NEW HAVEN, CT (WPIX)—Jurors in a trial over a brutal Connecticut home invasion that resulted in two rapes, three murders and arson are in day four of testimony having seen evidence that led some of them to weep openly in court the day before. Haunting surveillance video and a 911 call were among a long list of new evidence, most of which was far too graphic to be released to the public. Still, the publicly released material allowed attorneys defending a man who faces the death penalty to ask if police may have prevented the crimes with swifter action.
"We have a lady who is in our bank right now who says that her husband and children are being held at her house," is how the manager of a Bank of America in Cheshire, Connecticut begins to describe to police what she observed happening at a teller window in her bank's lobby on the morning of July 23, 2007. On the 911 tape played in court in New Haven Wednesday, the manager goes on to detail what her customer had calmly told a teller. "The people are in a car outside the bank. She's getting $15,000 to bring out to them. If police are told, they'll kill the children and the husband. Her name is Jennifer Petit."
Jennifer Hawke-Petit was trying to save the lives of her family, who were tied up and held hostage back at her home nearby. The line of credit withdrawal she made was captured on surveillance video. Ms. Hawke-Petit appears fairly calm considering the circumstances, but the bank manager's urgent call to police says otherwise: "She says they are being very nice. They have their faces covered. She is petrified. She wasn't going to call the police but I came in my office and did."
Within thirty minutes of the bank manager making that 911 call at 9:21 a.m., Ms. Petit was raped, murdered and her body burned beyond recognition, her pre-teen daughter was raped and murdered, and her other daughter was killed. What police did between receiving the call and responding to the situation is why they faced a barrage of questions in court as to why they did not act sooner.
"[The home invaders] told her they wouldn't hurt anybody if she got back with the money," the 911 caller told police. That's not what ended up happening, however. Defendant Steven Hayes drove Ms. Hawke-Petit back to her home, where his accomplice, Joshua Komisajevsky, was waiting with Hawke-Petit's 11-year old daughter Michaela and 17 year-old daughter Hayley tied to her beds. The girls' father, prominent physician William Petit was tied to a pole in the basement, where the two home invaders had left him for dead after beating him severely with a baseball bat.
Once he got Ms. Hawke-Petit back into her home, Hayes raped and strangled her, and Komisarjevsky raped 11 year-old Michaela. The two men then set the house on fire and tried to escape. The two girls died from smoke inhalation, according to fire officials. 17 year-old Hayley's body was found at the top of the stairs, where she apparently had freed herself from her bonds and was trying to get out. Dr. Petit, meanwhile, did manage to escape, even though his ankles were still bound and he had lost seven pints of blood.
Dr. Petit climbed out of the basement and rolled over to the home of a neighbor, who called 911. That emergency call was the first confirmation police had that there had been something going wrong inside the home. The call was made at 9:54 a.m., 33 minutes after the bank manager had called police.
Dr. Petit survived to bury his family in the days after the attacks and to testify in court against Hayes this week. Hayes's attorneys conceded that their client was involved in the crimes. They are arguing against him being sentenced to death.
Dr. Petit and his wife's family have been supportive of the police throughout this case, but defense questioning of officers who responded show why the Cheshire Police Department is under heavy scrutiny now.
As The Hartford Courant reported from inside the courtroom, police captain Robert Vignola said during cross-examination by defense attorney Thomas J. Ullman that he had no idea any violence was going on inside the Petit home when he arrived that day. He appeared agitated under questioning from Ullmann and said that if he had known what was going on inside, "I would have been the first one through that door."
Ullmann, cross-examining Vignola after the police captain gave his account to prosecutors, showed the court a timeline of events showing that 33 minutes elapsed from a bank employee's call alerting police to a possible hostage situation to the confirmation by police that at least one person at the home was in physical distress:
9:21 a.m.: Bank employee alerts police to a possible hostage situation (Hawke-Petit was forced to drive to a local bank to withdraw money, and told a teller her family was in danger).
9:25: Broadcast goes to all police units about report of a hostage situation.
9:27: Police captain tells units not to approach the house.
9:28: Marked units are told to stay back.
9:36: Vignola does a drive-by.
9:44: Vignola advises that police need to set up a perimeter before calling the home.
9:45: Patrol units set up on each end of Sorghum Mill Drive.
9:54: Someone is heard calling the name "Dave." (Testimony earlier in the week identified "Dave" as a neighbor and the person calling his name a severely wounded William Petit Jr., who had fled the Petit home.)