“Don’t Worry. It’ll All be Over in a Couple Minutes.” -The Petit Murders
Peter Vronsky, author of Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present, wrote this about how the term ‘serial killer’ evolved: “Before the term was coined in 1981, there were no ‘serial killers.’ There were only “monsters”- killers society first understood as werewolves, vampires, ghouls and witches or later, Hitchcockian psychos.”
But on the morning of July 23, 2002 while I sat at the kitchen table enjoying the sunny morning, the quiet house and my usual toast and coffee, a breaking news headline about the gruesome slaughter of a doctor’s family in Cheshire, Connecticut flashed across television. I pulled my desk chair close to the screen and read words and sentences that seared white-hot into my brain: baseball bat, forced her to withdraw money from the bank, raped and strangled her to death, Michela raped by Komisarjvsky, Hayley and Michaela tied to their beds, two men doused them and the house with gasoline, set the house on fire, two daughters died of smoke inhalation, Hayes forced Hawke-Petit to withdraw $15,000. Dr. Petit heard his wife’s assault, felt a jolt of adrenaline, screamed to the invader who yelled back, “Don’t worry. It’s all gonna be over in a couple minutes. Dr. Petit freed himself of the restraints but it was too late.
I tried to shut the scene out of my mind: the images of death, sound of gasoline splashing over two teenage girls, and a lit match, the smell of burning flesh, a husband tied with plastic zip ties and rope, screaming at the thug raping his wife.
I’d spent twenty years writing the story about my thirteen-year, crime-solving-relationship with LAPD homicide detective, John “Jigsaw” St. John and believed I’d seen, heard and experienced more than most people. But the story of the Cheshire murders frightened me more than any of the murders St. John investigated. This crime hit close to home. Why?
Dr. Petit was a physician like my husband. Jennifer Hawke-Petit was a doctor’s wife like me with blonde hair, a big smile and devoted to her two daughters like I was to my sons. How could this sensational serial murder begin in the most ordinary way like mine often did? A mom and her kid went shopping for dinner. Prelude to murder? Never! What about the killers?
Killer number one: Joshua Komisarvesky was arrested for eighteen home invasions. His accomplice Steven J. Haynes was arrested nearly thirty times. They scouted the houses in the area, chose the Petit house and planned to commit the robbery in the morning leaving the victims unharmed. They broke into the house through an unlocked basement window and found Dr. Petit asleep on a couch. Jennifer, Haley and Michaela were asleep in their bedrooms. Komisarvesky struck Dr. Petit with the baseball bat and bound him. The two men searched for money and found a checkbook with forty thousand dollars. Hayes decided to take Jennifer to the bank to withdraw $15,000. When she went to the teller, she whispered two men were at her house threatening to kill her family, but she believed they were “nice men” and only wanted money. The manager called 911, reported the threat to police, who set up a perimeter around the house but did not enter. Upon return from the bank, Haynes strangled Hawke-Petit. Then the two killers set the house on fire. Both daughters died of smoke inhalation. Dr. Petit escaped.
The Petit family could have been my family or any family. Jennifer Hawke-Petit could have been any mother in a hostage situation faced with a life-or-death decision. If this crime could happen to her, it could happen to me or anyone. But why did it end in tragedy?
I don’t believe this robbery had to end in murder. What would you have done?
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