It has been a month of sweat lodges, job searching and spending time with his wife for Brandon Olebar as the Nuu-chah-nulth/Sto:lo man eases back into normal life after a decade of imprisonment for a crime he did not commit.
Olebar, 30, walked out of prison in Washington State a free man in December, thanks to the efforts of law students working with the Innocence Project Northwest, after serving 10 years of a 16-year sentence for robbery and burglary.
“My lawyer came to see me in prison. She handed me a piece of paper, and on the lower left corner it said, 'Dismissed on all charges',” Olebar said from his home in Renton, Washington, in mid-January. “I was ecstatic. I wanted to scream out loud and let everyone know that I'm out of here.”
With that, Olebar changed out of his prison jumpsuit and into his own clothes, which included a native-designed shirt and hat.
“Those are my identity and being,” said Olebar, who is of Nuu-chah-nulth and Sto:lo descent. “They express who I really am, a strong and proud Native.”
The arc of events began in 2003, when Olebar was accused of being one of six to eight men who broke into the King County home of his sister's boyfriend, then beat and robbed him. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, the victim said he was beaten by Olebar's uncle and by men with tattoos of feathers on their faces. The victim picked Olebar, then 19, out of a police photo lineup despite the fact that the youth didn't have such a tattoo, and told police he'd been elsewhere with his aunt, uncle and grandmother the day of the incident.
In November 2003 Olebar and his uncle were convicted of first-degree robbery and first-degree burglary and sentenced to 16 years in prison. An appeals court later upheld the conviction.
“I had this feeling that I wasn't ever going home,” Olebar said. “It felt like my whole world was caving in.”
Olebar went about routine prison life and passed the time reading, especially about aboriginal issues. He also drew and did bead work. But his center of gravity always returned to his wife and extended family, whom he missed dearly, and to his culture, which he was deeply rooted in.
“I really missed being at pow wows, hearing the singing, talking to elders and having good food at your fingertips,” he said.
Prison authorities shipped Olebar around during the decade. He was housed in prisons in throughout Washington State and was also transported to prisons in Colorado and Arizona. While incarcerated in Arizona, Olebar found the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization committed to exonerating wrongfully convicted people. He and his wife Melissa, Navajo, tried to engage the group’s services in 2006, but the request was denied because they were required to contact an IP in their own state, Olebar said. That proved to be a proverbial catch-22, since “we didn't have one in our own state then,” he said.
In 2011, Olebar's wife found an Innocence Project Northwest pamphlet at the University of Washington. She filled it out, sent it and waited. The case caught the attorneys' attention, and Innocence Project Northwest began reviewing Olebar’s case, according to a statement from the group.
University of Washington School of Law students Nikki Carsley and Kathleen Kline, who both graduated in 2013, identified several alleged attackers who had never been prosecuted. They got three of them to sign sworn statements saying not only that they had taken part in the attack, but also that Olebar had not been involved or even present. After reviewing the evidence, the prosecutor’s office dismissed all charges.
“In this matter the new statements from the participants in the robbery cast enough doubts about Mr. Olebar’s involvement in the crime that we decided the case should be dismissed in the interests of justice,” King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said in a statement.
The admission was bittersweet for Olebar.
“I respect the men who came forward, but I haven't seen them and I don't want to see them,” he said. “I just want to move on now.”
Olebar embraced his wife long and hard when he left prison, then went out for a decent meal to begin erasing memories of years of institutional mashed potatoes, bologna, goulash and sack lunches.
“It's the first time I saw her in a long time. That was special,” he said. “My wife, lawyer and I went to Red Robin, and I had the biggest, greasiest burger there.”
Olebar is getting used to freedom, but the process is difficult. He had to walk out of a store when faced with the cereal aisle and its daunting, floor-to-ceiling array of boxes. And he's dealing with posttraumatic stress.
On the upside, Olebar has found comfort in his aboriginal roots, attending a sweat lodge with family members, and is considering taking part in this year’s Tribal Canoe Journeys. He has been reconnecting with the longhouse tradition of his Sto:lo roots as well, he said. In addition, Olebar is exploring educational opportunities and considering a project to make Pendelton blankets with native design crests on them for aboriginal foster children.
“Being in prison, I know what it's like to be in a place that is unfamiliar and where you don't feel like you belong,” he said.
Olebar is also deciding whether to seek compensation for his wrongful conviction. Under Washington State law, wrongfully convicted people are eligible to file a claim for $50,000 for each year of imprisonment. But, he says, it could never make up for what he lost.
“That's not nearly enough for what I went through,” Olebar said.
Most of all, Olebar thinks about the system that is responsible for his nightmare.
“Who are you supposed to trust when the system sends you to prison for a crime you didn't commit?” he said. “They watch us, but who watches them?”