A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
On June 10, 2005, Colton Pitonyak appeared before Judge Wilford Flowers in the 147th District Court, on the seventh floor of the Travis County Criminal Courthouse, an understated, modern structure next to the old courthouse near the corner of Eleventh and Guadalupe. Sam Bassett had negotiated a good deal. Colton had two offers from the prosecutor to consider: the first, Colton could plead guilty to the felony charge and serve no additional jail time; the second, the charge would be plea-bargained down to a misdemeanor, attempted possession of a controlled substance, but there was a catch—Colton would be sentenced to sixty days in Travis County’s Del Valle jail. Perhaps on the advice of his attorney and parents, who worried about the effect of a felony on his record, Colton chose the second option: the misdemeanor conviction with accompanying jail sentence.
Sixty days may have seemed formidable, but based on good time laws in place in Texas, if Colton stayed out of trouble in prison, he’d be out in less than a month. That same day, he entered the Travis County jail system for the third time and disappeared inside.
While he was incarcerated, neighbors at the Orange Tree saw Laura Hall at Colton’s apartment almost daily, watching his cable television, preferring it to her current apartment, one she’d moved into on Oltorf Street, south of the city. “Colton’s in jail,” Laura told Andrea Jiles. “He just needs to do his time, and he’ll be out.”
“Well, obviously he’s not that smart to end up in there,” Jiles said.
“Colton’s cool,” Laura said.
“He’s the wrong guy,” Jiles cautioned again. She knew her friend was giving Colton money, funds Laura needed to pay expenses, including rent. At times, Colton gave Laura a little back, but then quickly asked for more, and Laura gave it to him, even money her grandmother gave her as an early graduation gift. “Colton’s using you,” Jiles said. “And remember: A lot of people in my family ended up in prison or dead because of drugs and guns.”
Meanwhile, with Colton confined in jail, Jennifer began to piece her life back together in earnest. “She really did well,” says a friend. “Colton was a distraction she didn’t need but couldn’t seem to get rid of, and having him in jail did that for her.” Jennifer applied for jobs, interviewing for one in an insurance office. She was excited about the opportunity and was disappointed when another applicant was hired. The executive who broke the bad news to Jennifer told her, “You won’t stay here. You’re too bright. I don’t know why you’re not in school.”
In June, Jennifer drove with Madyson to San Marcos, the city where she’d once gone to college, and met Lauren at the vast, 130-store outlet mall, an open-air discount shopping center boasting such upscale shops as Kate Spade and Ferragamo. Despite their differences over the past few years, Lauren and Jennifer enjoyed the day together. Jennifer talked of her plans, getting a job and starting to take classes again. When she later talked to Sharon on the telephone, Jennifer sounded more positive than she had in a long time. Sharon still worried, but she began to hope her middle daughter’s life had finally found its course.
“Mom, since I’m applying for jobs, I need my cell phone back,” Jennifer said during one conversation from Scott’s apartment, “Can I have it?”
“Sure,” Sharon said. She felt as if she walked a thin line, wanting to reward Jennifer for improvement but afraid she’d open the door for more disappointment. Still, the telephone was a little thing. “Is everything okay with Scott?”
Jennifer hesitated, thinking, then admitted: “I’m starting to wonder if I’m ready to be a wife and a mother. I’m so young, and I haven’t really done anything yet.”
Sharon had been worried for months about little Madyson and what would happen if Jennifer and Scott didn’t make their relationship work. Now Jennifer, for the first time, expressed doubts, and Sharon immediately worried about the little four-year-old. “Be careful with Madyson, Jennifer,” she advised. “You’ve always wanted to be a mother, and that little girl needs a mother. Be careful how you handle her.”
“I know,” Jennifer agreed. “But I do want to be someone first before I’m a wife and a mother. I love Scott and Madyson, but I just don’t know that I’m ready.”
In hindsight, it wasn’t just the confines of caring for a child that weighed on Jennifer. By then, she and Scott were arguing about money. When she moved in, Scott assumed Jennifer would work and help pay expenses, but in the six months they’d been together, she stayed home to care for Madyson and the apartment. Once he found her a job as a hostess at a small microbrewery, but Jennifer didn’t like it and worked only a few nights before quitting.
