Read an Excerpt
In the Middle of the Night
By Brian Mcdonald
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Brian McDonald
All rights reserved.
3 A.M. Loose gravel on the street crunched beneath the heavy-set Hayes's feet. He could make noise in a blizzard, Joshua thought, but now Joshua wore a small smile as he shook his head and, palms facing down, motioned to his older partner to walk softly. Joshua was either getting used to Steven Hayes or still feeling a little bit of a buzz from the beer and Southern Comfort he'd had at the sports bar or, more likely, charged by the thrill of the crime he was about to commit. Leading the way, Joshua, younger looking than his 26 years (even considering four-and-a-half of them had been spent in jail), his frame slim with muscles like rope knots, moved silently up the driveway, into the backyard and past the sunroom. It was then that he first saw Dr. Petit, asleep on the couch in the enclosed porch. Joshua stood there motionless at the edge of complete darkness in the yard. A soft light was coming from inside the room. Hayes stood behind Joshua, anxiously shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "What are we waiting for?" Hayes said as softly as he could, but his words were nearly frantic. Joshua didn't so much as twitch. It was as if he was listening to something that only he could hear. Finally, after what must have seemed like forever to his partner, Joshua pulled a knit ski hat, with slits cut out for eyeholes, over his head. Then he turned to Hayes. "I'll let you in," he whispered.
* * *
Cheshire, Connecticut is a most unlikely setting for any murder, let alone those of a mother and her two daughters. As you turn off Interstate 84, Cheshire Road winds through a canopy of pine, elm and maple, old New England trees, descending into the fertile Naugatuck River Valley. Along this route, houses, mostly ranches and Victorians, are modest. Some show renovations made during one of the several waves of affluence that changed this town. A few still have barns in the backyards, a clue to Cheshire's farming roots. Halfway between the highway and the town center, such as it is, you'll come across a farm stand. Cheshire owns the Thornton Wilderesque title of "the Bedding Plant Capital of Connecticut." And there are still a half dozen or so working farms in and around Cheshire.
Though the soil beneath this town suits its farming heritage (and covers the remnants of barite that many years ago brought a migration of Welsh miners) the identity of Cheshire today is discovered not in the many greenhouses or the rows of corn in August, but in the cul-de-sacs and subdivisions that carve the wooded land. Cheshire is now a town of certain means, a bedroom community.
Today, the population of Cheshire is about 28,000 and the average family income is around $90,000. The city of New Haven is only 14 miles to the south, and many of Cheshire's residents work for Yale University, or in the health care industry, a major employer there. Hartford, Connecticut, is 20 miles north of Cheshire. The state capital, Hartford is to big insurance what Detroit is, or once was, to the automotive industry. The bucolic town of Cheshire is home for many insurance executives.
In 2007, the average cost of a house in Cheshire was $330,000 and there are plenty of homes that cost much more. Most of these structures sit on manicured lawns and are fronted by sculpted bushes. In back there are redwood decks, flagstone patios and some built-in swimming pools. In the summer, the smell of charcoal and grilling steak floats from one backyard to another. At night, children leave their bikes on the front lawns with not a single worry that they will be gone in the morning. Cheshire's violent crime rate is in the lowest 1 percent of the state, and the town is near the bottom in every other major crime statistic. There are four sex offenders registered as living in Cheshire — four too many most would say, but a ratio that is far below the state's average. Though you might see a Slomin's Shield, an ADT sign, or the symbol of some other home security company, chances are, more doors in Cheshire are left unlocked than alarmed. At least that's the way it was before that late July night when two parolees broke into the home at 300 Sorghum Mill Drive. Before then, Cheshire was a trusting town.
It is also a family town. At last count, there are sixteen Little League teams in Cheshire, and far more managers and umpires in the bleachers than on the fields. Parents here take their kids' baseball seriously, and their zeal and acrimony has been the fodder for at least one New York Times story. The townspeople's fervency for sports is by no means limited to the 11-and 12-year-olds. The high school boys' football team has a rich history and, for many years, was among the best in the state. In 1993, the National Sports Service ranked the Cheshire Rams number one in all of New England. Though the football team has achieved much, they take a back seat to the ladies. The Cheshire girls' swimming team holds the national record for the most consecutive dual meet victories. Cheshire's wrestlers and basketball and baseball players have all collected shelves filled with trophies. And some of the local boys made good on the big sports stage. Veteran Houston Astros catcher Brad Ausmus once wore the red pinstripes of the Cheshire Rams. One of Ausmus's classmates was Brian Leech, the one-time star hockey player for the New York Rangers. When the Rangers were champions of hockey in 1994, Leech arranged for the Stanley Cup to be brought to the Cheshire Youth Center.
Yes, Cheshire is a sports town. Maybe the only thing more important here is its faith.
