A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)

Chapter 15

Less than an hour after Michael Rodriguez hung up the telephone with Jennifer, Vanessa, the oldest of the Cave sisters, woke up feeling tense and anxious. It was dark out, and she looked at the clock. Later, she’d remember it was about 2 A.M. She’d been out the night before celebrating a friend’s birthday but had only two drinks. Home early and to bed, she’d fallen asleep quickly. Looking about the darkened room, she couldn’t understand her apprehension. Then, suddenly, Vanessa gripped her abdomen and ran to the bathroom, with the room spinning around her. For an hour, she could barely sit up. In the wee hours of the morning, as abruptly as it started, the nausea passed.

Afterward, Vanessa went back to bed, where she fell into a deep sleep.

At the Orange Tree at 3 A.M., Nora Sullivan was wide awake, unpacking boxes, when someone knocked on her condo door. She looked out the peephole and saw Colton. She opened the door, and he burst through, looking agitated. “Did you hear gunshots?” he asked.

“No,” Nora said. “Why?”

Excited, Colton launched into a tale about Mexican drug dealers and how he’d gotten into a fight where bullets were exchanged. Nora half listened. She didn’t like nonsense, and that’s what it sounded like to her, like fiction. She had the same impression she’d had back in California in high school, when a guy she knew insisted he’d killed a woman and dumped her body. In that case, too, Nora figured the kid was making it all up.

As he talked, Pitonyak said he’d lost his cell phone, and asked to use Nora’s. He wanted to call Evan, a guy in Colton’s circle of friends, one everyone knew they could count on in a jam, a nerdy kid who would do anything for a friend. Colton tried Evan’s phone number twice, but his friend didn’t answer. Unconcerned, Nora sat down on the floor and went through another box, unpacking, while Colton paced the small room, jabbering on and on about the gun battle. She paid little attention, scoffing at the very notion that rounds of gunfire had been exchanged just six doors from her apartment. “I would have heard it. I didn’t want to waste my ears on garbage like that,” she’d say later. “So I kind of tuned him out.”

Despite Sullivan’s disinterest, Colton rattled on, claiming he’d shot someone, one of the drug dealers. As if to prove he’d told the truth, Colton pulled a handgun out of the waistband of his shorts to show her. Holding the gun up, he slipped out the black magazine holding the bullets, saying he didn’t want it to go off accidentally.

“Do I have blood on me?” he asked a short time later.

Nora glanced up and saw a smudge of what could have been blood on Colton’s forearm. As she listened, Nora thought again about how close the two apartments were and concluded that she was right the first time; she would have heard shots if a gun battle had gone on so close.

“Sure, Tupac,” she said, sarcastically addressing Colton as Tupac Shakur, the infamous rapper murdered in 1996 in a Las Vegas drive-by shooting.

When Colton calmed down, Nora got two beers, and they stood on her balcony drinking and smoking cigarettes. When he left, Colton said, “I’m going to my apartment, to clean up.”

Later it appeared that Colton Pitonyak got little sleep that night. An hour or so later, at 4:28 A.M., he logged onto his computer and clicked over to www.sherdog.com, a martial arts Web site that promotes brutal ultimate fighting competitions. Somewhere he found his cell phone, and he used it off and on, trying unsuccessfully to reach his friend Evan. Early that morning, before the sun came up, Colton was back on his computer, this time clicking onto Facebook, working on his profile, the one where he listed his favorite gangster movies, and then at 5:34 he text-messaged Laura Hall.

“What do you mean?” she responded.

The alarm clock in Denise Winterbottom’s bedroom buzzed at 6:15 that morning. She turned it off. Her boyfriend slept beside her, and she got up, grabbed her clothes, and walked through the living room to the second bathroom, the one across from Jennifer’s room, the bathroom the two women shared. As she passed Jennifer’s bedroom door, Denise knocked.

“Hey Jennifer,” she called out. “Time to get up.”

Then she heard Jennifer’s alarm clock go off.

