Waking the Dead

As detective and prosecutor, Mike Varnado and Bill Alford once stood together in the Angola witness room to watch Robert Lee Willie die. Today, their stances on the death penalty couldn't be further apart.


The last time Bill Alford and Mike Varnado stood together on the death penalty issue was in the cramped witness room to the execution chamber in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola on Dec. 27, 1984.

On that day, the two friends and colleagues drove to Angola together for the final act in a case that resulted in Robert Lee Willie's execution by electric chair for the killing of Faith Hathaway four years earlier. Varnado was the detective who found Hathaway's mutilated body in Fricke's Cave in rural Washington Parish, and ultimately took Willie's confession to his part in the brutal kidnapping, rape and murder of Hathaway. Alford was there as the prosecuting attorney successful in obtaining first-degree murder convictions for Willie and his crime-spree partner Joe Vacarro, who was spared the death penalty by a sole juror in an 11-1 vote. Vacarro is now serving three consecutive life sentences.

Praying in close confines behind Varnado and Alford in the witness room was New Orleans nun Sister Helen Prejean, who served as Willie's spiritual advisor on death row at Angola. Willie and Prejean's relationship is famously remembered in Prejean's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Dead Man Walking, and in the movie of the same title, which starred Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Together, the book and movie stand as one of the cornerstones of the anti-death penalty movement in the United States and worldwide.

For most people, Prejean and the death penalty debate are the primary legacies of the Hathaway murder. For Varnado and Alford, the case has a more personal impact. Last month, Gretna-based Pelican Publishing released Varnado's intimate, first-person account of his role in the case, titled Victims of Dead Man Walking. And Alford, now a staunch opponent to capital punishment, is nearing retirement as a public defender in St. Tammany Parish, where he works to spare his court-appointed murder-case clients of the death penalty with the same vigor with which he once prosecuted Willie and Vacarro.

"I'd love for when people say 'Dead Man Walking,' they get a picture of Faith Hathaway in their mind instead of Sean Penn," Varnado, 49, says. "I didn't write this book to change anybody's mind on the death penalty. I wrote it to help myself, to help my family and to help Miss Harvey (Hathaway's mother). I wrote it to put a face on that young girl that was murdered by Robert Willie."

Alford, meanwhile, says that for him the case -- and the execution -- helped prompt a change of both career and heart. "I felt that I was just doing my job prosecuting Robert Lee Willie," says Alford, 63. "I went to his execution because I had thought to myself, 'Wait a minute. You've been asking for the death penalty all these years. You ought to have the courage to go and watch the execution.' It changed my life.

"Now, I think that if a jury convicts a man of first-degree murder and sentences him to death, then the jury should put him to death. They want to kill somebody? Then let them do it, and see how strong they are for the death penalty then."

Varnado realized his dream of becoming a deputy with the Washington Parish Sheriff's Office as soon as he met the minimum age requirement of 21, while he was a student at Southeastern Louisiana University. He worked in the parish jail for six months before being sent by the sheriff to the police academy. Upon graduating, he was promoted to detective, a rapid advance into a role he's held throughout his three-decade career in law enforcement.

At 25, he earned the job of chief investigator for District Attorney Marion Farmer, whose district encompassed all of St. Tammany and Washington parishes. Only 18 months into that position, he was called by Richard Farmer, his replacement in the Washington Parish Sheriff's Office. Farmer said a picnicking family at Fricke's Cave, a popular recreational spot just south of Franklinton, found the clothes and purse of a girl reported missing from Mandeville.

Varnado searched Fricke's Cave for two full days in an atmosphere he describes in his book as "a zoo," with FBI, three area law-enforcement agencies, Hathaway's family and community volunteers all looking for the body. After two full days, the search was called off. "Everyone was convinced she was not in Fricke's Cave," Varnado writes. "Everyone except me."

The day after the search was called off on June 3, Varnado found Hathaway's body after picking up a scent in the cave. "I followed the odor, and it grew stronger and stronger as I walked," he writes. "Finally, when the smell was nearly overpowering, I saw it. I say 'it' and not 'her' because what I saw was no longer Faith Hathaway. It was the horrid, decomposing remains of what was left of Faith's body. ... The flesh of Faith's face was gone. Her head was skeletal and a dark, grayish black. There were gaping holes where Faith's eyes once had been. Her mouth was wide open as if Faith died screaming. Her arms were stretched backwards over her head and her legs were spread as far apart as humanly possible." (Varnado's book includes graphic photos of the body -- photos that he says Hathaway's mother wanted published.)

