A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
While Jennifer was busy setting up housekeeping with Scott and Madyson in early 2005, Colton continued to redefine his image, leaving ever further behind the former altar boy and scholarship student and cultivating the gangster persona he’d worked on since arriving at UT nearly four years earlier. If Scott was Jennifer’s “kindred spirit,” as she’d told friends, Colton had found his own counterpart, of sorts, in an aggressive young woman named Laura Ashley Hall.
Hall spent her first years in Madisonville, Texas, but grew up in Crosby, twenty-five miles northeast of Houston, in a metropolitan area of around twenty-three thousand. An agricultural setting, Crosby wasn’t particularly affluent, but it had a certain charm. Many of the residents were blue-collar, middle-class folks who worked hard, paid their bills, and raised their families.
Laura’s mother, Carol, was a lissome woman, with short, reddish-blond hair, a fair but freckled complexion, and calm manner, who worked for a plastic surgeon. Laura’s father, Loren, had a thinly trimmed beard and a dark mustache, and reddish-brown hair combed back. With a penchant for jeans, Western shirts, and loud sport coats, he made his living as a yacht broker but fancied himself a writer. He’d produced a five-book series of children’s books and one work on “poetic philosophy,” but none was published.
“He adored Laura,” says Andrea Jiles, Laura’s best friend for many years. “Her dad had her on a pedestal.”
Casual, fun-loving people, Carol and Loren weren’t called Mom and Dad by their only child, but by their first names. The family lived in one of the nicer houses in town, in a good area, and Laura had the run of the second floor. As Jiles remembers it, Laura usually got whatever she wanted from her parents. When she was sixteen, for instance, Laura drove a hand-me-down Cadillac sedan. Loren and Carol Hall “acted more like friends than parents,” says Jiles, a tall, slender, African-American woman with a long face and rich, dark complexion.
Always, Laura seemed in a world of her own, and she had a sense of herself that Jiles found bigger than life. As a teenager, Laura carried her small rat terrier, Sweetie, in her purse, taking him everywhere, a decade before Paris Hilton made it fashionable. Her hair dyed dark, her complexion pale, and with a long, straight nose, Hall resembled the actress Gina Gershon. She dressed vaguely Goth, in black with black makeup, but was athletic, swam, and played soccer, and beginning in her freshman year, competed on the school debate team, often placing well at competitions. The year Laura was the captain, the team competed before the American Legion and the local VFW chapter, and she took them to nationals. To the dismay of her opponents, Laura read and formed arguments quickly, taking a strong stance on whatever issue was assigned.
At times, Hall became so passionate about ideas, she acted on them, as when during one debate meeting a team member threw out a comment derogatory of the United States. The students agreed the country was “screwed up,” and one said things were so bad they should refuse to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. At the next school function, Hall did just that.
As far as Jiles knew, Laura Hall didn’t use drugs in high school. The dangers of illegal drugs and guns were topics Jiles understood firsthand. For much of her life, she’d grown up in Houston’s rough fifth and third wards, where gun violence was commonplace. Her biological father had been killed by drug dealers, and her mother and stepfather were both murdered. With all her parents deceased, Jiles lived with her grandfather.
In Crosby, Hall and Jiles hung out with the “smart” kids, although, in school, Laura was far from popular. She hid her athletic body under sweatshirts, and walked through the halls reading vampire novels. While Laura let her guard down around Jiles, she put on a tough front with her other schoolmates, often glaring at them with cold, blank eyes, and many questioned why Jiles befriended Hall. “Laura’s not a people person,” says Jiles. “She was rude without realizing it. Not many people liked her.”
At the same time, Laura loved to talk. In fact, Jiles believed her friend habitually said whatever occurred to her, without self-censorship. “Laura never had a thought she didn’t share,” says Jiles. “If she wasn’t with someone, she was talking to someone on the telephone.”
When it came to boys, Laura fell head over heels, never holding back, suffering when the liaisons ended. “Laura put everything into a boyfriend. Blew them out of proportion. When they split, she was devastated,” says Jiles. “It doesn’t really matter how smart someone is. Relationships are a different thing.”
After her junior year at Crosby High School, Carol and Loren moved the family to the even smaller town of Bedias, and enrolled Laura in Allen Academy, a small, conservative, private military school with an enrollment of 350. Like Jennifer when Sharon told her they were moving to Corpus, Laura didn’t take the news happily. “Laura didn’t want to move,” says Jiles. “She was angry at her parents for making her do it.”