Denise ducked in the bathroom and grabbed her toothbrush. She started brushing her teeth, but still heard the alarm clock. She wondered why Jennifer didn’t silence the alarm. Still brushing, she stood outside Jennifer’s door, listening. “Jennifer,” she called out again, knocking harder on the door. “Wake up, girl. You’ve got to get to work.”

The alarm droned on, incessant, and Denise stood outside Jennifer’s room staring at the door. For some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to open it, but she didn’t know why. She had the unmistakable impression that she didn’t want to see what was inside. Finally, she had no other choice. She had to open the door. The last time she’d seen Jennifer the evening before, she had been going to bed, but when Denise opened Jennifer’s door, the room was immaculate, the bed made, Jennifer’s clothes laid out for work, but Jennifer wasn’t there.

Denise scanned the room, walked over, turned off the alarm, and looked about the bedroom again. Jennifer had to be there. But she wasn’t. Suddenly, Denise experienced a wave of dread. Something’s wrong, she thought. Something’s terribly wrong.

Yet, what? She decided to go to her babysitting job, and call the law firm later, to make sure Jennifer had arrived safely. But then, she had second thoughts. “I’ll feel silly when she picks up the telephone,” she told herself. “She’s fine. She probably just stayed overnight with a friend.”

Forty-three minutes later, Colton called Laura Hall. She’d spent the night at a friend’s apartment, a thin, dark-haired guy with a manicured goatee whose name was Ryan Martindill. Laura and Martindill had worked together in the workers’ compensation department at Pena’s law firm and remained friends, going out off and on, sometimes with Martindill’s roommate, a heavyset guy named Star Salzman. When Colton hadn’t called her back to get together the night before, she called Martindill, and he picked her up at her apartment. She had a bottle of rum with her, and at his place in south Austin, they drank while they talked and watched television. Sometime between 11 that evening and 1 A.M., they fell asleep on separate couches in front of the television. Martindill was still asleep when Laura’s cell phone rang.

Colton and Laura talked for thirteen minutes, and then Laura shook Martindill, eager for him to wake up. “Colton called,” she said. “I need a ride to my car.”

Martindill wasn’t surprised. He’d watched the power Colton Pitonyak had over Laura. He’d never met him, but he believed that Hall was obsessed with Pitonyak. So Martindill got up and drove Laura to her apartment to get her car. Hall seemed intent on getting to Colton’s quickly.

At 8:30 A.M., Bill Thompson was working at his desk at Grissom & Thompson, when he realized Jennifer Cave hadn’t shown up for work. It seemed odd. She’d been so gung-ho the day before, so into the job. He thought about it, but assumed she was just running late. When another half hour passed and she still wasn’t there, he dialed her cell phone. Her voice mail came on, and he left a message.

At 10:30, Scott text-messaged Jennifer: “Have a good day at work.” He didn’t think much about it when she didn’t reply, assuming she was busy at her new job. He hoped it was going well, and he smiled, thinking about the night before, glad that they’d talked.

Meanwhile, when Jennifer still wasn’t at the office at eleven, Thompson thought over the situation. He didn’t believe he’d read Jennifer wrong; she was excited about the job, eager enough that he knew she would show up.

Concerned, Thompson called in his office manager and asked her to check on Jennifer. The woman drove north out of Austin to Denise’s apartment at Brook Meadow Village, Jennifer’s address on the job application. When no one answered her doorbell, the office manager wrote a note asking Jennifer to call the firm, tucked it in the door, and then drove back downtown to the office.

At 11:45 that morning, Michael Rodriguez arrived ready for his day’s work at Progressive Insurance. The first thing he did was call Jennifer to make sure she’d gotten to work all right. In the back of his mind he replayed their conversation from the night before. Jennifer didn’t pick up her cell phone, and it switched to voice mail. “Wondering how your day is going. Give me a call,” he said.

Around two that afternoon, Bill Thompson’s concern had grown into worry. Where was that girl? Why hadn’t she come in? Why didn’t she call? He pulled out Jennifer’s application and tried her cell phone again. Still no answer. He left a message and then, an hour or so later, he called the only other phone number on the application, Sharon’s cell phone.

“Mrs. Cave, I don’t mean to alarm you,” Thompson said, after introducing himself. “It’s just that Jennifer didn’t come in today. Have you talked to her?”

