Did Police Negligence in Cheshire, CT Contribute To Tragic Home Invasion Murders?

Normally, this story would be posted on my Massachusetts criminal law blog. But I feel that it deserves to be discussed here, for reasons illustrating the legal concepts of negligence and wrongful death. This is an appallingly frightening story, nightmarish in its reality, and stunning in what appears at this time to be shocking negligence on the part of a local police department in Connecticut.

On July 23 2007, at 9:17 AM, a woman walked into a Connecticut bank, and in the process of withdrawing $15,000.00 in cash, explained to a teller as calmly as she could, that her husband and two daughters were being held hostage by two men who had invaded their Cheshire, Conn., home the night before. She told the teller that the armed invaders assured her that if they did not receive this money, that her husband and daughters would be killed. Trying desperately to appear inconspicuous, the woman, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, explained to the teller that she had been driven to the bank by one of the kidnappers, that he was watching her from the car, and also told the teller that the kidnappers had told her (Mrs. Petit,) that if the police were called, the armed invaders would kill her family. The woman then collected the $15,000.00 withdrawn from the account by the teller, and left the bank.

The bank manager was alerted to what had just transpired, and immediately called the Cheshire, CT Police Department. At 9:21 AM, Cheshire Police first learned of the hostage situation. About three miles away, her husband William and daughters Michaela, 11 and Hayley, 17 were being savagely beaten and terrorized by the armed invaders. At 9:26 AM, Mrs. Petit left the bank and got into the car waiting for her. She was closely watched by bank employees, and the bank manager provided a description of the vehicle to Cheshire Police, who were also given Mrs. Petit’s home address. At that same time (9:26 AM,) police cruisers were dispatched to the Petit home, to “set up a perimeter.” At 9:27 AM, a Police Department Captain ordered his officers to not approach the home. For the next thirty minutes, not a single officer approached the Petit home, or did anything to save the Petit family. Within this very time frame, the Petit family was being traumatized, tied up, beaten with a baseball bat, and one of the daughters raped. Worse, during this entire time frame, no other authorities were alerted to this situation by the Cheshire Police Department – not the Connecticut State Police or the State Police SWAT Team, not EMS or medical rescue personnel, not the Fire Department.

At 9:54 AM, police received a call from the Petit’s next door neighbor: Dr. William Petit, beaten by his captors horrifically about the head and face with a baseball bat, had managed to break free from being tied to a post in his basement, and made his way to his neighbor, who had called police. Dr.Petit was beaten so badly and bleeding so profusely that he was unrecognizable to his neighbor. His feet were still tied: He had managed to crawl to the neighbor’s house. By now, almost 40 (forty) minutes had passed from the time the Cheshire Police were first notified by the bank manager – and nothing had been done to rescue this brutalized family. Approximately 2 (two) minutes later, the Petit home burst into flames. Only then were EMS and Fire Department rescue personnel called. By the time firefighters entered the building and found Mrs. Petit and her two daughters, all three were dead: Mrs. Petit had been sexually assaulted, then strangled to death, both daughters died of smoke inhalation; one of them had been sexually assaulted before she died. The first time the Cheshire Police made any contact with these two defendants now on trial, Steven Hayes, 47, and Joshua Komisarjevsky, 30, was when this nightmare ended: Specifically, when the two defendants jumped into the Petit family car and tried to ram their way through police cruisers. Only then it was too late: Dr. Petit’s wife and two daughters lay dead inside his home. To see a video report of this horrific story, click on Cheshire Conn. Home Invasion Murders.

In the current criminal trial of these two defendants, Cheshire Police officials testified that their actions in not trying to enter the home or rescue this family were ‘standard operating procedure.’ I don’t claim to be an expert in law enforcement hostage-situation management, but as a former Special Assistant District Attorney and a Norfolk County Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, I know a thing or two about sound police procedure. I’m also pretty familiar with something called common sense – and neither pass the smell test here. I’ll explain what the legal consequences of this inaction might be, from a civil law and liability perspective, in my next post.

Based on what I’ve learned from available sources as of this date, it appears to me that police officials in this town engaged in a shocking degree of negligence in this case