Angel on Death Row

Interview Header
photo of Mike
Varnado Q: Can you tell us what brought you out there?

Varnado: A young girl by the name of Faith Hathaway had been kidnapped in Mandeville. Two boys-- we later found out their names to be Robert L. Willie and Joseph Vaccaro -- kidnapped the girl outside of a local lounge there. And they brought her up here. They raped her up the top of the hill here. We're at Frickie's Cave in Washington Parish outside of Franklinton. And then they blindfolded her and they beat her up there. They blindfolded her, made her walk down the hill. Come up I would said another hundred yards down into the bottom of the cave, raped her and beat her, kicked her some more. Managed to drop her purse and belongings up here about 100 yards or so and then brought her down in here where we're standing now. And raped her and killed her. Raped her again. Did some very vile things after she was dead also.

Q: The area had been searched but something made you come back and look again yourself about four days later ...

Varnado: This was a very common picnic area. And some people had come down the day after she was kidnapped and was picnicking and they found her purse. And some other items, I don't remember what they were but her driver's license, ID cards, overnight bag, things like that. And they brought it to the sheriff's office and they turned it in. Well we contacted St. Tammany deputies because this girl was from St. Tammany Parish and Mandeville police, St. Tammany deputies, FBI, and a lot of the family and stuff came up here and searched the area. And they searched for about four days and they never found her. They never found anything. So being familiar with this area, I've hunted in here and I've lived here all my life. This is my home. It was unusual to me that they would give up on the search because coming in and out of here is not a easy feat. So I decided to come back down and take a look. A deputy showed me where the clothes were. I started another search and it didn't take but about 30 minutes later I run upon her body.

Q: What happened when you followed the smell.

Varnado: When the smell hit me I immediately knew what it was. There was no doubt in my mind, it was so strong. So I followed it on down, I hit this little creek over here. Followed the creek on down and I could see her probably 20 yards through there, I could see the body. And I walked up to it before I really could believe that it had been overlooked and you know after I found the body, I had a friend over there, I guess he was about a hundred yards through the woods over there helping me search, I hollered for him to go get on the radio and call the sheriff's office and send the investigator that had been working for the sheriff's office at that time to come down here. And after I did that I just stayed with [the] body until -- I also notified the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab who worked the crime scene for me. And I guess it took four or five hours to do all that. And we loaded the -- loaded her up and took her out of here.

Q: When you came upon the body, what was your reaction?

Varnado: Well I was shocked. As soon as I saw it my ears were roaring so loud, I couldn't even think what I should do. And I bet you it was at least two or three minutes before I even thought to yell to my partner to come try to help me out and call the radio and stuff like that. But I've never seen anything like that and I've been working violent crime on both sides, defense and prosecution for 20 years and I've never seen anything like it. And I guess I was down here about an hour by myself with her and about 15 minutes after the shock I started doing what a policeman's supposed to do, I started making notes and description of what I saw and things like that.

Q: What did you see?

Varnado: The girl was spread out, spread eagle, flat on her back, completely nude. Her legs were stretched as wide as they could go and her arms were held up above her head like this and her head was cocked back and her mouth was wide opened. And her mouth -- I mean her head had skeletized to the point of where it looked like a skeleton and, the rest of the body other than being bloated and you know the terrible wounds and maggots and stuff it was obvious it was a young white female. And it was obvious what they had done to her as far as raping her and things like that.

Q: Was there an expression on her face?

Varnado: The first thing that hit my mind is I said, 'My god this woman was screaming when she died.' That was the first -- that's what it looks like when you look at the pictures. It looks like the lady is still screaming.

Q: And can you tell me a little bit about what kind of wounds she had ... what had happened to this girl?

Varnado: She had a terrible wound -- I found out of course after I started the investigation I got some suspects and I went and interviewed the suspects and after talking to them I really realized then why the wound around the neck and all was so bad. They had jugged her is the word they used, cut her throat and jugged her, and kept jugging her and there was a massive wound here and in the chest. And I believe it was her left hand where the fingers were cut off. When she grabbed the knife, that's a typical defense wound, where she grabbed the knife and they ripped it back out and it severed her fingers. They cut her so hard that when we moved the body her head fell off. Her head was not, not intact with the body.

Q: What kind of crime this was and what kind of people must have committed it.

