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HORROR IN CONNECTICUT

On a quiet street in a quiet town, a doctor and his family become the victims of one of the most savage crimes in the state in decades.

Dr. William A. Petit Jr., his head bloodied and legs bound, stumbled out of a rear basement door of his two-story home here into a pouring rain, calling the name of a neighbor for help. The neighbor heard the shouting, but so did the two men inside the house, who peeked outside from an upstairs window. They were both serial burglars with drug habits, having racked up numerous convictions for stealing car keys and pocketbooks. This time, they took something far more precious.

The men, the authorities say, had already strangled Petit's wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and in short order would also kill the couple's two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11. The elder suspect, Steven J. Hayes, 44, had poured gasoline on the girls and their mother, according to a lawyer and a law enforcement official involved in the case, in hopes of concealing DNA evidence of sexual assault. He had raped Hawke-Petit, and his partner, Joshua Komisarjevsky, 26, had sexually assaulted Michaela.

Moments after Petit escaped, as the house was being surrounded by police officers, the men lighted the gasoline. The girls were tied to their beds but alive when the gas Hayes had spread around the house was set aflame.

'It's too late now'

It was about 9:50 a.m. on July 23 when Petit burst into his back yard on what is normally a quiet street in a quiet town of 29,000 in central Connecticut. On this stormy summer morning it was the site of one of the most savage crimes in the state in decades. By 10:01, Hayes and Komisarjevsky had been captured.

Interviews with law enforcement officials and lawyers for the men, and friends, co-workers and relatives of all involved, along with a study of court records, paint a picture of what happened that morning and show that there were missed opportunities on both sides of the law leading up to the deaths.

The criminal justice system failed to treat Hayes and Komisarjevsky as serious offenders despite long histories of recidivism, repeatedly setting them free on parole.

"There's no question about it: the system didn't work," Petit's father, William A. Petit Sr., 73, said last weekend outside his home in Plainville, 12 miles north, where the family has long formed a pillar of local civic life. He paused, then added: "It's too late now."

The authorities say the intruders entered the house through an open door at 3 a.m. Monday morning as Petit slept in a chair on the first floor, his wife and daughters in their rooms upstairs. The previous evening, the men had followed Hawke-Petit and Michaela home from the parking lot of a Super Stop & Shop three miles away.

Career criminals

They were a mismatched pair. Komisarjevsky is tall and thin, Hayes shorter and stockier. Komisarjevsky, who was adopted as a baby into a family of Russian descent, lived with his parents in Cheshire, 1.7 miles from the Petits. Hayes was born in Florida and was raised by a single mother, with whom he still lived in Winsted, a working-class town of 7,000 some 30 miles away.

Komisarjevsky had been breaking into houses since the age of 14, generally sneaking in at night through unlocked back doors in Cheshire and similar suburbs, wearing latex gloves and military night-vision goggles.

Hayes had spent his whole adult life in and out of prison for burglary. He specialized not in homes but in cars: He would go to public parks and break into parked cars with a rock, sometimes taking the vehicle, more often just snatching something inside to sell.

They took big risks for small rewards, grabbing a purse or a money clip, a vase or some silver or a pair of boots. They got high on marijuana and cocaine; Komisarjevsky also used crystal methamphetamine.

Chance had brought them together at a residential drug treatment center and a halfway house in Hartford, where their stays happened to overlap. They were both fathers: Komisarjevsky's daughter, now 5, was born while he was behind bars; Hayes has two teenage children who live with their mother and stepfather in a run-down ranch house in Torrington.

A turn to violence

Cheshire, with the modest motto, "Bedding Plant Capital of Connecticut," is, like its neighbor towns in the heart of Connecticut, a community of clapboard homes, big lawns and weekly Rotary Club meetings. People grow old on the same streets where they grew up. Every resident seems to have a dog, and every turn seems to lead to Main Street.

There have been three homicides in the past decade. People still go to bed with doors unlocked.

The authorities say the Petit home was at least the third in Cheshire that the two men burglarized since the start of that weekend. They sneaked into one through a screen door and took a money clip -with credit and ATM cards, and $140 in cash - from the kitchen counter Sunday morning. They broke in through a back screen of another Saturday night.

Why the burlgaries turned violent on Sorghum Mill Drive remains unclear.

On Sunday evening, Hayes and Komisarjevsky had driven to a nearby Wal-Mart and bought an air rifle and rope. Once inside the house, they clubbed Petit over the head with a baseball bat in the basement, where they tied him up.

Between 4 and 4:30 a.m., Hayes went to a BP station on Main Street, where he bought four cans of gasoline.

Hayes had been in Cheshire before - at the Manson Youth Institution and at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, both in the early 1980s. They were two of 17 prisons and detention centers around the state where he spent time as he bounced in and out of the system over the next 25 years. For a mug shot taken as he was being paroled in May, prisoner No. 97425 smiled for the camera.

He drifted from job to job, from crime to crime, from parole to jail and back again. His life story unfolds on his rap sheet: arrested for the first time at 16; burglarized a house in New Hartford at 24; reprimanded in prison for assault at 29; arrested for drug possession at 38.

In 2002, Komisarjevsky confessed to more than a dozen burglaries, and was sentenced to nine years in prison followed by six years of supervised parole. But the state's Board of Pardons and Paroles has admitted mishandling his case by granting him parole in April 2007 without first reviewing a copy of the 2002 sentencing transcript, in which a judge called him a "calculated, cold-blooded predator."

The parole board ordered him to wear an electronic ankle bracelet for 90 days, and officials extended it for several more, so they could monitor his return home each night. Within 72 hours of its removal July 19, the police said, Komisarjevsky was burglarizing homes again in Cheshire. Within 96, he was inside the Petits'.

Family held hostage

Shortly before 9:30 a.m. that Monday, Hawke-Petit walked into a Bank of America branch and withdrew $15,000 from the account she shared with her husband. Hayes waited in the parking lot in Maplecroft Plaza, the same shopping center where the two men had watched Hawke-Petit and her daughter the day before.

Hawke-Petit told the teller she had to have the money because her family was being held hostage, and that if the police were notified, her family would be killed.

A bank employee called 911 about 9:30. The Cheshire police have refused to release a full time line indicating when officers arrived on Sorghum Mill Drive, but described their response as "immediate."

By 9:45 a.m., seven to nine Cheshire police officers, including SWAT team members, were working to secure a perimeter around the Petit house, and a police helicopter was en route.

About five minutes later, Petit stumbled out of a basement door onto the rear of his property, calling the name of a neighbor, who took the bleeding doctor into his garage and dialed 911.

After lighting the fire, the two men jumped into the family's sport utility vehicle. They crashed into a police cruiser in the driveway, then slammed into two other police vehicles parked as a barricade not far from the house, where they were taken into custody.

Afterward, a vigil

Inside the house on Sorghum Mill Drive, Hayley and Michaela died of smoke inhalation, not from their burns, according to the Connecticut medical examiner. Their mother was found downstairs.

A week later, Petit attended a candlelight vigil outside his medical practice on Whiting Street. He sat beneath a tent, between his mother and his father. A priest walked over to him and lighted the white candle in the doctor's hand.

Petit stood and carried his candle around the tent, slowly and carefully lighting the candles people held up to him.

The suspects

Joshua Komisarjevsky, 26, left, and Steven Hayes, 44, were a mismatched pair who met at a residential drug treatment center and halfway house in Hartford, Conn. Both had long histories of recidivism but were repeatedly set free on parole.

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