By Ryan D'Agostino
UPDATE (September 2011): Inside the Courtroom for a Second Trial
UPDATE NO. 2 (October 2011):...
doesn't much likedoing
these things, but he does them all the same. Bill Petit arrives at the high
school alone and walks up the knoll from the parking lot, squinting against the
low, late-winter sun. It's chilly, and he walks with his hands shoved into the
pockets of his jeans. He wears his hair, damp from the shower, combed straight
back into a fringe of curls that sweep the collar of his baggy white golf shirt.
He stands six foot four, sturdy and thick, with the belly of a man who hit fifty
a few years ago pulling slightly at his fleece vest. Across the lot behind him,
suburban Saturday-morning traffic drifts up
A boy, four years old, blue-eyed and sandy-haired, sits on the ground. Not many people are around yet — it's nine-thirty, and the basketball tournament doesn't start until ten. The boy is unstrapping the Velcro on his shoes and jimmying them off his little feet. Bill Petit bends at the waist with his hands on his knees.
"Hey there," he says to the boy. He arches his eyebrows hopefully and holds up a hand for a high five. The man's cheekbones are high and wide, like rock faces. The boy looks up at the giant hand but quickly scrambles into the inflatable castle. Petit stands up straight again. "Ah, he doesn't want to talk to me," he says, his voice deep and rusty and the words rattling out unevenly, as if they are the first he's spoken since waking up. "He wants to play." He drops his jaw a little and laughs to himself, then turns and wanders into the school.
This work — the work of his foundation, which he established to remember his wife and daughters, now dead — is a full-time job for him now. In truth, it's his life, or his best attempt to remain among the living. That Petit is himself alive is a sort of miracle and a reality to which he will never fully acclimate. Even in settings like this — safe and comfortable, surrounded by smiling faces — Petit seems to be floating, half here and half gone.
Inside, the halls are waking up. Vast, fuzzy trapezoids of sunlight glow white on the linoleum, bending up the walls. A pimply kid with a brown, bushy mop sits smiling at the welcome table, his hands folded next to a box marked DONATIONS. Gray-haired women lay out foil trays of homemade chocolate cupcakes and baggies of frosted cookies — EVERYTHING $1, reads a sign on the table. The ping of basketballs hitting the gym floor echoes in the halls. People nod and smile at him as he makes his way in, and he nods back and offers up a "G'mornin'." A woman wearing a tracksuit stops to hug him, standing on her tiptoes. "Heyyy," he says softly.
In the gymnasium, kids from college on down to grade school shoot around and basketballs whiz everywhere. Soon the adolescent voice of a local kid scratches out through a speaker, announcing that Dr. Petit is going to take the ceremonial first shot of the tournament. Petit hams a funny uh-oh face, fakes a nervous smile, and shrugs at the crowd. Someone bounces a ball to him. He turns it over in his hands a couple of times, rotating it, squeezing it, the ball hard and cold, same as always. He dribbles hard, pounding the ball into the shellacked hardwood as he has done — could it be a million times in his life? He walks slowly to the free-throw line, a goofy wink at the drama of the moment. There's no drama, really, because it doesn't matter if he misses, but — well, come on, you don't want to miss, do you?
Feet planted on the line, he dribbles three more times, then shoots, his elbow snapping like a piston, firing the ball off the end of his fingertips as if not a day has gone by. A few hundred eyes follow its arc toward the rim. The ball bangs the front, takes a bounce back onto the heel of the rim, and falls through the net.
Petit's eyes go wide and he pretends to wipe sweat from his forehead. Everyone claps, and the kids peel themselves off the walls and fill the gym back up with noise. He feels pats on his back, feels his hands grabbed and shaken. Nice shot! Then he walks over near the door, out of the way, kind of bobbing along. Close one! The boy from the inflatable castle is there, on his father's shoulders. "Hey!" Petit says. He holds out his fist for a bump. The boy grins this time, but he turns away again. "Awww," Petit says.
12.Bad things happen to everyone. And in their aftermath, it is the human instinct to adapt and survive. By and large, people want to live. Biology and human history and our own lives tell us that we are indeed a resilient little bug.
When your family is murdered, and the home you had made together is destroyed, and you yourself are beaten and left for dead — as happened to Bill Petit on the morning of July 23, 2007 — it may as well be the end of the world. It is hard to see how a man survives the end of the world. The basics of life — waking up, walking, talking — become alien tasks, and almost impossibly heavy, as you are more dead than alive.
At night, Petit sleeps only because the pills make him sleep. Sometimes even with the pills he lies awake, thinking about the same questions. Working slowly and without rest, he has built ramparts around his mind to keep out the what-ifs, because the what-ifs can drive you insane.What if that bulkhead lock had been working properly? Sometimes the haunting questions break through and he has to shake them away.
He lives with
his parents in an old house on Red Stone Hill, in
He had an alarm system installed in his parents' house when he moved in, and the front door is always locked now. It's not that Petit cares much about his own safety. It just seemed right to get an alarm. He's talked to his sister, Hanna, and to his friend Ron about moving out, getting his own place. But why? His mother cooks and cleans, and he can help his dad around the house. It's a different life, though. One of the first things he had to do was convince his parents to eat dinner a little later than five o'clock. By the time the lunch dishes were put away, his mother would already be pulling the meat out of the fridge and rinsing the potatoes for dinner. And then there are the televisions. They're unbearably loud. Everyone in the house — his dad, his mom, his grandmother — is going deaf, so every TV is turned up to full volume all the time, and he has to shout above them.
