The Cheshire Murders From A Psychosocial Perspective

I just finished watching the HBO documentary called “The Cheshire Murders.” Some documentaries make a strong impression and this is one of them.

Steven and Joshua

Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, decided to burglarize the home of the Petits. Joshua spotted Mrs. Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughter at a local Stop N’ Shop and followed them home.

The next day, Joshua and Stephen entered the home. Joshua raped Michaela, the younger of the Petit daughters. Steven strangled and then raped Mrs. Hawke-Petit. Before trying to escape, Joshua and Stephen set the home on fire. The two girls were burned alive. Jennifer’s husband, Dr. William Pettit, was severely beaten with a baseball bat and was left for dead. He barely escaped with his life.

“The Cheshire Murders” presents interviews with family members of the victims and the perpetrators. It also explores the death penalty and whether or not the local police could have acted sooner and prevented the deaths of the Petits. The Hartford Courant recently published calls from law enforcement sources indicating that officers doubted the potential danger in the home and held off the SWAT teams. The police were allegedly on the scene for thirty minutes, all while the girls were being raped, killed and the house was being set ablaze. Because of the newly released 911 calls, Joshua’s attorney said that he may seek a new trial.

The documentary provides many details about the murders. Some reviewers have referred to it as a “string of news clips with no apparent purpose.” Maybe that was the intention of the filmmakers, to allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions or perhaps it’s because no one can truly make sense out of a senseless crime. My interest in the documentary was to learn more about the psychsocial history of the purveyors of evil.

Joshua Komisarjevsky 

Joshua was born into a family with mental health problems. They could not properly care for him and he was adopted by a strict, religious family. While with his adoptive family, he and his sister were physically and sexually abused by their foster brother Scott. His parents blamed every problem that had befallen Joshua on the devil. If it was an anxiety problem, it was the devils’ doing. If it was a headache, blame the devil.

Joshua suffered several concussions and his behavior was remarkably different. Soon thereafter, he began spending a great deal of time in the woods alone, fantasizing, spying on people, and stealing panties off cloth lines.

As a teen, he had been committed to a psychiatric hospital after setting fire to an abandoned gas station. He had been suicidal and hallucinating. He reportedly saw visions of demons. Hospital records indicate that Joshua desperately wanted psychological help but his parents rejected it. They instead believed that faith could cure his psychological problems. The church members “laid hands on him” and performed exorcisms to remove the demons from his body. After running away, Joshua was excommunicated from the church. Friends said that he was devastated.

Religion as a cure for psychological problems is reminiscent of the case of Jeremy Perkins, who stabbed his mother 77 times after his parents refused traditional psychiatric help because they were Scientologists.

Jeremy was described as being “strange.” At around the age of 24, he began hearing voices and experiencing hallucinations. Instead of taking him to a psychiatrist, his family sent him to the “Sea Org,” where the most dedicated and elite Scientologists reside. They recognized that Jeremy was very troubled. As his condition worsened his parents continued to refuse medication and traditional forms of mental health treatment.

Desperate for help, his parents turned to natural healing methods. They were convinced that his body was infected with chemical toxins and needed cleansing. His parents began giving Jeremy a daily regimen of more than a dozen vitamins.

On the morning of March 13, 2003 Jeremy was ordered to pack a bag and take a shower. He was being sent on a trip but he did not want to go. In the shower, he tried to slit his wrists but decided that he did not want to die so he instead killed his mother.

According to Jeremy: “I stabbed her about four to five times before she fell down. … I then stabbed her about ten more times in the stomach after she fell to the ground. I knew she was a goner. … I believe that I have lived different lives for the past thousand years, and wished I was in another life now.”

Back to Joshua.

His former defense attorney described him as being a “genius” and a talented artist. He had a photographic memory and was able to recall every detail of every burglary.  He has a long history of burglary with 19 home invasion convictions across four towns.

Joshua was a sophisticated burglar who had honed his skills over the years. He used night vision goggles, latex gloves and was known to go from room to room, listening to the occupants breathing– for no apparent purpose. He was brazen in his thievery, choosing, on some occasions, to rob the homes of state troopers. His former lawyer had warned judges: “He needs to be watched. You are either never going to see him again or he is going to be one of the worst criminals to pass through these doors because that is the kind of mind he’s got.” Remember that was Joshua’s own attorney, warning the judge, not the prosecution.

