The state’s star witness, Arlo Olson, gave grand jurors weighing charges in Hartman case only a vague idea of how far he stood from a robbery staged by men he alone identified, and he left the mistaken impression that other bystanders supported his account.
Hartman was found beaten and unconscious a half mile away from the wedding reception attended by Olson and hundreds of others Oct. 10, 1997. The witness never claimed to see the murder. His testimony figured prominently because he was the sole observer who put the four Hartman suspects together that night committing violent acts, supporting the police department's scenario that the teen's murder culminated a "spree of violence" by George Frese, Eugene Vent, Kevin Pease and Marvin Roberts.
A tape of the grand jury's secret proceedings surfaced among appellate files collected in the course of UAF Journalism’s independent probe. The tape shows Olson gave muddled or misleading answers to questions that could have raised early doubts about the credibility of his identification of the group now known as the Fairbanks Four.
“How dark was it for you to be able to see all the way from the Eagle’s Hall to where Mr. Dayton was assaulted?” a male juror asks during the October 1997 session.
“It was pretty dark,” Olson says. “But then they had lights out in the parking lot. So you could have a good look there.”
The juror wanted to know the relative distance between the witness and the mugging. “Approximately how many feet was it,” he asks, “from the Eagle’s Hall to where he (Franklyn Dayton) was assaulted?”
“I couldn’t say,” Olson responds.
“Toward the end of the parking lot?”
“Yeah,” Olson says.
It’s unclear from the tape whether grand jurors even understood which parking lot Olson referred to, much less grasped that nearly two football fields separated the witness from the robbery he claimed to observe.
The villager was standing on the front steps of Eagle’s Hall, catching a smoke, as people flowed in and out of a raucous wedding reception taking place inside. The steps overlooked a well-lit parking lot.
In later court appearances, Olson twice drew maps that showed Eagle’s Hall in the wrong location relative to the assault, or omitted a side street between the hall and the sidewalk where
It wasn’t until the third trial, two years after his grand jury appearance, that the police officer who investigated the mugging took the stand and shared his actual field measurements.
Olson was standing approximately 550 feet from the sidewalk section pointed out by the assault victim, said Sgt. James Geier. The officer testified that he returned to the scene a few weeks after the assault and used a roller device checking the distance. This was done at the request of another member of the department, whose identity he couldn’t recall. Geier said he phoned in the requested information.
Officer Jim Geier's testimony
That field survey isn’t mentioned anywhere in the dozens of pages of reports Geier prepared summarizing his work on the Hartman case. The omission earned him a grilling from defense attorney Dick Madson.
“You made out no report about that, did you?” asked Madson, the attorney defending Marvin Roberts.
“Not of the measurements,” the officer said. “No, sir.”
“Not about even being there on that date?”
“No, sir,” Geier said.
The October 1997 grand jury tape shows that a member of the panel sought assurance that others sharing Eagle Hall’s front steps noticed the mugging. “When you saw people hitting Franklin Dayton,” an unidentified woman asks. “You said there were a lot of people out there too. So a lot of people saw those four guys?”
“Yeah,” replies Olson, “but I don’t know if anyone would ever, would come in, come too. Because there was always a lot of people out front… I mean, it was just packed in front of the Eagle’s. It was just packed inside there. You were on the dance floor, you couldn’t even dance. It was just wall to wall people.”
Olson told the grand jury a friend called his attention the assault in progress down the street. “A guy tells me, ‘Hey, a fight!” I look and right off I can recognize George and Eugene.” He gave roughly the same account at all three trials, identifying the friend as Robert Nicholas, a fellow villager from Kaltag.
Nicholas took the stand at the last trial. He remembered bumping into Olson smoking out on the front steps, but said he he didn’t recall much else. . Robert Nicholas testimony
Olson named two other supposed witnesses to
Stickman, an air-cargo handler from Nulato, said he chatted with Olson “for maybe a minute,” but saw nothing resembling an altercation. Stickman added that he spent little time at the reception because he doesn’t enjoy hanging out with drinkers.
Grand jurors remained unaware of the discrepancies and took Olson at his word.
Indeed, a follow-up question concerning the supporting witnesses went unanswered when a fellow juror praised the villager’s willingness to cooperate.
“I don’t have another question,” the unidentified woman says. “I just think we all appreciate you coming forward.”
“Really nervous,” blurts Olson, provoking friendly laughter.
“You’re brave,” a woman says.
Read more about Arlo Olson's troubled life before and after the Hartman murder case. Chapter 6: The Witness (2.24 MB)
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