A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
“I didn’t know at first that Jennifer was back on the meth,” says Denise, who’d noticed that her new houseguest rarely slept, yet seemed to have boundless energy. “Then one night, I stopped in her room, and she was inhaling fumes from something she was melting in this glass tube. I asked what it was and she said, ‘Ice.’ Jennifer wasn’t using a lot, and she never looked strung out, but it was like everything started up once Colton was out of jail.”
Confirming Denise’s suspicions, Jennifer mentioned that she’d been out with Colton. “He got drunk and started a fight again,” Jennifer said. “Colton’s out of control.”
That July 2005, Colton Pitonyak wasn’t the only Catholic High grad out of control. On July 2, Marty Heidgen, who graduated with Dustin Pitonyak, was drunk and driving the wrong way down a Long Island, New York, expressway, when he slammed a wedding limousine head-on. The limo driver and a seven-year-old flower girl, Kate Flynn, died. “No one in Little Rock even talked about it,” says a young man who graduated with Heidgen. “It was like it hadn’t happened, just another rich kid having fun and getting in trouble.”
Meanwhile, Scott wrestled with the breakup. Losing Jennifer had hurt Scott, and he was on the rebound. He met a thirty-four-year-old real estate agent, a pretty blond, and ended up in bed with her. “But it didn’t help,” he says. “I loved Jennifer.”
Jennifer, too, was in a quandary. She told Vanessa she loved Scott, but worried about being a wife and mom. Yet she said being away from Madyson was the most difficult part of the breakup. “She adored Scott, but she needed space and her independence back,” says Vanessa. “Jennifer was just twenty-one, and I understood that.”
Jennifer settled into Denise’s. She cleaned out the spare bedroom, sorted through the boxes stored there, and took the clothes inside, at Denise’s direction, to Goodwill or a resale shop. Jennifer hung curtains and cleaned. She found a painting at the apartment Dumpster, one with airy pink flowers, and hung it on the wall. Within a week, the room looked feminine and pretty, bright and cheerful, with everything in place.
The two women got along well. “It was like having a true girlfriend,” says Denise. “We’d play around with hair and makeup and clothes.” At times, she ferried Jennifer and her friends down to Sixth Street for a night out. Since Denise didn’t drink, she was the designated driver.
As she seemed to do wherever she went, Jennifer organized Denise’s apartment, cleaning closets and sprucing the place up, something Denise, who was constantly battling fatigue and pain from her disease, didn’t have the energy for. At night, Jennifer often went out with Eli. As Scott suspected, they’d begun dating. One weekend, Jennifer and Eli camped on the banks of the Guadalupe River. Draped over an inner tube they brought to float down the river, she looked full of life in her swimsuit and a big floppy hat. Later Eli would remember how she’d smiled that day, content and happy. Jen had loved the outdoors since her childhood tomboy days, and fresh air and trees still invigorated her.
Back at Denise’s, Jennifer worked on her résumé on the computer and posted it on Monster.com, then tracked down an old roommate who held some of Jen’s things as collateral against money Jen owed her. She and Eli rushed over to the girl’s apartment, and she returned to Jen the things she still had, including baby pictures, a collection of miniature frog figurines, and a star Jim’s older daughter, Whitney, had made for Jennifer. The bright, cheerful wall hanging had blurbs cut from magazines pasted on it, fun and inspirational phrases: “You have to go through a little embarrassment to get what you want”; “Miracles”; “Going fast is alive”; “Flirt”; “No barriers”; and “The agony of growing up.”
“The agony of growing up” certainly seemed to summarize much of what Jennifer had gone through, especially in her relationship with Colton. At times, Jennifer mentioned “my friend Colton” to Eli.
“Who is this guy?” he asked one day at Lake Travis when they’d taken his English bulldog, Stash, for a swim.
“Oh, Colton’s a friend. He’s depressed a lot,” Jennifer said. “He wants me to go over to his place.”
“Why’s he depressed?”
Jennifer shrugged. “Colton hates the world.”
As the days passed, neither Jen nor Eli told Scott they were dating. They weren’t sure yet where it would lead, and both cared about Scott and hesitated to hurt him. Yet, somehow, Scott sensed it. Suspicious, he e-mailed Jennifer, demanding to know what had changed between them, why they rarely saw each other, but she gave no real answers. “I was hurt and angry,” Scott says. “All kinds of emotions converging at once.”
