Cheshire, Connecticut is known for two things. A- being the hometown to Hollywood actor James Van Der Beek, and B- for the horrific and nonsensical slayings of three innocent lives, with an attempt at the fourth. Before the murders in July 2007, Cheshire was a typical New England town. Large, attractive homes with well-manicured lawns line the streets. The town boasts several parks, tennis courts and a community pool. It’s a beautiful, thriving place. Cheshire is the kind of place you’d want to raise a family. This is what local resident Joshua Komisarjevsky thought about as he drove the streets, admiring the stately homes in the wealthier parts of town with his girlfriend, Caroline. The idea that the same man, who drove those streets fantasizing about his future family and making a better life for himself, would go on to cause so much destruction and inflict so much pain on another local family is unfathomable.
Let’s back up. In 1985, William (Bill) Petit Jr. met his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit when he was a third-year medical student. He was doing rotations at the hospital that Jennifer worked at as a nurse. From the moment he laid eyes on her, Bill was hooked. Line, and sinker. Trying to impress his lady love, Bill acted like a know-it-all, showing her how to take a patient’s blood pressure. The hilarious part about this, is that he was doing it all wrong. Jennifer was patient with her admirer, but knew all along that his technique was well… wrong.
Jennifer was a pediatric nurse, and once Bill qualified as a doctor, he went on to specialize as an endocrinologist. Bill and Jennifer married and went on to have two girls, Hayley (born October 1989) and Michaela (born November 1995).
When Jennifer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998, Hayley was only nine, but was determined to help her mother in any way she could. She wrote letters to friends and family, asking them to sponsor her for the annual Connecticut MS Walk, naming her team ‘Hayley’s Hope’. Every year for 7 years, Hayley walked for her mother, raising over $55,000 for the fight against MS. Hayley was quiet, determined and smart. Although she had accomplished so much by the time she was seventeen, her modesty and reserved personality meant no one knew quite the extent of her achievements. Before graduating, Hayley played varsity cross country, basketball, and crew and was a high honor roll student. While at Miss Porter’s School, she was elected to the senior leadership position of Athletic Association Head. She also won a school award for “exceptional community service.” When Hayley was small, Bill would bring her on his rounds at the hospital so that he could spend more time with her given his busy work schedule. Unsurprisingly, Hayley planned to follow in her father’s footsteps; she was going to attend Dartmouth (Bill’s alma mater) in September 2007 to study medicine.
Michaela planned to take over for her older sister, by raising funds for MS once Hayley went to college; she would call her team ‘Michaela’s Miracle’. Michaela was known for her thoughtful and gentle nature. She enjoyed cooking and spending time working in the garden with Bill.
Joshua Komisarjevsky (born August 10th, 1980) was born to a minor, and eventually adopted. But.. he wasn’t adopted by just anyone. The couple who decided to adopt him were Benedict Komisarjevsky and his wife Jude. (Fun fact- Joshua’s adopted father is the son of theatrical director Theodore Komisarjevsky and dancer Ernestine Stodelle. Theodore left a lasting legacy in London in the shape of theatre and cinema interiors he designed, including the Phoenix Theatre, the Tooting Granada and the Woolwich Granada, along with six other auditoria for the same chain.) For Joshua however, he was the exact opposite of his adopted grandfather. Although super intelligent, he was in and out of jail fairly regularly on burglary charges. 2002 was a huge year in Joshua’s life. You see, 2002 was the year his daughter was born, but it was also the year that he was arrested for… count ‘em, 18 home invasions. 1-8. That’s a lot y’all. Komisarjevsky’s defense attorney at the time says that Komisarjevsky told him about every burglary he committed in perfect detail. Joshua told his attorney that after robbing the houses, he would go to the rooms where the occupants were sleeping and listen to them breathe. He did this because he enjoyed the feeling of invading people’s homes and violating their security. (Is it fair to call this clown a psychopath yet!?) Komisarjevsky was convicted of 12 counts of burglary in December 2002. He was sentenced to nine years in prison with six years of special parole. During sentencing, Judge James Bentivegna described him as a “calculated, cold-blooded predator.” (Under Connecticut law, prosecutors were supposed to send the parole board a transcript of the sentencing proceeding. But the parole board that released Komisarjevsky never received the transcript and was not aware of all the details regarding his case. 🙄) After being paroled, Komisarjevsky stayed at the Silliman halfway house where he met someone who would go on to be tied to Joshua, and Joshua to him, forever. But, before I get to that, lemme just fill you in on something that will become important later on. You see, in 2007, Joshua began dating Caroline Mesel, who was only 18 at the time. Their relationship became serious quickly and the two began to contemplate marriage. However, Caroline’s father did not approve of the relationship because of Joshua’s reputation as a career criminal. He also considered Komisarjevsky to be a pedophile, convinced that he was only interested in his daughter because she looked young for her age. (And, if you’re wondering what happened to Joshua’s young daughter, she ended up in Joshua’s parent’s care.)
