Convicted Branford Killer Set Free
Evidence Issue At Trial Cited
A heroin addict convicted of a drug-fueled arson-murder in a Branford beach community was freed from prison Thursday after a judge ruled that law enforcement failed to disclose evidence t hat could have helped his defense.
John Vailette, 48, was convicted of premeditated arson-murder in 2015 following a trial remarkable for its portrayal of the squalid lives of middle-aged heroin addicts living in beach communities in and around Branford.
Vailette was an addict, as was his victim, 39-year old Kathleen Hardy, and a halfdozen or so friends who were dragged into the case as witnesses and suspects. The evi-
dence turned on the tortured relationships among a group consumed by finding drugs, doing drugs and stealing things to pay for drugs. Many were in and out of jail.
In her final days, Hardy had begun informing on her friends to the police, while waiting to be arrested for stealing $50,000 from an elderly woman she had been hired to care for.
Following Vailette’s conviction, the state and federal prosecution team that brought the case in federal court disclosed that it discovered, belatedly, that it failed to provide Vailette with nine letters authorities received from Chris Olson. Olson was in jail at the time facing a drug charge and wrote to state prosecutors that he had evidence that could convict Vailette.
Olson became the only witness to testify that he heard an explicit confession from Vailette. He said Vailette admitted killing Hardy because she had stolen something from him. Olson insisted he was testifying for purely selfless reasons. He denied seeking any consideration from authorities in return for his cooperation, such as leniency in his drug case. He insisted he did not ask for leniency, was not promised it and did not receive it.
Olson’s jailhouse letters revealed that he harangued state prosecutors for months, demanding leniency in return for his cooperation and insisting he would not testify otherwise. Vailette’s defense team, Hartford lawyers Craig Raabe and Kate Dion, said that Olson eventually was released from jail without serving an additional sentence.
U.S. District Judge Robert N. Chatigny ordered a new trial for Vailette, telling the lawyers that Vailette might not have been convicted had his defense team been able to use the letters to attack Olson’s veracity.
“In short, the defense could have used the letters to show that Mr. Olson was not the self-sacrificing, conscientious citizen he wanted the jury to find him to be but was instead testifying falsely to gain a benefit for himself,” Chatigny told the lawyers in the case.
Raabe said Thursday: “The government has made a wise decision to dismiss this case. There’s no question that it was built on false testimony by a key government witness.”
U.S. Attorney John Durham agreed to a dismissal, saying the prosecution could not retry the case because of the death of another witness, among other things. Durham said in court papers that the prosecution was not aware the letters existed when Vailette was tried.
Vailette has spent years in prison on at least two drug-related federal convictions. While held on the just-dismissed case, he befriended Robert “Bobby the Cook” Gentile, the geriatric Hartford gangster who the FBI believes has information about a half-billion in art stolen decades ago from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Gentile became Vailette’s advocate, trying to persuade a reporter that Vailette had been “framed.”
Vailette was accused of killing Hardy on March 7, 2006. Someone doused her rented house at 27 Little Bay Lane in Branford’s Short Beach neighborhood with an accelerant and set it afire.
The case stymied police, in part because of the unreliability of witnesses. Vailette and Steven Martone were finally charged seven years later in 2014, after state and federal prosecutors took over. Vailette was convicted in 2015 and sentenced to life in prison. Martone, whose defense was provided with evidence Vailette claims he did not receive, was acquitted in a separate trial.
The prosecution claimed at trial that Vailette killed Hardy because she was planning to pin the theft of $50,000 from the woman she cared for on Vailette’s uncle, another drug user and an on-and-off Hardy boyfriend. But because the case was populated with addicts with conflicting stories, the motive often looked muddy. Vailette’s defense argued that there is a long list of people who had motives for killing Hardy.