Brutal murder, wrenching trial: HBO’s must-see doc “The Cheshire Murders”

It was, people said, Connecticut’s version of the In Cold Blood murders. In July 2007, Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, 11-year-old Michaela and 17-year-old Hayley, were murdered by a pair of strangers — Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, who’d picked the family at random — while patriarch William Petit lay bound and beaten in the basement of their suburban home. He survived; the women perished either at the hands of their attackers or in the fire the men set to cover their tracks.

Clearly, the bare facts of the case — which took place in Cheshire, Conn., a bedroom community near New York City — are horrific enough, without considering any of its other elements. But The Cheshire Murders, created for HBO’s Summer Documentary Series by married filmmaking team Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (2010’s Stonewall Uprising), reveals that the deaths may have been preventable if only police had intervened; a frantic bank teller dialed 911 after observing a frightened Jennifer Petit withdrawing a large sum of money for the waiting Hayes. Or, perhaps the family would have been spared if Komisarjevsky and Hayes, men with long rap sheets, had been more closely monitored by their parole officers and drug counselors — or had received better mental-health care during their respective troubled childhoods.

But all the “what if” scenarios in the world can’t restore three lives — or fill the void felt by those they left behind. Using revealing interviews that explore the many facets of the case, deft editing, and a sensitive yet questioning tone, The Cheshire Murders is a both thought-provoking and disturbing viewing experience. I spoke with Davis and Heilbroner ahead of the film’s Mon/22 HBO debut.

SF Bay Guardian A story like The Cheshire Murders, with its many lurid details, could come across as exploitation, but your film manages to avoid that.

David Heilbroner It would have been very easy to go down the “murder-tainment” path. Obviously, we didn’t go there.

SFBG The earliest interviews in the film seem to occur right after the crimes. How did you first hear about the murders, and how did you go about getting access to your subjects?

DH We heard about the murders, I think, like everybody else — in the papers the next day. We’ve been working with Sheila Nevins, who is the President of HBO Documentary Films, for over a decade, and she called us up. I used to be a prosecutor and I’ve written true crime, and she said, “You guys should go to Cheshire and take a look at what’s going on. There might be a movie — I don’t know, but go look.”

So Kate and I went, and what really got us hooked was that nothing about this case screwed together all that logically right from the beginning. It just was a mystery. It didn’t make sense. It was the wrong town: Cheshire, this stuff just doesn’t happen there. It was the wrong family: usually when you have a crime like this, it turns out one of them was dealing drugs after all. Like Breaking Bad or something, the guy’s actually cooking meth in the basement. But everyone in this family was wonderful. They were all just good, upright citizens. The didn’t bring this upon themselves at all.

And the perpetrators weren’t lifelong arsonists, or sexual predators, or people with vicious assaults in their records. They were petty burglars. And then, Mrs. Petit turns out to have been at the bank and alerted the police in a timely fashion, when the perpetrators were separated and the family was still alive. And yet, 35 minutes later, everybody’s dead.

So, it just was full of weird mysteries that got us immediately hooked on what happened, and why.

SFBG It seemed like you had pretty generous access to everyone (except the police, who refused to comment at all). Several family members on both sides give very open interviews. How forthcoming were they really, and how did you get access to them?

KD It was not easy. The town had virtually shut its doors because it was inundated by a tidal wave of media trucks and reporters. It’s a place where people like to keep to themselves, and privacy is considered a really important commodity. So they were shell-shocked and didn’t want to talk, by and large.

But we stuck around, because we had the latitude to do that with HBO’s support. And beyond that, it really took months for people to understand that this would be a story that really would take place over time, and that we would allow people to speak for themselves, and we weren’t trying to squeeze them into our version of the story. We also assured the people in the film that us filming them, before the trial particularly, wouldn’t affect the trial, because nobody would see the material until after both trials were done. But did it take a long time? Yes.

DH It took months. People were shell-shocked by the horror of the crime, and wary of being taken advantage of. They didn’t want their sound bites taken out of context, and they wanted to trust us. So we spent a long time talking to people about what exactly we were trying to do. They’re hard questions to answer when you’d love someone to open up and be part of your film, but you have to earn their trust.

Now that the film is done, we were able to show it to a few of the central characters in the film — I was actually shaking, I was so nervous showing it to them, because I really wanted them to like it and think we hadn’t abused their kindness — and I’m delighted to say that they all really liked the film, and really believe in it. That’s more gratifying than I can say.

SFBG Did you try to interview either of the killers?

DH We did try. Steven Hayes, shortly after his trial, fell apart mentally. He started writing crazy letters to these sort of death row groupies who are out there, and his letters were intercepted. He’d started taking credit for 17 rape-murder-abductions, none of which were true. He was just losing it, and saying all this crazy stuff, and his lawyer said, “You know, I just can’t have you interview him in this state. He’s a mess.” He was falling apart anyway; he was depressed, he was on meds during the trial, he was deeply suicidal.

As for Joshua Komisarjevsky, the prison authorities have not been kind to any reporting. They literally wouldn’t allow us to film any exteriors of the prison in which he was incarcerated, unless we were off the perimeter of the property. Eventually we hit a brick wall with them. And even if Steven had said yes, we probably wouldn’t have gotten in, ultimately. Not unlike what happened with the Cheshire police, we offered any number of compromises and suggestions, and the prison authorities flatly rebuffed all filming requests.

As for the Cheshire police, if you’ve seen the film, you know there is a terrible scandal about the way they treated the family [of Jennifer Hawke-Petit]. I went and had two meetings with the Chief of Police in Cheshire, and I said, “Our film’s going to come out, and it’s going to say X, Y, and Z, and it’s not very flattering to you. I bet you have good answers to this. Please be in our film. We will honor what you have to say and let you give your point of view, and rebut these allegations if you want to.” And they said no. They didn’t want to say anything.

