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Friday, May 12, 2017

Jury Selection in the Murder Trial of Robert Honsch

The defendant makes eye contact.
There was no shortage of irony during the opening hours of Robert Honsch's murder trial today. With Mother's Day around the corner, the 73-year old is being tried for killing his wife, Marcia Honsch. Twenty two years ago, Marcia's body was found at Tolland State Forest. One week earlier, on September 28, 1995, Robert and Marcia's adolescent daughter, Elizabeth, was discovered wrapped in plastic garbage bags and a sleeping bag at the back of the same strip mall in New Britain, CT, where serial killer suspect William Devin Howell is said to have disposed of his seven victims in 2003. Both women had been shot in the head.

The 72 potential jurors that entered the courtroom this morning represented a living snapshot of America: young and old, varying in race, education, and social status. Most shared one common interest, however: family. This became abundantly clear as they were individually questioned by Judge Constance Sweeney and counsel regarding reasons for excusal from service. Since Judge Sweeney previously informed the group as a whole that the trial would likely run for at least four weeks, many stated that family obligations would interfere with their ability to serve. Some were parents of young children, others were caregivers for elderly parents. Judge Sweeney accepted these reasons for excusal, and also let many jurors go based on the fact that their employers would not pay for more than 3 days off for jury service.

In contrast, others seemed downright eager to get on the jury. When asked if he had seen or read anything about the case, one man said no, he spent all of his time at the computer and didn't even watch television. Defense counsel inquired, "Do you read the news online?" The man said no. Later, when asked if he would find it difficult to see forensic photos displaying graphic images, the same man answered that it would not be a problem as he was used to seeing those things on television shows like C.S.I. and Bones.  

Based on the witness list alone, this promises to be a very interesting trial. Civilian witnesses will arrive from numerous states: Virginia, New York, Florida, Ohio, and New Hampshire. One of those witnesses will be Honsch's ex-wife from Ohio, Sheryl Tyree. An even larger list of DNA analysts, criminologists, fingerprint experts, and law enforcement officers will testify, some of them coming from as far away as England, Australia, and South Africa.

When questioning jurors who had not been excused, Assistant District Attorney Karen Bell asked if any of them had an unfavorable or distrusting view of law enforcement, especially in light of the media's coverage of some high profile cases in recent years. Defense counsel's questions were a little more substantial and focused on two issues. Firstly, did the prospective juror understand that Honsch was not being tried for the death of his daughter, Elizabeth, even though evidence would be presented regarding her death? The current trial is for the murder of Marcia, not Elizabeth. Evidence regarding Elizabeth could be evaluated for "limited purposes" such as indicating that both were killed pursuant to a scheme or plan. Secondly, did they understand that behavior indicative of a "guilty conscience" was not enough, in and of itself, to prove actual guilt? This was obviously asked in anticipation of facts emerging that Honsch left the country, and then moved to Ohio, following the murders. He also took the last name of his new wife in Ohio, Tyree, making it hard for the Honsch family to locate him.

When the prosecution discussed my presence in the courtroom off record and Honsch realized that I was "press," he seemed to come to life. He stared at me face on for extended periods of time, as if to say, "Make sure you take my good side." His hair is an unusual shade of platinum grey, long and held back in a pony tail that barely covers the bald spot at the back of his head. His shirt was oversized and hung loosely from his aging frame. Pass this guy in a Litchfield County Coffee Bar and you wouldn't think twice. And here he was, sitting feet away from me, charged with murdering the mother of his child... and his child. 

Today, Judge Sweeney ruled that the jury's upcoming visits to crime scenes would be divided into two separate days. On one day, a bus would take them to Tolland State Forest, to the location where Marcia's body was found. The next day, the bus would take them to the back of the strip mall in New Britain, Connecticut, where Elizabeth was found swaddled like an infant; not exactly something a stranger would do to his victim. It's more of a paternal gesture, in my opinion.

One final observation about today's proceedings: this is a class act courtroom; controlled, professional, and set on abiding by bedrock, Constitutional principles. I have practiced in front of well over 100 judges in my legal career and I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Judge Sweeney wears a white hat, thus far. She is friendly with the jurors and counsel, and competently expresses complicated legal concepts in a way that the everyday Joe or Jane can grasp. Hampden County is lucky to have her on the bench.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

When the System Fails: The Unsolved Murder of Mary Badaracco

Mary's daughter, Sherrie Passaro, won't stop fighting for justice
It's called a travesty of justice- when the legal system not only fails to bring about justice, but also provides wishy-washy explanations to the extent that one wonders if some kind of cover-up is going on.

When Sherrie Passaro found out that her mother, Mary Badaracco, was missing, she felt in her gut that her mother's husband, Dominic Badaracco, was involved. Although police initially approached it as a missing person's case, Sherrie asserted that her mother would never leave her daughters and her beloved grandchild without saying goodbye, and she certainly would not permanently cut them out of her life. She also told them that her mother's relationship to Mr. Badaracco contained a long history of domestic violence, and that, one week before Mary went missing, the couple met with a lawyer and planned to divorce due to Mr. Badaracco's ongoing affair with another woman. In the weeks and months following her mother's disappearance, the grieving daughter metaphorically led authorities into a small room containing a giant elephant. In response, the assortment of men gazed out the windows and stared at the walls- and failed to look upon the beast standing right before them.

Why didn't law enforcement immediately suspect foul play and approach the sudden departure of Mary Badaracco as a possible homicide? According to Sherrie, local officials knew that messing with Dominic Badaracco could lead to problems down the road. He was not only a man of means- he also had connections in high places. He and his business partner, Ronald "Rocky" Richter, even golfed with judges. Who golfs with judges? Men with power.

Dominic Badaracco divorced his "missing" wife, Mary, in 1986 on grounds of desertion. That came as a blow to Sherrie and her sister- that a court of law would conclude that her mother deserted the ones she loved. A few years later, a former Hells Angel in the federal witness protection program told authorities that club members killed Mary Badaracco. The informant died in a motorcycle accident shortly after divulging that information.
Mary Badaracco

In 1990, Connecticut State Police reclassified the missing person's case as a homicide. Sherrie thought that progress was finally being made when she met with the new lead investigator. He shared her desire to get to the bottom of the mystery and initiate searches. More hope arose in 2010, when a one man grand jury was formed and carried out a detailed, 18-month probe into the matter. The experience was traumatic for Sherrie and her sister. They were called to testify on numerous occasions and rehash all of the pain surrounding their mother's disappearance. Still, they felt that it was worth it if their mother's murderer could be named and prosecuted. Their hopes were dashed, however, when the grand juror, Judge Arthur Hadden, failed to render any public finding of fact, and the Chief State's Attorney, Kevin Kane, did not pursue the matter any further.

According to Passaro, nothing was ever enough for authorities to find probable cause. They always needed more, more, more- but would not say what more meant. Many murders are solved without finding a body or a weapon, where a mountain of circumstantial evidence is enough to obliterate reasonable doubt. Hadn't investigators presented the grand jury with a virtual mountain of circumstantial evidence: a marriage on the rocks with a history of domestic violence; an impending divorce that would result in the division of a substantial amount of assets not to mention alimony; the fact that the victim's car (with a smashed in window) went missing weeks after she disappeared; and a former Hell's Angel alleging that club members carried out the murder, soon after dies? Sherrie and her sister felt that the court system was turning a blind eye to the elephant in the room- but why?  

Well, for one thing, the case got particularly ugly (and potentially scandalous) when Dominic Badaracco's former business associate, Richter, solicited the assistance of an old golfing buddy, Judge Brunetti. Telephone records subpoenaed by state police indicated that Richter and Brunetti spoke on the phone six times in October 2010; during that time, Brunetti was also talking to colleagues in the New Britain judicial district where he worked, and found out that a grand jury had been formed. He then told Richter about the existence of the grand jury- something that any judge knows not to do.

It remains unclear why it took weeks before Brunetti became concerned enough about Richter's phone calls to report the problem to his lawyer and seek advice. Did he sense that someone was onto him, or was his conscience just getting the better of him? Moreover, why did he have to ask a lawyer for advice on what to do? Wasn't it obvious that the first time Richter called wanting the inside scoop about grand jury proceedings that could result in Dominic Badaracco's indictment for murder, that he should have hung up and reported the matter to law enforcement ASAP? Keep in mind, the man was a judge.    

Brunetti's lawyer instructed him to inform the authorities that Richter was calling him. Police then tapped Brunetti's phone lines. On November 17, 2010, Dominic Badaracco called Brunetti from Richter's cellphone and offered the judge a $100,000 bribe in exchange for "help" in the matter. Badaracco was eventually arrested and served a very short period of time in jail for attempting to bribe a judge with the end goal of influencing a grand jury.

Sherrie Passaro and her sister subsequently attempted to obtain sealed transcripts of the grand jury's proceedings in hopes of showing that evidence had been presented that showed that Dominic Badaracco's current wife, Joan, along with his former business partner, Richter, were also directly involved in the bribery. Unfortunately, grand jury proceedings have been shrouded in secrecy since the 1600s. The theory is that disclosing that kind of confidential information could jeopardize an ongoing, active case. Here, however, the reality is that there appears to be nothing active or ongoing about the ice cold case involving Mary Badaracco. It seems to me that any danger that could come about by unveiling the grand jury's transcripts to the public, and especially to the daughters of Mary Badaracco, is far outweighed by the possible gains that would come from full disclosure. As the saying goes, "If you have nothing to hide, then why try to hide anything?" Information gleaned from grand jury transcripts could likely assist in future investigations and media coverage.

Does Sherrie Passaro hold out any hope that her mother's homicide will someday be solved and that the killer(s) will be brought to justice? Yes, there is always a chance that justice will prevail. Miracles happen. On the other hand, these days the answers seem more concrete to her on a spiritual level than in the realm of the court system. Sometimes she awakens from a deep sleep to feel her mother's face hovering just over hers, as if about to kiss her as she did when she was a small child.

