digital camera) and nervously twiddled my thumbs as I waited for Marvin Roberts to enter the room. Cockrill told me he had worked at several other prisons in the area and that the Florence Correctional Center was by far the best place to work. He said that the prisoners there are all Alaskans, Hawaiians and illegal aliens. Cockrill explained that in other prisons, the sex offenders are often beaten and sometimes killed by other inmates and have to be separated. However, in this prison, he said, everyone minded their own business and lived together with few problems.
Finally, Roberts came in, sporting an orange jumpsuit. His bright smile quickly set me at ease. I spoke with him for about 30 minutes. I was struck by his spiritual strength; he believed that God would bring him justice.
My next interview was with Frese, whose attitude was a stark contrast. Watching him enter the room, I noticed his long, black hair, cascading in a thin ponytail halfway down his back. Frese has a 90-plus year sentence for Hartman’s murder and an unrelated robbery, which appeared to depress him greatly. He was very shy, which made me a little uncomfortable, and there was a deep sadness in his eyes.
Last, I interviewed Vent. His hopeful and energetic attitude surprised me. His words flowed from his mouth with ease, and he chuckled as he told me that his time was flying by and he was spending time playing basketball and studying in the law library for his next appeal.
When the interviews were over, I left the prison with a strange feeling in my stomach. These guys sure didn’t seem like murderers. They looked like three young Native guys from Fairbanks, guys who easily could have been my friends.