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