Connecticut Court failure: The deadly rebranding of Joshua Komisarjevsky

Connecticut Court failure: The deadly rebranding of Joshua Komisarjevsky

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Joshua Komisarjevsky - News File images
Joshua Komisarjevsky - News File images

CONNECTICUT, February 25, 2014 — For most of Joshua Komisarjevsky’s life, he had been a career criminal. Yet in May of 2007, the newly paroled Komisarjevsky strolled into New Britain Family Court wearing a GPS monitoring bracelet and obtained sole custody of his 5-year old child with the help of Connecticut’s Department of Corrections. Two months later, Komisarjevsky was arrested for his part in brutal triple slayings of Hayley Petit, 17, Michaela Petit, 11, and their mother, Jennifer Petit.

The State of Connecticut was aware that Komisarjevsky had targeted the girls in his own family for years. The State not only failed to press criminal charges against him before he became one of the most infamous killers in Connecticut history, it also handed him custody of his daughter.

Even after the high profile case of Komisarjevsky, the State’s Judicial Branch has made few changes to rectify horrifying lapses.

“Cold, Calculated Predator” or Responsible Father?

Komisarjevsky first appeared on the State’s case rolls as a child victim of violent crimes. Later, the State classified him as both a dangerous offender and a “responsible father.”

The transformation first began in  a Bristol, Connecticut courtroom in 2002, where Komisarjevsky had just pled guilty to nighttime burglary. In the hearing, Komisarjevsky admitted he broke into homes wearing night vision goggles when he knew the residents would be home.

Court transcripts show that Jennifer Norton, Komisarjevsky’s 16-year-old girlfriend, brought their newborn baby to Komisarjevsky’s sentencing hearing.

During the sentencing, authorities laid out Komisarjevsky’s extensive criminal history, which included dozens of burglaries, arson, theft, drugs, and rape, some of which had never been criminally prosecuted.

On the other hand, a friend of the couple’s who did not wish to be identified on the record described Josh as a mild mannered “sweetheart” who was likely unaware of Jennifer’s real age (15) at the time they began dating. The friend said Josh was never violent and good to Jennifer, but that both young parents struggled with drug addiction.

Komisarjevsky apparently wanted to show Bristol Superior Court his positive side, telling the court his reason for cooperating with law enforcement before the hearing:

“…the only reason why I did it was because my daughter was supposed to be born within the week, and I wanted a chance to start over and to start a new leaf, I guess you could say…I only pray that I have the opportunity to be able to raise my daughter in the love and the faith that now has new meaning to my life.”

Defense attorney William Gerace argued for leniency, noting that Komisarjevsky had been on the radar of the Department of Children and Families as both a child victim and a child predator. As a child, Komisarjevsky and his sister had allegedly been repeatedly raped and assaulted by their foster brother, now a sex offender convicted for the rapes of other child victims. DCF records show Komisarjevsky later sexually assault other children, including his own sister.

The mental injuries from Komisarjevsky’s troubled childhood were very real and disabling, but not readily apparent to the naked eye. Komisarjevsky’s parents not only denied him treatment, they blamed their injured son for his inability to pray his medical conditions away, and over time those wounds festered.

The Court did not accept Gerace’s tale or Komisarjevsky’s fatherhood redemption story. Instead, Judge Bentivegna said:

“You don’t seem to be somebody that’s, in terms of committing burglaries, an addict just trying to get the money for a quick fix…What you do seem like is somebody who is a predator, a calculated, cold-blooded predator that decided that nighttime residential burglaries was your way to make money.”

Judge Bentivegna recorded serious concerns about the danger the offender father posed to society.  Bentivenga then sentenced Komisarjevsky to at least nine years in prison. Some of the conditions of Komisarjevsky’s eventual release included that he have no contact with his victims, pay child support, attend school, and finally that he undergo the mental health evaluation and treatment. Unfortunately, however, the State never enforced the requirement for mental health evaluation and treatment.