Several years ago, she took a break from work and stood outside to get some sun. In the far off distance, a yellow butterfly floated directly her way and began circling around her head. She sensed her mother's spirit so strongly, in that moment. The next time she stood outside on break, a butterfly came and circled her head once again, and she felt her mother's presence. Now she has a flower garden designed to attract butterflies. They float to her balcony and stay still for unusually long periods of time while she takes their photos. Even the simplest of things can invoke her mother's presence. Recently, she made Mary's favorite recipe for cherry chocolate chip Bundt cake; the aroma, the taste, the memories of childhood birthdays.... all of this brought Mary's presence into the room. In a world where the court system can fail and murderers can get away scot-free, at least butterflies and cake can comfort a wounded soul.

Disclaimer: The information in this week's post was derived from a second interview with Sherrie Passaro, dated April 8, 2017. Ms. Passaro has read this article and approves of its contents. All other information contained in this article was derived from online sources including the following articles: Cool Justice: Pretend Investigations The Norm In Badaracco Homicide For 32 Years, by Andy Thibault, August 16, 2016; Judge Took Calls About Grand Jury Investigation, by Rick Green, The Hartford Courant, April 30, 2012; and Victim Advocate Makes Bid For Testimony, by Dirk Perrefort, CTPost, September 7, 2012.  To date, the homicide of Mary Badaracco remains unsolved and no suspects have ever been named. 

Mary Badaracco's famous cherry chocolate chip cake.



Saturday, March 25, 2017

Did Mary Badaracco Really Disappear "Without a Trace?"

Mary with her daughters, then ages 2 and 3. 
In medieval times, a visitor approaching a city would smell it from miles away. Inhabitants lived in cramped quarters and left their waste in barrels on the street. When it rained, an "evil smell" arose and engulfed the city. The closer one got, the more putrid the smell. This seems like an appropriate analogy for the unsolved homicide case of Fairfield County resident, Mary Badaracco. The closer you get to it, the more it stinks.

Mary Badaracco went missing from her home in Sherman, Connecticut, in August of 1984. She was thirty eight years old. Initially a missing person's case, Mary's daughters Beth Profeta and Sherrie Passaro convinced a state representative to have the Connecticut State Police reclassify the case as a homicide. That happened in 1990. Think about that. Mary had already been gone for six years. The police spent all of that time approaching a woman's disappearance under the assumption that she simply skipped town... so much for the first 48 hours being crucial to figuring out a crime.

It seems unfathomable that the police would entertain the notion that a mother who doted on her children for two decades and adored her then two year old granddaughter would leave forever without first notifying her daughters, or attempting to contact them as months turned into years. Sherrie was planning a wedding at the time, and her mother was excited about helping her with the details. Keep in mind, this is the same woman who routinely sketched hearts and unicorns on customized cards for her daughters at holiday time. She knew just what they wanted for Christmas, whether it be a Baby Alive doll or a stuffed ET figure, and she would prop the special gifts under the tree as they slept on Christmas Eve, eager to watch their delight the next morning.
A card that Mary drew for her daughter in 1984.

By all accounts, Mary Badaracco was a lovely and down to earth woman. She used to tell her daughter Sherrie that they were "Swamp Yankees," meaning that their blood contained a mix of many nationalities common to this part of New England, including Italian, Jewish, and Native American. Mary was an attractive woman and when her first marriage ended, it did not take long for the single mother of two young girls to catch the eye of another man. She met her second husband, Dominic Badaracco, while she worked at a bar that he owned. Although Dominic had four children from another marriage, he was still something of a catch; handsome, tall and financially secure, he swept Mary off her feet to the extent that she not only married him, but took on the daunting task of helping to raise his children through their adolescent years. To that end, she stopped working and focused all of her energies on keeping a clean house and making home cooked meals.

Life was not always easy in the Badaracco home. According to Sherrie, Dominic's sons were a handful to raise and were often getting into trouble at school and with the law. Sherrie recalls that, in the years when she was ages 5 to 11, her stepfather Dominic would sometimes get physical with his wife. During angry outbursts, he would throw food from the cabinets, rip the phone from the wall, and break plates. Whenever Mary sensed a fight brewing, she sent her two daughters to a neighbor's house where she knew they would be safe. One time, Sherrie came down the stairs to see her stepfather sitting at the table with a large carving knife and fork before him. Her mother was clearly nervous and sent Sherrie and her sister to the neighbor's house. Sherrie remembers that her mother came to pick them up later on and her arms were covered in cuts.

It came as a great relief to Sherrie when her mother and stepfather's marriage seemed to calm down after the six children were raised into adulthood and finally out of the house. In about 1983, the empty-nesters moved into a beautiful Colonial situated on five acres of land. It appeared to be Mary's reward for the sacrifices that she had made for her blended family over the years. The couple gutted the entire house, repainted, and purchased all new furniture. When Sherrie visited for dinner every week, her mother and stepfather's relationship was noticeably different. Gone were Dominic's iron-handed, controlling ways. He seemed nicer; less troubled. For the first time, Sherrie began to actually like her stepfather and the fear that she felt throughout her childhood slowly went away.
An aerial view of the Badaracco's dream house in Fairfield County, CT
That all changed one evening in August of 1984. Sherrie went to the house on a Monday for a scheduled dinner and was surprised to find the doors locked and no one at home. Her mother's new car was in the driveway, which seemed even stranger, and the window on the driver's side had been smashed. A large, circular pattern in the glass told Sherrie that something was terribly wrong. She waited on the front porch and her stepfather eventually drove up in the noisy truck carrying ladders that he drove for his sign business. "Where is Mom?" she asked as he approached the steps.

