true crime

Jennifer was followed home by two men. 24 hours later she, and her daughters, were dead.

Warning: This post contains mentions of violence and sexual abuse and may be triggering for some readers.

Dr William Petit was barely recognisable – barely alive – when he arrived at his neighbour’s house on the morning of July 23, 2007.

The only thing he was thinking about were his wife and two daughters, who he believed he could save from a brutal home invasion they had all endured for hours – if he could just get help.

Help would arrive in a matter of minutes too late; and Dr Petit would never forgive himself.

Jennifer and Michaela’s trip to the store the previous day was not a regular grocery run; the mother and daughter were shopping for the 11-year-old’s pre-birthday dinner.

Excited about the evening ahead, they did not notice Joshua Komisarjevsky following them home in his car. Being a happy family, living a comfortable life in Cheshire, Connecticut, there was no reason for them to feel unsafe.

Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, was a nurse and co-director of the health centre at Cheshire Academy, a private boarding school. She met her husband, William Petit, in 1985 when he was studying to become an endocrinologist at the University of Pittsburgh. They had been married for 22 years.

Their eldest daughter, Hayley, 17, had just graduated from Miss Porter’s School, and was planning to attend Dartmouth College. Michaela, 11, in junior high school, was looking forward to her 12th birthday that week.

Jennifer had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and the family, especially Hayley, had been actively fundraising for the disease.

But to Komisarjevsky, 26, the Petit family were simply a target. So far, he’d led a troubled life, and that Sunday, he was looking for more trouble. Noting the mother and daughter, and the affluent house, he texted his friend Steven Hayes, 46, whom he’d met at a half-way house years earlier after both received petty crimes convictions, and the pair planned to invade the home in the cover of darkness, later that night.

The friends exchanged more texts before they met.

“I’m chomping at the bit to get started,” Hayes wrote. “I need a margarita soon.”

“I’m putting the kid to bed,” Komisarjevsky texted back. “Hold your horses.”

Hayes replied, “Dude, the horses want to get loose. Lol.”

When the friends finally arrived at the Petit home in the early hours of Monday morning, they found something they hadn’t expected; Dr Petit had fallen asleep on a couch on the front porch.

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That was a problem.

Komisarjevsky found a baseball bat in the yard, and bashed Dr Petit, mostly around the head. He then tied him up, at gunpoint, in the basement. With their main threat removed, the criminals then moved into the house, where they bound Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela, and locked them in their respective rooms.

While they raided the house for valuables, they discovered a bank book which showed a large balance. It set something off in Hayes’ mind, and his plan changed.

He took two gas cans from the house, and filled them up at a nearby service station. Then he forced Jennifer to go to her bank – which had just opened – and withdraw $15,000; threatening that her family would be harmed if she attempted to attract attention.

But Jennifer did what any mother would do: while she was simulating a conversation about the transaction with the teller, she revealed the situation she was in. The bank manager, not showing any signs of distress, called the police. He was also able to describe Hayes, and his car, as he drove away with Jennifer.

The manager also told police that his customer didn’t believe they were in danger, and thought money was the only motive. Accordingly, the police did not reveal their presence when they attended the house, believing it was a non-violent hostage situation.

But Jennifer did not know about the two cans of gasoline Hayes had placed inside her home.

Upon her return with Hayes, things escalated quickly. They discovered that Komisarjevsky had also deviated from the original plan, and had violently raped Michaela as she was tied to her bed. He also photographed his actions on his mobile phone.

It was then that Hayes decided he would rape Michaela on the living room floor.

As he was doing so, Komisarjevsky informed him that Dr Petit had escaped from the basement.

The father and husband would later tell a jury that he had overheard one of the men say, “Don’t worry, it’s going to be all over in a couple of minutes”, and that made him realise that despite his severe injuries, “it’s now or never”, as he believed they were all about to be shot.

But as Dr Petit desperately banged on his neighbour’s door, Komisarjevsky and Hayes were planning a far crueller death for his wife and daughters.

Hayes strangled Jennifer, then doused her body, and Hayley and Michaela’s bedrooms, in gasoline. The girls, who were tied to their beds, had their heads covered with pillowcases, and were also soaked.

And then the house was set on fire.

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Hayes and Komisarjevsky fled in the family’s car, but were caught by police soon after. They accused each other of being the mastermind behind the seven-hour attack, and testified as such in their respective murder trials.

The jurors, who needed counselling after viewing the evidence, found both men guilty of all charges for murder, arson, kidnapping, theft and rape. They deliberated over whether they should receive a life sentence, or the death penalty, and finally recommended death by lethal injection.

But in a blow to Dr Petit and the memory of Jennifer and the girls, the capital punishment law in Connecticut changed in 2015, and both Hayes and Komisarjevsky are now still alive, serving life sentences.

This month, Komisarjevsky has even sought a new trial on the grounds of the negative publicity about him before the original trial.

But Dr Petit has been determined to not allow the criminals to prevent him from honouring his family – or healing himself.

Soon after the murders, Dr Petit established the Petit Family Foundation, which does extensive community and charity works.

Dr Petit also found love again, marrying foundation volunteer Christine Paluf in 2012, with whom he now also has a son.

But it’s been a slow and painstaking journey. In 2010, the loving father and husband was still completely broken. Speaking on a full-hour special on The Oprah Winfrey show, he admitted his guilt for not being able to do more that night, and his total devastation.

“I went to sleep one night in a nice home with a loving family and basically awakened in an emergency room naked on a gurney with no clothes, no family, no home,” Dr. Petit told Winfrey.

“I don’t think there’s ever closure. I just don’t think you can lose your whole family and have closure.

“There’s a jagged hole in your heart, there’s a jagged hole in your soul.

“Over time, the waves of goodness going back and forth maybe smooth the jagged edges a little bit, but the hole remains.”

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you’re based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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