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Standing in the local Bank of America branch, Jennifer Hawke-Petit looked shaken. In the most desperate hours of her life, she was evidently doing everything she could to hold herself together. She was at the bank to cash a $15,000 check, money she hoped would buy off the two kidnappers who were holding her husband, Dr. William Petit Jr., and two daughters Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, hostage at their home. Before taking the cash and departing, Jennifer managed to tip off the teller with something written on a slip of paper. Nearby, another customer, Debbie Biggins, could tell something was terribly wrong. "She was stiff," says Biggins. "I sensed panic. It was all bad; I felt it."

It was about to get far worse. Less than 45 minutes later, Jennifer and her two girls were dead, wantonly murdered. Even in a day and age when grisly crimes come and go with each news cycle, there was something truly horrifying about the killings in Cheshire, Conn., on July 23. Part of it was how well-known and well-liked the Petits were: Jennifer, 48, a pediatric nurse, had made a name for herself in the community with her unfailing kindnesses; her daughters were beautiful, friendly girls full of promise. But part of it was the way they died: held hostage for hours, with two of them sexually assaulted, before their final moments of terror. Police quickly arrested two men at the scene—Steven Hayes, 44, and Joshua Komisarjevsky, 26—ex-cons who had roomed together recently at a state correctional halfway house, but that scarcely softened the sense of shock that rippled throughout the community. "What all of them went through, especially little Michaela, it completely broke me up," says Bob Averack, who lives across the street from the Petits. "The anger and the sadness and the absolute outrage at what happened to that family is beyond description."

The tragedy began with a chance encounter. On July 22, police have confirmed, the suspects happened to spot Jennifer and Michaela at a Stop & Shop in Cheshire, where they were getting into a white Mercedes. They followed the pair to the Petits' comfortable four-bedroom home. "They liked the house and figured there was money there," says Bill Petit's father, William Sr. That evening Bill, a prominent endocrinologist, and Jennifer enjoyed a dinner of pasta with homemade tomato sauce whipped up by Michaela; afterward the girls read Harry Potter before going to bed. At 3 a.m. Hayes and Komisarjevsky allegedly returned and got into the house through an unlocked cellar door. Once inside they attacked Bill with a baseball bat, knocking him out. They then tied the three women up, with Hayley and Michaela apparently lashed to their beds. After that they managed to walk Bill, bound and groggy, down to the basement. With him out of the way, they allegedly went back upstairs. According to the state's attorney, Hayes raped Jennifer, and Komisarjevsky sexually assaulted young Michaela.

At 9 a.m. one of the suspects—reportedly Hayes—drove Jennifer to the bank and waited for her in the car. When shown the slip of paper from Jennifer, the bank manager summoned police, who turned up in force in minutes. The police raced to the Petit home, but by the time they arrived, it was too late. As they pulled up, Hayes and Komisarjevsky were coming out. They had apparently spread gasoline around the beds of the two girls and set them afire in a seeming effort to cover up the crime. Police quickly nabbed them after they had rammed three patrol cars trying to get away. But before cops could enter the house, it was already engulfed in flames. Meanwhile Bill had awakened to the sound of his wife screaming for her life. He managed to untie his hands and escape from the cellar by the outside door. "He couldn't undo his legs, so he hopped his way up the stairs and into the yard," says William Sr. His wife and daughters were not so fortunate. Authorities found Jennifer, who had been strangled, along with Hayley and Michaela, who died of smoke inhalation while tied to their beds. "Five minutes earlier, and they could have saved everyone," says William Sr., "but that's not the way it worked."

Their awful deaths were in stark contrast to the grace with which they lived their lives. Bill and Jennifer had met at a hospital in Pittsburgh, where he was a medical student and she was a nurse. On July 28 Bill, bruised and stitched up, spoke at an overflowing memorial for his lost loved ones. He described how he had tried to show off with Jennifer by demonstrating how to take a patient's blood pressure, only to have her gently correct him. Even then, he recalled, "She knew more about how to take care of kids than I ever would." Eight years ago Jennifer had been diagnosed with MS, but she never complained. She had been working as the school nurse at the private Cheshire Academy, where she was known as almost a surrogate mom for the students. Says fellow nurse Debra Bonds: "She only saw the good in people."

Her daughters were from the same mold. From the time she was very young, Hayley had wanted to follow her parents and go into medicine. In a recent essay for college she had spoken of how she idolized her father and his "amazing godlike powers to heal." Through participating in walkathons, she had raised $55,000 for MS research and had even formed a team called Hayley's Hope. This fall she was about to realize a dream and begin studies at her father's alma mater, Dartmouth. Meanwhile Michaela—nicknamed "Kay Kay"—was just coming into her own. A vegetarian, she had a passion for cooking and the Food Network. As her father, choking back his tears, said at the memorial service, "She was a wonderful little girl who was going to grow up to be a beautiful woman."

As for the two suspects, both have extensive rap sheets. Hayes, who grew up in nearby Winsted, Conn., has a criminal record, with 26 prior convictions, including burglary and weapons charges, stretching back to 1980. Lately he had been living with his mother in a down-at-the-heels condominium. Komisarjevsky, though, comes from a relatively privileged background. His Russian grandfather and grandmother had been prominent figures in dance and the arts. Adopted as an infant, Komisarjevsky had been raised in Cheshire, where his family owned a good deal of property. By the time he was 14, however, he was already in trouble with the police for burglary. By his early 20s, he had become increasingly brazen in his methods. At a sentencing hearing in 2002 after Komisarjevsky was convicted of burglary, the prosecutor pointed out that in contrast to most burglars—who commit their crimes during the day in order to avoid encountering homeowners—Komisarjevsky worked at night, sometimes listening to his victims sleep. He even used night-vision goggles to aid in his crimes. At that same hearing, Komisarjevsky's attorney cited drug problems and alleged molestation—by foster kids his family had taken in—as mitigating factors. Nevertheless, the judge pronounced Komisarjevsky a "calculated, cold-blooded predator."

There is some evidence that Komisarjevsky at least entertained the notion of going straight. An unidentified woman, who said she had been a friend of his, provided letters to CNN he had purportedly written from prison in which he talked of becoming a real-estate developer and being able to provide for his daughter, now 5. But he also worried about his "criminal demon" derailing his dreams.

Amid an outcry, Connecticut officials have promised to investigate how they could have been let out on parole and to reform procedures if necessary. But in the meantime, the two suspects, who police confirm have confessed, have been charged with multiple counts of murder and kidnapping and are facing a possible death penalty. While the prospect of severe punishment provided comfort to some people, some friends of the Petits preferred not to dwell on that aspect of the tragedy. "It makes you want to give up on a world where this could happen to people like this, but then you realize they would not want us to give up," says Deb Hereld, who was a friend of Jennifer's. "If this happened to somebody else, they would be the people in the front, comforting, organizing help and just being there on a personal level. You don't meet many people like that in your life; you just don't."

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  • Contributors:
  • Reported by Nicole Weisensee Egan/Philadelphia,
  • Judy Rakowsky/Connecticut,
  • Lucia Greene/Connecticut,
  • Molly Lopez/Connecticut.