Sep 27, 2008

Cindy Renn Talks About Petit family Crimes

Below is an honest and heartbreaking look at the effects of the Petit family murders, from the perspective of family member Cindy Renn, only sibling and sister of Jennifer Hawke Petit, the 48 year old mother of two who, along with her two daughters Hayley and Michaela, was murdered in last years home invasion in Cheshire. The story is excerpted from a local newspaper in Cindys home state of North Carolina.

In my opinion, stories like this are most essential when it comes to violent crimes. For many people, it is only in hearing about the personal details of the crime that they can truly grasp the scope of life-altering pain that is part and parcel of every violent crime. It is within these details that most news stories do not delve. Typically, we are given an antiseptic recounting of the facts of "the case", how many murdered, when and how and by whom, or we are fed a voyeuristic seeming clutch of details regarding the crimes, usually for the sake of sensationalism equals ratings.Meanwhile all would seem to steer clear of any coverage of the true human element; the spiritual and moral crisis that occurrs when any of us becomes intimate with violence and brutatlity committed against one human being by another.
This article which is in effect an interview, strays from the beaten path and cites such things; details like Mrs Renns heartbreaking account of her search to find any intact remnants of her sisters and nieces lives, left in the now burnt out shell of a home where the crimes took place: The terrible smell of the few items that she did manage to salvage, that repeated washings never seem to completely remove.

She shares with us in perfect recall her last phone conversation with her sister on the day of the murders, and the self-tortuous thoughts that if she had only kept her sister on the phone just a little while longer, maybe, just maybe, she could have somehow caused her and her niece to avoid their fateful intersection with the two men that wound up targeting and stalking them for an evening of criminal rampage.

These are but a few of the painful memories and emotional wranglings that this family has surely had to endure as a result of this crime. And while it is certainly tempting to turn away from these very real and very painful details, sparing ourselves the collateral pain that is sure to result from becoming privy to them, I propose that it is essential that we do not turn away, we do not turn the page.

At one point in the story Cindy wonders aloud about the last moments of her sister and her nieces lives,what they thought, what they felt as they were being prepped to be killed, horrible thoughts yes, but real- this happened, and we owe it to these victims to put ourselves in thier shoes when we visit this crime in our hearts and minds. We will then carry this feeling into any proper adjudication of this criminal case.

It is not neccesary to swim forever in these troubled waters however, and this is where it gets hard for some people, particularly the very sensitive among us and those closest to a crime like this. In the best scenario, we can take our feelings of empathy, outrage, grief and disgust and use them as powerful impetus for change within a system that too easily allowed this to happen.

The Bottomline is that as caring and compassionate human beings, we have a basic debt to our sisters or brothers that have fallen victim to violence, to allow ourselves to consider thier experience and to listen. Listen to thier pain, in doing so, we share in thier burden ever so gently, They are not alone.

At the end of the following reprinted article is a link to the story as originally published in The News Observer. It contains photos as well as an audio taped interview segment with Cindy Renn that is very moving.
CHAPEL HILL - Cindy Renn relives July 22, 2007, in her head every day.
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. She was talking to her older sister. They had talked twice that day. They were planning an August trip to Carolina Beach.
"'I just can't wait to have a North Carolina beach vacation,'" Renn remembers her sister, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, saying.
Renn, of Chapel Hill, and Hawke-Petit, of Cheshire, Conn., were both busy raising teenagers, but they tried to get their families together at least once a year. As girls, the sisters had vacationed at Carolina Beach.

That day in July, they hung up from their first call. Then, later, Hawke-Petit called again to confirm that her whole family was coming.
Renn couldn't talk. She was on her way to her children's swim-team potluck. She told her sister she would call her right back once she got on her way.

She dialed her sister back -- she remembers it was at 5:33 p.m. No one answered.
Hanging up from that second call eats at Renn every day.
"If I had talked to her longer, they would not have met those guys in the parking lot," Renn says. "Maybe they wouldn't have been there."

She says this because she's pretty sure that after they hung up, her sister left home with her daughter Michaela, to go to the grocery store. And that's where police believe two men, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, both with long criminal histories, spotted them and followed them home.
About 3 a.m. the next day, police allege, those two men found an unlocked door and broke into the Petits' home. They terrorized the girls -- Michaela, 11, and Hayley, 17 -- and one drove Hawke-Petit to a Bank of America to withdraw money. When they returned, police say, they killed Renn's sister and her daughters.
It's a case that echoes the killing of UNC student body president Eve Carson. According to reports, two men with long criminal histories kidnapped Carson early in the morning and drove her to a Bank of America, forcing her to withdraw money. Then they shot her, in a neighborhood that resembles the Petits' Cheshire subdivision.
For Renn, the randomness of her sister's death -- and Carson's -- haunts her. That something so horrible could happen for no reason, on such an ordinary day, forced her view of the world from an optimistic, upbeat outlook to losing her belief in innocence.

It's why she goes over the details that would have changed the outcome. A preschool teacher, Renn says she's afraid that she's obsessed with her grief.
Now, she has to learn to live with it the rest of her life.
'Just have to know'
The deaths of Hawke-Petit and her daughters made national headlines, covered by the likes of The New York Times, People magazine and Dateline NBC.
After the initial media blitz and memorial services with thousands in attendance, Renn was left to figure out how to grieve such a violent event that left three family members dead.
She's constantly checking the Web for new details on the case. She's read every article. Every affidavit. Every warrant. The transcripts of the 911 calls and police conversations.
"I just have to know; I have to understand how it happened," she says.
She knows that the intruders beat Hawke-Petit's husband, Billy Petit, with a baseball bat and tied him up, leaving him for dead in the basement. They went upstairs, raped Hawke-Petit and Michaela, and tied Hayley to her bed.
Before the sun rose, police believe, Hayes went to buy gasoline before taking Hawke-Petit to the bank, forcing her to withdraw $15,000. When they returned to the home, Hawke-Petit was strangled, and the gasoline was poured on the girls. The house was set on fire.The girls, tied to their beds, died of smoke inhalation.
Billy Petit, a prominent doctor in the area, escaped out of the basement. Then flames engulfed his home and his family.

The intruders tried to flee, but police had surrounded the house and arrested them six hours after they'd entered the Petit home.

Renn's thoughts are always going to the last minutes they faced. She wonders about her sister being raped and strangled; her little niece -- sweet, sweet Michaela -- being molested and Hayley, a tall girl who was about to start her freshman year at Dartmouth University, having gasoline poured on her.

Renn never says the names of the accused -- just calls them "the guys." She wants them to die.

"I didn't think I would have that anger," she says.

She's attended most of the hearings for the accused, including a pretrial in July where she sat just feet from Hayes and Komisarjevsky. She imagined her eyes being daggers, so with one look they would be dead.

"They just look like evil, puny, wimpy men, which is sort of surprising for what they pulled off," she says.

She plans to rent an apartment for the trial, expected to take place in 2010. "It makes me sad because when my son is a senior in high school, I will be leaving part of the year for the trial," she says. "I'll feel cheated out of that year of his life. But on the other hand, I feel obligated. I think my sister would have done it for me."

Brother-in-law had nothing

The day after the killings, Renn flew to Connecticut with her husband, Bill, their two children, and her parents.

They rushed to the hospital to see her brother-in-law, who had almost bled to death after suffering blows to his head.

"I know you don't want to see me," Renn remembers him saying as he lay in his hospital bed. "I know you wish it was her who was lying here."

Renn assured Billy they were grateful at least one person had survived. But he didn't want to be alive, she says.

As they sat in the hospital lobby, Renn saw her sister's face on the news. That's when she realized it really had happened. And this hit, too: Her brother-in-law had nothing. No house. No wife. No kids.

Renn went to her sister's house, too. From the front, it still looked like the idyllic sage green, American colonial on the corner lot the family had lived since 1989. From the back, it was just a shell, burned from the fire.

Everything inside was gone, including the family's pets. Renn and other family members endured the horrid smell of burned flesh as they searched for anything that could be saved. Renn grabbed a few things in the house: a summery pink and green skirt her sister loved; Hayley's Vera Bradley bookbag.

Both had to be washed dozens of times to get the smell out.

Renn is always scared. She's always making sure her doors are locked. When she goes to bed, she swears she hears people walking downstairs.

Nightmares haunt her sleep. In them, her house is on fire, and she thrashes around trying to figure out who to save first.

To cope, she wanted to connect with someone who'd gone through a similar experience, so she joined Compassionate Friends, a group for people who have lost a child or a sibling. She was too afraid to tell her story in detail until she met a woman whose daughter was stabbed to death.

"I thought I would scare everyone to death," she says. "I can't let them be horrified."

Carson was killed in March, just miles from Renn's home. Renn sobbed and didn't sleep for days after Carson's killing.

"That someone was running around in our own town," she says. "[Carson] seemed like a wonderful person."
Renn's church made a quilt for Carson's family; church members decorated the quilt squares. Renn wrote a note on her patch.
"I lost three family members to a violent murder," she wrote. "I feel for you and feel for your family."

Then she wrote her phone number and offered for them to call in case they wanted to talk.

A few months before the the deaths of her sister and nieces, Renn had read a true story, "Theresa: How God Orchestrated a Miracle," in which a 2-year-old was beaten, raped and left for dead but survived. Renn remembered that the girl's family in the book forgave the men who hurt their daughter.

"I thought it was odd that family was able to forgive them," Renn says.

But she wanted to make some of her hurt go away, so she decided she needed to forgive the men accused of killing her family.

She wrote letters to both men but never sent them.

She told them about her sister, who chose to become a nurse and take care of people, and how Renn had always looked up to her. She described her nieces: Michaela, an animal lover who always befriended the outsiders, and Hayley, a rower who had plans to follow in her father's footsteps and become a doctor.

"They were everything to us," Renn wrote.

"I'm sorry I couldn't be your teacher to have taught you the basics," she wrote. "I was raised to believe we are all children of God. I'm sorry you didn't choose to believe that."

Then, she wrote, "I forgive you ... because that will help to set me free."

But now, she's not so sure she can forgive the men. She believes her need to forgive was selfish, thinking it would make the pain go away.

Today would have been her sister's 50th birthday, and she's not here to celebrate it, and those guys are to blame.

"I believe God wants us to hate evil, and to me they are evil in its purest form," Renn says. "I don't feel compelled to forgive evil."
To contact the area chapter of Compassionate Friends, call 877-969-0010 or go online to

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