A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
After he’d blown his biology exam on Saturday, Colton Pitonyak went on a binge, drinking vodka, popping Xanax, and inhaling the fumes from burning shards of meth. Then more bad news; Colton had lent his white Toyota Avalon to Jason Mack. While driving the car, Mack was pulled over and taken in for failing to appear at a hearing on a misdemeanor charge he had pending. Mack’s mother called to tell Colton his car was towed to a lot in Cedar Park, north of Austin. That was all Colton needed. Colton’s unpaid drug bills approached $5,000, money he didn’t have. His parents were bound to be upset about his biology grade, and now he had to call his mother to get his car out of hock. It must have felt as if everything were falling apart around him.
Sunday after Lauren finished working at the University of Oklahoma campus TV station, the youngest Cave sister called Jennifer in Austin. Being on television as a reporter was a dream for Lauren, a career she’d wanted since childhood, and what she heard in her sister’s reaction wasn’t jealousy but pride. “You’re so brave,” Jen said.
Meanwhile in Houston, Andrea Jiles stewed over her conversation with Laura Hall, the one in which Hall confided that Colton burned her. Jiles feared Hall’s relationship with Pitonyak was spinning ever more wildly out of control. When Jiles’s boyfriend said he was driving to Austin for a couple of days, she decided to go along. When they got there, her boyfriend met Laura briefly but then took off, and Jiles got in the green Cadillac Concours with Laura, who rattled on as she drove about Colton and the money he hadn’t paid her back. Jiles noticed a deep, dime-size wound in her friend’s arm.
“Is that where Colton burned you?” she asked.
“Yeah, but it was no big thing,” Laura said, with a shrug. “We were both fucked up.”
“That’s not all right,” Jiles said, but Laura just shrugged.
The whole time, Laura talked as if everything were wonderful. But her eyes were dark and sunken, and she’d lost weight. “She looked like a drug addict,” says Jiles. “I was furious with Colton Pitonyak. He’d changed Laura. He’d done this to her.”
When Laura got Colton on the telephone, Jiles wanted to meet with him, to take him to task for the way he was treating Laura, but Colton was in a funk over his final and his car, and in no mood to meet Jiles.
Andrea Jiles never did talk to Colton that day. On the drive home to Houston, Jiles’s boyfriend commented, “Your friend looks crazy.”
“Yeah,” Jiles said. “I guess she is.”
On Monday, August 15, Colton had to sober up and get straight. He needed to call his parents, somehow explain what happened with the car, and get a credit card to reclaim it. He also needed a copy of the car title, which was in their names. Colton had been out of jail for only six weeks, and Eddie and Bridget couldn’t have been happy.
While Colton’s life crumbled around him, Jennifer pushed to improve hers. She’d offered to work in her mother’s sales booth at a Houston convention the next weekend, selling Sharon’s line of promotional items. Then, that Monday, something remarkable happened. Jen went for a job interview at a small law firm, Grissom & Thompson. In an old, converted house near the county court complex, the firm had two attorneys, an office manager, a full-time administrative assistant, and a part-time receptionist/file clerk. At that time, the firm had two openings to fill, both the admin assistant and the receptionist. The position she applied for was the part-time slot, and the office manager who interviewed her was impressed enough to ask her to come in the following morning, Tuesday, to meet with the lawyers. Thrilled, Jennifer agreed.
That afternoon, Jennifer called Sharon, telling her all about the law firm, how well it had gone, and discussing what she planned to wear for the follow-up interview. Sharon was happy for Jennifer but wasn’t having a good day since a woman she’d hired for her promotional goods business had quit.
“Mom, please don’t worry,” Jennifer said. “Don’t be so upset.”
“Jennifer, it’s hard to be an employer,” she said.
“I know,” Jennifer said. They talked about the coming weekend and the convention.
“Are you still planning to come?” Sharon asked.
“Unless I have a job,” Jennifer told her, and Sharon knew from the sound of Jennifer’s voice how excited she was about the possibility.
