After eight years, and a long and winding investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s office announced Friday the indictment of two men charged with arson in connection with the death of Kathy Hardy in Short Beach on March 7, 2006.
Both men were known to the police and federal investigators in the days after Hardy’s death was declared a homicide. The case took many turns until it led to this week’s federal indictment. If the charges are proven, John Vailette, now in federal prison, and Steven Martone , arrested in North Branford Friday morning, could receive the death penalty. Others may also face arrest. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office told the Eagle today that the federal grand jury’s investigation “is ongoing.”
This month marks the eighth anniversary of the murder of then 39-year-old Hardy, who was the mother of three young children when she perished in an early-morning fire in her rented home at 27 Little Bay Lane. Investigators determined the fire had been set by an intruder, who apparently knew that Hardy kept her door unlocked and that her kids were with their dad that night. He might even have known that her dog Zoey, who might have alerted her, had gone missing.
Fire officials determined that an accelerant had been poured on the stairway leading up to her bedroom. Then someone lit a match. Hardy died of smoke inhalation at the top of the stairs. There were no alerts. Her smoke detector had been disconnected. Her dog was gone.
Hardy, who had struggled with drug addiction, was alone in the Little Bay Lane home when she died.
Shortly after the crime was committed, police began questioning a group of men and a woman who had knowledge of the crime and may have been hired to commit the crime. Police also knew at the time that a silver serving platter and jewelry that belonged to Hardy were found inside a truck that police told the Eagle in 2011 was often driven by a man then serving a federal prison sentence on a drug conviction. He was identified as the prime suspect.
The police asked the Eagle not to disclose the man’s identity because the inquiry was still ongoing. His name, John Vailette, was made public Thursday after his indictment was unsealed in U.S. District Court in Hartford. Vailette is also known as “John John” or “Snagglepuss.” At the time the police also said there were other co-conspirators.
One of those alleged co-conspirators, Steven Martone, was arrested Friday and charged, along with Vailette, with the federal crime of maliciously damaging and destroying, by means of a fire, a building and other real property used in interstate commerce. As a result of their conduct, the two are accused of “directly and proximately” causing the death of Kathy Hardy in the house on Little Bay Lane.
Martone appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna F. Martinez in Hartford Friday and was detained pending a hearing that is scheduled for April 2. Vailette was not in court because he is in federal prison. But at some point he will be.
Vaillete and Martone are not charged under any state murder statutes. The federal charges give the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office far greater leeway in investigating the case as an arson. If convicted of the charge of committing an arson resulting in death, Vailette and Martone face up to a lifetime term of imprisonment, or death, should the government pursue the death penalty in this matter.
Hardy was at a crossroads in her life when she was killed. She was trying to kick a cocaine habit and she was trying to straighten out a complex set of relationships involving three men, two of whom were once close friends. She was, according to her family, an informant for the state police. The state police, along with the prime suspect, were at her house on a Sunday afternoon two days before the fire was set. It is not clear why. She was also under investigation for extortion by the East Haven police.
In the weeks before her death, according to her family, she had engaged in a series of confrontational exchanges with the wife and father of a North Branford businessman with whom she was having an affair. She was with him, his driver, and a close girlfriend on the last night of her life, Monday, March 6, at a Taco Bell in East Haven. She was back at her rented home on Little Bay Lane by about 7 p.m. Police said they know that because she called her ex-husband, Jeff Hardy, around that time. He had their children—then ages 10, 6 and 5—that weekend.
The Branford police and the FBI conducted their first joint investigation after the case began in 2006. That inquiry led to no indictments except for the federal drug indictment against Vaillete.
It is clear from the four-page federal indictment that others, not yet named, were involved or had knowledge of the murder. Their testimony before the grand jury means they can be or will be called to testify at trial.
For example, the indictment says Vailette “told a second person whose identity is known to the Grand Jury that he had done something very, very bad which had involved a fire.”
It also says that Martone was confronted about his involvement in the fire by a non-law enforcement person whose identify is known to the grand jury. “Martone did not deny his involvement and also stated it was impossible for the police to have any DNA evidence ‘because of the way we left that.’”
There is no question in any one’s mind that this fire was “absolutely intentional,” former Branford Police Chief John DeCarlo said in an interview in 2011.
Over the course of time, the Branford police, overseen by the State’s Attorney’s office, joined forces with state police and the FBI. Lt. Bill Carroll, who headed the Branford inquiry until his retirement, and Paul Perrotti, the chief detective assigned to the case, conducted more than 125 interviews.
“These two defendants are charged with setting the fire that killed Kathy Hardy, a mother of three, in 2006,” stated U.S. Attorney Deidre M. Daly, in a press release announcing the indictments. “This lengthy, complex and ongoing investigation is being conducted with great care and professionalism by dedicated members of the FBI and Branford Police Department, with the assistance of state and local fire investigators. I want to thank them and our state partners from the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office for their diligence and excellent work in this ongoing investigation. Together, we seek justice for Ms. Hardy, her family and loved ones.”
Branford Police Chief Kevin Halloran said in the same release that the “horrific death of Kathy Hardy and subsequent arduous investigation has been at the forefront of the Branford Police Department for the past eight years. The scope of this investigation would have been impossible without the support of the New Haven office of the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney’s Office, Branford Fire Department, and other local, state and federal agencies involved in the investigation.”
Who murdered Kathy Hardy and why, are questions that have preoccupied multiple law enforcement agencies for the last eight years. At the outset of the inquiry police believed the men who set the fire were hired to do so. The federal inquiry is not over.