Varnado: This is Washington Parish. This is the crime that caused everybody to start locking their doors. This is a very small country community. I was outraged immediately that they would bring this girl up in here, this is our home, and do these, do these vile things to her. I'm still outraged about it. I don't like it. I don't know what to say to you other than it's affected my life since this has happened. I've worked a lot of violent crime like I told you before, since then, a lot but it's not - it's been nothing like this. Nothing. And today I resent those boys for coming up here in our community. My -- as a kid I come up here and picnic with the school. And that's all gone now because when you come down here now you can't bring the little kids because all they want to talk about is this is where that girl was murdered, where Faith Hathaway was murdered. So it ruined this place. It's closed now, you can't even get in here.

Q: Describe quickly again for me the things you said that this picture shows.

Varnado: OK -- this picture shows her whole body except maybe for her right hand and her right foot and it really shows the size of the wound around the neck. The white stuff you see here is actually maggots -- they tend to attack wounds first. And her legs are spread as wide as they could be spread. Her arms are way up over her head where it was so obvious from what had happened to her that somebody had held her hands down above her head. And also somebody had to be either holding her feet apart or between her legs. And as it later we determined that's exactly what -- what had happened is one person was holding her arms up over her head and the other person was stabbing her while he was between her legs.

Q: These pictures....

Varnado: This first picture is a picture of her face and the second picture is the picture that the same thing only it comes from the other side and a different angle. And the final picture is a picture that shows what I thought it was -- she was screaming. And it also shows the wound. It shows the massiveness of it and the depth of it. They used this knife and the first thing according to Willie himself, he took this knife and he cut her throat like this. And then he takes the knife and he starts -- he calls it jugging, of course he's given two different versions of this, one to a cell mate and one to me but to me he's saying that Joey is jugging her deep as the knife would go. Blood everywhere type thing. And the knife was also used in other parts of her body.

Q: You interrogated Willie ...

Varnado: [A] couple of days after I found the girl's body I flew to Fort Smith, Arkansas with trooper Ronnie Pierce and Washington Parish US deputy Richard Newman and Donald Short from St. Tammany and I interrogated Willie after I got up there. I went to Texarkana where Willie was jailed at the time and interrogated him while I was up there. I took a -- actually it was closer to an interview. I talked to him about everything from where he was raised to telling him about myself, where I was raised, and the key to him confessing is, he asked me a question. He said `I guess I'm a big man.' Or I'm making the headlines down there a lot and things like that. And I said yeah. I said you are. I said you could be like Jessie James. And he said yeah I'll tell you about it. Yeah I killed her. Or I was with Joe when he killed her. I'll give you an interview and he gave me the interview.

Q: Did he show a lot of remorse after this killing?

Varnado: Willie showed absolutely no remorse through the whole thing. None. He was proud of what he had done. He talked to me like this was a Sunday afternoon football game we were discussing.

He didn't have any problem telling me what they had done, the brutal details. The problem he had was actually owning up to being the one that actually cut the girl's throat. I guess he felt awkward about doing that. He would use words like you know before we actually turned the tape recorder on when we were just talking he would use words like bud and things like that just to -- I guess it was just tough guy talk. And he really tried to be a tough guy through the whole thing.

Q: Tell me about what you learned -- Faith's last words to him probably...

Varnado: What I learned is what he told me. He told me that Joe's last words to her were 'This bitch won't die, this whore won't die' as he kept jugging her. And of course he didn't say these were his words, he said these are Joe's words but he did say that the lady at some point told them please just let me go and die by myself. You all just leave and let me go and let me die by myself, something like that. And all Willie had to say to that is she was trying to wiggle around while she was saying it so he said I held her hands and said come on now behave. That's about all I remember of their conversation.

Q: Faith Hathaway, who was she and where she was heading in life.

Varnado: Faith had just graduated from Mandeville High School about seven or eight days prior to this. She was out with some friends that night on the lake front, a nice lounge on the lake front. And at some time after midnight is when her friends said she left, right after midnight. And she had to go home. She told them I got to go, I got to get up early, the recruiter is coming to pick me up early in the morning, she had joined the army. And she was real excited about going into the army. She had learned to -- her father or her stepfather, Mr. Verne Harvey had spent a career in the Navy and during that time she did a lot of traveling and she learned to speak several different foreign languages. And she wanted to go into the army and one of the reasons she wanted to go in was to learn these different foreign languages. And felt like that was the thing for her to do, go serve her country. From what I understand she was extremely excited about it.

Varnado: There was a lot of other people killed that night besides her. Her parents -- her mother and her stepfather -- even though they tried to play like they're not obsessed with it. They have no more life. Their life's ruined. It's over. I spoke to them twice a year since this thing's happened. I've kept up with them and they've kept up with me. And it's just as bad and just as bitter to 'em and maybe bitter is the wrong word but just as terrible to them as it was the day it happened. And they have another daughter and I'm sure she's suffering over this because of -- the grandparents I'm sure they're not in the position to treat her like they would have had Faith not been killed.

Q: Given how terrible the crime is though, does that give anyone the right to take his life?

Varnado: Absolutely! Absolutely! I hear all the death penalty talk and -- been a deterrent and I think it is because obviously he's not going to kill anyone, I think that's everybody's favor. But I don't see anything wrong with executing them to punish them. You know to punish him for what he had done. I see nothing wrong with that. I think it should be. And I had said before, I was struggling a little bit with this. I'm policeman, I'm not a religious man, and I've done this for 20 years. But our chief deputy is a baptist preacher and he he guides me through a lot of these things and he clearly gave me my authority in the Bible under Roman 13. And I had searched for it. And I found it. And I feel very comfortable with what I'm doing and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I wouldn't -- Obviously I'd do it exactly legal. And I followed the law to every step. And wouldn't -- wouldn't go out of line in any way to see that it's done but I'll do everything that I legally can to -- if another -- if I'm unfortunate enough to have another crime like this happen to me, or in my jurisdiction or the sheriff's jurisdiction, I don't have any problem doing what I did the last time.

Q: Where do you find a moral place to feel comfortable with the death penalty in this case especially?

Varnado: OK -- well-- I don't believe that the death penalty should be used in every murder case. For instance...when a husband comes in and catches his wife in bed with another man --another man and he kills one of them. Well, and he drops to the floor and he calls the police and say look what I've done. Well he's gonna go to the penitentiary for doing that but by no means should he go -- be put in the electric chair for that. I feel sorry for the people that do things like that but you can understand it. I can even understand when somebody doesn't have any money and they're desperate enough to go into a bank and some poor guard comes over and they didn't go in there to kill the guard. And they, and they kill him. And it's terrible. And technically under Louisiana law I guess the death penalty would apply there too. I wouldn't feel real comfortable with somebody dying with the death penalty on that. But what they did to this girl, they tortured her, they beat her, they raped her, they didn't want her money, they just wanted to degrade her, and just dehumanize her and just see how it feels to do this to someone. And it was just senseless. It was just absolutely positively no reason to do this. No matter how far you stretch your imagination there's no ... and that's the difference in the crimes that deserve the death penalty. Some do and some don't. And very few do. Very few do. But this one did.

And I struggle when I read the Bible. I can't really understand a lot of it and I think I know what something means and sometimes it really doesn't mean that after talking to him but Romans 13 is so clear, I told my wife, I said I think God made this so I could understand this real clearly. It's so simple and so clear of `the submit to government' and that do evil and the government's going to get you basically and do good and the government's going to praise you for it. And God doesn't give us the authority to do this. He demands that we do this. It made me feel a lot better about it. And Chief Wood knew I was -- had my thoughts about it and I wanted to be on religious firm ground doing this because I do the violent crimes now, and I'm sure I'm going to run across probably nothing this bad but something potentially where people are getting the death penalty and I feel real comfortable with what I'm doing.

Q: Someone like Sister Helen Prejean says that somebody like Robert Lee Willie did evil things, no doubt about that. But she also says that somebody who does evil things isn't necessary totally evil.

Varnado: I don't want to get into and one of the guards told her one time, I'm not going to get into religious debate with you and he used the term sister because I'll lose. But from what I understand through my spiritual advisor that we're baptist and we take the Bible literally. [I]f it's inconvenient and I know it was for Sister Prejean and some of this stuff, I don't want to say that, that she tells anything that's not true but she doesn't -- she can adjust the Bible, if the Pope says something different. And being a Catholic. And I'm not trying to say that Catholic is a bad religion but we don't adjust the Bible, we take it for what it is. And she does -- she bend the rules a lot to get her point across.

Q: And what is the impact of this kind of thing on the victim's family on the Harvey's? --

Varnado: I have a 18-year-old daughter and if they do that to her, we won't need the electric chair. And it's devastated the Hathaway family. Their lives are over. They're all over. They pretend that they're not obsessed with this and and things like that because they do want to move on with their lives but he might as well have cut their throats too.

Q: Do you think it's revenge for them?

Varnado: No, I don't think it's revenge. I think they got -- they have another daughter and that's what they've expressed to me many times and that's how I feel about it. I don't think it's revenge. I don't see anything wrong if they wanted a little revenge. I would like to have revenge if they did that to my daughter. But I think they were real comfortable that he's dead and they don't have to -- he can't do anything else to 'em. That's what I think.

Q: Why did they go to Angola again and again as they do for the execution?

