Blessed Be the Tie That Binds: An Elegy for Murdered Mothers

Posted: November 27, 2011 in Uncategorized

News of Joshua Komisarjevsky’s recent guilty verdict has called to mind
the Petit family ordeal in Connecticut;
I’ve always been struck by the parallels between the Petit murders
and the massacre of the Harvey family in Virginia in 2006.
There are so many similarities:
both families were randomly targeted in ostensibly safe neighborhoods,
in both instances the perpetrators gained entry via unlocked doors,
and both tragedies culminated in homes set alight to camouflage crimes that were shockingly,
almost unthinkably, brutal. 
The similarity I find most thought-provoking, however, is that in both incidents the wives and mothers,
Jennifer Hawke-Petit and Kathryn Harvey,
had an opportunity to save themselves but refused to leave their families in peril.

It was a beautiful summer day in posh Windsor Connecticut
when Joshua Komisarjevsky and Stephen Hayes
spotted Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughter Michaela, age 10, exiting their local Stop & Shop
on the afternoon of July 22nd, 2007.  Komisarjevsky, age 26, and Hayes, 44,
were petty career criminals; despite their substantial age difference they’d become thick as proverbial thieves after meeting in a halfway house/drug treatment center in the nearby city of Hartford.

Though their motive for doing so is in dispute,
Komisarjevsky and Hayes followed the Petit’s white Mercedes as Jennifer and Michaela
returned home to their well-landscaped clapboard colonialon hilly Sorghum Mill Drive. 
It was a typical Sunday evening for the Petit family, which also included daughter Hayley, 17, and husband and father
Dr. William Petit, age 50. 
The family enjoyed a pasta dinner cooked by Michaela, a budding chef,
and then settled in for the night—a perfectly banal evening, the last peaceful moments the Petit family would share.

Dr. Petit fell asleep on the couch while reading the Sunday paper.
There he was awakened in the dead of night by two bat-wielding strangers;
Komisarjevsky and Hayes had entered the Petit home via an unlocked cellar door.  Life
as Dr. Petit knew it was over, undone by a random glimpse of his
beautiful wife and child in a supermarket car park.  The intruders clubbed Dr. Petit into unconsciousness
and bound him hand and foot; then the two no-longer petty criminals proceeded up the stairs
where Jennifer and her daughters lay sleeping.

Komisarjevsky raped Michaela and Hayes raped Jennifer, 48, who suffered from MS.
Then all three of the female Petits were trussed to their respective beds
as Hayes and Komisarjevsky ransacked their home. 
While searching for theft-worthy items the intruders stumbled upon the Petits’ bank statement;
impressed by the account balance the thieves hatched a plan
whereby Hayes would drive Jennifer to the bank to withdraw fifteen thousand dollars.
Although seasoned criminals, Hayes and Komisarjevsky had been strictly small-time; for them,
fifteen thousand dollars would’ve been the petty thieves’ version
of the first successful moon landing.

In one of life’s little ironies the bank was located in the same shopping plaza as the fateful Stop & Shop;
the parking lot where the evening’s ungodly sequence of events had first  been set in motion
could have been the very place Jennifer Hawke-Petit’s ordeal ended. 
She was sent into the bank alone while Hayes watched from outside.
At that moment, in the safety of the well-lit bank, Jennifer Hawke-Petit could have saved herself. 
She could have slipped out a back door and fled,
or shrieked for help, good luck and goodbye to the terrified family she’d left behind. 
Jennifer, however, did not flee, did not shriek for help, did not endeavor to save herself;
instead she slipped a note informing the teller of her family’s plight and returned home with her rapist
and soon-to-be killer—Hayes strangled her to death before the police arrived. 
Komisarjevsky and Hayes then splashed gasoline around the house
where Hayley and Michaela, both still living, lay enfettered in the beds destined to be their funeral pyres. 
The home was set ablaze.

Dr. Petit returned to consciousness moments before the conflagration. 
His feet still bound, he managed to roll and hop
to the house next door where his long-time friend and neighbor initially failed to recognize him,
so battered and bloody was the Doctor’s visage.
The Petit family, which mere hours before had consisted of four vibrant, flourishing members
was now reduced to one. 
In the name of all that is holy, I cannot imagine what the good Doctor sees when he closes his eyes at night.

The annihilation of Harvey family occurred on January 1st, 2006.
Described by friends as “madly in love,” Bryan Harvey, 49, was a musician of some renown;
his wife Kathryn, 39, owned a popular local joke and novelty store called World of Mirth.
The couple resided in a spacious home in the leafy Richmond, Virginia neighborhood of Woodland
with their painfully adorable daughters, Ruby, 4, and Stella, 9.