That person that Joshua met at the Silliman halfway house was Steven Hayes. Here’s a little background on Steven. Steven Hayes’s parents divorced when he was a child and he lived with his mother and two brothers, Matthew and Brian. According to Matthew, Hayes was manipulative from a young age. Matthew claimed that Steven was also violent, once taunting Matthew by pressing a revolver against his head. Hayes was controlling and had a way of passing the blame for his bad behavior onto others. Hayes would often claim he was suffering from psychological problems but his family were skeptical. ‘Steve is not sick’, Matthew claimed, ‘he is cunning and calculating’. In 1992, Hayes had a daughter, Alicia. Alicia’s mother and Hayes were divorced and she lived with her mother but saw her father weekly. She described him as always being good to her, never displaying a violent or aggressive side.
You’re probably thinking, when are we gonna get to the crime itself? Well, we’ll get there. But I wanted to- no. Needed to explain the background on everyone who was involved. I want you to understand how all of this came to be. Because again, everyone and everything has a starting point. A build-up.
Hayes and Komisarjevsky met in 2006, when they shared a room in a halfway house in Hartford, CT in between prison sentences. By the age of 26, Komisarjevsky had been arrested for 18 home invasions and struggled with a crystal meth addiction. Hayes was a recovering crack addict and seasoned burglar who mainly broke into cars during the day, stealing high value items once the owner had parked and left. The two were both serving sentences for burglary when they were paroled in April of 2007. Komisarjevsky had originally been charged with 12 counts of burglary and sentenced to 9 years in prison in December 2002, but was paroled after serving a total of close to 5 years. Both men stayed in a halfway house briefly until they were released the following month. Hayes moved in with his mother in Winsted, CT and Komisarjevsky returned home to Cheshire. There was some talk between the two (mainly on the part of Komisarjevsky) about the idea of starting a contracting business together, but nothing ever became of it. Hayes’s situation was not ideal; his younger brother was sleeping on the floor at their mother’s house, and she was threatening to kick Steve out and told him he was no longer allowed to use her car. Although no longer sharing a room at the halfway house, Hayes and Komisarjevsky stayed in touch. Neither Joshua nor Steven had a steady job (both were doing irregular to contracting work) and they both needed money. Joshua’s girlfriend Caroline had moved with her family to Arkansas and Joshua was determined to make enough money so that he could get her back to Connecticut and they could begin a new life together. He also knew that Hayes was getting desperate for cash. Joshua, a skilled and sophisticated burglar, got in touch with Steven about a way to make some fast and easy cash; Hayes liked the idea and agreed to come along.
On the evening of July 21st, 2007, Steven accompanied Joshua on a ‘test-run’ burglary. Komisarjevsky broke into a home while Hayes waited outside. Komisarjevsky didn’t take much that night; the main objective was to show Hayes how easy it was. On realising how simple it could be, Hayes was sold. The night of the 22nd, around 7:45pm Hayes texted Komisarjevsky, writing: “I’m chomping at the bit to get started. Need a margarita soon.” He waited an hour, but received no reply. At 8:45, Hayes wrote to Komisarjevsky again: “We still on?” Komisarjevsky: “Yes.” Hayes: “Soon?” Komisarjevsky: “I’m putting the kid to bed hold your horses.” Hayes: “Dude, the horses want to get loose. LOL.”
Again, you’re probably thinking- this is all great, but where does the Petit family belong in all of this? Well, I’ll explain. On the evening of Sunday, July 22nd, 2007, 48-year-old Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her 11-year-old daughter, Michaela Petit, went to a local Stop & Shop grocery store in Cheshire, Connecticut. They picked up food for a family dinner Michaela planned to prepare. During their trip to the grocery store, Joshua Komisarjevsky noticed them and took interest, then followed them home. Joshua’s plan was clear. Follow them home, call up his homeboy Steven, then break in and steal some shit, then hurry outta there. Only, this plan would end up completely falling apart.
