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

Chapter 16

At seven the next morning, August 18, a Thursday, Vanessa’s cell phone rang in her apartment. She wasn’t happy. It was her first morning among the ranks of the unemployed, and she’d planned to enjoy it at least temporarily by sleeping in. She hadn’t slept much the night before, still feeling unsettled, and an extra couple of hours in bed would have felt good. “Mom, I’m sleeping,” she said. “Can I call you back?”

“We can’t find Jennifer,” Sharon said, followed by a brief recounting of the day before. “Jim and I are meeting with Sid Smith this morning and then driving to Austin.”

Now it made sense, that gnawing in Vanessa’s chest, the suspicion that all wasn’t well. “I’m going, too,” she said. “I’ll meet you there.”

“No,” Sharon objected. She had multiple reasons. It was a long drive, she was sure everything was fine, and it would be a waste of time if Vanessa traveled all that way. “We need you at home. You can help. Take out some photos of Jennifer and scan them in the computer for us, so we have something to e-mail to the press if we need to,” Sharon said. “We’ll call you from Austin.”

Vanessa agreed, but she wasn’t convinced.

“As soon as you leave here, call the Austin police again,” Sid Smith advised over coffee at the Cracker Barrel, a short time later. Smith didn’t like what he was hearing from Jim and Sharon. A family friend, Smith had met Jennifer only once, but she’d impressed him as a sweet girl. Colton Pitonyak’s history was worrisome, but what bothered Smith more was that the kid lied about the time he’d last seen Jennifer. A former sergeant in Corpus Christi PD’s homicide bureau, Smith had twenty years’ experience suggesting that people don’t lie without a reason. “No one’s heard from Jennifer in thirty-one hours now, so you can file an official report,” he said “Get it done and get the police looking.”

At six feet and 250 pounds, Smith reminded Sharon of a redheaded Santa Claus, round and jolly, but today he wasn’t smiling. “I understand what evil people can do,” he says. “And I was concerned.”

What he told Jim and Sharon was: “Pull everything you need together, and then drive to Austin. I have a deposition this afternoon, but if you need any help, call me.”

Sharon and Jim left, and Smith got on the telephone and called Vanessa. He hoped she knew something she didn’t want to tell her mother, perhaps something she’d be willing to tell him. But when they talked, Vanessa didn’t have any real information for him. Yes, she’d heard Colton’s name, but she didn’t know much about him. What she’d heard from Jennifer was that she was trying to stay off the drugs, and that she was excited about the new job. “I want to go to Austin,” Vanessa said. “I can’t wait here.”

“Well, go then,” Smith said.

“My mom said no,” Vanessa said.

“I’ll take care of it,” Smith said. “It might turn out that she can use your help.”

As soon as she got in the car to leave the restaurant, Sharon called APD for a second time. Detective Kathleen Hector, a woman with a full face and long brown hair, answered in the missing persons department. She asked questions and took down the information, writing what would become APD report number 05–2291714. At one point, Hector asked Sharon if Jennifer used drugs.

“Jennifer has in the past,” Sharon told her. “But I don’t believe that’s what’s happening here.”

Hector sounded official, and Sharon knew the officer was duly recording all the information in her report, but she didn’t sense that Hector was as concerned as she’d hoped. At the end, the detective said, “We’ll do what we can. You know kids. She’ll probably call you soon.”

“I hope so,” Sharon said, but she didn’t believe it.

After she hung up with Sharon, Hector logged onto her computer to check NCIC, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, and its Texas equivalent for unidentified bodies or persons found who matched Jennifer’s description. Hector didn’t find anything, so she put out a BOLO, a be-on-the-lookout request for Jennifer and her car.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, Vanessa hurriedly packed a suitcase. It was about noon when she got in her car to start the three-hour drive to Austin. All the way there, Vanessa’s intuition whispered that Jennifer was dead. Vanessa thought about the possibility that her sister had overdosed. Despite her suspicions, Vanessa felt calm. On the road, she listened to CDs and thought about the music Jennifer liked, even considering what to play at her sister’s funeral. She and Sharon called back and forth along the road, but the daughter said nothing to the mother about her fears. Vanessa knew she didn’t have to. Sharon’s sixth sense would be acting up, too. They were all so interconnected, three daughters and a mother, that if something happened to one of them, how could the others not know?

