Father struggles to carry on slain family's legacy
Monday, July 21, 2008 5
A year ago, Dr. William Petit had a thriving medical practice. He lived in a comfortable colonial house adorned with flower gardens in an upscale Connecticut suburb with his wife and two daughters admired for their charitable works.
Then two intruders turned the tranquil setting into a suburban nightmare. The hours-long hostage drama ended with the slayings of his wife and two daughters July 23, 2007.
Police say the men with long criminal histories severely beat Petit and forced his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, to withdraw thousands of dollars from a nearby bank before they strangled her. Their daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, were tied to their beds and died of smoke inhalation from a fire that police say was set by the intruders before they fled.
The crimes turned Cheshire, called the "Bedding Plant Capital of Connecticut," from a town where many residents didn't bother to lock their doors to a place where people are increasingly buying guns.
And they left Petit to face a future with none of what he cherished from the past. To survive, Petit returned to the charity work of his wife and daughters.
On Sunday, he was among the thousands who turned out for the first GE 5K Road Race in Plainville, organized by two high school friends to benefit a foundation created in memory of his wife and daughters.
Petit, who received loud cheers as he crossed the finish line, said being involved in such events has been a "coping mechanism" for him over the past year.
"They're all very positive and you almost stay in the moment with the events and then _ you know why you're here and you don't want to be here," Petit said as he choked back tears.
"So you just try to stay in the moment and stay positive because even though you feel like crying, you figure you don't want to cry in front of 20,000 people at every event," he added.
Lisa Gerrol, president of the Greater Connecticut Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, who knew Petit's wife and daughters, said she sees the diabetes doctor continuing his family's efforts to help others.
"I think that his emphasis from the very beginning is that he wants to take the most horrible situation that could happen to anyone and turn it into something positive, something good," she said.
About $350,000 has been raised for the MS society. Both Petit children had supported the society after their mother was diagnosed with the disease.
Gerrol said she's never seen such outpouring of support.
"It's a huge amount of money. Raising $350,000 is no simple feat, it takes a lot of hard work and effort," she said. "And I don't believe it's finished."
In all, donors gave about $1 million to charity in the family's name, including $600,000 to the Petit Family Foundation that will encourage young women to study science, help people suffering from chronic illness and assist those affected by violence. Some grants have already been awarded.
There are also funds honoring the late mother and her two daughters at schools where they worked and attended.
Petit, 51, has become involved in all aspects of fundraising events _ from designing the medals given out to children at Sunday's road race to helping to choose scholarship recipients for the MS Society.
"Billy's always been strong," said Bob Heslin, who organized the road race with his brother Gary. "He was our class president in 1974. He was a leader then and he's a leader now. There's not too many people who could do what he's doing."
Petit had the house where his family was slain torn down, although town records show he still owns the land. All that remains today are a few flower gardens growing in an empty lot and a large heart carved into what was once the lawn.
Petit moved in with his parents in nearby Plainville and sees a counselor, according to his mother-in-law, Marybelle Hawke.
"He still doesn't know who he is and what every day's purpose is," Hawke said. "He still feels like he's lost all his purpose for living."
Dr. Earle J. Sittambalam, president of Grove Hill Medical Center in New Britain, said he sees Petit, his friend and colleague of 20 years, at monthly Hartford County Medical Association meetings and notices how he has changed since the crimes.
"He's very calm and pleasant and friendly, but I do see a difference in him, you know, because he's my friend and I know him so well," he said. "When I talk to him, I see a difference and I feel it in my heart that he is hurting inside. He is putting a good show outside by talking and smiling and working with us, but I can sense the hurt he has inside."
Sittambalam said Petit has sought the solace of others.
"I remember that he would call friends at 2, 3, 4 in the morning to talk to them, because he felt so lonesome that he had to talk to people," he said. "And I'm sure he's talking to people to keep his mind occupied."
Friends have given Petit photos they had of his wife and children, to help replace his family photos, which burned in the fire.
Petit last year sent state lawmakers a letter calling for reforms to the state's parole system and harsher penalties for people convicted of home invasion. The General Assembly passed new laws that lengthen prison sentences for repeat offenders and felons convicted of home invasion.
The two suspects, Joshua Komisarjevsky, 27, and Steven Hayes, 45, were recent parolees. Both face capital felony and multiple murder, kidnapping, sexual assault and arson charges. They could face the death penalty if convicted.
Residents here are more guarded than a year ago _ many bought deadbolts and alarms for their homes, and some signed up for gun-safety classes so they could buy firearms.
Gun permit applications in Cheshire, located 14 miles north of New Haven, jumped substantially after the Petits were attacked. There were 81 completed applications last year, more than double the 33 in 2006. Fifty-nine of the applications from last year were filled out after the crimes, police said.
"It was an eye-opener for everybody," said Frank Solla, a 38-year-old landscaper doing work near the Petit property.