The following fall, when Colton Pitonyak graduated with honors and moved to Austin intent on becoming a Wall Street whiz kid, Laura Hall also enrolled at UT, with plans to major in government and dreams of law school, perhaps at Georgetown University in D.C. “I really thought Laura could do it,” says Jiles. “She was smart, had good grades, and Laura was a great debater. She was a natural.”
In Austin, as in Crosby, Laura struck many of those she met as odd or eccentric. She lived in a four-plex on Twenty-sixth Street, in a converted grocery store, filling her tiny apartment with plants and a big fish tank. The car she parked outside was another hand-me-down from her parents, a 1994 green Cadillac Concours.
As a neighbor remembers her, Laura “played the rebellious, isolated chick to a T.” At times, she could be friendly. At other times, she seemed defensive and rude.
By then, Loren and Carol had relocated again, this time to the small Texas Hill Country town of Tarpley, fifty miles northwest of San Antonio, and opened the Caribbean Cowboy RV Resort, a Jimmy Buffet–style trailer community aimed at active seniors. When her parents arrived for visits in an RV, Laura acted embarrassed. Such times, she’d stop the neighbors to explain that her parents owned the RV park, not just lived there.
At other times, Laura Hall walked right past neighbors, including those she’d talked to a day or so earlier, without even saying hello. “She was moody, and people didn’t know how to react to her,” says a neighbor. “We rarely saw anyone but guys who wore long trench coats visiting her. She didn’t seem to have any girlfriends.”
One day a neighbor found Laura’s Crosby school year-books in the apartment garbage. He thought it was odd that she’d brought them to UT and then thrown them away. When he looked inside, he saw the books bore childish notes scribbled on top of or next to photos of teachers and students, everything from “bull dyke” to “shit head,” along with “queer,” “lesbian,” and “slut.” Next to some of the boys’ photos she wrote “fine,” and “cute.”
There was more evidence that their neighbor was odd. At times, Laura suddenly screamed, shrieking so loud she could be heard throughout the apartment building. “We knew she was alone in there. It was like she was venting,” says a neighbor. They smelled pot outside her door, but that wasn’t unusual in Austin, and Laura didn’t look high or drugged.
Off and on, Andrea Jiles and Laura talked, sometimes about one or another of Laura’s love interests. At one point, Laura announced to Jiles that she was dating a woman named Ericka who went to Harvard. After her breakup with Ericka, Laura briefly attended a Mormon church. “She was always trying to shock people, talking about sex and things. We didn’t know if she was kidding or not,” says someone who met her there and formed the opinion that Hall cultivated drama. “She was a really fickle person, and she’d change her mind on a whim, go along with anything. Once she told us how she’d thought she was a lesbian but then changed her mind. Laura craved attention.”
In the fall of 2004, Laura met Colton’s friend Justin. At the time, she was dating a straitlaced UT student, a guy. Before long, Laura started hanging out at Justin’s apartment, much to the dismay of his roommate and friends, who complained that she was always underfoot and depressed. They asked Justin to tell her to leave, but Justin never did. “I’m not much of a pro at telling people no,” he says. “She hated being alone. Laura had to be with someone constantly.”
At Justin’s, Laura sat around and cried, at times screaming that she hated her life, and Justin expended more energy than he wanted trying to cheer her up. Once, after Laura’s ex-boyfriend stopped at the apartment, Laura lay on the grass in the apartment’s common area, sobbing and shrieking. “It appeared that she had serious emotional problems,” says Justin. “She was seriously strange.”
At a party at Justin’s, Laura Hall met Colton Pitonyak. He came in looking every bit the gangster he wanted to be, in a black leather sport coat and jeans, and talked about guns and selling drugs. After Colton left, Laura pressured Justin for his phone number. “I realized bringing those two together was the worst idea in the history of time,” Justin says with a sigh. Hoping to keep them apart, he lied and told Laura that Colton had a girlfriend, but she wasn’t dissuaded.
“Dating would be a loose way of putting it,” Justin would later say about the relationship that developed between Colton and Laura. “Colton didn’t care about Laura except for sex. Laura was crazy about Colton. Obsessed with him.”
“I don’t know if Laura knew what love was, but she liked having sex with Colton,” says Jiles. “And Colton used her, treated her like a muddy little dog.”
