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Heartbreaking Details From the Connecticut Home Invasion

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In August, the Connecticut Supreme Court’s ruled the death penalty violated the state’s constitution, granting reprieve to 11 men sitting on the state’s death row, including Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, two men had been convicted of murdering a woman and her two daughters in their Connecticut home in 2007.

Now, a new book by Popular Mechanics editor in chief Ryan D’Agostino focuses on the sole survivor of the attack, husband and father Dr. William Petit. The Rising: Murder, Heartbreak, and the Power of Human Resilience in an American Town, follows Petit from his childhood, through his emotional recovery. The facts of the crime are horrific: He was hit on the head and tied up in his basement while the two intruders tied his daughters, Michaela and Hayley, to their beds, forced his wife, Jennifer, to go to the bank and withdraw $15,000, then raped and strangled her before lighting the house on fire, killing the two girls. These crimes are almost too awful to comprehend, but in a narrative reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, D’Agostino draws humanity through chilling detail.

Some following the case wondered why Petit was asleep on a couch downstairs when the intruders entered his home in the middle of the night, but D’Agostino explains it was just a routine happening, since he didn’t like to disturb his wife (who suffered from MS) by climbing into bed after she was asleep. That night, he had gone to the sunroom to read the paper while the girls watched Army Wives in the living room. D’Agostino writes:

He was exhausted. He had gotten some sun out on the golf course, and he had just eaten a big plate of pasta. Not long after the girls’ show started, he was out cold on the couch, a section of the newspaper on his chest. When Army Wives ended, at eleven, the girls locked up the house and went upstairs to bed, leaving a light on in the kitchen for the cats, as usual. With her dad asleep on the couch downstairs, Michaela curled up in her parents’ bed, where she and Jennifer read the latest Harry Potter book together, and fell asleep.

Petit woke up to the pain of a head injury—the men had clubbed him in his sleep with a baseball bat, a giveaway from a rum brand he’d picked up at a liquor store his father once owned. He realized he was in grave danger: “He has been taking a prescription blood thinner called Coumadin since he had the heart trouble a few years ago, so as he lies on the couch, he is bleeding out faster than most people would.” The men tied him up in the basement and covered his face:

The shirt is no longer on his head, but now they throw a quilt over him. One of Hayley’s elementary-school teachers, Mrs. Watkinson, made it for Hayley and gave it to her when she graduated from high school a few weeks ago.

Eventually, by standing up and sitting down repeatedly, Petit was able to use the pole he was tied to to break the plastic zip ties binding his hands and escaped through the basement’s bulkhead door. When he went next door to ask for help (he had to roll across the ground to make it), his neighbor didn’t even recognize him; when the police arrived, they didn’t seem sure whether to consider Petit a victim or suspect, and at first would not cut the binding around his ankles.

Petit had no idea what was happening to his wife and daughters as he escaped the burning house, and remained in the hospital for some time after their murders. His friend Ron Bucchi took care of many of the logistics in the wake of the crime, flying family members to Connecticut and helping handle the press.

It also falls mostly to Ron to arrange the funeral for the three Petit girls. He asks Bill, who is still hooked up to an IV, what do you want me to do?

White caskets, Bill says. I just want white caskets. You can figure out the rest.

Hayes was the first assailant to be put on trial in 2010, and as if the experience wouldn’t be hard enough for Petit, he was treated with suspicion at the courthouse.

Bill was already seated inside the courtroom but stepped out to use the men’s room. When he walks up to reenter, he doesn’t walk through the metal detector like everyone else. The marshal gestures for him to step around, and he hand-frisks him—Bill Petit, pillar of the community, being felt up for a weapon. The marshal looks almost apologetic. But if Bill minds the indignity, he doesn’t show it. He knows they have to do this. He is about to enter a courtroom in which he will be seated ten feet from one of the men who killed his family, and they need to make sure Bill doesn’t have any ideas. People try things.

Hayes and Komisarjevsky were both convicted, and Petit has said that he takes issue with the court’s decision to overturn their death sentences. But he has found some measure of peace in his personal life; he is remarried and has a young son. “Bill Petit is able to string together stretches of good hours, entire portions of a day when he feels good,” D’Agostino writes. “The long night has given way to a new kind of dawn, filled with the sunshine of a little boy’s smile.”

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