In the mornings, sometimes he goes for breakfast at Saint's on Route 10, a family restaurant with an L-shaped counter, vinyl booths, eggs how you like 'em, and bottomless coffee. But mostly during the days, he sits in his parents' house and works. He writes thank-you notes to people who contribute money to his foundation, which he named the Petit Family Foundation. Bill is the president, and his father is the vice-president. The foundation has awarded academic scholarships to students affected by multiple sclerosis, given community-service awards, sponsored a local domestic-violence care center, and more. It has a kind of slogan. He didn't know that his daughter Michaela had a Facebook page, but after she died, he saw it, and a quote that she had posted hit him hard: "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." Gandhi. So that became the mantra on the brochure. The mission of the foundation is threefold: "To foster the education of young people, especially women in the sciences; to improve the lives of those affected by chronic illnesses; and to support efforts to protect and help those affected by violence." Petit wrote that himself.
Two of his old high school buddies are runners, and they head up a 5K every year. There's a golf tournament — that's probably Petit's favorite, because he gets to play golf. There's even a motorcycle rally: the Ride for Justice. He shows up at them all. He wears the T-shirts they print up with the logos of the sponsors covering the back. He speaks to crowds sitting in folding chairs, he hugs bikers — men his own age who have extensive tattoos and wear leather jackets and ride Harleys call him Doc and clap his back until it hurts.
Hanna got a
call a few weeks ago from a fourteen-year-old boy in
A few days before the basketball tournament, the board of directors of Petit's foundation meets at the house on Red Stone Hill. Hanna cooks a big batch of Italian wedding soup and brings it over. Bill Sr. and Barbara, Bill's mother, have set the table, and there's red wine and soda out. Then they start showing up, these CEOs and doctors and lawyers on the board — Petit knows a lot of smart people. They drink a little wine, serve themselves at the buffet, and review the committee reports — development, finance and investment, grants, the golf tournament. The foundation's pot is up to about $1.8 million. People have sent cards with a dollar inside. People have sent $10,000 checks. Not long ago, a little girl told her friends she didn't want a birthday party and asked guests to make a donation instead — she raised $400. The treasurer, Ron Bucchi, is Bill's oldest friend, going back to the Knights of Columbus basketball team in middle school. Ron's tall and lean, with dark, Italian eyes, olive skin, and silver hair that doesn't move. His view is that the foundation needs to hit $5 million — with $5 million, it would be what they call sustainable. Then they can hire some people to send the notes and organize the spreadsheets and keep the records so Petit knows whom to thank, so he doesn't have to do so much of that stuff himself.
The thing is, he would end up doing most of those things anyway. It's what he does now. Because while on the surface the Petit Family Foundation exists to do all of the good it set out to do, the reality is that it has another, equally important purpose: The foundation exists so that Bill Petit has a connection to the world.
He doesn't have good days; he tries to have good hours. He goes to UConn basketball games still, and people stare at him, but he has an okay time. The old Bill Petit was connected to the world through his family and through his work. He has neither now. Does the old Bill ever shine through? "I haven't seen him yet," Ron says, with a faint smile. And Bill Sr.: "I don't think we'll ever get him back."
After the meeting, Ron and Hanna and a few others hang out and talk. Eventually, Petit goes up to his room. Books and papers and albums of family photographs cover most of the queen-size bed — Bill sleeps at the edge of the mattress. When blackness disappears the world outside, and when he is trying to fall asleep, that's when the what-ifs and the bad thoughts try to stab their way into the fragile equilibrium that he has worked so hard to achieve in his mind.
Bill's grandmother, who's ninety-five, lives in the house, too. Every night after he gets into bed, even when his light is out, he hears a soft knock on the door. Then the door opens and light leaks onto the walls of his room.
sentencing day, December 2, 2010, the
family piles into two cars, as they have on each of the thirty-four days of the
trial of Steven Hayes — same seats, like children boarding school buses. The
white, early-winter sun washes away the streets outside and backlights the trees
like a strobe. Petit has dressed up — navy suit, light-blue shirt, solid mauve
tie. He got a haircut, too. The nausea chews at his stomach more than usual as
the Petits' caravan rolls south on the cold pavement toward
Petit glides past the TV trucks outside the courthouse. Men wearing parkas hoist cameras onto their shoulders and point them at him, a ritual in which the cameras pant at him while he practices obliviousness. It's the same when he enters courtroom 6A: The reporters, trying to look casual, sneak looks at him and tweet his arrival to whomever reads tweets. Even the judicial marshals, stationed around the room like turrets, follow him with their eyes, curiously. Petit just tries to look like a man walking into a room.
Tom Ullman, the public defender, strokes his neck beard. Usually his ties are exactly four inches too long, but today he has managed to tuck his tie right into his pants. His client, Hayes, is the man who lit Petit's daughters on fire and raped and strangled his wife. He sits in his swively chair, his thin neck sticking out of a blousy prison jumpsuit. He whips around to look at the big, elementary-school wall clock in the back of the room. His shoulders slope, his eyes are small and black, and his cheeks sag like deflating balloons.
Hanna is sitting at the table where the state's attorneys normally sit, a few feet from the defendant's table, where Hayes sits. She is always in her finest — today she wears a sweater the color of red grapes, high shiny black boots, and a fur wrap. She looks tiny sitting in the middle of the room, but her voice is strong and steady, and deep like her father's. She's talking about her big brother, saying how he is not the same now. A screen hangs above the proceedings, showing a dreamlike parade of images from Petit's old life. Births, birthday parties, Christmas mornings, vacations, basketball games — the photographs all close families have and never remember to look at. Hanna reads from an essay her daughter wrote: "... I searched for the old Uncle Billy. The same one who would stay up late with Hayley and me, watching movies and eating popcorn; the one who brought us to UConn games and tried to make us cheer; the one who would toss me up as a little girl high over his head until I fell into his huge, safe arms. Those same arms looked defeated now, hunched over in sorrow. I felt another pang of hurt so deep that I wondered if hearts could stop beating from sadness."
