Meriden Record-Journal

A year later, victims' lives outshine their deaths

By: Jeffery Kurz, Record-Journal staff

07/22/2008

CHESHIRE - A year later, it's the lives of the victims and not the circumstances of their deaths that prevail.

A year ago, it was the crime, a home invasion that took the lives of a Cheshire woman and her two daughters and shook a community to its core. That the community is now focused on honoring the memory of the victims is thanks largely to the reaction of the lone survivor of the ordeal.

In the wake of such a tragedy, Dr. William A. Petit Jr. urged people to find a way to respond positively. The enthusiasm with which his message has been received was in evidence just this past Sunday, when more than 3,500 showed up for a road race in Plainville to raise money for the Petit Family Foundation. The foundation supports education, those afflicted with chronic illness and those affected by violence. The nature of the reaction "touched my heart and brought tears to my eyes," said Loretta Pryzbek, an 83-year-old Southington resident.

The foundation is in memory of Petit's wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their children, Hayley and Michaela. The three died July 23, 2007, when they were taken hostage during a home invasion. William Petit was badly beaten, but survived.

Cheshire will never forget, said state Rep. Alfred C. Adinolfi, R-Cheshire, who lives just a few houses from the site of the former Petit home, which was demolished in May.

It remains a focal point. This afternoon, neighbors will plant flowers at the spot of the former home. People still leave flowers there or stop and pray, Adinolfi said. And trauma lingers. Lights in neighborhood homes often remain on all night, he said.

"I think the whole town is different from the day it happened," said Jennifer Walsh. Residents are making sure they lock their doors, their windows, and they're looking out for one another more, she said.

"I just think it's going to go on that way," Adinolfi said. "But people do want to move forward in a positive manner."

In the past year they have, with a midwinter "lights of hope" event in which paper lanterns illuminated 400 Cheshire streets; with a basketball tournament, golf tournaments, a road race and numerous unsolicited donations that came from all over.

"I don't think people understand how far, really, the effects of violence are," William Petit said recently. He was talking about the effects on his family circle, the community and beyond.

"A different state of mind"

Megan Alexander was babysitting when she heard about what had happened that night a year ago and had to call the mother of the two boys she was caring for. "It shook, obviously, everybody up," she said.

Hayley Petit was one of Alexander's best friends. They went to school together for six years, and for three of those years Alexander would car pool with Hayley and her mom and sister.

Alexander was 9 when Jennifer Hawke-Petit was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This summer, she's working as an intern for the Connecticut chapter of the National MS Society.

Alexander said she and Hayley Petit remained close friends even after Alexander went to Cheshire High School and Hayley went to Miss Porter's School, in Farmington.

During middle school, at Saint Margaret's-McTernan School, which is now Chase Collegiate, in Waterbury, Hayley "was who everybody else wanted to be," Alexander said.

"She was so far and above the pettiness and drama of middle school," Alexander said. "She always managed to stay on top of it."

Alexander graduated from Cheshire High last year, and little more than a month following the death of her friend was attending Syracuse University, where she found the interests of her classmates both foreign and jarring.

She said she "found it challenging to be around a bunch of partying freshmen when obviously I was in a different state of mind."

After one semester, Alexander decided to come home.

"Most of my friends that went to college stayed closer to home, so it was important to me to be near my support system," she explained.

"People here had an understanding of what I was going through," she said. "I wanted to be a part of that and be a part of the healing process."

Alexander kept her college education on track by taking courses at Quinnipiac University and Naugatuck Valley Community College. It helped to be around friends and family "to support you through the rough nights," she said.

With three other friends from high school, none of whom had met Hayley, Alexander organized a basketball tournament that raised $10,600 for Hayley's Hope and Michaela's Miracle Memorial Fund - the Petit sisters' MS charities. The aim now is to make it an annual event, with the next tournament slated for March 14 at Cheshire High.

"Somehow, I've got to run it from Syracuse," Alexander said.

Alexander says she's ready to return to Syracuse. She has a single dorm room, and friends there who will help.

"You take different steps to make up for the difference," she said. "You think about life in a different way - you can't take it for granted, as much as maybe you'd like to.

"Being here has really helped me to heal," she said. "The tournament was a healing point for me."

Being in Cheshire was a constant reminder of the tragedy, but also a reminder of what the Petit women would have wanted her to do.