On July 11, Jennifer went to a career fair in Austin. That evening, she had dinner with Scott and Madyson, then the youngster stayed overnight with Jennifer, sleeping beside her in her room at Denise’s. They played and told stories. Scott was still pushing Jennifer, wanting to know what had driven them apart, and Jennifer still wasn’t opening up to him. “It got all weird,” Scott says.
On the fifteenth, Jennifer took Madyson to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. with Johnny Depp, on its opening day in theaters. Afterward they went to the complex swimming pool and then had dinner with Scott. That night, too, Madyson stayed overnight with Jennifer. Despite everything going on in her life, Jen had made a commitment to Madyson, and she was working hard to keep it.
At Denise’s apartment one evening in mid July, Jennifer returned from Colton’s apartment angry. She’d already told Denise that she wasn’t seeing Colton unless other people were around, that she was afraid to be alone with him. He hadn’t hit her, she said, but he’d pushed her. “Why do you go there?” Denise asked.
“Because he’s my friend,” Jennifer replied. She hesitated and then added, “Because he’s not always that way.”
Another night the phone rang at Karissa Reine’s house. She hadn’t heard from Jennifer in a month, but when Karissa picked up, her friend sounded frightened. Someone talked in the background and Jennifer said, “I’ve gotta go.” The phone clicked off.
Minutes later, Jennifer called back, whispering again, saying she was hiding in a closet. “Whatever’s going on, get out of there,” Karissa told her. “Now!”
“I can’t leave. I don’t have my car,” Jennifer said.
“Start walking, and I’ll pick you up,” Karissa said, as the telephone went dead for a second time. All that night Karissa worried about Jennifer, but the next day came and went and she didn’t hear any bad news, so she assumed all was well. Later Karissa would wonder who Jennifer was with that night, and if it could have been Colton Pitonyak.
“I have to stop going to Colton’s,” Jennifer told Denise one afternoon in late July. And then she added flatly, “If I don’t, he’s going to end up killing me.”
Denise must have looked shocked, because Jennifer said it again: “I swear, one day Colton’s just going to kill me.”
The meth and Colton were connected in Jennifer’s life, and she seemed powerless or unwilling to completely rid herself of either. One night when she didn’t return to Denise’s, she partied with her friend Nicole Ford, at an apartment where people inhaled meth fumes out of a shared beaker. Jennifer and Nicole looked around, much as they had a year earlier, and both were frightened by what they saw, hollow human beings ruled by a craving for a powerful drug, many who looked decades older than their years. That night, Jennifer grabbed her friend’s hand.
“We have to change our lives,” Jennifer pleaded. “Promise me we’ll quit, and if one of us can’t make it, the other one will go on without her.”
Nicole hesitated. She knew Jennifer had been trying to rid herself of the drug. Feeling powerless to quit, Nicole feared her friend would succeed and leave her behind. The two women held each other and cried, as Nicole reluctantly agreed, “I promise.”
At 12:17 A.M. on July 26, six days after the last time Madyson slept overnight with Jennifer, Colton Pitonyak logged onto his computer and went to Yahoo.com. Once the screen loaded, he conducted a search, looking for a silencer for a SW .380 semiautomatic pistol. Half an hour later, he was at his computer again, this time looking for a fully automatic Tech–9 assault gun, like the one used by the killers in the horrific Columbine school shooting.
Four days later, Jennifer was at a Wells Fargo Bank in Austin applying for a job. She didn’t get it, but she wasn’t dissuaded. On August 5, she was at a Compass Bank for a second interview. She kept track of each interview, every appointment in her black Day-Timer. “I really hope I get this one,” she told Denise. “I really do.”
Later Colton would say that he saw little of Jennifer as August began. “She was trying to straighten out her life,” he says. “She was going to stop doing drugs.”
Laura Hall, however, had been sucked whole into Colton’s netherworld, enthusiastically, it would seem. “My boyfriend is the most powerful drug dealer…” she bragged.
“You’re dating Al Capone?” one friend jabbed. “How’s that working out for you?”
July 31, a week before Jennifer heard Compass Bank had hired someone else for the open slot, Laura Hall called her friend Sammi Moore, the woman she’d worked with at the law firm, to tell her that Colton needed money. Hall offered to sell Sammi cocaine. Sammi turned Laura down.