When Hanna finishes, Petit takes the seat at the prosecutor's table. The state allows the victims of a capital crime to make a statement after the guilty are sentenced, and so Bill Petit presses his tie down, scoots the chair in, and begins reciting the story of his family. Judge Jon Blue, a midwesterner with a towering helmet of white hair, folds his arms and listens.
Petit is from
a long line of Connecticut Yankees and so he comes by his reticence honestly. He
has not spoken much during the trial, but when he has, it has exposed a raw
wound. On the day a few weeks ago when Hayes was found guilty, he stood outside
this building and paid tribute. "Michaela was an eleven-year-old little girl,"
he said, shaking his head, raising his eyebrows. "You know, ah, tortured and
killed ... in her own bedroom ... you know? Surrounded by
stuffed animals. And ... Hayley had a great future. And
was a strong and courageous person. And Jennifer helped so many kids.
At Children's Hospital in
Today, as the
state officially disposes of Steven Hayes, impact is what Petit chooses for his first
word, because that's what the law calls these things: "impact statements." And
the impact just pours out of him: how Jen tried to hide her multiple sclerosis
from the girls when she was first diagnosed; how their younger girl, Michaela,
loved to spy on her big sister, Hayley, so she could learn to be like the big
girls; how he and Hayley used to stay up working in their little home office
till after midnight sometimes. She had been accepted early to
Here he just stops. He rubs the place on his forehead where no one can see the scar anymore, rubs it over and over. His hulking shoulders shake in silence as the tears escape from behind his glasses. Judge Blue looks around the room — there is nothing to do but wait. No protocol. And as Petit cries, Steven Hayes stares over from the defense table without blinking — minutes of unbearable silence pass, and the man who poured gasoline on the girl while she was still alive just stares and stares at the man who raised her.
"Because she never got to love someone for a long time. She had a friend who was a boy and who still thinks about her. He is now a senior and a basketball player. If he called on a Sunday night at seven o'clock, and she had been studying for six hours and looked washed out, she jumped up and got her basketball clothes on, because that is what they did — they played basketball together and chatted. She loved it and probably loved him."
When Petit stands and walks back to his seat, there are no affirming nods from his family. That is not their way. The row of faces point straight ahead like mannequins, and Petit sits. It's done. He is done.
When the judge
says to Hayes, "May God have mercy on your soul," a
weird silence seizes the room. Hayes actually has to sign some kind of form, an
odd piece of bureaucracy. The marshals step into their positions behind Hayes
and at every door. And eventually, everyone stands, the judge exits without
ceremony, and it is over. The state of
Five or six of his family and friends huddle around him as he sits in the front row with his head in his hands. Mike Dearington, the state's attorney, who looks like an Irish priest, sits nearby, and the marshals stand sentry — they've been in the room and heard every detail, and they aren't about to ask him to leave. Bill Petit is off somewhere else. He is in his bedroom, alone, or on a beach somewhere, or standing on the rubble of his home. He closes his eyes, and he is nowhere.
10.You can smell the gasoline in the courtroom. A forensics detective is on the stand, and the state is introducing evidence that has been stored in metal canisters since it was analyzed after the murders. A piece of Hayley's shirt. A scrap of denim from the jeans Jennifer put on to go to the bank. Michaela's torn shorts. Hayes and his partner, Joshua Komisarjevsky, had poured gasoline all over the house and on the girls' bodies and clothing while they were tied to their beds, and you can still smell it, thirty-eight months later.
On the projection screen, the state shows a photograph of the scorched kitchen. It barely looks like a room. But if you look closer, there, in the sink, is the pasta pot Michaela used when she was cooking Sunday dinner. The teakettle sits on the stove, where it always was. A cupboard door hangs off its melted hinges, and a shelf has fallen cockeyed.
The state shows more photographs — ghostly stills floating in the dimmed chamber, each one broadcast for minutes on end, a slow torture for Petit. While they remain on the screen, the lawyers and the witnesses speak of them in the context of his family, repeating their names a hundred times a day — Jennifer. Hayley. Michaela. Jennifer. Hayley. Michaela. Jennifer. Hayley. Michaela. Jennifer. Hayley. Michaela. Over and over, each mention of their names like a knifepoint into Bill's skin.
photograph of the charred living room, the furniture arranged just as Jen liked
it — that is, simply. Jen was frugal, tended to buy clothes at
Petit looks up at the photograph, turns his head away. You can see a dark cloak in the middle of the room: the place where Jennifer's body lay. She'd had to be identified by her dental records. There is a macabre banality to all of this, as if Petit were being forced to watch some twisted fire-safety video featuring pictures of his own home.
This is a bad day in court. But not as bad as yesterday. Yesterday was the medical examiner who had performed the autopsy on Michaela. He testified about the evidence found on her body that suggested sodomy. Petit didn't hear that part. When the medical examiner walked up to the witness stand, he stood and calmly left the courtroom, the only time during the trial he did.
An investigator takes the stand today, this one short and nervous, with a bureaucratic mustache. He testifies that he recovered photographs from a cell phone belonging to one of the men. The photos aren't shown in court, but he is asked to describe them. The pictures depict a young girl tied to a bed, he says, without clothes on, and a man's genitals.
