By COLIN POITRAS, DAVE ALTIMARI And LYNNE TUOHY
The Hartford Courant
October 28, 2007
As a small circle of friends celebrated his freedom at a barbecue in July, Joshua Komisarjevsky brooded, burying himself in a bottle of whiskey.
State probation officers had removed an electronic monitoring bracelet less than 24 hours earlier, bringing an end to his four-year prison term for multiple house burglaries.
Komisarjevsky, then 26, should have been basking in his newfound independence at the party organized by a childhood friend at his Cheshire home on Friday, July 20. But he was hardly in a partying mood.
Komisarjevsky, friends said, was heartbroken that his 18-year-old girlfriend -- the one he liked to photograph during their sexual exploits in the restroom of a Manchester mall -- had recently moved to Arkansas with her family.
"All he talked about was how he was trying to save money so he could pay for her to come back here and then get a place where they could live together,'' said a friend who was at the barbecue.
One person absent that day was Steven Hayes, Komisarjevsky's prison halfway house buddy who police say would later become his partner in the brutal triple slaying of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and her daughters Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11 -- one of the most horrific crimes in state history.
Hayes, a 44-year-old father of two and recovering drug addict, was facing his own crisis. His mother and brother suspected he was using drugs again after money he had set aside to buy a new truck suddenly disappeared.
The day of the July 20 barbecue, probation officials visited Hayes' family home in Winsted to check on him. His mother, Diana Hayes, told them it was time for Steven "to go.'' According to one of Hayes' acquaintances, she wanted him out of the house by the following Monday, the day of the killings.
Police say the two men, desperate for money, turned to the only thing they both knew well -- crime. On the next night, Saturday, July 21, police suspect that they broke into two homes in Cheshire. A wallet, credit cards and petty cash were missing, police have said.
Police also suspect that the pair spent part of the weekend plotting a more elaborate heist. Several acquaintances said that the men had mentioned trying to arrange a big business deal and that each had previously talked about their desire for a big score.
By Sunday night, July 22, Komisarjevsky had chosen a target, police said. The unsuspecting members of the Petit family, followed home from a local Stop & Shop, had no idea of the horrors to come.
Interviews with law enforcement sources and friends of the suspects, along with a review of recently released court records, provide new insight into the mindset of the alleged killers and new details of the slayings that shocked a nation and started a major examination of Connecticut's criminal justice system.
An Incongruous Pair
When state prison officials released Steven Hayes from prison and placed him in a Hartford halfway house in 2006, even Hayes was surprised.
With 26 separate prison stints and a history of disciplinary problems, Hayes knew he wasn't a prime candidate for parole. One resident of Hayes' new home, Mike, recalls Hayes telling him, "I don't know how the hell they let me out of jail, but I wasn't going to say `no.'''
Hayes and Komisarjevsky shared a room on the second floor of Silliman House on Retreat Avenue. Komisarjevsky, the thin, soft-spoken kid finishing his first bid in jail, and Hayes, the older, stocky, career criminal, made an incongruous pair.
Their relationship baffled the other convicts in the house.
"They weren't the same type of person,'' said Mike, who requested anonymity. "I don't know why they clicked. Josh was quiet, timid, weird. Murderers stayed away from him, he was that weird. Steve was outgoing, spontaneous, a little perverted. Tell me Josh did this, I believe you. Steve, no. I can't see it.''
Hayes' "hobby,'' Mike said, was cruising Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford looking for hookers.
When it came to working, though, Hayes was a solid employee dedicated to his recovery, Mike said. He was so impressed by Hayes' work ethic that he hired Hayes to work with him at a local oil-change shop.
"He was funny. Always laughing. A little arrogant,'' Mike said.
Mike described Komisarjevsky as a "punk,'' anything but a tough guy. When someone at the halfway house did something to anger Komisarjevsky, Mike said, he would sit in a corner and fume.
Mike described Komisarjevsky as the type of guy everyone behind bars would steal from -- and he couldn't do anything about it.
Clearly, Komisarjevsky coveted a different image.
Mike recalled a time when a group of residents in the backyard of Silliman House were smoking and swapping tales of what they had done to land in prison. Komisarjevsky bragged that his sentencing judge had called him "a cold, calculating predator.''
Mike chided him. "I remember saying, `You? You're weird. You're 90 pounds soaking wet and you're like 20 years old or something.'''
Outside the house, Komisarjevsky was working and showing promise at Hartford Restoration Services, a local roofing company that would give him a raise and promote him to foreman just a few weeks before the slayings. He was also fighting to get custody of his then 5-year-old daughter, Jayda.
Hayes was a part-time short-order cook in the VIP tent at the Dodge Music Center in Hartford, where his culinary talents once caught the eye of a member of singer Sheryl Crow's road crew. They offered Hayes a job but he turned it down because "he really wanted to put his recovery first,'' Mike said.
Hayes also worked part time for a Torrington home contractor. And he and Komisarjevsky had recently teamed up to start their own carpentry business. The business didn't have a name, but the pair had managed to land a job building a deck and were actively pursuing other work.
One potential customer, Greg Lewis, said the men came to his Hartford property in early June to look at a garage he wanted renovated. Lewis said Komisarjevsky did all the talking; Hayes didn't say more than "hello.''
Komisarjevsky's desire for cash may have cost him that job. Lewis said Komisarjevsky came back with a price that was three times the $7,000 estimate they had first discussed. A shocked Lewis turned down the deal. Komisarjevsky blamed the increase on material costs.
Friends said Komisarjevsky wanted to get enough money to renovate his parents' house, sell the home and use the proceeds to relocate his parents and start a life of his own with his girlfriend.
Few of Komisarjevsky's friends had ever seen Hayes, and those who did meet him were not that impressed. At the halfway house, some took to calling Hayes "Uncle Fester'' after the fictional character in the TV show "The Addams Family.''
Some of Komisarjevsky's friends simply called him "creepy.''
Raped And `Worthless'
Joshua Komisarjevsky liked young girls.
The mother of his child was 15 when she got pregnant. Komisarjevsky was 21. His most recent girlfriend was 17 when the pair started flirting on the phone while Komisarjevsky was in prison. He was 26.
As soon as he got out, Komisarjevsky wasted little time starting a relationship with the girl, who was the younger sister of Claire Semchenko, an Ellington friend Komisarjevsky had met at a Maine religious camp.
Komisarjevsky used to take the bus from the Hartford halfway house every Thursday to meet his new girlfriend at the Buckland Hills mall in Manchester, friends of the pair said. When they could, one acquaintance said, the pair would sneak into the family restroom -- the one with single occupancy and door locks -- and have sex.
Komisarjevsky, acquaintances said, sometimes took pictures using his cellphone and the bathroom's mirror. It was a habit that, according to police, resurfaced on the night of the Cheshire slayings.
The girl's father, a minister, wasn't too happy about his daughter dating a man who had just gotten out of prison and who had a young daughter from a previous relationship. Yet the family tolerated him and, although he often came to the home in ripped jeans and a T- shirt, Komisarjevsky was always respectful, according to Semchenko, now 26 and married.
Komisarjevsky even tried to be a mentor to some of his girlfriend's younger friends, warning them to stay out of trouble.
"Josh was one of the quietest, most polite people I've ever met. He was a like a big brother to me,'' said one Ellington youth who was close to Komisarjevsky.
But Semchenko said there was always something about Komisarjevsky that perplexed her.
"He always seemed slightly sad, like something was bothering him,'' she said. "He could laugh and joke, but there was always something underneath that was just sad.''
Semchenko remembers Komisarjevsky having a wild side, too.
While dating her sister, he sometimes took her out late and talked of helping her get a tattoo. She eventually got a tattoo with the symbol of the devil, drawn by one of Komisarjevsky's friends.
"I've always wondered what he found so fascinating with my family,'' said Semchenko, who described her family as very loving and close. "He was always with us even though my father didn't like him.''
Komisarjevsky was adopted as a baby and grew up in a small, historic, wood-frame home on the edge of Cheshire's busy North Brooksvale Road. His parents, Benedict and Jude Komisarjevsky, were, by all accounts, a quiet, hardworking and devout couple who did what they could to raise their son in a proper home. He was home-schooled and, like Hayes, never graduated from high school.