Varnado: Because they firmly -- if they could -- if they could stop -- if they could keep one other family from going through what they went through they'll spend every day for the rest of their life to keep that from happening. They've told me that numerous times. And I think it's a good cause where they do -- they're trying their best to keep this from happening again to anybody. 'Cause they -- they know that another family couldn't take this any better than they can. And ...

Q: Do you hold Willie responsible for what happened to their family?

Varnado: Robert Lee Willie has devastated that family. He is -- like I said he, he might as well have killed them while he was killing their daughter. He's responsible for that, him and him alone. And Vaccaro, they're responsible for that. There's nobody else at fault on this. Nobody.

Q: Just before the execution what kinds of things were going through your mind?

Varnado: I was here several hours before the actual execution took place. And I remember -- this has been 12 years but I remember being concerned -- I had never seen any one go from completely living to totally dead. You know I've seen people die but not like that. Completely healthy. And I was concerned how I was going to feel about doing that. There was people eating and things like that. I had no appetite. Obviously you know, I didn't want anything to drink or eat. And most of it was just filled with conversation between me and the prosecutor that was here just trying to kill time up until the execution. I really don't know and I've asked myself a lot the main reason that I'd come to witness a execution. And I don't know that there was one main reason. One of the reasons is that I had got word that the family wanted me here to help support them. And I said to myself, I said to myself a lot that I was concerned how Mr. Harvey was going to act when he got here. And I had developed a relationship with him and I felt like I would come to kind of keep a eye on him too because he said what's on his mind and he may do what's on his mind too. But I guess the main reason that I came is I was so involved with everything and it was like seeing the final chapter of it. I just wanted to make sure and I might be involved in this again, I want to make sure I got the full picture before I'm involved in anything like this any more.

Q: Were you talking with God? Were you praying then?

Varnado: I was praying. I mean the whole time. I did more praying, I'm sure than anybody in this building. I asked God numerous times if there was anything that I did in this investigation that I should bring to light, any problems I've got anyway that I should immediately tell the prosecutor so this thing could be stopped and it could have been. And my conversation with God was probably the deepest and the closest I've ever been able to communicate with him. I actually really felt like I was communicating. Sometimes when I prayed I don't know if I'm, I'm really getting through or communicating. But I was communicating very well. And the message I was getting is there's no problem here, this is, this is my way of and this is going to be done. And trust me if I thought for one minute there was any reason to try to stop the execution or at least voice my opinion or back out of this thing, I would have. You know I'm my own man, I would have backed out of it and said I don't want anymore of this but this was necessary.

Q: Were you struggling with at that moment yourself in your own mind or with God?

Varnado: I was struggling at that time -- is the death penalty right? I had a terrible struggle with it. I didn't answer that, that night. That question wasn't answered to me that night. I was 25, 26 years old when this happened and it wasn't but four years later when they executed him. Yeah, I was struggling with it. [A]nd like I said I was praying so much that it did help a little. You know it helped my conscience a little that I felt comfortable that I could have definitely caused this execution you know to be stopped through the prosecutor if I had any misgivings about it going on. And God chose to let it continue through my mind and my prayers. So I feel -- you know I feel as comfortable as you can feel about this kind of thing.

Q: And if I just asked you head on why do you believe in the death penalty?

Varnado: Primarily I believe in the death penalty because I believe in somebody should be punished for what they do. I know that's not the popular way but me I see nothing wrong with anybody being punished for doing something like what these boys did. And absolutely to keep, well I've mentioned it before, I believe in it -- I was real comfortable after I saw that Robert Willie was dead because of my family. I was real comfortable that that man was dead and I didn't have to worry about some governor or something turning him loose and then my family being at risk.

Q: Is redemption possible for somebody like Robert Willie?

Varnado: I do believe that there would be some redemption. I think it would be a hard road for him to hoe. I think the -- you know they're going to have to -- they got a extra large burden to overcome and to think that -- that they're going to say well I think I might start believing in Jesus just in case or believing in God just in case, and I see a lot of people that once they get in prison God is the only way to go. I don't think Robert Willie was redeemed. I saw him stand at this podium right here and he looked at us and he said if you all think killing's wrong, what do you think you're doing to me? And I saw him look at Faith's mommy and daddy and say I hope you're getting some satisfaction out of this. And this is the tone. He should have been begging for forgiveness from these people and crying and saying please, and if he didn't do that, he certainly is in hell. He's got to be.

Q: Is there a question of the person being better than the most evil act they commit?

