In one of the most horrific crimes in recent memory, the Petit family was destroyed during an unimaginable night of evil that left people across the country gasping in horror. Three years later, Oprah visits Dr. William Petit at his parents' Connecticut home to talk about the tragic loss of his family and the strength he found to move forward.
Dr. Petit had been married to his wife, Jennifer, a nurse, for 22 years. Their 17-year-old daughter Hayley was captain of her high school basketball team and headed to Dartmouth College in the fall. Eleven-year-old Michaela loved to cook and was just starting to come into her own.
On a Sunday morning in July 2007, the close-knit Petit family attended church services in their Connecticut suburb like they usually did. The beautiful weather and typical summer day gave no premonition of the terror about to take place.
According to police, a convicted felon who was out on parole randomly spotted Jennifer and Michaela at a neighborhood convenience store. After following them home, 44-year-old Steven Hayes and 26-year-old Joshua Komisarjevsky allegedly plotted out a horrific home invasion.
Michaela cooked Sunday dinner for her family that night, and Dr. Petit fell asleep reading the paper while the girls watched television and headed off to bed.
At 3 a.m., the two armed intruders broke in. Dr. Petit was the first victim, bludgeoned with a baseball bat and tied unconscious to a pole in the basement. Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela were bound to their beds and tortured throughout the night.
At daybreak, Jennifer was forced to go to a bank and withdraw money for her kidnappers. She slipped a note to the bank teller explaining her family's hostage situation and withdrew $15,000, desperately hoping it would save her family's lives.
Instead, the unthinkable happened. Michaela was allegedly sexually assaulted while tied to her childhood bed. Just minutes after returning from the bank with the money, Jennifer was raped and strangled to death. Her body and the house were doused with gasoline.
Meanwhile, Dr. Petit woke up in the basement. With his feet still bound, he hopped up the stairs and crawled across the yard to a neighbor's house to get help—but it was too late. The Petits' home quickly went up in flames. Hayley managed to free herself from her restraints but died at the top of the stairs from smoke inhalation. Michaela died still bound to her bed. Their mother's body was burned beyond recognition.
"I went to sleep one night in a nice home with a loving family and basically awakened in an emergency room naked on a gurney with no clothes, no family, no home," Dr. Petit says. "Everything was gone."
According to police, just minutes after the house set on fire, Hayes and Komisarjevsky stole the family's minivan and crashed head-on into a police roadblock while trying to flee the gruesome scene.
Although it was extremely difficult, Dr. Petit was present every day of Steven Hayes' trial. "I was the only face left in our family, so I needed to be there," he says. Dr. Petit says he left the room during the medical examiner's reports. "Too much to hear. I cried," he says.
More than three years after the murders, Hayes was convicted on all counts except arson and sentenced to death. After the verdict was given, Dr. Petit spoke from outside the courthouse. "This is a verdict for justice," he said. "I think the defendant faces far more serious punishment from the Lord than he can ever face from mankind."
Jury selection for the trial of Hayes' alleged co-conspirator, Komisarjevsky, is expected to begin in February 2011. Kominsarjevsky has pled not guilty to all charges.
Oprah: Was there any satisfaction for you [in Hayes] getting the death penalty as a sentence?
Dr. Petit: Just the satisfaction that I think it's the appropriate penalty. I think God wants us to hate evil. I think God tells us to abide by man's law.
Oprah: How did it feel to you to sit in that courtroom every day and have your family referred to as "the victims" or "alleged victims" and have the perpetrator of this crime referred to by his name every day?
Dr. Petit: It's the death by a thousand paper cuts. You're absolutely right. You sit there and they talk about the "alleged victims." And I always think, "I will drive you to the cemetery and show you the 'alleged victims.'" You know? The decedents. You want to jump up and say: "They have names. They're people. Their names were Jennifer and Hayley and Michaela."
Although the media has been fixated on how the Petit women died, Dr. Petit wants the world to remember how they lived. Jennifer Hawke met Dr. Petit in 1981 when he was a doctor and she was a pediatric nurse at the same hospital. They married four years later and had two daughters. Jennifer suffered from multiple sclerosis, but those who knew her say she never complained.
Family and friends say Jennifer loved being a mother and raising her girls and was also a second mom to students at the boarding school where she worked. "The boarding school life, there are a lot of kids from far away," Dr. Petit says. "So she spent a lot of time with the kids—part nurse and part mother."
Dr. Petit has not returned to his medical practice since losing his family, but he thinks Jennifer would want him to. "She'd probably want me to go back to medicine," he says. "Wives are prejudiced. She said I was the smartest guy she ever knew."