Sharon wasn’t sure what to think. Her first thought was that she’d been foolish the day before to believe that Jennifer had changed. But then she thought back to the conversation. It was true that Jennifer had disappointed her in the past, but she didn’t believe she’d lied to her about the job. Jennifer was jazzed, absolutely thrilled about working at the law firm. She wouldn’t have not shown up, Sharon thought.

“I’m going to make a few calls,” she told Thompson.

The first person Sharon called was Scott. When she told him that Jennifer hadn’t shown up at work, Scott was immediately surprised, then quickly disappointed. Everything she’d said about wanting to change her life, he reasoned, was just another lie. The most likely scenario was that Jennifer had gone out after he left and gotten high or drunk and hadn’t sobered up in time for work. “Jen probably stayed out late partying,” he told Sharon. “I wouldn’t be concerned.”

“Scott, something’s wrong,” Sharon said. She wasn’t sure how she knew that, but she did. She felt certain of it; something was very wrong.

“What are you talking about?” he asked, shrugging it off. “She’s fine. She’s just out somewhere with friends.”

“I have to find Denise,” Sharon said.

“Have you seen Jennifer?” she asked when she got Denise on the telephone.

Denise had brought Gracie to her house to nap, wanting to check for Jennifer. Nothing had changed. Jennifer’s work clothes were still laid out and the room was untouched. When Denise saw the note on the door from the law firm, she was flooded with regret for not following up on trying to find Jennifer. The first one she called was Eli, but he hadn’t seen Jen. When Denise thought about calling Sharon, she hesitated. She’d never met Sharon and had only talked to her on the phone, at times when Sharon called for Jennifer and took the opportunity to thank Denise for taking her daughter in. She was worried, but Denise didn’t want to get her friend in trouble.

“Jennifer wasn’t here this morning when I went to wake her up,” Denise said.

She then told Sharon about the previous night, how Jennifer washed clothes, watched a TV movie with her, and then went off to bed, asking her to wake her the next morning.

Sharon had to ask. There was no way not to. “Is Jennifer on drugs again?”

Denise thought for a moment. Jennifer had used drugs but never seemed to be overdoing it. If she told Sharon that Jennifer was back on meth, even a little, how would it help? “No,” she lied. “She’s not.”

“If you hear from Jennifer, have her call me,” Sharon said.

About three o’clock that afternoon, Colton and Laura were both busy. They’d left unit 88 at the Orange Tree in separate cars. As if nothing were wrong, Laura called her parents to discuss her fall schedule at UT. Meanwhile, Colton drove just a few blocks to Breed’s Hardware, an ACE franchise store, and walked inside. An upscale combination hardware and luxury goods store that sells everything from hammers and wrenches to Waterford crystal and Godiva chocolates, Breed’s is a West Campus landmark, one frequented by students who pick up the odds and ends needed to settle into apartments, including UT longhorn salt and pepper shakers and chip-and-dip dishes. The store’s owner, Jeff Breed, encountered a rough-looking young man standing in the hardware section, pushing a cart and looking at a list.

“Need some help?” asked Breed, a tall man with salt-and-pepper hair and a mustache.

When he got closer, Breed smelled alcohol on the young man. Colton showed the store owner his shopping list, and Breed guided him through the store. The store was out of one of the items on Pitonyak’s list, paper towels, but Colton grabbed a roll of blue shop towels. He picked up latex gloves, ammonia, Febreze fabric freshener, dust masks, carpet cleaner, and then inquired about a saw.

“What kind do you need?” Breed asked in the saw aisle, in front of a long display of cutting implements.

“Something cheap,” Pitonyak answered, as Breed pointed out a display of small saws hanging from hooks.

When the glassy-eyed young man didn’t choose one, Breed asked, “What do you need it for?”

“I want to cut up a frozen turkey,” Pitonyak said. “I’m frying a turkey today.”

Breed suggested a utility hacksaw, and Pitonyak picked it up and made his way to the checkout.

