Tag Archives: HBO

The Petit home was the scene of absolute brutality at the hands of two men.

The Petits were at home when they were subjected to unimaginable brutality and terror at the hands of two men, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes.

Here’s a tip: if by some chance you find yourself home alone (my 13-month-old son doesn’t really count because he’s no protection at all) on a dark and stormy night, do NOT, under any circumstances, watch the HBO documentary “The Cheshire Murders,” which chronicles the horrific and almost inexplicable 2007 home invasion that killed three members of a beautiful family in Cheshire, Connecticut.

Despite being a bona fide connoisseur of the true-crime documentary genre (surely, having watched every single episode of 48 Hours Mystery and Forensic Files qualifies me as such), and considering myself somewhat embarrassingly jaded about criminals and senseless criminal activity, I can say that the depiction of convicted murderers and all-around thugs Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes haunted and tormented me all night long, and now well into the following morning. I almost had to sleep with the lights on.

As is the fashion these days, this is a documentary with a point of view. Filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner want to tell us that the Cheshire Police royally screwed up. They got the 911 call from the teller at the bank where Steven Hayes forced Jennifer Hawke-Petit to withdraw money about an hour before the house ended up engulfed in flames. They arrived at the Petit home a full half-hour before the fire started, and apparently just sat around in their squad cars scoping the place out and, I don’t know, eating doughnuts and drinking coffee, while Ms. Hawke-Petit was getting raped, strangled, and the girls were getting gasoline poured on them and were subsequently being burned alive.

And yes, the fact that the Cheshire Town Manager went on television shortly after the murders applauding the “courageous” efforts of the “rescue” team will make you want to claw his eyes out. As Hawke-Petit’s sister rightly points out, how much worse could it have gotten? The most heinous possible outcome was borne out. And is it really considered intrepid police work to “get the guys” when they’re right in front of your face, fleeing a burning home?

Needless to say, the Cheshire Police did not make anyone available to interview for this documentary.

The film also makes a pointed comment about the futility of the death penalty. The lone survivor of the attack, William Petit, is depicted as tragically misguided as he advocates for death sentences for Komisarjevsky and Hayes in order to exact a real sense of “justice.” (He’s not the only one — nearly every family member of both the victims and the murderers would like to see them dead.) But reality complicates any illusions of cut-and-dry justice. We learn that Hayes, at least, already wants to die. Automatic appeals will mean the case gets dragged out in perpetuity. And really, isn’t life in near-solitary confinement far worse than an early exit?

Anyway, for me, the most arresting part of this film was the depiction of Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, whom the filmmakers handled thoroughly and clinically — so unlike many other true-crime docs, where we never get to hear from the perpetrators’ families or hear their histories. Which is not to say that the depiction was sympathetic: though both men were sexually abused as children, we are made to understand that each was probably pathologically evil. After meeting in a halfway house while out on parole, Hayes and Komisarjevsky hatched this vicious plan in what was basically the inevitable conclusion to their life of brutality and almost complete amorality.

This was not a “home invasion gone wrong.” It was a mass torture-murder that will stun you with its deliberate viciousness and the hideous intentionality of its two perpetrators. Though both men had only ever been arrested for burglaries previously, it surprised no one, least of all their families, that they were capable of such depraved actions. These men were thugs through and through.

For Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, life was indeed ugly and brutal. The fact that they inflicted their sense of the world on the innocent Petit family, though, is an unimaginable tragedy — the kind that “justice” could probably never even attempt to remedy.



This is a topic that maybe doesn’t fit conveniently into the theme of this blog, but I wanted to share it anyway. Have you ever read a newspaper article about a horrific accident and wondered to yourself what life is really like behind the headlines for the families involved in the tragedy? (I mean, maybe I’m just nosy or something, but I do, all the time.)

