Cheshire, Connecticut is known for two things: as the ‘Bedding Plant Capital of Connecticut’, and for the brutal slayings of a mother and her two daughters, an horrific event which sent shockwaves through the close-knit community. The day became known to locals as Cheshire’s own 9/11.
Before the murders in July 2007, Cheshire was a typical New England town. Large, attractive homes with well-manicured lawns line the streets. The town boasts several parks, tennis courts and a community pool. It’s a beautiful, thriving place.
Cheshire is the kind of place you’d want to raise a family. This is what local resident Joshua Komisarjevsky thought about as he drove the streets, admiring the stately homes in the wealthier parts of town with his girlfriend, Caroline. The idea that the same man, who drove those streets fantasising about his future family and making a better life for himself, would go onto cause so much destruction and inflict so much pain on another local family is unfathomable.
The Petit Family
In 1985, William (Bill) Petit Jr. met his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, when he was doing rotations as a third year medical student at the hospital where she worked as a nurse. Bill liked Jennifer from the moment he set eyes on her. Trying to impress her, he acted like a self-confessed know-it-all, showing her how to take a patient’s blood pressure. Jennifer was patient with him, despite knowing his technique was all wrong. She then demonstrated to him how to go about it correctly.
Jennifer was a paediatric nurse and once Bill qualified as a doctor, he went onto specialise as an endocrinologist. Bill and Jennifer married and went on to have two girls, Hayley (born October 1989) and Michaela (born November 1995).
When Jennifer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998, Hayley was only nine, but was determined to help her mother in any way she could. She wrote letters to friends and family, asking them to sponsor her for the annual Connecticut MS Walk, naming her team ‘Hayley’s Hope’. Every year for 7 years, Hayley walked for her mother, raising over $55,000 for the fight against MS.
Hayley was quiet, determined and smart. Although she had accomplished so much by the time she was seventeen, her modesty and reserved personality meant no one knew quite the extent of her achievements. When Hayley was small, Bill would bring her on his rounds at the hospital so that he could spend more time with her given his busy work schedule. Unsurprisingly, Hayley planned to follow in her father’s footsteps; she was going to attend Dartmouth (Bill’s alma mater) in the September 2007 to study medicine.
Michaela planned to take over from Hayley raising funds for MS once she went to college; she would call her team ‘Michaela’s Miracle’. Michaela was known for her thoughtful and gentle nature. She enjoyed cooking and spending time working in the garden with Bill.
July 22nd, 2007
That Sunday afternoon, Jennifer and Michaela were walking the aisles of the grocery store, buying ingredients for the meal Michaela planned to cook for the family that evening. Little did they know that as they browsed the supermarket shelves, they had caught the eye of Joshua Komisarjevsky, who proceeded to follow them home.
It had been a typical summer’s day for the Petit family; Bill, Jennifer and Michaela had attended the Sunday church service and Bill went to play golf with his father in the afternoon. Jennifer and Michaela planned to head to the beach. Hayley had been with friends at the beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts and would be home in time for dinner. Michaela made a pasta dish for dinner and then Jennifer and the girls watched TV in the living room. Bill fell asleep on the couch in the sunroom.
Joshua Komisarjevsky (26) was adopted as a baby and home-schooled as a child. He was extremely intelligent but as he got older, he was in and out of jail regularly on burglary charges. His hope was that he would straighten his life out and become an architect.
In 2002, Komisarjevsky’s daughter was born. In the spring of 2007, Komisarjevsky gained full custody of her, as his ex-girlfriend was in rehab for drug addiction. Once he gained custody, the girl went to live with Komisarjevsky’s parents.
In 2007, he began dating Caroline Mesel, who was only 18 at the time. Their relationship became serious quickly and the two began to contemplate marriage. However, Caroline’s father did not approve of the relationship because of Joshua’s reputation as a career criminal. He also considered Komisarjevsky to be a paedophile, convinced that he was only interested in his daughter because she looked young for her age.
