A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
Their paths had crossed the previous November at a party. Scott Engle met Jennifer at a mutual friend’s apartment. That afternoon, Jennifer was on a casual date with Scott’s friend Shaggy, nicknamed after the Scooby Doo character. Shaggy hid Jen’s car keys to prevent her from leaving, and she needed a ride. Scott offered her one, but instead they spent the evening talking. The Christmas holidays were busy, Scott traveling to Kansas to see family, and somehow he didn’t see her again. But he didn’t stop thinking about her. He told Katrina about the pretty redhead he’d met. Then, in January, Scott went to Katrina’s duplex for a party, looked across the room, and Jennifer smiled back at him.
“That’s the girl. That’s Jennifer,” Scott told Katrina. “The one I told you about.”
“That’s your Jennifer?” Katrina said. “She’s my friend. She’s been staying with me.”
From that moment on, Scott and Jennifer were inseparable. “We just had that fire between us,” he says.
In ways Scott, four years older than Jennifer, looked a little like Colton, dark-haired and not overly tall, yet Colton was drug-thin and scruffy. Scott was muscular, strong, with playful brown eyes under bushy dark brows. He had the body and the puffy face of a fighter, but a warm manner. “Scott likes people. Really likes them,” says Katrina. “That’s one of the first things you notice about him, that he’s genuine and that he cares.”
“I’m the person my friends call to talk to when they have a problem,” says Scott. “I’ve been there.”
In her own way, Jennifer was like that, too. On the outside, she was flinty and determined, if underneath the self-doubts gnawed at her. She gave advice to others, and then didn’t follow it herself. Perhaps she saw in Scott someone who could help her become the woman she wanted to be, independent and strong.
A single dad raising a four-year-old, Madyson, Scott worked evenings as a waiter in an upscale, downtown Austin restaurant, but dreamed of playing a synthesizer in a band. Instead, he sang karaoke at a bar not far from his north Austin apartment, his favorite song: Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line.” On his arms were tattoos representing the Chinese symbols for father, love, eternity, and daughter, along with a celestial cross.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, Scott migrated to Texas along with his parents when he was nineteen. Madyson was born the following year to a girlfriend. Since he was the solid one with a job, he took the baby to care for. His biological father had never been part of his life, and he wanted to be there for his little girl. At twenty-five, Scott Engle was a combination of rebel and concerned father, party boy and dedicated dad.
It wasn’t a fluke that he dropped in at Katrina’s party that night. They’d been close friends for more than a year. At one time, their relationship had been intimate, but they’d moved beyond that, building a bond that Katrina describes as more like “a brother and sister.” When Scott and Jennifer got together, she pulled away from Katrina. “It was awkward. I think Jen wanted Scott to herself. That Scott and I were close bothered her,” says Katrina. “Jennifer was crazy about Scott. They drew each other in like magnets.”
“I want you to meet Scott,” Jennifer told a friend in early 2005. “He’s amazing, and we’re really kindred spirits.”
It was clear to see that for the first time since her split with Mark, Jennifer was truly in love. The same week their paths crossed at Katrina’s party, Jennifer began staying at Scott’s two-bedroom apartment, and soon she moved in her clothes and few possessions from Katrina’s. During the day, Jennifer cooked and cleaned and played with the little girl, caring for her while Scott worked, teaching her the alphabet and her numbers, how to write her name. Jennifer read to Madyson, a brown-haired sprite with enormous round eyes. Before long, Jennifer and Scott talked about building a life together, one where Jennifer would raise Madyson as her own, and the cute little girl with the turned-up nose began calling Jennifer Mom.
The apartment, in a large complex called Brook Meadow Village, in north Austin, was far from the university. Working people, including young families and empty nesters, lived in the gray cedar and tan brick three-story complex, with its open stairways. The developer built around the trees, and old oaks and pines graced the well-kept grounds, where Scott, Jennifer, and Madyson shared their second-floor apartment, number 633, with a mother cat and her five kittens.
“With her red hair, Jennifer stood out in a crowd. But her blue eyes really caught my attention,” Scott says. “She was all girl, feminine, and beautiful. And when she smiled, it just felt like sunshine. Once people met her, they felt like they’d known her forever.”
Scott knew about Jennifer’s drug use, and he understood. As a teenager, he’d had experiences of his own, an LSD and cocaine habit that escalated shortly after he got to Austin. One night, he’d snorted so many lines of coke on top of LSD that when he came down off the high, he realized he could have died. That night, he’d had an out-of-body experience, and saw himself lying in a coffin. “Wild stuff,” Scott says, shaking his head. “After that, I was more careful.”
From that day forward, Scott eased off the drugs, using only rarely and then small amounts, but he believed the acid had changed him, expanded his mind. He studied sixties’ guru Timothy Leary and his turn-on, tune-in, drop-out theories on LSD and expanding consciousness, and believed that he, too, had connected with the universe.
Drugs had made Scott Engle a spiritual man.