Komisarjevsky was ordered to pay child support despite the fact that the State had not legally confirmed that Jennifer’s daughter was Komisarjevsky’s child. It was not until August 2003 when Komisarjevsky signed the paternity acknowledgement  from his jail cell, establishing his legal status as the child’s father.

Based on the paternity acknowledgement, Komisarjevsky was now a troubled father with child support debts that would begin mounting the second he was released. The only way to escape child support requirements – the only debt one can be jailed for not paying – would be to reconcile with Jennifer or to gain custody, which would require that Jennifer pay Komisarjevsky child support.

Offender Friendly Programs Help Offender Get Custody, Control of Victims 

From the time Komisarjevsky’s daughter was born, the State consistently demonstrated a lack of understanding that Komisarjevsky could not be both a cold, calculated, mentally ill convicted predator and a fit parent.

The child support order did not include an investigation of whether Komisarjevsky had conceived his daughter while violating the State’s statutory rape laws. It did, however, effectively sentence two young girls to 18 years of contact with the “cold calculated predator.”

At the age of 16, Jennifer’s teenage life was anything but typical, even for a teen mom. Although Jennifer was barely old enough to buy a gun and hadn’t yet graduated high school, she may have had more hands on experience practicing law than many law school graduates preparing for the bar exam.

“We were not on good terms. He’s been fighting ever since [our daughter] was born for her to be with him,” Jennifer told the Hartford Courant in 2007. “I did not want him with her at all. I wouldn’t take her to prison to visit him. … I didn’t want her with a dangerous criminal.”

Court records show that Komisarjevsky began filing motions from his jail cell in 2005 to sue for custody and control of Jennifer’s child.  As an incarcerated offender, Komisarjevsky was eligible for state sponsored assistance with his court cases. Jennifer received no such assistance. While incarcerated, Komisarjevsky was shuttled back and forth from the prison to the family courts in shackles as he successfully petitioned for custody and visitation.

Despite her lack of education and world experience, Jennifer hung on to sole custody until September 2005, when Judge James Graham awarded the prisoner joint custody. Upon Komisarjevsky’s release, Graham’s orders forced Jennifer to drop her toddler off with Komisarjevsky and his parents every other weekend in a quasi-supervised visitation arrangement.

By 2007, Komisarjevsky was placed on work release and was living in a halfway house where he met Steven Hayes, his co-conspirator in the Petit murders. Parole records show that parole officer Abigail Cintron fitted Komisarjevsky with an electronic monitoring bracelet so that he could begin working a construction job. Not long after, Komisarjevsky began leading Narcotics Anonymous meetings at the Institute of Living. He spent much of his free time with his new teenage girlfriend, Caroline Mesel.

“We went to the mall a lot, or we’d just drive around and go to my house or his as he had to wear an ankle bracelet,” said Caroline.

Now that Komisarjevsky was free and earning a paycheck, he had to comply with  the child support payment requirements of his release. Court records show that in 2007, the State Bureau of Child Support filed motions to garnish Komisarjevsky’s wages. At approximately the same time, Komisarjevsky increased his efforts to gain sole custody of his daughter.

Parole records show that in order to bolster his chances of prevailing on his custody claims in family court, Komisarjevsky concealed his mental illness and refused to comply with the terms of his parole which ordered him to undergo mental health evaluation and treatment. But since Komisarjevsky’s parole officer never brought the violation before the parole board, the dangers posed to his daughter and the public by his untreated mental illness were not a barrier to his release and access to victims.

In fact, parole records show that almost every meeting Komisarjevsky had with his parole officer in 2007 centered around gaining support for his custody fight. Far from raising alarms about Komisarjevsky’s dangerous past, his parole officers encouraged him  to sue Jennifer for custody and offered referrals to help him with his family court case as a reward for compliance with the terms of his release.