Steven Hayes’s (44) parents divorced when he was a child and he lived with his mother and two brothers, Matthew and Brian. According to Matthew, Hayes was manipulative from a young age. Matthew claimed that he was also violent, once taunting him by pressing a revolver against his (Matthew’s) head. Hayes was controlling and had a way of passing the blame for his bad behaviour onto others. Hayes would often claim he was suffering from psychological problems but his family were skeptical. ‘Steve is not sick’, Matthew claimed, ‘he is cunning and calculating’.
In 1992, Hayes had a daughter, Alicia. Alicia’s mother and Hayes were divorced and she lived with her mother but saw her father weekly. She described him as always being good to her, never displaying a violent or aggressive side.
Hayes and Komisarjevsky met in 2006, when they shared a room in a halfway house in Hartford, CT in between prison sentences. By the age of 26, Komisarjevsky had been arrested for 18 home invasions and struggled with crystal meth addiction. Hayes was a recovering crack addict and seasoned burglar who mainly broke into cars during the day, stealing high value items once the owner had parked and left.
The two were both serving sentences for burglary when they were paroled in April of 2007. Komisarjevsky had originally been charged with 12 counts of burglary and sentenced to 9 years in prison in December 2002, but was paroled after serving a total of close to 5 years. Both men stayed in a halfway house briefly until they were released the following month.
Hayes moved in with his mother in Winsted, CT and Komisarjevsky returned home to Cheshire. There was some talk between the two (mainly on the part of Komisarjevsky) about the idea of starting a contracting business together, but nothing ever became of it. Hayes’s situation was not ideal; his younger brother was sleeping on the floor at their mother’s house, and she was threatening to kick Steve out and told him he was no longer allowed to use her car.
Although no longer sharing a room at the halfway house, Hayes and Komisarjevsky stayed in touch. Neither Komisarjevsky nor Hayes had a steady job (both were doing irregular to contracting work) and they both needed money. Komisarjevsky’s girlfriend Caroline had moved with her family to Arkansas and he was determined to make enough money so that he could get her back to Connecticut and they could begin a new life together. He also knew that Hayes was getting desperate for cash. Komisarjevsky, a skilled and sophisticated burglar, got in touch with Hayes about a way to make some fast and easy cash; Hayes liked the idea and agreed to come along.
On the evening of the July 21st, Hayes accompanied Komisarjevsky on a ‘test-run’ burglary. Komisarjevsky broke into a home while Hayes waited outside. Komisarjevsky didn’t take much that night; the main objective was to show Hayes how easy it was. On realising how simple it would be, Hayes was sold. The night of the 22nd, around 7:45pm Hayes texted Komisarjevsky, writing:
"I'm chomping at the bit to get started. Need a margarita soon."
He waited an hour, but received no reply. At 8:45, Hayes wrote to Komisarjevsky again:
"We still on?"
Komisarjevsky: "I'm putting the kid to bed hold your horses."
Hayes: "Dude, the horses want to get loose. LOL."
Night of July 22nd
At around 11pm, the Petit girls headed to bed after watching TV. Bill remained asleep on the couch in the sunroom. Michaela got into bed with Jennifer and Hayley went to her room. Bill woke up at one point, but decided to stay sleeping on the couch that night, not wanting to wake Jennifer.
The Home Invasion
Having discussed the plan with Komisarjevsky, Hayes was under the impression that the two of them would burglarise the house, take the family out to the car where they would be tied up, and then burn the house down to destroy any evidence left behind. There was no indication to Hayes that anyone would get hurt.
Around 3am on July 23, Hayes and Komisarjevsky broke into the Petit family home, armed with a gun and a baseball bat they found lying in a neighbour’s yard. When they found Bill sleeping on the couch, Komisarjevsky hit him repeatedly over the head with the baseball bat. Komisarjevsky then told Bill not to panic and they only wanted money. He asked where the safe was in the house. Bill replied that there was no safe. Hayes and Komisarjevsky tied Bill’s wrists together and his ankles, leaving him on the couch bound and bleeding.