According to the Yellow Pages, there are nineteen places of worship in Cheshire that, along with two synagogues, span the Christian spectrum from St. Bridget's Roman Catholic to the multi-denominational First Congregational, whose spire is the official symbol of the town.
Two of the Cheshire churches especially seem to have little in common. One was the small and fervent Christ Community Church with its congregation of modest means; the other, United Methodist, with a religiously liberal and moneyed flock. And yet for our story, these two houses of worship are forever linked in the most unfortunate way. For it was the United Methodist of which the Petit family were enthusiastic members, where Jennifer Hawke-Petit taught Sunday school, where Michaela Petit, 11, sang in the church's musical programs and had just played her first flute solo, where Hayley Petit, 17, hammered nails and wielded an electric drill with the church's summer teen brigade doing home improvements for the disabled, where the whole family acted out roles each Christmas in the "Living Nativity." Mrs. Jennifer Hawke-Petit played Mary, her husband, Dr. William Petit, played a king.
And, across town, in the Baptist church, is where a young boy with a Russian last name would first learn to praise Jesus, but would turn his back on the church and ultimately bring to Cheshire its most soulless morning.CHAPTER 2
Joshua Komisarjevsky (pronounced Ko-mi-sor-JEFF-ski) sat in the red Chevy Venture parked in the Stop & Shop parking lot and smoked Camels. Born and raised in Cheshire, Joshua had the anonymity of a native. There was no reason for anyone to think that the nice-looking fellow with the auburn hair and the easy smile sitting behind the wheel of the red van was anything but a local guy working for a living. And he was. He worked for a roofing company out of East Hartford, and did some of his own contracting work on the side. But Joshua was not your average Cheshire workingman. He had quite a long criminal history in and around Cheshire. Those exploits, combined with his unusual last name, earned him a reputation with Cheshire police.
Just a few days prior, the monitoring bracelet attached to his ankle had been removed. The bracelet was part of his parole agreement. He had served 4-and-a-half years of a 9-year sentence for multiple home burglary charges. Though the bracelet had been removed, he was still on parole and would be until August of 2013. That is, unless he violated any of the provisions. In his newfound freedom, Joshua had already violated a number of them. And now he was about to obliterate any validity of the parole agreement.
The contractor was late. Joshua was waiting to get paid for some work he'd done. Just one more aggravation that came with a job that he was sorry he'd taken in the first place. Joshua had worked all weekend on it, a renovation. He was supposed to have a crew of guys helping him, but they'd never shown. Each time he called the foreman to complain he was told, "They're on their way." Yeah, right. When penguins really dance, he thought.
But what bothered Joshua the most about the job was that it had taken away the time he could have spent with Jayda, his 5-year-old daughter. He knew she was in good hands, his mom's, the built-in babysitter. But still. He had just gotten custody of Jayda, and he cherished their time together: taking Jayda to work where she made an arbor for Nana (her grandmother), or in the evening when they made and ate s'mores, or at bedtime when he would read her a Bible story, just as his mother had done for him.
Instead of all that, he was framing a garage until it was too dark to see. And if the job wasn't bad enough, there was Hayes. Fucking Hayes. Bothering Joshua about the jam Hayes had, once again, found himself in. Joshua had met Hayes in a halfway house, and later they were roommates in a community release treatment center in Hartford. In those environments, Hayes was easy to like. Always with the jokes, and, as nearly a lifer behind bars, he knew the code. In a way that only ex-cons can, Joshua trusted Hayes with his back.
When Hayes was released, Joshua had put him to work on some side jobs he'd picked up. "Hey, you can teach a monkey to swing a hammer," Joshua would later say.
Anyhow, Hayes liked to work — when he was clean. When he was using, Hayes only liked to do one thing. And every time he smoked that one thing, and then found a hooker to smoke it with, it was only a matter of time before he was back in jail. How many times? Twenty-two, twenty-three convictions? Jesus!
But since his last release, Hayes was clean. At least Joshua thought he was. Dutifully, Hayes had attended the Cocaine Anonymous meeting Joshua chaired on Tuesday night in Cheshire. But now Hayes had a story. His mother was threatening to throw him out of the house, a violation of his parole agreement. Though Joshua would later say he didn't ask Hayes why his mother wanted him out, he had to know. Just a week or so before, Hayes had told him that he'd saved a couple of grand. Hayes's plan was to get a new truck. But the money had gone up in smoke. And Joshua had to have known it was crack smoke.
All that aside, when Hayes asked his halfway house roomie "to do some work," Joshua didn't hesitate. Hayes needed the money to get a place with a lease so he could show his parole officer. Without a place with a lease, it was, for sure, back to the joint. Joshua was not nearly as desperate, but still he promised to help Hayes out.