9.Petit arrives on another morningwearing his dress-up version of golf clothes, or his golf-club version of dress clothes: tan slacks, gray blazer, black mock turtleneck with a tiny white Nike swoosh on the collar — a pro-shop shirt. Outside in the hall, in the line of people waiting to get in, he spots two of Jen's old friends. They are both named Deb, and Bill stops to hug them both at once.
Captain Robert Vignola, a twenty-three-year veteran of the Cheshire Police Department with a bullethead and metal shavings for eyes, sits in the chair on the witness stand. He fires a glare at Steven Hayes that could knock down a brick wall.
Gary Nicholson, the gruff, mustached assistant state's attorney, asks for state's exhibit 15a, and a marshal dims the lights. Petit shifts in his seat to look at a picture of his old house, and the image reflects on the rectangular lenses of his glasses. If seeing it stabs his eyes like an ice pick, he doesn't show it. It's a beautiful house: cream-colored clapboard, hunter-green shutters, lush lawn, orange flowers by the road, tall trees all around. The American dream, pretty much. Only if you look closely at this particular shot, you can see the blackened parts above the front door and the upstairs windows, as if someone had spray-painted the trim.
"Mr. Komisarjevsky ran to the car with a bag in his hand, placed the bag in the car, quickly reversed, very, very quickly — that's when another officer stated that there was movement from the suspects. Moments later, Mr. Komisarjevsky was in front, Mr. Hayes was behind him running to the vehicle. Mr. Komisarjevsky came around, went into the driver's side. Mr. Hayes went into the passenger's side."
At this, Petit closes his eyes, bows his head, and rubs his forehead where the scar used to be, over and over as he listens to Vignola's recitation of the chaotic, rain-soaked getaway from the house where his babies lay burning.
And he rubs where the scar was, and rubs it, and the what-ifs flood in with a vengeance, and there's nothing Bill Petit can do to stop it. Suddenly, he isn't in any courtroom anymore. He's lying in Dave Simcik's driveway next door to his burning house. His ankles still bound together with plastic zip ties and a length of clothesline, and the scar a gaping bloody mess. The ambulance isn't there yet. The cop standing over him holds a rifle, and Petit is yelling at him.
He doesn't see the flames that have begun to curl up out of the sunroom windows. Now that the police have shown up, he's just hoping the girls aren't hurt badly. Seconds earlier, Simcik called 911 when he found Bill, his neighbor of eighteen years, lying in his driveway crying for help. At first he didn't recognize Petit, so badly was his head bludgeoned. Too weak even to crawl, Bill had rolled through his own backyard to Dave's house in desperation. Twice he tried to stand, and fell both times.
Before pulling himself up out of the basement through the bulkhead, Petit knows this is the moment. These assholes are going to shoot him and his family — or something. He knows that he's too weak to take on two men who have a gun, but if he can free himself from the basement pole, he can get over to Simcik's and call the police.
He gets the rope from around his wrists and, working faster now, rubs the plastic ties until his bloodied hands are free. He tries the ankle ties, but there's no time — he's off the pole, so he can escape. He hears moaning coming from upstairs. A horrible sound, the sound of Steven Hayes crushing Jennifer Hawke-Petit's larynx with his hands.
"Hey!" Petit yells. Something like "hey" — he has so little strength, it comes out as a garbled cry, something other than language. A man's voice responds back down the basement stairs. "Don't worry," the voice says. "It's all going to be over in a couple of minutes." It is the same voice that did the talking earlier that morning, but there's something different about it now. Before, the monster was trying to sound reassuring. Now, no such pretense.
Just before the moaning, he hears thumping. He can't be sure of anything, nothing at all, he might even be dead — being pounded in the head with a baseball bat has left him without much blood and no clear thoughts. But he desperately tries to hold it together. He sits, opens his eyes wide, trying to summon cognition. He decides that the thumping is probably the two men ransacking the house and gathering the things they will take with them.
For hours, the only thing that matters is getting himself off the pole. He is slipping between wakefulness and delirium — he is a doctor, he knows that, and he knows his blood pressure is low. He estimates his blood loss. Eventually he figures out that if he stands up and then slides down the pole, the weight of his body moving down raises his blood pressure and makes him feel stronger. Up and down he goes, slowly building his strength while also trying to free his hands and feet, the hard plastic ties slicing into his skin. Blurry scraps of memory and life whir in and out of his sight line — tiny rocking chairs from when the girls were toddlers, the cats' litter boxes, a miniature puppet theater, tiki torches leaning against the wall, a table of paint cans.
It can't be more than an hour before the thumping that he hears Jennifer's sweet voice, calmly telling the men that she needs to get her purse and her husband's checkbook before going to the bank. He hears her call Mona, his secretary, telling her that Bill won't be in until at least the afternoon and asking her to cancel his morning appointments.
Before that, darkness. He sits on a mound of pillows and blankets that the men throw on him when they tie him to the pole. The quilt that one of Hayley's elementary-school teachers made for her high school graduation, just a few weeks ago, covers his head. He hears a utility box click in the corner of the basement, the sprinkler system activating — five-thirty. He hears a car start, maybe a couple of different times — one of the men driving to a gas station to fill three plastic canisters with gasoline, although he doesn't know that. He hears the birds — probably 4:45. He has lived in this house for eighteen years. The house's familiar noises are his clock.
And before that, upstairs, the men pull out drawers, empty cupboards, turn over boxes — they want a score, and they don't understand that most suburban families, wealthy as their clapboarded, landscaped homes may give them away to be, don't keep tens of thousands of dollars stacked neatly in their credenzas. The men do, however, find bank statements showing that the Petits have close to $30,000 in a Bank of America account. The plan changes from simple robbery. They'll wait until the bank opens, and one of them will drive the wife there so she can withdraw a bunch of money. Then, as Steven Hayes, the dumber, bulkier one, understands it, they'll blindfold the family, lock them in their car in the driveway, and burn the house down to get rid of the evidence.