Vanessa never truly worried until, on the road on the way to Austin to find her sister, she had a disturbing vision. She saw Jennifer dead, but not in a peaceful sleep. “I saw Jennifer suspended in the air,” Vanessa says. “She was held up by ropes tied around her wrists and her neck.”

“We’re coming to Austin,” Sharon told Scott when she called him that afternoon from Jim’s Suburban. “We should be there by four o’clock.”

“Let me know if I can help,” he said. “But I bet she’s fine, just out partying somewhere.”

“I hope so,” Sharon said. “But then, why hasn’t she called?”

That Scott couldn’t answer. He knew Jennifer lived on her cell phone.

Sharon and Jim’s drive seemed to take forever. Everything that day, in fact, would feel as if it unraveled in slow motion. Two hours after leaving Corpus Christi, Sharon’s cell phone rang. Detective Hector had news.

“We found your daughter’s car,” she said, explaining the steps she’d taken after she’d talked with Sharon. First, she’d called Colton’s cell phone, the number Sharon had given her for him. When Colton didn’t answer, she called Denise and Scott, reconstructing the day before Jennifer disappeared. Then Hector pulled Colton’s driver’s license up on her computer and found his address at the Orange Tree. Not long after, a squad car found Jennifer’s car parked across the street from Colton’s apartment.

When Detective Hector arrived at the West Campus complex, she looked over Jennifer’s Saturn, saw nothing amiss, and then walked upstairs to unit number 88. Once there, she rang the doorbell and pounded on the door. No one answered. She rang the bell and pounded again. Still, no one answered. She watched the mini-blinds, to see if anyone peeked outside. They didn’t move.

She’d brought photos with her, Jennifer’s from her driver’s license and Colton’s mug shot from his previous arrest. Hector looked around for a building manager to let her into the apartment, but found instead a workman with a paint bucket, who explained that the Orange Tree was a condominium project with individual owners. There was no one on-site to give her permission to enter unit 88. She returned to the station, and then realized there was something else she should have done.

“I drove back to the condo and left my card tucked in the peephole on Mr. Pitonyak’s door, asking him to call,” she told Sharon. “Then I went down to Jennifer’s car and left one on her windshield. I wrote ‘Jennifer, call me and your mother,’ on the back. Maybe she’ll see it and check in.”

That Jennifer’s car was parked outside Colton’s condo suggested more to Sharon than to Hector. “You have to go inside that apartment,” Sharon told the officer. “My daughter’s in there. I know she is.”

“We don’t have probable cause to enter the apartment,” Detective Hector said. There were regulations and laws that determined when officers could break into private property. This situation didn’t fit any of them. “We can’t.”

“You have to,” Sharon said. “I’m telling you Jennifer is in there.”

When Sharon said she wanted to pick up Jennifer’s car, Hector gave her the address, and then the detective said, “You know how kids are. Jennifer’s probably fine. The best thing to do is stay with her car and wait for her to come back to get it.”

“You don’t understand. I know Jennifer is in that apartment,” Sharon said. She didn’t know how she knew, but she was certain, and she was growing angry. Her voice trembled, and she had the feeling that Hector was treating her like a hysterical mother.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Cave,” Hector said. The detective knew the law, what she could and couldn’t do, even if a parent thought otherwise. “We can’t go in.”

When Sharon hung up, Jim said, “Well, at least now we have a plan. We’ll drive to his apartment.”

Jim called Sid and brought him up to date, and then Sid relayed the information to Vanessa. She was to meet her parents at the Orange Tree. Since Vanessa was an hour ahead of them, she’d arrive first.

Once Sharon had an address, she called Scott and got directions, writing them down on a pad of paper she was filling with notes. Soon after, Laura Ingles called Sharon’s cell phone. Ingles was tired of trying to convince Eli he needed to call. “You need to go right to Colton’s,” Laura said. “If Jennifer’s with him, she’s in trouble.”