Parole records show that by May 2007, Komisarjevsky was living with his parents and had received the legal support he needed to file an ex parte motion for sole custody with the help of an unnamed attorney. Komisarjevsky told his friends and the court that he was concerned that Jennifer’s alleged drug use was affecting her ability to care for their child, and the she was alienating him from his daughter. Jennifer later told the Courant that at the time of the custody hearing, she was hospitalized with a medication issue and was not present to defend herself.

Despite the fact that the new parolee wore a GPS monitor on his ankle to the hearing, Judge Barry Pinkus granted Komisarjevsky’s motion for sole custody. Consequently, the child was forced to live with the father she had never known outside of State custody, and the parents he blamed for his crimes in 2002. The next hearing was not scheduled until June. In the meantime, to retain visitation with her daughter, Jennifer signed an agreement which granted her joint custody, but required her child to alternate spending every other night between her home and the Komisarjevsky’s.

With the Department of Corrections asleep at the wheel, the court wasn’t buying Jennifer’s argument that Komisarjevsky was a dangerous criminal who was focused on carrying out a vendetta against her rather than bonding with his daughter.

In June, the Judicial Branch’s family relations counselors who work in the Court Support Services Division (CSSD) screened Komisarjevsky’s custody case and determined that he and Norton were appropriate candidates for an ill-fated “conflict resolution conference” in August of 2007. The State failed to seize this opportunity to force Komisarjevsky to get help, which proved fatal for the Petits.

The Petit Murders 

On the night of July 22, Komisarjevsky kissed his daughter goodnight and then went out to resume a life of crime with Steven Hayes. Komisarjevsky’s mother, Jude, who was home babysitting her grandchild, later testified she knew her son was “up to no good” because he was wearing the type of hooded sweatshirt he had typically worn to carry out  burglaries in the past. Despite this premonition, Mrs. Komisarjevsky failed to stop her son from going out.

The pair of parolees broke in to the home of Dr. William Petit, who they tied up in the basement and beat brutally. They then tied his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and his two young daughters to their beds upstairs. Hayes raped Jennifer and Komisarjevsky raped 11-year-old Michaela. At some point, Komisarjevsky drove Jennifer Petit to the bank and forced her to withdraw $15,000—the exact amount he believed he needed to carry out his dream of buying the truck that he hoped to use to steal young Caroline Mesel away from her family who had recently moved to Arkansas.

Dr. Petit escaped and went to get help, but it was too late for his family. The convicts strangled Jennifer to death, then burned the house down with Dr. Petit’s daughters still tied to their beds inside. Both Michaela and Haley were cremated in their beds.

At Komisarjevsky’s sentencing hearing in 2011, he once again blamed the parents he had appointed to raise his child for his heinous crimes, while at the same time invoking the “fatherhood defense” to escape punishment. In a shameless attempt to save his own skin from the death penalty, his attorneys called upon the nine year old to testify on her father’s behalf. Despite the child’s testimony, and Komisarjevsky was sentenced to death.


Since the Petit and Mills family murders, there have been no notable major changes in CSSD leadership or the way the courts screen “high conflict” cases.

In December of 2013, John Louis Lynn, a repeat violent offender with a long criminal history, walked into his ex-girlfriend Brittany Mill’s Manchester, Connecticut apartment upset over the outcome of court hearings pertaining to the support and custody of the couple’s 13-month old child. Gunshots erupted, and police arrived to find Lynn standing in the parking lot of Mills’ apartment complex holding their son in one hand and a gun in the other. Authorities say Lynn killed Mills, 28, her cousins Kamesha Mills, 23, and Artara Benson, 46. Surrounded by law enforcement, Lynn placed the child on the ground before turning the gun on himself.

In January 2014, over 80 parents testified before a legislative task force alleging that the court’s programs and services do not work for consumers. In some cases, the Court has shut these consumers out of their own children’s lives while allowing pedophiles and murderers to access their kids. Parents said corruption, questionable billing, and conflicts of interest are rife in Connecticut’s family courts.