To friends, Jennifer said she found the crush of caring for a house and child and a job overwhelming. Not realizing she was having doubts about their little family, Scott was happy when Jennifer said she wanted a real job, like the one she’d had at the bank in Corpus, where she went to an office every day.
That June, Scott and Jennifer looked at rental houses in Austin’s north suburbs, not far from their apartment. Madyson was growing up, and he wanted to put down roots. Jennifer, meanwhile, felt increasingly at odds with the life she’d built for herself, the instant family she became a part of when she and Scott got together. “I love Scott,” she told Laura Ingles. “I really do love him and Madyson. But I want a job, and I want to finish college.”
In her Day-Timer, Jennifer recorded job interviews, at banks and small companies, charting her course through June. Madyson must have seen Jennifer writing in the black vinyl notebook, for one day she took a black crayon and wrote her numbers on one page. It would later seem strange that the little girl used that black crayon on another page to draw a box and color it black, a box shaped eerily similar to a casket.
On June 30, 2005, twenty days after he entered, Colton left jail, his sentence completed. Someone who saw him noticed something odd. Rather than hiding his time behind bars, Colton showcased it, in the form of a jailhouse tattoo penned by a poor speller, for what he’d crudely etched on Colton’s back instead of “felon” was “fell on.”
Although not convicted of a felony, Colton appeared intent on achieving what, in his mind, apparently held a certain status. That duality in his personality was still front and center when, in the mold of the proper and well-mannered Catholic schoolboy he’d once been, Colton wrote his attorney a thank-you letter. “It was unusual,” Bassett says. “It’s not very often that a client takes the time.”
Living back in his apartment at the Orange Tree, Colton registered for a second-semester summer class at UT, a biology course, The Human Body, then spent two weeks before it started drunk and high on meth, making up for the forced abstinence during his incarceration. “Colton’s out,” Laura told Jiles on the telephone, and in Houston, Hall’s high school friend shook her head, thinking, This is bad.
“My friend Colton is out of jail,” Jennifer told Denise at the pool, in early July.
“That’s not a good thing, Jen,” Denise said. Jennifer had described Colton as a mean drunk and told her about the night at Justin’s when he’d come at her with a knife. “Stay away from him.”
Scott’s friend Laura Ingles gave Jennifer the same advice when Jen asked if Laura wanted to meet Colton. “You need to stay away from him,” she said. “It’s not safe.”
“Oh, no, I’ll be fine,” Jennifer insisted. “He’s really a sweet guy. When he’s not drunk or high, he’s great.”
“He just got out of jail for drugs, Jennifer,” Laura said. “Let’s get real about this guy.”
Like so many others, Laura wondered why Jennifer kept Colton Pitonyak in her life. Jen seemed so spunky, so strong in ways. “Colton was Jennifer’s weak spot,” says Laura. “She didn’t seem to be able to get rid of him, even though she knew he was dangerous.”
Perhaps the attraction wasn’t just Colton. In July, after his release, Denise noticed that Jennifer acted differently, more keyed up, and she lost weight. “Jennifer looked jazzed,” Denise says. “Something had changed.”
What started as occasional questioning built into determination to step back and take a look at her situation, to reevaluate and decide if she’d chosen the right path. When Jennifer talked to Denise about her concerns at the pool one afternoon, Denise assumed Jennifer just needed a break from Scott and the responsibilities of motherhood. “You can stay with us,” Denise offered. “We have a spare bedroom.”
“I’ll think about it,” Jennifer said.