When Vanessa arrived at the Orange Tree just before three that afternoon, she searched until she found Jennifer’s car. It didn’t take long. The black Saturn Ion was just around the corner. Vanessa peered through the car’s windows, but found nothing out of order. She then gazed up at the three-story condo project across the street, walked toward it, and trudged up to the second floor. As she turned to the right at the top of the stairs, she saw the University of Texas clock tower soaring above the treetops. As soon as she entered the condo’s second-floor common area, she spotted a red door marked with two brass eights. She knocked. No one answered. She knocked again, but no one came. She banged on the door, hard, then on the windows, but heard nothing stir inside.

“Mom,” Vanessa said, when she got Sharon on her cell phone. “I’m going to kick in a window and go inside.”

“No!” Sharon shouted. “Absolutely not. We’ll be there soon. You wait for us.”

They argued, but Vanessa reluctantly agreed. When she hung up, she beat on the door again, to no avail. Then she called Sid Smith.

“Let’s see if the kid’s car is there,” he said. “Call me from the garage.”

In the first-floor, under-the-condo-unit parking garage, in slot 88, Vanessa found a white Toyota Avalon with Arkansas plates. “Right apartment number,” she told Smith, rattling off the license plate number.

“Well, then, we’d better check that one out,” he answered.

With Jim and Sharon an hour away, Vanessa didn’t know what else to do. She walked back to her car, glancing at Jennifer’s car on the street, her eyes filling with tears for not the first time that day. Halfheartedly, she got back in her car and drove to a friend’s house, where she showered and changed clothes. Then she called someone she’d known since eighth grade but hadn’t talked to in years, a lanky, clean-cut preacher’s son named Aaron, who lived outside Austin. She picked him up, and they drove to the Orange Tree, where they sat on the steps that led to unit 88.

When Jim and Sharon finally pulled up in his Suburban, Vanessa ran to her mother, and they embraced. Then Vanessa showed them Jennifer’s car. Detective Hector’s card was on the windshield, and Sharon used a key she’d brought with her to open the door and look inside. They saw nothing that appeared strange, no signs of a struggle. From there, they walked into the parking garage, where Vanessa pointed out the white Toyota Avalon. They peered inside, hoping to find something with the owner’s name on it, without luck.

Minutes later at the red door that led to Colton’s apartment, the one with another of Hector’s cards stuck in the peephole, Sharon, Vanessa, and Aaron stood by as Jim pounded. No one answered. He knocked again, but still no response. Worried, Sharon called Detective Kathleen Hector back, at APD. “I think Jennifer’s inside that apartment,” Sharon said. “I think Jennifer is being held hostage in there.”

Hector reiterated that the police had no probable cause to enter unit 88, and, before she hung up, insisted again that Sharon’s best option was to stake out Jennifer’s car and wait for her to return.

From the lush grounds of the stately sorority homes around them, the small group gathered outside Colton Pitonyak’s door heard young women chanting; pledges at houses practicing the chapter’s song. On the hour, half hour, and quarter hour, the UT clock tower’s melodic bells resonated, reminding them that time was passing, and Jennifer still hadn’t been found. Tired of pounding on the unanswered condo door, Jim considered the situation. Not sure what they should do next, he suggested to Sharon, “Let’s go to the hotel and think about this. We’ll take Jennifer’s car with us. If she comes back and finds it missing, she’ll call you or the police.”

Sharon agreed, and at the foot of the stairs, they split up. Vanessa and Aaron left for her friends’ apartment, while Sharon drove Jennifer’s car behind Jim in the Suburban to the Omni Hotel, where they had a reservation. At the hotel, Jim checked in, and they went upstairs. Sharon unpacked, but they talked little. The air between them felt charged with anticipation and danger. Wanting a cigarette, Jim took the elevator back downstairs to smoke in front of the hotel.

Meanwhile, Sharon sat at the desk and called information for the phone numbers of every Pitonyak listed in Arkansas. Once she had them, she started dialing. The first to answer turned out to be Eddie’s sister-in-law. Still, the woman said, there was nothing she could do to help: “The family is estranged. We don’t talk to Eddie and Bridget.”

