The Petit house in Cheshire. (HBO photo / July 17, 2013)

The Cheshire Murders

HBO, July 22, 9 p.m.


Before there was Newtown, there was Cheshire. The Cheshire home invasion that left a mother and her two daughters dead sent waves of shock across the state and country and made headlines overseas, so brutal, so heinous, so senseless did the crime seem.

The contours of the crime were soon known. It was around 10 a.m., July 23, 2007: two men caught as they tried to escape a home they had just set on fire in a quiet, upscale suburban neighborhood; a father and husband taken to the hospital with head injuries from a beating with a baseball bat; the discovery, once the fire was out, of the bodies of his wife and daughters. The daughters, Hayley and Michaela Petit, had been tied to their beds; Hayley had freed herself and made it out of her bedroom before collapsing. Their mother, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, was downstairs, raped and strangled. Dr. William A. Petit Jr., who had been sitting on the basement floor, his hands and feet tied, his body tied to a pole, managed to free his hands, escape through an outside metal door, and make it to a neighbor's house and raise the alarm.

But police were already present, around the property; that much is certain from trial testimony of Petit and his neighbor, David Simcik. There had been an earlier 911 call from the manager of a Bank of America at a nearby mall, where Jennifer had gone with Steven Hayes, 44, one of the bad guys, and withdrawn $15,000 in cash for them, and in doing so had passed a note to the teller saying her family was being held hostage and would be killed if police were called.

The new HBO documentary, The Cheshire Murders, opens with a recording of that 911 call, timed at 9:21 a.m. As the bank manager talks to the 911 dispatcher, she sees Hawke-Petit leave the bank. "I see her walking out. She is petrified," she said.

Filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner paint a picture of a town of summer, of parades, of Rockwellian vistas torn apart by the home invasion sometime after midnight on Sunday July 22. The film brings immediacy in the form of live video from the day of the crime, video of Dr. Petit speaking to a church full of family and well-wishers only five days later, and scraps of audio from radio call-in shows, but there is no voice-over narration, leaving viewers to infer the filmmakers' views on the sometimes conflicting versions of what happened.

One question to emerge from the film is, how long were police outside the house on Sorghum Mill Drive, and why didn't they take action sooner? Interviewed at her home in Chapel Hill, N.C., Jennifer's sister, Cynthia Renn, says, "Until I know the details around things, it's hard to figure things out... Did they try to enter, did they not try to enter, and why were there not policemen looking in the windows? My sister had no blinds. I just want the facts, and nobody has told us what really happened."

Ironically in this era in which family members of victims of tragedies like the murders at Sandy Hook elementary are treated with great courtesy and consideration by officials, the Rev. Richard and Marybelle Hawke, the parents of Jennifer and grandparents of Hayley and Michaela, seem to have been treated as a nuisance by the town of Cheshire and its police. Heilbroner and Davis show that they are still distraught over police inaction on that morning; yet their letters to the town have been ignored.

Missing from the film is Dr. Petit's reaction to the police response. It is known, though, that he did not sue the town and in fact told the Associated Press he was satisfied with the response: "As far as we know the response time was immediate. We're very satisfied with the police response," he said.

Yet a revealing moment in the film comes when Colin Poitras, a Hartford Courant reporter, says he has received a transcript of calls to 911 and communications between police and their dispatcher that "raises the possibility" that police might have stopped the vehicle containing Hayes and Jennifer Hawke-Petit on the way back from the bank, or got to the house before them, "perhaps... could have separated the two suspects at that time, and maybe things would have had a different outcome."

The police have a different view: "Yes, it worked out so officers arrived on scene just as the suspects were leaving the residence," said one officer to Fox News. "Upon arrival at the victims' residence, the first officer observed two male subjects exit private residence and also observed the private residence fully engulfed in flame," said another to reporters.

The filmmakers were unable to secure an interview with any Cheshire police officer. Mayor Matt Hall informs the filmmakers he has nothing to tell them.

When the film switches focus to the sorry history of the two suspects, Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, 26 at the time of his arrest, it loses momentum. It's uncomfortable to watch Hayes' brothers try to distance themselves from him, pathetic to hear Komisarjevsky's girlfriend read his letters.

Komisarjevsky has artistic talent; he might easily have had a career as a professional illustrator, but he got his kicks from breaking into houses while the occupants were sleeping, without disturbing them. Hayes' MO was breaking into cars. We hear from experts about their mental states, about the bureaucratic foul-up that allowed Komisarjevsky to be paroled in 2007.

The film traces the story through their trials, convictions and death sentences. The image I'll remember is of Dr. Petit at the graves of his family saying, "It makes me wanna cry..." Well, yes.