Joshua committed enough crimes to have been “locked up for two lifetimes” but obviously that did not happen. Despite having long rap sheets, both Joshua and Steven were repeatedly paroled.

Sexually, Joshua was attracted to younger looking women. Even before the Petit murders, people who were close to him thought he was a pedophile. His former girlfriend, Caroline said that he liked to bind her during sex. It was her opinion that Joshua choose her as a mate because she looked very young, like a child.

Steven Hayes 

Stephen was described by his family as being manipulating, deceptive, cunning, and calculating.  Steven’s brother Brian Hayes, said that he hoped that “someone would put a bullet in his head outside the courtroom.” Obviously, he was not well liked by his family.

One of Steven’s brothers described an incident in the 7th grade where he came home from school and found Steven and his friends using the oven to smoke marijuana. Steven turned on the burner and told his brother that it was safe to touch. “It’s cool, you won’t get hurt.” After he placed his hand near the burner, Steven pushed his hand onto the hot burner, causing deep burns and leaving permanent scars.

It was also revealed that Steven had been sexually abused as a child. He was disconnected from people and became addicted to drugs.

At the time of the murder, Steven had been living in a one bedroom home with his mother and his brother Brian. Steven’s life was falling apart. His mother was getting ready to kick him out of the house the weekend prior to the murders. A day or two before the crime occurred Steven locked himself in a hotel room and binged on crack. He was hoping to kill himself. When he didn’t die he felt like a failure. After binging on drugs and failing to kill himself, he attended an AA meeting and met up with Joshua. They began planning ways to “steal some real money.” They decided: rob the Petits.

Similarities between Joshua and Steven 

Joshua and Steven, despite their nearly twenty year age difference, are quite similar. They both have histories of sexual abuse, unstable family lives, a history of suicide attempts, and early interactions with the justice system. They were both out of control as youths. Joshua’s family thought they could treat his serious psychological problems with religion, undoubtedly missing an opportunity to intervene and possibly change his fate. Had Joshua’s parents acquired intense psychological help for him, it’s very possible that none of the tragedy would have occurred, just a normal kid.

What about Steven’s family? If he would have had two attentive parents, or had received psychological help for sexual abuse, would his fate, and the fate of the Petit’s, been different? It is not the first time that failure to acquire the proper mental health treatment, has lead to catastrophic and disastrous circumstances.

I strongly believe that psychological help could have made a positive, life-alternating difference in their lives.

Does the justice system also deserve some of the blame? Joshua and Steven were continuously paroled. Was it because of crowded incarceration facilities or law makers who are too soft on crime? Could stricter laws regarding parole have protected the Petit’s, and countless others victimized from these two men? We may never know.

Connection Between Rape and Burglary 

Warr (1998) noticed that rape and burglary have similar opportunity structures. The same characteristics that attract burglars to a particular location (easy entry and escape, lack of visibility to others, etc) also make it attractive to a rapist. Warr’s 1998 study supported a correlation between the two crimes but what explains the link? One proposed theory is that residential rape occurs by “accident.” The intruder intends to rob the home but encounters a vulnerable woman, a concept researchers have termed “bonus” rapes, since rape was not their original intent.

Another more plausible theory supported by Warr (1998), is that one crime enables the other. In this case, burglary enables rape. “…In a real sense, residential rapes are burglaries until the commencement of the rape itself.” Warr (1998) proposed a subtype of rape called home-intrusion rape, which he defines as rapes committed after an unlawful entry into a residence.

What if the reverse were true? What if residential break-ins are intended rapes until something spoils the plan. Joshua may have chosen the Petit’s because he was attracted to 11-year old Michaela. It’s fitting, given that Joshua was suspected by some to be a pedophile.

I wonder what theory explains burglary, rape and murder. Why was this home invasion different than the 19 others that Joshua had been involved in? The murders were probably not premeditated since they acquired the gas cans after entering the premises. Did the level of violence escalate to murder because Steven was there? People engage in behavior that they might not otherwise do when in the presence of certain other people.

Near the end of the film we learn that both Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes wanted a plea deal, wanted to agree to life without parole but the prosecutors wanted the death penalty.  Dr. Petit, the surviving victim, is an outspoken supporter of the death penalty. He wanted death for Joshua and Steven.

I won’t tell you the end of the story.  Watch the documentary or tweet me for the ending.

