Steven Hayes sat slumped in a chair at Northern Correctional Institution, six years after the Cheshire home invasion, and tried to explain how it had all gone so wrong so quickly.
“To this day, I don’t know why it happened,” he said of the horrific crime he participated in with Joshua Komisarjevsky that left Jennifer Hawke-Petit dead, along with her daughters, Michaela, 11, and Hayley, 17.
During a recent hour-long interview, Hayes, 50, who is on Death Row with Komisarjevsky, said he agreed to go to the home of Dr. William Petit Jr. on July 23, 2007, because “I just wanted money. That’s all I was looking for.”
After forcing Hawke-Petit to go to the bank and withdraw $15,000 while he waited in her vehicle, Hayes returned with her to the house, where Komisarjevsky remained with the two daughters. They had been tied to their beds; Petit was tied up in the basement, bleeding from severe head wounds. Komisarjevsky had beaten him with a baseball bat.
Hayes said when he walked back into the house with Hawke-Petit, “at that point, we were just going to leave. Nobody was going to get hurt — at least not by me.”
“But that’s when Josh told me about him and the girl,” Hayes said, referring to Komisarjevsky sexually assaulting Michaela while Hayes was out of the house.
“I started to lose it,” Hayes recalled. “Then I looked out the window and saw an unmarked police car. And I just snapped.”
What happened next, he said, “wasn’t who I am. I wasn’t thinking right; I don’t know what I was thinking. It was so unlike me. I’d never done anything like that.”
But he raped and strangled Hawke-Petit.
Then one or both of the men doused the house with gasoline, including the bodies of the two girls in their bedrooms; they were still conscious. A match was struck and Hayes and Komisarjevsky ran out of the house, as the girls were burned alive.
“It took a year before I could even remember what happened in those last few minutes,” Hayes said. “I was told it was rage and stress or something. I just know that for a couple of minutes I became somebody else.”
But he added, “I’ll never forgive myself for that.”
Hayes had contacted a New Haven Register reporter to request the interview so he could talk about a civil suit he has filed in federal court in Hartford, alleging denial of medical care and “harassment and psychological torture” by the prison staff. But he spent almost all of the interview answering questions about what occurred during the home invasion that shocked the state and the nation.
State Department of Correction officials agreed to the interview but arranged to have DOC Public Information Officer Andrius Banevicius present. No guards were in the small room. Hayes, handcuffed and with his legs also shackled to an iron peg in the floor, is balding and physically shrunken compared with the stocky man who was arrested by Cheshire police moments after he fled the Petit house.
Hayes, sitting across a table, sometimes smiled ruefully during the session but often shook his head as he tried to explain what he had done.
After the interview, the Register asked DOC officials to address Hayes’ allegations he is being mistreated.
Banevicius said Hayes is provided with access to unit counselors, social visits and medical and mental health attention. Banevicius said DOC “absolutely disputes the allegation” that Hayes is denied such services.
Banevicius said the medical staff provides medication when appropriate to each inmate.
The Register also sought comment from Dr. Petit, who managed to free himself shortly before the fire consumed his home and stumble out of the basement in search of help. He did not provide a response.
But his sister-in-law, Cindy Hawke-Renn, said of Hayes’ remarks: “All I can say is, too little, too late. How do you plan such behavior and allow people to die at your hands and burn alive, especially when you have children of your own? Snapped? Doesn’t sound like an excuse to me.”
When asked what he would tell Petit if they were face-to-face, Hayes said, “I don’t know if there’s anything I could say. I definitely feel sorry but that doesn’t change things. I’d try to answer his questions.”
Hayes did not refuse to answer any of the many questions during the interview. He responded to the one question he had ducked during previous encounters with reporters: Who lit the match?
“It wasn’t me,” he replied.
So he was blaming Komisarjevsky for doing that? Hayes nodded.
But when asked why he hadn’t tried to stop Komisarjevsky from lighting the match, Hayes said, “I wasn’t thinking right. I didn’t try to stop anything.”
In his long statement to police the day he was arrested, Komisarjevsky said it was Hayes who escalated the violence. Komisarjevsky, who is now 33, said his older cohort told him the daughters and their mother had to be killed. Komisarjevsky claimed he told Hayes, “no one’s dying by my hand today.”
When asked about this, Hayes said, “Everything gets twisted with peoples’ interpretations.”
But Hayes added he doesn’t blame Komisarjevsky for what occurred. “I can’t blame anybody but myself for the decisions that I made.”
“I should’ve known better,” he said. “I’d been in recovery (drug treatment) for four years.”
He noted that up until about 30 days before the home invasion, he had been “clean” for 4½ years.
