CHESHIRE, Conn. (WTNH) — In its infancy, it was a way for the Cheshire community to try and heal after one of Connecticut’s most horrific crimes — a home invasion in 2007 that ended with Dr. William Petit‘s wife and daughters (ages 11 and 17 at the time) being raped and murdered before the family home was set on fire.
That tragedy made national news and shook the community.
“We were devastated,” said Jenifer Walsh.
Walsh and her husband Donald took an event they created called “Lights of Hope” and expanded it community wide. They saw it as an opportunity to help the community cope with the horror. It began with people on their street placing luminaries outside — it ended up becoming a powerful display of candles in white bags lighting up the nighttime sky in many neighborhoods.
It brought a light to a town in grief.
“It’s really beautiful for us,” Don Walsh said.
“It’s a wonderful feeling and this town really comes together for this,” Walsh said.
Over the years, “Lights of Hope” evolved into an annual event that now benefits several Cheshire non-profits like the food pantry and Cheshire Youth and Social Services. People buying luminary kits has resulted in close to a million dollars going towards charities that help others.
That tradition continues Saturday with a check presentation at 2 p.m. on the First Congregational Church Green.
Proceeds also go towards student scholarships and to The Petit Family Foundation.
“We know through conversations with Dr. Petit that his wife and kids would be all over this type of event,” said Donald Walsh. “They would be loving what we’re doing and be participating.”
Two men are behind bars, convicted of the crime. On July 23, 2007, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes broke into the Petit family home.
Dr. Petit was asleep. Police say the two men hit Dr. Petit over the head with a baseball bat and tied him up in the basement. Then they say they bound 11-year-old Michaela and 17-year-old Hayley Petit to their beds.
The men forced the girls’ mother, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, to go to a bank to withdraw money. When they returned home, police say the men sexually assaulted Hawke-Petit and her 11-year-old daughter.
Komisarjevsky and Hayes doused the home with gasoline and fled. Dr. Petit was still bound in the basement. He managed to free his hands and hop up the stairs and out the front door, according to court testimony.
Komisarjevsky and Hayes both got the death penalty. That was overturned when state lawmakers eliminated the death penalty in Connecticut. Instead, Komisarjevsky and Hayes are now serving life sentences.
Komisarjevsky’s lawyers are seeking a new trial, claiming excessive pre-trial publicity has made it difficult to seat an impartial jury.
Hayes is receiving hormone therapy in prison to transition to become a woman. Hayes is serving six life sentences. In a recent podcast, Hayes said he was diagnosed with having gender dysphoria.