At times, Laura talked to Jiles about Jennifer, once claiming Jen stole drugs from Colton and bragging that she, Laura, was going to steal them back. “Laura was fanatical about Colton, talked about him constantly. And she didn’t like any other woman who had a connection to him, especially Jennifer. Laura hated Jennifer. She was jealous,” says Jiles. When it came to Colton’s guy friends, however, Laura couldn’t have been more pleased. “Laura liked that Colton had friends, because she didn’t have many, and she liked being around college guys who wore hundred-dollar jeans. She thought it was exciting that Colton was a drug dealer,” says Jiles, who warned her friend how dangerous drugs and guns could be. Jiles had seen other suburban white kids who acted like gangsters. “It’s a way to be part of the group. It’s a game.”
“It’s cool,” Laura told her. “It’s more like a gangster movie than real gangsters. It’s not real.”
That winter, Laura worked at the Richard Pena law firm in Austin, where they specialized in workers’ comp and personal injury cases. High-profile in Austin, Pena was a past president of the Texas Bar Association and had photos of himself with presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. It was a plum job for a would-be law student, and Laura worked hard, doing everything from filing and filling out reports to running errands.
Not long after she met Colton, friends at the firm noticed changes in Laura Hall. She looked rougher, dressed sexier, talked tougher, and before long started showing up for work late. She referred to Colton constantly, calling him her boyfriend, and seeming to be fixated on him. When she dropped in at the duplex of a woman she worked with, Sammi Moore, and her boyfriend, Chris Collins, Laura was strung out. “Once she met Colton, she was messed up all the time, nearly always high,” says Chris. “She was a middle-class white kid and she began jiving like a thug from a South Central L.A. ghetto.”
Not long after Laura hooked up with Colton, Jiles drove into Austin to see her. She was struck by how much Laura had changed. She’d lost weight, her eyes were surrounded by dark circles and sunken; she looked like a different person. “Laura talked about drugs and money constantly. It was a terrible relationship for her. Everything was bad,” says Jiles. “Colton Pitonyak used my friend for sex and turned her into an addict.”
As Colton’s June court date on the possession charge approached, his attorney, Hughes, still hadn’t worked out a plea bargain. With the help of his parents, Colton replaced Hughes with Sam Bassett, an attorney at one of the best-known firms in Austin, Minton, Burton, Foster & Collins.
Founded in 1963, Minton Burton had a client list that included a who’s who of Texas’s financial and social circles. Their offices, in a converted house across the street from the courthouse, led people to call Minton Burton “the red brick firm.” Over the decades, they’d defended their share of drug cases. In fact Roy Minton, the patriarch of the firm, started forty-four years earlier at a time when even the possession of a small amount of pot was a felony. “The thing with criminal law is that you often end up with very young clients,” he says. A grandfatherly man, Minton was slight and frail-looking, with oversize glasses and a genteel manner. Lawyers who came up against him were wary. Minton had the ability to lull prosecutors and opposing attorneys, only to strike at the first opening and leave them wondering what had happened.
A protégé of Minton, Sam Bassett, with a high forehead; thick, reddish-brown hair; and incisive eyes, had joined the firm four years earlier. In addition to practicing civil and criminal law, Bassett taught part-time in the UT law school, where he’d earned his degree. Bassett had interned at Minton Burton during law school, and he’d adopted Minton’s calm demeanor in the courtroom.
For Colton Pitonyak, Bassett negotiated with the prosecutor’s office, urging the assistant DA to reduce the possession charge to a misdemeanor. Colton was a young man with his future on the line. If convicted of a felony, it would be on his record forever. Even if he turned his life around and became a model citizen, the felony would follow him wherever he went. It could keep him from ever being licensed to work on Wall Street, even prevent him from voting.
Perhaps the least concerned was the defendant himself. That spring, Colton made no apparent attempt to change his lifestyle. He arrived at parties bleary-eyed, talked about drugs, guns, and how his attorney was going to get him out of serving time. Laura Hall came with him, hanging on his every word, arguing with anyone who contradicted him.
“She was crazy,” says one of the partygoers. “She worshipped Pitonyak.”
The drug business was lucrative that year. Pitonyak and a few of his friends had expanded until they were selling or trading up to four thousand ecstasy pills a week, reserving another one thousand for their own needs. They were flush with cash and throwing the best parties on West Campus. “We ate ecstasy, popped it like candy,” says Pitonyak’s good friend Jason Mack, who hung in Colton’s inner circle. “Everyone showed up at the parties. It was wild.”