Varnado: I think if a person does something this terrible, I think that he can still go to heaven. I believe you can. I believe he's got a hard road ahead of him. I think from reading Helen Prejean's book and getting a feeling and she had a lot of time with this Sonnier guy, I think he possibly -- I am having to take her word for something which I don't like to do because of the other problems I've got with that book, but I think possibly he may if I understand that he confessed to her at the last minute what he had done, and really felt sorry for what he had done, I think she might have got through to him. I don't think she had enough time with Robert and I don't think that was her interest with Robert. That may not be fair but I don't -- from reading her material it's a different deal. She didn't make it with Robert Willie. She may have with Sonnier but she didn't.

Q: Some people say the government is killing these people and they talk about the government not having a right to. And when they say the government---they kind of mean you.

Varnado: Well, one of the things that I really resented in reading that book is Helen Prejean referred to the government doing this. And the government doing that. The way it sounds is like somebody up in Washington DC is ordering us to do things. The government wasn't doing this. It was Mike and it was Bill, and it was Willie J and Herbs and people. And I really resented her using the term government. But if she wants to use that term government she should go directly to Roman 13. Directly there. And that will relieve her.

Q: Why?

Varnado: I mean it's -- that's the `submit to government.' It spells out exactly what authority we are working under. I mean it spells it out so clean and so clear, I feel great once my preacher showed me that I feel great. I feel like he commands us to do what we're doing. And she's go to totally ignore that you know. But if she wants to use the term government, use it. But this wasn't the government.

Q:Just tell me--what did it mean to you to see somebody actually dying. Put yourself back to that moment and what you were thinking.

Varnado: What I was actually thinking 12 years ago -- all I can remember mainly doing especially once we got in this room was praying. I mean I was praying like I've never prayed before. And I'm sure everybody else in this room was praying. My heart was about to beat out of my chest. And one of the things that I, I resent about Helen Prejean, I mean I was talking directly to God. I mean directly to as I could to God. She comes in and stands right behind me and, and she starts, she interrupts my prayer. She starts playing like she's praying out loud. Forgive these people for murdering this man. That type stuff. Well that totally distracts me from what I'm doing. And, I resent that lady for doing that. That wasn't the time and that was not the place to do that. If she wanted to be praying she should have been praying for us too. Because we needed it. I don't even know if that's the right question but -- the right answer but once I got in.

Q: Do you respect Sister Helen? Do you respect her views and the views against the death penalty?

Varnado: I would have respected Sister Prejean's views and and and I've had trouble with using that word Sister but out of respect I'm going to try to use it. I, I have trouble with her views or I wouldn't have had as much trouble with her views if she would have told the truth, if she would have researched the case. She didn't go to the files, she didn't go to the clerk's office, she didn't -- certainly didn't interview me, didn't interview any of the witnesses in the case. Didn't look at any of those pictures. Didn't read any of those statements. Didn't listen to any of those confessions, admissions, whatever you want to call them. All she did she based her book on what was in I guess a defense file and what Robert Willie telling her. She had things in the book, the ridiculous things like well one of the answers to this might be that they moved the body, the police moved the bodies before the -- before they took the photographs. Well that kind of stuff was ridiculous and if she would have bothered to research it she could have eliminated all that. But she was -- she's trying to mislead people in the book. And that's something that she's going have to work out with herself.

Q: What do you think she's doing?

Varnado: I think Helen Prejean is after the Nobel Peace Prize. She's certainly not after giving anybody spiritual advice to try to save their soul. She might have originally started off with that at Sonnier but this lady is signing autographs in New Orleans for 10 dollars. I saw one man ask her how does it feel to be a superstar? And her comment's something like well I'm getting through it. And that's an inappropriate comment. From a nun.

Q: And the Harveys. Why do they keep coming to this place?

Varnado: I think the Harveys keep coming because if they can keep this from happening to one other person, one other family, they're going to feel like finally their life has purpose again. Because even though they try to hide it and stuff, Robert Willie might as well have cut their throats too when he cut their daughter's throat because their lives are history other than trying -- I think they're trying their best to keep anybody else from doing this to anybody.

Q: Tell me what effect this case has had on your life.

Varnado: All policeman have a certain amount of pride and ego and you work cases and you get your picture in the paper and you get a slap on the back because the pay is no good. And everybody likes that. My picture's been in the paper many time on this case. Now all of this stuff. I could live without it. This is the worst thing that I can think of right now that is happened in my life. I could do away with all -- I don't want any of this in my life any more. I thought it was gone. And Helen Prejean brought it back to the surface. I hope she's doing right. But she has brought all this back to the surface. And-- for the last week I haven't been able to have any family life again, I can't get it off my mind and things like that. I really resent her bringing this back up.



HOME || PROS AND CONS || INTERVIEWS || FEEDBACK


FRONTLINE / WGBH Educational Foundation / www.wgbh.org


web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS