By all accounts, the Petits of Cheshire, Conn., were the model of the perfect family: An accomplished doctor and a pediatric nurse, well-liked in the community, raising two bright daughters, full of promise – the elder one, 17, preparing to follow her father to Dartmouth, and the younger one, just 11, already discovering a passion for cooking.
But as PEOPLE reports in its latest cover story, that sweet tableau was shattered on July 23, as Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley and Michaela, were murdered in cold blood, allegedly by two men who had broken into the family home in the middle of the night and held them hostage for hours.
Only the father, Bill Petit, survived, having been beaten and locked in the basement, emerging as the police arrived to find his house in flames and his family gone.
What began with a chance encounter and ended with a horrifying tale of extortion, sexual assault and murder has shaken this sleepy suburb of less than 30,000 people to the core.
“What all of them went through, especially little Michaela, it completely broke me up,” says one of the Petits’ neighbors who lives across the street. “The anger and the sadness and the absolute outrage at what happened to that family is beyond description.”
Says Jennifer Petit’s friend Deb Hereld: “It makes you want to give up on a world where this could happen to people like this, but then you realize they would not want us to give up. If this happened to somebody else, they would be the people in the front, comforting, organizing help and just being there on a personal level. You don’t meet many people like that in your life; you just don’t.”
For the full story about the Petit family’s tragedy, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.