For the Harvey family there was no foreshadowing of the atrocities that lay ahead;
it was a typical Sunday, a weekend afternoon initially destined to be shared with family and friends. 
Stella was due to return from a holiday sleep-over, and plans had been laid
for a 2pm New Year’s Chili cook-out. 
Such was the mundane, homey tableau that was forever shattered
when Ricky Javon Gray, 28, and his nephew, Ray Joseph Dandridge, also 28, entered the Harvey home
via the unlocked front door.
The men, in the midst of a theft and murder spree,
had chosen the Harvey house completely at random—-the fates had conspired
to lead the murderous duo to the Harvey’s neighborhood, to the Harvey’s street,
and finally, tragically, to the Harvey’s doorstep.

Kathryn, Bryan and Ruby were herded into the basement and bound with duct tape. 
Then, as Gray and Dandridge scoured the home for valuables there came a brisk knock
on the door—a family friend had arrived to return home the elder Harvey daughter. 
The intruders unbound Kathryn and allowed her to proceed upstairs alone to retrieve Stella. 
At that moment, as Kathryn exited the basement that would soon become a chamber of horrors
and stood unencumbered in the sunshine at the top of the stairs,
she could have kept on walking—she could have grabbed her firstborn and hotfooted to safety,
leaving Bryan and Ruby to face the carnage alone. 
Kathryn could have saved herself, but she did not; she and Stella returned to the basement
where the entire family was eventually slaughtered—beaten, stabbed and ultimately bludgeoned to death,
their throats cut for good measure. 
Gray and Dandridge subsequently set the house ablaze and decamped with a few hundred dollars’ worth
of recording equipment; the financial tally of the massacre of this much-loved family
broke down, as one journalist noted, to roughly fifty dollars per life.

There is something profoundly noble about the actions of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and Kathryn Harvey. 
When personal safety was within their grasp they eschewed it—saving themselves was not their first priority;
family came first, self-preservation instinct trumped by the tenacious power of a mother’s love.
I believe the decision to return to her embattled family
must have been particularly difficult for Kathryn,
as she had not only the opportunity to save herself but the opportunity to save her daughter Stella as well. 
I can’t imagine her emotional turmoil.
Gray and Dandridge appeared out of the blue in the middle of a sunny Sunday afternoon—one moment she was wondering if the chili was properly spiced
and the next she was tasked with a veritable Sophie’s Choice.

As for Mrs. Hawke-Petit,
going to sleep in your well-appointed suburban home only to be suddenly jolted awake by two bat-wielding strangers must seem nightmarishly surreal. 
In that situation you have gone from having complete control over your own life
to having no control whatsoever—in many respects,
it’s almost as if she had woken up in an entirely different world;
the furniture may have looked the same,
but every other detail was drastically akimbo.

Would Kathryn and Jennifer have made the same decisions if they had known what lay ahead?  
I have no proof, of course,
but I suspect both women believed that all would be well if they obeyed their captors’ directives.
It’s not in a killer’s best interest to baldly announce your impending murder—people who know they’re going to die are far more likely to fight back. 
In order to ensure a docile victim I would think it best to assure your prey
that their cooperation will insure survival, the existence of a pre-dug shallow grave notwithstanding.  
And I assume most victims tend to believe their attackers,
since in these situations the attacker has essentially become your god—it is he who decides when and whether you will draw your next breath. 
You have no choice but to believe him because by stripping away your power
he has also fatally diminished your ability to choose.

So would  Kathryn and Jennifer have acted differently if the carnage ahead had been foretold? 
Would they have reasoned, “My family will die regardless, I may as well live to honor their memory?”
Or would they have chosen to die with their families,
captains going down with the ship,
their neat suburban homes transformed into familial versions of the Alamo? 
What is the correct decision in that situation,
and would you or I have the courage carry through?  
If I’m awakened at gunpoint in the wee hours tonight would I sacrifice myself for my family? Would you?  
I am reminded of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ lyrics:
“I’m not a coward I’ve just never been tested; I like to think that if I was I would pass.”

The moral of today’s blog post?  Cherish every moment with your families;
make sure they know you love them because your entire world can crumble to ash
with an errant glance in a mini-mall parking lot.
And always, always lock your doors—the boogey man is afoot,
and someone has to die.

(Addenda: on January 27, 2012 Joshua Komisarjevsky joined Stephen Hayes on Connecticut’s death row. Ricky Javon Gray is currently on death row in Virginia, and Ray Joseph Dandridge is serving three life sentences without parole.)

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