CHESHIRE, Conn. (AP) – Michelle Kochiss used to sleep with the front door open to catch a breeze on hot summer nights.
But after last Monday’s deadly home invasion and arson, which left a mother and her two daughters dead – and a small suburban town on edge – Kochiss keeps the door locked.
“It sort of shatters the sense of secureness that you have in a community,” said the 35-year-old mother and local high school English teacher, who spent a hot day last week with her daughter at the town pool, just minutes from the upscale neighborhood where the killings occurred.
“It can happen anywhere,” she said. “That’s the scariest aspect of this because there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why this happened.”
Authorities say two men with long criminal histories broke into the home of Dr. William Petit Jr. early Monday morning and held the family hostage for several hours. One of them forced his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, to make a withdrawal at a local bank later that morning, an incident that triggered suspicion among bank employees.
Police were notified and rushed to the Petit home, where they apprehended the fleeing suspects and found the family’s home ablaze.
Dr. Petit had been badly beaten and was bound in the basement, but managed to escape the fire. The bodies of Hawke-Petit, 48, and the couple’s two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, were discovered inside.
Hawke-Petit was strangled and her daughters died of smoke inhalation as the house burned around them, according to autopsy results and police.
The suspects, 26-year-old Joshua Komisarjevsky of Cheshire and 44-year-old Steven Hayes of Winsted, were out on parole when the crimes were committed and face multiple charges, including capital felony, arson and sexual assault.
A police source has confirmed reports that the suspects initially spotted Hawke-Petit and Michaela in a white Mercedes at a local supermarket parking lot, then followed them to home to allegedly check out the house.
Prosecutors said they will seek the death penalty.
Cheshire police Lt. Jay Markella said he’s heard from residents who’ve been rattled by the horrific events.
“There is a concern. Understandably there is a concern. This is everyone’s worst nightmare,” he said. “I can tell you, as a husband and as a father and as someone who lives in this town, God, this would be my worst nightmare ever to imagine. And it happened to this family.”
James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Boston’s Northeastern University, said the emotional reactions are immediate and intense in communities after such high-profile and brutal crimes.
“There’s a certain level of secondary victimization. What tends to happen in the wake of these is that fear, ‘It could happen to me,”‘ said Fox, author of the book “The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder.”
Nola Pasha, 54, chatted with other mothers last week about the murders while waiting for their children to finish tennis lessons. One woman talked about how she couldn’t sleep, and how she kept reliving the terror in her mind.
Pasha, who said she’s installing new deadbolts on her doors, said she knows another mother and father who hosted a birthday slumber party and worked in shifts to stay up all night to watch over the children.
“They felt like some adult should stay awake all night,” Pasha said. “She stayed awake for four hours and he stayed awake for four hours.”
Jacqueline Polanski, 70, who has lived in Cheshire 44 years, says she is disturbed by reports that the suspects spotted Hawke-Petit and her youngest daughter in their Mercedes in the supermarket parking lot and decided to follow them home.
“You say, let’s downsize our cars, we shouldn’t look like we have money,” she said.
Scott Hoffman, owner of Hoffman’s Gun Center in Newington, said several new customers told him they never considered owning a gun before the Cheshire incidents, but signed up for mandatory safety classes in preparation to buy one.
Meanwhile, he said, many walked out of the store last week with Mace, an aerosol pepper spray commonly used for self-defense.
“It seems to be hitting home more than any one crime I can think of since Nine-Eleven,” he said, referring to the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Markella said what scares residents the most is the apparent randomness of the attacks on the Petits. Such violent incidents typically involve drugs, unpaid debts or family disputes, he said.
“There’s a rationale there. There’s no rationale here,” he said.
“This is what you call your all-American family. This doesn’t happen to your all-American family in your all-American town, so, you can’t put a rationale on it,” he said. “That’s why it strikes at home because it could have been you, me, that family, that family. So, that’s why I think it’s really hard on the community.”
Associated Press Writer Stephanie Reitz in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.