That month, Laura also called Said Aziz, a UT friend who’d moved back to the East Coast for the summer. When he heard the telephone ring and saw that it was Laura Hall, Aziz hesitated to answer. Laura called him often, usually to talk about Colton. Said couldn’t understand why she stayed with Pitonyak, what Laura Hall got out of the relationship, and Aziz had grown weary of the phone calls. He figured this call was about another nonsensical problem, and it was.
“I think Colton is cheating on me,” Laura complained.
“Yeah? And you’re surprised at that because?” Said responded. It was no secret that Colton Pitonyak loved to flirt and that he was far from monogamous.
“I think Colton slept with a stripper,” Laura said.
Another day, Laura asked Said if she should lend Colton $700. “Do you think I’ll get it back?” she asked.
“I would consider a loan to Colton money spent,” Said advised.
The next time Laura called, however, she’d made the loan, and Colton, as Aziz predicted, hadn’t paid her back. “I need the money for rent,” she said.
“Laura, I told you not to date the guy. I told you not to loan him money. I don’t know what the hell else you want me to do,” Said replied.
Said couldn’t help but wish that Laura Hall and Colton Pitonyak would disappear from his radar, but that didn’t happen. Instead, in early August, a new series of phone calls began. This time, Laura said Colton was in debt to some dangerous men, drug dealers, and needed cash, fast. Would their friend help him? Aziz was noncommittal, but days later, when Laura called again, she rattled off instructions on where to wire the money.
“You know, if the situation is so dire, if the guy’s going to lose his life if he doesn’t have the money, why don’t you have Colton call me himself?” Said responded, exasperated.
“I can’t do that,” Laura said, crying. “I promised Colton you’d fix it.”
Laura also called Andrea Jiles off and on that summer, talking about Colton.
In early August, Laura called her high school friend to tell her that Colton was so high he’d shot a gun off inside his apartment, while Laura was there. “She acted like it was no big deal,” says Jiles. “But I was worried. Guns kill. It was a big deal.”
Another afternoon, the subject was Colton’s drug debt and a group of “Asian” drug dealers Colton owed money to. Andrea couldn’t understand if Laura was trying to tell her that Colton had given them a gun as partial payment or if he’d asked her to find one for him. Either way, it didn’t sit well.
Andrea was worried. Laura sounded strung out and talked constantly of guns and drugs. “Listening to her talk about her day-to-day life, it was like there was all this weirdness going on,” says Jiles. “It was like, expect anything.”
Still, Jiles didn’t foresee what happened next, the day Laura called to say, “Colton burned me while we were fucked up.” Then, to Jiles’s astonishment, Laura Hall laughed.
“Burned you? Was he mad at you?” Jiles asked.
“No, he’s all right,” Laura said. Not sounding at all upset, she explained that he’d burned her arm with a cigarette while they were both high.
“Laura, it’s not right that he took your money and didn’t pay you back. It’s not right that he’s hurting you. This isn’t all right,” Jiles insisted.
“It’s fun. I’m having fun,” Laura said. “It’s all okay.”
Jason Mack didn’t see what was happening as fun. He considered Colton Pitonyak a good friend. He spent much of his time at the Orange Tree, often staying at Pitonyak’s apartment. He rarely saw him sleep. Instead, Colton inhaled amazing amounts of meth, and then stayed up for days at a time, becoming increasingly more tightly wound, more paranoid. The situation only worsened when Pitonyak was high and forgot to lock his door. Someone stole five hundred ecstasy tablets, and Pitonyak, who owed $3 apiece for them, was another $1,500 in debt. Upset about the theft, Colton kept two guns in the apartment.
As for Laura, Mack felt sorry for her. She loved Pitonyak so much, she’d do anything for him, including the day he sent her with a box to deliver. Mack assumed Pitonyak had a gun inside, one he was selling. Hall delivered the box and returned to the Orange Tree with $300 she gave to Colton.
Then there was the time Mack was at Pitonyak’s apartment with Hall. Pitonyak hadn’t slept in days, and he looked more wired than Mack had ever seen him. On edge, everything annoyed Pitonyak, especially Hall. He swore at her, and she asked him why he treated her so badly. “I’ve given you money and I haven’t even asked for it back,” she said. “Why are you talking to me like that? Why are you treating me like this?”
