Horror In The Night

Horror In The Night
PEOPLE issue of Aug. 13, 2007

08/02/2007 AT 12:00 PM EDT

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."

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