Friends Point To Cheshire Victims' Real Legacy

With Second Sentencing, They Hope Focus Will Shift Away From Petit Women's Murders To Their Lasting Deeds

By ALAINE GRIFFIN, [email protected]

The Hartford Courant

10:54 PM EST, January 25, 2012



— Among the many bricks inscribed with the names of sports teams and local organizations that line the walkway of a playground at Cheshire's Bartlem Park, there is one that reads: "In Memory of the Petits."

Down the road at Cheshire Academy, a memorial garden for the school's former nurse, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and her two daughters, Hayley and Michaela, bursts with color in the spring.

And at a local Methodist church, a program to help the needy that Hayley marshaled before she was killed is more popular than ever.

Although 4 1/2 years have passed since the deadly Cheshire home invasion, reminders of the civic-minded and beloved victims remain throughout the town and region.

Friends hope that after Friday's sentencing of Joshua Komisarjevsky — the second man tried, convicted and given a death sentence for the slayings — those reminders will help shift the focus of the crime's legacy away from the killers and toward memories of the family that was lost on July 23, 2007.

Both Komisarjevsky and Dr. William Petit Jr. — the lone survivor of the crime that claimed the lives of his wife and daughters — are expected to speak at Friday's sentencing.

"I'm hoping that after this, we're not going to have to hear so much about the murderers anymore and instead hear about all of the good things the family brought to people's lives," said Doug Erickson, a close friend of the Petit family and a Cheshire resident.

"They're gone, but I believe their legacies will burn bright, showing just what kind of forces they were, how many people they inspired," he said. "Bill is a good example of that. Look how much they inspired their husband and dad to carry on."

In the days after the murders, Hawke-Petit's career as a nurse and her volunteer work, as well as the accomplishments and charity work of Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, were talked about at memorial services and highlighted in news stories. But over time, the focus of the crime turned to the court trials in which defense attorneys fought vigorously, but unsuccessfully, to keep the killers off death row.

Erickson, who attended the trials of both killers, said that going to tributes for the family and attending fundraisers during the trials was tough for the family and close friends.

At one moment, they were experiencing an "uplifting" moment. "And then you were back in court everyday," Erickson said.

Of all of the memorials to Hawke-Petit and her daughters, the Petit Family Foundation is the most widely known, sponsoring annual scholarships and fundraisers to support the education of young people, especially women in the sciences, and those affected by chronic illness and violence.

Within the foundation, there are various projects meant to remember the victims, including Michaela's Garden Project, which encourages area families and youth to become more involved in their communities by planting and harvesting flower seeds originally salvaged from the Petit family's garden.

Another widely known memorial is a garden planted on Sorghum Mill Drive at the site of the former Petit home. In 2008, Petit razed the house, which had been destroyed by a fire that the killers set. The garden, open to the public, is maintained by friends and neighbors, some of whom have struggled for years with their own memories of what happened in their community.

Erickson's wife, Kim, a close friend of Hawke-Petit's, said that during her many hours of gardening there, she always hoped to find some memento from the family. Then one day, she said, she saw something glimmering in the dirt.

It was a cross with a tangled chain — a necklace that Hawke-Petit had lost while she was alive.

"Of course I couldn't wait to give it to Bill," Kim Erickson said.

Throughout the year at Cheshire United Methodist Church, the Petit family is remembered with services, flowers and other tributes. It is there that Hayley promoted the U.M. ARMY program, encouraging the youth of the church to volunteer to help the needy while learning how to work as a team.

While in high school, Hayley did a PowerPoint presentation at the church outlining the United Methodist Action Reach-Out Mission by Youth program after she attended one of the work camps.

Kim Erickson, who taught Hayley at Sunday school and was a leader of Hayley's church youth group, said that Hayley was so respected and well-liked among her peers that they trusted her enough to try the program, although it meant that they had to give up their cellphones and computers and other luxuries of home to live at a church for a time while doing repair work or landscaping at the homes of the needy.

"If Hayley would do it, everybody would do it," she said.

And although years have passed since that presentation, Hayley's promotion of the program is very much alive, Kim Erickson said. The number of youth members of the church who participate in the program grows each year.

"She always had this ability to go with the flow, and people liked that about her," Kim Erickson said. "She was always behind the scenes doing things for people."

And one of those people was her mother. Hawke-Petit, 48, suffered from multiple sclerosis, and both Hayley and Michaela were involved in the fight against the disease.

To keep up that fight, the Ericksons' daughter, Jamie, and two of her friends, Elizabeth and Kathryn Thompson, started "The Precious Petits" to raise money for the cause. That fundraising continues today.

Doug Erickson said that church members are looking forward to an upcoming "service of healing" to be held at the church next month, the first post-trial tribute.

"There is a network here that will never let their memories die," he said.

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