In the town of Cheshire, Conn., a community encompassing 33.4 square miles with a population of approximately 29,000 people, a series of events unfolded on July 23, 2007, that resulted in the shocking victimization of a family. Dr. William A. Petit Jr., an endocrinologist and renowned authority on diabetes, remains the sole survivor of what turned out to be the most horrific crime in Connecticut’s history. It’s paralleled to the severity of the crimes described in Truman Capote’s famous book, In Cold Blood.
Victims of a home invasion that began at approximately 3 a.m., the family was held hostage in their own home. Later that morning, Mrs. Petit was taken to the Bank of America and forced to withdraw $15,000 from a bank account with the warning that if she revealed anything about her situation, she would be killed. While in the bank, she nervously indicated to the teller that her family was being held hostage and would be killed if police were summoned. She returned to her home with the two men—Steven J. Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky—both of whom had an extensive criminal history, were serial burglars, and were well known to the criminal justice system.
The bank personnel did contact the police who formed a perimeter around the home. In the interim, terrible things were occurring in the house where Dr. Petit and his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and daughters, Haley, 17, and Michaela, 11, were being held hostage. Dr. Petit was tied to a pole in the basement and his hands and feet were bound. He was beaten severely with a baseball bat, experienced pain in his head, and faded in and out of consciousness with blood pouring down his face while his wife and daughters were held upstairs. His wife, Jennifer, and daughter, Haley, were sexually assaulted, and his wife was subsequently strangled.
Dr. Petit managed to somehow free his hands and hobbled, with feet still bound, out of the house in the pouring rain to summon help. Outside, he collapsed and called out for help from his neighbor, Dave, who heard his voice and discovered Dr. Petit, who was almost unrecognizable.
Meanwhile, inside the home, pillow covers were reportedly placed on his daughters’ heads, gasoline was poured on them, and the house was set on fire. Mrs. Petit’s death was ruled asphyxiation due to strangulation, and the deaths of Hayley and Michaela were ruled as deaths from smoke inhalation. Mrs. Petit’s body was found in the family room, Hayley’s at the top of the stairs partially clothed, tied at the wrists and burned, and Michaela was found on the bed with her hands tied to the bed post.
Steven Hayes was charged with the sexual assault of Mrs. Petit, and Joshua Komisarjevsky was charged with the sexual assault of 11-year-old Michaela. Among other charges that were levied on both assailants were assault, kidnapping, burglary, arson, larceny and risk of injury to children.
The Petit family was known as close-knit and loving. The Petits were married 22 years and met while Dr. Petit was a medical student and Mrs. Petit was a nurse at the Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. Mrs. Petit, who had Multiple Sclerosis, shared a solid bond with her daughters.
For Petit, his parents, the family of Jennifer Petit, other relatives, friends, neighbors and colleagues, the impact of these heinous crimes is unrelenting, shocking and leaves traumatizing effects.
“In Cheshire, we’re not used to this type of event. It’s a very unfortunate, tragic event that’s probably going to reach right down to the core of the community,” Cheshire Police Chief Michael Cruess said.
And, to the core of the community, it did. As the funeral procession traveled down the Connecticut streets, people lined the sides of the roads with their hands over their hearts. More than 1,850 people attended the funeral service at Welte Hall on the campus of Central Connecticut State University. And, for the 45 officers and six detectives at the Cheshire Police Department comprised, they, too, were impacted by the outrageous aspects of this crime spree.
For the trial of Steven Hayes, it took 48 days to select a jury, and the trial lasted three months. He was found guilty of his crimes on Nov. 8, and the jury voted to impose the death penalty. Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 2. The trial of Joshua Komisarjevksy will occur in 2011.
For Dr. Petit, who had to testify at the trial and relive the horror of that night in his own home as he relayed the events, it was a moment of justice. The devastating loss of his family, the painful and traumatizing series of events, and the profound void in his life will be unrelenting. However, the fact that justice was served is, in some sense, a momentary form of solace.
“There is some relief, but my family is gone,” Dr. Petit said. “It doesn’t bring them back. Vengeance belongs to the Lord. This is about justice. We need to have some rules in a civilized society. It’s a huge void in my life and in my family and friend’s lives. I was glad for the girls there was justice.”
Paula Culzetta, a juror who sat on the panel, observed the family was present daily. “They were there every day,” she said. “We just wanted to do the best we could, so that is an honor to the girls, to the women.”
For Dr. Petit and other survivors of criminal victimization following such a devastating ordeal, the road of life is a very difficult one, in so many ways, to travel. The trauma, the flashbacks, the loss, the grief and the memories are constant reminders of the most painful time in his life.
The Petit Family Foundation
Dr. Petit has established a foundation, The Petit Family Foundation, to honor the family members he lost, to keep their memories alive, and to touch others who can be assisted through efforts of the foundation. The Mission Statement is as follows:
“The Petit Family Foundation honors the memories of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, Hayley Elizabeth Petit and Michaela Rose Petit by continuing the kindness, idealism and activism that defined their lives. The Foundation’s funds are given to foster the education of young people, especially women in the sciences to improve the lives of those affected by chronic illnesses; and to support efforts to protect and help those affected by violence.”
Although a number of activities have already been held in the past, more are forthcoming. A Petit Family Foundation golf tournament is planned for June 2011, a 5-K Petit Family Foundation race in July 2011 and the Petit Family Foundation Ride for Justice is being scheduled.
As a both a victim and survivor, Dr. Petit has made a sincere effort to share the life and memory of his family for good causes that can impact others in positive ways. His motivation, his strength and his ability to continue to walk down the pathway of life reassures others that inspiration can—and does—provide hope and healing.
The Petit Family Foundation
The Cheshire Connecticut Police Department
The Town of Cheshire