Connecticut Horror Punctuates a Trend

William Petit Jr., Jennifer Hawke-Petit and their daughters, Hayley, 17, left, and Michaela, 11, at an event last October.
William Petit Jr., Jennifer Hawke-Petit and their daughters, Hayley, 17, left, and Michaela, 11, at an event last October. (By John Muldoon Via Associated Press)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 11, 2007

CHESHIRE, Conn. -- Ever since "that night," Kevin Mirando, 13, nervously questions his parents at bedtime: Mom, is the house alarm on? Dad, are the doors locked? How about the windows? When they reassure him that all is safe, he still tosses and turns for hours, unable to nod off until he checks and rechecks the bolts and locks himself. Kevin said simply "I'm afraid" as he stood alongside his mother during summer football practice.

Many are feeling unsafe in this New England community since July 23, when a pair of longtime drug users, released on early parole amid procedural errors in their case reviews, allegedly committed a savage crime that has rocked Connecticut.

The two men are charged with invading the home of a noted endocrinologist, William Petit Jr., 50, severely beating him, sexually assaulting and strangling his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and sexually abusing their daughter Michaela, 11, and killing her and her sister, Hayley, 17. After seven hours with the family, the men set fire to the stately house at the mouth of a quiet cul-de-sac before being caught while trying to ram their way past police cars.

Court records show that both suspects (one of them from a prominent family in the city) have a history of drug use and of serial burglaries to fund their habits. Joshua Komisarjevsky, 26, used methamphetamine, and Steven Hayes, 44, had a crack cocaine habit, court records indicate.

The killings have stunned this state known for its staid insurance companies and old whalers in Mystic Seaport, sparking the broadest review of Connecticut's criminal justice system in modern history. But while rare in their scope and viciousness, the slayings, experts say, highlight a crime wave underway in small bedroom communities across America, where statistics are showing the biggest increase in violent criminal activity in years.

Not only was violent crime in suburban communities with populations between 25,000 and 49,999 up for the third year in a row in 2006, but it grew by 3.2 percent -- significantly faster than the nationwide increase of 1.3 percent, according to recently released FBI statistics. By comparison, during that same period, cities with more than 1 million people saw violent crime edge up by only 0.2 percent while rural areas saw a decrease of 5.3 percent. Only cities between 250,000 and 499,999 witnessed similar increases, with violent crime in those areas also surging by 3.2 percent.

It happens as fast-growing suburban regions find themselves coping with more drug-related and, in some cases, gang-related crimes that were once largely considered urban problems. Cheshire, a relatively affluent municipality of 29,000 between New Haven and Hartford, offers a micro-portrait of a town grappling with at least some of those ills.

Last month, Cheshire police recorded one of their largest drug seizures in years -- 22 bags of heroin found during a drunken-driving stop. Although smaller towns are more likely to witness broader fluctuations in crime than larger cities, this year Cheshire has had 28 burglaries, a 75 percent increase over the same period last year. Additionally, in February, the town witnessed a double murder (the perpetrator committed suicide) that brought its homicide toll for the year, including the Petit killings, to a record five, according to Cheshire police.

"What we're seeing is a dispersal of crime" beyond urban areas, said June W. Stansbury, special agent in charge of the New England field division of the Drug Enforcement Administration. "Especially with drug-related crimes, we're starting to see some of the same patterns in suburban areas. It's gotten to the point where it can no longer be kept quiet. And maybe that's not a bad thing. Maybe we need to admit there is a problem and deal with it."

To be sure, crime rates in U.S. suburbs remain substantially lower than in big cities. But as suburbs have grown in population and drug use and drug-related violence, experts say, their residents are increasingly facing more of the risks confronting urban dwellers.

"Does the crime that happened in Connecticut happen all the time? No, absolutely not. But are there more crimes happening in small- and medium-sized population centers? Yes, of course," said David M. Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "Look, crime statistics may reportedly have improved in New York City, but on Long Island you are seeing the creation of pockets in suburban areas that are very, very tough."

The Cheshire crime has been dubbed a modern "In Cold Blood" for its parallels to the killing of the Clutter family in 1959 in Holcomb, Kan., made famous by Truman Capote's book. In the early-morning, two men broke into the Petit home, a two-story house on a street where drivers are asked to go slow because "we love our children."

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