After Sharon hung up the telephone with Denise, she considered what to do. She thought about Jennifer, how to find her. She’d already called her cell phone and left messages. What else could she do? Sharon picked up her own cell and called T-Mobile, the provider who had her service and phones for all four of her children. She explained what she wanted, and since the account was in Sharon’s name, the woman in the billing department agreed to fax Sharon a printout of Jennifer’s cell phone activity for the previous forty-eight hours.

Sharon paced in her office, waiting, wondering, worrying, until the fax came through. When she glanced over the records, her angst built; Jennifer hadn’t made a single cell phone call since 1:05 the morning before. That wasn’t like Jennifer. She was addicted to the cell phone, in love with it. She wouldn’t go more than a half day without making a phone call.

Her hands trembling, Sharon called Scott and started reading off phone numbers from Jennifer’s call list. When she got to one, a number Jennifer had called the previous evening, Scott said, “That’s Colton’s cell phone.”

That name rang a bell with Sharon. She remembered Colton, the boy Jennifer talked about, the one with drug problems who’d been in jail. “Tell me about Colton,” Sharon said.

“He’s bad news,” Scott said. “Uses a lot of drugs and sells them.”

When she hung up with Scott, Sharon’s head was beginning to pound, and she felt as if the world around her was out of kilter.

“Do you know anything about this Colton guy?” she asked when she called Denise back.

“I know she’s hanging around with that guy, and I don’t like him,” Denise answered.

“I’m thinking about coming to Austin tomorrow morning, if we haven’t found her,” Sharon said. “I’m worried about her.”

“You should come,” Denise said. What she left out was, I’m worried, too.

As soon as she hung up, Sharon called the phone number on Jennifer’s T-Mobile bill Scott had identified as Colton’s. The ring immediately clicked over to voice mail, and Sharon left a message: “Colton, I’m Jennifer Cave’s mom and I’m looking for her. Call me.”

Eight minutes later, Laura Hall pulled into an Austin filling station where she pumped $50 worth of gas into her green Cadillac and had the car washed. Meanwhile, Colton, his purchases from Breed’s Hardware in the car, drove through a Burger King on his way back to the apartment. He ordered a value meal, with medium fries and a medium Coke, asking them to hold the onions.

In Dallas, Vanessa had gone into her job at the Wyndham Hotel corporate offices only to be laid off. She’d been expecting it. The hotel chain had been talking about cutbacks for months. She drove back to her apartment and lay down on the couch. She felt hopeless and depressed, and she didn’t know why. It wasn’t the layoff, but something else she couldn’t name. “I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me,” she says. “I didn’t feel sick like the night before. I felt like something wasn’t right, but I didn’t know what.”

At five that evening, Sharon called Michael Rodriguez’s cell phone. It was the last number Jennifer had called the night before. The phone went to voice mail, and she left a message: “This is Jennifer’s mother. We’re looking for her. Call me.”

When Michael saw he had a message and listened to Sharon’s anxious voice, he was worried. He thought about Jennifer out with her friend. What if they’d had a car accident? What if she were hurt? He dialed Sharon’s office phone number, the one she’d called from, and she picked up.

“We’re looking for Jennifer,” Sharon said. “She didn’t show up for work, and you’re the last one she talked to on the phone records. Was she okay?”

“Yeah, she was fine,” Michael said.

“Was she drunk?” Sharon asked.

“She didn’t sound like it,” Michael said.

“Do you know who she was with?” Sharon asked.

“She said some guy, some friend of hers named Coltran or something?”

“Colton?”

“Yeah, that’s it,” Michael said. “He was acting kind of weird. I don’t know a lot. I wish I could give you more, but I haven’t known Jennifer that long.”

With that, Sharon’s cell phone rang. “Hold on,” she said.

“Colton?” Sharon said into the cell phone. “Have you seen Jennifer?”

“I saw her last night, but we got in an argument and she left about midnight,” he said.

Colton hung up and Sharon got back on the line with Michael. “Colton says he hasn’t seen her since midnight.”

“He’s lying,” Michael said. “He was with her when she called me after one. Why is he lying?”

“Anything else you can tell me?” Sharon asked.

“That’s all I know,” Michael said. “I wish I knew more.”