Asked why he had relapsed, Hayes said, “It was money. I had to get a new car; I didn’t have enough to get mine fixed.”
He was living with his mother at her home in Winsted and she quickly realized he was using drugs again. She told him he had to move out.
And so, needing some “quick money,” he went along with Komisarjevsky that night in July. And when it all came to a head about seven hours after they broke in, he said, “Things fell apart. It had been building up for two weeks.”
Hayes said he recently watched “The Cheshire Murders,” the two-hour documentary by David Heilbroner and Kate Davis shown on HBO. “I was pretty distressed seeing it. It’s tough knowing I was involved in something like that.”
“What was even tougher,” he added, “was my two brothers.”
In the documentary, his two younger brothers, Matthew and Brian, said he physically abused them when they were kids. Brian said somebody “should put a bullet in his head outside the courtroom.”
Hayes denied the allegations, saying, “They tried to paint me worse than I am. It goes back to our childhood. I was the oldest. Then Matthew came along. My father wanted a girl. My parents almost split up. When they got back together, my father took it out on Matthew. When Brian was born, my father left for good.”
“I always had unresolved anger with my father,” Hayes said, “for leaving.”
Hayes had drug addiction problems from an early age and was convicted for a series of crimes. But there was nothing violent in his criminal history until the home invasion.
Hayes said he was not on drugs that night, although he had smoked crack cocaine about four days earlier.
Asked why he had gone out and bought gasoline, Hayes said, “We had both started thinking about how we’d left fiber evidence at the house. It wasn’t really to burn the house. My thought was that just the presence of the gas would bring a haz-mat team in.”
Hayes conceded, “It was just a lot of stupid thoughts.”
Hayes claimed that throughout the family’s seven-hour ordeal, except for those “couple of minutes,” he and Komisarjevsky were “nice to everyone. I was trying to keep people calm. I get them water, I let them go to the bathroom.”
Hayes then added, “I’m not saying it was nice, because it wasn’t, by any means. But it wasn’t how people perceived it.”
In 2010 a Superior Court jury convicted Hayes of multiple murder counts, kidnapping, assault and third-degree burglary. The jury then decided he deserved the death penalty. His sentence was automatically appealed and that is pending.
Before the trial, Hayes overdosed on prescription medication in his cell and had to be rushed to a hospital. During the prison interview last week, he said he wishes he had been successful in his suicide attempt.
Although one of Komisarjevsky’s trial attorneys, Walter Bansley III, recently said he might seek a new trial because 41 taped phone calls to Cheshire police the morning of the crime allegedly were not provided to the defense team, Hayes said he doesn’t want to “put anybody through” another trial on his case.
Hayes said he will not try to halt the series of legal appeals that could take up to about 20 years before he could possibly be executed. He said he had promised his co-counsel at the trial, New Haven Chief Public Defender Thomas Ullmann, that he would not “do a Michael Ross.” That Connecticut inmate waived his appeals and was executed in 2005.
Although Hayes wishes he could be executed as soon as possible, he expects to die in prison of old age.
“I don’t deserve to live,” he said. “I don’t want to live.”
But he said he no longer thinks about killing himself. “I realize now I’ve got to live with this pain. It’s something I’m supposed to live with.”
He said he also feels guilt and shame for hurting his son and daughter, now in their 20s. “I’m sorry I brought this on them.” He said he hopes they will decide they want to visit him. Sometimes his ex-wife does visit; his mother died in 2008.
Hayes said he is unable to read or watch much TV because of the “ghosts” of his past and anxiety. He spends his time “pacing back and forth in my cell, day and night.”
He said he can’t stop thinking about the Cheshire murders. “It’s in my head all day and all night.”
Although Hayes said he feels “guilt, shame and remorse,” he added, “But nobody’s supposed to be treated the way we’re treated here. I was sentenced to death, not psychological torment.”
His handwritten legal complaint charges DOC representatives are refusing to provide him with appropriate treatment for his “anxiety issues,” “denial of basic needs,” “identity theft” and other grievances. He is seeking $500,000 in damages.
Hayes wishes that somehow, with what’s left of his life, he could “make a difference” and help somebody.
“Recovery is making amends,” he said. “Before (Cheshire) I could make amends to help people I’d hurt. But this is a situation where I can’t see any way I can make amends. I wish I could. I would do anything.”
“One of the things I learned in recovery is that if you can just change one person, you’ve made a difference. If there’s some way that what happened here (in Cheshire) could change one person, stop them from doing something like that or from getting high...”
Asked what he wants to say to the public, Hayes replied: “I’m just really sorry. I would do anything to make amends if I could.”
c/o New Haven Register