At 4:30 A.M. the following morning, Tuesday, August 16, one of Colton Pitonyak’s old frat brothers loaded his belongings into a truck in the parking garage at the Orange Tree. Finished with classes, he was moving out and needed to rush to meet friends on a fishing trip. Colton, looking drugged, dazed, and disheveled, walked up in the dark and surprised him.
“Hey, Colton,” the frat brother said.
Colton barely glanced at him, then shuffled past, incoherent, and appearing not to recognize him.
The following morning, Jennifer dressed for her second interview, putting on a gray skirt with a white shirt and a pair of small glasses. Bright and early that morning, she met with Bill Thompson, one of the firm’s two partners. Jennifer looked professional, she was smart, and Thompson thought she’d be a good fit for the small office. “You’re hired,” he said. “Just one thing: Can you start today?”
“Yes,” Jennifer said, beaming. “I sure can.”
When Colton got up, he updated his Facebook.com profile. He had forty-four friends listed at schools all over the country, including Harvard and USC, some who went back to his time at Catholic High. Then he couldn’t put it off any longer. He had to get his car out of hock. His parents must have been upset about yet another crisis, but his mother still got the car title to him and gave him her credit card to pay the $200 impound fee. Colton called Laura to drive him to the impound lot.
A week earlier, Jason Mack had warned Hall that Pitonyak was dangerous and advised her to stay away from him. Still Hall agreed to pick Pitonyak up in her green Caddy about three.
That afternoon, they left Colton’s apartment, hit the drive-through at a nearby Arby’s, then drove north to Williamson County. At the car lot, Laura dropped Colton off, and then left. During his drive home in the reclaimed Toyota, Colton took a call from Laura, who suggested they get together later that night. Apparently she’d fulfilled her purpose by delivering him to pick up his car, and Colton wasn’t interested. “I’ll call you later,” he told her. In Austin, he stopped briefly at a liquor store to procure a fresh bottle of vodka. When he reached the Orange Tree about five that evening, he unscrewed the top and poured himself a healthy glassful. He’d had to stay sober to pick up the car, but that was over.
At six, from his apartment, Colton called Jennifer. He hadn’t seen her in weeks. When she didn’t pick up, he left a message. Later he’d guess it consisted of: “What’s up? Call me.”
At about that time, in Denise’s apartment, Jennifer was jumping up and down, screaming, “They hired me. I started work and, you know what, I did such a great job that they promoted me, all in one day! I got the best job!”
That afternoon in the office, Bill Thompson watched Jennifer and realized she could do more than answer telephones and file. So, instead of the $10-an-hour job he’d hired Jennifer for, he offered her the full-time administrative assistant slot with a salary and benefits. The job required multitasking and determination, and it involved scheduling cases and motions, but Thompson had no doubt she could handle it.
“The office is near Austin Community College,” Jennifer gushed to Sharon in one of their calls that evening. “I’ll be able to take a class or two and get school going again. It’s perfect.”
“That’s wonderful, Jennifer,” Sharon said. “We’ll get you a little one-bedroom apartment close by and fix it up really cute.”
“I just want you to be proud of me, Mom,” Jennifer said.
“Jennifer, we’re always proud of you. We love you,” Sharon said.
“I know, but I’ve been nothing for so long,” she said. “And now, who knows. I could go to law school. I could do anything.”
“Just do a good job, Jennifer. Work hard for these lawyers,” Sharon said. “They’re putting their faith in you. Don’t let them down.”
“I won’t, Momma,” she said. “I love you.”
“I love you, too, sweetie.”
When she hung up with her mother, Jennifer phoned Jim, calling him by his family nickname, “Buffalo, I’m going to make you proud of me,” she said. “I got a job!”
Early that evening, Scott paced in his apartment, thinking about Jennifer.
The day before, a friend had confirmed that Jen and Eli were dating. When Scott heard the news, he was upset by what he saw as a bitter betrayal. When she moved out, Jennifer promised they would work on their relationship, try to save it. And Scott considered Eli a good friend. “Now I knew that they lied to me,” Scott says. Reeling from the news, the night before, Scott had sent Jennifer a long, angry e-mail.
