June 07--CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. -- Through 3-inch-thick glass in a cinderblock room deep within the razor-wire-topped walls of the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Center where he awaits trial for allegedly setting the 2006 arson fire that killed young Branford mother Kathy Hardy, John Vailette has a message.
Vailette is excited -- intense, even; his black hair slicked back, his dark eyebrows bushy, his eyes wide. He's desperate to be heard. He says it over and over again -- in person Friday and, earlier, by phone Wednesday after placing a call from behind prison walls to the New Haven Register.
He wants Hardy's family, prosecutors and the world to know so badly that he decided to tell two Register reporters without talking to his lawyer first.
He says he didn't do it -- he didn't kill Hardy.
"I'm being accused of a crime I didn't do," said Vailette, 43, by no means the first federal inmate to say that.
"I'm innocent," he said.
"I'm innocent," he repeats. "I had nothing to do with the heinous crime that happened."
Vailette said he found out he was one of two people charged with Hardy's murder in a March 26 indictment when he heard it on the 10 o'clock radio news while lying in bed in his cell in Fairton, New Jersey, where he was serving time on drug charges. He said he wanted to tell his side of the story because what has come out so far "has only been one-sided.
"I'm sure I'm going to get in trouble with my lawyers" for talking, "but it is what it is," he said, resting his elbows on a long, stainless steel counter at which several other inmates, all sitting on stools fixed to the floor, talked on phones bolted to the glass divider.
Vailette, a former heroin addict, said he has been clean for the 7 1/2 years he has been in prison, first in New Jersey and now in Rhode Island. He says he did know Hardy, who was 39 when she died, leaving her three children to be raised by their father and his new wife.
"She was a friend of my mom's, my stepfather's. ... She was a family friend" who dated his uncle, Vailette said. "We got high together."
Vailette knows the names of Hardy's kids and said they used to come to his uncle's place to swim off the deck there.
He said he has done "horrible things" over the years, but setting the fire that trapped Hardy in the second-floor bedroom of her rented Little Bay Lane home in Branford's Short Beach section is not one of them.
A grand jury indictment returned in New Haven alleges that onetime East Havener Vailette, also known as "John John" and "Snagglepuss," and Steven Martone of North Branford, also known as "Crash," spread accelerants around Hardy's Short Beach home to start the blaze.
Reached by phone, Hardy's mother, Bette Barrett said that "what my family wants -- all of us want -- is for justice to be served and we will leave that in the hands of the court. I have to wait and see what the court decides."
The family had waited for years for an arrest in the case, which was basically a cold case.
Barrett asked about a detail that appeared in Vailette's indictment regarding possessions of Hardy's that prosecutors said they discovered in a pickup truck "registered to his girlfriend."
"The truck, which had been hidden in New Haven for a period of time in the aftermath of the fire, was found at the home of another close associate of Vailette's," the indictment states. "A silver serving platter and jewelry that belonged to the decedent, Kathy Hardy, was found inside the truck."
Confronted with this information, Vailette responded by saying that Hardy had given her the platter and jewelry so he could turn around and pawn it for cash to pay for more heroin.
"I needed a fix," he said. "At that point, I needed to score something every day."
Barrett, told about Vailette's response, said the truth should come out in court.
"My family wants justice. We have waited a long time for it and we see the light at the end of the tunnel," Barrett said. "We'll see what the court decides."
Barrett said federal prosecutor John Durham "doesn't prosecute a case he can't win."