On Monday, Dec. 20, 2013, Brandon Olebar dressed in a T-shirt and hat with aboriginal designs on them then headed out the door to meet his wife and get something to eat.
But it wasn’t just an ordinary day.
Olebar, a Nuu-chah-nulth/ Sto:lo man, had just been released from prison in King County, Wash., where he spent 10 years incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.
Olebar, now 30, was declared innocent on all charges and released from prison after serving 10 years of a 16-year sentence.
“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’. I was ecstatic,” Olebar said from his home in Renton, Wash.
Olebar quickly exchanged his prison garb for his own clothes. “Those are my identity…They express who I really am—a strong and proud native,” he said.
The nightmare that was Olebar’s life for 10 years began in 2003 when, while living in King County, Wash., Olebar was accused of being one of six to eight men who broke into his sister’s boyfriend’s home and 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 feathers tattooed on their faces. The victim picked Brandon Olebar out of a police photo lineup despite the fact that Olebar didn’t have such a tattoo, and that he said he’d been with his aunt and uncle, then later his grandmother on the day of the incident.
Olebar and his uncle were subsequently convicted of first-degree robbery and first-degree burglary and each sentenced to 16 years in prison. An appeal court also upheld Olebar’s conviction.
“It felt like my whole world was caving in,” he said.
Olebar passed the time in prison reading, especially about aboriginal issues. He also sketched and did bead work. But his thoughts always returned to his wife, who is Navajo (a U.S.-based tribe) and to the deep roots of his aboriginal culture.
Although born in the United States, Olebar traces his roots to Ahousaht and Kyuquot/Checleseht on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, where his mother Gina is originally from, as well as the Sto:lo in the Fraser Valley.
“I really missed being at pow-wows, hearing the singing, talking to elders and having good food at your fingertips,” he said.
Olebar missed something else as well—the sound of children. “I spent a lot of time with my nieces and nephews growing up and it was an awful thing being in a place where there was no children.”
Prison authorities shipped Olebar around during his decade of incarceration. He was housed in prisons in King County, Walla Walla, Clallam Bay and Monroe, Wash. He was also transported to prisons in Colorado and Arizona, he said.
While behind bars in Arizona, Olebar and his wife Melissa tried to engage the services of the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization committed to exonerating wrongfully convicted people. The request was denied: they were told Olebar had to contact a project representative in their own state. “We didn’t have one in our own state then,” he said.
In 2011, Melissa found an Innocence Project Northwest pamphlet at the University of Washington. She filled it out, sent it and waited. Later that year, they accepted Olebar’s case. Through their investigation, an IPN press release noted, University of Washington law students identified several attackers who were never prosecuted. Three of the attackers signed sworn statements stating that they took part in the attack but that Olebar was not involved or even present.
After reviewing the evidence, the prosecutor’s office dismissed all charges.
The first thing Olebar did when he left prison was to eat some “real food” instead of the mashed potatoes, bologna, goulash and sack lunches the prisons doled out.
“My wife, lawyer and I went to Red Robin and I had the biggest, greasiest burger there,” he said.
Olebar has had some difficulty adjusting to freedom. He had to walk out of a store because he couldn’t deal with choosing a box of cereal from an entire aisle stocked with them. And he’s also dealing with post traumatic stress issues from his prison stay.
Through it all, Melissa has been a rock for him. “She’s loving and devoted and we’ve been with each other through thick and thin,” Olebar said.
Olebar is also finding comfort in his aboriginal culture. He’s gone to sweat lodge ceremonies with family in the U.S., and he’s thinking about participating in the Washington State-based Tribal Canoe Journeys. And he’s also investigating the longhouse tradition from his Sto:lo roots. These winter spiritual dances involve bestowing a traditional name or carrying out a memorial rite for a deceased family member.
Olebar is in the process of filing paperwork for 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. “That’s not nearly enough for what I went through,” he said.
It’s too soon for Olebar to think about what he will do with his newfound freedom. While in prison he often thought about making Pendleton blankets with native crests on them for aboriginal children in foster care.
“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.”