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A history of violence

The Petit family were victims of a home invasion and brutal murder. Will sociopath behavior ever be understood?

A member of the Connecticut state police prepares to enter the Petit home in Cheshire Conn., on Tuesday July 24, 2007. The home was the scene of a home invasion in which three members of the Petit family were killed after intruders entered their home early Monday. (AP Photo/Fred Beckham)
Fred Beckham / AP
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Clint Van Zandt

If I've learned one thing in my 40 years of investigative experience, it's to never believe that you've seen the limits of man's inhumanity to fellow man.

Two sociopaths, 44-year-old Steven Hayes and 26-year-old Joshua Komisarjevky, are the prime suspects in another home invasion that resulted in the murder of an innocent family.

Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her 17-year-old and 15-year-old daughters Hayley and Michaela, were murdered during the course of a home burglary.  Their husband and father, Dr. William Petit Jr., barely survived the brutal attack.

The pair of killers allegedly broke into the Petit family home to burglarize it like they had done to dozens of other homes and businesses in the past. Finding the Petit family home, (at 3 a.m. where did they expect the family members to be?), they took them captive and later forced Mrs. Petit to go to her bank to make a $15,000 cash withdrawal. She did it probably in the vain hope of paying off her assailants to save her family. 

A suspicious bank employee notified police who rushed to the Petit home, only to find Mrs. Petit strangled and dead on the ground floor of her home. The charred body of Hayley was at the top of the home's staircase, and Michaela was strapped to her bed, dead. Dr. Petit, who had been beaten on his head with a baseball bat and tied up in the basement, was eventually able to free himself from his bindings to hop up the basement stairs to escape the blaze that had been set by his assailants. 

When the two career criminals attempted to flee in the Petits' SUV, they rammed the first responding police car, and then, according to a witness, drove at 60 mph and smashed into two police cars that had formed a roadblock down the street. Their getaway vehicle stalled and they were arrested by police at gunpoint.  There were broken cars on the street and broken bodies in the house. 

Other than minor auto accidents and a small chimney fire, the Petits' neighborhood had not seen crime or tragedy— not until these sociopaths came knocking.

Echoes of other brutal crimes
As a former member of the FBI's Behavioral Science, or the so-called “Silence of the Lambs Unit,” I remember when crime writer Patricia Cornwell would visit us in our underground office.  We didn't imagine how successful she would eventually be, writing about the fictional Chief Medical Examiner of Richmond, Virginia, Dr. Kay Scarpetta.

Dr. Scarpetta would have been far too young to remember the 1959 slaughter of the Clutter family. Four people— Herb, Bonnie and their children Kenyon and Nancy— were killed in Kansas, a crime forever immortalized by Truman Capote in his book,“In Cold Blood.”  The two killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, falsely believed they'd find a safe full of money in the Clutters' farmhouse.  When they didn't, they bound and gagged their four victims, cut their throats, and shot each in the head with a blast from a shotgun.  It took a jury 100 minutes to convict the two former prison inmates and sentence them to death.

Last year I wrote about a similar horrific crime, the brutal murder of the Bryan and Kathryn Harvey family. The murders included their four and nine-year-old daughters Ruby and Stella. (I use the names of such victims because I never want them to be forgotten.) 

As we turn the hands of time from 1959 to New Year's Day 2006, two other sociopaths, Ricky Gray and Ray Dandridge, like Hickock and Smith before them, were also looking for a home to rob. Finding a door open on the Harvey home, they slipped inside and committed a mass murder that left a crime scene so horrible it sickened veteran police investigators. 

The Harveys, including their precious daughters, were beaten to death with a hammer. Their throats were cut and their home was set ablaze to cover the crime.  The items taken from the Harvey home were probably worth a few hundred dollars at most, but cost four human lives.  These same two killers would ultimately be responsible for at least nine deaths, including the former wife of one of the killers and a female co-conspirator. Both killers were convicted of murder. Both, like the killers before them, were unrepentant.

Why do we need to understand killers?
Psychologists will study Hayes and Komisarjevky, two believed killers, as psychologists have tried to understand the infamous Beltway snipers that terrorized the Washington, D.C. area for three weeks in October 2002. They will attempt to determine who the leader was, and who provided the spark that set off this act of murder and mayhem in Meriden, Conn. 

Does it really matter 'why' though? Why Hayes, released from prison just three months ago and Komisarjevky, his partner, committed this unspeakable crime? They both met in a drug rehabilitation program, and teamed up to do what they did to this family of innocents.

My answer is yes. We need to understand the motivation of such killers to help us better understand future crimes by other sociopaths, psychotics, and antisocial personalities.

These cold-blooded killers walk among us. Without learning about what makes them tick, we are but future witnesses to other similar and terrible acts. These are men who give seasoned investigators nightmares.

A homicide detective that I worked once with called me to say that he was transferring to another squad. He told me we would no longer be working together.

“Why?” I asked. "Because,” he said, “the dead bodies just don't bother me anymore.”  He was right, it was time for him to move on. 

As in the case of the Clutter and the Harvey families before them, the Petits were pillars of their community, people respected and loved by those who knew them.  With charges of sexual assault, kidnapping, burglary, arson and others against the two men in custody, one can only try not to imagine the horror that the Petits suffered at the hands of these murder suspects. It's a crime that MSNBC's Chief Legal Analyst and former Conn. State prosecutor Susan Filan, speaking on "MSNBC Live with Dan Abrams,” said “will shock all who come to know the brutality suffered by the Petit family.” Their believed assailants are now held on $15 million dollars bond each. 

From an investigative standpoint, the crime scene and Dr. Petit will tell a story that will undoubtedly see these 21st century monsters sentenced at least to life in prison, and perhaps death. It's a sentence that's too late, though, for Mrs. Petit and her daughters. 

Dr. Petit? He will spend the rest of his life half in and half out of a nightmare that will never go away. 

Good victims, bad suspects, dead people.  Will this cycle ever end? 

Clint Van Zandt is a former FBI Agent, behavioral profiler and hostage negotiator as well as an MSNBC Analyst. His web site provides readers with security related information.

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