Between the time Komisarjevsky was imprisoned in 2002 and until his arrest for murder, he enjoyed more than 55 visits with his daughter. His rights contrast with statements by many of the parents at the hearing, like Sunny Kelley and Jerry Mastrangelo, who testified that they had not been allowed to see their children in years, despite the fact that they had no criminal histories and were never found to have maltreated their children.

Perhaps Connecticut’s legislators can’t mandate morality, but they can shut off public money to those agencies employing the same court industry professionals poaching a living off the backs of the State’s most troubled families.

Some of these families are literally dying for custody.

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  1. The Judicial Branch’s family court services division has had the same group of AFCC directors running it since the 1980’s, and no one ever gets fired-it’s just business as usual no matter how many families are killed when they drop the ball. Something is very wrong if mass murderers with long rap sheets get custody and honest parents trying to get divorced get cut off from their kids and have to purchase time with their kids through extortion based family court service providers.

    The justice department is asleep at the wheel and they should be investigating the money, fraud, and extortion involved in these cases. It’s blatant misuse of federal funding to be putting kids in homes with pedophiles and dangerous criminals for profit.

    When 80 parents show up at the state house to tell legislators they were fleeced, bankrupted, and extorted by the same professionals—some of whom were on the Komisarjevsky case— all these parents can’t be lying. These parents came from all different walks of life, they don’t know each other, they came from all different parts of the state. I don’t believe in Justice, I believe that the honest judges in the system would rather see families die than risk their own skin coming forward publicly to say that what is happening to these kids is wrong. And they all know it’s wrong and tow the line for each other. THey all have blood on their hands in the komisarjevsky murders and all the other dead families that came after them.

  2. There is so much wrong with the actions of the court system in Connecticutt that it is hard to know where to start. The obvious one is how could a dangerous criminal with a proven history of mayhem ever be considered for any form of custody. Although the research most favorable to shared parenting would only support its use under the most favorable circumstances and the law purports to prevent its use in inappropriate cases, but if a case like this could be considered for shared parenting it proves the bias favoring shared parenting is so strong that it should be repealed at least until we can be confident courts can screen out cases in which it is ludicrous to force a victim to co-parent with her rapist. Another issue is how do we stop spending taxpayer money to help dangerous abusers gain custody. Still another issue is the reliance on unqualified professionals who are part of the cottage industry that makes its money supporting abusive fathers. Most important is that Connecticut and every other state must stop refusing to reform the broken custody courts based on the assumption that a case like this just be an exception. A chapter for the second volume of DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ABUSE AND CHILD CUSTODY, followed up on the 175 children murdered in a recent two year period by abusive fathers often given access by the courts, which was used to murder the children. We interviewed judges and court administrators to ask what they had done to reform practices to better protect children in response to the local tragedy. The answer was nothing because they7 assumed their case was an exception. There are too many “exceptions” and too many murders to consider maintaining the status quo. Connecticut must look at this case knowing it is not an exception and they must create meaningul reforms to protect its children.

      • Most of the research I cite in this and other venues comes from the Saunders’ study which was released by the U.S. Department of Justice and the ACE research that comes from the Center for Disease Control. This is research that is carefully reviewed and the best available. I also cited Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody which was cited repeatedly in the Saunders’ study. In contrast the “research” cited by the fathers’ rights groups, cottage industry supporting fathers and many in the AFCC that controls the courts in Connecticut had its genesis not in any research but based on the personal beliefs and biases of a man who made many public statements to the effect that sex between adults and children can be acceptable. Frequently the courts make a huge error of treating the statements and research from those of us who support laws and practices designed to prevent domestic violence as if they were equivalent to the misinformation coming from abusers and the cottage industry of professionals that make their money helping abusive fathers undermine the laws against domestic violence. Those who are part of abuser groups are often shocked that the actual valid research is so different from the kool aide they have been drinking.

