Memorial garden on site of former Petit home ‘A place of serenity, not a place of sorrow’

July 16, 2017 01:01AM

By Jesse Buchanan Record-Journal staff

Editor’s note: Part I of a series on the legacy of the Petit home invasion 10 years ago this month.

CHESHIRE – The Petit family house is gone but their friends and neighbors in the Sorghum Mill Drive area are mostly still there. Now a memorial garden, the Petit property is a reminder of the three women who were killed 10 years ago this month but is also just one of the many projects residents have undertaken together following the crime.

Chris Gilleylen, a former neighbor of the Petits who recently moved to Southington, said she’s still back often to tend the memorial garden on the property where the family’s house stood. Fewer people visit the garden now, but Gilleylen said she’ll still encounter people there who want to visit or volunteer to help maintain it.

From this section: As a lawmaker, Petit doesn’t dwell on the past “It’s really a place of serenity, not a place of sorrow,” she said. “You’d be surprised at who you find there.”

Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and other groups helped tend the garden in previous years but Gilleylen has since hired a landscaping company to do that work.

“Every year it was another group of kind-hearted people,” she said. “Each year it was somebody different.”

After the death of his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and daughters Michaela and Hayley, William Petit Jr. founded the Petit Family Foundation to support causes for which his wife and daughters had a passion, such as finding a cure for chronic illnesses, fighting violence against women and the education of young people particularly women in the sciences. William Petit Jr. declined to comment for this story.

Those looking to continue the Petit family’s legacy tend to donate to the foundation or other groups that Gilleylen said have grown tremendously in the past 10 years. In addition to the good that’s happened since 2007, Petit’s healing over the past 10 years has set the tone for those who know him.

“You feel the closure and you move on yourself,” Gilleylen said. “He’s a remarkable man.”

“It’s one of those things you go through, you work through, you live through it, you live with it and you come out the other side,” she said.

In the months following the home invasion, the Petits’ home remained as a burnt-out shell. Even after its demolition, it was a pile of rubble reminding neighbors of the tragedy that had occurred.

Bob Picozzi, a nearby Hotchkiss Ridge resident, said a garden was the best possible use for the property. He’s driven by it thousands of times in the last 10 years and can’t help but remember the family.

“I’ve never once driven past where that house stood without thinking about what happened there. No matter what you’re thinking about when you get in the car… No matter what you’re thinking about, the thought process comes to an abrupt stop,” he said.

Picozzi, an ESPN play-by-play announcer, says he’ll drive past the cemetery where the Petits are buried and visits there often as well.

In college, Picozzi’s freshmen year roommate drowned. He was a pallbearer in the funeral, a task for which he said he was emotionally unprepared.

“Through that experience, I learned that you never ever get past anything like that,” Picozzi said. ”Instead you have to learn to live with it.”

The crime affected the neighborhood in other ways too. Picozzi’s neighbor looking to sell his house had two buyers back out of the deal, worried about having to explain the nearby Petit property to their children.

In January 2008, Cheshire’s Lights of Hope held its first town-wide event with luminaries lining side streets and main roads. Founders Don and Jenifer Walsh had organized the event for the two previous years for a neighbor who had died but thought it would help the town heal and connect neighbors.

“People were scared, people were sad, people didn’t know what to do,” Don Walsh said. “We know having the luminary event helped our neighborhood get to know each other, get to find out a little bit about each other and brought our neighborhood together.”

“We hoped we’d sell 1,000 luminaries,” Don Walsh said.

In that first year, the group sold 130,000 luminaries with the proceeds going to local charities including the Petit Family Foundation. For many residents, Lights of Hope was a memorial event for the Petit family. Don Walsh said that’s part of it, but in recent years has emphasized that Lights of Hope is for the entire town. Some participants, and even committee members, suggested the event end after 2008. The Walsh family felt otherwise.

“We have people who do it because they’ve lost a loved one, for any number of reasons,” he said. “Do it for whatever reason you want, and do it to connect with your neighbors.”

Money raised goes to a variety of town organizations and scholarships but still benefits the Petit Family foundation.

“If it wasn’t for this tragedy, our whole organization would have never been,” Don Walsh said.

The Petit Family Foundation was started in late 2007. The foundation has received checks from schools, concerts, weddings where donations were taken in lieu of gifts, car shows and individuals. In 2009, William Petit Jr. said he was encouraged by the support but added it was hard to be reminded of his loss.

“It’s nice to feel the support. It’s very double-edged,” he said. “You’re basically doing it all because somebody killed your family. Sometimes you don’t want to think about it... People are blown away that people could do that.”

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