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John Vailette

Other Connecticut Exonerations
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On the morning of March 7, 2006, firefighters were called to a house in Branford, Connecticut. They found the body of 39-year-old Kathy Hardy, who was dead from smoke inhalation. Tests showed the presence of an accelerant on the staircase, and the fire was ruled to be arson.

Two days after the fire, some of Hardy’s belongings were found in a truck that was often used by John Vailette. Vailette’s uncle, Charles Talmadge, had dated Hardy. At the time of her death, Hardy thought that she might be charged with embezzlement for taking money from an elderly woman she had cared for. Talmadge was worried that Hardy would pin the theft on him. Vailette said the items were in the vehicle because he was trying to pawn them on Hardy’s behalf.

In addition, Hardy was a police informant – it was a deal she had made to avoid prosecution on drug charges. Vailette, who like Hardy struggled with drug addiction, knew of that arrangement.

Vailette had pled guilty to a federal drug-trafficking charge in 2008, and he was sentenced to ten years in prison. In his sentencing memorandum, Vailette’s attorney said he had been targeted in the sting by the federal government as a way to pressure him to cooperate in the investigation into Hardy’s death.

Although Vailette was an early suspect, the investigation soon stalled, and Hardy’s family was unhappy with the Branford Police Department’s progress. In 2011, the Connecticut State Police took over the case, and eventually, it was turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Vailette and a friend named Steve Martone were indicted on March 26, 2014 on charges of arson resulting in Hardy’s death. There were no eyewitnesses to the crime, but several people said Vailette had made incriminating statements. He allegedly told one witness that he would harm Hardy if she tried to pin the embezzlement on his uncle. Another witness, Christopher Olson, claimed Vailette said that he had done something bad and someone had died, although he hadn’t named Hardy as that person. On October 2, 2015, after a two-week trial and a week of deliberations, a jury in U.S. District Court in Hartford convicted Vailette of arson resulting in death.

While Vailette was awaiting sentencing, Martone’s trial took place. Jurors voted to acquit Martone on January 8, 2016. Two days earlier, Olson had written to the Connecticut State’s Attorney Office to try to collect the $50,000 reward for his role in the conviction. Olson, a petty thief and jailhouse informant, had testified that he sought “nothing” for his testimony. Prosecutors forwarded the letter to Vailette’s attorneys, although they insisted the request wasn’t improper or in conflict with Olson’s testimony.

As Vailette’s attorneys prepared a motion for a new trial, they examined the transcript from Martone’s trial and learned of a letter written by a man named Eric LaPenna in late 2006. LaPenna, who knew both Vailette and Hardy, was writing to his son in prison. In the letter, LaPenna advanced several theories of the crime, including some that did not involve Vailette. Connecticut prison officials had intercepted the letter and sent it to the Branford Police Department. A copy had been given to Martone’s attorneys, but not to Vailette’s counsel.

Federal prosecutors went to the police department and discovered that the department had maintained two separate files on the case. Along with LaPenna’s letter, they also found documents that detailed problems that investigators had with examining evidence and interviewing a witness. They also discovered two letters from Olson to state officials, including Kevin Kane, Connecticut’s Chief State’s Attorney.

When federal prosecutors went to Kane’s office, they discovered eight additional letters, the earliest dating back to 2011. In one, written June 3, 2012, Olson said he was willing to “go on the record, in open court, to clear and close this case, but only if intercession is conferred upon my behalf.”

In their motions to oppose granting Vailette a new trial, prosecutors said that Vailette’s attorneys had known Olson was cooperating with the government and that there was never any deal, despite Olson’s efforts to secure one.

On August 23, 2018, Judge Robert N. Chatigny granted Vailette a new trial. The government dismissed its charges on November 5. It said that the disclosure of Olson’s letters, along with the death of a key witness, made dismissal necessary. Hardy’s family sharply criticized Kane, who told the New Haven Register that the failure to disclose the Olson letters was inadvertent. “It was an oversight,” he said. “I’m sorry for it — very sorry. I can understand why they're very upset.”

Vailette was never sentenced for the arson, but he was released from federal prison on the drug charges in April 2015.


– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 11/15/2018
Last Updated: 11/16/2018
State:Fed-CT
County:
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2006
Convicted:2015
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:Not sentenced
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:34
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No