“Something didn’t feel right…”
That was the first thought in former prosecutor turned filmmaker David Heilbroner’s mind after hearing about the horrible events that took place in the small suburban town of Cheshire, Connecticut on 23 July, 2007. The specifics were beyond disturbing. Sometime in the late afternoon on 22 July, two members of the Petit family, Mom Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughter Michaela, went to a local grocery store to shop. Little did they know that they were being watched by career criminal Joshua Komisarjevsky. Along with his accomplice, Steven Hayes, they planned to follow the two home and rob them. Hawkes-Petit was the wife of prominent physician Dr. William Petit, and the couple had another daughter, 17-year-old Hayley.
The Cheshire Murders
(HBO; premiere: 22 Jul 2013; 2013)
After a series of texts and a stake out near the house, the duo started their early morning assault. Finding Dr. Petit on the porch sleeping, Komisarjevsky picked up a baseball bat and bludgeoned him. They then tied him up in the basement and left him for dead while they pursued the other occupants. They found Jennifer and the girls, restrained and locked them in their rooms, and then proceed to ransack the home. When the haul didn’t appear to be sufficient enough, Komisarjevsky got the idea of taking Hawkes-Petit to the bank to withdraw some money. Surveillance footage captured the exchange between future victim and a teller, and it is here where the compelling documentary by Heilbroner (along with wife and collaborator Kate Davis), The Cheshire Murders begins.
We hear the frantic voices, and feel the desperation. We also understand that Hawkes-Petit was doomed. Within minutes, she would be taken back to her home. She would be raped and strangled by Hayes while Komisarjevsky assaulted little Michaela. They then secured the still living girls to their beds, poured gasoline throughout the house, and lit a match. “It’s too horrifying to think about,” Davis said in a phone interview with PopMatters promoting the upcoming HBO presentation of their film. “They burned them alive.” In the meantime, Dr. Petit had managed to escape and was crawling across his lawn for help when police arrived. Seeing the house on fire (more on this later), they waited until Hayes and Komisarjevsky ran out to supposed safety. They were captured, and quickly confessed.
End of story, right? The entire case wrapped up in a neat little bow with the badly burned bodies of Jennifer, Michaela, and Hayley as a reminder of the savagery of the deed. But for the residents of the sleepy little burg, and for Heilbroner, all the pieces didn’t fit. “As a former lawyer,” he offered, “I wanted to understand it. What motivated these men? And better yet, why this family? Why this tragedy?” With the legal proceedings going on contemporarily with this concern, the filmmaking duo decided to take up camera and investigate. What they soon discovered didn’t change the outcome, but definitely cast a different light on what happened.
There are two things you will take away from this amazing film, a near step by step explanation of how something like this could come to pass. The first is a given, thought highlighted in a way that few films like it ever manage, and that is, that the victim pool always expands beyond those lost. In this case, Heilbroner and Davis were fortunate enough to talk with Hawkes-Petit’s parents , as well as other close family members and friends. At first, many were reluctant. While they all express intense grief over the situation, they also provide some unique perspective. “We were lucky to get the interviews we did,” Heilbroner said. “We had to establish trust. That we weren’t out to sensationalize the story. We just wanted their side.”
But they didn’t stop there. In order to proceed with this harrowing “howdunit” (the ‘who’ and ‘why’ were, obviously, already long established), the pair contacted people on Hayes and Komisarjevsky’s side, as well, and were shocked by the response. “It got very raw at times,” Heilbroner confessed, and indeed, when Steven Hayes’ emotionally distraught brother Matthew starts spilling the family secrets, things go from terrifying to tragic. “He clearly had something he needed to get out,” Davis added. “You could see it in his body language, in the way he spoke.” We see it as well, the camera lens capturing a man who is so unhinged by what has happened that his body seems to be vibrating. His brother Brian also confirms many of the Hayes’ clans more awful interpersonal realities.
We also learn of Komisarjevsky’s Hellish past, a youth filled with foster care, molestation, FBI style profiler hints at his deadly future, and most importantly, his almost pedophilic approach to relationships. We hear from two young women, Caroline Messel and Fran Hodges, both of whom used to “date” the killer as a teen, and their tales are unsettling to say the least. They paint a portrait of a confused young man, one who doesn’t understand his inner pain and lashes out in appropriate ways. One even goes so far as to suggest that he more or less ‘practiced’ on her when it came to his eventual actions at the Petit House. “He liked me cause I looked really young,” she says, “And he loved to tie me up.”
These aren’t excuses, mind you. No one on the side of the killers tries to make us feel compassion or caring for them. Instead, and this is The Cheshire Murders’ greatest strengths, they are present to fill in the blanks, to address the obvious question marks that many in the audience will have. Because the details of what happened are so lurid and paint such an awful picture of the pair in our eyes, the discussion with Hayes’ brothers or Komisarjevsky’s previous paramours added depth, not distraction. The focus here remains clear. Heilbroner and Davis are determined to present a detailed, unbiased overview of a crime that shook an entire community, even offering up information some may see as “unnecessary.” After all, who cares about the criminals, especially when the victims here were so guiltless and their surviving loved one’s so confused.