"She left me," he replied.

Sherrie was shocked. The week before, her mother had told her that they had been to see a divorce lawyer and that her stepfather was having an affair. That was the first time Sherrie heard that their marriage had not improved, as she earlier assumed. Still, she never thought for a moment that her mother would pick up and leave her beloved home without any notice to her or her sister. The very proposition was nothing short of absurd. Only a few days before, she had spoken with her mother on the phone about going to the Bridgewater Fair that Saturday. She therefore surmised that her mother went missing on the weekend of August 19th and 20th.

According to Dominic, he last saw Mary a few days before. She was sleeping on the couch that morning, before he went off to work. When he got home from work later in the day, she was not there and all of her belongings had been removed from the home. He claimed that he had hidden $100,000.00 in cash throughout the house (perhaps in anticipation of a future division of assets?) and Mary had found that money and stolen off with it.  

Naturally, Sherrie said that they should call the police right away. She states that Dominic told her not to do that, because his lawyer was "going to take care of everything." One week later, Sherrie's sister Beth found out that their mother was gone, and the two women went to the Southbury Barracks to report the matter. According to Sherrie, the detective in charge was a close friend of Dominic's. He visited the house, and apparently took Dominic's story of a wife who just up and left him at face value.

What about the car with the smashed window? Dominic told Sherrie that her mother had had an accident before leaving and that explained the damage to the car. Conveniently, the car disappeared within weeks of Mary's disappearance. The only proof that it had been sold came in the form of a botched cover up on the back of the title, according to Sherrie, containing wrong dates and misinformation. Did the detective think to impound that car and search its contents before Dominic got rid of it? Apparently not. Was there any further investigation into the dates and names on that title, or the current whereabouts of the car? DMV records may hold a clue, and it would not be hard for law enforcement to get hold of them.

Just a few days after her mother went missing, Sherrie's stepsister asked her to assist in cleaning Mary's belongings from the house. Now that's what I call getting immediate closure. Sherrie was surprised to see that there was barely anything left to retrieve. All of her mother's clothing, jewelry, make-up, and other personal effects were already gone. Mary allegedly packed everything up in a matter of hours before her husband came home from work. One would think that a woman skipping town would take only a few suitcases, but no- Mary took everything she possessed, including all of the photos of her with her daughters. Some of the frames that lined the wall along the stairway were empty, but only the ones that contained pictures of Mary and her daughters. All that Sherrie could find in that "clean up" was a box or two hidden in the storage room containing holiday items. Within weeks of her mother's "departure," Dominic's mistress moved into the home and he filed for an uncontested divorce from Mary in 1986.
Sherrie prizes this gift given by her mother.

Next week's blog will discuss the events that unfolded in the years following the disappearance of Mary Badaracco. To date, no one has ever been charged or convicted in this matter.

A hand-drawn card from mother to daughter.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article was derived from online articles found at newstimes.com, along with an interview conducted between the writer and Sherrie Passaro. Mrs. Passaro has read this article and approves of its contents.   


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Live and Learn: When Mistakes Come Back and Bite You.

When I sat down for a radio interview with Chaz and AJ on 99.1, PLR, "Connecticut's #1 Rock Station" this morning, I expected to be asked questions about the six murders that took place along an 8-mile stretch of Route 8 between 1988 and 2004. The notes in front of me referenced the list of victims, how and when they died, how they were discovered, and a possible link between the unsolved Route 8 Murders and the unsolved New Bedford Highway murders that ended just one month before the Route 8 murders began. I was also prepared to discuss the false confessions of Steven Hayes, the Petit home invasion murderer, who I visited on death row in May 2015.

What I was not prepared for in today's interview was the possibility of a listener calling in to offer, shall we say, 'feedback.' Why I did not expect that possibility is beyond me. Here is one of my favorite sayings: Anticipation is the heart of wisdom. How many times have I said that to my clients when preparing them for court? Today, it seems that I forgot to take that adage to heart.

For those of you who heard the interview, you witnessed the train wreck from start to finish. Everything was going great until Chaz took a phone call from a family member of one of the Route 8 victims, Jessica Muskus. The caller was livid. "What kind of a woman are you?" she demanded to know. "How can you look at yourself in the mirror? How can you sleep with yourself at night?" And perhaps the most stinging comment of all: "You are going to burn in Hell."

Her grievance against me was 100% justified. I began to research the unsolved Route 8 murders two years ago. It was my first attempt at writing true crime, although I have been an avid true crime reader for decades. Early on, I was desperate to talk to friends and family of the victims. In my investigative zeal (i.e. euphemism for recklessness and profound stupidity) I thought I would drop off my card with my contact information at a funeral for a member of the Muskus family. Despicable, I know. What the hell was I thinking? A woman is grieving her father's death and I slip her my contact information and tell her to give me a call if she wants to talk about her sister, who was murdered 13 years before?

