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By ALAINE GRIFFIN, email@example.com
September 16, 2010
As the flames and heat subsided, emergency officials began learning just how horrific the crime scene was at 300 Sorghum Mill Drive in Cheshire on July 23, 2007.
On the second floor, at the top of the stairs, was a body.
" Hayley Petit," Cheshire volunteer firefighter Rick Trocci said softly during testimony Wednesday in Superior Court.
In the family room, Meriden firefighter Tim Wysoczanski found another body, this one burned beyond recognition in the fire set by two intruders.
"Did you subsequently find out it was Mrs. Jennifer Hawke-Petit?" Prosecutor Gary Nicholson asked.
"Yes sir," Wysoczanski replied.
In an upstairs bedroom was another body: a blonde-haired girl in pink shorts lying face down, her wrists bound and tied to the bed.
"That's where I found Michaela Petit," Cheshire police Lt. Jay Markella said somberly.
After morning testimony in the trial of Steven Hayes called into question — for the first time publicly — the police response to the deadly home invasion at the Petit home, by afternoon the focus was back on the victims and the grim search for them inside their fire-ravaged home.
Jurors seemed to anticipate the inevitable. They had been told by both the judge and lawyers that gruesome, heart-breaking photos were part of the testimony they needed to see in order to decide the fate of Hayes, 47, of Winsted, who faces the death penalty if convicted of the killings.
Jurors sent a note Wednesday asking Judge Jon C. Blue if they could be warned when the graphic photos would be displayed on a large movie screen in the courtroom. He said the photos, instead, would be done old-school, tucked in a folder and distributed among them in the jury box.
"Just prepare yourself as best you can," Blue said.
One by one, the half-dozen photos circulated among the 12 jurors and three alternates. Some jurors remained stoic as they glanced quickly at the photos, closing the folders almost as soon as they opened them.
But others were not so unflappable. One woman braced her body and sighed. Another put her hand to her head and cried. A man also cried. One woman fixed an angry stare on Hayes, who sat at the defense table, emotionless.
One female juror looked at the photos and then at Dr. William Petit Jr. seated in the front row. By the end of the showing, Petit was in tears. His father, William Petit Sr., sobbing himself, clung to his son, his arm wrapped around his back.
Markella's testimony was especially moving. The bedroom, at the end of the home, and farther away from the origin of the fire, was not as damaged as other parts of the house. So Markella had some hope for the girl he saw hanging partly off the bed, her arms over her head. But once he was close, that hope was lost.
"I could tell she wasn't alive," he said. Both Petit daughters died of smoke inhalation. Hawke-Petit was strangled.
Blue then excused the jury for the day.
"They've been through quite a bit," he told the attorneys.
Before letting them go, he said, "You've been through the roughest part. Feel free to give each other hugs but don't talk about the case."
Jurors are prohibited from talking to one another about cases they preside over until deliberations.
Hayes, who talked more than usual to his attorneys Wednesday, appeared disoriented as he stood up from his chair before shaking the hand of one of his defense attorneys, Thomas J. Ullmann.
Earlier in the day, a Cheshire police captain faced tough cross-examination about his department's response to the home invasion.
Capt. Robert Vignola said 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 with 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.)
Vignola testified that police were following the proper protocol for a hostage situation. He said the information they had gave no evidence of violence occurring inside the home. It was confusing, he said, and "still makes no sense today."
Under cross-examination, Vignola said no officers went to the front door of the home shortly after the police call. Vignola said he advised police not to enter until a better perimeter was set up.
When Ullmann offered a wait time of 20 minutes, Vignola did not dispute the time.
"No phone call was made from any police officer to the home?" Ullmann asked.
"That's correct," Vignola said.
Vignola said there was some confusion at the bank. The teller did not entirely believe Hawke-Petit's story about the hostage situation but the bank manager did, he said.
Ullmann noted that the bank teller told police that Hawke-Petit was "petrified."
Ullmann also questioned Vignola about an officer who, upon hearing the call, went to the police department to get SWAT gear instead of going to the Petit home. Ullmann asked Vignola if police already carry weapons. Vignola said yes.
Ullmann, referring to the time police spent responding to the call, said that even with all the setup, "you were too late."
Nicholson objected to the comment, and Blue said Vignola did not have to respond.
Vignola was excused from the stand and hurried from the courtroom without acknowledging Petit, sitting in the front row.
Under earlier questioning by prosecutors, Vignola said he drove by the Petit home about 9:40 a.m. and "saw nothing." Two vehicles in the Petit driveway belonged to the Petits, according to a records check, he said.
He assigned officers to Hotchkiss Ridge Road to check the neighborhood, perhaps for another vehicle.
Vignola said he saw a man leave the rear of the home. He said that it was Joshua Komisarjevsky and that he was holding a satchel. Komisarjevsky is also charged in the crimes, but his trial will not begin until Hayes' is finished.
Komisarjevsky went back to the home and came out with another man with a bag in his hand and got into a vehicle, a Chrysler Pacifica. Komisarjevsky put the vehicle in reverse.
"They were running full tilt. They were very excited, running around. ... They were in a hurry," Vignola said.
Vignola said that he tried to block the driveway and that the Pacifica came at him fast, hitting his car and spinning into a stone wall.
Vignola and Detective Dennis Boucher jumped out of their vehicle and ran up to the Pacifica with pistols drawn. Another officer came up to the front of the car and pointed a rifle at the vehicle. The occupants were ordered out. Instead, the Pacifica took off, nearly hitting an officer.
Two patrol cars chased the Pacifica. "I heard there was a crash moments later," Vignola said.
At the same time, Vignola said, he saw black smoke coming from the rear of the Petit home.
Cheshire Detective Joseph Vitello testified that he was in the Petit neighborhood in his patrol car with the windows down when he heard someone call, "Hey Dave." Before he could react to that, he heard over his police radio, "They're fleeing, they're fleeing."
Vitello said that after the Pacifica crashed, Hayes was hesitant to come out. Vitello had to yell several times before Hayes dropped to his knees and ultimately to a prone position. "He kept picking his head up to look around," Vitello said.
Vitello said he saw a handgun tucked into Hayes' pants. Vitello went over to Hayes and arrested him.
Hayes, Vitello said, identified himself as "Peter Hayes."
Vitello said he was familiar with Komisarjevsky, a Cheshire resident who lived about two miles from the crime scene. Vitello said he "dealt with him when he was a juvenile" regarding a police matter.
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