In July 2007, the sense of calm in Cheshire, Connecticut was shattered when two would-be robbers entered the Petit family home — and viciously killed three people inside.
Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions and/or images of violent, disturbing, or otherwise potentially distressing events.
On July 23, 2007, Jennifer Hawke-Petit entered a bank in the quiet town of Cheshire, Connecticut, and asked to withdraw $15,000 from her account. She told the shocked bank teller that she needed the money because her husband and two daughters were being held hostage, and that her family wouldn’t be harmed if she gave their captors the cash.
Tragically, the hostage situation would soon escalate into the bloodbath now known as the Cheshire murders.
Until that point, the town of Cheshire struck many as the kind of place where nothing bad ever happened. Jennifer and her family — her husband, William Petit, and daughters Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11 — had lived a normal, suburban life.
But the town’s sense of calm was shattered that July. Then, in the dead of night, two burglars snuck into the family’s quaint Cheshire home. Though they initially planned to merely rob the place, the home invasion soon escalated into all-out violence, leaving most of the Petit family dead and their house in flames.
This is the harrowing story of the 2007 Cheshire murders.
The Petit Family And The Criminals Who Invaded Their Home
By all accounts, the Petit family was a fairly normal one. William was an endocrinologist; Jennifer was a nurse. Their 17-year-old daughter, Hayley, was preparing to go Dartmouth in the fall, and their 11-year-old daughter Michaela had a budding passion for cooking, according to Newsweek.
The Petits were middle class and lived in a simple, two-story home at 300 Sorghum Mill Drive. But the perpetrators of the Cheshire murders came from more checkered backgrounds.
Joshua Komisarjevsky, the younger of the two burglars, came from money but had had a difficult childhood. Adopted and diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder at a young age, Komisarjevsky was both a victim and a perpetrator of abuse among his adopted siblings.
Komisarjevsky’s highly religious parents refused to seek treatment for him, and they blamed a “satanic cult” for his eventual spiral into crime. Komisarjevsky began breaking into houses and using drugs, which led him to meet his accomplice in the Cheshire murders, Linda Hayes.
Linda Hayes, born Steven Hayes, changed their name in prison following the Cheshire murders, though according to the New York Times they didn’t specify what pronouns they use.
In many ways, Hayes’ childhood was similar to Komisarjevsky’s. Hayes had also been abused as a child, and had turned to petty theft to support a drug habit. Hayes met Komisarjevsky at a halfway house in 2006, and the two became friendly.
About a year later, Komisarjevsky and Hayes’ world would violently collide with the Petit family’s.
The Night Of The Break-In
Joshua Komisarjevsky and Linda Hayes’ decision to break into the Petit home was not random. On July 22, 2007, the day before the Cheshire murders, Komisarjevsky spotted Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughter Michaela at the local Stop & Shop. He followed the pair home and was impressed by their house.
“[I] started thinking it’s a very nice house and a very nice car and thought it would be nice to be there someday,” Komisarjevsky told police in his confession. “Not have to worry about financial problems and stress.”
Komisarjevsky enlisted Hayes’ help and, at around 3 a.m. the next morning, the pair broke into the Petits’ home. They found William Petit asleep in the sunroom, where he had fallen asleep reading the paper. Komisarjevsky grabbed a baseball bat nearby and started to pummel Petit with it.
They tied up Petit in the basement, then went upstairs, where they found Hayley in her room and Michaela with her mother, where she’d fallen asleep while reading Harry Potter. Komisarjevsky and Hayes put pillowcases over Jennifer, Michaela, and Hayley’s heads and tied them to their beds before setting out to search the house.
When Komisarjevsky and Hayes found fewer valuables than they’d expected, they changed their plans. They grabbed Jennifer and demanded that she drive to the bank with Hayes to withdraw money.
At the Bank of America branch in Cheshire, Hayes waited in the car while Jennifer entered the bank to withdraw $15,000. According to Mary Lyons, the branch manager, Jennifer seemed “petrified.”
“She explained to me that her family was being held and as long as she got the money and got back to the house everybody would be OK,” Lyons recounted to USA Today 10 years later. “I just knew from the look on her face and the look in her eyes that she was telling the truth. Her eyes told me — a look from one mom to another mom.”
Lyons approved the withdrawal and called the police as soon as Jennifer and her captor drove away. Sadly, Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters would never be seen alive again.
The Gruesome Final Chapter Of The Cheshire Murders
After the bank called the authorities, the police sent units to the Petit home, but they were instructed not to enter yet, even though a hostage negotiator was on hand and ready to intervene. And as police awaited further instruction, the situation inside 300 Sorghum Mill Drive was rapidly escalating.
While Hayes and Jennifer were gone, Komisarjevsky had sexually assaulted 11-year-old Michaela. Then, when Hayes and Jennifer got back to the house, Komisarjevsky instructed Hayes to rape Jennifer to “square things up.” And Hayes did.
As the police stood in position outside, several things happened almost at once.
First, William managed to escape from the basement. Bloodied and bound, he shot out of the house, yelling for help. Hayes then strangled Jennifer, killing her. And, in the burglars’ final act of cruelty, they poured gasoline throughout the house and over Hayley and Michaela before igniting it with a match.
As fire engulfed the Petits’ house, the duo jumped into the Petit family’s car and tried to escape. They almost immediately crashed into a police cruiser and were promptly arrested.
It was just after 10 a.m. The Cheshire murders had been going on for seven brutal hours.
The Aftermath Of The Cheshire Murders
In the horrific aftermath of the Cheshire murders, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, Hayley Petit, and Michaela Petit all lay dead. Jennifer had been strangled to death, while both Hayley and Michaela suffered intense burns and died of smoke inhalation.
Komisarjevsky and Hayes, who were tried separately, accused the other of lighting the final, fatal match, and were both sentenced to death. However, Connecticut has since abolished capital punishment. They’ll instead spend the rest of their lives in prison.
As for William Petit, the only survivor of the Cheshire murders? In the wake of the gruesome crime, he’s been forced to create a new life for himself. Petit started a foundation in his loved one’s honor, and it’s through this organization that he met his second wife, Christine Paulif, according to the New Haven Register. The two now have a young son.
“It’s always there,” Petit told the New York Post of his memories of the Cheshire murders. “It’s shorter sometimes, it’s more contained, it’s less provoking. But it’s always there.”
He added that he hopes people won’t forget his wife and daughters.
“I want some good to come because they would have done an awful lot of good if they had lived their natural lives,” he said. “I want their lives to go forward, and I want to be able to pay it forward for them.”
After reading about the gruesome Cheshire Murders, learn about John List, the man who murdered his family and then went on the run for 18 years. Then, read about the bizarre disappearance of the Jamison family.