First, they tie everybody up. Michaela's room is across the hall from Bill and Jen's, but tonight she has fallen asleep next to Jen in the four-poster bed, in Bill's spot. Hayley sleeps in her bed at the other end of the hall. Suddenly, in a moment of confusing terror in the middle of the night, a man drags Michaela from her parents' bed to her own, and the men force pillowcases over Jen's and the girls' heads and tie their arms and legs to their bedposts.
They've got to get Petit downstairs, out of the way. As the attackers roust him, the doctor figures he's been bleeding on the sunroom couch for close to two hours, maybe a little less. Hard to tell, as Petit has been in and out of consciousness. And even if he had been able to get up, the men would have shot him if he had tried to leave the sunroom. Plus, what's he gonna do, hobble up from behind and hit one of them with his strapped-together hands? But it's terrible, the silence. The not knowing. He hasn't heard anything from anywhere in the house — nothing from the girls. He doesn't know where they are. Even in his horrible state — beaten nearly to death while asleep on the couch — the impulse to protect is still elemental.
The men cut the restraints from his ankles so he can walk. When he stands, he wobbles — he has lost so much blood already, and there's a shirt flung over his head so he can't see. They walk him across the kitchen to the basement door. He holds his tied hands out in front of him, feeling for the railing as his feet find their way unsteadily down the wood stairs he knows by heart.
One of the guys has been doing all the talking. While Petit is still lying on the couch in the sunroom, the talker tells him they're just there for the money, and to stay calm. They ask him where the safe is, and he tells them there is no safe in the house. The talker — the younger one — says to the other one, "If he moves, put two bullets in him."
By this time they've tied his wrists together with plastic zip ties, and then rope over those, his palms pressed together as if in prayer. Warmth spreads across his face — his own blood. He's been on a blood thinner called Coumadin since 2004, when he had some heart troubles — he'd been passing out a lot, and it was discovered that he had an irregular beat in the top chamber. And so as he lies on the couch, he is bleeding out faster than most people would. His right eye throbs.
The pain racks every part of his head, there is blood in his eyes, and nothing is clear. Two men look down at him. His eyes throb feverishly, but he sees these two figures floating in the gauzy darkness, and at the end of an arm he sees a handgun. He watches NCIS, and he's treated plenty of cops — it looks like a 9mm. But whose gun is it? Not his. He doesn't own any weapons, unless you count the baseball bat that the other guy is holding, the one he just used to beat Bill's head with. The bat was a giveaway from Ronrico rum that he got at a liquor store his dad used to own.
Jesus, what time is it? It's got to be at least three. Where are the girls? The pain comes slowly, like a thought. It feels strange, being awakened this way — you're pretty sure you're in your home, but you can't see, and someone is hitting you, hard. By the time you feel it, it stops.
He was just dozing is all, safely in his own home on a safe street in a safe town. It's not unusual for Petit to fall asleep on the comfortable sofa as he relaxes and finally takes the time to read the morning paper.
Bill Petit clinches his eyes and worries the scar on his forehead, and once again the night the world ended is being clinically dissected in courtroom 6A of the New Haven Superior Court. "As you were going up the stairway from the first floor, did you have any concerns for your safety, sir?" the prosecutor Nicholson asks. Detective Vig-nola has disappeared, his story picked up by Rick Trocchi, a volunteer firefighter who owns pizzerias. Nicholson is asking him about when he first entered the home, minutes after the two invaders fled. Petit sits hunched over, his arms hanging like thick anchor line on his lap. He knows what's coming.
Nicholson handles a manila folder that he says contains two photographs and asks that the marshal pass them to the judge. Only the judge and jury see these pictures — they won't be displayed on the screen. They are photographs of the person Trocchi saw at the top of the stairs. The judge asks for clarification as to who it was.
The marshal takes the folder from the judge and hands it to the first juror in the box, who opens it to see a color photograph of a seventeen-year-old girl lying facedown on what looks like the surface of Mars — black and gray soot, craters of burned carpet, ash all around her. Her head had landed just inside the door to the bathroom, across the hall from the only bedroom she ever knew. She wears a T-shirt and sweat shorts. Hayley Petit had escaped. After hours of struggle, she had actually escaped from the rope and nylon restraints around her wrists and ankles. She had fought and fought, covered in the gasoline that Steven Hayes had bought at a Citgo station, to free herself from her own bed. But the trail of gasoline led right to her bed, and even all her stamina and all her strength and all her love were no match for a fire so hot that Firefighter Trocchi could feel it through his gear a half hour later. She had used up everything. She just fell, face forward in the hall.
Petit watches the jurors open and close the manila folder containing the two photographs of his older girl. Some look away. Some just stare. One woman's eyes crinkle up with the unmistakable tears of shock. The only sound in the packed room is the ffftt-fffftt of the courtroom artist's pastels on paper.
Bill Petit starts to flinch and fidget, the energy in his body searching for a way out. He scratches his chin. He rubs his lips with his fingers. He flicks each finger off his thumb, and the gold wedding ring that he has worn for twenty-five years catches the light. He is willing himself to be in control, but then his shoulders start jerking up and down. A little at first, and then more, and then he is biting his lower lip. Throughout the trial — throughout his life — Bill Petit has been Mr. In Control. Now and at all times he has maintained an impossible stoic comportment. The emotional range of statuary. The Petit way is to give up nothing. To charge always and only ahead. If you appear in control, then goddammit you will be in control. Oh, goddammit. In front of all these people, Bill Petit's composure has abandoned him. He desperately taps his fingers, trying to make it go away, trying to stop. Ffffftt-fffftt. Hanna puts a hand on his back. The manila folder passes from juror to juror. Petit squeezes his eyes shut and lowers his head. No one knows where to look.
8.The scars on his head eventually heal, and his hair grows back to hide the places where the gashes were stapled together. The last wounded stripe of crimson to disappear under a new layer of skin, the way the grass grows back on the side of the highway after a car wreck, is the one on his forehead — the one everyone could see. It's gone now, and his face is restored.
One night soon after the murders, in the room upstairs in his parents' house, Hanna sits with him as the trees outside blacken with dusk. He is lying on the queen-size bed, staring at the ceiling, rubbing his forehead where the scar used to be. His fingers absently trace its invisible trail, rubbing the area around it as if in search of it.
7.On the morning of the memorial service, the staples are still in his head, crusted with purple blood. They bind together the flaps of scalp that the baseball bat tore apart 131 hours earlier. A long gash cleaves the back left side of his head, and on the right side of his forehead, a crimson line tears through the skin like a zipper, straight down from his hairline before hooking in just above the eyebrow.
A tailor from Melluzzo's, a men's clothing store in the next town over, comes to the house to make sure his new suit fits. The same man had appeared at St. Mary's Hospital a few days before to measure him, because William A. Petit Jr., fifty years old, successful endocrinologist, director of clinical research at the Hospital of Central Connecticut, medical director of the prestigious Joslin Diabetes Center, owner of a cream-colored four-bedroom colonial on a corner lot in a nice town, has no clothes. Everything he owned burned in the fire. So somebody had called Melluzzo's, and the man now shows up with a new charcoal suit, a crisp white shirt, and a gray striped tie. Petit puts on the clothes, ties the tie with his unsteady hands, stands before the mirror, and gingerly combs his dark hair over the wound in the back.
A couple of
limousines arrive — the Petits are friends of the family that owns Bailey
Funeral Home in
The day before, Friday, after he had been released from St. Mary's and after the private funeral, he went to the house on Red Stone Hill because his own home, while still standing, is gutted. Petit spent the night at his folks' but didn't sleep much. It wasn't his bed, his new clothes felt funny, and when he reached over to turn off the lamp on the nightstand, he noticed how different it felt from the one next to his own bed, in the bedroom he and Jennifer shared for eighteen years.
No one says
much on the ride to Welte Hall, the auditorium at
And there are the girls in black dresses. So many girls in black dresses — high school girls, clutching one another as they walk. Friends of the Pet-it girls. Reporters, notepads and recorders stuffed into breast pockets, nose around the big, round patio out front, acting hesitant, approaching some of the girls in black dresses, asking, "Excuse me, hi, I'm so sorry. Are you a friend of Hayley's?" Some of the girls stop to talk.
CCSU workers had prepared the day before, hauling folding tables, arranging chairs, and dragging a heavy red cloak across the stage as a backdrop. When the doors open at ten, the people file in, quietly filling the 1,814 scratchy maroon seats in minutes. The lobby, a good twenty feet deep, jams up, too — the school has set up TV screens out there to show the service, and more in overflow rooms. By the time the service begins, four thousand people are watching the stage.
stand behind the podium, each displaying a poster crowned with white roses and
curtained with lace, blown-up photographs of the girls. Petit sits in a room
backstage, waiting for the service to begin. Ron is there too, Bucchi. Thank God
for Ron Bucchi. Ron has taken care of everything. He camped out at the hospital
all week while Bill recovered, set up a makeshift office in a conference room,
where he did it all: ordered the coffins — Petit's only instruction was that
they be white; he left the rest to Ron — dealt with the press, set up this thing
today, this memorial, which was supposed to begin in a few minutes. During the
few days of planning, Ron had to convince the
The pastor from United Methodist speaks. Hanna speaks — beautifully, breathing hard, showing on this numb morning a strength that Bill, the oldest sibling and always the leader, will come to depend on. Jennifer's father speaks with a coppery voice that sounds like wisdom. There are songs, readings.
But nobody thinks Petit will speak. He isn't even listed in the program. He's recovering from wounds that would have killed many men, and he is in shock. Sure, last night, when Ron left the Petits' house around eight-thirty, Bill had told him that yeah, he was gonna stay up and work on his remarks. And Hanna had read a draft — last night, or this morning, it was a blur. But nobody thinks he will actually stand up — the wounds on his head still soft and red and pulsing, his vision blurry at times — and speak to all these faces. But at the right moment, Petit gives Steve Hanks a little nod, and Hanks helps him to the podium, a hand on his elbow to steady him. Bill buttons the top two buttons of his unfamiliar suit jacket, pats his breast pocket to find the folded copy of his speech. Hanks twists open a water bottle for him and adjusts the mic. Four thousand people draw quick whispers of air, watching in disbelief as the doctor lumbers up to the front of the stage. Petit is six-four and built like a truck, but he's lost so much blood and so much family, and everyone is staring at him. He feels as if he is in another man's body. His new shoes feel unnatural on his feet, and the stage is foreign under their soles. Hanna, Ron, his parents — everybody is praying that he won't drop to the floor right there in Welte Hall. Everyone would understand.
