Would Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters be alive if Joshua Komisarjevsky had been parented differently? Probably.
If you’ve heard of Joshua Komisarjevsky, chances are good it’s because he was recently convicted of killing Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Michaela, 11, and Hayley, 17, in Cheshire, Connecticut, in 2007. He awaits a sentence of either life in prison or the death penalty for the crimes, which he committed with accomplice Steven Hayes. In addition to taking their lives and then setting the bodies on fire, Komisarjevsky also raped Michaela.
Komisarjevsky’s life story is a case study in how fears of Satanism and the occult can get in the way of seeking proper treatment for an obviously ill teenager. His parents and others had many chances to intervene, to save not only Komisarjevsky’s life but the lives of Hawke-Petit and her daughters.
The 31-year-old was adopted when he was 2 weeks old. Early photos show him with his mother, Jude, who is delighted by the boy in her lap. Later on, the Komisarjevskys took in foster children, and one of them — a 15-year-old named Scott — abused the other kids, including 5-year-old Joshua. Later on, Joshua turned this abuse on his sister, which his parents refused to report to the police.
By the time Joshua was in his teens, his psychological state was beginning to break down. He developed a close friendship with a man in his church. Also during this time, Joshua allegedly joined a “Satanic cult.” The church friend helped “rescue” him from a ritual held at someone’s home, but shortly afterward, Joshua said he began hearing voices and suffering night terrors. But neither his family nor his church friends sought outside help:
But the cult continued to have a negative effect on Komisarjevsky, according to testimony Thursday by Eric Perry, a staff supervisor at a Christian boys’ home called the Fold in Vermont in 1996.
Perry’s two weekly reports on Komisarjevsky were shown on the courtroom screen. “Having trouble sleeping,” Perry wrote. “He hears voices saying, ‘Kill yourself.’ He is seeing objects in his room that he believes are related to his prior inclusion in Satanic cults.”
Perry also wrote that prayer and reassurance Komisarjevsky was loved by God and the staff at the Fold “seems to be the only solution to his night terrors.”
Even if Joshua had been part of a Satanic group — and it’s not clear to me what was going on here — there’s no reason that such belonging would trigger a mental-health breakdown. Just like any religious organization, Satanism attracts a variety of people for a variety of reasons, including those with mental-health issues. It’s neither a cause or a cure for those issues.
As a teen, he kept bomb-making supplies in his room as well as razor blades, the latter for a planned suicide attempt.
Here is a boy who is obviously crying out for help. But his support network believed, for whatever reason, that prayer and faith were the answers to his problems. Obviously, they weren’t.
I’m not here to blame any particular faith on what happened to Komisarjevsky — or particularly to his victims. I think the problem lies with the type of people his parents were, not the faith or denomination they belonged to. I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not they loved Joshua and his adopted/foster siblings. They had the heart to take these kids in. Beyond that, we know very little. What we do know is that Joshua was very sick, and we know that without treatment, this kind of sickness does not get better.
What happened to Hawke-Petit and her daughters was entirely preventable. It could have been prevented by Joshua Komisarjevsky’s parents, by his church elders, by others in his life. They made the wrong choices. Ultimately, the actions were Joshua’s — and for that reason he’s the right person to stand trial — but I doubt he would have committed these crimes without everything that came before.