When Sharon explained that she desperately needed to talk to Eddie and why, however, the woman agreed to get her brother-in-law a message. Moments later, Eddie called. Relieved to have contacted someone who could help, Sharon quickly filled him in on the situation, stressing that they’d been searching for Jennifer for more than a day. “Colton called here Tuesday night and asked to use his mother’s credit card to take Jennifer out to dinner,” Eddie said. “That’s all I know.”

Sharon wanted more information, maybe where Colton and Jennifer had gone or when Eddie had last heard from Colton, but from that point on, Eddie Pitonyak wanted to talk to Sharon about only one thing: He wanted her to stay away from his family. One parent might be expected to feel compelled or at least drawn to help another find a lost child, but that didn’t appear to be the case with Pitonyak, who chastised Sharon for calling his brother’s home and talking to his sister-in-law.

Jim returned, and Sharon was still on the telephone. She appeared upset, and she mouthed, “Eddie Pitonyak.”

“My daughter is missing, and we’re just asking your help to find her,” Sharon said. But that didn’t seem to imprint on Eddie, who ordered her not to call his family again. Was it possible that Eddie didn’t know? Had Bridget failed to tell her husband that trouble was again brewing in Colton’s life, and that their younger son had fled Austin hurriedly in the night?

“Here,” Sharon said, handing Jim the phone. “You talk to him. I don’t want to talk to him anymore.”

Frowning, Jim took the telephone and introduced himself. As Sharon had, he explained to Colton’s father that all they hoped for was a little help; they were searching for Jennifer, and Colton was the last person she’d been with. “We’d appreciate anything you can tell us,” Jim said.

Ignoring Jim’s plea, Eddie Pitonyak replied, “My wife tells me that when she met Jennifer down there, that she thinks Jennifer is really the whole problem on this deal.”

Dumbfounded, Jim simply couldn’t talk to the man anymore. It was obvious that Eddie Pitonyak wasn’t at all inclined to help them find Jennifer. Quickly Jim broke off the conversation and hung up the telephone.

In the hotel room, Jim thought again about the situation unfolding around him. What if their worst fears were playing out? What if they disrupted evidence by moving Jennifer’s car? “I think we need to take Jennifer’s car back where we found it,” he said. Sharon agreed, and she called Vanessa to say they were headed back to the apartment.

At 7:30 that evening, Sharon parked the black Saturn Ion in the same spot where they’d found it, and she and Jim walked warily up the steps to unit 88, where Vanessa and Aaron waited. Again, Jim pounded on Colton Pitonyak’s door. Again, no one answered. Again, in the background, the UT clock tower marked time.

“What do we do?” Sharon said.

“Let’s take another look at the car in the garage,” Jim suggested.

They walked back down the stairs to the first floor and into the parking garage. There the white Toyota sat, just as before. They looked inside, but saw nothing unusual. Finally, Sharon called Scott.

“Do you know what kind of car Colton has?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “But if I saw it I would recognize it.”

“Is it a white Toyota with Arkansas plates?” she asked.

“That’s the car,” he said. “What’s going on?”

Sharon told him about Jennifer’s car outside and Colton’s in the parking garage. For the first time, Scott began to worry. “Listen Sharon,” he said. “Colton’s bad news. Really bad news.”

After Sharon repeated Scott’s warning, Jim decided to bring Sid Smith up to speed on all that had happened: “We’re back over at the apartment, and we’re positive this is Colton’s car, based on information from one of Jennifer’s friends.”

“You need to call the police again. This is not a good thing,” the private investigator said, his concern growing. “If they’d gone somewhere, one of the cars would be gone.”

As soon as he hung up, Jim dialed 911.

The officer dispatched to the scene arrived minutes later and listened patiently as Jim explained Jennifer’s disappearance and their suspicions that Colton Pitonyak was involved.

“We have to get inside,” Jim said. “This apartment is our only clue to finding Jennifer.”

Looking dubious, the officer called his sergeant, who told him to find the building manager to ask permission to enter. The officer left, but he returned a short time later. As Detective Hector had before him, the officer had found out that the Orange Tree consisted of privately owned condos. Without probable cause, no one but the condo owner or the tenant, Colton Pitonyak, could authorize police to enter unit 88.

“You don’t understand,” Sharon pleaded with the officer. “We have to get inside. Jennifer could be in there hurt or dying.”

Again, he called his sergeant. This time, when the patrol officer hung up, he informed Jim and Sharon that he’d been ordered to leave.

“What if I get a locksmith, so we don’t have to break in?” Jim offered. “We wouldn’t damage anything that way. We’ll just take a look around and see if she’s in there.”

The officer seemed to consider that. He called his sergeant again, seeking advice, but the outcome was the same. “I’m sorry, but I can’t go inside,” he said. “We don’t have probable cause to get a search warrant.”

As the patrol cop walked away, Jim said, “I’m going to get a locksmith.”

“I’m leaving,” the officer responded. “And you should, too.”

Not sure what to do, Sharon, Jim, Vanessa, and Aaron all bunched around the door, again banging and knocking, over and over. College students who lived in nearby units stopped and stared, but none of those gathered to find Jennifer cared who watched. They wanted only one thing: to get inside Colton Pitonyak’s apartment.

The heat was oppressive early that evening, even as the sun dropped in the sky. On the Orange Tree’s second floor, long shadows cast by third-floor staircases and balconies offered shade, including the balcony over Colton Pitonyak’s front door.

“We have to get inside,” Sharon said. “Jennifer’s in there. I know it.”

“Then let’s call a locksmith,” Jim said, dialing information on his cell phone. It took more than an hour to find one willing to send someone out quickly, and then they waited half an hour for the man’s arrival. A man in coveralls showed up carrying a tool chest and spent another half an hour picking at the lock. Finally, he said to Jim, “This has a high-security lock. I can’t get inside.”

Night had arrived, by the time Jim paid the locksmith. Once he had his money, the man turned and left. More hours wasted, and nothing accomplished.

A man and a woman resembling college students walked up, out of the darkness, to Colton’s apartment and looked at the small group gathered there. “Hey, is he in?” the young man asked.

Vanessa knew immediately that they were there to buy drugs. When she questioned them, asking if they knew where Colton was, they answered that they’d left some “stuff” at his place for safekeeping, and were just dropping by to pick it up. But to her, they looked “cracked up.”

“Do you know Jennifer Cave?” Jim asked.

“No,” one of them said. “But we really need our stuff.”

“Well, then you’d better beat it and get out of here,” Jim ordered. They looked at Jim, questioning, then turned and left.

At 9:45 in the evening, the small group had been at the door marked 88 for much of the past six hours, without progress. “How are we going to get in?” Sharon asked Jim for what felt like the hundredth time.

“I don’t know,” he admitted.

They stared at the door, then the windows, and Sharon told Vanessa to go to Jim’s car and retrieve the black Sports Illustrated blanket they kept in the backseat. “I’ll wrap it around my leg and kick the window in,” she said.

“No, you’ll cut yourself,” Jim cautioned. “There’s got to be another way.”

Holding back tears, Sharon looked at the condo, searching the front of the building, sizing up the door, thinking about how to get inside. Her head ached. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but she wasn’t hungry. Earlier she’d noticed a circular crack, the kind made from a BB gun, in the third window on the right facing the door. Now she went back and looked at it again. It was directly above the window lock. If I can just… she thought. She took a pen out of her purse and removed the cartridge, then used it to start tapping on the section of damaged glass, pushing at it, nudging it, trying to get it to snap. Finally, it splintered and popped out.

The hole wasn’t large enough to stick a finger through, so Sharon took the pen and tried to push open the lock. The pen slid off, rolled off, and wouldn’t work. “Wait,” Vanessa said, then turned and left. Minutes later, she returned with an earpiece off a broken pair of sunglasses and handed it to her mother.

“Try this,” she said.

On the first try, the curved earpiece easily caught the latch and pushed the window lock open. Now they looked at one another, as if trying to decide what to do. No one talked, as Jim pulled the window open.

“I’ll go inside,” Sharon said.

“No. I’m going,” Jim said. “It’s not up for discussion.”

“She’s my daughter,” Sharon argued.

“She’s mine, too,” Jim said.

Sharon was quiet for just a moment. She knew Jennifer was inside. She could feel it. There had to be some reason she couldn’t get to the door to let them in. Then that nagging feeling came back, the one that said Jennifer was dead. Sharon pushed back such dark thoughts, reassuring herself that there were other explanations. Colton could have Jennifer tied up. What if he’d beaten Jennifer and left her for dead, but she was alive and needed help? Her heart pounding, all Sharon felt certain of was that Jennifer was inside that condo.

“Be careful,” Sharon told Jim.

Jim reached in and pushed up the blinds, then pulled the curtain to the side. Sharon moved in quickly, grabbing both and holding them out of the way. Inside, the condo was cloaked in darkness. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Jim turned on the flashlight he’d brought from his car and projected a funnel of light into the apartment. The place was a wreck, and Jim wondered if there’d been some kind of struggle. He put one long leg through the window, then the other, until he stood on a dark-colored sofa positioned directly below the window.

“Okay, here I go,” he said.

“Jimmy, be careful,” Sharon said, her voice small and frightened. “Please be careful.”

“Is anyone inside?” Jim shouted. “Don’t shoot. We’re not here to hurt you. We’re just looking for Jennifer.”

As Jim entered the condo, Sharon’s phone rang. It was Scott. He was home with Madyson, and he had a strange sensation, the feeling that something was about to happen.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Jim’s going inside the apartment,” Sharon said. “We’ll call you later.”

Although she thought she had, Sharon didn’t hang up, and Scott heard their voices, Jim in the apartment, Sharon calling out to him to be careful. Then everything grew quiet for a moment, and Jim said to Sharon, “I don’t think anyone’s here.” Still, he wasn’t certain. They could be hiding. Carefully, Jim walked farther into the condo. Standing outside, next to her mother and Aaron, Vanessa saw Jim pick his way through the tiny efficiency. The living room was in chaos with clothing, books, papers, debris strewn about. The kitchen was bare, the only orderly room in the house. On the wall was a poster, Al Pacino in Scarface. Underneath Pacino’s photo, it read: “Make way for the bad guy.”

From her perch in the window, Sharon relaxed a little, reassuring herself that everything was all right. Jim hadn’t found Jennifer. Maybe she wasn’t even in the apartment. Maybe Sharon’s intuition was wrong. Perhaps they’d find Jennifer alive and well, and the fear that ached Sharon’s chest would go away.

Finding nothing tied to Jennifer, Jim turned from the kitchen and walked into the bedroom nook, where the bed, too, was covered in clothes. He finally found a light switch and flicked it on. The place lit up, but no one was there. Silence.

Slowly and deliberately, Jim opened a door to the right of the bed and peered down a short hallway, just as he noticed a heavy, rancid odor. Jim had grown up deer hunting in South Texas, and this was an odor he recognized: something dead.

Another door waited at his left. Hesitantly, he opened it, this time staring into a closet. He fanned the flashlight beam through the closet, saw clothes and shoes and books, but no one hiding, nothing wrong. The odor grew more pungent as Jim walked farther into the hallway. On his right was a vanity, a sink scattered with toiletries and rubble. Jim turned to the left and faced yet another door.

As soon as he opened the bathroom door, the odor assaulted Jim, full force. Almost instantly, at the window, Sharon smelled it, too. Her stomach tightened, but she didn’t yet consider what it could mean.

Sensing that he didn’t want to see what waited inside, Jim felt for the bathroom light switch and turned it on. The light flashed on, and the bathroom lit up, bright. At first, Jim couldn’t comprehend the horror of what was in front of him. An accountant who liked his world orderly, a man who wouldn’t read Stephen King novels or go to horror movies, Jim Sedwick simply couldn’t grasp what he saw.

“Oh, God,” he whispered, as he finally accepted what his eyes told him. Panicking, Jim rushed from the bathroom screaming, “Call 911. Call 911. I’ve got a body.”

In his apartment, Scott heard Jim yell for someone to call 911, and then his cell phone disconnected. What happened? he wondered. What did they find? Alone, he stood holding the cell phone, suddenly feeling queasy. He thought Sharon would call back. He waited, and the phone didn’t ring. Perhaps it didn’t have to. Without being told, Scott knew: Jennifer’s dead, he thought. They found her, and she’s dead.

After he hung up the telephone, Scott started to cry. He thought of his conversation with Jen the night before she disappeared, when she admitted she was dating Eli and using meth again. It was the drugs. It had to be. Furious, Scott called Eli. When Eli didn’t answer, Scott left a message: “Good job, Eli,” he said. “You put everything bad back in Jen’s life that I worked to take away.”

Wanting to help, Vanessa’s hands fluttered over her cell phone, as she tried to push 911. She thought she did, but her call didn’t go through. When someone did answer, Vanessa thought she was talking, but they didn’t seem to understand her. Only later would she realize she was screaming hysterically, shrieking a painful wail that started deep inside her. She thought she was saying the address, and she couldn’t understand why the operator kept asking her to calm down and repeat it again.

Inside Colton Pitonyak’s condo, Jim struggled to unlock the red front door. As soon as he stumbled out, Sharon pushed forward, wanting to get past him, to go inside the apartment. “Is it Jennifer? Is that her?” she demanded.

“I don’t know,” he said, holding her back. “I need to go inside to take another look.”

“No. I’m going,” Sharon said. “I need to go inside to my baby.”

“No, Momma, please don’t,” Vanessa begged, grabbing Sharon’s arm. “Please don’t go in there.”

Finishing the discussion, Jim turned and walked back inside, carefully, now mindful that he was entering a potential crime scene, not wanting to disturb what could be evidence.

This time the lights were already on, and he walked directly to the rear of the condo. At the bathroom doorway, Jim Sedwick braced himself. The truth was that he didn’t want to look, he didn’t ever want to see it again, but he had to. He had to be able to tell Sharon if the body in the bathtub was Jennifer’s. So he stood in the doorway and stared for a second time at the most horrible sight he’d ever seen, one so indescribably gruesome it would haunt him forever.

Outside, Vanessa screamed into the telephone. Aaron took it from her and started talking to the 911 dispatcher.

“Send an ambulance,” he said, repeating the address to the operator. After explaining that they were looking for a missing girl, and he thought they’d found her, Aaron said, “She’s either overdosed or there’s something bad wrong.”

“Is she breathing?” the woman asked.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

For the second time, Jim walked out, shaking and white, gulping the fresh air. Just outside the door, Vanessa and Sharon shrieked, unable to restrain their terror. Students from the surrounding apartments gathered staring at them, watching, their eyes wide, and their senses piqued to the prospect of danger. “Is it Jennifer?” Sharon screamed. “Is it my daughter?”

Still on the telephone, Aaron talked to the 911 dispatcher. “You need to go inside and start CPR on the patient,” she ordered. “Tell everyone else to go outside and you go inside. I need you inside.”

Aaron turned to Jim, and explained that the dispatcher wanted him to go inside to begin CPR. Jim said no. No one was going inside. After hearing Jim’s voice in the background, the dispatcher asked Aaron to pass him the telephone.

“I need you to go inside to begin CPR,” the woman told Jim. “Is she breathing?”

“She’s in the bathtub, covered with blood,” he said. “I don’t want to touch her.”

“Is she past CPR?”

“Yes, there’s a crime scene here, and I don’t want to disturb it…Please send someone over here right away,” Jim pleaded.

“They’re on their way,” the operator said.

In the background, Sharon’s and Vanessa’s cries grew ever louder, screams of utter despair.

Jim held Sharon and wondered what he should tell her. When he entered the bathroom that second time, Jim thought he recognized the girl’s green striped top, but he couldn’t be sure. Reluctantly, he walked closer, his body shaking, his stomach churning, determined not to turn away. For there in front of him, in the bathtub, was the decomposing body of a young woman. A filthy patterned brown bathroom rug covered her arms, stomach, and right leg. On her chest lay a small red hacksaw.

When Jim looked down at the bathroom floor, he saw a large black trash bag. Without looking inside, he knew what it held. Someone had cut off Jennifer’s head.