At around 11pm on the evening of the 22nd, the Petit girls headed to bed after watching some television. Bill remained asleep on the couch in the sunroom. Michaela got into bed with Jennifer and Hayley went to her room. Bill woke up at one point, but decided to stay sleeping on the couch that night, not wanting to wake Jennifer.
According to Hayes’ confession, he and Joshua had planned to rob the Petit house under the cover of darkness, leaving the family bound but otherwise unharmed. Both men attributed the grisly outcome to a change of plan. Upon their arrival at around 3am on the morning of July 23rd, Joshua and Steven, armed with a gun, entered the Petit residence by an unlocked basement door. (PSA: LOCK YOUR DOORS & WINDOWS PEOPLE!!) As Joshua and Steven walked inside and shut the door behind them, Joshua noticed a baseball bat leaning against the basement stairs. Both men ascended said stairs, and walked up into the house. They walked around, surveying the main floor, until Joshua and Steven entered the sunroom. Without a second thought, Joshua began to violently beat Bill over the face and head with the baseball bat. Josh struck Bill at least four, maybe five times. Immediately thereafter, Joshua and Steven bound Bill’s wrists and ankles together with plastic zip ties and rope. Bill remembers one perpetrator telling the other, “If he moves, put two bullets in him.” Once all tied up, and clearly unable to go anywhere, Joshua assured Bill that they only wanted money, and to not panic. (But, how could Bill NOT panic?!) Joshua asked Bill where the safe was. Bill replied that they didn’t have a safe. This fact annoyed Joshua, and the two men left Bill on the couch, tied and bleeding. The two men then made their way upstairs, where they found Jennifer in her bed with Michaela. They tied Jennifer’s wrists and ankles to the bedposts and put a pillowcase over her head. Joshua and Steven then dragged Michaela into her own bedroom and did the same to her as they did to Jennifer, then the same again to Hayley in her room. As they had told Bill, they told Jennifer and the girls that they weren’t going to hurt them and only wanted money.
Making their way downstairs again, Komisarjevsky and Hayes made a beeline for Bill, who was still lying on the couch bleeding from his head wound. They cut the restraints from his ankles and forced him down to the basement at gunpoint. Once in the basement, Bill was tied to a pole, his ankles bound, and he was covered with blankets. Feeling woozy from the blood loss, Bill drifted in and out of consciousness.
Hayes and Komisarjevsky set about ransacking the house, checking anywhere and everywhere they believed cash might be stashed, but found none. They did, however, find bank statements which showed the Petits had quite a few bucks in their Bank of America account. Like, we’re talking over $40,000. Oddly enough however, this is when the plan started to go askew. Steven decided to leave the Petit home, but left Joshua behind with the family of four. Steven went to a gas station nearby, and surveillance footage caught Hayes purchasing $10 worth of gasoline with two plastic canisters he had found at the Petit home. Afterwards, he headed back to the Petit residence.
Joshua and Steven at this point, or maybe before, decided that because the family had no money in the home, their only option was to take Jennifer to the bank so that she could withdraw some money, therefore, giving it to them. At around 9am, Steven took Jennifer to the bank, again leaving Joshua behind to watch over the two girls, and Bill who was still tied to the pole- and drifting in and out of consciousness. Once Steven and Jennifer arrived at the bank, he took her, probably by gunpoint and warned her to be quick about it. He ordered her to withdraw $15,000. Obviously with her life on the line, and with her family back at the house, she complied. But, she had a plan of her own.
Jennifer walked inside and approached the bank teller. She leaned in and passed a note over the counter. The note said that Jennifer and her family were being held hostage back at their home, and the perpetrators were threatening to kill them if they didn’t give them money. The teller glanced at the note and without hesitating, gave the note to the bank manager, who ran into her office. Jennifer then left the bank, making her way back to the car where Hayes was waiting. Bank surveillance footage captured the transaction, and caught Jennifer as she left the bank. Jennifer went back to the car- where Steven was waiting, and they drove back to the house. As Jennifer was leaving the bank, the bank manager called 911 at approximately 9:21AM and informed the dispatcher of the situation. Jennifer had told the bank teller that the men holding her and her family hostage were ‘being nice and only wanted money’. Shortly after the call was made, police were dispatched to the address in unmarked vehicles and they proceeded to set up a perimeter around the home. They then hid behind trees not far from the house.