The two men then made their way upstairs, where they found Jennifer in her bed with Michaela. They tied Jennifer’s wrists and ankles to the bedposts and put a pillowcase over her head. They then dragged Michaela into her own bedroom and did the same to her as they did to Jennifer, then the same again to Hayley in her room. As they had told Bill, they reassured Jennifer and the girls that they weren’t going to hurt them and were only wanted money.
Making their way downstairs again, Komisarjevsky and Hayes made a beeline for Bill, who still lay on the couch bleeding from his head wound. They cut the restraints from his ankles and forced him down to the basement at gunpoint. Once in the basement, Bill was tied to a pole, his ankles bound, and he was covered with blankets. Feeling woozy from the blood loss, Bill drifted in and out of consciousness.
Hayes and Komisarjevsky set about ransacking the house, checking anywhere and everywhere they believed cash maybe stashed, but found none. They did, however, find bank statements which showed the Petits had around £30,000 in their Bank of America account.
Here the plan changed; Komisarjevsky and Hayes decided that when the bank opened in the morning at 9AM, one of them would take Jennifer and force her to withdraw $15,000 from her account.
Before that, Hayes drove to a gas station with two plastic canisters he had found at the Petit home. Once there, he filled the canisters with $10 worth of gas. He then drove back to the Petit family home, dropped off the gas canisters and then went back out again, this time with Jennifer to the bank. Hayes told her to go into the bank and withdraw $15,000 from her account. She complied.
Jennifer approached the bank teller, leaned in and passed a note over the counter. The teller glanced at the note and without hesitating, gave the note to the bank manager, who ran into her office. Jennifer then left the bank, making her way back to the car where Hayes was waiting. She got in and they drove back to the house.
As Jennifer was leaving the bank, the bank manager called 911 at approximately 9:21AM and informed the dispatcher of the situation. Jennifer had also told the bank teller that the men holding she and her family hostage were ‘being nice and only wanted money’. Shortly after the call was made, police were dispatched to the address in unmarked vehicles and they proceeded to set up a perimeter around the home. They then hid behind trees not far from the house.
*The following contains particularly sensitive information, please skip over it if you need to*
There is substantial controversy surrounding the police action from this point; as they went about setting up the perimeter, Komisarjevsky was inside the home raping Michaela as she lay tied to her bed. He then proceeded to take explicit pictures of her on his cell phone. He went downstairs, to find Hayes and Jennifer had returned. Komisarjevsky showed Hayes the pictures he had taken of Michaela, taunting him to do to the same to Jennifer. Hayes pushed Jennifer down onto the living room floor and begins raping her. Komisarjevsky left the room, and on his return, he informed Hayes that Bill had escaped. At this point, Hayes loses it completely. He looks out the window to see an unmarked police car. At that, he puts his hands around Jennifer’s neck and strangles her to death.
Meanwhile, having escaped through the bulkhead of the basement, a horribly beaten Bill Petit stumbled across his yard to his neighbour’s driveway, bleeding heavily and hardly able to speak. His neighbour came out of his house and on seeing Bill initially, he didn’t recognise him because he was almost completely covered in blood. The neighbour calls 911. A policeman appeared, looking down at Bill, holding a rifle. Bill can barely speak, but tries desperately to shout that the girls are still in the house.
But it’s too late. Once Hayes kills Jennifer, he pours gasoline over her body. He covers as much of the home as he can with gasoline, including over Hayley and Michaela who are still tied to their beds with pillowcases over their heads. Hayes then set the fire and the two attempted to flee in the Petit family’s car, but they barely make it down the driveway when they crashed into a police barrier at the end of the drive. They are detained immediately.
By the time fire fighters arrived at the scene, flames had engulfed the top floor of the house. Three people are dead in the home, Jennifer strangled in the living room, while Hayley and Michaela died of smoke inhalation upstairs. Hayley managed to escape her restraints and run onto the landing, but was found collapsed at the top of the stairs. Michaela was still tied to her bed.
