In wake of personal tragedy, Chapel Hill man pushes GPS tech

Staff WriterSeptember 13, 2010 

— ******

CORRECTION A Sept. 13 story in the Triangle & Co. section gave an incorrect title for Judge Joe Buckner. He is a district court judge.

******

Bill Renn compares the constant grief hanging over his family to the putrid smell of smoke from the fire set three years ago to cover up the slayings of Renn's sister-in-law and two nieces in Connecticut.

The continual stress led Renn to make some life changes.

In the spring, he quit his job as director of the alcohol and substance abuse program at UNC-Chapel Hill to consult for a company trying to sell ankle-monitoring bracelets to state law enforcement officials. The bracelets, with global positioning systems and alcohol detectors, would be used to track habitual DWI and domestic violence offenders.

Renn said he wanted to use his grief in a positive way, to help save other women's lives because he couldn't save those of his wife's family. "Nothing is easy about this," he said.

About 3 a.m. on July 23, 2007, police say, two men broke into the Cheshire, Conn., home of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, the sister of Renn's wife, Cindy. The men, police say, beat Hawke-Petit's husband, Billy Petit, then raped Hawke-Petit and her daughter, Michaela, 11, and tied the Petits' eldest daughter, Hayley, 17, to her bed.

Police say Hawke-Petit was taken to a bank and forced to withdraw $15,000. Then, she was brought back to the home and strangled, officers say. The house was set on fire, and the girls, tied to their beds, died of smoke inhalation. Billy Petit, a prominent doctor in the area, escaped.

The intruders tried to flee, but police had surrounded the house and arrested them. Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky have been charged with the murders.

The men, according to reports, had met in a halfway house after serving prison sentences. Weeks before the slayings, their house-arrest monitoring bracelets had been removed.

Renn gave notice to quit his UNC job this spring while his wife went to Connecticut to attend the jury selection for Hayes, a process that started well in advance of a murder trial that is expected to begin this week. But since leaving his old job, the Chapel Hill-based bracelet company Renn works for, Incarceration Alternatives, has not been able to sell its product.

"The stress from the case has caused me to make unwise decisions, and now it's affecting my family financially," Renn said. "Now, I don't know what we're going to do in terms of financing."

Slow to catch on

The Incarceration Alternatives bracelet not only monitors alcohol use in real time, but also has a global positioning device to track a convicted abuser. If the abuser enters a protected zone, the victim is notified by a cell phone text, and monitors can alert authorities.

Carroll Kennedy, a retired Chapel Hill dentist, said he started Incarceration Alternatives after Gov. Bev Perdue was elected and discussed solutions for overcrowded prisons. "The answer has to be electronic monitoring," Kennedy said.

Older models monitored alcohol use, but had a reporting delay. Kennedy found a manufacturer making bracelets that not only monitored alcohol use in real time, but also had a GPS. The company charges $10 a day for using the bracelet, but only a handful are in use.

"We're having a hard time getting through to people who can use it, and we don't exactly know why," Kennedy said. "That's a device that should be used."

Superior Court Judge Joe Buckner, who sits on the crime victims services committee of the Governor's Crime Commission, has ordered one convicted abuser to wear Incarceration Alternatives' bracelet because, he said, the company offered it for free on a trial basis.

Since 2007, Chatham County has had a pilot program using monitoring bracelets on convicted spousal abusers. Chatham uses Pro Tech, a Florida-based company, because it allows law enforcement officers to do their own monitoring, whereas Incarceration Alternatives does the monitoring for clients, said Lt. Brad Johnson of the Chatham County Sheriff's Office.

"We monitor our own people," Johnson said. "We get the alarms, and we find out why."

Holding it together

This month is going to be especially tough for the Renn family. Incarceration Alternatives can't pay him anymore, Renn said, and now he's trying to build a private therapy practice. In addition, his son, whom he called his best friend, moved away for his first year of college.

And in a few days, Cindy Renn will be off to Hayes' trial, leaving Renn and their daughter for possibly 10 weeks. They can't afford for both to go, nor do they want to take their daughter out of high school.

"I'll be sitting here by myself with little or no support," Renn said, teary eyed. "Both my mother and my father are deceased, but it never hit me like this."

Renn knows he's got to find another job because the family has bills to pay. And, of course, he hopes for the best with Incarceration Alternatives.

"There's no turning back," he said. "We have a house payment, a son in college and my daughter's swim team. I'm trying to build a private practice while the company gets off the ground."

leah.friedman@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4546

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service