Revisiting The Grisly Cheshire Murders
A new documentary examines the questionable police actions and media portrayals surrounding the 2007 deaths of three Connecticut women.
Left: The Petit home. Right: Michaela Petit, William Petit, Hayley Petit and Jennifer Hawke-Petit.
Six years ago, a Cheshire, Connecticut, woman and her two daughters were brutally murdered during a home invasion gone — as one of the two killers later said — "terribly wrong."
A new HBO documentary by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner offers a thorough look at how the crime escalated in the hands of halfway-house pals Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes. But it also offers the victims' family members a chance to publicly air a long-held grievance: that the Cheshire Police Department didn't do enough to help their loved ones in the delicate, chaotic moments before they were killed.
On July 22, 2007, Komisarjevsky followed 48-year-old nurse Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her youngest daughter from a grocery store back to their stately home in Cheshire, the quaint "bedding plant capital of Connecticut." Hours later, Komisarjevsky broke into the house with Hayes. They beat and bound Hawke-Petit's husband, Dr. William Petit, and tied the couple's 11- and 17-year-old daughters to their beds. When morning came, Hayes took Hawke-Petit to the bank and she withdrew $15,000. Hawke-Petit was able to alert a bank teller, who called 911.
Komisarjevsky, meanwhile, sexually assaulted the Petits' 11-year-old and took photos of her on his cell phone. Hayes returned with Hawke-Petit and raped her on the floor of the living room.
Moments later, when Komisarjevsky learned that Dr. Petit had escaped from the basement, Hayes strangled Hawke-Petit and doused the house — and the beds of the two tied-up girls — in gasoline. As the house went up in flames, Komisarjevsky and Hayes fled. They were caught soon after by officers who had arrived at the home following the bank teller's call. Dr. Petit was the only survivor.
The images and details released during the trials of Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky were so gruesome that the state felt compelled to offer jurors assistance with post-traumatic stress. Cheshire residents bought guns and alarm systems. In the HBO documentary, one woman compares the murders to 9/11: "Life was one way and then it's another."
In 2010, Hayes, now 50, was found guilty of six capital felonies related to the murders and sentenced to death. Komisarjevsky, now 32, received the same sentence in 2012. They are among the 10 men left on death row in Connecticut, which repealed capital punishment for all future cases last year.
Hawke-Petit's family, including her surviving husband, was clear about wanting the death penalty for Hayes and Komisarjevsky from the beginning — something deeply explored in The Cheshire Murders. But as the family moves toward closure — if closure is even possible after such a loss— they still wait for answers from the Cheshire Police Department, which has so far ignored their serious attempts to learn more about the events of the night.
A timeline presented by Defense Attorney Thomas Ullman in the documentary places police at the Petit home several minutes before Hawke-Petit was raped and strangled and the house lit on fire. The film also prominently features Hawke-Petit's sister, Cindy Renn, who said she channeled her grief into amateur detective work.
"We know the police officers were [at the house] from the time [Hawke-Petit and Hayes] got back from the bank," Renn told BuzzFeed. "I just can't believe they were there. My sister didn't have blinds or curtains on any of her downstairs windows, and she told them at the bank that there was someone out in the car with her and someone at home. Why in the world didn't they stop her?"
These questions won't bring Renn's sister back — she knows that. But she wants the Cheshire Police to acknowledge and correct their reaction to the incident, rather than "scoop it all under the rug." As the Hartford Courant reported Monday, the Cheshire Police Department has never performed a single review of the incident. In 2010, the department got a new chief; he too declined to participate in the documentary, continuing the department's tradition of not commenting on the tragedy outside press conferences.
"We started to realize there were many places along the way in which the crime could have never happened," said Davis, who arrived with Heilbroner in Cheshire about a week after the murders. Komisarjevsky, for example, was deemed a "cold, calculating predator" by a judge back in 2002. He was supposed to be in prison for burglary at the time of the Cheshire crime, but had been released on parole two months earlier.
In their effort to identify all the cracks in the system, Davis and Heilbroner were repeatedly rebuffed; "the whole state of Connecticut went into a panic," Heilbroner told BuzzFeed. One day, while trying to get footage outside the prison housing Komisarjevsky and Hayes, the filmmakers had their camera confiscated and tape broken.
The government seemed to be the only player in the Cheshire case not to give Davis and Heilbroner full participation. The film has an almost unexpected amount of candid interviews with people who once cared about the killers, from Hayes' daughter and estranged brothers to Komisarjevsky's old and more recent girlfriends.
"This is my first real experience with anything high profile," said Fran Hodges, who dated Komisarjevsky as a teenager and testified at his trial about their strict religious upbringing. "It's been eye-opening to see the media interpret this into a simple story line that includes a hero and a villain."
It's more complicated than that, said Hodges, who still writes to Komisarjevsky in prison. She believes the maximalist, demons-and-angels faith of his family took a psychological toll on the skinny boy she once knew. She was grateful for her chance on the witness stand — and in the documentary — to offer another view of him.
"[Kate and David] made it clear that nobody was really representing Josh's case as someone who knew him," Hodges said. "My hope is that this causes people to second-guess their knee-jerk reaction to terrible events caused by troubled people."
Hodges' desire to set the record straight about "Josh" isn't far off from Renn's reasons for participating in the documentary. They might have very different perspectives on the case — and be suffering in very different ways — but both women want justice for the people they cared about. After years of fragments, they want the whole story told.
"I thought the documentary was kind of a correction of everything that had happened over the past five years, up through the trials," Renn said. "I felt like it was almost a gift that someone was concerned enough to look at it underneath a microscope."
The Cheshire Murders airs Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO, and will be repeated.