I had officially joined the league of the infamous paparazzi, hated by all. As soon as I did it, I knew that I had committed a grievous wrong. I saw the pain and shock on her face and I felt like crawling into a hole; a deep one, with no chance of exit.

Lesson learned. I will never, ever do that again. That's the best I can offer, in terms of repentance. To the Muskus family: you don't need to accept my apology, but please know that it comes from a place of sincerity. I stated, on the air, that doing what I did two years ago was one of the two biggest regrets of my life. I brought additional pain to you in a time when you deserved only comfort and respect. I let my single-minded determination get the best of me and I have no excuse. Usually, that quality serves me well and helps me to advocate for people without a voice. Here, it caused destruction.

That said, now that the cards are all on the table, I can also say with confidence that I did not share any information on air today, or in my blog, that had not been verified by reputable sources. With respect to concerns that were brought forth today by Muskus family members, I suggest readers take a look at the article from The Litchfield County Times dated December 14, 2006, "Body Count at 5; Now What?"

I don't want to broach that subject any further because I feel it distracts from the more important questions at hand, specifically: Who killed five of the six victims found between Exits 39 and 42 along Route 8 from 1988 to 2004? Was it just one person, or were there separate killers? Why have these cases gone cold? Are there any new leads? Does anyone out there know more?

Frankly, the fact that many of the victims worked the streets and had substance abuse problems makes me feel for them all the more. There is a drug epidemic sweeping our country and anyone's child can fall prey to it... and to all of the dangerous situations that come along with it- including murder. No family is immune. Labels do not matter. Who cares about what the victim was doing or addicted to when her life was cruelly stolen? The fact remains: she was a human being, a mother, a daughter, a sister... she had great worth.  
 
To date, I have not made one cent in writing about the unsolved Route 8 murders and I don't even plan to write a book about the subject. I am currently writing a book about a different, high profile criminal case in Connecticut and will not publish the contents until a trial takes place and verdicts are rendered. My original intent in researching and writing about the Route 8 murders was to light a fire beneath these cold cases and maybe, just maybe, give voice to the victims in terms of rendering final justice in a court of law. I feel that my earlier blog posts about the murders reflect that intent.
My good boy, Max. Putting him to sleep is my second biggest regret. 



Monday, February 20, 2017

Death Row: A Vortex of Sorrow and Hate

Demon Seated, by Mikhail Vrubel (1890)
Many believe that there are high energy centers scattered throughout the world. Just visiting Sedona, for example, or sacred sites like Fatima or Medjugorje, can rejuvenate one's spirit and even bring physical healing. Conversely, some say that there are vile vortexes out there; consider the Bermuda Triangle, or the 1927 Dutch Colonial home located at 108 Ocean Ave, in Amityville, NY.

When I visited Steven Hayes on Connecticut's Death Row in May of 2015, I sensed that, from an energy point of view, he lived in the vilest of places. He murdered a mother and her two children- that could never be undone, and so he paced his cell morning and night, consumed by self-loathing and remorse. He sought escape by watching television, but everything he saw reminded him of his victims- even the commercials. Nonetheless, he kept the television playing just to hear the background noise- to keep himself from going insane.

Sartre wrote that "hell is other people" and this was certainly true of Hayes' day-to-day life on death row. He felt that everyone was after him. The DOC guards seemed to take pleasure in seeing him suffer; their hatred was evidenced in what he perceived to be small acts of cruelty meant to demean him at every turn. He was just a number, not a name. He could not eat food in accordance with his religion. In that vortex of despair, he longed for lethal injection.  

'But you invaded a man's home and savagely took the lives of his wife and two daughters,' I thought, 'What did you expect?'

While on death row, Hayes would see Joshua Komisarjevsky in the recreation room but the two kept a distance. Each man blamed the other for bringing about the horrific events that transpired at the Petit home years earlier. How could either of them set eyes on the other without feeling embarrassment and shame? It was like looking in a mirror.
A pen and ink owl drawn by Joshua Komisarjevsky (2014)

Hayes wondered why he had not been successful in committing suicide on different occasions in the past. A few days prior to the Petit home invasion, he sat in a car in the parking lot of Walgreens with a gun to his head. He had spent the entire night on a heroin binge with a prostitute- coming down from that high, his world seemed desperately bleak. The prostitute came back to the car and urged him to put down the gun. Imagine, he wondered, if she had paused for just a few more seconds in the store, perhaps to look at a magazine. Imagine if he deleted himself from the universe on that morning and the events in Cheshire never took place....

Listening to Hayes tell his story, one gets the sense that he fundamentally perceives himself as a victim of forces beyond his control. As a young child, he watched his parents engage in physical altercations before his father left the family for another woman. Hayes was viewed by others as a peculiar child. He was hyperactive, instigated trouble, and also had the undiagnosed condition of "Pica", which is the habit of eating nonfood substances like paper and dirt. Pica is most common in people with developmental disabilities, like autism and intellectual disabilities. Pica also may result from a brain injury affecting a child's development.

