In a 24-hour news cycle filled with tragic crimes, not to mention all the true crime series that regularly document such cases, the 2007 Cheshire, Connecticut murders of the Petit family still likely resonate with TV viewers. On the night of July 23, 2007, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky broke into the home of Dr. William Petit, intending initially to rob the Petit family, but ending the night by raping Dr. Petit's wife, Jennifer, sexually abusing his 11-year-old daughter Michaela, and eventually killing Jennifer, Michaela, and the Petits' 17-year-old daughter, Hayley, when they set the house on fire.
Dr. Petit, though brutally beaten and seriously injured by Hayes and Komisarjevsky, managed to escape in an effort to get help for his family, and survived the crime, but has had to relive it for years throughout the trials of Hayes and Komisarjevsky.
Filmmakers David Heilbroner and Kate Davis spent five years in Cheshire documenting the crimes and their effects on Petit, the Petit family, the families of the killers, and the community, and the result, "The Cheshire Murders," premieres on HBO this week.
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Heilbroner and Davis, who also produced and directed the 2010 documentary "Stonewall Uprising," talked exclusively with Yahoo! TV about the heartbreaking case and compelling documentary, which doesn't shy away from the darkest details of the Cheshire murders, but should spark many interesting discussions in their aftermath.
Why this case? What got you involved, and so committed to documenting the stories of the Petit family and murderers?
Heilbroner: We arrived in Cheshire about a week or so after the [murders], and from the very first minute of looking at this, nothing made sense. The more we delved, the less it made sense. By that I mean, first of all, it was the wrong town. Cheshire is not a town where triple homicide, multiple rape, and arson happens. It just doesn't happen there. Then the two perpetrators have no history of arson, of sexual assault, of physical violence, and that's really, really unusual. I used to be a prosecutor, and I'll tell you, that's just off‑the‑charts strange, that Mrs. Petit was in the bank, and the handing of a note to the teller, and she was alive and well when she said, "Help. I need help from the police," and the police were notified, and yet, half an hour later, she and her two daughters are dead.
None of that made any sense, so it was those unanswered questions which kept us digging and filming over five years.
Are you satisfied that you did get some answers?
Heilbroner: Yeah. I think some of them are cosmically impossible to answer, but there are a lot of answers, and the film will indeed take you to some places where you feel satisfied that you get to the bottom of things. Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, for example; you can begin to understand what happened to them, what was the strange criminal chemistry that took place in that house, that took these otherwise petty thugs and amped them up into a state of criminality that I don't think even they would have possibly imagined they were capable of, and the film will answer that.
The Cheshire police, unfortunately, their failings, they have refused to speak to us, and have left the families deeply saddened and upset, and frustrated, and that's something we'll never answer, but at least you know that they are stonewalling, which perhaps is some consolation.
Do you think they'll ever address any of these questions? We understand there are legal issues, and liability issues, that are always in play in these situations, but honestly, the Petit family members don't seem like people who want to sue. They seem to want to know why certain things didn't happen when police were there, as you said, for half an hour. They just want answers more than anything.
Heilbroner: Yeah. That's all Cynthia and her parents, the Reverend Richard Hawke and Marybelle Hawke, that's all they wanted, just, "Tell us what happened and why, and we can move on with our lives," and the police literally didn't answer their letters, and have not for five years. They still haven't answered their letters. It's going on six years now. They were shocked. These are local Cheshire police, paid for by tax dollars to protect and serve, and when we were making the film, I went to the Chief of Police of Cheshire, and I spent two different meetings with him for an hour, and said, "This film is going to criticize the police department in all these different ways and we need your point of view. We'd like to have you respond. Why did you not answer? What happened that morning? Just give us your side of the story," and they refused.
Is there outrage on the part of the community? As you said, these kinds of crimes don't happen in that town, so while it doesn't make anyone feel any better, you can sort of understand that perhaps there wasn't an exact procedure in place to deal with things like this. Given that, then, you can sort of give them some leeway in that area, but now, it has happened, so you do need to have a procedure in place for the future.
Davis: I think what you say makes sense, that you would think that people would really want to know what happened, but my sense is that a town like Cheshire is kind of "Anytown, USA." I mean, there's a certain sort of protectiveness that, as suburban Americans, we all kind of have, where we'd like to believe that we bought into safety, and a place where we can sleep at night … I think this crime shattered a whole town's sense of sanctity of life that they had invested in emotionally, and to then further implicate the police, it's a further leap for the community. We all want to feel that we are protected by our small‑town cops, that they'd be there at two o'clock in the morning. And if they won't be, how safe are any of us?
So, the fact that the police were outside for half an hour, well before the house was set on fire, when all three women were alive, and they didn't enter or call the house? I mean, that is a set of astonishing, appalling facts that have kind of gone under the radar. And in my own sense, it's because the community really by and large wants to believe that some things in their world are rock solid, that they can still lean on, and their police department is one of them.
Maybe this film, now that it'll reach millions of people, maybe it will put the police more in the spotlight, and it might change things. I think it's important for all of us to look at what really happened and how the police may have been able to prevent this so that protocol can change, and the same mistakes won't be made [in the future].
One of the most powerful aspects of the documentary is the interviews with the two murderers' families, especially Steven Hayes's brothers. They clearly were in so much pain, and had been for their whole lives, with their brother.
Davis: Absolutely. I think for David and me, that was critical, to peel back the layers of the onion and not just have this crime be a paradigm of good versus evil, and "OK, caught the bad guys, and now they're being sentenced to death, and we can move on." Rather, believe it or not, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky are human beings … they're really screwed up guys. So, in order for us to kind of learn as a society how to maybe prevent creating other Steven Hayeses and Joshua Komisarjevskys, I think we've got to look at who they were as children. They were physically abused, they were both sexually abused.
Joshua in particular, and it's in the film, told very vividly through one of his girlfriends who was at a religious camp with him, Joshua underwent intense religious indoctrination that involved exorcism, and he was quite freaked out by it. They would lay hands on him and tell him he was bad, inherently sinful. He had a lot of reasons to feel deeply at sea and lost as a person. And that doesn't excuse the crime at all, or his behavior at all, but to not understand the mentality that we're dealing with … well, we could have noticed. We have in the film, and there are psychiatric records pointing to deeply disturbing behavior on the part of Joshua early on.
Heibroner: This is case where you look back, and the warning bells were ringing loudly in many different areas. No one could have predicted the crime would have been this bad. But everybody along the way knew these guys were headed for trouble. The parole board had its own rules, which is to say you're supposed to look at the records of the sentencing of people before you release them on parole, because that's where you get all the really interesting information about them. With Joshua, they never did that. And you know, this is the case where the path of this crime was littered with mistakes, and the questions that we uncovered make you shake your head and wonder how could this have happened. It's important, therefore, not to just go, "Well, let's execute them and forget the whole thing." We need to look at what happened here, because we'll ultimately benefit from it even if it's painful.
You had a lot of cooperation from Dr. Petit and his family members, who talked to you for on-camera interviews in the film. How difficult was that to secure?
Heilbroner: Let me give you an example of what it was like. When we arrived in Cheshire shortly after the crimes, it was as if a tsunami containing news trucks, television cameras, and reporters had dumped everything on this little town. It was astonishing. And people were just horrified by it. The town of Cheshire is a very upright, proper town, and you don't talk about your dirty laundry to the public. So we knocked on doors along with ABC, CBS, NBC, and everyone was just sent packing. "No, we're not going to tell you anything." You don't even get the soundbite about, "Well, they seemed like nice people." Nothing. HBO … bless Sheila Nevins, who runs the place and has given us the freedom to make this film. She said, "Yeah, stick around, stick around." And so we did. It took months. And slowly, people began to realize, "These guys are not after a newsbite. They're not trying to squeeze this in between the Bruins and the flower show." And they trusted us … we became sort of part of their lives in a way. We got to know these people really well.
Davis: I think [it was also] going back to the same doors. I also think that part of what we were doing allowed people to tell their side of the story. People who are living through a trauma like this, whether it be a townsperson or a sister of the deceased or a brother of one of the perpetrators or a girlfriend, ex‑girlfriend of one of the perpetrators or a father or a grandfather of the girls who died, who were burned alive. You live with this incredible amount of emotion and nightmarish kind of stress inside. And to be able to tell your story in a way which is fairly unedited … we really assured everybody that this film is not taking one side. It's not a polemical film, that this is right, that's wrong. It's a film that's more of a journey which encompasses many different perspectives. As people dealt with the tragedy, tried to heal, tried to make sense of what happened and tried to achieve some sense of "justice," it allows for people to have a voice. And I think that really, in the end, is why I'd say 80, 90 percent of the people in "The Cheshire Murders" had not spoken to anybody else on camera. But they ended up working quite extensively with us.
Was there anyone who you were particularly touched by or that you found particularly compelling? Again, for us, Steven Hayes's brother Matthew was just heartbreaking. His pain of growing up with this person in his family was palpable.
Heilbroner: Matthew was deeply moving because Steven's story dovetails so closely with his own. They had both been victims of an abusive home … Matthew had been the victim of Steven's abuse. Matthew was asked by the police, "What do you know about your brother?" He ended up writing this letter, a very, very damning letter, which is in the film. Essentially, it's the nail in Steven's coffin in court, describing that he was into violence and uncaring … really almost a sadistic person from a very early age. Matthew acknowledges that even though he hates his brother in some ways, he's still his brother. It's his blood. And so Matthew's pain in this is really palpable. He's sort of an emotional detective and a lightning rod for the criminal side of it.
