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Police defend response to deadly home invasion

September 15, 2010

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NEW HAVEN, Conn.—A Cheshire police captain on Wednesday defended the department's July 2007 decision not to enter a house where they had been told a family was being held hostage.

The home invasion ended with the deaths of a mother and her two daughters, whose bodies were discovered by firefighters after the home was set ablaze.

Capt. Robert Vignola took the stand in the trial of Steven Hayes, who is charged with murder, sexual assault and other crimes in the deaths of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, 17-year-old Hayley and 11-year-old Michaela.

A teller and manager at a local bank testified earlier that Hawke-Petit arrived that morning seeking to withdraw $15,000. She told the bank employees that her family was being held by men inside the home. The bank manager called police, who immediately responded to the home.

Vignola acknowledged that more than a half-hour passed between the call and the time he saw Hayes and co-defendant Joshua Komisarjevsky run out of the house, get into the Petits' car and attempt to flee. They were captured after crashing into a police blockade.

Police then noticed the house had been set on fire.

Vignola testified that there had been no sign of activity in the home and that police were following procedure by setting up a perimeter. If he had known what was going on inside, Vignola testified, "I would have been the first one through that door."

Firefighters took the stand in the afternoon and described fighting the blaze and finding the three bodies.

Dr. William Petit, who was beaten and tied up in the basement but escaped before the fire was set, sobbed as jurors viewed graphic crime-scene photos. At least one juror also cried while looking at the pictures, which were passed around in the jury box and not displayed on a screen in the courtroom.

The firefighters testified they found Hawke-Petit's body in the family room, Hayley's body at the top of the stairs and Michaela's body on an upstairs bed, her hands tied to the bed post.

The judge ended the session for the day by telling jurors that they had been through the toughest part of the trial and it would be OK to hug each other.

Komisarjevsky faces a later trial.

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