Well, Liz Garbus’ HBO documentary “There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane” explores exactly that. It’s a look at the complicated and heartbreaking aftermath of a car accident that killed eight people, half of them were children under the age of 8. Some of you might remember the news story, which was dubbed the “Wrong Way Crash” and the “Taconic Tragedy.”

Brief synopsis: Long Island mother Diane Schuler gets into a minivan to drive five kids (two of them hers, three of them her brother’s) back home from a weekend at an upstate campground one Sunday morning in July 2009. Along the way, her niece calls her father from a cell phone, insisting that “there’s something wrong with Aunt Diane.” Family members frantically call Diane’s cell, which goes straight to voice mail. A short time later, witnesses call 911 reporting a minivan traveling at high speed against traffic on the Taconic Parkway. Schuler’s minivan hits an oncoming SUV, killing all three men in that car, as well as herself, all three of her brother’s kids, and her daughter. Her five-year-old son is the only survivor.

Everyone’s initial reaction is that Schuler had suffered a stroke or some other medical emergency that would seriously compromise her judgement. She loved her kids fiercely, as well as her nieces, and would have never in her wildest dreams wanted any harm to come to them. Besides, everyone insists, she was a control freak and a perfectionist who would never let her emotions or any substance use spiral out of control.

Several days later, an autopsy reveals that Schuler had a blood alcohol level of twice the legal limit, plus a high concentration of THC (marijuana) in her system. The film also reveals that she was prescribed Ambien, a known cause of strange, unconscious behavior.

So Diane Schuler is now apparently some sort of crazed suicidal addict, a demon who recklessly killed her family, and several strangers  and that’s exactly how the media portrayed her.

But in the film, as well as in an excellent New York article by Steve Fishman, Schuler’s husband adamantly denies that his wife was either an alcoholic or a drug addict; in fact, he even disputes the results of the autopsy (his protests are eventually put to rest by a second one). His family sticks by the stroke/medical emergency theory (which they say could have been brought on by a chronically abscessed tooth), and maybe consumed alcohol/drugs in that extremely compromised, desperate state to try to alleviate the pain.

But both Garbus’ and Fishman’s investigations revealed a deeply troubled woman who had been abandoned by her mother at a young age and suffered social and emotional problems well into adulthood. Though she was a high-functioning working mother by any account, there was clearly a private side to Diane Schuler that makes drug and alcohol addiction seem like less of a farfetched notion than her husband would care to admit.

Here’s a quote from a public television interview with Garbus when the film was released in 2011. I think it captures nicely the way our criminal justice system often tries to simplify the reasons people commit criminal behavior: namely, that they are just plain criminals.

Everyone had different stories, different visions of what happened that day. Because there was no trial for Diane Schuler and because there was no judicial process. It just hung out in people’s lives like this terrible terrible wound — an open, gaping wound in the lives of all the people affected that day. Walking around in their world required great empathy. These were people in crisis and when you walk into those worlds and turn your lens on them it’s a huge responsibility.

One of the experts talked about how so many small things lead up to this terrible hole. And we want it to be one bad thing like she was committing suicide or she found out some horrible thing, but what if it were just  a dozen small things that were not terrible, but add up to a terrible whole? And I think that’s what we can’t understand.

No, she was not a saint, but no she was not an evil person. And I think there is a tendency to put people in these black and white squares but sometimes they don’t fit. And then when they don’t fit, or when the pattern of the crime doesn’t fit, there’s denial and disbelief.

I’m not saying a more nuanced approach would work (or even matter), in our American pursuit of “justice,” but it’s certainly interesting to think about. I’m constantly surprised by how vehement the public’s desire to “find the culprit” and “put him behind bars” is without any consideration (or at least, curiosity) about the psychology or circumstances behind manifestly criminal acts.

I suppose it’s worth noting that Diane Schuler’s sister-in-law Jackie Hance, who lost her three daughters in the crash, has a memoir, “I’ll See You Again,” coming out next week, and an interview with Ann Curry on “Rock Center” this Friday to promote it. Sigh.