Komisarjevsky's troubles with the law appear to have started in 1995, when he was 14. That year, state parole records show, he was raped by a foster child his parents had taken into their home. Court records of that case have been sealed.
But Jude Komisarjevsky mentioned the sexual abuse when she addressed Superior Court Judge James M. Bentivegna in Bristol just before he sentenced Komisarjevsky to nine years in prison for burglary in December 2002.
The family initially tried to help Komisarjevsky deal with his depression and trauma through religious outings and other spiritual retreats. When that didn't work, they turned to psychiatric professionals for help.
"He did have abusive problems when he was a child that led to his depression,'' Jude Komisarjevsky told the judge.
Komisarjevsky spent a short time at the Elmcrest psychiatric hospital in Portland, where doctors tried to place him on medication, his mother told Bentivegna.
"We did refuse the drugs because Joshua wanted them. He wanted to overdose with them,'' Jude Komisarjevsky said. "And we did seek other treatments, many of which they just kicked him out and told him he was worthless.''
Cheshire police arrested Joshua Komisarjevsky when he was a juvenile in August 1995, charging him with setting fire to an abandoned local car dealership. By then, his behavior at home had become a serious problem, according to Craig Turner, Cheshire's former director of youth services, who led Komisarjevsky on local church outings and camping trips.
Turner said that if Komisarjevsky had indeed been raped, it might explain some of his behavior later in life.
"Certainly that sort of trauma causes a crisis that can significantly change a victim's perspective on everything and it very likely would have a negative impact that is long-lasting,'' Turner said. "In late childhood, early adolescence, his parents were very interested in finding solutions or interventions to help him. Sadly, none of them seemed to help.''
Every time Komisarjevsky got into trouble, he blamed it on a girl jilting him, according to a source familiar with Komisarjevsky's criminal past. Someone who knows Komisarjevsky well, but who did not want to be named, described him as a "chronic liar.''
In October 2002, Komisarjevsky was convicted of several burglaries and sentenced to three years in state prison. He was convicted of 12 more burglaries in December of that year. He was sentenced to nine years and served about four.
Komisarjevsky seemed drawn to the technical aspects of thievery, using latex gloves so he wouldn't leave fingerprints and at least once using night-vision goggles to see in the dark. He even broke into a state trooper's home and laughed while retelling the story, acquaintances said.
"He was a chameleon,'' said one acquaintance, who did not want his identity disclosed. "He showed the face he wanted you to see. If he was with his prison buddies, he was the hardest-ass prisoner there was. If he was with church people, he'd be saying, "Praise Jesus!'''
Komisarjevsky's uncanny ability to recall even the most minute details of his crimes years later was chilling. On one occasion, he went into a couple's bedroom, and while they were sleeping stole money from the man's wallet and the woman's pocketbook.
A year later, when he was arrested, he would tell police the exact dollar amount he had taken from the wallet and the purse.
Much less is known about Hayes' childhood. His parole file is sketchy. Records show he was born in Florida. He dropped out of Canton High School when he was 16 years old.
He later obtained his high school equivalency diploma after passing the General Educational Development test while in the Cheshire Correctional Institution. He also earned a certificate as a cook. He has worked in the kitchens of such well-known restaurants as the White Hart Inn in Salisbury and Apricots in Farmington, according to his parole file.
Hayes' parents divorced in 1979, and he lived mostly in the Winsted area with his mother, Diana. The only reference to Hayes' father, James, is one line in a parole file saying he had remarried.
Records show Hayes started drinking at 11 and first used cocaine at 19. He had a girlfriend named Rosalie Olivieri, with whom he had two children who are now in their teens.
Unlike Komisarjevsky, who focused on house burglaries and had only one prison term on his record, Hayes was a career criminal, a smash-and-grab thief and occasional home burglar who stole largely to feed his drug habit.
Winsted Det. Alan Lawson called Hayes the "human vacuum cleaner'' because he'd steal anything with potential value.