32 thoughts on “The Cheshire Murders From A Psychosocial Perspective

  1. OMG I can’t watch as this turns my stomach but I do want to know the end. Hope it was the DP. As far as their family they should be locked up. I have a 46 yr old daughter that is an addict. As parents we have done everything from hospital, rahab, therapy, family therapy since her age of 15. She has had all 3 of her kids taken which I have raised her first since her birth and she is now 26. She has been in and out of jail and rehabs as an adult. The longest she has been sober is 1 yr. I do know addiction is a family disease but the addict has to want the help. After years of alanon I know I need to let go but still I fear the call that will 1 day come. If the parents had done even half as much as we did maybe there would have been a chance for all involved.

  2. Unfortunately, I do not get HBO so I am unable to see this documentary. I believe that you captured probably very well. From your synopsis, I agree that had there been intervention early on in these two lives, this tragedy would probably have been averted. But, alas, that did not happen. Yes, I think the justice system failed with these two but the question is Will The System Learn From This Case? So….I do not know the ending and would be interested to find out what came of these two people.

    • Hello Nern,

      Thanks for your comment. They were given the death penalty. Shortly thereafter Connecticut abolished the DP but it only applies to future cases (and thus from what I understand did not affect their case). They are on death row and with appeals they may be there for at least a decade. A news report recently said that Josh might get a new trial because of newly released evidence but the article did not say what legal basis he would have for a do-over. Josh seems to have no remorse. In his first interview about a year ago, the reporters gave him a chance to say sorry and he said he nothing to say for what he’s done. Listening to his confession tape was chilling.

        • Thanks Penny for the update. I have mixed feelings on the death penalty vs LWOP but be that as it may, they are being punished as they should be.
          Arias is evil, these two men are evil and their crimes reflect that. Having said this, ANY murder, deliberate especially, is horrendous and although circumstances may be different – I feel that anyone who maliciously and with thought murders another human being is evil and in a group of their own.

          • Nern yes each murder is deplorable. The reason I so believe in DP is LWOP can at some point let them go into general population and I feel that is way to good for murders. Plus the fact if we used the DP our prisons would not be so over crowed. Few states ever use the DP anyway. Not trying to sway you just giving you my view. Everyone is entitaled to their own opnion and I do respect that. If this happpened in another country they would be chopped up into mince meat a long with Arias.

          • Penny, I also have the upmost respect for people’s personal opinions. I do believe that a maximum security prison – even in the general population – is not a piece of cake. One must watch their backs at all times. For people like Arias, her antics while being incarcerated will not stop as we have seen and inmates, hard-core inmates, will not tolerate her manipulative behaviour in any way nor will they tolerate people like the two who are convicted of the other terrible crime we have been talking about. I believe that all three of them would end up in segregation custody – 23 hours a day – because they will not change their behaviour.
            Especially Arias because it is never her fault and her lying will always get her into trouble. Up to now, she has been in jail which I believe is far different from prison life and she has no idea what is in store for her once she gets there – for whatever time she spends there.
            I wonder, if the DP was strictly enforced, how many innocent lives would be lost in the name of justice.
            In other countries, justice is swift and harsh but in the name of justice innocent women are put to death for infractions that often were no fault of theirs. Recently, a woman was given 100 lashes in an eastern country for being pregnant by her rapist, who, by the way was pardoned.
            Like you, I am not trying to sway your opinion in any way, just clarifying mine.
            Good comments and I like the discussion.

          • Hi Nern, I agree with most everything you say. I don’t want an innocent person to die but I feel that there probably very few on death row that don’t deserve it. Our laws are flawed as we can all see by the trials that are going on. I would only want to see someone like Arias get DP as she has admitted she killed Travis and there is no proof he was a preditor of any kind nor of abuse. My father in law was a cop for a prison and from stories he has told prisoners get conditioned to their life and find it worse on the outside. My father in law had Manson before he was transfered and he is still alive. I do think if we used DP it would stop maybe a few people from violent crimes. Now they see only life or think they may get out. Before the DP there should be absolute proof of guilt. I am tired of paying my tax $ for them to sit around play cards, watch T.V. fight and get free medical treatment. If all violent crime criminals had to stay behind bars 23hrs a day and no T.V. I would be fine with that. Know they can work their way into med. sec. and that is really scary. My father in law and a few more cops caught one that escaped and was under a bridge. The DP or hole should be where all the evil criminals should be.

          • Nerm forgot to say my father in law worked in L.A. jail and Chino prison. When a person is convicted here in Cali. they go to Chino before they are transfered out so he has seen many famous faces. He has been retired a # of years but I think this is still the rule today.