That spring, however, something changed. The ecstasy and coke weren’t enough for Pitonyak anymore, even when he mixed them with booze. They just didn’t deliver enough of a thrill. At first Colton tried heroin, but he didn’t like the way it made him feel. Instead, he became enamored with meth. Before long, he was smoking it off and on throughout the day, staying up for days on end, until his body gave out and he crashed. When he woke up, he helped himself to more. “With guys, meth gets the testosterone flowing,” says Mack. “They get amped. They’re on edge. Eventually they become sleep deprived and paranoid. It can drive you insane. There was no doubt that the meth changed Colton. Once he started on the meth, he was never the same.”
Pitonyak traded the ecstasy pills he got from his Asian connection to a dealer who sold meth he procured from a group he described as part of the “Mexican Mafia.” But since Pitonyak was using more than selling, money wasn’t coming in as easily as it had in the past. As summer arrived, Pitonyak consumed up to $300 a day in meth. “Colton got spun,” says Mack. “He was over-amped on the speed. He was so drugged up on the meth, he didn’t know if it was up or down, night or day.”
For more than a year, Colton had dropped in unannounced on Louisa, a UT student who lived in an apartment building where Colton had friends. Louisa liked Colton, thought he was funny, with a quick sense of humor. She knew he was high much of the time, but she never cared. That changed in 2005. By that spring, Colton’s very presence telegraphed danger.
One morning, just after 3 A.M., he knocked on Louisa’s door. He had his arm slung over a woman who worked as a topless dancer in an Austin bar, and they were both drunk and high. Colton pushed his way into Louisa’s apartment without being invited and then didn’t take the hint when she suggested they leave. From the moment he entered, Colton watched the door, as if he thought they were being followed. After that, Louisa stopped opening her door for Colton.
“I was worried about Colton, but I was scared of him,” she says. “He’d completely changed, and I felt so sad for him.”
That spring 2005, college students across America flocked to sign up on Facebook.com, an online social network started by a Harvard student. A MySpace.com-type Web site with a private club approach, on Facebook profiles were only visible to those with college or university e-mail addresses, and then only to individuals registered within the same institution. An online database where students displayed photos and profiles, on Facebook students detailed their likes and dislikes, and then posted messages on each others’ walls or message boards.
Colton signed up on Facebook on May 1 of that year, describing himself as a management and French major in the UT group. Although he’d entered the university in the fall of 2001, he estimated, perhaps optimistically since he rarely attended classes, that he’d graduate in 2010. On the left-hand top of his page, he posted a smiling photo with good friends Juan Montero and Roel Escobar. Colton claimed as his screen name ILoveMoneyAndHos.
On Facebook, Colton Pitonyak defined the person he’d become with echoes of his past. He listed his interests as drinking, women, and making money, saying he was self-employed, a reference to his thriving drug business. His favorite music: rappers Paul Wall, Slim Thug, Chamillionaire, and Triple Six. And his favorite movies: Boondock Saints, Menace II Society, City of God, Reservoir Dogs, Goodfellas, Casino, and Donnie Brasco. In the section reserved for words of wisdom, the would-be tycoon-turned-drug-dealer quoted Warren Buffet and J. P. Morgan, alongside his gangster idols, including the infamous John Gotti. Perhaps the most telling quotes were two Colton credited to Al Capone: “I am like any other man. All I do is supply a demand,” and “You can get a lot farther with a kind word and a gun than a kind word alone.”
Like Colton, Laura Hall built a Facebook profile that spring. A government major, she planned to graduate from UT that coming December. In her photo, she posed playfully in a furry coat and a short skirt with boots. She credited her favorite quote to horror author Peter Straub, from his book Shadowland: “You’re part music and part blood, part thinker and part killer. And if you can find all of that within you and control it, then you deserve to be set apart.”
Laura Hall and Colton had the same photo linked to their Facebook pages, one of Colton with his bros: Juan Montero, his fists with his middle fingers extended in the universal symbol of contempt, knelt in the center. In the background, in a wise-guy pose, stood Colton, a small V-shaped beard just under his lower lip, wearing his bill cap backward and a derisive smile. In another Facebook photo, Colton, hair disheveled, wore his black leather sport coat and stared into the camera in a drugged daze.
If the profiles were windows into Colton’s and Laura’s souls, they were frightening. At one point Laura Hall noted: “I should really be a more horrific person. It’s in the works.”