Sharon talked to Jim on and off all afternoon about Jennifer’s disappearance. They were both worried. Now she did what she’d considered earlier; she called the Austin Police Department and asked for the missing persons division. An officer got on the telephone. She listened as Sharon told her what had happened, and when the officer asked, Sharon admitted that Jennifer had used drugs. Yet she felt that wasn’t what was going on.

“Your daughter is an adult, and she won’t technically be missing for twenty-four hours,” the officer said. “If she hasn’t shown up by tomorrow morning, you can file a report.”

That evening, while Sharon grew increasingly anxious in Corpus Christi, in Austin, Eli, Laura Ingles, and other friends helped Scott move some of his furniture into the two-story house he’d rented, on a quiet, tree-lined street. They were all talking about Jennifer, how no one had seen her, how she hadn’t returned any of their phone calls. Of them all, only Scott wasn’t worried. If anything, he was disappointed in Jennifer, causing so many people such concern when she was undoubtedly out partying somewhere.

When Laura heard that Jennifer was with Colton, however, she grew instantly frightened. “He’s not a nice guy,” she whispered to Eli. “You need to call the police and tell them.”

“No,” Eli said. “Jennifer’s okay.”

“No, she’s dead,” Laura said. “I can’t tell you how I know, but I know. Jennifer’s gone.”

Eli looked at Laura, shook his head, and then he started to cry.

Disappointed, Sharon hung up the telephone with the missing persons officer. A little while later, she called Scott back. He listened to her fears, but “blew them off.” Scott didn’t want to tell Sharon, but if Jennifer was with Colton, the most likely scenario was that she was high on drugs and too messed up to talk to her mother. But Scott had had enough of it. He wanted Jennifer to call her mother and keep everyone from worrying.

As soon as he hung up the telephone with Sharon, Scott called Colton. No one answered, and he left a message: “Colton, we know Jennifer’s at your house, so you need to tell her that her mom’s looking for her.”

Colton called back. “What’s going on?”

“They know Jen’s at your house,” Scott said. “She needs to call her mom, now.”

“I haven’t seen her,” Colton insisted. He sounded irritated and wired.

“Her mom has called the cops,” Scott said. “They’re going to be looking for her.”

“I don’t know anything,” Colton said, angry. “That bitch is going to get me arrested.”

In Corpus Christi, Sharon Cave called Austin hospitals, the morgue, everywhere she could think of that Jennifer could be if she were hurt or, worse, dead. She considered driving to Austin that night, but didn’t know what she would do once she got there. At least, from the house, she was busy making phone calls, not driving a car. Sharon felt certain Colton was lying, but she didn’t know why. All she knew was that the radar that connected her to her middle daughter wasn’t working. She hadn’t felt Jennifer all day. Usually, even if they were thousands of miles apart, she felt tethered to her kids. The psychological, emotional, or supernatural rope that tied her to Jennifer had somehow disconnected. Something was very, very wrong.

At 6:45 that evening, Sharon knew little more than she had that afternoon when Bill Thompson first called her, and she was frantic. She called Colton again, but he didn’t return her call.

Waiting for him to respond, Sharon and Jim walked through the house, not knowing what to do. The night yawning empty before them, he convinced her to take a drive. From the front seat of the Suburban, Jim called Colton for Sharon, and left a stern message: “Colton, this is Jim Sedwick. Her mother and I are looking for Jennifer. We know you were the last person she was seen with. The police are looking for her, and you really need to call me back.”

After he left the voice mail, they drove to Havana, a restaurant they both liked. Jennifer had worked there part-time the same summer she’d worked at the bank, before she’d moved to San Marcos and her life had dissolved into drugs. At the bar, Jim and Sharon sat sipping drinks and feeling helpless.

Finally, at 8:37, Sharon’s cell phone rang. It was Colton. Later they’d learn that he was at Mr. Gatti’s pizzeria on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Austin with Laura Hall. “Colton, we know Jennifer was with you last night after midnight. You were the last one to see her,” she said. “You need to tell us where she is.”

Colton answered, his voice dripping in contempt: “Dude, I’m having pizza with my friend. Don’t bother me.”