In a psychological evaluation dated March 30, 2009, Hayes reported that he was molested as a child by a babysitter. He started to drink alcohol at the age of nine. In the years that followed, he engaged in a downward spiral of drinking and doing drugs, mostly marijuana, with the end goal being that of zoning out and not having to think- or feel. In turn, his addictions led to numerous convictions for crimes committed to fund his habit: burglary, forged checks, but nothing violent.

On one level, it makes sense that Hayes would reason that it was the substance abuse that plagued him since youth that brought about the Cheshire murders. After all, it had repeatedly sabotaged his life prior to July 23, 2007. However, it doesn't take a PhD in psychology to see that there is so much more to this story. Beyond scientific explanations, like brain trauma or genetic flaws, there is the question of evil. The psychological report briefly referenced "sexual fetishes" but did not elaborate further. Who knows what thoughts filled Hayes' mind in the years leading up to the nightmare that he feels somehow came upon him without warning?

I recently asked a Roman Catholic priest how a serial killer like Ted Bundy can rape and kill people and actually seem to enjoy it. The priest was once a prison chaplain and practiced law before wearing the collar, so he had already given this question much thought. "He let evil take him over," he said.

"Is evil a force?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered without hesitation.

I remarked that St. Augustine thought differently. He opined that evil was the absence of good and that ours was not a universe containing warring opposites of good vs. evil. It may feel that way, at times, but in fact only God and therefore only good ultimately exists. Evil is therefore an illusion. The priest was surprised. "St. Augustine said that?"



"Why are you even writing about this guy?" I have been asked. "And why are you writing about the New Britain serial killer suspect William Devin Howell, let alone visiting him in prison pending trial?" My answer is that I am not so much writing about Hayes, or Howell, or anyone: I am writing about evil, and it seems like a damn important thing to think about. Where does it come from? Why do we live in a world where it exists? For true crime readers and writers alike, evil is a mystery requiring further exploration. There is no shame in wondering about it.

   

Saturday, February 4, 2017

My Death Row Visit with Steven Hayes: Writing True Crime and the Risk of Getting Sued


I visited Steven Hayes on Connecticut's death row in May of 2015 for the purpose of discussing the possibility of writing a true crime novel about him and his part in the notorious Petit home invasion murders. Although Hayes proposed the title, Anatomy of a Monster, it did not seem to me that he wanted to depict himself as a monster in the upcoming book. Rather, he wanted the story to be similar to the one told in A Million Little Pieces.  He told me that he had taken that book out of the prison library and read it with great appreciation and understanding. True, it later came to pass that the book was not based on actual facts and was more an imaginative fictional work in the mind of it's fraudulent author, but the bigger point was that Hayes liked the concept of telling his story as a kind of morality tale. Alcohol and drugs were the enemy, according to Hayes, and 'but for' his lifelong addictions, the horrific events that transpired in the Petit family home in July 2007 would never have occurred.

Did I buy that argument? No. As a disability attorney, I have represented many individuals with histories of drug and/or alcohol addictions. None of them strangled and raped an innocent woman while her husband was bludgeoned and then tied to a post in  the basement, or left two children to die in a burning house. Fair to say, Hayes' thesis was a bit of a stretch. Moreover, I had watched the HBO documentary The Cheshire Murders several times over before our visit. According to that source, Hayes and his partner in crime, Joshua Komisarjevsky, had found beer in the Petit's refrigerator and "drank all night" before the murders took place. I challenged Hayes with the question of how drinking a six pack, or even half a case, could result in what happened.
Komisarjevsky and Hayes: the unlikely pair first met at a halfway house.

It was perhaps the one time in our hour long visit that I voiced skepticism, and he seemed taken aback.  He admitted that part was true. He wasn't drunk when the murders occurred, nor was he high on drugs. However, his lifetime of addiction had brought him to a very dark place- to the point where he would commit acts that he never thought he would commit. "What went through your head when you killed Dr. Petit's wife?" I asked. "She seemed like a lovely, Christian woman."

"Yes, she was," he readily agreed. "When we drove back from the bank that morning, I was very nice to her. When we got out of the car and went back into the house, if someone saw us together, they would think that we were girlfriend and boyfriend."

Red flag. Girlfriend and boyfriend? Really? Did he want to blame that sick romantic fantasy on a history of substance abuse, too?

"Then why did you kill her, Steven?" I asked (not adding to it the fact that he raped her as well.)

"I blacked out," he replied. "I still don't remember doing any of it."

I let his answer go. If I did end up writing his story, I needed to go easy on the cross examination during our first visit. "So tell me about the drugs," I said. To some extent, I could believe that drug and alcohol addictions were at least a part of a bigger picture. Arguably, prior to the Cheshire murders, Hayes' lengthy police record comprised mostly car burglaries in order to get drug money, and he was not considered a violent offender. What caused him to make the leap from petty thief to savage killer?