He would later say that his primary motive was to get his buddy out of a jam. But, come on, what criminal is altruistic? The very nature of crime is selfish. Sure you might pick up a running buddy to bolster your confidence, to pull jobs you'd never dare to do alone. But you're not going to put your ass on the line to bail someone else out. No, it wasn't about Hayes.
Anyhow, burglarizing houses had always meant more to Joshua than just easy money. His motives were as complex as his emotional balance, one that he would later admit drew several clinical diagnoses. Partly Joshua said yes to Hayes because he simply liked to break into houses. He would later say he was drawn by "the thrill of the crime." But Hayes also knew the buttons to push. Joshua's biggest button had "MANHOOD" stamped on it. Joshua wasn't about to let anyone question his courage. He would show this joker just how good a criminal he was.CHAPTER 3
At some point — it's hard to tell exactly where — Cheshire Road becomes Main Street and runs right into Maplecroft Plaza, eight acres of macadam on which sit a prefab shopping center with a Marshalls, Stop & Shop, Subway sandwiches and a branch of the Bank of America.
The shopping center stands out from the quaintness of Cheshire like a plastic lawn chair at an antique show. On any given day, in nice weather or foul, the parking lot is filled with a combination of soccer moms' SUVs and the panel and pickup trucks of Cheshire's service providers: landscapers, tree surgeons, plumbers, contractors, etc. In Cheshire, such services are always busy. One of these was the roofing company from East Hartford that employed Joshua.
As you pass Maplecroft Plaza, and the First Congressional Church, just where Main Street becomes Highland Avenue (Route 10), a gated driveway leads to a gathering of brick buildings that are nestled on a rolling lawn and among poplar trees. Cheshire Academy is Connecticut's oldest boarding school. With Episcopal roots, it counts among its alumni Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, the author Robert Ludlum, and its most famous alum (if you don't count James Van Der Beek of Dawson's Creek fame), banker J. P. Morgan. Today, the school tries hard to shed its WASPy wings and prides itself on its diversity. Students from all parts of the world, as many as twenty-five countries, receive their primary and secondary education at Cheshire Academy. The school also prides itself on a faculty and staff that are not only of a high caliber, but one that places an enormous emphasis on caring for the student. Nowhere at the school is this more in evidence than in the health center, whose co-director was Jennifer Hawke-Petit.
By all accounts, Nurse Hawke-Petit brought motherly comfort to the children of Cheshire Academy — her office tended as much to homesickness as to any other malady. Robert Nuell, a student at Cheshire, knew this first-hand. In 2004, while he was an eleventh grader in the school, his grandfather passed away. A long way from family in Florida, Robert looked to the health center for comfort. "Mrs. Petit had such caring eyes," he said. "She was almost like a parent." For weeks after his grandfather died, Robert would stop in on free periods to see Mrs. Petit, sometimes spending hours with her. "'You're going to be OK,' she kept telling me," Robert said. "I believed her."
But if the health center of Cheshire Academy represents nurturing safety, a building a mile or so north on Highland Avenue embodies the exact opposite. Without it, however, no tour of Cheshire is complete.
With its columns, brick facade and stone stairs, and the expansive slope of manicured lawn that fronts it, Cheshire Correctional Institution could easily be mistaken for a private hospital or a New England college. Don't be fooled. The structure is one of Connecticut's largest maximum-security prisons, with a history as gloomy as hell.
Built in 1910 as a reformatory when Cheshire was still a farm town of 2,000, the prison was once used by Cheshire's parents as a way of keeping their children in line. "When our kids wouldn't eat their spinach, we told them we were going to send them to the reform school," one long-time resident told a reporter.
At one time, the auditorium in the jail was used for the local high school's graduation ceremony. The audience was comprised of the graduates' families, and inmates who looked on from the back rows. No doubt, the conclusion of the event had an air of relief for the parents and graduates alike.
A retired Cheshire cop named Bill Glass who grew up in the town remembered attending Chapman Elementary School, up Highland Avenue from the prison. Often inmates would be working the prison's lawn under the wary stares of the guards. When the Chapman students would walk past, the cons were required to look down at their shovels or work shoes, and God help the inmate who made eye contact with any of the children.
But as scary as the jail was to Cheshire's children, it was nearly unbearable to the inmates within. As far back as 1932, the prison was found to be "substandard." One warden described the jail, with its long hallways and narrow cells, as a "Jimmy Cagney–type prison." Once part of the famous Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York, the cellblock, delivered by barge, consisted of 200 eight-foot-square cells stacked four high, and was at least twice used by Hollywood as backdrop in films. The most recent, just a few months after the Cheshire murders, was a scene filmed there by Robert De Niro.
Excerpted from In the Middle of the Night by Brian Mcdonald. Copyright © 2009 Brian McDonald. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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