Lawson, who may have arrested Hayes more times than any other police officer, remembers Hayes as an extremely nervous kid who never confessed to any of his crimes, which included a string of daytime house burglaries and thefts in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
"He was just a petty thief, really. That's why I find it so hard to believe that he'd be involved in the level of violence that was committed here,'' Lawson said. "The young guy I arrested didn't seem capable of something like this.''
Burglary To Brutality
Joshua Komisarjevsky's friends couldn't reach him for two days after the Cheshire barbecue.
But on the Sunday night before the slayings, one of Komisarjevsky's closest friends, worried about his well-being, finally caught up to him at his mother's house. It was about 8 p.m.
Komisarjevsky -- who police believe had spent the previous day breaking into two homes -- shrugged off the missed calls. He told his friend he had just returned from a local Stop & Shop, where he had gone to talk to someone about money.
Police believe it was that store where Komisarjevsky spotted Hawke-Petit and Michaela in the parking lot early Sunday evening and followed them home, identifying them as his next target.
The friend's visit was brief. Komisarjevsky said he couldn't talk long because he was going out to discuss a potential big contracting job with a friend over some beers.
At about 10:30 p.m., Komisarjevsky's girlfriend called him from Arkansas. Then, sometime after 11 p.m., he headed out. Before he left, Komisarjevsky slipped on a black hooded sweat shirt.
Jude Komisarjevsky would later tell police she became worried because she knew her son always wore black when he was up to no good.
Police believe Komisarjevsky returned to Stop & Shop and met up with Hayes. The two then went out for a few drinks, leaving Hayes' borrowed pickup truck in the store's parking lot.
Sometime after 3 a.m., long after the bars had closed and the darkness of a summer night had settled in, Komisarjevsky jimmied the lock on the bulkhead door leading to the basement of the Petit family's home and crept inside.
The men wore dark-colored hooded sweat shirts and homemade masks and latex gloves covered by thicker, cotton work gloves. Hayes was carrying an air pistol, its bright orange tip filed off to make it appear more deadly. Police later said the two were carrying plastic electrical ties, similar to those used to bundle electrical wires by commercial electricians such as Komisarjevsky's father.
Many of the details of what happened next have been widely reported, but new information gleaned from law enforcement and other sources provides a clearer, if still incomplete, picture.
Once inside the house, Komisarjevsky entered the sunroom and attacked Dr. William Petit Jr. with a bat as he slept on a sofa, sources said. The pair then dragged Petit into the basement, placed a garbage bag over his head and tied him up.
Hawke-Petit and her daughters were tied to their beds with a combination of rope, scarves and electrical ties, sources said. Hayes and Komisarjevsky gathered all of the family's cellphones and placed them on the bed in the master bedroom. They unplugged the house phones.
At one point, police say, Komisarjevsky, the teenage rape victim, became the sexual abuser. Police say there is evidence Komisarjevsky sexually assaulted Michaela. She also was forced into the bathroom to take a shower, sources said. Komisarjevsky also used a cell phone to take photos of Michaela, a police source said. Investigators later obtained a search warrant to seize photos from Komisarjevksy's phone as evidence.
At dawn, Hayes set out to get gasoline, using several canisters from the Petit garage. Police believe Hayes stopped off at his truck in order to stash some items from the Petit house -- several wallets, jewelry and even Hayley's knapsack, which contained nickels and dimes she had been saving in a jar in her bedroom.
Around 6 a.m., Komisarjevsky's girlfriend tried to reach him from Arkansas for their usual morning conversation. A thousand miles away, she became worried when she got no answer.
Sometime early that morning, the two men forced Hawke-Petit to call her husband's office using the house phone, informing his staff that he wouldn't be going to work that day, sources said.
Shortly after 9 a.m., Komisarjevsky and Hayes made Hawke-Petit drive with Hayes to a local bank, where she withdrew $15,000 -- $5,000 more than the suspects had demanded -- in a possible attempt to save her family's lives. Hayes waited in the car.
The bank teller, alerted to trouble by Hawke-Petit, notified her boss, who called 911 at 9:21 a.m.
What happened in the ensuing half-hour, between the time Hayes and Hawke-Petit returned home and the time the suspects were arrested, is still a mystery. State police investigators have repeatedly declined to talk about the case. How a house burglary led to triple homicide is a question that may be answered only at trial.
