Courtesy Tanana Chiefs Conference
Bill Oberly, right, and the Fairbanks Four at the hearing in which the four men were exonerated.

Fairbanks Four Attorney Honored by First Alaskans Institute

Richard Walker

Bill Oberly, the attorney who successfully led the defense of four Native men wrongfully convicted of the 1997 fatal assault of a Fairbanks teenager, is one of two recipients of the Friends of First Alaskans Ted Stevens Award.

The award is given by the First Alaskans Institute to “a person(s) or organization that has shown through their support of Native issues and partnership with our common cause that they are friends of the Alaska Native community.”

Oberly is executive director of the Alaska Innocence Project. He took on the Fairbanks Four case in 2008 and worked on the case pro bono. As a result of new evidence and a re-examination of earlier evidence and testimony, the state on December 17 cleared George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent of the 1997 fatal assault and the robbery of another man the same evening. Frese, Roberts and Vent are Alaska Natives; Pease is Native American.

The Alaska Innocence Project, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and others contended the men were victims of a racially-tinged rush to judgment by police and prosecutors eager for a conviction for the teen’s death.

During the evidentiary hearing, attorneys reexamined controversial police interrogation methods that resulted in two confessions, later recanted; and testimony, later recanted, from a witness who identified the four men as being involved in another robbery that evening, although he had been drinking and he saw the robbery more than 500 feet away in the dark. The testimony was considered at the time of the initial trials by prosecutors as being critical to the convictions.

Alibi witnesses placed the four men, teenagers at the time, at different places the evening of the fatal assault. No DNA evidence or other physical evidence linked the men to the crime. Two of the men rejected plea bargains in return for testimony against the others. A former Fairbanks man serving double-life sentences in California for two drug-related murders confessed that he and his friends, all in high school at the time, were responsible for the teen’s death. The man, William Z. Holmes, passed a lie-detector test and the Alaska Innocence Project discovered evidence corroborating Holmes’ confession.

“The case is astoundingly complex and Bill Oberly’s steadfast dedication, dogged legal work, and leadership over the past 7 years in pursuit of justice is nothing short of a lesson in determination,” the First Alaskans Institute stated.

Also receiving the Friends of First Alaskans Award: former Gov. Bill Sheffield, for a career that has supported Alaska Native decision-making and economic development.

Sheffield served as governor from 1982-86, following a business career in which he built a hotel company that became “one of the largest private employers in Alaska and the Yukon Territory,” according to First Alaskans Institute.

“As a candidate for Governor in 1982, Sheffield’s campaign theme was ‘bringing the state together,’ a reference to a pair of divisive ballot initiatives up for a vote that same year. His message of inclusion and focus on problem solving helped him win the governorship in a landslide vote,” the First Alaskans Institute stated.

“Under his leadership, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council created the Community Development Quotas, leading the way for 7 regions and 65 villages within the state to have more decision-making ability supported by these entities. He oversaw the purchase of the Alaska Railroad, and was instrumental in helping the people of the Northwest Arctic pursue their interests in developing the Red Dog mining operation, which has had substantial economic impact for the people of the region.”

Samuel Johns, a Gwich’in Athabascan community activist, motivational speaker and hip hop artist, is the recipient of the First Alaskans Institute Young Native Leader Award for his work “to help Native peoples and our community with significant and profound purpose.”

Johns has traveled to more than a dozen communities around Alaska to speak to youth about living a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle, the First Alaskans Institute reported. “His goal is to inspire youth to make a difference in their community. Growing up in Copper Center surrounded by drugs and alcohol and struggling with these issues, he changed his life and now is a sober and dedicated father, husband, and community organizer. As a musician, he blends Athabascan culture with modern hip hop to inspire kids to preserve their connection to who they are and help them understand how cool and amazing our cultures are.”

Johns was the subject of several national media stories this year for, a Facebook group page he founded to help homeless Alaskans reconnect with their families. Within six months, the Facebook page reached more than 16,500 members, according to

Eliza Jones, Tl’eyegge Hut’aane (Koyukon Athabascan), is the recipient of the Alaska Native Leader Howard Rock Award, presented for “quality of character and effort to be a leader of distinct caliber because they put their community and people before themselves.”

She is a speaker of Denaakk’e, the Central dialect of the Koyukon language. Her Denaakk’e name is Neełteloyeeneełno, which means “mixed talent” or “having more than one project going at the same time.”

“Eliza utilized her active listening skills and strong relationships with her Elders to become a skilled translator between Denaakk’e and English,” the First Alaskans Institute reported. “When she discovered bound manuscripts of Jesuit missionary Father Jetté based upon his ministry in Nulato in the early 1900s, she dedicated over 25 years to edit and refine the collection into a usable Koyukon Athabascan Dictionary, which was later released in 2000 through the Alaska Native Language Center at UAF. Much more than a dictionary, the exhaustive 1,100-page resource is a comprehensive cultural encyclopedia and chronicle for the rich cultural, spiritual and knowledge source of the natural world surrounding Koyukon people.” She received the Alaska Native Literary Arts award in 2001.

First Alaskans Institute Chairman Willie “Iġġiagruk” Hensley, Iñupiaq, said the awards “remember those who have helped us, show our young people that we believe in them, and share the pride in our cultures. It is from a place of deep respect and gratitude on behalf of the First Alaskans Institute Board of Trustees and staff we are honored” to present the awards.

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