Death penalty sought for suspects
By Katy O'donnell, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, July 27, 2007
Late Thursday afternoon -- nearly three and a half days after the brutal murders of incoming freshman Hayley Petit and her mother and sister in their home in Cheshire, Conn. -- New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington filed six capital felony charges against each of the defendants, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven J. Hayes, and announced that the state plans to seek the death penalty for both.
The charges facing Komisarjevsky, 26, and Hayes, 44, include sexual assault, arson and kidnapping.
Petit's father, nationally-renowned physician William Petit, Jr., '78 -- whom witnesses say was nearly unrecognizable after enduring sustained beating -- was the only member of the family to survive the attack and escape the fire the accused allegedly set to his house. He is still in the care of St. Mary's Hospital in Waterbury, Conn., where he has received visits from extended family, close friends and the tailor fitting him for a suit to wear to his family's funeral.
The triple murder shocked the upper-middle class town of Cheshire -- a community of 29,000, 15 miles north of New Haven -- and garnered national media attention.
The spotlight cast on the quiet, predominantly affluent town and the attack on one of its more prominent and respected families is, for the most part, unsurprising. John Connelly, the state's attorney for Waterbury, even told the New York Times on Wednesday that "based on the facts of this case, I don't think there has been a more horrendous murder in the state of Connecticut in the last 30 years."
The Times confidently compared the case to the notoriously savage 1959 slaying of the prominent Clutter family in Kansas, a case made famous by Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." Both of the Clutter killers, who met in prison like Hayes and Kormisarjevsky did, were executed.
Connecticut has witnessed only one federal execution in the past 47 years -- that of Michael Ross in 2005. Ross was sentenced to death in 1987 for the rape and murder of eight young girls before being executed May 13, 2005. Deliberations for his death sentence only took four hours. Before him, the last man executed in Connecticut was Joseph Taborsky for robbery and murder on May 17, 1960. Dearington has sought the death penalty only once, in 2000, for a triple murder of a woman and her two small children. Although the suspect was convicted, the death sentence was denied.
New details of the circumstances surrounding the grisly murder of the Petits have emerged over the last few days. Police now believe the suspects looked on as Hayley's mother, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, returned to the family's Mercedes-Benz in a local Stop & Shop parking lot with daughter Michaela in tow on Sunday night around 7:30. Hayes and Komisarjevsky then followed the two to their home nearly a mile away, before driving to a Wal-Mart to buy rope and an air-rifle. They parked their car slightly more than a mile away from the Petits' home before entering the house through a cellar door.
The next six hours are largely unaccounted for, but authorities do know that at some point early in the invasion, Dr. Petit confronted the intruders, who beat him with a baseball bat and left him in the basement. Petit is believed to have been unconscious for the majority of the occupation.
Around 5 or 6 a.m., Hayes apparently left the house to fill four containers with gasoline, a move which has led many authorities to believe that the arson was the result of a post-haste decision to cover their tracks.
Hayes got lost on his way back to the house and had to call Komisarjevsky for directions. At 9 a.m., he accompanied Hawke-Petit to a bank located in the same shopping center where he had spotted her the night before. Upon withdrawing $15,000, Hawke-Petit managed to alert bank employees that her family was being held hostage.
When Hawke-Petit returned to her home, she was strangled to death by one or both of the suspects before they poured gasoline around her body and around her daughters, who were tied to their beds. Investigators believe that Hawke-Petit and Michaela Petit were sexually assaulted.
Dr. Petit awoke to the screams of his wife as she pled for her life on the floor above him. When the screams stopped, he noticed that the house around him was on fire and managed to hop out of the cellar and to a neighbor's house to ask for help. The autopsies performed Tuesday revealed that the Petit daughters died of smoke inhalation, while Hawke-Petit died of asphyxiation.
Around 9:30 a.m., the first police officer on scene was met with the screams of at least one of the Petit girls before witnessing the house burst into flames. As he approached the house, the suspects tried to run over him in the family's SUV, which they later rammed into two police cars forming a barricade down the street. The car rolled about 30 feet before stopping, when the suspects were swarmed by armed policemen.
Komisarjevsky -- whose family includes a Russian princess, famous Russian dancers and a CEO of a major public relations firm -- began robbing houses before he hit 14 years old, and he was convicted in 2002 of breaking into homes in Bristol, Conn., outfitted in military night-vision goggles and latex gloves and armed with a knife. The judge presiding over the case called him "a cold, calculating predator" before sentencing him to nine years in prison.
The judge's pronouncement, however, was not on file when Komisarjevsky went before the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Parole earlier this year. He had been released to a halfway house in Hartford, Conn., in June 2006. On April 10 he was granted parole.
Hayes, meanwhile, has been in and out of court -- and jail -- since 1980. He has been arrested repeatedly on charges including burglary, larceny and forgery, and has entered prison nearly two dozen times. In 2003, he was sentenced to five years in prison, but was released to the halfway house where he met Komisarjevsky in June of 2006. He returned to prison in November 2006 before being granted parole May 3.
Investigators have still not discovered whether a previous connection existed between the suspects and the victims or whether the Petits were chosen randomly by the career criminals who each hold over 20 prior convictions but fell through cracks in the parole system bureacracy.
Public memorial services for the Petit victims will be held on Saturday morning Monday night.