All that day, he chewed on the situation, thinking and rethinking it. Although still hurt, after reconsidering, Scott regretted the e-mail and much of what he’d written. Considering all that had happened, all they’d meant to each other, Scott didn’t want to be upset with Jennifer. He still loved her, more deeply than he’d ever loved a woman. So he decided to talk to her in person.
At Denise’s he rang the doorbell, and Jennifer answered.
“I’m sorry for the things I said,” he told her.
“I’m sorry, too,” she said. They talked, and Jennifer began to cry. She knew she’d let Scott and Madyson down, but she just wasn’t ready for a family. First she wanted, perhaps even needed, to explore her place in the world. And there was this other thing, the same thing she’d told Karissa Reine about months earlier.
“Scott, I feel like I’m surrounded by demons,” Jennifer confided, her eyes filling with tears. “I really do. I can’t shake it.”
Scott held Jennifer as she cried. “It’s the drugs,” he said. “That’s all it is. Get them out of your life, and it’ll go away.”
“I’m trying. I really am. But it’s so hard,” she told him. “I can’t shake the feeling that I’m surrounded by something evil.”
They stood together, silent, while she cried. Then Scott leaned forward to kiss her. As their lips met, Jennifer slid down to the floor. “I have been using meth again,” she confessed, her voice quiet and ashamed. “I have, it’s true. But I’m going to stop the drugs. I’m going to take this job and run with it.”
Scott had never been hurt the way the breakup with Jennifer had hurt him, and he looked down at her, and then reached down to lift her up. He didn’t want to let her go. It felt good to hold her.
At about 7:30 that evening, Scott turned to leave, feeling better for having forgiven her.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too,” he responded, and then he was gone.
Later that night, Jennifer text-messaged Scott. “I’m sorry. Thank you.”
After Scott left, Jennifer called friends Eli, Laura Ingles, and others to tell them about the new job. She offered to help Laura, who’d just moved that weekend, unpack, but then never showed up at the new apartment. Instead, Jennifer told Denise that she wanted nothing more than to stay home and get to bed early. By eight that evening, Jennifer had washed her laundry, dried it, and put it away. Wearing a pair of red gym shorts and a gray half T-shirt, she lay on the couch at Denise’s apartment watching a Lifetime movie about two troubled teenage girls who got into drugs.
“Oh, I love this one,” Jennifer said to Denise, who lay on a couch across from her.
They laughed and talked, Jennifer cluing Denise in to what to expect before it happened on the screen. “I knew a girl like that,” Jennifer said about one of the characters. “She was so screwed up.”
Through it all, Jennifer talked about how excited she was. She had her clothes laid out for work the next day, and her words were full of plans and hopes. Later Denise wouldn’t be able to remember what time the movie ended, but when it did, Jennifer stood up and stretched. “I’m going to bed,” she said. “Will you wake me when you get up at 6:30?”
“Sure,” Denise said.
“Don’t forget,” Jennifer said. “It’s important. I want to get there early in the morning.”
Meanwhile in his apartment at the Orange Tree, at 8:47 that evening, Colton logged onto the UT Web site to check his summer school grade. Missing the exam had cost him dearly. The brilliant scholarship student had earned a D in his biology class. How much longer would his parents support him with such disappointments? He was already complaining to friends that his father had cut off his allowance. Minutes later, Jennifer returned Colton’s telephone call.
A short time later, Nora Sullivan saw Colton outside his apartment and asked if she could watch his television that night. She wasn’t unpacked yet, didn’t have cable, and wanted to see Rescue Me, a series about New York City firefighters on the FX channel.
“I’m going out to dinner and I won’t be there,” Colton said. Then he thought about it, and added, “But I could give you my key.”
“No,” Nora said. “It’s no big deal.”
At 10:30, Michael Rodriguez finished his shift at Progressive Insurance and called Jennifer. She told him about her new job, excitement lacing each word.
“We need to hang out again,” he told her.
No longer with Scott and her relationship with Eli casual, she replied, “We’ll do lunch, soon.”
“What’re you doing tonight?”
“I’m going downtown to hang out with a friend,” she said. “Colton’s got some issues.”