One the characters I always think of with a lump in my throat is Alicia Hayes, the daughter of Steven Hayes, who looks back on her dad very fondly, as a good dad. And she's dying to know, "How could this man who, yeah, he was in jail, but he was a good father to me ... How could he have done this?" She ended up being in the police academy. She's in the U.S. military now. So there's a lot of collateral damage in this story. That's another thing we really wanted to explore. When people say a crime sends shockwaves, what does that really mean, when you get granular about it?
Dr. Petit in particular ... you see him, and think about everything that happened, and being forced to continue to relive it throughout the legal proceedings, and you don't believe someone could go on after that. Even just to approach him about talking about it is a sensitive thing, obviously.
Davis: He was so inundated with requests, and he was such a presence at many public events around this. He started raising money through the Petit Foundation. It's not that he was exactly shy, despite how traumatized he was. But to go up and to talk with him, shortly after the crime, it was very upsetting. You could really feel how fragile he was. I'd just say that over time, over a year or two, he became, I think, used to a lot of attention … his personality is such that he was not reclusive. On the other hand, he didn't want to speak too personally about what he was going through, either.
Heilbroner: I would just say what was hard from my experience of working with Dr. Petit was just talking to him. I never knew what to say, because the only thing that is on your mind when you're talking to him [is], you feel his pain, you can just see it in his face. You don't need to say a word about it. And what do you say to someone who has lost everything overnight? "I'm sorry" ... it just feels so incredibly insufficient. If you don't say something, you feel like you're being callous. I always felt deeply respectful of him. At the same time, we had to give him a lot of space. He certainly wasn't eager to be on camera. He gave us interviews. That was incredibly gracious of him, and he certainly didn't have to. But it was emotionally very touchy to work with him. He wasn't touchy, but everyone I know who has been around him feels the same way. You just don't know what to say, or where to begin.
Was there anyone, besides the Cheshire police, who you really wanted to talk to that you didn't get the chance to?
Heilbroner: There's one person I wish we could have interviewed: Joshua's father, Ben Komisarjevsky, who we did see in court every day. But Ben really was in the crosshairs of the defense team for having raised Joshua through this extremely strict and ultimately very toxic religious set of beliefs. Ben just ducked us. He ducked everybody. He has never said one word to the public, and he never will, I believe. But we did speak to Ben's brother, Chris. Chris Komisarjevsky [shared] some of the insights we had hoped we would get from Ben.
That could be another whole documentary, we think, the background of the religion in that family.
Heilbroner: "Jesus Camp"-meets-"In Cold Blood."
In terms of where the convictions stand right now, both Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky have been sentenced to the death penalty. But is it accurate to say that most people don't believe either of them will ever be executed?
Heilbroner: Yeah, that's correct. Connecticut abolished the death penalty shortly after this crime went down, carving out an exception for people who had already been sentenced to death. Technically, on the books, it doesn't touch this crime. But realistically, it's very hard to imagine. Let's say a worse crime happens next week. When you go on appeal, what are you going to say? "Well, the worst crime happened, by accident of time, after we got rid of the death penalty, but it's OK to put Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky to death?"
I think the consensus is they will never be put to death, which makes this whole story end on a further unsettling note. Here we have this incredible, elaborate process that costs millions of dollars and took years, and you have to ask, in the end, "For what?"
And Steven Hayes has actually asked to be executed?
Davis: Yes, and that's another irony. There are a lot of ironies [in this case]. Here is the state spending millions of dollars in order to put Steven Hayes in the electric chair, and he's begging for it himself, so you're giving him what he wants. He wants to die so much, in fact, that he tried to commit suicide. The state then puts him under 24-hour watch and gives him medication and props him up so he won't die, so that the state can then kill him. One really has to wonder what the sense is in that.
Then that further raised the question, why the death penalty? It's not [punishment] for Steven Hayes, because it's what he wants. Then really who is it serving? What's the psychological motive? Is it vengeance? Is it an eye for an eye? Does that solve anything and make people feel better in the end? The film doesn't try to take a side, but certainly raises those questions.
The film really does raise all these issues that should be examined, and which, because we were all so horrified by the crime itself, most of us probably haven't thought about in connection to this case.
Davis: The way the crime has been reported, because it was so horrific, and it really was six hours of protracted torture in a sense, psychological and otherwise, ending with an arson murder, it's really hard for the public to feel anything beyond wanting to just fry these guys, annihilate the evil. Maybe now, five years later, we can step back and really look at some of the forces that were at play, which makes it a much more haunting story, and, I think, closer to the truth.
"The Cheshire Murders" premieres on HBO on July 22 at 9 PM.
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