Hayes went on to describe a 30-day drug binge that he had been on just before the murders took place. At the time of the murders, he was in a state of extreme withdrawal, and he would have done anything to get his next fix. Prior to that, he said, he had been sober for four years. People used to call him "Mr. N.A." because he was so well-versed in the rule books for Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. He said, with pride, that he had helped many people as a teacher and sponsor during that period of sobriety. His hope, was that he could get back to helping people again. "If this book keeps just one person from ruining their life with drugs, then it is worth it," he told me.
   
One year later, I would speak with Hayes' treating psychologist. Hayes wanted her to turn over all of his therapy records- about eighteen months worth, so I could include details from those sessions in the upcoming book. This gave me pause. As a writer, would I be able to read between the lines of these records, as I did during our initial visit, and draw from them conclusions in the final book that Hayes' did not anticipate me drawing; conclusions that were not supportive of the 'but for the drugs' hypothesis, but instead focused on other aspects of his character? For example, his own brothers describe him as manipulative and deceptive, especially with their mother. That tendency to manipulate has presented numerous times since he was convicted for the Petit murders, like when he promised to confess to murders that he did not commit in exchange for a plate of oysters. Hayes is deathly allergic to oysters and this was part of a plan to end his life on his own terms, sans lethal injection. The scheme never came to fruition.

Most recently, in 2014, Hayes' sued the state for not providing Kosher food to him in prison and thereby violating his religious rights as a self-professed, new member of the Jewish faith. Hayes solicited my legal counsel on the matter on many occasions, but I refused involvement. I couldn't help but wonder, 'If you are so into God, why do you want to sue a nonprofit lawyer who you claim misadvised you? That doesn't sound like a very kind thing to do..."

Needless to say, with respect to Anatomy of a Monster, the writing was on the wall- and the sense of impending danger was certainly gnawing in my gut. This man, Steven Hayes, was trouble. Were I naive enough to write a book about him, then I would have no one to blame but myself when the inevitable civil lawsuit was filed, Hayes vs. Howard, with the plaintiff claiming that I misled him into the understanding that this would be a N.A. style book intended to help people with addictions, only to cruelly betray him by honestly telling another story.
Author Joe McGinniss was sued by a psychopath. 

There is precedent for such law suits. Family murderer Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald made the life of author Joe McGinniss a living hell for over a decade with litigation involving the publication of Fatal Vision.  There is no saying how much McGinniss had to spend on legal fees to defend his classic novel, in addition to forking out $325,000.00 to MacDonald in the final settlement. The two had no written contract saying that McGinniss thought MacDonald was innocent, or promising to portray him as such. I am still amazed at the unfairness of that outcome. Evidently, so was McGinniss. I recently listened to an interview done just before his death in 2014 and the bitterness in the author's tone was evident.

Such is the price of writing true crime. Authors, beware. Carefully assess the frigid waters before you take the final plunge.

A few weeks from now, I will publish a third and final post regarding my 2015 death row visit with Steven Hayes. Part III of the series will address Hayes' childhood and adolescence, and his suicide attempt just prior to the Petit Home Invasion Murders. 

Finally, I would like to offer my sincere thanks to a recent critic who wrote to me: "Your blog is a stain", and banned me from further publication on that particular subreddit. Some of my favorite writers have a history of being banned. I therefore take your opinion as the highest of compliments.

Anne K. Howard   



Monday, January 30, 2017

Friend or Foe? My Visit With Steven Hayes on Death Row

I first met Steven Hayes on May 29, 2015. It was a beautiful day on the outside of the Northern Correctional Institution (NCI) in Somers, Connecticut. Overhead, the clouds looked too perfect to be real; set against a canvas of unnatural cobalt blue. In contrast, the recurrent spirals of razor-edged barbed wire that lined the building's roof tops and concrete barricades brought home a hard reality: I was about to enter Death Row.

I signed in as a social visitor even though my visit was hardly social in nature. I was there to look into the eyes of a killer and consider the proposition of writing his life story. 

Security scanned me and handed me a key for a locker where I placed my briefcase. I looked around, intent on memorizing every detail as paper and writing utensils were not allowed for the visit. The interior of NCI takes the concept of brutalist architecture to entirely new levels of ugly. In the lobby where I waited, the enormous cement chairs absurdly resembled the decor in Fred Flintstone's house. In the women’s bathroom, the steel toilets had no lids. Everywhere I turned, I was faced with exposed raw concrete that had never been introduced to paint, let alone drywall. 

After a 20 minute wait, a corrections officer came to fetch me and escorted me down a long, windowless hallway that reminded me of driving through Boston's Big Dig. We were not under water, but it felt that way.

“Hoping to get something juicy?” she asked. I sensed derision in her tone. Three innocent women- correction: a woman and her two children, were killed at the hands of Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky on July 23, 2007. The manner in which they died was beyond abhorrent. The crime involved rape, strangulation, and arson. A father and husband, Dr. Petit, would spend the rest of his life haunted by the memories of that horrific night and day. So no, I was not 'hoping to get something juicy' out of this interview. I was hoping to get some kind of insight into what brought the tragedy about.  Specifically, who was this man, this monster, Steven Hayes? What kind of human being could leave two girls strapped to their beds, douse their rooms with gasoline, and throw down a lit match?   
The killers poured gasoline throughout the Petit home and struck a match.