Confessions and Trials
Hayes described to detectives what had happened just several hours after he and Komisarjevsky were detained. He described how he had taken Jennifer to the bank, raped and strangled her, and then doused her body and Hayley and Michaela in gasoline. Reports vary as to who lit the match; both men pin this on one another.
Hayes told the detectives that after Joshua had showed him the pictures he had taken of Michaela and seeing the police car outside the house, he ‘just snapped’ and lost control. He said that he did not blame Komisarjevsky for what happened, however; he only had himself to blame. He insisted that regardless of all that had happened, all he wanted out of that night was money.
Komisarjevsky admitted to following Jennifer and Michaela in the grocery store the previous day and then following them home. He said the reason he targeted them was because they looked wealthy and had a nice car. He admitted to bludgeoning Bill with the baseball bat and to raping and taking explicit pictures of Michaela. But when it came to burning the house down with Jennifer and the girls still inside, he told detectives that that was all Hayes. He told them that he questioned Hayes, saying to him, “You can’t seriously be contemplating burning these two girls alive?” Komisarjevsky did not report doing anything to stop him, however.
Originally, Hayes and Komisarjevsky agreed to a plea bargain which would give them life in prison without the possibility of parole. When the defence presented the deal to the prosecution, however, they did not agree that either man should have this option; instead, they would pursue the death penalty in both cases. In Connecticut, this meant both men would have to have a jury trial.
Hayes’s trial began on October 18 2010. Hayes’s attorney, Thomas Ullman, told the jury that being given a life sentence would be the worst punishment for Hayes, worse than being sentenced to death, because he was tortured every day by his actions. The jury ultimately came to the verdict that Hayes should be executed.
In December 2010, Hayes apologised to the Petit family for the pain he had caused. He said: "Death for me will be a welcome relief and I hope it will bring some peace and comfort to those who I have hurt so much."
Komisarjevsky’s trial began on October 13 2011. During his hearing, Komisarjevsky stood by what he had said in his confession, that he had never planned on killing anyone that night. He added: "I will never find peace within. My life will be a continuation of the hurt I caused. The clock is now ticking and I owe a debt I cannot repay." The jury came to the verdict that Komisarjevsky should also be executed.
In August 2015, however, Connecticut abolished the death penalty, meaning the sentences of both men were commuted to life in prison. Stephen Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Komisarjevsky’s defence team filed a motion that he be given a new trial. They argued this on the basis that the trial should not have taken place in Cheshire, but in a different part of the state due to the unavoidable exposure of the jury to the media focussing on the murders. The defence team also argued that Komisarjevsky had been unfairly painted as the ‘mastermind’ of the crime, when really Komisarjevsky had no intention of murdering anyone; it was Hayes who strangled Jennifer and doused the girls with gasoline and then set the house on fire, as Komisarjevsky told his attorneys. The motion, however, was denied on the basis that the judge believed both men to be equally complicit in the crimes.
Hayes never attempted to appeal his convictions; he admitted he was guilty and did not want to subject the family to another trial.
What Went Wrong?
Komisarjevsky’s previous defence attorney, William Gerace, would tell the trial judge that Komisarjevsky needed to be watched. He would always break into homes during the night, when people were most likely to be home, meaning he did not fear confrontation. He was known to burglarise the homes of state troopers, and even stated that sometimes he would linger inside the homes, listening to people breathing as they slept. Gerace knew Komisarjevsky was extremely intelligent, perhaps a genius. If he wanted to, could be very, very dangerous. Gerace told the judge: “You’re never going to see him again, or he’s going to be the worst criminal to pass through these doors.”
Prosecutors are meant to order a transcript of the sentencing proceedings and send this to the parole board, so the parole board gain a better understanding of the defendant’s character. In Komisarjevsky’s case, the information that came out of his sentencing for his previous burglary was particularly damning. In the sentencing transcript, Komisarjevsky was referred to as a: ‘calculated, cold-blooded predator’, with a ‘mental abnormality or a psychiatric problem that needs to be addressed’.
