Petit Home Invasion: What Went Wrong?

“On Thursday’s episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dr. William Petit sits down with Oprah in his first interview since the tragic loss of his wife, Jennifer, and their two young daughters, Hayley and Michaela, in one of the most horrific crimes in recent memory.” What Oprah’s website doesn’t tell you: the chat show Queen was hell bent on making Dr. Petit cry like a baby, starting with “Tell us what it was like when you found out your family was gone.” The bereaved father survived the unforgivably ghoulishly interview with a modicum of dignity. Viewers emerged none-the-wiser about what really matters: what should Dr. Petit and his family have done to protect themselves?

It’s no surprise that the Big O avoided any exploration of practical or tactical matters. Oprah is all about emotions. Tell me Abe, how did it feel to sign the Emancipation Proclamation? Did you think of little Todd at that moment? While raw human emotion makes great TV (for some) and informs all of our decisions, the Connecticut outrage offers considerable insight into the worst case home invasion scenario. Information that can help Americans with a home defense plan and, especially, those who never even thought of having one.

For example, Oprah mentions, but doesn’t explore, how the Petits were targeted in the first place. “According to police, a convicted felon who was out on parole randomly spotted Jennifer and Michaela at a neighborhood convenience store. After following them home, 44-year-old Steven Hayes and 26-year-old Joshua Komisarjevsky allegedly plotted out a horrific home invasion.”

Have you seen these guys? Aside from having the words “EX CON” tattooed on their foreheads, it would be hard to mistake either man for a couple of “ordinary” New Englanders out to do a bit of grocery shopping at Stop & Shop (not a convenience store). But even if Mrs. Petit didn’t catch sight of them catching sight of her, she was obviously oblivious to the fact that she was being followed.

Whether or not you think it’s reasonable for a suburban housewife to be that conscious of potential threats, it was a fatal mistake. If Mrs. Petit had spotted the cons spotting her, and then following her, she could have driven to a police station. And that would have been that.

There are a lot of facts about this incident that remain unclear. For example, the two men entered the house through the basement. What kind of door or window did they breach? Was that window or door locked? Was there a door from the basement to the main house? Was that door locked?

At this point, it’s also worth noting that a dog—preferably one other than the soppy golden retrievers favored by Dr. Petit’s social milieu—would have provided a vital warning of the bad shit to follow. As it was, Dr. Petit was asleep when Hayes and Komisarjevsky began their attack. One of the men struck his head with a baseball bat. The two perpetrators dragged Dr. Petit down into the basement at gunpoint and bound him.

I haven’t seen the layout of Dr. Petit’s house. But one wonders how all this could have happened without Mrs. Petit or the children hearing anything. It’s a small point, perhaps, but the tendency for parents to allow their children to close their doors and play loud music may have worked against the Petits. Unlocked outer doors and closed inner doors are not a conducive combination for situational awareness.

Also, Dr. Petit fell asleep on what’s called the “sun porch” at about 8:15 pm. Did he have the blinds drawn? If not, his attackers had a significant advantage; it would have been easier for at least one of them to monitor Dr. Petit’s movements from outside the house.

After the initial assault on the literal and figurative head of the Petit family, Hayes and Komisarjevsky captured Dr. Petit’s wife and two daughters. There is no testimony about the exact nature of that confrontation. The criminals bound each girl and the mother in their respective bedrooms.

We’ve said it here many, many times: if faced with an assault, you must fight back instantly and violently. Gun or no gun. No matter what. Specifically, it’s not easy for two men to control three people if those people are fighting for their lives. Hayes’ and Komisarjevsky’s mug shots do not display any defensive wounds, and I can’t find any testimony about an initial struggle. Sad but true: the Petit women didn’t fight back.

It also seems reasonable to assume that the Petits didn’t have an alarmed panic button or a safe room in their house. Or a security plan. If they’d anticipated the possibility of a home invasion and trained (even mentally) for its arrival, they would have vastly increased their chances of survival.

And then there’s the question of firearms—an issue that neither Oprah nor any other member of the mainstream media have raised. If Mrs. Petit had heard something early on in the attack and had access to a firearm, she would have had a fighting chance. The same applies to the Petit girls. And, of course, Dr. Petit.

Truth be told, Dr. Petit could have carried a firearm on his person. As a doctor, he had a good chance of getting a Connecticut concealed carry permit. But even without it, with slightly less paperwork and hassle, he could have armed himself in his own home. Would Dr. Petit have been able to shoot one of his attackers even after taking a baseball bat to the head? Maybe. But that possibility depended on home carry: having a gun on his person.

This raises an interesting point. Would Petit have been more security conscious—creating a more secure homestead, choosing a different place to nap and hearing his attackers coming— if he’d had a gun? It’s a which came first the chicken or the egg-type of question. People who own guns are more security aware than those who don’t. But one thing’s for sure: those two ex-cons needed shooting. And soon.

And later, too. After Hayes and Komisarjevsky has secured the entire family, the perpetrators discovered a bank book. They hatched a plan: get Mrs. Petit to withdraw $15,000 and then burn the house down. Hayes drove to a gas station and returned with two full cans of propellant.

At this point, Mrs. Petit was the family’s last hope for survival. She must have smelled the gas on Hayes as he drove her to the bank. Mrs. Petit alerted the teller to the kidnapping, telling her that the hostage takers were “being nice.” Either Mrs. Petit was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, or she had been completely conned, or both.

Could Mrs. Petit have really been that naive? If so, she was not alone. Dr. Petit testified that he decided he really needed to escape after hearing one of the perpetrators say “Don’t worry, it’s going to be all over in a couple of minutes.” Petit told the jury, “I thought, it’s now or never because in my mind at that moment, I thought they were going to shoot all of us.”