Komisarjevsky has told investigators he did not expect that Hayes would kill Hawke-Petit, according to sources. In a detailed, taped statement, he said he heard a commotion and came down the stairs to find Hayes "getting violent'' with Hawke-Petit, sources said. Komisarjevsky told police he shouted at Hayes and asked what he was doing.
Hayes, according to sources, responded by telling Komisarjevsky there could be no witnesses and that they needed to burn everything.
Police say there is no way to verify Komisarjevsky's version of events through the physical evidence. Hayes has given a less detailed statement that contradicts portions of Komisarjevsky's version, a source said.
Hearing the sounds of his wife fighting for her life, William Petit regained full consciousness, broke free and managed to hop out through the bulkhead door and toward a neighbor's house, screaming for help. Cheshire police, who by then had surrounded the Petit house, were close enough to hear Petit yelling his neighbor's first name, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
The suspects poured gasoline all over the house, starting at the spot where Hawke-Petit had been killed and leading up the stairs to the girls' bedrooms. There was little gas left by the time they made it to Michaela's bedroom, according to a police source.
They ignited the trail of gasoline from the first floor sunroom and fled the house, laughing as they ran outside, a police source said.
The suspects' freedom was short-lived. A block down the road, two Cheshire police cruisers had blocked the path. Komisarjevsky, behind the wheel of the Petits' Chrysler Pacifica, stomped on the gas, smashing into the blockade at top speed and sending the cruisers spinning wildly apart.
The heavily damaged Pacifica limped to the curb as officers, guns drawn, surrounded the vehicle. The two men were still wearing their latex gloves as they exited the car.
Hayes was wearing Hayley's green and gray Miss Porter's School crew hat.
What Might Have Been
The furor over the killings was fast and far-reaching.
Hayes and Komisarjevsky would be wearing much different attire when they next appeared in public: bulletproof vests under their orange prison jumpsuits at court arraignments the next day.
As the state and nation mourned, news that Hayes and Komisarjevsky had been granted parole recently despite their criminal histories prompted Gov. M. Jodi Rell to call for an immediate review of all prisoner release programs.
Eventually, under pressure from legislators, Rell and state officials placed a moratorium on all parole until the process could be revamped.
The randomness of the crime and the horrors that took place inside the Petit home may never be fully explained. Tests have shown that although they were addicts, neither Komisarjevsky nor Hayes was on drugs at the time. They had alcohol in their systems, but were not legally drunk, law enforcement sources have said.
Both men are facing multiple counts of capital felony, murder, kidnapping and rape, and each faces a potential death sentence if convicted of the crimes. Separate evidentiary hearings on probable cause are scheduled this week in Superior Court in New Haven.
While it may be years before the fate of the two men is known, the Petit family, the town of Cheshire and the entire state grieve for what might have been for the Petits.
Hayley, who raised $54,000 for the Multiple Sclerosis Society in honor of her mother, longed to be a doctor like her dad. She would have turned 18 on Oct. 15. She had been accepted at Dartmouth, her father's alma mater.
Michaela, who was following in her sister's footsteps as an MS fundraiser, loved to cook. She would have turned 12 on Nov. 17.
The two girls now flank their mother in small graves facing the woods in the rear of Plainville's West Cemetery. Personal tokens that friends have placed on the raw earth serve as solemn tributes to the Petit women.
On Hawke-Petit's grave, a small sand dollar and a set of wooden rosary beads are propped among the flowers as silent tribute to her spiritual nature.
Hayley's grave is adorned with a gray and green baseball cap from Miss Porter's School, from which she graduated last June as an athlete and scholar. There is also a basketball, inscribed with various song lyrics, including Jack Johnson asking the question "Who's to say what's impossible?'' from the song "Upside Down,'' which was on the soundtrack of the "Curious George'' movie.
Michaela has a small red-and-black striped stuffed fish on her grave, along with a white plaster angel. A miniature frying pan rests in her wings.
Courant Staff Writers Courant Staff Writers Ann Marie Somma and Alaine Griffin contributed to this story.
Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant