10 Years Later, Cheshire Tragedy Remains Source Of Grief, Shock

Story By Dave Altimari and Josh Kovner

Photos And Video By Lauren Schneiderman

Photo courtesy of the Petit family / Hartford Courant

The Petit family, William, daughters Michaela, foreground, and Hayley, and wife Jennifer Hawke-Petit, on vacation in Harwich Port, Mass., in July 2007 shortly before all but William Petit were killed in their Cheshire home.

Ten years later, the murders in Cheshire of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, daughters Hayley and Michaela, and the hellish plight of the sole survivor, William Petit, still engender emotions that can overwhelm.

The sheer waste of it all, the senselessness, the excess, the staggering depravity still stuns.

In some cases, for some people, the emotions are even deeper now, as the memories have become more finely etched, and there is a realization of how this singular tragedy has changed lives.

To mark a decade's passing, The Courant sought out a diverse group of people who saw and felt the tragedy from different angles, or had different connections to the members of the Petit family or to the events of that dark day.

There is the criminal defense lawyer who knew one of the killers years before the Cheshire murders, and still is chilled by the cold and calculating predator he recognized even then.

The crew coach who saw in Hayley Petit a nearly unmatched toughness and resolve and who, as husband of the head of Miss Porter's School, knew the special bond that his wife and Hayley had shared.

Ten years since the Cheshire home invasion, people share their memories from that day.

The chairman of the parole board that found itself under withering scrutiny for releasing the two chronic offenders without a full understanding of their criminal behaviors, and thus exposed a system badly in need of reform.

The only sister of Hawke-Petit who still remembers her last conversation with Jennifer just minutes before her sister first fell under Joshua Komisarjevsky's gaze.

The pastor who still carries the wind-chime sounds of Michaela's laughter in his ears and who had to hold together a congregation swamped with grief, anger, confusion and fear.

The neighbor who is reminded of this life-altering loss every time he drives by the corner where the Petit house once stood, knowing he drove by the house that morning while an atrocity was unfolding inside.

And the bank manager, a kind and selfless woman in her own right, who recognized the pain in a mother's eyes, and who released $15,000 in ransom money to Hawke-Petit without proof of identification, before calling 9-1-1 with the first details of the hostage situation.

It is a crime that shattered a state. It now lives on in the hearts of people who were touched by it in different, but always intimate, always personal ways.

The Bank Manager

MARY LYONS

Former Bank of America manager Mary Lyons, of Hamden, called police after Jennifer Hawke-Petit tried withdraw $15,000 without ID and told Lyons that her family was being held hostage. Now, at age 70, Lyons is a very active volunteer in social causes in Meriden and Wallingford.

Mary Lyons handles burdens with grace. The death of her husband, Raymond, from ALS 20 years ago has fed a fervent devotion to charities and social causes. Lyons, 70, has gotten her grandkids to work with her at the Meriden Soup Kitchen.

But two indelible marks from the Cheshire murders a decade ago weigh on her, drag on this vivacious woman's spirit:

The first is the look Hawke-Petit had in her eyes when she came into the bank that Lyons managed to withdraw the $15,000 that two home invaders had demanded as ransom to free the family.

She had no ID with her. Called over by the teller, Lyons peered into Hawke-Petit's purse and saw pictures of her children, Hayley and Michaela.

"She showed me her wallet. Everything had been taken out, but there were pictures. But it wasn't that. It was the look in her eyes as she told me what was going on, that her family was being held. I was guided by that look. I knew she was telling the truth, that I had to help her," Lyons recalled.

Lyons, who had never seen Hawke-Petit before, told the teller to give the mother the cash, and that Lyons would handle the paperwork later. Conscious that one of the kidnappers might be watching (In fact, killer Steven Hayes was in the parking lot, behind the wheel of the family's Pacifica), Lyons paused to speak to another customer, then walked calmly to her office. She called 9-1-1, making the first report of a crime that would rock the state for years to come.

The second memory that has settled deep within Lyons are the killers' false promises, relayed to her by Hawke-Petit during those moments in the bank.

"She told me all they wanted was money and they wouldn't be hurting them. From what she said, she believed them, that if they got the money, they would leave. But they knew all along what they were going to do. They'd bought gasoline in the middle of the night — no one knew that at the time.

"I found that to be so devastating," Lyons said.

After the arrests, investigators told Lyons not to tell anyone what she had experienced in the bank that morning.

Her story would remain bottled up until she testified at Hayes' trial three years later, in 2010.

"People from all over would come into the bank to ask about the events. 'Dateline' came in, authors came in. We would say that we would not be speaking about that day. So it was a relief to be in court, telling what happened in the branch, because there had been a lot speculation," Lyons said.

She said she felt a deep connection to the Petit family, to Hawke-Petit's faith, and to Hayley and Michaela's outgoing and mature approach to life. She said she was grateful to William Petit for allowing the public, through the Petit Family Foundation, to learn about the essence of his wife and children.

"Michaela had said, and I won't get this exactly right, to 'be the change that you want to see in the world.' I do believe that, and I try to do it for my kids and grandkids," Lyons said.

The Sister

CINDY HAWKE-RENN

Cindy Hawke-Renn, of North Carolina, is the sister of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, the mother killed in the Cheshire home invasion.

When Cindy Hawke-Renn walked into her niece Michaela's bedroom two days after the 11-year-old died there tied to her bed, she was struck by how little damage had been done by the fire set by her killers, Komisarjevsky and Hayes.

The marks on the bedposts where Michaela's hands had been bound were still visible and as she looked on top of the nearby dresser Hawke-Renn saw a red tin that looked familiar.

"I had just sent her some peppermint bark and the tin was still there so I went and opened it and the chocolate in there wasn't even melted," Hawke-Renn said. "All I could think was if her room wasn't badly burned maybe she could have been saved."

Hawke-Renn found a Vera Bradley backpack that belonged to Hayley, some jewelry boxes that belonged to the girls and a few dresses of Jennifer's that she kept, even though she couldn't wear them because Jennifer "was a skinny-mini."

The last time Hawke-Renn talked to her sister was the night before the murders. The two sisters were planning a family beach vacation in North Carolina where Hawke-Renn and her family lived.

"The second time she called I told her I'd look up some hotels for them to stay at and call her back. She said she was headed off to the store with Kay-Kay [Michaela's nickname]," Hawke-Renn said.

Authorities have said Komisarjevsky spotted Hawke-Petit and Michaela at the local Stop & Shop, which led to the home invasion plan. Hawke-Petit and her daughter were shopping for ingredients to make Michaela's homemade pasta sauce.

"I have always wondered if I had kept her on the phone whether she wouldn't have gone to the store," Hawke-Renn said.

On the day of the murders, Hawke-Renn tried to call Jennifer several times with no luck. Then she got a call from William Petit's sister, Hannah Chapman, and she knew something was terribly wrong.

At first she didn't believe it when Chapman told her the three women had been killed. She walked onto the back porch of her Chapel Hill home and started screaming, "No, no, no.'

Then she had to call her parents and deliver the news. Two days later, they traveled to Connecticut and visited Petit, who had been beaten by the intruders, at St. Mary's Hospital in Waterbury.

"I walked in and his head was resting on a blood-soaked pillow and when he saw me he said, 'I'm sure you wish it was [ Hawke-Petit] lying here and not me. I'm so sorry I didn't do more to stop them."

Hawke-Renn said she told Petit that "we're just glad that someone is still with us."

Hawke-Renn and her parents attended both trials, which she called "grueling." They've watched the state Supreme Court abolish the death penalty, taking both men off death row, and heard about the killers' attempts to kill themselves.

"My dad once told me that these two men will definitely outlast me and he was right because he died last year and they are both still alive," Hawke-Renn said.

Her mother, Marybelle Hawke, is in a nursing home and suffering from dementia.

"She doesn't even remember who Jen or the girls were anymore," Hawke-Renn said, "but that is not so bad because if you don't remember them when they were alive then you won't remember how they died."

The Parole Chairman

ROBERT FARR

Robert Farr of West Hartford, was chairman of the Connecticut state parole board, which was later determined to not have enough information on Joshua Komisarjevsky when it granted him parole.

As the recently named chairman of the state Board of Pardons and Parole, Robert Farr was conducting a parole hearing inside a prison on July 23, 2007, when his cellphone started ringing incessantly.

He took a break from the hearing and, as he went went outside to call his office, an ominous feeling came over him.

"That was the call that a chairman of a parole board never wants to get; that someone who had been on parole did something like that," Farr said. "You are dealing with people with real problems and you know some of them are going to commit other crimes, but no one could ever imagine anything as heinous as this."

Komisarjevsky and Hayes had been put on parole a month apart in the spring of 2006. They were placed in the same Hartford halfway house where they developed the friendship that would lead them to Sorghum Mill Drive slightly more than a year later.

Neither had a history of violent crimes at the time they were released. But it was later revealed that the three board members who paroled Komisarjevsky didn't have transcripts from his 2002 sentencing for burglarizing homes in three communities. During that sentencing the judge called Komisarjevsky a "cold, calculated predator."

"My initial reaction was, 'Did we do something wrong?'" Farr said. "But Hayes was a small-time petty thief. Komisarjevsky's case was a little more debatable because of the nighttime burglaries when people were in their homes. But neither of them had a violent criminal history."

Farr said he had been talking with other state officials, including Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane, for several months before the murders about the board needing to get more information, such as court transcripts, juvenile records or corrections documents, in order to decide whether to grant parole.

One of the initiatives legislators passed post-Cheshire was a $24 million plan to develop a "crime computer" that all state agencies could tap into. The plan was to have records available to a multitude of state agencies.

But 10 years later, the system is still not fully in place and the cost has swelled to more than $54 million.

Farr, who was replaced as chairman of the parole board four years after the murders when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy took office, said he isn't surprised the system isn't operating yet.

"You could see there was going to be a massive IT problem trying to share information with agencies with outdated computer systems," Farr said. "Some day it will happen. I am just not sure I'll live long enough to see it."

The Lawyer

WILLIAM GERACE

Lawyer William Gerace in his office in Hartford, represented Joshua Komisarjevsky in a series of house burglaries before the Cheshire home invasion. Gerace has special insight into Komisarjevsky as the "cold, calculating predator" he was described as by a judge years before the Cheshire killings.

As he stood in the cramped hallway at the Bristol courthouse talking to his client — Komisarjevsky — for the first time, a chill went down William Gerace's spine.

"There was just something very cold about him," Gerace recalled recently in his Hartford office.

Gerace said it didn't take long to realize that Komisarjevsky was a genius in his own way.

He had a photographic memory — able to remember exactly what he had taken from all 17 homes in the Cheshire area that he had burglarized at night during the early 2000s, Gerace said. He even pointed out to police several houses he had burglarized that authorities had never connected to him.

Gerace said Komisarjevsky got a thrill out of breaking into people's homes while they were sleeping, often listening to their breathing while he stood silently by wearing night vision goggles.

"He not only told the cops that he took money out of someone's wallet, he told them the exact denominations he took from each person," Gerace said. "That's when I realized this was no normal criminal and that's why I said when he was sentenced that either he is never going to come back into a court room again or he is going to become one of the worst criminals the state's ever seen."

In 2002, Komisarjevsky pleaded guilty to charges related to the 17 house burglaries. He was 22 when he appeared before Judge James M. Bentivegna for sentencing.

With his pregnant girlfriend, his adopted parents and some of his victims in the courtroom, Komisarjevsky apologized and refuted assertions from prosecutors that he "was a wild animal."

During sentencing, Bentivegna referred to Komisarjevsky as a "cold, calculating predator" before sending him to prison for nine years followed by six years of probation. But Komisarjevsky spent less than five years in prison before getting paroled and placed into a halfway house, where he met Cheshire home invasion accomplice Hayes.

After the horrific triple murders, Bentivegna's comments about Komisarjevsky were resurrected and parole board officials, who claimed they never saw a transcript of the 2002 sentencing, faced heavy criticism.

Gerace was in his Hartford office when he heard about the Cheshire murders. Hearing the location and the fact that it started as a burglary, he wasn't surprised to hear about Komisarjevsky's involvement.

"I was shocked at the severity of the crime but not that he had been involved," Gerace said. "I think most people assumed the older guy was the leader but I knew it was Josh. His mental prowess was way beyond any criminal I have ever known. He was a one in a million criminal."

The Pastor

REV. STEPHEN VOLPE

Rev. Stephen Volpe, former pastor of the Petit family's church, the Cheshire United Methodist Church, is now the pastor at the Plainville United Methodist Church. He was very close to the Petit family.

After the murders, the congregation adrift and swamped with grief, anger and fear, the Rev. Stephen Volpe found himself facing the most severe test of his life.

"There was so much pain. I had all I could do to keep myself and the congregation together," said Volpe, then the pastor of the Cheshire United Methodist Church — the Petit family's church.

Just the week before, a parishioner collapsed, and there was Petit, a physician, and Hawke-Petit, a nurse at Cheshire Academy, at his side, tending to him until the ambulance arrived.

The couple had a natural, effortless congeniality that was infectious in the congregation. Hawke-Petit regaled Volpe with stories of how she found herself serving as den mother to many Cheshire Academy students, a large number of them from foreign countries, who called her at all times of the day or night.

Their older daughter, Hayley, was a leader in a church group that resembled Habitat for Humanity, going on retreats to repair buildings, construct handicapped ramps, clean yards.

Michaela, the youngest, "was shy, but she would blossom around her peers," Volpe recalled. "She was kind of like the pied piper for kids her age. They would follow her out to the playground. She'd get them all laughing. She never sat still for long. Michaela was just a joy to have to have there."

Now the girls and Hawke-Petit were gone, violated and slain by the two home invaders, and Petit, brutally beaten, was in St. Mary's Hospital.

Not only did a deep and penetrating sadness threaten to extinguish the will of the congregants, but a numbing fear had settled over them like a fog.

"Fear that if this terrible thing that could happen to this wonderful, kind and faithful family, what's going to stop it from happening to my family?" Volpe said. "People were locking doors – there was an undercurrent of, 'I have to protect my family.'"

It took a group of outsiders to help Volpe lead the congregation out of a paralyzing darkness.

Other ministers and retired pastors came to speak to Volpe. He remembers the Rev. Fred Clark, who was also a psychologist, challenging Volpe to find his emotional sea legs.

In a one-on-one meeting in Volpe's office, Clark told the gentle, amiable, open-faced Volpe "that I had to put on my white lab coat with the pocket protector. That I had to be clinical. That if I allowed myself to be too emotional, it would eat me alive, and I would have nothing left to give my congregation."

Clark touched Volpe's heart.

"I could not have done this by myself," Volpe said.

He threw open the doors of the church to the entire Cheshire community. He found messages of peace and, yes, hope to impart on Sundays. The congregants began to find solace in the vigils in town and in helping to construct the memorial garden on the spot where the Petit house, destroyed by fire, had stood.

"They were called to come out," Volpe said. "It helped."

The pastor had to change the way he preached.

Biblical verses that warn that "the Lord will come like a a thief in the night," and caution homeowners to expect the break-in and be watchful and vigilant, were no longer appropriate.

"I could not read those passages," said Volpe, now the pastor of the Plainville United Methodist Church.