He doesn't drop to the floor. He stands and he speaks for twenty-two minutes. He makes the crowd laugh a little and does an imitation of Michaela walking around staring at the floor in shyness. She was always big for her age, and he says how they used to call the girls who made fun of her "skinny dwarf girls." And then at the end, he takes a deep breath and, with his voice faltering and his eyes focused down at the podium, says, "I guess if there's anything to be gained from the senseless deaths of my beautiful family, it's for us to all go forward with the inclination to live with a faith that embodies action, help a neighbor, fight for a cause, love your family." And here he looks up at the four thousand people. "I'm really expecting all of you to go out and do some of these things with your family in your own little way, to spread the work of these three wonderful women. Thank you."And the four thousand people stand and clap for more than a minute.
is giddy —
or as giddy as Bill Petit gets — about seeing Hayley. She's a star, that kid.
Confident, quiet, smart, hardworking — and strong. Six
feet, all muscle. She's been away for a few days, and while it's always fun to
hang out with sweet Michaela, Hays will go off to
On his way home from playing golf with his dad, he checks in with Jen, who reports that Michaela is cooking dinner for the family. Perfect. He speeds home to get his hug from Hays and eat whatever delicious thing KK is making. She's been watching the Food Network a lot, and, for an eleven-year-old, she can really cook.
The sky is
clouding up, but the evening air is bright and warm, and
This isn't the first time Petit has zonked out on the couch for the night. He wakes at six most mornings and works till seven or eight at night, then comes home and spends a couple of hours with the girls before reading and working some more. He's never needed much sleep, but ever since Jennifer's MS diagnosis, she gets tired early. He doesn't like to wake her when he climbs into bed, and anyway, he can function fine after a night on the couch, even on five or six hours of sleep.
He awakens from a dream to find himself in a dark house except for the lamp by the couch. The newspaper has drifted to the floor. Must be after midnight. He reaches up to turn off the light, closes his eyes, and falls back asleep.
the time the
Petits sit down to dinner, somewhere in
Komisarjevsky, who's twenty-six, at a halfway house in
before, July 21, they had gone on a test run. They met up in
4.Earlier that day,Sunday, July 22, Bill, Jennifer, and Michaela attend the nine-thirty service at the Cheshire United Methodist Church, a hulking white building built in 1970 and redolent of the unfortunate architecture of the era — an overlapping series of featureless, cutout facades with faux peaks. Hayley is away at a friend's house for the weekend or she'd be here, too. The Reverend Stephen Volpe, a buoyant, moonfaced man whom everyone calls Pastor Steve, leads the worship, standing as he always does in front of the austere dark cross, backlit on a gleaming white slab behind the altar.
Pastor Steve doesn't give a sermon. Instead, some church members who have participated in the United Methodist Action Reach-Out Mission by Youth, or U. M. ARMY, speak about their experience on that year's weeklong mission. Bill and Jen feel a certain pride listening to this. One of the first members of Cheshire United Methodist to participate in U. M. ARMY, a few years earlier, was Hayley Petit.
By the time
Bill, Jen, and Michaela walk out of church, Hayley is already on her way home
from her friend's house in
Bill and Michaela sneak up the road to the quaint Notch Store for the homemade
doughnuts that they serve only on Sundays. It's supposed to be their secret —
Jen tries to get her husband to eat healthy — but somehow Michaela always lets
it slip. Today, though, they head home for lunch. It's a July Sunday, with
mercifully little to do. Petit's dad calls and asks if he wants to play golf,
which he usually does. The sky above central
On his way to the club Petit calls his friend Ron Bucchi, too, to see if he wants to join him and his dad at the club. But Ron is working in the yard and he hasn't shaved all weekend, and he figures that by the time he showers and shaves and drives the fifteen minutes to the club ... he tells Petit to go ahead, he'll catch him next weekend.
3.The golf relieves some of the pressure of the work that keeps him away from his girls so much. Petit brings Hayley on his rounds at New Britain General when she's too small even to see over the patients' beds. It's one way he can spend time with her, but it's also his way of showing her the world. He's not trying to teach her medicine; he's teaching her about people. In some patients' rooms, finger paintings and Magic Markered get-well cards paper the walls. In other rooms, the walls are bare. Petit tells Hayley how nice it would be if she drew pictures for the people in the rooms that looked the loneliest.
He teaches her everything he can think of. As a girl, she knows the name of every tree and every bird. Once, when she was a toddler, he took hold of her hand and held it a few inches over a candle's flame — nowhere near close enough to burn but close enough to feel the heat — and said, "Hot, hot."
She can't always be with him, of course, and that's hard. But for one thing, when he isn't home, he's helping people, and that's good, right? That's one belief that he and Jennifer hold fast: You help people. Plus, the more he works, the more he can provide for his girls. He has started doing speaking gigs all over the country — driving, flying, talking to roomfuls of people about endocrinology. It's wearing him out, and Hanna, for one, talks to him about slowing down — at least cutting out the travel. He tells her she doesn't get it: It's miserable, but he can make $2,000 in a night and it goes right into the girls' college funds. Hanna makes a face when she sees the McDonald's wrappers on the floor of his car after one of his trips, and he looks at her like, What am I supposed to do?
Hayley is nine years old in 1998, when Jennifer is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Bill and Jen sit her down and talk to her about it, and the little girl gets the idea that it's up to her to try to save her mother's life. On a pad of lined paper she begins handwriting notes to her friends and family, asking them to sponsor her in the annual Connecticut MS Walk. She calls her team Hayley's Hope. She waits and waits, and then the envelopes start appearing in the mail at her house with checks inside. And each year, she does it again, sending her letters out like clockwork to Aunt Hanna, to Aunt Cindy, to the Bucchis — by her senior year, after about seven years of mailing out the letters and walking the MS walk, she has raised $55,000 to fight multiple sclerosis and save her mother's life. When Hayley graduates, Michaela wants to continue her big sister's efforts. She plans to rename the team Michaela's Miracle.