At this point, it’s unclear why Steven and Joshua didn’t just decide to leave the house after acquiring the money that they claimed they only came for. But, what is clear is that Joshua decided to act on his dangerous sexual impulses. Joshua began to sexually assault Michaela. He took it a step further when he decided to photograph the assault and rape on his cell phone. Need I remind you- Michaela was just 11-years old. (It’s obvious now, to me at least, that Joshua’s girlfriend’s father was right- Joshua is a pedophile.) After the rape and assault, Joshua headed back downstairs and showed Steven the evidence of his heinous act on little Michaela. Joshua began to taunt his “friend”, telling him to do the same to Jennifer. Steven immediately pushed Jennifer down to the ground in the living room, and brutally raped her.
Bill was able to hear his wife’s assault upstairs. Although in agony, he yelled up, and heard one of the invaders say, “Don’t worry. It’s all gonna be over in a couple of minutes.” Bill then managed to escape. He later testified in court that he felt a “jolt of adrenaline” and a need to escape after being told this. “I thought, it’s now or never because in my mind at that moment, I thought they were going to shoot all of us.”
During the rape of Jennifer by Steven, Joshua hurried into the living room, warning Steven that Bill had escaped and was no longer in the basement. At this point, Hayes lost it completely. He looked out the window to see an unmarked police car. At that, he put his hands around Jennifer’s neck and strangled her to death. Once Steven kills Jennifer, he pours gasoline over her body. He covered as much of the home as he could with gasoline, and instructed Joshua to do the same to Hayley and Michaela, who were still tied to their beds with pillowcases over their heads.
Meanwhile, having escaped through the bulkhead of the basement, a horribly beaten Bill stumbled across his yard to his neighbor’s driveway, bleeding heavily and hardly able to speak. His neighbor came out of his house and upon seeing Bill initially, he didn’t recognise him because he was almost completely covered in blood. The neighbor calls 911. A policeman appeared, looking down at Bill, holding a rifle. Bill can barely speak, but tries desperately to shout that the girls are still in the house.
But it’s too late. Joshua and Steven had set fire to the house- and the girls. Hayley managed to escape her restraints and run out of her bedroom and into the hallway where she collapsed and died. Her body was found at the top of the staircase. Third and fourth-degree burns on her feet indicated that she got very close to the fire around the time she died. The medical examiner who performed an autopsy on her could not determine if the burns occurred before or after her death. Michaela’s body was found in her bedroom. She was still in her bed, her hands tied to it and her lower body hanging off of it. Like with her older sister, Michaela’s burns may have occurred while she was still alive. Both girls had died from smoke inhalation.
Meanwhile, Hayes and Komisarjevsky fled the scene in the Petit family car. They were immediately spotted by police surveillance, pursued, and arrested one block away after crashing into a police car. The heinous crime(s) were for not.
The home invasion had lasted seven hours. But now that the perpetrators were caught, substantial controversy began to circulate about the police’s actions on the morning of July 23rd. Need I remind you- the police were on the scene, right around the time that Steven and Jennifer had returned from the bank. You see, the rapes and assaults against Jennifer and Michaela, and the murders of Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela could have been prevented if the police had acted sooner. Now, I understand that initially, Jennifer had told the bank tellers- who then told police- that the assailants were “nice.” However, just being nice shouldn’t be a pass. I know that hostage situations are delicate, and that if you act too fast it might cause the assailants to become rageful. But, I can’t help but think that if police had stormed into the Petit family home that morning, Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela would still be here today. The family too, believes the police could have saved Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela, given that while they were being assaulted and the home was being doused with gasoline, the police were setting up the perimeter. When Bill escaped the house and was lying in his neighbor’s driveway, he saw the police standing in the trees, at the same time the house burst into flames. When set out like this, it makes complete sense that the family and public believe that more could have been done by the authorities to save Jennifer and the girls. Another question is why hadn’t the authorities attempted to intercept Hayes and Jennifer as they arrived at the home? The police officers arrived at the property by the time Jennifer and Hayes returned from the bank, or just seconds later; officers were dispatched to the scene within minutes of the call from the bank manager at 9:21AM. Many question why the authorities didn’t approach the car and arrest Hayes on the spot, thereby separating Hayes and Komisarjevsky, which may have allowed them to save Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela. At 9:57AM, flames were bursting out of the windows of the house. This indicated that officers had been at the scene for approximately 30 minutes and only set up a perimeter and observed the home during that time. On the contrary, police believed they were dealing with a hostage situation and therefore, did not know how many perpetrators might be inside the house nor the weapons they might have. Therefore, before the police officers were dispatched to the house, they were told by higher-ups not to enter the home, not to try and speak to Hayes as he got out of the car, and not to try and communicate with anyone inside the house, so as to not alert the perpetrators to their presence. Instead, they were instructed to set up the perimeter and observe. Personally, this doesn’t seem to me like it was the most effective way to handle the situation. I thought they would have been more proactive in their attempts to save them, though I’m sure it’s more complicated than it appears. I can’t honestly say I believe they did everything they could, however, as I had indicated above.