In the days after the tragedy, Volpe was approached by the news media at different locations. Once, visiting Petit in the hospital, the pastor shared with the injured man that he was not talking to the reporters, out of respect for Petit.

"'Talk to them, Steve,'" Volpe said Petit told him. "'Tell them about my beautiful girls who were taken away. Tell them what their lives meant.'

"'I can do that,'" Volpe said he responded. "'I can tell them that.'"

And he did. 

The Coach

BRIAN FORD

Brian Ford of Concord Mass., was Miss Porter's crew coach and the husband of Miss Porter's head of school Burch Ford. Brian coached Hayley Petit while she was on the school's crew team.

The previous three weeks had been a swirl for Burch Ford, head of Miss Porter's School, and her husband, Brian, the school's crew coach. The couple had toured Seoul, Bangkok, Hong Kong and India, visiting families who'd sent children to the girls school, and taking some vacation time.

At Bradley International Airport, Brian Ford made the last entry in his journal. "On the tarmac … great to be back home."

It was July 23, 2007. Clear of the airport, they headed toward their home in Farmington.

Hayley had recently graduated from Miss Porter's. As far as the Fords knew, she was happily bound for Dartmouth. Burch Ford had been Hayley's adviser, and the two had grown extremely close. Brian Ford had coached Hayley for four years. He may have been more acutely aware of what was inside this young woman, the toughness, the resolve, then maybe anybody else on the planet.

Watching the girls on the rowing machine, called an ergometer, Ford was always struck by how, in contrast to the contortions of her teammates, Hayley seemed to be expending very little energy.

"I'd go over and look at what she was registering – and she was flat out, pulling an awesome score. She just didn't look like it."

"I don't think any of us know how to produce that in a child," Ford said.

Arriving back home on that July day, 10 years ago, the Fords were greeted by a ringing phone. It was the mother of one of Hayley's close friends.

"Is it true?" the woman said.

"Is what true?" Brian Ford remembers thinking.

The Fords hadn't heard about the murders. They were flying across the Atlantic when Petit was beaten, Hawke-Petit was sexually assaulted and strangled, and Hayley and Michaela were tied to their beds before the house was set on fire.

It was an incalculable loss, the greatest trauma in Brian Ford's life at that point.

Burch and Brian Ford visited Petit, the sole survivor, at St. Mary's.

"Bill was still bloody. He said, 'They've killed my girls.' It was beyond my comprehension," Brian Ford said.

Burch Ford sprang into action. Over the next weeks, she coordinated events as Petit recovered. She later spent years on the board of the Petit Family Foundation.

Gradually, she was overtaken by Alzheimer's. She's now in a dedicated unit in an assisted-living complex near the couple's home in Concord, Mass. The disease has stolen her memory.

Brian Ford is the curator of their shared experiences — and the Petit family, and Hayley in particular, supply some of the brightest memories of the Miss Porter's years.

Miss Porter's top varsity boat had been champions the year before Hayley arrived. Though the school didn't reach the pinnacle again during Hayley's time, her boat was always highly competitive, Ford said. They could sprint with the best of the crews, and she and her mates once registered 43 strokes per minute, which "is extremely high," Ford said,

Hayley, he said, was revered by her teammates. When she graduated, the team gave her a special honor. There is something in rowing called a "power 10" where, at the command of the coxswain, the rowers must dig down deep and produce 10 pulls that surge the boat forward. The crews always name this burst after something that is worth fighting for.

"Before the first race of that next season after the murders I managed to choke it out. I told everyone that when we need a power 10, we'll call it the "the Hayley 10."

The Dartmouth crew also uses the term, and a new Dartmouth racing shell was christened "The Hayley Elizabeth Petit."

Ford is still moved by the closeness that developed between his wife and Hayley.

"Burch was available at all times to talk. That wasn't true of every teacher or head, but it was true of Burch."

