Wednesday, August 01, 2007

‘In Cold Blood,’ Re-enacted in Our Time

By PETER APPLEBOME
Our Towns
The New York Times
August 2, 2007

CHESHIRE, Conn.

Shortly after noon yesterday, the Cheshire United Methodist Church was engulfed in what seemed like a disconcerting occurrence: normalcy.

Vacation Bible School was getting out. In the middle of an excited gaggle of children and moms — in tan shorts, a knit shirt and rainbow visor — was the church minister, the Rev. Stephen Volpe.

For the past week, Mr. Volpe has been at the center of a very different kind of scene, the extraordinary outpouring of grief and shock that followed the horrific break-in July 23 that left three of his parishioners dead.

So as he tried to balance the stirrings of new life with the horror of the past week, Mr. Volpe did his best to make sense of the way the crime had reverberated across Connecticut and far beyond, a reaction that lawyers say has probably exceeded any crime in the state in decades.

Part of it was the stunning brutality of the crimes, which left two career criminals facing capital murder, sexual assault, kidnapping, burglary, arson and other charges. The attack killed Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and her daughters Haley, 17, and Michaela, 11, and left the family’s father, Dr. William Petit Jr., badly beaten. Much of the reaction reflected the degree to which the Petits were loved and admired.

But beyond that, Father Volpe said simply, “I guess a lot of it’s about the kind of place Cheshire is perceived as being.”

Which is to say a place where the local hardware store, R. W. Hines Ace Hardware, dates back to 1910 and every transaction seems more a colloquy than a mere sale. A place not in a city, not in a faceless hodgepodge of fancy new subdivisions and McMansions but in a sliver of New England with deep roots in old soil.

As the dismal refrain often goes, this is not the kind of place where this is supposed to happen. What place is? But what resonated with such force was the utterly random nature of crime and locale, as if it should have some logic, some lesson, something that makes it fit into some cautionary narrative, but instead is a blank slate of random, senseless malice.

So people run out to get gun permits at the police station (10 the other day, compared with an average of 2 a week). They hurry over to R. W. Hines in search of new locks and bolts. Jay Markella, a lieutenant with the Cheshire Police Department, said even he’s changed his behavior. He had bought a tent for his children to use in the backyard. Now, maybe not. He used to be casual about locking his doors. No more. “That’s the thing about this,” he said. “Usually, there’s something you can point to. Someone was having an affair. It had to do with drugs. It was in the inner city. You can look at it and say, that’s not me. This time you can’t.”

Lawmakers have gone into overdrive reviewing parole and sentencing procedures. No doubt there’s much to learn. One glaring problem, lawmakers say, is the routine failure to follow a law requiring that sentencing transcripts are available to parole officials.

But the state is already at the upper reaches of prison capacity, 19,000 in a system meant for 17,000, said State Representative Michael P. Lawlor. Finding the potential time bombs, he said, can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

SO the most compelling commentary on the case may be one that’s not about it at all. It’s Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” with its account of a nightmare from another time, the 1959 murders of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kan. In it, two parolees invaded the Clutter home while four people slept and then terrorized and killed them. That was about a prominent and beloved farming family in the heartland. This one, about a prominent and beloved doctor’s family in New England, is like a cautionary retelling of the same horrid meditation on evil, chance and fate.

To get to the Petits’ house on Sorghum Mill Drive from the main part of town, you turn onto Higgins Road, with its hand-painted signs reading “Flowers for Sale” and “Sweet Corn.” You drive through a neighborhood that’s neat, green and orderly until you come to the house that’s incongruously battered, smoke stained and boarded up. There are still welcome signs in the flower bed and on the garage. The mailbox, surrounded by black-eyed Susans, is decorated with pictures of bird feeders. There’s a white plastic chair in the shade, as if waiting for someone to take in the early evening air.

In the makeshift memorial of dozens of bouquets is a single red rose enclosed in plastic. Wrapped inside is a piece of paper. It reads, “May God watch over all of you and bless your beautiful souls.”

E-mail: peappl@nytimes.com

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