Michael didn’t know Colton and didn’t ask what kind of issues. At the time, he hadn’t wanted to pry. He liked Jennifer, but they were still in the getting-to-know-each-other stage, when it wasn’t a good idea to push too hard.
Although she’d told Denise she was staying in, sometime after 10:30 Jennifer left the apartment and drove to Colton’s place. Perhaps she was worried about him. Between the D in biology and having to call his parents to reclaim the car, he must have been in a foul mood. That Jennifer was pulling her life together, excited about the new job, must have drawn into even sharper perspective the mess he’d made of his own.
A month or so earlier, Jennifer had called Karissa Reine in the middle of the night, frightened, saying she was in a closet and that she couldn’t leave because she didn’t have her car. This evening, Jennifer drove her own car. She dressed in a short khaki skirt and a striped tank top. She left her long red hair down, and got in her black Saturn to pick Colton up at the Orange Tree, then drove to Sixth Street. Their first stop was Jazz, a cavernous Louisiana-style Cajun food place with wood floors, a long bar, and New Orleans decor.
From Jazz, Colton and Jennifer drove or walked down Sixth Street. It was quiet that night, between semesters at UT, and many of the students who habitually crowded the bars even on weekday nights hadn’t returned for the fall semester. It was hot, August always is in Central Texas, and they passed old wood and brick storefronts with blazing neon signs, advertising massage and tattoo parlors, and saloons like the Chugging Monkey, The Blind Pig, and Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar.
On the street, Jennifer saw a friendly face; Melissa Kuhl was celebrating her birthday with a group of friends. Jennifer had met Melissa at Michael Rodriguez’s party just days earlier, and they’d spent much of the time talking. “We’re going in Treasure Island, want to come?” Melissa asked.
Inside Treasure Island, a hole-in-the-wall tavern with an illuminated fish tank behind the bar and a skull and cross-bones flag outside, Kuhl and four friends, three girls and a guy friend named Jeff Sanderson, along with Jennifer and Colton, pulled together stools and took over a table. In the dimly lit bar, while Jennifer talked to the others, Kuhl sat next to Colton, and began to feel an attraction. He flirted, and he was cute and funny. Before long, Kuhl and Colton huddled together. He was soft-spoken and well-mannered and seemed interested in what she had to say.
“I want to get back into school. I haven’t done well,” he confided. “I came to UT, did great for a couple of years and then screwed everything up by getting into drugs.”
Colton told Melissa about his month in jail and insisted he wanted to get off the drugs and get back to his original goals, to finish business school and start a good career. It surprised Melissa when Colton then leaned forward and asked her if she wanted to leave with him. “I have to meet some friends,” he said. “They’ve got an eight ball for me.”
Melissa knew an eight ball was coke or meth, but she didn’t use drugs and their mention bothered her. Still, Colton was attractive and easy to talk to. When he walked to the bar to buy a drink, she asked Jennifer, “Are you two together?”
“No, we’re not,” Jennifer said. Then she leaned forward and warned, “But you really don’t want to mess with him. He’s crazy.”
“What do you mean crazy?” Melissa asked.
“He’s crazy. He’s got a lot of emotional baggage, and you don’t want to mess with him,” Jennifer said. “He’s weird.”
“You’re not going anywhere with him,” one of Melissa’s friends insisted. “You came with us and you’re leaving with us.”
When he returned, Colton said, “Come with me. We’ll get it and come back.”
“I’d better not,” Melissa said. She’d been thinking about what Jennifer had said and wondered if Colton was clingy, one of those I-love-you-in-two-days kind of guys.
At least on the surface, Colton took rejection well. He simply shrugged, appearing not to really care.
The friends drank and talked, but Colton, who’d lost interest in Kuhl, turned to Sanderson. Jennifer seemed fine, not drunk, not drugged, but Sanderson thought Colton was high on something, “really out of it.” Listening to Colton on his cell phone talking about the eight ball convinced Sanderson that he was right.
In Treasure Island, Jennifer’s phone buzzed at 11:30, with a text message from Michael Rodriguez: “Why are you such a beautiful girl?”
“I get that from my mother,” she responded, just minutes later.
The seven talked, laughed, and listened to music. When one of the girls struggled to pull off a plastic wristband she had from another bar, it wouldn’t budge. She asked if anyone at the table had a scissors. No one did. Then Colton, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, pulled a black-handled, folding knife with a four-inch serrated blade out from his belt, reached across the table, and cut it off. The knife made Sanderson uneasy.
“Let’s go somewhere else,” someone suggested, and all the others nodded in agreement. Soon Melissa and her friends paid their tabs and walked toward the Cheers Shot Bar, almost directly across the street.
“Colton has to pay the bill,” Jennifer told Melissa. “We’ll meet you there.”
About then, at 11:54, Jennifer’s phone buzzed with a second text from Rodriguez: “When do I get to hang out with you again?”
“Sometime soon,” was her response.
Jennifer wasn’t the only one a friend wanted to hook up with that night. Four minutes later, at 11:58, Laura Hall, apparently disappointed that the guy she thought of as her boyfriend wasn’t interested in hanging with her, messaged Colton: “Ugh, you should have called me back.”
Just after midnight, Melissa and her friends walked across to Cheers and got a table, while she watched the door for Jennifer and Colton. Kuhl saw them show their IDs to the bouncer, and then she turned away to talk to Sanderson. When Kuhl glanced back at the door, Jennifer and Colton were gone. Kuhl looked around the bar and didn’t see them. She rushed to the door, wondering what had happened, and peered out just in time to watch Jennifer and Colton walk away. They turned a corner and disappeared from sight.
“What happened?” Melissa asked the bouncer. “Why didn’t they come in?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
Melissa thought about it, figured Colton had convinced Jennifer to go with him to get his eight ball of drugs, and went back to the table to join her friends.
Just after midnight, Jennifer called Michael Rodriguez, who lay on the couch watching television. “What’s up?”
“I’m still out with my friend Colton. He’s upset,” she said. “He’s in trouble and the only people who can help him are in jail.”
“Everything okay?” Rodriguez asked.
“Yeah,” Jennifer said. “It’s fine. I’ve got to get home soon. I’ve got to work in the morning.”
An hour later, at 1:05, Michael’s phone rang again. At first, Jennifer sounded as if she just wanted to talk. “What’re you doing?” she asked.
“Watching TV. What’re you doing?”
“We’re leaving, I have to get home,” she said.
Then all of sudden, she shouted, “Hey, that’s not my car.”
“My God, Colton’s trying to bust in a car window,” she said to Rodriguez. “He’s upset because he lost his cell phone. I’m helping him look for it.”
“What’s happening?” Rodriguez asked.
“We’re walking to my car,” she said. Then, sounding exasperated, “Oh, great, now he’s pissing on a car.”
“Are you okay?” Rodriguez prodded. They didn’t know each other well, and he didn’t want to pry, but he was getting worried. Still, he’d been to Sixth Street with friends who got drunk and did stupid things. That wasn’t unusual, rarely anything to be concerned about.
“Everything’s okay,” Jennifer said. “I’m going to help him find his phone. I’ll call you when I get home.”
With that, Jennifer Cave hung up the telephone. Michael Rodriguez thought about that telephone call for a moment. Jennifer sounded confident, insisted she wasn’t in any danger. There was no reason to agonize. Feeling satisfied all was well, Rodriguez turned back to the television, and soon fell asleep. When he woke the next morning, he wasn’t concerned that Jennifer hadn’t called him when she got home, as she’d said she would. It was late the last time they talked, and he assumed that she probably hadn’t wanted to wake him. Later, he’d look back at that night and reconsider: Was Jennifer trying to tell him something? Did she want him to look for her if she didn’t call? Was she trying to make sure someone knew where she was that night, with whom, and notice if she didn’t check in?
“I don’t know,” Michael would say more than a year later, combing through his dark hair with a thick hand, his eyes regretful. “I’ll always wonder. I’ll always wish I’d insisted I’d go get her. But she said she was okay. How could I have known?”