The visit was set for 1PM. By 1:12, Hayes had still not presented on the other side of the glass in a  room containing four cubicles with phones on both sides. I wondered if his capital defense counsel, Michael Courtney, had convinced him to not talk to me, after all. Days earlier, I had received a less than friendly phone call from Courtney. In a commanding and shall we say, slightly threatening, tone he demanded that I reconsider visiting his client pending the state Supreme Court's review of the legality of the death penalty in Connecticut. He warned that my contact with Hayes could result in an ethics' violation that would endanger my license to practice law. He also followed up with a terse letter, which he faxed to my office, and snail-mailed, for good measure:

May 27, 2015

Dear Ms. Howard:

As per our phone conversation this date, I am specifically directing you to have no further communication with Steven Hayes, who is represented by my office in a death penalty prosecution.

We believe your initiation of contact with a represented party, especially when it concerns the subject matter of the litigation in question, violates Rule 4.2 and 7.3 of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Very truly yours,
 Michael K. Courtney, Esq.
Capital Defense and Trial Services Unit

Courtney's signature resembled an over-sized, lower case q with an angry side stroke jabbing at the right margin of the page. 'I am not pleased,' it said.

The professional conduct rules in question basically prohibit lawyers from talking to parties already represented by another lawyer, and soliciting clients. I could not see how the rules applied to me as I was visiting Steven Hayes in the capacity of a writer, not an attorney. I had absolutely no intention of involving myself with the litigation at hand, or rendering anything close to legal advice. Moreover, as a lawyer who currently only represents individuals who have been denied Social Security Disability benefits, my involvement in a death row case would be akin to a podiatrist performing brain surgery.  And so, I shrugged off Courtney's call and letter, and simply hoped that I would not come to regret it at a future date. 

There came the enormous, crashing sound of a freight elevator in the near distance; it seemed everything on death row was big and loud. “Looks like he’s here,” the corrections officer said. She turned and left, locking the door behind her. Alone, I waited for the appearance of Steven Hayes on the other side of the plexiglass. I had various pictures of him in my mind. There was the best-known mugshot image of a hefty bald man in orange prison garb staring angrily at the camera just following his arrest for the Petit murders. A more recent mug shot depicted a still hefty, bearded man whose eyes weren’t quite so hostile.

I was also familiar with images of him from the HBO documentary, The Cheshire Murders: Hayes as a fat and unattractive baby, his face not dissimilar to his adult face; Hayes in his twenties, smiling and neatly dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and pressed trousers, standing with his mother outside her home in Winsted, Connecticut; Hayes as a long-haired, disheveled hippie sporting a handlebar moustache... Over the decades, Hayes apparently underwent more image transformations than Madonna.
 
No prior transformations could have prepared me for the new and revised Steven Hayes. He approached the cubicle with a light step to his gait- unusual, considering the fact that he was heavily handcuffed and his legs were shackled. His face lit up with a boyish grin when he saw me. No kidding, if I inadvertently bumped into this scrawny little man in a cramped grocery store aisle, with his long grey beard and his friendly, twinkling eyes, I would say sorry and move along without a thought. 

He sat down and picked up the receiver to the red phone at his side. I picked up my receiver and we started to talk. As we spoke, I observed the notorious criminal with a certain degree of morbid curiosity. Though his eyes contained warmth and light, he had all the makings of a dead man walking. His sallow cheeks were sunken in, and the skin beneath his eyes was dark from exhaustion and poor diet. He had missing teeth, and his front tooth, dark and decaying, stuck out. Here before me was the skeletal product of living day after monotonous day, night after sleepless night, on Death Row; starve a member of ZZ Top and put a yarmulke on his head, and you would get the present version of Steven Hayes. 

We discussed the Petit family murders, his newfound Jewish faith, his feelings towards his brothers, Matthew and Brian, his nonexistent relationship with his daughter, and his complaints about the way that he has been allegedly mistreated by the Connecticut Department of Corrections. Mostly, we discussed his lengthy history of drug and alcohol abuse that, he felt, led to a life of petty crime before culminating in the hellish nightmare of events that led him to death row.   

I left that visit on friendly terms with Hayes, and I seriously considered writing a book about him, which he wanted to title, Anatomy of a Monster. It was a good title, I told him. I could see the paperback cover in my head, with a haunting image of the Petit family home sketched overtop a sea of rising red and yellow flames. In the year or so that followed, I struggled with whether or not I should tackle the project. Ultimately, I listened to my gut instinct and decided not to write the book. In my next blog, I will share with you my reasons for not writing a book about Hayes and, most importantly, I will share the details of our conversation on Death Row and subsequent written and telephone correspondence. Hayes, like all sociopaths, is a complicated man: kind and friendly on the surface, with layers of manipulation and ill intent that are revealed over time.
The Connecticut Supreme Court found the death penalty unconstitutional a few months after I visited Hayes. He now serves a life sentence at a prison in Pennsylvania.