That June, Andrea Jiles warned Hall that Colton had turned her into a drug addict. “Colton is cool,” Hall replied. “He’s a rich boy.”
Jiles looked at her friend and hardly recognized her: “He’d changed her so much there were now two different Lauras.”
Despite his relationship with Laura Hall, Colton and Jennifer talked almost daily. Jason Mack had no doubt about Pitonyak’s feelings. “He was in love with Jen,” says Mack. “Laura was the one he called if he had no one else to hang with, but Laura was in love with Colton. Jen? She thought of Colton as a friend.”
Despite no longer needing him for drugs, since she used so little, Jennifer was still drawn to Pitonyak. Scott noticed that whenever Colton called, Jennifer picked up immediately, and then ran out saying Colton had a problem and “needs to talk.” In May, Colton called Scott with a crisis, claiming someone was trying to kill him. Half an hour later, Colton drove up in a cab and ran to their apartment door. Scott let him in and knew right away that Colton was high, as he rattled on about how he’d been out with an escort, and that her pimp was after him. Scott thought it sounded like the plot of a bad movie.
When they were alone, Scott and Jennifer talked about Colton often, including the upcoming hearings over his possession case. One night she told Scott about a party where Colton played Russian roulette with a loaded gun, while a group of his friends watched him pull the trigger. Rumors floated around the Delt house that summer. Someone heard that one of their inactive brothers, Colton Pitonyak, pulled a gun on a frat kid he sold drugs to.
But most of the time, Colton Pitonyak wasn’t part of Jennifer’s and Scott’s lives, which centered on Madyson. They worked their schedules around caring for her, and Jen catered to the little girl with the big smile and the worldly eyes. Jennifer seemed to be thriving on her time with the youngster. She bought Madyson new clothes, including a pink cowboy hat studded with rhinestones. They cuddled and huddled together: the little girl looking for a mother and Jennifer living her dream of having a child.
On nights when he didn’t work at the restaurant, Scott and Jen got together with friends, playing poker or going out to the Canary Roost, a strip-center bar near the apartment. They drank and laughed, Scott sang karaoke, and they danced long into the night.
One night, when the place was packed, Karissa Reine, the bartender, shouted last call, just as Jen walked behind the bar. Reine had noticed Scott with the redhead. When alcohol-fueled tensions rose in the bar, Reine saw Jennifer try to calm the other patrons down. “It struck me that she always seemed to be worried about other people,” says Reine.
Reine soon found out that was why Jennifer walked behind the bar. “What are you doing?” Reine asked. “You’re not supposed to be back here.”
“You’re working too hard,” Jen said. “You need a break. You need to call me and we’ll go out. You need to relax more.”
She slipped Reine her phone number, and Reine did call her. They became friends, and Jennifer convinced Reine to take more time for herself. “She was right,” says Karissa. “I was working too hard, too many hours.”
On May 31, 2005, Jennifer and Scott went to Reine’s apartment, the one she shared with her boyfriend, Bryan Breaux, a musician. They laughed, told stories, and drank wine, until, exhausted, Scott passed out on the couch. Intrigued by Jennifer, Reine took out a camera, a new digital she’d just bought, and followed Jennifer through the apartment, snapping photos, trying to capture the light in Jen’s blue eyes. The photos from that night showed Jennifer fully in the moment, holding a glass of red wine, her cheeks flushed, with a breathless smile on her face. Some were highly sensual, as Jennifer’s long red hair fell over her pale, freckled shoulders, her breasts plumped by a black lace bustier.
From that night on, Jen sometimes visited Reine in the wee hours of the morning, after she closed the bar and returned home from work, while Scott and Madyson slept. At times, Karissa talked to Jennifer about the way she took on the problems of others. Jennifer told her about a friend, a “crazy guy,” and how she sometimes stayed with him. He was smart and, when he wasn’t high, sweet, and Jennifer saw something in him that needed to be protected. “Jennifer, you’re not responsible for everyone else,” Reine advised. “You can’t save everyone.”
Over the months, the two women drank wine and shared stories about their lives and their dreams. One night their conversation turned to premonitions. “We both believed in them,” Reine says.
That night, Jennifer confided that she had the unmistakable feeling that she had to live her life quickly, that she wouldn’t be around to grow old. A fear haunted her, giving her the sense that she needed to enjoy every moment, because, although only twenty-one years old, Jennifer Cave believed her time on earth would be short.
“It feels like something evil is stalking me,” Jennifer said. “I have to be one step ahead; I have to run.”