Petit murders captured attention around the world
Focus waned but memories remain of lives lost
Editor’s note: This is the 16th part in the Register’s Top 50 Project as we roll out the stories through this year.
The New Haven area has seen its share of horrific and infamous crimes over the past halfcentury.
As the Register has reported: The Penney Serra murder in 1973. The 1998 killing of Yale student Suzanne Jovin. The 1986 murder of Hella Crafts by her husband Richard, who then disposed of his wife’s body using a wood chipper. Young people and others slain in gun violence that has left lasting scars in many New Haven neighborhoods.
But arguably, the 2007 triple homicide of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, Hayley and Michaela, during a home invasion in Cheshire may be the most well known of those killings. The case attracted national and international media attention by the time the two men tried in the murders, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, were found guilty in separate trials that were covered in gavel-to-gavel coverage by many news organizations.
Seared into memory
In the decade since the mur-
ders , there has been a HBO documentary, a half-hour CNN news special, international radio coverage and three books written about that fateful day in July.
What is it about this case that made it so attention worthy?
Cheshire consistently is ranked as one of the safest communities in the state. The 2018 Niche.com ranking identified the town as the 17th-safest in Connecticut and the seconds a fest in New Haven County, trailing only Madison, which was ranked fifth among all communities statewide.
Cheshire is safer than 74 percent of communities in the United States, according to Neighborhood Scout, a website and online database of U.S. neighborhood analytics. And the chances of being a victim of violent crime in Cheshire are 1 in 7,321.
The Petit murders shattered an illusion of suburban safety from violent crime, said Ben Bogardus, an assistant journalism professor at Quinnipiac University.
“Home invasions are something that people think only happens in cities,” Bogardus said. “This wasn’t supposed to happen in a safe, suburban community. People choose to live in the suburbs because it allows them to choose who they want to associate with.”
Komisarjevsky is a Cheshire native who grew up not far from the Petit home.
The Petit murders weren’t the only killings in Cheshire in 2007. Five months earlier, a murder-suicide on Norton Lane in town resulted in three deaths.
Tadeusz Winiarski, 51, shot and killed his ex-wife, Urszula, and her 29-year-old daughter, Marzena Ladziejewska, before turning the gun on himself.
Changes over time
Many changes have occurred in the years after the July 23, 2007, home invasion at the 300 Sorghum Mill Drive Petit home.
Some of the neighbors who witnessed the day’s tragic events moved to other places. Most of the police officers who responded to the home that day have either retired or moved on to other jobs.
Even the sole survivor of the home invasion, Dr. William Petit Jr., has in some ways moved on as much as he can.
Petit remarried, had a son and now is serving as a state representative. He also is active in the nonprofit Petit Family Foundation he created in memory of his late wife and daughters.
Funds from the organization are used to foster the education of young people, especially women in the sciences, as well as to improve the lives of those affected by chronic illnesses and to support efforts to help those affected by violence. The foundation made a little more than $550,000 in grants to organizations and individuals in 2015, the most recent year in which the group’s filings with the Internal Revenue Service were available.
Petit declined to speak to the New Haven Register for this story.
Bogardus said Petit’s efforts at rebuilding his life following the murders of his wife and daughters bolstered his image.
“I think they (the public) sees him as somebody who is incredibly strong, but at the same time seeks to help others,” he said.
But even a decade’s worth of distance can’t erase the haunting memories of that day, say neighbors, friends and first responders.
Some in the Deaconwood subdivision where the Petit home was located have a simple pin, designed by neighborhood resident Tamara Epstein, to remind them of that day.
The safety pin has a loop of metal through the bottom, and attached to the metal loop are three faux pearls, one for each of the Petit women.
Epstein distributed the pins
“Home invasions are something that people think only happens in cities. This wasn’t supposed to happen in a safe, suburban community.” — Ben Bogardus, an assistant journalism professor at Quinnipiac University
to neighbors in a show of solidarity with the family. She and her husband, Bob, and their two boys, Ben and Daniel, had moved to Deaconwood two years before the murders occurred.
Their Sorghum Mill Drive home sits less than a quartermile south of where the Petits lived.
Tamara Epstein was in Cape Cod the day of the murders, but the day’s events hit a little closer to home for Bob Epstein, who had stayed home to work.
“He has always felt bad because he drives by there on his way to work,” Tamara Epstein said of her husband. “He went by at the time of the morning when all this horrible stuff was probably going on inside the home. He had no idea no idea what was going on, of course, but he still felt really bad.”
When Bob Epstein arrived home that evening, police asked to see his driver’s license before they let him drive the rest of the way to his house.
For her part, Tamara Epstein was worried about something that she knew wasn’t logical to be afraid of, but it still spooked her anyway.
“What freaked me out for a while was that our house is almost identical to theirs, the same look, the same layout, everything,” Epstein said. “For a while, I would sit around and think, ‘What if there were other people around doing the same thing,’ or that maybe they (Hayes and Komisarjevsky) meant to do that to our house and went to the Petits’ house by mistake.”