In early July, Scott took Madyson to Kansas to see family and help put a new roof on his grandmother’s house. At the last minute, Jennifer decided not to go with him. Increasingly unhappy, she was thinking over options. By then a friend of Scott’s, Eli Damian, a short, dark-haired, solidly built construction worker who lived in the same complex, was spending a lot of time at their apartment. Scott assumed Eli was just being a friend, but when Scott returned home, he discovered that Jen had gone to a barbecue with Eli. As Scott replayed his recent arguments with Jennifer, the tension that was building in their relationship, he wondered if Jennifer was using drugs again or if she and Eli had begun an affair. When Jennifer came home, he confronted her, but she denied both of Scott’s charges. Instead, she told him what she’d been telling others for weeks, that she was too young to be a mother. They argued, voices rising, and Scott said there was no other option. If Jennifer had doubts about being Madyson’s mom, she had to move out.
“She said there wasn’t anyone else. Jen and I held each other and cried and promised we’d try to make it work, try to save our relationship,” he says. “We agreed we’d date, and do our best to make a go of it.”
Only days after July 4, Jennifer left Scott’s apartment and settled in the one Denise shared with her boyfriend. Although Scott had been the one to tell Jennifer to leave, he was distraught over the breakup. “I couldn’t understand what had happened. We had plans to move into a house together. I even had a place rented,” he says. “I understood what she was saying, that she needed to be her own person first, but I loved Jennifer.”
The afternoon Scott and Jennifer explained to Madyson that Jennifer was moving out, the little girl sobbed. Scott and Jen tried to ease the blow by talking to her together, promising that Jennifer would see her often. “I love you, Maddy, but I’m just not going to live here with you and your dad,” Jennifer said, and then she added something she and Scott had decided earlier. “Instead of being your mommy, we’ll be more like sisters.”
“My sister?” Madyson said, intrigued with the idea. Somehow that worked for the little girl, who from that point on referred to Jennifer as “Sister.” Madyson, her soft curls bouncing, hugged Scott and Jennifer. All she cared about was that Jennifer would still be in her life.
Jennifer told Sharon that she’d moved out of Scott’s apartment when Sharon and Jim were in Oklahoma moving Hailey and Lauren into a townhouse in Norman, near the University of Oklahoma, where both were registered for fall classes. Hailey, who’d once been close to Jen, had become Lauren’s best friend. Sharon worried about Jennifer, but her middle daughter sounded strong and determined on the telephone. Jennifer said all the right things: She was applying for jobs and she’d picked up a schedule to register at Austin Community College for the fall semester. “This time I mean it,” Jennifer said. “I really am going to finish school.”
“That’s great, Jennifer,” Sharon said. “We love you and we’re proud of you, but you need to follow through, not just talk about it.”
“I know, Mom.”
Sharon was troubled that Jennifer was moving in with Denise, who’d had drug issues of her own. “Jennifer, I don’t know about this idea,” Sharon said.
“Don’t be so hard on people,” Jennifer said. “She’s not on drugs now. You have to give people a chance.”
“Okay, sweetie,” Sharon said. “But be careful.”
On the drive back from Norman to Texas, Sharon and Jim took a route via Austin to see Jennifer. Sharon wanted to put her arms around her daughter, to sit and talk with her about her future. Jennifer had signed up with a temporary agency while she looked for a job, and Sharon was eager to see for herself if Jennifer was truly changing. On the road, Jim and Sharon listened to reports on Sirius radio about eighteen-year-old Natalee Holloway’s recent disappearance in Aruba.
“My God, Jim,” Sharon said. “How would you ever live with something like that? Survive that?”
Jim shook his head. It seemed incomprehensible that a parent could live through such a loss.
When they reached Austin, Sharon called Jennifer to tell her that they’d arrived and they were ready to meet her for lunch.
“I can’t,” Jennifer said. “Madyson’s babysitter didn’t show up. I need to take care of her.”
Disappointed, Sharon and Jim continued on to the Hill Country town of Fredericksburg, to Jim’s family reunion. Yet Sharon wasn’t too worried; Jennifer sounded focused on the future. Sharon hesitated to open herself up to disappointment by believing that her troubled daughter had finally grown up, but she had to. As Jennifer’s mother, Sharon had to believe that Jen would find her way. Only later would Sharon Cave realize that in Austin that afternoon, she’d missed her last opportunity to ever see Jennifer. Never again would she look into her middle daughter’s beautiful blue eyes.