“Let me tell you something, Colton,” Sharon said, furious. “I called the police and missing persons. I am going to find Jennifer. So you need to just tell me what you know.”

“Good luck,” he said. “I don’t know where she’s at, dude. I’m eating pizza.”

With that, Colton hung up the telephone.

For a few moments, Sharon and Jim looked at each other, neither knowing what to do. Then Jim said, “We need to get to Austin in the morning, and we need a plan. Let’s go home and pack a bag.”

In Austin that evening, Ryan Martindill’s telephone rang. Laura Hall wanted to swing by his apartment and pick up her bottle of rum from the night before. Ryan wouldn’t be home, but he called his roommate, Salzman, and filled him in on the plan. When the apartment doorbell rang, Salzman opened up, and there stood Laura with Colton beside her. They bustled in, and Salzman introduced himself and shook Pitonyak’s hand. Colton seemed somewhat withdrawn, which surprised Salzman. He’d heard about Laura’s boyfriend and his gangster image. Acting like all was well, Laura grabbed the bottle of rum, and she and Colton quickly left.

Meanwhile, in Corpus Christi, while Sharon packed enough clothes for a few days, Jim called Sidney Smith, a family friend and a private investigator. Jim explained only that they had “a family problem,” and asked if Smith could meet them at seven the next morning at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Smith had a busy day planned, but he quickly agreed.

The rest of that evening, Jim and Sharon walked through the house like strangers, passing each other, not knowing what to say, what to do. At one point, he grabbed her and pulled her to him. Sharon wasn’t crying, but her voice was raspy and tense. “This is bad isn’t it?” she asked.

“Yeah, baby,” he said, in his gruff, hoarse voice, now worn thin with emotion. “This is going to be pretty bad.”

As he held her, Sharon finally cried, giving in to the fear that had been haunting her all day.

Meanwhile, in Little Rock that evening, Bridget Pitonyak also appeared to be more than a little concerned about what was transpiring in Austin. At 9:20, she messaged Colton on his cell phone: TEXT ME. I’M A NERVOUS WRECK NOT KNOWING WHAT’S GOING ON.

One minute later, at 9:21, Colton responded, keying in: GOING TO HOUSTON.

Later it would seem an odd exchange, begging many questions: Why was Bridget so worried? What had Colton told her? How much, if anything, did she know about Jennifer’s disappearance? What reason did Colton give for fleeing Austin in the darkness?

The evidence would later show that Colton lied to Bridget about at least one thing that night. As he typed his response, Colton wasn’t barreling in the night toward Texas’s biggest city. With Sharon Cave’s threat of involving the police hanging over him, Bridget Pitonyak’s younger son sped toward a vastly different destination.

That night, neither Sharon nor Jim slept. After a few hours, Sharon got up and went to her office. She gathered Jennifer’s cell phone records and wrote down everything she’d done and discovered, documenting her phone calls with Colton. Then she made three copies: one for herself, one for the police, and one for Smith, the private investigator. It was all she could think of to do that might help find Jennifer. She knew in her heart that the road they’d take in the morning to Austin would lead to life-altering pain. One thought haunted her: Jennifer had never gone a full day without talking to her, even when they were angry with each other, even when Jennifer was deep into drugs. If Jennifer could get to a telephone, she would have called. That she hadn’t meant Jennifer was either in dire trouble and couldn’t get to a telephone, or dead. Throughout that long night, Sharon called Jennifer’s cell phone off and on, taking what little comfort she could from hearing her lost daughter’s voice on the recorded message.

While Sharon Cave waited anxiously for sunrise, at 2:41 that morning, Laura Hall’s 1994 green Cadillac Concours was in Del Rio, Texas, driving on the nearly deserted bridge that crosses the Rio Grande and connects Del Rio with Ciudad Acuna, Mexico. At the checkpoint to enter Mexico, Laura stopped and handed over her passport and that of her passenger, Colton Pitonyak. She looked unconcerned, even happy. When the Mexican border patrol officer returned their passports and waved them on, Laura and Colton drove off, disappearing into the night.