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Police Sluggish Response Questioned In Deadly Home Invasion

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.)

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.

Further details of Wednesday's testimony from The Hartford Courant says that 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.


Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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