Jennifer and Dr. Petit's oldest daughter, Hayley, excelled in school and served as co-captain of both her high school basketball and rowing teams. She was an "A" student and was headed to prestigious Dartmouth College with dreams of becoming a doctor like her father. Hayley wrote her college admissions essay about her dad, who gave her her first doctor's bag at the age of 4.
Hayley was a caring big sister and a natural leader. She started Hayley's Hope, an organization to raise money for multiple sclerosis in hopes of saving her mom.
In Dr. Petit's impact statement, he said one of the things he will regret most is that Hayley didn't live to have a one true love. Hayley was not dating, but Dr. Petit says he knows there was one boy who was very special to her. "He's a wonderful kid," he says. "He's a varsity basketball player, and I think she loved him."
Michaela, the Petits' youngest daughter, was also known as KK Rosebud, a special nickname her dad gave her. She was a sixth-grader who loved to dance and jump on the trampoline. She had a talent for gardening, and although she was just 11 years old, her true passion was cooking. Dr. Petit says Michaela loved to watch the Food Network and cooked the family's last meal, bruschetta and pasta.
Michaela's favorite quote was: "Be the change you wish to see in the world."
At his family's memorial service, Dr. Petit says he had a strong need to speak for Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela. "If there's anything to be gained from the senseless deaths of my beautiful family, it's for us to all go forward," he said. "Help a neighbor, fight for a cause, love your family."
Oprah: Are you able to think of their life and the fullness of their life? Or are you still more focused on the day they died and how they died?
Dr. Petit: There's some of both. The daytime's easier to focus on positive things. Falling asleep and waking up are the hardest times. The transitions from sleep to wakefulness. It pretty much comes back every day.
Oprah: Do you fear going to sleep?
Dr. Petit: In the beginning, I feared sleeping. ... I was completely fried. I was just walking around in a daze, and just intrusive thoughts banging into your brain every second, every minute, where you're playing events over and over and over again in your mind.
Dr. Petit's extended family is as close as families get. His sister Hanna Chapman was best friends with Jennifer. And Hanna always treated her brother's daughters like they were her own children.
When police needed someone to identify the bodies of Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela, they asked Hanna and Dr. Petit's brother Glenn to go. Hanna says she still struggles with what she saw at the police station. "On top of my pain, I have the horrid images of the torture that they suffered for seven hours in that house, in their sanctuary, in their bedrooms in the middle of the night in the dark," she says. "I can't help but think what they were thinking, or what they were saying, and what they were praying for."
Despite the emotional toll of identifying her family members' bodies—Jennifer's was so disfigured she had to be identified using dental records—Hanna says she doesn't have second thoughts about agreeing to the request. "I don't regret having done it; I regret having to do it," she says. "I regret that they asked any one of us to do it. I regret the fact that this evil came into their home."
Dr. Petit says some people have tried to help him cope with grief by advising him to live in the moment. "I thought, 'That's okay for people who have a past they can touch and a future they can dream for,'" he says. "But when you feel like a lot of your past is gone and there's no future, the present loses some meaning."
Instead, Dr. Petit says he has found a reason to keep living—though he says he thought about suicide—through religion and faith. "I thought in the afterlife if I was going to meet up with my family, if I did that, then maybe I would never meet up with them again," he says. "I wasn't willing to take that chance."
Oprah: Will there ever be closure for you?
Dr. Petit: I don't think there's ever closure. I just...I don't think there is. People will probably argue with me, but I just don't think you can lose your whole family and have closure. Like I said, there's a jagged hole in your heart, there's a jagged hole in your soul. Over time, the waves of goodness going back and forth maybe smooth the jagged edges a little bit, but the hole remains. I don't think you fill it in. Forty months later, that's how I feel.
Started with money donated by friends, community members and complete strangers, the Petit Family Foundation preserves the memory of Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela by promoting causes the Petit women held close to their hearts. So far, the foundation has raised more than $1.5 million.
"What we are trying to do is to fund educational programs, especially in the sciences, and hopefully that will help young women," Dr. Petit says. "Secondly, to help perhaps with the educational aspects of some chronic illnesses like multiple sclerosis—that Jen had—and certainly to help those affected by violence."
Dr. Petit says the foundation has helped him see that the world is not only darkness and evil. "It makes me feel that there are really a lot of good people in the world that reach out," he says. "You know, somebody from California wrote in and said: 'Here's my check for $500. This is for scholarships for women. You're going to get this from me every year until the day I die because of your daughter Hayley.'"
Printed from Oprah.com on Tuesday, December 10, 2013