Scott talked to Jennifer about being herself, not the person others wanted her to be, and about the importance of living her life doing what she said she would do, not making promises and then backing away. “Scott was a dad, and he acted more like one to Jen,” says a friend. “He was steady, and he was there for her.”
With Scott, Jennifer changed. With his encouragement and support, she eased off the drugs, including the meth. “I didn’t want drugs in the house, around Madyson,” Scott says. For someone who’d professed the inability to quit in the past, Jennifer appeared to let go rather easily. She told friends one way she stopped was to cool her close ties with Colton. “Our relationship was all about drugs,” she said. “It’s all I do with him, so I have to be careful.”
Living with Scott, Jennifer gained fifteen pounds, filling out and looking healthy for the first time in more than a year. And she seemed content. “She was a different person. She hung out with Madyson all the time, and she had better things to do than party,” says Michaela. “With Scott and Madyson, Jennifer was settled. I think that maybe for the first time, she felt safe.”
Jennifer called Sharon and talked about going back to school. She wanted to go into advertising, like her mother, and Scott was encouraging her to do that, looking for ways he could help her. “Sharon was understandably dubious,” says Scott. “She needed Jennifer to show her she was pulling herself out of it. That put pressure on Jennifer, and they argued.”
That spring, Lauren wrote Jennifer a letter, telling her that she wanted a relationship with her, that she missed having her in her life. “I just want you to be honest with me. I want you to call me if you have a problem,” she wrote. “I just want you to be my sister again.”
“I was done with criticizing Jennifer,” Lauren says. “It came between us.”
Off and on, Jen began calling her younger sister to share the good things that were unfolding and the joy of raising little Madyson. To Lauren and to her friends, Jennifer recounted stories about her day-to-day life, telling them about the funny things Madyson said. Jennifer giggled explaining how, on a picnic at a lake, a minnow swam up the little one’s swimsuit, sending her into a screaming, arm-flailing run from the water. There were stories about her attempts at disciplining the little girl. “What do you do when a little girl says ‘butt’?” she asked one day.
“I don’t know,” a friend answered. “What did you do?”
“I wasn’t sure. We do time-outs, but this time I put a drop of hot sauce on her tongue,” Jen said, laughing. “But Madyson liked it.”
On Sundays, Scott, Jennifer, and Madyson went to church together, sometimes with Katrina and Laura Ingles, a friend of Scott’s majoring in music at a nearby college. During the week, Ingles, pretty with dark brown hair and eyes that matched, hung out with Jen and Madyson. Laura didn’t do drugs, and was solidly against them, but she sympathized when Jen talked about how they’d taken over her life and how glad she was that she’d put them behind her. Jennifer confided that more than anything, she thought she’d like to be a good mother for Madyson, and Laura, who loved the little girl, believed Jennifer would be.
In March, Jennifer met Denise Winterbottom around the pool. Denise, tall with long, light brown hair, was a decade older and had a bachelor’s in psychology from a Maryland college. She lived with her boyfriend, Scott Wilson, the apartment complex’s manager and handyman, a building away, in an apartment that came with Scott’s job. Denise, who suffered from CRPS, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a rare, painful disorder, babysat for a four-year-old named Gracie for another single dad in the complex.
It was at the pool one day that Jennifer approached Denise and introduced herself and Madyson. “I thought maybe we could hang out and let the girls play,” Jennifer said.
Denise and Jennifer, it would turn out, had a lot in common. Like Jennifer, Denise started using drugs in high school, “to be rebellious.” She’d tried heroin at seventeen, but got hooked on Xanax and pot, and finally ended up at Narcotics Anonymous. Denise had been in recovery for eleven years when she and Jennifer met, but did have occasional setbacks. “Nothing serious,” she says. “I never got heavy into it again.”
It didn’t take long before Denise and Jennifer spent nearly every day together with Gracie and Madyson. They took the girls on outings, including to McDonald’s for lunch and the park and playground. Once the weather warmed up, they spent mornings at the pool, Jennifer teaching Madyson to swim. Madyson was fairylike, tiny, smart, and wiser than her years, while Gracie was a sturdily built tomboy. The girls loved playing together, “And I was enthralled to have an adult to talk to,” says Denise, in her throaty, raspy, cigarette voice.
At times, Jennifer talked to Denise about moving back to Corpus Christi, but said she couldn’t. “All my friends are in Austin, and I have Scott and Madyson,” she said. “I have a life here, now.”
In the evenings, Jennifer and Denise walked her dog, Speedy, a Lab-chow mix, while they smoked. Before long, Jennifer left the cigarettes home and pulled out a joint, and their evening walks became a quiet, laid-back time when they smoked pot and talked. “I knew I shouldn’t. Neither one of us really should have,” says Denise. “But it wasn’t much. Just one joint, and we shared it. It took the edge off.”
Soon, in the afternoons while the girls napped, they began sharing a second joint.
Early on, Jennifer told Scott about Colton. In fact, he’d been something of a presence in their relationship. Before Jen weaned off the heavier drugs, they’d stopped at his apartment one night so she could get cocaine. Then, as they grew closer, she confided in him, telling Scott about the incident with the knife. “Jennifer didn’t seem frightened. It wasn’t like she thought he’d really hurt her,” he says.
Another night, Jen took Scott to a party, and Colton was there. At first, it bothered Scott just looking at Colton, remembering what Jennifer had said about him. But as Scott watched, Jen and Colton acted like old friends, telling stories and laughing at inside jokes. “Colton was talking one hundred miles per hour about nothing,” says Scott. “And he was wrapped up in himself. He didn’t have a clue of what life was like without drugs.”
At one point, Colton leaned over and said to Scott, “If you ever need anyone taken care of, I’ve done that before.”
Scott didn’t believe him, but he wondered why Colton thought that sounded cool. To Scott, Colton seemed out of touch with reality.
As the night went on, the two young men talked, and Colton mentioned that he wanted to get off the drugs, to stop dealing and regain his life. Scott wondered if he could help him, even if they could be friends. Jennifer cared about Colton. Scott understood that.
At the apartment, the phone rang at odd hours, especially at night, and Jennifer rushed out, saying Colton needed her help. At times, she stayed out all night, but Scott didn’t worry. “I knew it wasn’t like that with them. It wasn’t sexual,” he says. “I could tell that Jennifer thought of him as a friend, and that she worried about him.”
That February, Colton’s parents came to Austin for a farm equipment trade show, and Colton invited Jennifer and Scott to go out to dinner with them and with Said Aziz, a friend of Jennifer’s and Colton’s who was set to graduate in a year from UT; and Colton’s longtime pal Juan Montero. Aziz had spent the summer working in Washington, D.C., as a legislative aide, and Scott thought when they all gathered that night at Sullivan’s, the steakhouse where Jennifer had once worked, that Colton was showing off for his parents, inviting his more presentable friends.
It would turn out to be a pleasant dinner. Eddie mainly talked to Colton, Said, Juan, and Scott, while Bridget and Jennifer conversed. Throughout the evening, Colton’s parents appeared anxious about their son, peppering the conversation with questions about his activities. Smiling and acting nonchalant, Colton claimed his classes were going well, and that he’d been putting in a lot of time studying. But when Scott looked at Colton, he could tell Colton was “all coked up.”
Later, Eddie would say that when he and Bridget later asked about Jennifer, “Colton became very defensive.”
That month, Colton stopped at Justin’s apartment and handed him a box. “Will you keep this for me?” he asked. Reluctantly, Justin agreed, afraid to ask what was inside. At times, he wondered about Colton and what he was becoming. At that point, Colton spent much of the time shooting morphine, using cocaine, popping pills, and drinking; partying on Sixth Street; and hanging out with drug dealers. “There must have been times when he sobered up enough to take a good long look at himself and felt stone-cold disgusted,” says Justin.
Once when Justin met Colton for lunch, he insisted he was going to turn his life around. “Yeah, I’m going to get back in the gym and become a trainer, then get back to school and pull it together,” Colton said.
“Colton had plans. He wanted to stop selling the drugs,” says Justin, who’d gotten himself clean about eight months earlier. “Colton didn’t like the way his life was going. But day turned to evening, and evening turned to night, and people called wanting drugs, and it was impossible for Colton, the entrepreneur, to resist meeting that demand.”
That March 12, 2005, was Jennifer’s twenty-first birthday. Sharon and Jim had given the other girls trips for their big birthday, but, with Jennifer’s progress still so uncertain, Sharon drove to Austin and took her out instead. Sharon booked a room at a La Quinta hotel, and they went to Sullivan’s for dinner, and then to a cozy wine bar. Afterward, they lounged together on the hotel bed watching a movie and talking. The following weekend, Vanessa, too, drove in to celebrate. The sisters spent a night on Sixth Street, partying and dancing. Two beautiful women, they garnered a lot of attention.
For their celebration, Scott brought home “magic” mushrooms from a friend, mild hallucinogens. After cooking dinner, when Madyson was asleep, they ate the mushrooms, and Scott gave Jennifer a massage. Soon, he visualized black clouds rising up around her, and he started pulling at them, tearing them out. As he worked on her shoulders and her back, untangling the stress points of her muscles, he continued to see dark clouds materialize and then evaporate in his grasp. Before long, Jennifer sobbed. Crying hysterically, she lay on the bed for more than an hour, while Scott kneaded her back.
Afterward, Jennifer lay in Scott’s arms. They talked, and Jennifer confided that before that evening she’d felt something dark and frightening hanging over her. At least temporarily, it was gone. “You saved my life,” she said, and, for the first time, Jennifer told Scott, “I love you.”
“From that point on, we were even closer,” Scott says. “It was like we were at a deeper level of intimacy.”
One of the things Jennifer called out that night while Scott kneaded her back and visualized the black clouds gathering around them was a name, “Colton.”
Not long after, a friend of Scott’s painted a portrait of Jennifer, strong lines in grays and blues. The painting was of Jen’s nude torso, and it would later seem eerily prophetic.