Originally, Hayes and Komisarjevsky agreed to a plea bargain which would give them life in prison without the possibility of parole. When the defense presented the deal to the prosecution, however, they did not agree that either man should have this option; instead, they would pursue the death penalty in both cases. In Connecticut, this meant both men would have to have a jury trial.
Hayes’ trial began on October 18th, 2010. Hayes’ attorney, Thomas Ullman, told the jury that being given a life sentence would be the worst punishment for Hayes, worse than being sentenced to death, because he was tortured every day by his actions. The jury ultimately came to the verdict that Hayes should be executed. In December 2010, Hayes apologized to the Petit family for the pain he had caused. He said: “Death for me will be a welcome relief and I hope it will bring some peace and comfort to those who I have hurt so much.”
Komisarjevsky’s trial began on October 13th, 2011. During his hearing, Komisarjevsky stood by what he had said in his confession, that he had never planned on killing anyone that night. He added: “I will never find peace within. My life will be a continuation of the hurt I caused. The clock is now ticking and I owe a debt I cannot repay.” The jury came to the verdict that Komisarjevsky should also be executed.
In August 2015, however, Connecticut abolished the death penalty, meaning the sentences of both men were commuted to life in prison. Stephen Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Komisarjevsky’s defense team filed a motion that he be given a new trial. They argued this on the basis that the trial should not have taken place in Cheshire, but in a different part of the state due to the unavoidable exposure of the jury to the media focusing on the murders. The defense team also argued that Komisarjevsky had been unfairly painted as the ‘mastermind’ of the crime, when really Komisarjevsky had no intention of murdering anyone; it was Hayes who strangled Jennifer and doused the girls with gasoline and then set the house on fire, as Komisarjevsky told his attorneys. The motion, however, was denied on the basis that the judge believed both men to be equally complicit in the crimes. Hayes never attempted to appeal his convictions; he admitted he was guilty and did not want to subject the family to another trial. (Well, thanks for that at least, asshole.)
Since the murders of his family, Bill Petit gave up his career as a physician and now manages The Petit Family Foundation. The main goals of the foundation are to: ‘Continue to raise and distribute funds to fulfill our mission to help educate young people especially those with interests in science, to help support those with chronic illnesses, and to help protect those affected by violence.’ – Petit Family Foundation
The murders resulted in the formation of a number of charitable organizations. A particularly notable organization is that of “Cheshire’s Lights of Hope” which was formed by Cheshire resident Jenifer Walsh and her husband. The event, in which luminaries are placed on each street of the town, takes place yearly. The aim of the event is to bring locals together so townspeople can get to know one another. In the first year the event took place, the money raised went towards the Petit family, but now it has become a non-profit, focusing more on the town than on the murders. The organization donates to town needs including social services, the food pantry and scholarships, while some money still goes to the Petit family.
In August 2012, Bill Petit married Christine Paluf, whom he met while she was volunteering for the Petit Family Foundation. Together they have a son, named after his adoring father. Bill has also become involved in politics, as a Connecticut State Representative representing Plainville and New Britain as a Republican.
At the public memorial service hosted by Central Connecticut State University, Bill asked those in attendance to, “Help a neighbor, fight for a cause, and love your family,” as a way of honoring the memory of his family as well as making the world a little bit better place to live.