By exploring these angles of the story, by giving time to both the victims and criminals’ side, a better picture of what happened in Cheshire emerges. As the film unfolds, taking its time uncovering all the various facets, we see a tragedy both avoidable and accidental. Hayes and Komisarjevsky gave off clear warning signs that their criminality was turning more and more deadly, and yet the system let the public down. Similarly, it let the murderers down. The interviewees suggest that both of these men could have benefited from longer incarcerations, stricter sentencing, actual rehabilitation, and in Komisarjevsky’s case, better guardianship control from the state. This is not meant to make the killers either excused or sympathetic. Instead, The Cheshire Murders argues that things like this happen to innocent people because the safeguards put in place to serve and protect frequently fail, leaving openings for awful events like this to happen.
The other aspect of this narrative that becomes more and more exasperating over time is the lack of significant input from the Cheshire Police Department. While their public statements all suggest that the law enforcement officers could do nothing once they arrived (the house was engulfed in flames, remember), there is clear cut information that suggests otherwise. “The facts are there,” Heilbroner adds, “they were on scene a good half hour before the fire started.” Indeed, throughout the film, it becomes clearer and clearer that the Cheshire Police, warned about the situation from both the bank and concerned neighbors, arrived long before Hayes and Komisarjevsky grabbed the gasoline and made a break for it. The ‘coincidence’ of arriving just as they were exiting remains the movie’s most specious bit of official spin.
“My problem with the police is the arrogance,” Heilbroner stated. “You didn’t handle this situation ‘100% right,’ so don’t go out in public and say so.” Indeed, when asked to be interviewed for the film, the department stated they didn’t want to “cause more suffering” while stating with abject certainty that the police did everything right. Unequivocally. Even when the filmmakers promised a free forum and no ‘gotcha’ tactics, they wouldn’t budge. Today, the duo agreed that, by failing to respond, to even get on camera and repeat their standard support of the events that day, they fell into that Catch-22 legal conundrum known as “silence equals compliance.” “If you don’t defend yourself, or at least address the criticism, you’re letting others dictate the truth,” Heilbroner added.
In some ways, the lack of police interference is a bit of a red herring, at least from an audience’s point of view. Sure, their lack of aggressive action might have led to the deaths of the Petit girls, but one gets the distinct impression that neither Hayes nor Komisarjevsky were going to leave the house with witnesses still alive. The sexual assault also argues for a robbery turned much, much nastier, a situation that wouldn’t save the family either. Dad was already beaten and more or less left for dead, so why would some bull-horned warning from the cops stop them from doing the same to everyone else. Heilbroner and Davis make much of this ‘incompetence,’ but in retrospect, it looks more like a bad strategy that ended up costing three women their lives.
The last issue the couple faced was putting together the massive amount of footage they had to make up the final film together. “There were two trials,” Heilbroner explained, “And we couldn’t concentrate on that.” “There wasn’t the time” Davis added, “we also wanted to discuss the whole Death Penalty aspect of the case.” Indeed, shortly after Hayes and Komisarjevsky were convicted and sentenced to death, Connecticut overturned the controversial punishment…except, in their case. “If ever there was a crime that called out for (death), it was this one, ” Davis added, though both she and her husband admitted that the overall topic was/is more complicated than this.
Indeed, when watching The Cheshire Murders, one is struck by how rabid the District Attorneys were in seeking such a sentence. After all, both Hayes and Komisarjevsky wanted a plea deal. They would confess and plead guilty in turn for sentences of life in prison without parole, but the State would not let them. Instead, they pushed for trials that cost millions, took time, and brought all the horrific details and crime photo images to public light.
In the end, what’s clear from this film is that no one ‘won.’ Dr. Petit, who appears briefly, is still devastated by the events of that day, and while he’s since gotten his life back together (he recently remarried, something the movie doesn’t mention), his town is still torn by this case. The property where the house once stood is now a garden, created in memory of the three lives snuffed out. It also stands as a reminder of the innocence lost on that day. Over and over again as part of The Cheshire Murders’ narrative, we see and hear people asking pointed, problematic questions. Why did this happen? How could it happen? Was justice served? Unlike other documentaries of this kind, there is no last minute twist, no late night confession which puts another name amongst the list of, or in place of, those who committed the crime.
No, on a warm Summer morning in 2007, a pair of men invaded the Petit house and destroyed it, both literally and figuratively. They confessed to their crime and now sit on Death Row waiting to be executed. Thanks to the tireless efforts of David Heilbroner and Kate Davis we have a bit more insight into the various motives and meanings in this case than a basic news story could provide. It may not make the truth any easier to handle, but their film, The Cheshire Murders, does an excellent job of condensing the facts while finding insights the standard story might have overlooked.
And Heilbroner was right. Something wasn’t right. There was more to it all. Much more.