"They really would have wanted us to keep going, and I feel it's important to do that," Alexander said.

Miss Porter's School is a small school "and a close-knit group of girls," said Theresa McGrath, a West Hartford resident whose daughter, Rachel, will be a senior at the school this fall.

"Everybody looked up to Hayley," she said. "She was like a mother figure."

On that day a year ago, McGrath was called to the school to pick up her daughter and recalls the tearful conversation in the car when she had to break the terrible news. Ever since, the family has clung to news accounts and to the strength of the Petit family, McGrath said. Learning that William Petit was "turning it into something good was something we needed to get through this," she said.

She was among the hundreds who participated in the road race on Sunday. The theme of the race was "Be the Change," which was taken from a quote Michaela Petit had on her Facebook site. It's from Mohandas Gandhi's observation that "you must be the change you want to see in the world."

"It was awe inspiring," McGrath said. "Where do you get 3,000 people? That shows how many people have been touched by this."

"That community spirit is just so hard to capture," she said. "That's the impact the Petit family had on the state and nationwide."

A few weeks after the home invasion, Cheshire resident Jennifer Walsh and her family had gone on vacation to "get away," she said. In a department store, she encountered a "People" magazine with the Petit family tragedy splashed on the cover.

Walsh had participated in luminary events, when neighborhoods are lit by paper lanterns, at holiday celebrations while growing up in upstate New York, and on the ride home from vacation, the conversation turned to organizing a similar event in Cheshire.

"People were totally on board," recalled Walsh. "All of a sudden it just snowballed."

The event raised more than $100,000 for the Hayley's Hope and Michaela's Miracle Fund in support of the MS society.

"I have goose bumps, thinking of it right now," said Walsh, who has multiple sclerosis.

The plan, again, is to make the fundraiser an annual event. A tentative date has been set for Dec. 6.

Moving forward

"There have been multiple circles of people who have been incredibly supportive," William Petit said in a recent interview with the Record-Journal. "They've provided motivation and a reason to get up some days."

It's also clear that he has reciprocated.

Walsh said Petit "makes you feel better when you're talking to him, and you think, 'Wait a minute, shouldn't it be the other way around?' "

"We all deal with death in our lives," she said, "but to have your whole life taken from you in a matter of hours. He's amazing - and he's got a lot of support."

William Petit's message also reached Pennsylvania, where Jennifer Hawke-Petit had attended the Sharon General Hospital School of Nursing. She was part of a circle of friends in the class of 1980, and those friends have helped establish a scholarship in her honor.

The first recipient, Tammie Powell, received a $1,000 Jennifer Hawke-Petit Memorial scholarship in May. Powell is a 2008 graduate of the Sharon Regional Health System School of Nursing.

"We're pretty far removed from Connecticut, obviously," said Lisa Pett, who graduated with Jennifer Hawke-Petit. "We wanted to do something. We were looking for a way to feel better about the whole thing, and there aren't many ways to do that."

A sad story, she said, "but it's nice to know that so many people have taken it up and gone on to do good things."

For Henry Schissler, the key moment came when, touring the luminaries in January, he encountered the word "hope" spelled out by lanterns at Cheshire High School. It spoke "to the extraordinary attempts by Dr. Petit," he said. "He chooses to make it about the future."

A 20-year Cheshire resident, Schissler is a sociology professor at Housatonic Community College, in Bridgeport, who also teaches courses in criminal justice at Quinnipiac University.

"As a society, we don't do death well. We don't talk about it," Schissler said. "So, therefore, when something happens, we really aren't prepared to come to grips with it."

The response to the Petit tragedy has been an attempt to do something to help, he said. "That's very much a part of human nature. It really feels awful feeling helpless."

"What Dr. Petit has done is give people a lot of easy ways to take a lot of control back," he said. That helped people make the transition from anger to thinking about what they could do, he said.

"We were able to do what we did as a town because of the way the survivor was able to deal with his trauma, his feelings, and it came together in a way that was remarkable," Schissler said.

"A year ago, it was the crime, the crime," Alexander said. Today, she said, "it's so much easier" to talk to people about the victims. "It helps to see everyone step forward and take a part in it."

"What is important is remembering their lives and not the way they died."

jkurz@record-journal.com
(203) 317-2213