As town police officers raced to Dr. William A. Petit Jr.'s home on Sorghum Mill Drive Monday morning they had no idea of the horrors that lay ahead.
By the time they reached the Deaconwood neighborhood of half-million-dollar homes, flames had blown out the rear of Petit's house. Two men were running away.
Inside the burning house, Petit, a prominent doctor and father of two who had been brutally beaten about his head and left tied up in the basement, hopped up the cellar stairs as the flames spread. He was the only one to make it out alive.
As he struggled, flames roared around his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, a popular nurse at Cheshire Academy, who was unconscious and possibly already dead on the first floor.
The charred body of his oldest daughter, Hayley, 17, a recent graduate of Miss Porter's School in Farmington, was found at the top of the main stairs.
In a second-floor bedroom down the hall, the youngest in the family, Michaela, 11, was found tied to a bed. Her body was too badly burned to tell how she died.
The office of the chief state medical examiner will perform autopsies on the three victims today.
Police had been called to the house at 300 Sorghum Mill Drive about 9:20 a.m. on the report of a possible home invasion. Jennifer Hawke-Petit had been forced by the intruders to withdraw money from a nearby bank. While there, she somehow alerted bank employees -- possibly orally or by passing a teller a note -- and that brought the police.
As police were closing in on the neighborhood, the two men jumped in the family's Chrysler Pacifica SUV parked in the driveway.
The fleeing suspects rammed a police cruiser that tried to cut them off in front of the house and continued west on Sorghum toward a police roadblock about a block away.
Sgt. Chris Cote and Officer Tom Wright, both members of the department's SWAT team, had left their cars at the roadblock and were headed toward the house armed with semiautomatic rifles. Officer Jeff Sutherland was positioned at the roadblock.
Instead of slowing for the roadblock, the fleeing suspects gunned the SUV's engine and raced toward Sutherland. The SUV slammed into two police cruisers in the center of the roadblock. Their front ends mangled, the police cars spun apart from each other on impact. Sutherland escaped injury. The Pacifica, front end damaged and airbags deployed, rolled 30 feet before stopping against a neighbor's manicured lawn.
Officers, guns drawn, swarmed the vehicle and pulled the suspects out.
Police would not release the suspects' identities late Monday but sources close to the investigation said one was a 25-year-old Cheshire man. The other is about 40 and believed to be from the Naugatuck Valley.
Cheshire Police Chief Michael Cruess said the department was not releasing names or charges until the men are formally charged. The investigation is being led by detectives with the state police major crime squad.
The suspects are expected to appear in Superior Court in Meriden this morning. Police said they are treating the scene as a "home invasion-arson-homicide.''
Investigators found a car -- believed to belong to one of the suspects -- in the Quarry Village subdivision about 1 1/2 miles away.
On Monday, investigators had not determined what brought the men to the Petits' home.
William Petit was listed in serious but stable condition at St. Mary's Hospital in Waterbury Monday night.
Neighbor Kim Ferraiolo said she had just spoken to William Petit about 7:30 p.m. Sunday and nothing seemed amiss.
"They were the nicest people, just a great family,'' said Ferraiolo, who moved next door about three years ago.
Ferraiolo said a neighbor alerted her to the fire Monday morning and she tried to call Petit at work, but was told he never showed. She said Petit likes to tend to his flower beds and "has a great sense of humor.''
Ferraiolo, like other stunned neighbors, tried to understand why the Petits' home was picked. "It's just hard to understand how someone could do something like that.''
Investigators believe the two men barged into the home sometime after 3 a.m. and held family members hostage for hours, sources close to the case said. Shortly after businesses opened at 9 a.m., one of the men took Jennifer Hawke-Petit to the Bank of America branch office in Maplecroft Plaza several miles away and forced her to withdraw money.
Shortly after they returned to the house -- as police were racing to the scene -- the suspects set fire to the residence and fled.
State arson investigators were at the badly burned house late Monday searching for possible accelerants. Detectives were expected to enter the house later in the evening.
Cheshire Town Manager Michael Milone praised police and firefighters for risking their lives responding to a dangerous crime scene.
Neighbors said that shortly after the fire was extinguished, a firefighter climbed a ladder to enter a second-floor bedroom window in search of possible victims and then quickly backed out. Police SWAT team members then moved in and secured the home, witnesses said.
"I just can't say enough good things about how proud I am of our police officers and firefighters,'' Milone said. He credited his police officers for making a quick arrest.
"They exemplified the best in public service,'' Milone said. "Without their great work this could have been a far worse tragedy.''
William Petit, 50, is a prominent endocrinologist and medical director of the Joslin Diabetes Center Affiliate at The Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain. He is a past president of the state chapter of the American Diabetes Association and was elected to the ADA Hall of Merit in 1994.
Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, was a nurse and co-director of the Richmond Health Center at Cheshire Academy. She had been a nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital and was a Penn State graduate. She also had been involved with the Girl Scouts and Habitat for Humanity.
At Cheshire Academy, a private day and boarding school, she was considered a friend, a peer and a confidant for students as well as a health care provider.
"If anybody ever wanted someone taking care of the kids when they were not right there with you, it was her,'' said Philip Moore, the school's director of communications. "She was a mom and a health care professional. That's how she approached her job.''
Hayley Petit graduated in June from Miss Porter's, where she was co-editor in chief of Chautauqua, the school's "journal of scholarly writing.'' She was also co-captain of the crew team and a member of the cross country and basketball teams. She was set to attend Dartmouth College, her father's alma mater, where she planned to study medicine.
Jennifer Hawke-Petit was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis eight years ago. The family was active in the Connecticut chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society and Hayley had formed a fundraising team called "Hayley's Hope'' that raised more than $54,000 for the cause over the past eight years.
Michaela was looking to continue her older sister's legacy by adding "Michaela's Miracle'' to the campaign.
Courant Staff Writers Courant Staff Writers Matthew Kauffman, Mary Ellen Fillo and Joseph O'Brien contributed to this story.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun