CHESHIRE, Conn. (AP) – Bouquets of flowers began to arrive near Dr. William Petit Jr.’s home by early Monday evening as friends and neighbors in this quiet suburb responded to the stunning news – his wife and two daughters were dead inside fire-damaged house, the apparent victims of a violent home invasion.
The prominent doctor survived and though severely injured managed to tell police what happened. His wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their two daughters, Hayley and Michaela, were found dead in the home, said a law enforcement official with first-hand knowledge of the investigation.
The official confirmed the deaths on the condition of anonymity because autopsy results are still pending.
Police said intruders broke into the home in the early morning and held the occupants hostage for hours, before one of the suspects accompanied a woman in the home to a local bank where she made a withdrawal. Bank employees became suspicious and notified police, who then drove to Petit’s home.
The house was in flames as they arrived and two suspects were trying to flee in a large station wagon. Both suspects were apprehended after their vehicle collided with several police cruisers. Petit, 50, was in stable condition at St. Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury.
The deaths shattered the sense of security in this upper-middle class neighborhood of professionals and colonial-style homes with well-kept lawns.
“In Cheshire we’re not used to this type of event,” town Police Chief Michael Cruess said. “It’s a very unfortunate, tragic event that’s probably going to reach right down to the core of the community.”
Petit, the president of the Hartford County Medical Association, is a noted specialist in diabetes and endocrinology and the medical director of the Joslin Diabetes Center Affiliate at The Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain.
“It is a shocking day for everyone. It’s just beyond anyone’s understanding,” said Larry Tanner, president and chief executive officer of the hospital.
Tanner said the hospital is providing counseling to staff members and at the hospital and at Petit’s private practice, which Tanner described as extensive.
“He’s my doctor,” Tanner said.
As president of the medical association, Petit was the leading voice for some 2,000 doctors in the region,
“He’s a very capable leader,” said Dr. Courtland Lewis, vice president of the association. “I’m just heartsick. The more I’ve heard it, the more unbelievable it becomes.”
Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, a nurse, was co-director of the health center at Cheshire Academy, a private boarding school.
“It’s just a very difficult day here. We are just finding about it now,” said Philip Moore, director of communications for the school. “She was very good at educating kids about good health, not just taking care of them when they are not feeling well.”
The Rev. Ronald A. Rising, a neighbor, said he has known the family for more than 10 years.
“They’re just a lovely family,” he said. “It’s just awful to think it would happen to a family like that in this community. You don’t think about those things happening.”
Cheshire, a suburb with a population of more than 29,000, is just east of Waterbury and about 15 miles north of New Haven.
Cruess, the police chief, said it was an isolated incident and tried to reassure residents that the town was safe. It may have been little comfort to those close to the family.
“It’s just insane,” neighbor Laura Parisi said. “I can’t even describe it.”
Parisi, a friend of the Petit’s older daughter, Hayley, said the 17-year-old had just graduated from the prestigious Miss Porter’s School in Farmington and was accepted at Dartmouth. While at Miss Porter’s, Hayley Petit helped raise money to fight multiple sclerosis with her team, dubbed “Hayley’s Hope.”
“She was just a good, good person and also lots of fun,” said Head of School M. Burch Tracy Ford. “She never called attention to herself and the younger kids just worshipped the ground she walked on. Everybody is just devastated.”
Police surrounded the home after bank workers tipped them off after the suspicious withdrawal about 9:30 a.m.
Neighbor Walter Ryan was walking his dog Monday morning about the time police arrived. He also saw the flames coming from the home and then watched as police, with guns drawn, move through yards and shout “”Get out of the car!”‘
The two suspects have not been identified and are due in Meriden Superior Court Tuesday. Charges against the suspects have not been released.
Investigators remained at the scene into the night and marshaled the forces of local and state police and the state fire marshal. The medical examiner began moving the bodies out of the home nearly 12 hours after police first arrived. State Public Safety Commissioner John Danaher, a former federal prosecutor, was also brought to the scene.
“This is one of the most unfortunate cases that I’ve ever had anything to do with,” Danaher said Monday night. “This is a particularly heinous crime. It’s a complex investigation.”