Petit grows flowers for the girls. It gives him some peace on the weekends, away from the phone calls, the rounds, and the research — the soft, cool dirt on his hands, the sweet smells, and, usually, Michaela kneeling next to him, the two of them chatting away. She loves to plant. As they pat the soil over each bulb, she tells him that the plants have to be "cozy." Pots of daffodils in the backyard, flowering hostas around the patio, a bed of brilliant orange and yellow four-o'clocks behind a cairn at the end of the driveway. It's their special activity.
girl in the bed is
suffering. She has post-strep glomerulonephritis, a painful kidney disorder that
can last for months. She lies in a bed at Children's Hospital in
Bill Petit, a third-year med student, walks in like he owns the place. There's a nurse standing over Becky, and Petit stops in his tracks — the nurse is a knockout. Thin and pretty with blond hair and the big, playful eyes of a calf. He immediately goes into know-it-all med-student mode, trying to show the young nurse how to check Becky's blood pressure. The nurse watches patiently, smiles, and when the tall med student is finished, she proceeds to do it the correct way.
is a local preacher's kid. Her family has always lived in the parsonage of
whatever church her father was assigned to. She doesn't go out much — her
younger sister, Cindy, sometimes has to coax Jenny into having what most people
think of as fun.
This guy Bill
seems different, though. Eventually he asks her out, and for their first date he
takes her to dinner at a place called Tramp's — with his parents. They happen to
have driven out from
thinks it's a little weird. It's weird that Jenny's going on a date with a guy
named Bill in the first place. Who's named Bill? They have an uncle named Bill,
and it seems like an old man's name. And then this first date — he's taking her
to a place called Tramp's. It's not a bad place, downtown near where the
the same boy through most of high school. He was like another member of the
family, and Cindy thinks of him as a kind of older brother. He and Jen have been
broken up for years, and he's gone off to Harvard and lives in
It isn't like that, Cindy tells him — this guy is a family friend. The confrontation makes her feel awkward. But to Bill, Jennifer Hawke isn't just any girl. He's falling in love with her, and he's not taking any chances.
He can't be more than thirteen or fourteen, already over six feet, when his father leaves him to run the family grocery store by himself — he's what the grown-ups call "mature." Standing at the till selling milk to the ladies running their errands in town and cigarettes to the men after their lunches at the Main Street Diner, Billy never flinches. He watches his father at work, so he knows how a man is supposed to act. On vacations, Bill and Barbara pile all five kids into the car and drive off somewhere beautiful, sometimes without a plan. They stop at some motel, and it's Billy, not his dad, who runs inside to ask whether they have any rooms, what the rate is, and whether the guy can do any better. Rawboned, ten or eleven years old, and he's negotiating a good price while Pops keeps the car idling.
voice is deep as a gravel pit and he never raises it. He's pragmatic and equable
and friendly. At home, Bill and Barbara run an orderly household, and for a
family of five kids within seven years, there isn't much drama. Billy might lock
his younger brother Glenn out of their bedroom — problematic because Billy's the
only one, including his parents, who knows how to lock the interior doors — but
most of the time, the days are sewn together by
routine. Barbara keeps a chore chart on the refrigerator, and when the kids are
done playing ball on
much grass behind the house under the basketball hoop — Billy has dribbled it
away. He dribbles hard, pounding the ball into the dirt, same way he does in the
gym. He's competitive as all hell, even with his own teammates. Ron Bucchi plays
on the same Knights of Columbus team in junior high, the Columbian Squires.
They're regional champs for a couple of years, making the three-hour ride from
At Plainville High, Billy is captain of the basketball team, a shooting guard, although he's tall enough that sometimes the coach puts him on the low post. For away games, Ron and Billy sneak good grinders onboard and eat them in the back of the bus, but that's as close as they come to causing trouble. Mostly they just sit and watch the towns slip by. Billy leads the Blue Devils to the CIAC tournament his senior year, 1974. He's class president. National Honor Society. Wins the Boys' State Award and the D.A.R. History Award — the day they take pictures for that one, he wears these Mad Hatter checkered pants, just the loudest things you've ever seen, and spreads his thin lips into a grin. Not smug. Pleased.
Bill Sr. says he never taught his oldest boy to have drive, he just had it naturally. Billy's brain always seemed to work harder and his long limbs seemed to move faster than everyone else's. He is a "self-starter," his dad says. That's all. He doesn't talk much about his accomplishments — in an old Yankee family like the Petits', you don't brag. You go about your business and don't cause a fuss. And you have a plan. It's like Billy tells his little sister, Hanna: She's into gymnastics, but he tells her she's going to be big like him and ought to stick to playing ball, because that's gonna be her game, and you gotta think about these things.
graduation, Billy turns down Yale — he doesn't want to be in a city — and
But is there such a thing? The footsteps along the path that makes up a life prepare you for any number of things that can be thrown at you, or they don't. Why does one man come undone while the next finds a way to make it through? Maybe the answer can be found at the very start.
Look at Billy Petit. Once, when he was real little, no more than two, Billy disappears from the house early in the morning. Nobody can find him. The Petits are about as even-keeled as they come, but Barbara panics — Billy's still in diapers. And he's nowhere in the house, so she runs outside, calling his name. Nowhere in the yard. Oh, Lord. Billy. Finally, she finds him down the street at the neighbor's, eating strawberries right off the stems, easy as you please, beaming like the sun, his tiny fingers sticky with the sweet red juice of summer.