I’m sorry to say, both the Cheshire police and the correctional authorities have lot of unanswered questions. [After his arrest,] Steven Hayes was able to squirrel away days and days of medication, even though he was on suicide watch, so how did that happen? So many mysteries in this case. It just kept getting weirder as the trial wore on.

SFBG The film’s revelation about the timeline of the crime — that the police could have, maybe, intervened while Jennifer Hawke-Petit was at the bank — was something that the mainstream media hadn’t really covered.

DH What was also missed was that they came up with a cover story. Right after the crime, both the state and the local police had this story about how, the minute they arrived at the crime scene, the house was already on fire and the perpetrators were running out of the building. And that was directly contradicted by their own records. It shows that they had a full complement of officers, about 16 of them, surrounding the house for about half an hour.

That was really troubling — this is a crime that took place in small-town America, with a local police force that everyone knows, and you’d think if anyone was going to stand up for me, and protect me, and tell me the truth about what happened, it would be those guys.

SFBG I appreciated how you included the Hartford Courant reporter in the film. It seemed like he encountered some of the same frustrations that you guys did.

DH Yeah. Colin Poitras. He was a model reporter, I thought, because he was very cool-headed, extremely dogged, just wanted the facts. He had to bring a lawsuit to even pry loose heavily redacted [case] documents. He was very gracious to let us into this real-time process of reporting on an ongoing event.

SFBG The film ends up making a pretty strong statement against the death penalty, although for reasons not normally mentioned in death-penalty debates: it was known from the beginning that the trial would be long and costly, and would make the crime’s most traumatic details public knowledge. Plus, the men were willing to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences, but emotions were so high that the quest for death sentences kind of took over. Did you start out making The Cheshire Murders with that theme in mind, or did it emerge while you were filming?

KD David, you have a legal background, so you may have been aware of the two-part stage of death penalty trials. But it was new to me. I went into the film really being quite open-minded. I was historically anti-death penalty, but with this case, I thought — particularly as a filmmaker — that I would learn more, and make a better film, and think more deeply about things if I could set aside my political beliefs and just watch the story unfold.

So if anything, I went into this thinking that this might steer me toward understanding why somebody would want the death penalty, and that I might end up more pro-death penalty than I was. But in watching the re-victimization of the family members on both sides, and what they had to go through — with these protracted displays of the worst evidence you can imagine — even the jurors suffered from PTSD and many of them had to undergo therapy after the trial.

This was all avoidable, had these guys been locked up for life. In the end, in the end, that’s what will happen, because the chances of them actually being put to death is slim to none.

DH There are any number of documentaries that have looked at the death penalty, and I’ve seen a lot of them. Most of them are about cases where guilt is ultimately in question. Maybe they didn’t do it, this was a miscarriage of justice and god forbid we execute somebody who didn’t do it. That’s the worst indictment of the death penalty.

This is the first case that’s the poster child for the death penalty, if you’re going to have a death penalty. These guys definitely did it. They admitted they did it. And what they did is just awful. There’s no conceivable good spin you can put on tying girls to their beds, dousing them with gasoline, and setting them on fire. It’s as bad as it gets.

Then, since guilt isn’t the question, and since the horribleness of the crime isn’t the question, it becomes, “What is the death penalty going to achieve, emotionally, in terms of society, in terms of finances?” It was a chance to document that and it had never been done before. I think it gives you a chance to really look the death penalty squarely in the eye and decide whether you believe in it, not when someone’s innocent, but when someone’s guilty.

KD And guilty of, arguably, one of the worst domestic crimes in US history.

SFBG Somebody in the movie mentions that it’s like a modern-day In Cold Blood.

DH It’s a comparison that gets made often, and with good reason. There’s an uncanny similarity between the crimes. A family of four in a nice rural home. Two perpetrators who barely know each other break in, in the hopes of stealing money, and by morning nearly everybody’s dead. And they’re eventually sentenced to death. The similarities were resonant in my mind as we were making the film.

SFBG Did you try to get a more formal interview with William Petit, or is what’s in the movie all he was willing to share one-on-one?

DH That was what he was willing to share, and that was more than he was willing to share with anybody but Oprah. He did do one sit-down interview with Oprah, although he refused to discuss the crime. To this day, he refuses to discuss the crime publicly. He doesn’t do interviews. We were close with his family and he agreed to talk with us on camera on a couple of occasions, and he was inundated with requests. I think he spent as much time fending off the media as he did being at the trial. He couldn’t walk down the street without this school of fish of cameras and mics following him, just hoping he might say something.

So to get the few intimate moments we got with him — it was hard to find him when he wasn’t surrounded. We were grateful. And I think it gives you a glimpse into his loneliness and his struggle with pain, anger, and frustration, which is completely understandable, given that he is a man who literally lost everything in his life overnight.

SFBG What are the advantages of working with a company like HBO, and making a film for cable rather than theatrical release?

KD First of all, it really reaches millions of people. The audience is built-in. And for such a national story, I think it was important for us to know that it would be seen if we were going to invest that kind of time. Theatrical documentaries are a wonderful way to see films, but the numbers of people who see them are much smaller.

Also, HBO is one of the few places in the world that has the appetite and the financial backing to support long-term stories like this. The fact that the film went on for years, and the trial took a long time, didn’t stop them from wanting to continue to make the film.

DH Having a place like HBO, which will give you a national audience and potentially an international platform, is really amazing. If your goal as a filmmaker is to get your take on a subject into the public zeitgeist, it’s a great way to go. And they’re wonderful to work with, I have to say. At least with Kate and me, they do not have a heavy editorial hand; they’re just helpful and I have always been really grateful to work with them.