This realization came more than ten hours after Dr. Petit had been beaten and bound and left in his basement by two unknown assailants.

I know it’s easy to say, but it must be said: Mrs. Petit should have acted under the assumption that the men holding her family captive were going to murder them. She should have done everything in her power to escape Mr. Hayes when she’d been removed from the house, regardless of the danger to her husband and children.

No matter how “nice” the men seemed, there was little chance that these home invaders were going to simply walk away from the house after getting their money. If nothing else, they’d been holding her family hostage for more than 14 hours, and they’d made no attempt to conceal their identities. Equally, Mrs. Petit should have considered Hayes and Komisarjevsky rapists; it’s a wonder Komisarjevsky wasn’t raping her daughters as she was withdrawing cash from the bank.

There was no guarantee that Mrs. Petit’s message to the teller would be received, believed or, indeed, acted upon. The odds of a successful rescue were not high. If nothing else, the police needed more intel on the situation inside the house to take effective action.

In any event, Mrs. Petit trusted the police to save her family. They did no such thing. They wasted more than thirty minutes setting up a perimeter—during which time the criminals raped Mrs. Petit and her two daughters, strangled Mrs. Petit, then set the house on fire, killing all three female members of the Petit family. The cops’ plan was the final mistake in a series of mistakes that led to an unimaginably horrible tragedy.

Perhaps unimaginable is the wrong word. Even before Dr. Petit’s family was slaughtered, millions of Americans imagined the possibility of this type of heinous act. Even before the news hit the headlines, they’d taken steps to prevent it, and deal with it should it occur. Including firearms.

Via Oprah and the mainstream media, millions more have now shared this nightmare vision—and taken no steps whatsoever to prevent a home invasion or deal with it should it occur. Nor have they changed their support for restrictive gun laws.

If you asked them why they haven’t acted upon this new information they’d say the chances of a home invasion are minimal. And they’re right. And yet a large percentage of them buy lottery tickets.

So, for those of you who’ve been inspired by this affront to civilized behavior, who are willing to consider doing something about your safety and that of your loved ones, here’s a five-point plan for avoiding and dealing with a home invasion.

1. Maintain situational awareness. Be aware of potential threats at all times in all places. Be especially alert when leaving or approaching your house. Scan for danger. If you have a concern, call the police (they work for you) and take immediate steps to avoid, evade or escape the potential threat.

2. Create defensive layers. Start with lighting and landscaping; make it difficult for people to hide near your house. Add an alarm system (windows and doors are sufficient) and panic buttons inside the house. Fit secure windows and doors. Buy a loud dog. Don’t let strangers into your house. Create/designate a safe room (it needn’t be heavily armored) and equip it with a charged cell phone.

3. Have a home invasion plan. Talk to your entire family about the possibility of a murderous attack. Who does what when? Have an emergency code word that anyone can yell if the shit hits the fan. Remember that daylight attacks are just as likely (i.e. unlikely but possible) as a bump-in-the-night scenario; there’s no guarantee that a home defense plan starts when everyone’s in bed. Practice.

4. Buy a defensive firearm. Learn how to store it safely and use it. Carry a gun on your person at home. Learn the laws on defensive shooting. Make sure your entire family is familiar with gun safety and operation. Encourage your spouse to Home Carry. Consider allowing your children emergency access to your weapons or a weapon more suitable for their skills (e.g. a strategically placed revolver).

5. Have an expert check your house and analyze your home defense plan in your home. Have an instructor come to your house and tell you the who, what, when, where and how of YOUR home defense.

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About Robert Farago

Robert Farago is the Publisher of The Truth About Guns (TTAG). He started the site to explore the ethics, morality, business, politics, culture, technology, practice, strategy, dangers and fun of guns.

6 Responses to Petit Home Invasion: What Went Wrong?

  1. avatarTTACer says:

    Correction: They raped two girls and a woman.

  2. avatarRobert Farago says:

    Text amended.

  3. avatarRabbi says:

    Excellent points Robert. I have always said the the best way to avoid a fight is to be aware of your surrounding as you can’t avoid a fight that you don’t see coming.

    Another comment that I make is that the home is often someone’s most dangerous place for two reasons: 1. they relax, put away their weapons (if they carry one at all) and go into condition white. 2. Most people rarely have defensive weapons available in the home and have no defense plan.

  4. avatarJared Forts says:

    Robert, I think one of the most important points you touched on was the “it won’t happen to me / it wouldn’t happen here” mindset. Most of us go into our defensive safety mindset when walking or driving through a bad neighborhood. But so many of us view our home as our safe-haven without actually doing anything to make it so. This horrific story points out the sad truth that bad things can happen to good people, and they can happen in “nice places”.

    Unfortunately the concept of arming yourself in and around your home, and having a home invasion plan would probably still sound crazy to the average Oprah viewer, even after watching that episode. I wonder how many viewers missed the lesson that should have been learned? How many of them got past the shock and drama and realized just how dangerous it is to leave yourself (and your family) defenseless?

  5. avatarmiforest says:

    If the wife had screamed bloody murder and caused a huge scene at the bank , the con at the house would have been none the wiser, and the one with her would have fled immedaitely. this would have saved her life and given the cops a sense of urgency.

  6. avatarEd says:

    I once heard someone make a statement to an anti-gun critic, and I’m paraphrasing….”If you came home to find your wife, or daughter being savagely raped and assaulted, would you go out to the sidewalk, call the police and wait for them to show up?” Seems like that’s what happened here is a slightly different way.

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