This was long before the details of what had transpired became common knowledge as a result of the daily news reports out of Superior Court in New Haven as first Hayes and then Komisarjevsky were tried, convicted and sentenced to death. The Connecticut legislature subsequently abolished the death penalty and both men now are serving life sentences.
The fears of the parents trickled down to their children. Epstein said her children were haunted by the deaths of the Petit daughters, even though neither of them knew the Petits very well.
Tamara Epstein said not long after the murders, she went into her son Ben’s bedroom to kiss her oldest son goodnight. One of the prominent keepsakes that decorated the then-14-year-old’s room was a sword that Tamara’s father, a Navy veteran, had given his grandson.
“When I came into his room to his him goodnight, he had that sword right next to him,” she said.
The emotions that Daniel Epstein held inside took a little longer to surface. He was 10 at the time of the murders .
Two years later, Tamara Epstein recalled a warm evening when she opened all the windows in house to cool down the home .
“Daniel came running into the room sobbing, and saying, ‘You have to close the windows; I don’t want to die.’”
Public fury toward the two convicted killers still burns hot despite the passage of time. Some also still direct their anger at Cheshire town officials and police for not having saved the lives of the Petit women.
Town Manger Michael Milone said that every year on the anniversary of the killings, nasty emails, phone calls and letters are sent to Town Hall attacking the town’s handling of the murders.
“Some of it is pretty vile,” Milone said.
The number of hateful messages has declined significantly over the years, said Arnett Talbot, the town’s public information officer.
“But every time HBO runs its documentary on the case or every time there is a news story, it starts all over again,” Talbott said.
In the immediate aftermath of the murders, Fox News commentators portrayed the Cheshire police and the department’s Special Weapons and Tactics team as inept and indecisive for not having stormed the Petit house to rescue the Petit women before anything happened to them. But police chiefs across the state are uniformly unwilling to criticize or even discuss what their Cheshire counterparts did or did not do.
That includes Monroe Police Chief John Salvatore, immediate past president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.
Salvatore said the use of SWAT teams by local law enforcement around the state is constantly evolving. But he said it is difficult to train for every possible scenario.
“Every situation is different,” Salvatore said.
And deployment of the units by individual towns is infrequent in most communities, said Wallingford Police Chief William Wright.
The last time a SWAT team was used in Wallingford was last summer during a standoff with someone who eventually committed suicide, Wright said. Before that, it had been three years earlier that a SWAT team was used in town, he said.
Some communities have their own SWAT teams, while others are part of a regional unit. Cheshire and Wallingford combined their SWAT teams 18 months ago in an effort “to achieve greater efficiencies,” Wright said.
“It had nothing to do with what happened in Cheshire,” Wright said when asked whether the merger was in response to the Petit slayings. “Each department contributes eight officers to the team now. Its just more efficient in terms (of ) purchasing equipment.”
An elaborate flower garden sits on a small knoll overlooking the intersection of Sorghum Mill Drive and Hotchkiss Ridge in the Deaconwood subdivision.
At the center of the garden is a bench where visitors can sit and collect their thoughts.
Visit at the right time and you may see butterflies flitting around amid the flowers and plants.
But as peaceful and contemplative as the whole scene is, it is difficult for some who pass the site daily not to have an entirely different scenario in their heads.
Epstein said in a strange way, the tragedy brought the neighborhood together.
“When we first moved in, there wasn’t the cohesion that there was afterwards,” she said. “One thing I think we all thought about was how will Bill Petit get through this and go on with the rest of his life?”
But cohesiveness that Epstein speaks of is changing with the passage of time as those who lived in the neighborhood at the time of the murders leave and are replaced by new families.
“I’ve actually met some people who are new to town who don’t know what happened here,” Tamara Epstein said. “How could you not know? It was all over the news, nationally and internationally.”
Petit remarried in 2012 to Christine Paluf, a photographer he met while she was volunteering for The Petit Family Foundation. The couple’s 2012 marriage and the birth of the couple’s child, William Petit III, has encouraged friends and his former neighbors.
“For so many years, he never smiled,” Tamara Epstein said. “He just seemed so sad and broken. The fact he has been able to find love again (makes) people realize that if he can heal, so can the rest of us.”
But even with the discussion of healing, Epstein said the events of July 23, 2007, are never far from her mind.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it because I drive by that garden every day,” she said. “But I don’t see it as negative thing and I don’t think other neighbors do, either. It’s really more of a positive, a place of beauty that these three beautiful women would have loved to come to, with new life growing every season as the plants grow.”
Above and below, the Petit Memorial Garden at the site of the former Petit home at 300 Sorghum Mill Drivein Cheshire, in 2017.
This June 2007 photo provided by Dr. William Petit Jr., shows Petit, left, with his daughters Michaela, front, and Hayley, center rear, and his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, on Cape Cod, Mass.
A rosary is among items left at the Petit Memorial Garden at the site of the former Petit family home in Cheshire.
Cindy Hawke-Renn, sister of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, talks to the press as she leaves Superior Court in New Haven in 2011.