Ford said Hayley seemed to divine the couple's deep bond.

As a present to Burch Ford, Hayley saw to it that her head of school received a picture that had been taken of Burch and Brian Ford, photographed from behind, as the two stood on a rock, watching the water at the New England rowing championships. Hayley included a note — the kind of note a student would write to a teacher she loves.

"Burch was never able to bring herself to read it," Ford said.

The Neighbor

BOB PICOZZI

Veteran Connecticut broadcaster Bob Picozzi, from Cheshire, was a close neighbor of the Petit family.

Ten years distant, Bob Picozzi is recalling a candlelight prayer service the day after the Cheshire murders. It was filled with fellow neighbors of the Petit family.

He remembers that he saw a sudden movement and looked up. Barbara Simcik, who lives across the street, between the Petit house and Picozzi's, had collapsed with grief into the arms of her husband, Dave.

This left the Simcik's daughter, Allie, who was in her early 20s, with no one standing right next to her.

Picozzi, 66, sitting now on his couch next to wife Carol, clears his throat. He rubs his hands on his thighs. The veteran sports broadcaster's voice breaks.

"Looking back, I wish … in retrospect … that I had hugged Allie at that moment. She looked like she needed a hug."

So it is with an experience that has forever changed him. Memories, even the most glancing and indirect, can still swamp him, like a wave over a rowboat. And when it recedes, Picozzi, known to thousands in Connecticut as the former Channel 8 sports director and ESPN radio anchor and play-by-play commentator, is always standing in a slightly different space.

He recalls what happened at Allie's wedding the following year.

"I'm watching this joyous occasion in Boston. Dave is walking Allie down the aisle and all I could think about was, 'Bill Petit will never get the chance to do this.'"

Bob and Carol Picozzi remember with fondness the first time they met William and Jennifer Hawke-Petit.

It was October 1989.

"The doorbell rings. Both of us go to answer it," Picozzi recalled. "Outside, there is a man, and a woman, and a stroller with a baby in it.

"'Hi,' Jennifer says, 'We're the Petits and we'd like you to meet our daugher, Hayley.' We talked for a little while and said goodbye, and I watched with amazement as they went next door, and to the next one and the next one, down the whole street. They were so happy and so proud."

The morning of the crime, Picozzi left his house as he usually did, at about 4:30 a.m., to get to the ESPN studios in time for his first sports update on ESPN Radio at 5.

When he came, as he always did, to the stop sign at the corner of Sorghum Mill Drive and Hotchkiss Ridge, he glanced idly up at the Petit's home on Sorghum Mill.

"I looked left, looked right, pulled away – I realized later that the crime was already 90 minutes in progress. I still think about it: was there anything I could have seen, or heard, or sensed?"

Picozzi said he understood early on that he would never get over this event, that he would have to learn how to live with it.

"We didn't really socialize with the Petits and I didn't know Jennifer and Haley and Michaela really well. I felt like I had wasted the opportunity to get to know these three beautiful people – and I wasn't going to waste the opportunity to know Bill … I know him now, and I have never met anyone who is stronger."

The shock waves from this crime would alter lives of people who had no connection to the emergency response, or the trials, or the tumultuous political aftermath that included intense debate over, and then the repeal of, the death penalty.

"I just had no frame of reference for this," Picozzi said. "The emptiness, the fact that whenever I drive by that corner, and I must have driven by it 7,500 times in the last year 10 years, whatever you're thinking about – you stop, and you look and you say, 'Yeah, it happened here.'"

Carol Picozzi said that before the crimes, people in the neighborhood lived as if they were in cocoons. In the years afterward, the couple said, the neighborhood has grown close, to the point that there is an informal block-watch in place. It is the way Petit wanted it to be, they said.

"I'd like to think I'm a better person than I was 10 years ago," Bob Picozzi said. "That will be for others to judge – but I know, when I think the time is right, that I reach out to comfort others much more than I did."

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