      • Dr. K.R. – thanks for the update. |I am kind of glad I could not see the documentary and I am sure it was chilling along with all the other info, like confessions, etc.
        I really like your blog posts and find they are informative and leave room for discussion. thanks for your hard work and I look forward to each new post that you do.

  3. This is one case that has stayed with me. The horror the Petit family endured is a tragedy. I know the outcome, yet knowing it will be years hardly seems like justice. I was unaware LE was allegedly on scene 30 minutes before the murders of those beautiful women. What will be done about that? Will CT LE learn so a tragedy like this never happens again?

    When the news carried the story of Dr Petit getting engaged, I was angered by people who judged him because in their view “not enough time past”. How dare they judge a man who lost his whole family to these violent, mentally disturbed men! But for the grace of God, it could have been anyone of us. I believe his beautiful family would have wanted him to find love again and continue his foundation in their name. I wish him only the best life has to offer.

    • Robin I agree with your comments about Dr Petit moving on and building a new life. I’m very happy for him.

      People Magazine is reporting that Dr Petit is to be a father again. That was very nice to hear. I’m so happy that he was able to find love again and start a new life. So many people in that position could very well never get past this sort of tragedy. I wish him the very best!

    • Ditto Robin. Yes, the Petit family murders have stayed w me profoundly as well. I too hope CT LE has formed a new approach for future scenarios w such advance notice. Watching Mrs Petit beck for help inside the bank that fateful am was just awful. Great news about Dr Petit, I was thrilled for his good fortune to reunite on this temporary earth w a new love. His family awaits him. I too hope CT keeps their DP grandfathered in for inmates prior to the state’s reversal. It’d be great if we worked w in our existing laws + found ways to keep these 2 evil men in prison. There is no viable, reason for their repetitive releases. Such evil atrocity on the Petit women could have been avoided. Good post.

  4. Dr. K;

    I haven’t seen this documentary yet. I live in CT, and followed the story from the first day. In my opinion, no amount of past history of these two rightly-convicted animals is a mitigating factor to their actions. Read about the crime scene; the two girls were tied to their beds and doused with gasoline. The oldest daughter managed to break free, only to be overcome by smoke and perish at the top of the stairs, actually landing on one of the empty bottles used in the fire. The youngest tried to break free, but was also overcome by smoke.

    • I am interested in understanding the mindset of these people because I am a researcher; I am interested in human behavior and always try to understand what leads people to behave in a particular manner. Nothing more. No where in my article do I argue that their mental health histories are mitigating factors. If you think that then you are making assumptions.

  5. Sometimes, it is the combination of two people that create a crime that is far worse than the crime either could have committed alone. Isn’t this, to a degree, a modern version of Capote’s recounting of the Clutter murders in In Cold Blood?

    I do feel for Joshua as he was never given a chance even though he desperately asked for intervention as a child. We prosecute parents who, because of faith, allow their children to die from treatable conditions (see cases dealing with faith based medical neglect of children), and the same should happen to parents who refuse to seeks appropriate medical care for psychological conditions. This doesn’t mean that I want the guy to be my neighbor, but there’s every indication that he could adjust to a maximum security general population. Further, his criminal history was no where near that violent until he teamed up with the true sadist.

    BTW, for those worried about the general population – it varies from prison to prison, and the security level of the inmate. The vast majority of prisoners serving LWOP in the US are doing so in the general population of a maximum security prison. As they age, and if their disciplinary record warrants it, they may be able to work their way down to medium security, but only in some states. Violent criminals never (well rarely) wind up in the lower security level institutions. Oh, and the gen pop of a max security prison? well, that’s filled with murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals or nonviolent criminals who “failed to program” their way up to maximum security.

    • Bellcurve – your reference to the Clutter family massacre is interesting. Except for the violation of the women, eerily similar.
      Thanks for the info on “general population” in prison. Most people seem to think it is “party time” for people like Arias if she were to get LWOP. In fact, she would be with people like herself and that is not a good combination. Zero tolerance for a lot of those who are housed there.

      • according to Capote’s write-ups of the psych evals, one of the murderers actually wanted to rape the young girl, giving the other the girl after he was done. The other killer thought the rapes much more egregious than murder, and the result of the two of them together was the death of the 4 Clutter family members. So, while the sexual component to the Clutter case wasn’t acted on, there was a sexual element, and had the one perpetrator not had an interest in raping the daughter, neither the breakin nor the murders may have occurred.