        • Thank you for your reasoned response, but statistically bio fathers are the least likely to harm their own children, and bio mothers most likely. Are you saying 178 bio fathers in CT alone? Or in the US? Until I see the data sets and methodology, I think they included boyfriends & step-dads in the data.

          How many female convicted murderers have custody of their children? Probably all of them. Komisarjevsky is clearly an isolated event. The author acts shocked that a drug addict woman could have this guys child, then go to court and say he should not ever see his child because he is a scumbag. She was no prize, and had to be a problem case to lose custody to a man in prison. If he was not incarcerated, he has a right to see his child like anyone else, unless due process of law finds otherwise, which the mom did not manage to do.
          I galls me that some people feel that a child is the property of the mother, who gets to decide if the father can see them. A child deserves to know their father.

          I found this quote, so it’s still a very small percentage of fathers nationally.
          “Single dads now account for 8 percent of American households with children, up from 6.3 percent in 2000 and 1.1 percent in 1950, census data show.”

          The domestic violence industry consumes billions of dollars of public and private funding to support an ever growing lobbying and bureaucratic infrastructure that works to continually expand the definition of abuse to raising your voice or even questioning family spending.

          • You have just demonstrated that you have no interest in learning about current research but just want to make your biased points. When you referenced the “domestic violence industry” a phrase only used by those who support abusers you confirmed your lack of sincerity. The cottage industry of lawyers and evaluators makes its huge income by helping abusive fathers. Many of them are involved in the AFCC which controls much of Connecticut’s courts which is why they tilt so heavily towards abusers and this case could have gone so utterly wrong. Most cases are settled more or less amicably. The problem is the 3.8% of cases that cannot be settled. A large majority of these cases are actually domestic violence cases in which the worst abusers seek custody to regain control over their victims. Because they are domestic violence cases the abusers generally control most of the family resources. That is why it is so lucrative for professionals to work on the side of abusers. Professionals who work to help victims know their clients have little or no money. Accordingly they accept far lower incomes in order to be on the moral side of these cases. When abuser groups make the laughable claim about a dv industry it shows their values and their ignorance but has no relationship to reality. Of course they routinely take information out of context as you did with your response. Natural mothers commit more child abuse because in our still sexist society mothers provide most of the child care. If the calculations included the amount of care the results would be the opposite of the misinformation your abuser friends try to provide. Genuine research demonstrates that fathers involved in contested custody are the most dangerous parents because they believe their victim had no right to leave so they are entitled to use any tactic to regain what they believe is their entitlement to control the mother. This is why so many cases involve judges giving the abusive father the access he uses to kill his children. We don’t see cases in which courts give mothers access to children who they kill to hurt the fathers. Now that your bias and lies have been exposed I will not respond further.

          • You only rationalize. Women get free everything by claiming to be a victim, most have no evidence, and false claims are the rule.Men have all the money in a divorce? Are you insane?

          • Tenacity-
            Children do not benefit from being raised by criminals and addicts. If you choose a life of crime or drugs over your responsibilities as a parent, then you are unfit to be around children.

            Even if Komisarjevsky’s allegations about the mother being an addict were 100% true (and at the time I think the news reported this to be the case), the solution was not to hand the child over to the felon on parole wearing a GPS bracelet or his parents who had maltreated him as a child to the point where he was mentally ill due to traumatic injuries. The child should have been placed safely with a qualified relative, even in foster care would have been better than what Judges Pinkus and Graham did. But in the end, Jennifer is not on death row for murdering a mother and her two children and badly injuring the father—Komisarjevsky is and the State knew this custody arrangement could not end well.

            FYI, this is a public safety risk we all need to pay attention to. Violent criminals (of any gender) raising the next generation will get you nothing more than a future full of violent criminals. They don’t just attack their own families, in the Komisarjevsky case several other families were attacked. This is not the exception, and I’m not saying women have not done the same. I’m saying the government should not be helping identified predators get custody of victims.

