Petit mur­ders cap­tured attention around the world

Fo­cus waned but mem­o­ries re­main of lives lost

New Haven Register (New Haven, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Luther Turmelle

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.’”

Emo­tions re­main

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.”

Re­flec­tions

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.”

Cather­ine Aval­one / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia file

Above and be­low, the Petit Me­mo­rial Gar­den at the site of the for­mer Petit home at 300 Sorghum Mill Drivein Cheshire, in 2017.

Anony­mous / AP

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.

Cather­ine Aval­one / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia file

A rosary is among items left at the Petit Me­mo­rial Gar­den at the site of the for­mer Petit fam­ily home in Cheshire.

Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia file

Cindy Hawke-Renn, sis­ter of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, talks to the press as she leaves Su­pe­rior Court in New Haven in 2011.

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