By all accounts, the Petits of Cheshire, Connecticut, were the model of the perfect family: An accomplished doctor and a pediatric nurse, well-liked in the community, raising two bright daughters — the elder one, 17, preparing to follow her father to Dartmouth, and the younger one, 11, already discovering a passion for cooking.
But that sweet tableau was shattered on July 23, 2007, when Jennifer Hawke-Petit and kids Hayley and Michaela were murdered in cold blood by two men who broke into the family home in the middle of the night and held them hostage for hours.
Only the father, Dr. William Petit Jr., 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 ended with a horrifying tale of extortion, sexual assault and murder that shook a sleepy suburb to its core.
“What all of them went through, especially little Michaela, it completely broke me up,” one of the Petits’ neighbors, who lived across the street, told PEOPLE in a 2007 cover story. “The anger and the sadness and the absolute outrage at what happened to that family is beyond description.”
The Petit family murders were featured in Monday night’s episode of People Magazine Investigates on Investigation Discovery.
In an exclusive clip from the episode (above), PEOPLE Editor-in-Chief Jess Cagle and Jennifer’s sister, Cynthia Hawke-Renn, recount a particularly harrowing moment: Jennifer, her hands trembling, went to the bank to cash a $15,000 check hoping to pay off her family’s captors.
• For more on this case, watch People Magazine Investigates: Connecticut Horror Story on Investigation Discovery.
Before taking the money and departing, Jennifer managed to tip off bank employees about the family’s situation with something written on a slip of paper. She urged them to believe her.
“My sister took out the picture in her wallet of her two daughters and showed [the bank manager] and said, ‘These are my two girls,’ ” Hawke-Renn recalls in Monday’s PMI. “And she [the manager] said that looking at my sister, from one mother to another, she knew that she was telling her the truth.”
Nearby, another customer, Debbie Biggins, could tell something was terribly wrong.
“She was stiff,” Biggins later told PEOPLE. “I sensed panic. It was all bad; I felt it.”
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Police quickly turned up to the bank, summoned by the manager thanks to Jennifer’s note, and then they raced to the Petit residence. But by the time they arrived, it was too late to save Jennifer and her girls.
Still, their killers did not escape: Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky were quickly caught and eventually convicted of the murders and other crimes and sentenced to life in prison.
William, the sole survivor of the attack on his family, became determined to preserve their memory through good deeds done in their name. The Petit Family Foundation, which he started in 2007, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars toward scholarships for young students and aid for families affected by violence.
William also devoted much time to raising money for multiple sclerosis research, in honor of his wife, who suffered from the disease.
“I used to have awful weeks and awful days,” he said in 2014. “Now, most of the time, it’s awful minutes and hours.”
People Magazine Investigates airs Mondays (10 p.m.) on Investigation Discovery.