          • Tenacity….you raise some very interesting points….hmmm….lets see….post your name, phone, and address, …..there is much to be learned….much work to be done. It has already begun….before you know it….the challenges, similar to those you point out, will be a story the press cannot manipulate…..the truth will be revealed….and those responsible…will know true justice…if for only a few sweaty moments. Thank you so much for your intelligent comment.

  3. The other day I was walking the dog and ran into an international journalist from Pakistan who told me he is writing on the topic of domestic violence – and believed that the United States was much more advanced on this topic. No, I hated to tell him, that what happens in criminal and family courts are worlds apart. Now, I have yet another insane story to share.

    This system is obviously “unnatural” and detrimental to children… but it’s not as though all the members of the family beyond the children deserve this sort of torture either.

    Connecticut isn’t the only state that does these things, but it does seem institutionalized much more deeply than most other states.

  4. I remember the horrifying murders of the Petit family. I couldn’t imagine how depraved a person like Komisarjevsky could be. That he won sole custody of his daughter, should be surprising, but given what I know about family law, it’s not.

    • The fact that any man wins primary custody is surprising, the mother had to be the epitome of a drug addict, or not appear when she was supposed to be in court. Nothing can protect someone from not participating in a case.

      This article is typical propaganda that men should never be allowed custody. How many women murderers have custody of their children? Probably all of them.

  5. “With the Department of Corrections asleep at the wheel, the court wasn’t buying Jennifer’s argument that Komisarjevsky was a dangerous criminal who was focused on carrying out a vendetta against her rather than bonding with his daughter.”….This happens all the time and courts don’t care. They are so hard up on assuring “father’s rights” that they turn a blind eye to the obvious, while the children and the righteous parent suffer.

  6. The only children and mothers who are hurt aren’t the ones that are killed. Tens of thousands of children and mothers are hurt every day through emotional and physical abuse that the fathers are allowed to manifest, all thanks to our “wonderful” Family Law courts system. It’s not unusual for these “vendetta fathers” to use the courts system, legally, to go after the women and children for years.

    If there’s a high-conflict domestic situation, MENTAL HEALTH SCREENING should be MANDATORY every time. Period. If one parent escapes it and continually refuses, isn’t that an indication that he has something to hide? But yet, they get away with it because no one is enforcing it. No one cares about the children. The US Family Law Courts System is terrible!!!!

  7. This is not right nor is it in the best interest of the child. Not surprising though based on the Alice in wonderland that people enter when they go through a very litigious divorce.

  8. After what he did to that young Petit girl you have to wonder why Komisarjevsky wanted sole custody of his daughter. If he really cared about her he would have given her up to a family who could have given her what he couldn’t.

  9. I’m getting in on this a little late, but that just shows there still has been no correction to a glaring error and several omissions in your report, even after 10 months.

    You say that Komisarjevsky drove Jennifer Petit, the mother to the bank, but this is not true. It was Steven Hayes who drove her there and back, while Joshua was at the house — alone — with the two girls. (Hayes was also the one who went, by himself, to buy gas to burn the house down.)

    And by his own admission, while Hayes was away on this first occasion, Komisarjevsky performed oral sex on the 11 year old, Michaela, and took graphic photos of her genitals, which were found on his cell phone after his arrest at the scene. No mention of this either? It was in his taped confession.

    Also, the father of one of his former girlfriends says that on one occasion, he told Komisarjevsky that he would turn out to be a career criminal, and that he thought Joshua was a pedophile.

    You may have missed several opportunities to amplify his behavior as being grossly contrary to having any custody rights, but the error concerning who drove Jennifer Petit to the bank deserves a correction.

  10. A reckless incompetent judge is more dangerous than an assault rifle in the hands of a young black thug is Hartford. How many babies must die before a mindless judge is relieved of his job?

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