NEW YORK (CBS) The affluent suburb of Cheshire, Connecticut, seemed like the perfect place for Dr. William Petit and his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, to raise their two lovely daughters -- until July 23, 2007, when, according to police, two ex-cons invaded the Petit home hoping to embark on a routine robbery--one that would ultimately prove deadly.
What unfolded at 300 Sorghum Mill Drive made headlines across the nation. Before that summer morning was over, Mrs. Hawke-Petit and one of her daughters would be sexually assaulted, the entire house would go up in flames, and only Dr. Petit--his head bloodied, his legs bound--would manage to escape with his life.
With the help of neighbors and local police, two suspects were soon found and captured.
Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes await trial for murder, with jury selection well along in the Hayes prosecution.
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, by veteran reporter Brian McDonald, delivers the heartbreaking story of this home invasion turned horrifying nightmare, that left three people dead, and a town bewildered. McDonald gained unprecedented access to defendant Komisarjevsky, and other principal figures in the case.
The account that emerges is one of tragedy and bravery that resonated not just through the Petits' community but nationwide.
Interview with Brian McDonald by Barry Leibowitz, Senior Writer at 48 Hours | Mystery
What drew you to this case?
McDonald: Because it frightened me. Here was a suburban family asleep in their home, the girls had read Harry Potter that night, the 11-year-old climbed in bed with her mother. What but the most despicable evil could have brought harm to them? It was a crime that was almost too scary to be true, and it was a story that I wanted to tell.
What's the most surprising aspect of the case that you can reveal?
McDonald: What surprised me most was the access I achieved. I interviewed Joshua Komisarjevsky, one of the two alleged murderers, three times in jail, and I did this before the case had even gone to trial (jury selection for the first of the trials is happening right now). I also received dozen of letters from Komisarjevsky. Outside of his family and closest friends, I know more about him and the inner workings of his criminal mind than anybody. And, he gave me a first-person account of a triple homicide.
Did you uncover any new forensics or investigation details?
McDonald: Some. But what I uncovered more was motive. There was never a question of how the crime was committed. Jennifer Hawke-Petit, the mother, was raped and strangled. Her two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, died in an inferno. They were left tied to their beds and the house set on fire. The question that has hung in the air is why? Was it just a routine burglary gone very wrong? Or was it something much more sinister? What I uncovered, through my interviews with Joshua, and from other sources, is that the motive for this horrible, horrible event was definitely more than a burglary gone bad.
Defendant Steven Hayes recently tried to plead guilty but his own lawyers fought against it. What's the significance of that?
McDonald: For all you trial watchers out there, this is one for the ages. Co-defendants Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky have been charged with capital felony crimes including rape and murder, which brings the death penalty into play. Hayes is being tried first, and we're only up to the jury selection phase. But already the trial has taken several dramatic turns including Hayes attempting suicide by overdosing on medication he hoarded in his jail cell. Twice, proceedings have been stopped to assess Hayes' competency. Hayes recently shocked everyone, including his own lawyers, by telling the judge he wanted to change his plea from not-guilty to guilty, which would have brought him a whole lot closer to the executioner's needle. Though Hayes' lawyers have persuaded him to change his plea back, each day brings a new plot twist. And this day-to-day drama is unfolding under intense political pressure and the moral implications of the death penalty debate. It's really something to watch.
Is defendant Joshua Komisarjevsky a sympathetic figure in any way?
McDonald: This is an answer that can get me into a whole lot of trouble, but if you subtract the morning of July 23rd, 2007 from his life, there was a lot to like about Joshua. He's charming, soft-spoken and articulate. Home-schooled by his mother, a librarian, he's as well-read as any prep school graduate. His childhood was wondrous. He grew up on his grandfather's 65-acre, wooded estate, traveled the world with a Christian touring group and loved Fred Astaire movies and classical music. But it's impossible to view Joshua's life and not see it through the lens of what happened that horrible morning in Cheshire. There was pure evil in that event. I felt it when I walked up to the charred house a few days after the murders. A shiver literally ran through me. Throughout Joshua's life, there were clues to existence of that evil.
Is there a hero in this story?
McDonald: Unfortunately, the only hero in this story was murdered that morning in Cheshire. Jennifer Hawke-Petit had enormous courage under circumstances impossible to imagine. Her family was held hostage in their own home for over six hours, her husband beaten almost to death, her children tied to their beds, and yet she showed no fear to her captors. I know this because Joshua Komisarjevsky told me so. When Steven Hayes brought Jennifer to the bank that morning, he watched from the car while she went in to make the withdrawal. She could have just stayed in the bank. But the thought of leaving her family alone never entered her mind. She had a deep and abiding faith in God. She was the first to be murdered that morning, raped and strangled, and I believe that up until that very moment her faith remained. She wouldn't believe that God would let what happened, happen.
Could police have done more to prevent the deaths of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley and Michaela?
McDonald: Yes. I think they could have. Jennifer had alerted the bank manager that her family was being held hostage. Released 911 tapes reveal that there were officers in the Petit's backyard while Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela were still alive. As I understand it, the Cheshire P.D. was following FBI hostage protocol, securing a perimeter. But neighbors heard screams while the cops were less than twenty feet from the Petit's back door. At that point, someone could have given the order to enter the house. But that order was not given.
What question should Crimesider have asked you that we didn't... and what's the answer?
McDonald: Q. In the Middle of the Night has caused a considerable amount of controversy. Could you tell us a little about that?
A. On the book's release, I was the target of a firestorm of criticism. It came from all corners: the community, the press, defense lawyers, the state of Connecticut, you name it. I was accused of being an advocate for Komisarjevsky, of permanently tainting the jury pool, of fictionalizing the account. At one point, a portion of the Cheshire community sought to have the book banned from the local public library. There were protests organized and Facebook pages dedicated to a boycott of the book. For months, my email inbox overflowed with the most vitriolic messages. But my job was to get and tell the story. I was able to pull off a reporting coup by interviewing Joshua Komisarjevsky in jail. I did my job, and I think I did it pretty well.
About the Author
Brian McDonald contributes frequently to New York City newspapers, including The New York Times. His first book, My Father's Gun, won critical raves and became the subject of a major History Channel documentary series. Also the author of Last Call at Elaine's, he lives in Manhattan.