Trial to begin in home invasion that shook Conn. town
Survivor to testify on family’s slaying
NEW HAVEN — They were a model family living in an affluent suburb. William Petit was a prominent doctor. His daughter was on her way to Dartmouth, hoping to follow in his footsteps. His wife had multiple sclerosis and the family was active in efforts to raise money to fight the disease.
But a chance encounter with a career criminal at a supermarket in July 2007 destroyed the family, authorities say. Joshua Komisarjevsky spotted Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters at the store and followed them to their Cheshire home, then returned later with his friend Steven Hayes and together they severely beat Petit and killed his wife and daughters, authorities say.
The crime drew comparisons to “In Cold Blood,’’ Truman Capote’s chilling book about the 1959 murders of a Kansas family. It prompted a special session of the Legislature and spurred more residents to buy guns.
Hayes heads to trial this week.
Both defendants have offered to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences, but prosecutors, seeking the death penalty for both, pushed for trials, defense attorneys said.
“It left the state shocked and people feeling vulnerable in the sense that it happened in a town where violence rarely occurs and it happened in a way that shook civilization, people’s idea of civilization,’’ said Rich Hanley, journalism director at Quinnipiac University.
William Petit is scheduled to testify early in the trial, which is expected to last about a month.
After a recent court hearing, he said he welcomed hearing the names of his wife and daughters in court.
“Most of the process tends to be one of depersonalization,’’ Petit said. “I was actually pleased to hear their names to show it was personal, they were people, living people. They can’t be there to give their side of the events.’’
Hayes and Komisarjevsky, two paroled burglars, are accused of beating and tying up William Petit, taking his family hostage, and forcing his wife to withdraw money from a bank.
Hayes, 47, is accused of sexually assaulting and strangling Hawke-Petit. Komisarjevsky, 30, is charged with sexually assaulting 11-year-old Michaela. The two allegedly tied Michaela and her 17-year-old sister, Hayley, to their beds, poured gasoline on and around them, and set the house on fire, killing the girls, authorities say.
William Petit managed to escape.
Hayes and Komisarjevsky fled the burning home in the family’s car and were caught after ramming several police cruisers, authorities said. Hayes was wearing Hayley’s school cap, police say.
The pair, each with more than 20 burglaries on their records, had spent time in the same Hartford halfway house. At the time of the killings, both were free on parole after serving time for 2003 burglary convictions.
Hayes’s murder trial starts today in New Haven Superior Court. Once the Hayes case is finished, Komisarjevsky’s will be scheduled.
The Petit home invasion and deaths have had an effect. Gun permit applications in Cheshire rose from 33, in 2006, to 81 the year of the crime, to 125 last year, police say. More residents bought security systems and dogs.
The Petit case led to tougher penalties for repeat offenders and home invasion.
Last year, the Legislature voted to repeal the state’s death penalty, but Governor M. Jodi Rell vetoed the bill. Petit actively lobbied in favor of keeping capital punishment.