Less than a day before Varnado found Hathaway's body, Willie and Vacarro were arrested in Hope, Ark., for the kidnapping, rape and attempted murder of Mark Brewster and Debbie Cuevas, crimes committed in St. Tammany Parish four days after the murder of Hathaway. With Vacarro and Willie detained, Varnado flew in a helicopter over the 500 miles from Franklinton north to Hope to interrogate.

Varnado recalls in his book that before the questioning, "We drove to the jail, I checked over what we knew so far in our investigation into the murder of Faith Hathaway. In reality, it was not much. ... We had reason to suspect Willie and Vacarro, particularly after they released Debbie, and she related her story. Still, we had no direct evidence. The District Attorney's Office was in a state of despair. Without a confession, things were not looking good."

However, Varnado today credits "baseball talk and all the good ol' boy stuff" with helping Willie confess.

"Robert Willie's confession was the most free, legal, voluntary confession I've ever taken, and I've taken 200, 30 or 40 of those murder confessions," Varnado says during a recent interview over lunch at the Franklinton Country Club.

"He wanted to tell somebody his story," Varnado says. "How can you get your name in the paper, be Jesse James and let everybody know how bad you are if you don't tell somebody? But he wasn't going to tell anybody that was being mean to him. I was very, very nice. And he just told me the whole story. I didn't even press him to be the one with the knife. Three questions, and he just told all."

Despite his success, Varnado says his zeal for law enforcement dissipated years ago as a result of the Hathaway case. He calls it a major source of a strain on his personal life that descended into alcoholism.

"I wish I had never gotten involved with this case," Varnado says. "I enjoyed police work up until that time. I was young, only 25. That's too young not only to experience all that evil, that violence, but it's also too young for having the responsibility of getting the confessions and making a first-degree (murder) case. It was a big case, and there was a lot of pressure on me, and everybody close to it.

"The drinking was a way to cope with the stress, I guess. I remember not being able to sleep during the case. It wasn't that I woke up one day and started drinking a lot. But it was years before I realized how much damage I was doing. When it was pointed out by my family, I stopped." Varnado says he is no longer drinking -- "not a drop."

As Varnado's drinking increased, he says, his passion for police work dropped. "For my first 30 or 40 murder cases, when I got everything completed and got the conviction, it was an adrenaline rush," he says. "It was a high like a drug. But for my last five of six cases after Willie, I didn't get that rush. Instead, it was the other way around. It depressed me. Made me sick. I was even crying on the witness stand."

Varnado left the Washington Parish sheriff's office 18 months ago in the wake of a scandal involving former Sheriff Duane Blair, a friend of Varnado's who resigned while being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's office after it was revealed that Blair was addicted to the painkiller Oxycontin. Varnado now owns two businesses: Varnado Investigations, where he works as a private investigator in primarily personal-injury cases, and Varnado Bonding, a bail-bond company in Franklinton he says "will never release violent criminals."

Varnado has also discovered writing as catharsis, with Victims of Dead Man Walking as well as with a weekly column on the opinion page of Era-Leader, the Franklinton newspaper.

"I encourage everyone to write, no matter what your education is," Varnado says. "Because when you get into writing, nothing else exists. ... Hopefully with this book and my other writing, I won't have to go back to that sheriff's office."

Bill Alford enjoys the prospect of spending his retirement on his cattle farm in rural Tangipahoa Parish near the town of Robert. But he remains active in a career that began soon after he graduated from Tulane Law School in 1966. An assistant under former Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison, Alford was one of four attorneys that tried Clay Shaw for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He worked for 15 years as a prosecutor and then 23 years as a defender, although he estimates 80 percent of his cases have been as a prosecutor. Recently, Alford made headlines as the defense for murder-case defendants such as Ronald Wayne Adams of Slidell, who was convicted on July 3 in the beating and stabbing death of his parents, but spared the death penalty and given a life sentence.

"The difference between defense and prosecution is that prosecutors never get to know the defendants," Alford says. "While they've done horrible things, they still have redeeming qualities. I've come to believe the thing to do with these people is warehouse them, put them away for life where they can't kill or wreak havoc on society ever again. Some people say, 'Jail is too good for them.' To that, I say, 'You've never been to Angola.'"

Alford says his conversion to opposing the death penalty stems "from the first time I saw in person a cold-blooded killing in the execution of Robert Willie. You don't call it murder, because you're acting in accordance with the law. But Robert Willie was purposefully and intentionally killed. And I witnessed it."

Varnado consulted Alford while writing his book, and Alford has reviewed excerpts in which he's mentioned. Alford also provided Varnado with testimony tape from the trial. "As far as I know, Mike's book is accurate," Alford says. "However, he portrays himself as being upset and concerned, though I remember him acting cavalier throughout the whole ordeal. I was the one that was upset and concerned. But it's his book, he can write it however he wants, I guess."

In Victims of Dead Man Walking, Varnado quotes Alford in his closing arguments in the second trial of Willie -- which Alford prosecuted after the state Supreme Court found misconduct in the first trial by prosecuting attorney Herb Alexander. In his final statements to the jury, Alford is quoted in the book as saying, "When the evidence is as strong as it is in this case, the only punishment is death. And why? Why is that? Why is the only punishment death? Because if we as a community, if you as a group of citizens are going to say that life is valuable, you are going to say Faith Hathaway had a right to live. If you're going to hold anything holy about the life of Faith Hathaway, if you're going to say that it has any value at all, you've got to say the death penalty, because otherwise you're saying, 'Robert Willie, your life is more valuable than Faith Hathaway's, your life means more than Faith Hathaway's.'"

These words are a far cry from the controversial and well-publicized 1998 trial in which Alford defended Jesse Hoffman, a current Angola death row inmate. Hoffman was convicted of first-degree murder in the Thanksgiving 1996 death of Mary "Molly" Elliot, a 28-year-old advertising executive abducted in her car from a CBD parking lot and killed in St. Tammany Parish. Alford lobbied unsuccessfully to have the trial moved to Orleans Parish, stating that most of the crimes were committed in New Orleans and that it was "an inner-city crime."

"Another problem I have with the death penalty is that there's no way to make it uniform and not subject to society's prejudice or pre-conceived notions," Alford says. "You can not devise a system that will fairly do it. Our current system is fair for a white middle-class male or female. Those people don't get the death penalty. That offends me.

"In the case of Jesse Hoffman, it was a no-win situation. We had 15 mitigating witnesses, all African-American, on the stand for Hoffman's defense. The jury's eyes glazed over during the testimony of each one. An all-white jury? In Republican St. Tammany Parish? What chance does a black boy have against that?"

Varnado and Alford may have parted in their stances on death penalty issue, but they are united in their disdain for Prejean. Alford says that he "does not appreciate at all the sensationalism that Prejean brought to the case," and adds that she was incorrect in stating in her book that Alford accompanied Varnado to Arkansas.

"Sister Prejean got in to see Robert Lee Willie claiming to be his spiritual advisor. She didn't advise him, she just got his story. She wasn't worried about his soul, she was worried about her cause. His last words come from her. His last words were 'The death penalty is wrong.' Huh? It should have been more like, 'Please forgive me for all that I've done.' She just got his story and made money off it."

Varnado says that Prejean's book incorrectly stated that Varnado possibly moved Hathaway's body before experts could examine it -- opening the possibility that Willie was not the killer. Varnado adds that Prejean also incorrectly wrote that he coaxed the confession from Willie in exchange for leniency for his mother, who was jailed for helping the fugitives.

Varnado recalls that his anger at Prejean was especially strong in the Angola witness room, the night Willie was executed. "In that witness room," he says, "I came real close to slapping a nun in the face." When he decided to write his book, Varnado says, he sent two emails asking for Prejean's cooperation, but received no reply. He sent a third email, which he admits was "hateful."

Calls and email to Prejean for comment for this story were not returned. Prejean continues to be a leading advocate against the death penalty and is currently working on a book for Random House about two possibly innocent men on death row. Thanks to her efforts, the primary legacy of the murder of Faith Hathaway is likely to remain the debate over the death penalty -- a fact amplified by the opposing stances of Alford and Varnado.

"I'm a Democrat, but I'm no wall-eyed liberal," Alford says. "I believe in punishment for crime. But America pisses enough money away that we can afford to house and feed these criminals. How can anyone think that they can't or won't make something out of their lives? I feel that now, whenever I'm fighting to save a life, that I'm doing God's work."

"Robert Willie was pure evil," Varnado contends. "I saw no redeeming qualities in him. I sleep well at night knowing Robert Willie is dead. He can't escape, he can't hurt anybody else, he can't hurt my children or my wife. His execution didn't make me lose any sleep. It was necessary to end the suffering."

Detective Mike Varnado
  • Detective Mike Varnado

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Add a comment