Komisarjevsky had previously been arrested for 18 home invasion burglaries, but somehow this information, along with the transcript from his previous sentencing, never reached the parole board *. If it had, things may have been very different.
Instead, what the parole board saw was an intelligent young man who did not display mental health problems and showed remorse for his crimes. Giving him parole in April 2007 seemed like a reasonable decision.
Hayes’s previous criminal record was lengthy, but by no means did it indicate he was likely to graduate from burglarising cars to far more serious crimes, according to his defence attorney.
* This set off alarm bells for me too - don’t ask me how this happened, it seems like information the parole board should have had automatically. It’s referred to in The Cheshire Murders Documentary by Rep. Mike Lawlor, Chairman of the CT Judiciary Committee.
As I mentioned previously, there was significant upset regarding the response of the police to the murders.
There are two sides, from the family and the public, and from the police. The family believe the police could have saved Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela, given that while they were being assaulted and the home was being doused with gasoline, the police were setting up the perimeter. When Bill escaped the house and was lying in his neighbour’s driveway, he saw the police standing in the trees, at the same time the house burst into flames. When set out like this, it makes complete sense that the family and public believe that more could have been done by the authorities to save Jennifer and the girls.
Another question is that of why the authorities never attempted to intercept Hayes and Jennifer as they arrived at the home. The police officers arrived at the property by the time Jennifer and Hayes returned from the bank, or just seconds later; officers were dispatched to the scene within minutes of the call from the bank manager at 9:21AM. Many question why they didn’t approach the car and arrest Hayes on the spot, thereby separating Hayes and Komisarjevsky, which may have allowed them to save Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela.
At 9:57AM, flames were licking out of the windows of the house. This indicated that officers had been at the scene for approximately 30 minutes and only set up a perimeter and observed the home during that time.
On the contrary, police believed they were dealing with a hostage situation and therefore, did not know how many perpetrators might be inside the house nor the weapons they might have. Therefore, before the police officers were dispatched to the house, they were told by higher-ups not to enter the home, not to try and speak to Hayes as he got out of the car, and not to try and communicate with anyone inside the house, so as to not alert the perpetrators to their presence. Instead, they were instructed to set up the perimeter and observe.
Personally, this doesn’t seem to me like it was the most effective way to handle the situation. I thought they would have been more proactive in their attempts to save them, though I’m sure it’s more complicated than it appears. I can’t honestly say I believe they did everything they could, however.
Aftermath Of The Murders
Since the murders of his family, Bill Petit gave up his career as a physician and now manages The Petit Family Foundation. The main goals of the foundation are to:
‘Continue to raise and distribute funds to fulfill our mission to help educate young people especially those with interests in science, to help support those with chronic illnesses, and to help protect those affected by violence.’ – Petit Family Foundation (About)
The murders resulted in the formation of a number of charitable organisations. A particularly notable organisation one being “Cheshire’s Lights of Hope” which was formed by Cheshire resident Jenifer Walsh and her husband. The event, in which luminaries are placed on each street of the town, takes place yearly. The aim of the event is to bring locals together so townspeople can get to know one another.
In the first year the event took place, the money raised went towards the Petit family, but now it has become a non-profit, focussing more on the town than on the murders. The organization donates to town needs including social services, the food pantry and scholarships, while some money still goes to the Petit family.
In August 2012, Bill Petit married Christine Paluf, whom he met while she was volunteering for the Petit Family Foundation. Together they have a son. He has also become involved politics, as a Connecticut State Representative representing Plainville and New Britain as a Republican.
At the public memorial service hosted by Central Connecticut State University, Bill asked those in attendance to:
“Help a neighbour, fight for a cause, and love your family,”
As a way of honouring the memory of his family as well as making the world a little bit better place to live.