A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)

Chapter 1

The clock tower had placidly watched over Austin from 230 feet above since 1937. It was so loved that the sight of its vertical column soaring into a cloudless blue sky swelled alumni with pride. Few disputed that the imposing tower with its four twelve-foot faces rimmed in gold leaf was the symbol of the University of Texas, or that UT was the university Lone Star parents pushed their children to attend, the institution that inspired high schoolers to crash for exams and hoard birthday money in a college fund. For UT and its tower were much more than a university and a building; they were symbols of hope and the promise of a dream.

Yet the clock tower had another history as well, a much darker one.

On August 1, 1966, a twenty-five-year-old architecture student and ex-marine, Charles Joseph Whitman, climbed the UT clock tower stairs lugging a cache of weapons. The nightmare lasted eighty minutes. Before a police bullet found its mark and ended the carnage, Whitman murdered sixteen, including his wife and mother, and wounded thirty-one.

Fast-forward thirty-nine years to August 18, 2005. On this day, yet another shocking tragedy unfolded in the clock tower’s shadow.

On the university’s West Campus, a well-heeled neighborhood of sororities, frat houses, and expensive student housing, at 2529 Rio Grande, stood the Orange Tree, a block-long, three-story condominium project, one of the most prestigious on the campus. On the second floor, a locked red door with the number 88 marked the condo leased by Colton Pitonyak. A National Merit Scholar finalist who’d had the advantages of a prosperous upbringing, Pitonyak was a former Catholic school kid, an altar boy who spoke French and played the guitar and piano. When he left Little Rock, Arkansas, four years earlier with a full academic scholarship to study finance at UT’s esteemed McCombs Business School, many believed he would one day make his name as a Wall Street whiz kid.

This night would prove them wrong. Instead, Colton Pitonyak’s legacy would be markedly more sinister. But then, no one could have predicted the horror that waited behind the door marked 88.

The heat that August was nearly unbearable, well into the nineties. Summer in Austin could be blisteringly hot. Yet a breeze ruffled the trees, and no one in the small group gathered outside Colton Pitonyak’s apartment noticed the sweltering weather.

They’d been there for hours: Sharon Cave; her tall, sandy-haired accountant boyfriend, Jim Sedwick; and Cave’s oldest daughter, Vanessa.

A petite woman with thick, dark blond hair, Cave stared at the locked red door to unit 88. Her second child, twenty-one-year-old Jennifer, was missing. No one had seen her in nearly forty-eight hours, not since she had left a bar with Pitonyak. When Sharon called his cell phone from her Corpus Christi home, a surly Pitonyak refused to answer questions.

“Dude, I’m having pizza with my friend,” he replied. “Don’t bother me.”

Worried, Cave and Sedwick rushed to Austin. Twenty-five-year-old Vanessa came, too, driving in from Dallas. They were all determined to find Jennifer, and their only clue was Pitonyak. But they’d pounded over and over again on his door, and no one answered. The afternoon wore on. Sunset passed, leaving the sky cloaked in darkness, as lights illuminated the somber tower. At the apartment marked 88, Sharon, Jim, and Vanessa stood vigil, for what they weren’t sure. All Sharon knew for certain was that she had to get into Pitonyak’s apartment. The answer to Jennifer’s disappearance waited inside.

Like her mother, Vanessa, willowy with long, dark blond hair, understood things she couldn’t explain. Sharon and all three of her daughters were like that, so connected it was a nearly psychic bond, an uncut spiritual umbilical cord that bound them together. Deep within them, Vanessa and Sharon unconsciously understood the importance of this day. Something grave had taken place, and they sensed the breaking of the tie that anchored them to Jennifer, the slipping away of her presence in their lives.

At 10 P.M. the University of Texas clock tower’s carillon rang, marking the hour, and for Sharon, Jim, and Vanessa, time stood still. When it started again, Jim Sedwick crawled through a window into Colton Pitonyak’s apartment, and their lives changed, forever.