Tragedy lends itself to romantic retelling. On Sunday, July 22, 2007, Dr. William Petit, Jr. of Cheshire,Connecticut, his wife Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their daughters Hayley and Michaela, ages seventeen and eleven, began the day at church. The girls spent the afternoon swimming at their beach club while Petit took in 18 holes of golf with his father. Between seven and seven-thirty, Hawke-Petit and Michaela drove their Chrysler Pacifica SUV to a Stop & Shop in Maplecroft Plaza to purchase ingredients for the pasta and homemade sauce Michaela would prepare later that evening.
At three o’clock the next morning, the family’s home was invaded by two men on parole who followed the Chrysler Pacifica the three miles from Maplecroft Plaza to Sorghum Mill Drive. Seven hours later, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes fled the scene, slammed the Petits’ car into a barricade formed by two police cruisers parked nose-to-nose, and were swiftly taken into custody. At the time of their arrest, Petit, who moments earlier had stumbled out of his basement door into the arms of a neighbor, was the only member of his family still alive.
Seconds before Petit’s escape, 300 Sorghum Mill was set aflame by the two men who escaped in the Chrysler Pacifica; the two men who strangled Petit’s wife and tied his daughters to the posts of their beds to die in the fire. Komisarjevsky and Hayes appeared in Meriden Superior Court the next morning, prime suspects in what would be trumpeted as one of the worst crimes committed in Connecticut’s memory. When Petit appeared one week later, seated between his parents at a candlelight vigil outside his medical practice, the suspects remained incarcerated on a $15 million bail. Their cases had been transferred to New Haven County Court, news of their crimes had been widely reported, and the suffering endured by Petit and the women he mourned had begun the conversion from personal tragedy to public narrative.
The murders lend themselves to a morally focused narration, which the national public has heard repeatedly. The Petits were good people done wrong by their unambiguously evil assailants.
The character of this family was embodied in its patriarch. Petit, one paper noted, “never strayed far from where he grew up.” In Plainville, twelve miles north of Cheshire, his family “formed a pillar of civic life.” He opened his medical practice down the street from the general store of William Petit, Sr., and his examining room was adorned not “with awards, but with pictures of his family.”
Petit and his wife were married 22 years. The couple met at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh where he was a third-year medical student, she a nurse. Each pursued those careers; Petit is a prominent endocrinologist; his wife was co-director of the health center at Cheshire Academy. Both were in the business of helping others, and their family followed suit. Hayley wanted to be a doctor like her dad and was headed to Dartmouth, her father’s alma mater, in the fall. She had raised more than $50,000 through “Hayley’s Hope,” a team she formed to participate in an annual walk supporting research for multiple sclerosis.
Articles describing personal details of the Petit’s lives soon emerged allowing readers to peer into the family’s private life. The public learned the instruments they played—Hawke-Petit guitar and piano, Michaela flute. The public learned of Hayley’s co-captainship of high school athletic teams. The public learned that Michaela had made balsamic vinaigrette for the salad and a pasta sauce of “native tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and basil.” And the public learned that to refer to the girls by their nicknames was to speak of Hayes and K.K. Rosebud.
Reports also shed light on the lives of the criminals, particularly that of Joshua Komisarjevsky. Like the Petit daughters, Komisarjevsky grew up in Cheshire, though his adoptive family came from a line of distinguished Russian artists. Komisarievsky’s great-grandfather, Fyodor Komisarjevsky, was a Russian opera singer and friend of Tchaikovsky. His aunt, Vera, was a notable actress.
Komisarjevsky was adopted by a Cheshire electrician whose wife home-schooled him and his sister. The couple also hosted foster children, one of whom purportedly raped Komisarjevsky when he was fourteen. He allegedly began to burgle that same year. By 2002, he had accrued more than a dozen theft charges and had been sentenced to nine years in jail followed by six of supervised parole. The judge who delivered the sentence described a “calculated, cold-blooded predator.”
If the Petits were poignantly virtuous, and Komisarjevsky and Hayes archetypally cruel, the town which housed them all—Cheshire—became a complex battleground between criminal horror and quotidian comfort. It is difficult to reconcile an act of such unimaginable malice with so placid a place.
Cheshire is the “Bedding Plant Capital of Connecticut.” A town of 29,000, it is nestled in the state’s southwestern region or, to those who prefer more metaphoric coordinates, in its “heart.” A bedroom community, Cheshire is a throwback to the era of Rotary Club meetings, picket fences, and lifelong residents. Its homes seemed impervious to crime.
Residents and non-residents alike readily indulge in this ideal portrait of Cheshire. Most accounts of the Petit murders evoked the town’s manicured lawns and unlocked doors, as if these symbols should have sustained security rather than attracted incursion. “You live in a neighborhood on a tree-lined street for so many years,” seven-year Sorghum Mill resident Robert Averack told the New York Times. “You get a false sense of security.”
The characterization of Cheshire as a haven at the heart of Connecticut deliberately overlooked the three correctional facilities located at the town’s northern end. The buildings were dismissed as unfortunate intrusions in an otherwise idyllic setting. Many individuals who spoke to the press after the murders admitted that the crime forced them to acknowledge their illusion of safety, to realize that their decision to leave their doors unlocked could not prevent others from entering them.
The shockwaves of the crime reverberated through Connecticut. In a February 5 telephone conversation, State Senator Andrew McDonald said that the “tragedy had served as a clarion call” for Connecticut. The Petit murders “displayed glaring deficiencies” in the criminal justice system and heightened the level of attention paid to Connecticut crimes. Still, state lawmakers had not been entirely ignorant of such “deficiencies” prior to the Cheshire murders. Legislation enacted in July 2006 had created the Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division and tasked it with “developing a plan to promote a more effective and cohesive state criminal justice system.” In March 2007, the agency prepared a 155-page report titled “Comprehensive Plan For the Connecticut Criminal Justice System.” Cheshire, this document demonstrated, had not been the first and only catalyst for criminal justice reform in Connecticut.
Data from the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice indicated that the Petit murders constituted only one part of a larger and lasting national trend. Violent crime in suburban communities was up for the third year in a row in 2006. Cheshire serves as a microcosm for such trends. In 2007, the town experienced 28 burglaries, a 75 percent increase from 2006. Authorities seized 22 bags of heroin. One resident shot himself in the basement of his home on Norton Lane after murdering his ex-wife and her 29-year-old daughter. Five months later, 300 Sorghum Mill was invaded.
This evidence confirms a point left largely untouched: The Petit murders were one symptom of a pervasive illness destroying Pleasantville. An account of the town’s earlier violent encounters was a truth worth telling. Yet many of Connecticut’s people replied, and the press preferred to overlook these trends, and concentrated on Cheshire’s clarion call.
In an August 8 column in the New Haven Register, Randall Beach wrote, “It feels as if this crime is our own ‘9/11.’ The terrorist attacks and the Cheshire murders jolted us into the sudden realization that our world is much crueler, savage and dangerous than we had thought, that we are not as safe as we had believed we were.” He conveyed the concern of one woman in Wallingford, a town adjacent to Cheshire, who recalled a conversation with a female neighbor in which they decided to gain about 100 pounds, let themselves go and forget trying to work hard for the nice cars. After the Petit murders, this kind of reasoning was not uncommon. Disjointed logic was preferable to the unsettling truth: Safety is never certain; selection so often random.
A crime as senseless as the Petit murders demands resolution. People felt Komisarjevsky and Hayes should be severely punished, and loopholes within the criminal justice system should be closed. Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell responded to the outcry by suspending the parole of all inmates serving a sentence for a violent offense. “Security comes first,” Rell said in a September 21 statement. “I will not allow public safety to be jeopardized because parolees return to a life of crime. Parole is a privilege, not a right.”
On November 26, a crowd of about 75 gathered outside the New Haven Correctional Center on Whalley Avenue to protest the suspension of parole. They argued that the ban was a consequence of the crimes committed by Komisarjevsky and Hayes unfairly imposed on inmates held for violent crimes and unfairly affecting all inmates in the form of prison overcrowding.
Protestors carried signs: “Books not bars,” “Schools not jails,” “$$$ for education not incarceration.” Chants of: “What do we do when we’re under attack? Stand tall, fight back’” and “What do we do when society fails? Build schools, not jails’” echoed in Elm City streets.
The protestors accused the state of valuing suburban citizens over urban ones. “What it shows us is that aCheshire life is worth more than a New Haven life,” one declared. As the evening progressed, the Petits were upstaged. This—the rally, the frustration, the hype—was not about Cheshire. It was about a “new form of slavery,” protestors avowed, about families pulled apart, about a father, mother, brother, gone. It was about politicians who “do not know what it’s like on the street.” It was about money, votes, and elections. It was about “standing up,” “crying out,” “demanding justice,” and “taking back the streets.” It was about a system—a city, New Haven—letting its citizens down.
The responsibility for the letdown also shifted. The perpetrators were the teachers “who treated you like snot.” They were the ministers who needed to “wake up.” They were John DeStefano, New Haven’s recently re-elected mayor. They were the cops who beat people up. They were the city residents not present at the rally.
By the night’s end, the Whalley protest had revealed a rift in the state’s identity, with its Bedding Plant Capital on one side and its Elm City on the other. Cheshire, protestors noted, had stood up, gotten mad, and defended its own in a way that New Haven, plagued with systemic criminal justice problems rather than one shocking crime, never has. “We’re not outraged enough in New Haven,” concluded one woman. “I should not be able to see the corner from here,” another said. “My New Haven people, where are you?”
The State Judicial Committee conducted two public hearings to correct Connecticut’s inadequate criminal justice system. Fifteen public safety measures proposed by Connecticut representatives and senators appeared on the docket, including proposals to tighten criminal sentencing, improve home security, and punish burglars more harshly.
Representative Alfred Adinolfi, another resident of Sorghum Mill Drive, read a letter addressed to the committee from Petit. “Dear Members of the Leadership of the Judiciary Committee,” it read. “My life changed profoundly 126 days ago. …
“These horrible events not only took the lives of my beautiful and wonderful wife and daughters, but they also exposed some glaring defects in our laws, and their inability to adequately ensure our public safety.
“Every resident in Connecticut deserves to have those glaring deficiencies in our public safety laws corrected fully and promptly…
“History has shown that reputations are made and legacies are established by how the needs of the people are addressed by those responsible for shaping our government’s response to tragic events and the crises that follow them…
“And I’ve got to say,” Adinolfi said once he had concluded his reading, “God bless Dr. Petit.”
To which a woman watching the hearing softly but sharply replied, “God bless us all.”
Emily Koh is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.