Colton physically threw Laura out of the apartment, into the courtyard. She sat there on a step, crying. Inside the apartment, Colton brought Mack back to the vanity area, in the hallway outside the bathroom. He pulled a pistol out of a drawer. “Should I shoot her? I should just shoot her,” Pitonyak said. “She’s driving me fucking crazy. I ought to just kill the bitch.”
Mack reasoned with Pitonyak, urging him to put the gun away. Finally, he did. Outside, Mack collected Laura and took her to a friend’s apartment, warning her to stay away from Colton. “He’s too fucked up,” he said. “It’s too dangerous.”
“I love Colton,” Laura replied.
Before long, Laura was back at the Orange Tree, as if nothing had happened.
That August, Eli began to worry that the Brook Meadow Village apartment complex, where he, Scott, Jennifer, and Denise lived, had bad karma. Just looking around the complex, he felt odd, like something hung over all of them. Scott was moving into a rented house Labor Day weekend. Eager to get out as well, Eli started looking at town homes.
On August 12, a Friday, Nora Sullivan, a wispy blond UT communications major from California who’d been a friend of Colton’s for a little more than a year, ran into him at the Orange Tree. She’d just moved into a condo six doors down from his a few days earlier, to get ready for the fall semester.
“Can’t talk,” he said. “I’ve got an exam tomorrow morning. I’ve got to study.”
The following morning, Colton called Sullivan and woke her up. He’d overslept and hadn’t made it to his biology final. If he drove, he’d have to find a place to park the car, and it was on the far side of campus, so it would take too long to walk. Frantic and upset, Colton wanted a ride, and Sullivan agreed to take him. They met downstairs in the complex parking lot, and she drove him and waited outside the building as he rushed in. A little while later, he walked out. The exam was over, and Colton couldn’t find the professor to ask about a makeup. He was furious.
That evening, Eli and Jennifer went to a party at the home of Michael Rodriguez, a DJ she’d bumped into off and on that summer at parties with first Scott, then Eli. Rodriguez layered tracks, playing one record on top another, matching the beats, the way they did in Jennifer’s favorite clubs, blending tracks into a highly rhythmic dance beat. That night, Eli and Jennifer argued, and he left early. Jennifer stayed and spent much of the night talking to Melissa Kuhl, a dark-haired girl with a half smile. They’d never met before, but as she did with many, Jennifer bonded quickly to Melissa. They spent the night telling each other their life histories. Jennifer admitted she’d used drugs.
Melissa’s birthday was the following week, and someone had given her a small bag of cocaine. She didn’t use drugs and didn’t know what to do with it. “Do you want it?” she offered.
“No,” Jennifer said. “I need to get my life together.”
Off and on that night, in between sets, Jennifer flirted with the DJ, a bulkily built twentysomething-year-old with sleepy dark eyes. In addition to playing his music, Michael Rodriguez sold insurance at Progressive and worked as a bouncer at Maggie Mae’s, a long-time Sixth Street club.
Attracted to her since their first meeting, Rodriguez was interested when he heard that Scott and Jen were no longer a couple. He was pleased when she handed him her cell number and said, “Give me a call.” Rodriguez reciprocated with his cell phone number. While he mixed tracks, Jennifer danced, her hands in the air, looking happy and free.
The party wound down in the early morning hours, and Jennifer and Michael left in her car to meet up with a group at another friend’s house. There they talked more, the flirting escalating. “I liked you the first time I saw you,” she said.
“I thought we’d hit it off,” Michael agreed.
They kissed and wrestled on the couch, and Rodriguez, although twice her size, let Jennifer pretend to beat him up, begging for mercy.
“You’re not that strong,” she said, laughing.
Later, the talk turned serious. “I’ve had some issues,” Jennifer said, not explaining any further. “But I’m going back to school, and I’ve got an interview for a great job next week.”
Rodriguez liked Jennifer. He watched her with his friends and saw her trying to make them comfortable, offering little things, like getting them a glass of water. Jennifer reminded him of his sisters and his mother, the way the women in his family cared about other people. “We need to get together,” he said, when she dropped him back at his house.
“Definitely,” she said. “I like you.”
“Why?” he asked.
“You’re kind of a big guy,” she said. “You make me feel safe.”