        • bellkurve – thank you for the added info. Your take on the similarities makes sense. It has been a long time since I read “In Cold Blood”, saw the movie and also watched “Capote”. Forgotten a lot.

          • Most of the report of the doctor from the Menninger Clinic was part of Capote’s book, assessing both men. Menninger, for a while at least, was at the forefront of challenging the M’Naghten Rule, seeking to expand it from the inability to understand the difference between right and wrong to something that made better use of our expanding understanding of psychology. The people at Menninger failed miserably, and I don’t think they kept with the area of study in the last 50 years or so.

  6. Thank you Dr R for addressing this horrific case. I followed it as it unfolded and went to trial. Since cameras aren’t allowed in CT courtrooms I didn’t get a lot of the background on it nor did I see the documentary. I always wondered how these 2 hooked up in the first place, never knew it was through an AA meeting.

    I like your analysis on these cases because I too am interested in the mindset of criminals and human behavior overall. Parents need to do the best they can to nurture their children and seek help when warranted. Obviously these two men were let down. Who’s to know what the outcome may have been had they had proper treatment early on.

    Nineteen previous home invasions! I definitely believe the justice system is to blame as well. Lawmakers, judges, law enforcement, etc. need to pay attention! We have a crisis in this country. How many more victims need to die and/or suffer needlessly! Each state should implement a task force to address these issues. Lawmakers need to get involved, voters need to voice their concerns, medical providers need to provide their input….. it’s a complicated process but it needs to start somewhere. An overhaul of laws and punishment should be at the top of the list.

    i think the medical system shares some of the blame as well. I feel people with mental health issues have not always been cared for properly (not because of bad doctors or therapists). The psych hospitals and residential homes were abolished in my area back in the 70’s. Mental health care hasn’t always been easily accessible and recognized and the ability to pay for such care has hindered treatment in some cases.

    • You are so right Tracy about the medical field. I worked the last several years for a psychiatrist and if you don’t have medical ins. that covers most people can not afford to get the help they need. I retired 3yrs ago and at that time the Dr. charged $350 for 1hr and $250 for med check which is 1/2hr and didn’t charge as much as a lot of Dr. do and I’m sure it is probably more today. Very sad fact but true.

  7. I’m so glad to hear William Petit has remarried and is emotionally healing. When he was on Oprah in 2011, he had just given up the idea of killing himself and was struggling with believing there could be any future for him. Anyone that would criticize this man for believing in the healing power of love and relationship (because it’s too soon) is brainless and heartless.

      • I remember when I got my divorce and had 2 young boys to raise. Took me about 10 years to get my life on track. So many people said “lower your standards” or “you need a good screw”. Today, over 30 years later, I have two wonderful sons doing what makes them happy, 2 grandsons and a granddaughter due next month, retired and happy. Still single but that is my choice. It takes as long as it takes. I would rest assure that his family remains in his heart but he is so fortunate to find love and happiness once again in his life.

  8. I watched the documentary last night and found it devastating.

    I’m not convinced that mental health intervention could have helped Joshua, unless it had been provided very early on, like immediately after Joshua was molested and only if it had not been followed by that utterly toxic religious conditioning & overlay of corrosive shame.

    Joshua strikes me as a classic sociopath. His letters rationalizing his criminal impulses, celebrating his moral degeneration were sickening. He sure as hell did not fit any definition of legal insanity. He knew exactly what he was doing and planned it.

    He wanted his accomplice to leave so he could rape the younger daughter. Then the rape “necessitated” the killing & destruction of evidence.

    Joshua was bitter to be on the outside looking in to scenes of affluent families, rich in love, opportunity & money. The burglaries were a forced invasion into the intimacy & safety of those homes and families. In that respect the burglaries were already a form of rape.

    The actual rape of Michaela Petit was the same crime as the burglary, different only in specificity and intensity. Rape is the violent assertion of power and control over a woman. Joshua’s assumption of control & assertion of power over the Petit household — after knocking out the father, Bill, the traditional protector & defender — constituted a rape of the entire family.

    • So well analyzed. I totally agree. Home invasions are the crime most indicative of a person’s propensity for rape and murder because it is already an invasion into the most private and secure aspect of a person (aside from their physical body.) So the fact criminals with a history of home invasions are sentenced lightly is very negligent. Sentences for invading a home should be much higher than they are because these individuals are demonstrating that they get their highs from violating people rather than just committing property crimes.

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