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

Chapter 17

“Is it Jennifer?” Sharon demanded again, when he walked outside. Jim’s hands shook, and he’d turned pale.

“I think so,” he said. “I saw her foot.”

Jennifer had freckles all over her body, even her feet, and Sharon knew instantly that must have been what Jim was talking about. That meant Jennifer’s body was inside the condo. Jennifer was dead. Sharon moaned. In the back of her mind was an unspoken question: Why had Jim looked at Jennifer’s feet to recognize her? Why hadn’t he simply looked at her face?

Barely able to speak, Sharon couldn’t ask. All she could do was cry and hold Vanessa, who trembled uncontrollably. Everything Sharon had been through in the past two days, all the fears she’d had for Jennifer since the day she was born, all the love she had for her middle daughter, the little girl with the long red hair and the big glasses, came crashing in on Sharon. It felt as if the world had caved in on top of her, and she had no place to escape. Sharon collapsed against Jim, sobbing.

“He killed my baby,” she screamed. “That boy killed my daughter.”

Free of her mother’s arms, Vanessa felt overwhelmed by a deep sense of panic. Without realizing what she was doing, she ran up and down the stairs screaming, “My sister. My sister.” She passed a young man, and he looked at her and backed away.

“Is everything all right?” he asked.

“My sister,” she cried out. “My sister.”

Aaron grabbed Vanessa and took her downstairs, and she crumpled in the driveway to the condo parking garage. “Jennifer’s dead,” she cried. She didn’t know what had happened, but she’d heard enough about what Jim was saying to understand they were calling the police because it was something bad.

“You don’t know that,” Aaron said. “Vanessa, we don’t know.”

“Jennifer’s dead,” Vanessa screamed.

“Let’s pray,” Aaron said. He wrapped her in his arms, and as sirens blared in the background and the curious collected around them, the two friends stood in the middle of the street beseeching God to help them.

The call went out at 10:12 that evening as a 504, a suspicious person, at the intersection of Twenty-fifth and Rio Grande. Officer Richard Barbaria had been with APD for twelve years. In his marked squad car, along with his partner, Officer Chris Clark, Barbaria turned to drive to the intersection in the West Campus area, part of his beat, which extended from downtown Austin onto the UT campus. A muscular man with a short, buzzed haircut, Barbaria had hoped to leave early that night, to start his vacation, but instead they headed to the Orange Tree, calling along the way for an update. By the time they were halfway there, the dispatcher relabeled their assignment as a disturbance call, and Barbaria and Clark were instructed to proceed to unit number 8.

When they arrived, they saw nothing unusual. No one answered the door marked 8, and the complex appeared quiet. Then Barbaria heard sirens and saw an ambulance and a fire truck barreling down the road past them toward the other end of the block of condominiums. “Let’s go,” Barbaria shouted, running back to the marked squad car. The two uniformed officers followed the sirens. It was sad to say, but Barbaria knew that the EMTs often had more accurate information than APD dispatchers. He figured the paramedics in the ambulance were snickering at them for going to the wrong apartment. As they again pulled to a stop, Barbaria and Clark heard over their dispatch channel that their call had been changed to a “woman in trouble.”

Barbaria grabbed his flashlight and then ran, passing the EMTs on the stairs. When he reached the tall man holding up a sobbing woman outside unit 88, a man he later learned was Jim Sedwick, Barbaria noticed the guy looked “frazzled.” As soon as he saw them, Jim, agitated, excitedly babbled about someone inside the apartment. Barbaria and the others couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. When the officer heard drugs mentioned, Barbaria figured they had an overdose victim in the apartment and somehow Jim was related to her. Jim stammered about something in the bathroom, so Barbaria decided to look for himself.

Not sensing anything out of the ordinary, Barbaria did what he’d always done in an overdose case; he followed the EMTs into the apartment, so he could look for narcotics while the paramedics worked on the injured party. Only Barbaria quickly realized that this call wasn’t playing out like overdose calls usually did. The EMTs ahead of him walked into the apartment toward the bathroom, but none went inside. They looked in the bathroom door, and one after the other made a quick U-turn. Even odder, none of the paramedics talked. It was stone silent in the apartment. Something was wrong.

When he reached the bathroom, Officer Barbaria looked inside and understood. In the bathtub lay the body of a young woman. Where’s her head? he wondered, thinking maybe it was covered somehow, with towels or the grimy rug thrown over her abdomen. But then Barbaria noticed the hacksaw, recognized blood and hair on the blade, and looked at the body again. To his horror, he realized the woman’s head was gone, severed at the neck.

Glancing at the trash bag on the bathroom floor, Barbaria didn’t have to guess any more than Jim about what most likely waited inside.

“We’ve got a body, everyone,” he screamed. “This is a crime scene. Everybody out.”

At the front door, Barbaria used not his radio, which could have been picked up by others, but his handheld computer to request backup, including homicide responders. Then he barred the doorway and began a crime scene log, writing down what Jim was telling him and listing those who had gone inside. In total, he’d later estimate that his time inside the apartment had been less than a minute, but it had seemed vastly longer, and, like everyone else who made the Orange Tree scene that night, he’d never forget what he’d witnessed.

What Jim had been trying to tell Barbaria suddenly made sense. There was a young woman inside, and somebody had murdered and butchered her.

Unable to help Jennifer, the EMTs spread out, one pairing up with each of the family members, hoping to keep them calm, away from the crowd that was gathering around unit 88 and one another. Now that they were witnesses, the police didn’t want Jim, Sharon, Vanessa, and Aaron to talk until they’d given individual statements.

“Does anyone know the person who lives here?” Barbaria asked the crowd of students watching from the perimeter of the crime scene. No one answered, but there was a murmur, a buzz between the young bodies congregating around them. “Anyone who can tell us what’s going on here?” the officer asked.

“You know we do this for a living. How’d you walk in there on that?” one of the EMTs asked Jim.

Outside the apartment in the common area, Jim smoked a cigarette, his hands shaking, and admitted, “It was pretty scary, partner.”

Half an hour after his 911 call, Jim watched as the scene flooded with police officers. Among the responders, three counselors arrived from the district attorney’s victim assistance team, there to stay with Sharon, Jim, and Vanessa, while they went through the process of giving statements and to protect them from a crowd of reporters gathering outside the police barrier on the street below.

When the EMTs half carried and half walked Sharon down the stairs, they brought her to the grass and sat her down. Police had cordoned off the area, and Sharon saw Vanessa across the street, crying. Unable to process the horror unfolding around her, the oldest of the Cave girls had begun to hope that maybe she’d been wrong. Maybe Jennifer was still alive. She lunged at everyone who passed close to her, all the firefighters and police, asking them, “Is my sister going to be okay?”

Finally, she grabbed the arm of a young man in a uniform, shouting, “Is my sister all right?”

“Your sister’s dead,” he said, pulling away.

When the man walked by again, Vanessa, sobbing, yelled, “You don’t know how this feels.”

“I do,” he said, more kindly. “My sister jumped off a mountain in Greece last summer. All I can tell you is it will get better.”

Nearing hysteria, Vanessa rolled onto her side and lay in the grass, wrapping her arms around her legs, in a fetal position. Sharon ached to hold her oldest daughter, to comfort her, but the police had ordered that they be kept separated until their statements were taken. Sharon couldn’t help but reach out toward her oldest child, and she pleaded with the paramedic assigned to her: “Please let me go to my daughter,” Sharon begged. “She needs me. I promise we won’t talk. I promise.”

Across the street, Vanessa gasped, as if she couldn’t breathe.

“As long as you don’t talk about what happened,” a police officer nearby said. Sharon nodded, then stood up and ran toward Vanessa. When she saw her mother coming toward her, Vanessa ran to her. In the street, people stared, and Vanessa turned and yelled, “Stop looking at us. Stop looking at us.”

Overhead a news helicopter circled, and around them TV cameras whirled. When Sharon reached her, Vanessa rested her head on her mother’s chest. Wrapped in her mother’s arms, Vanessa wailed inconsolably.

On the second floor of the Orange Tree, an orderly chaos was erupting around unit 88. Jim watched as gray-haired men in suits showed up, lots of them, and he figured APD was pulling out all the stops. “That’s the chief,” one officer whispered, pointing at a guy who looked to be in his fifties. Despite everything he’d experienced, Jim reasoned through what he saw unfolding around him. He could understand the urgency. It was the beginning of the fall semester at UT, and anxious moms and dads were bringing their sons and daughters to the university. A shocking campus murder was the kind of publicity neither the university nor the city wanted, especially an unsolved one with a killer on the loose.

What Jim didn’t know until later was that questions were already being asked, like why weren’t the family’s suspicions treated more seriously? The commander himself, Brad Connor, called Kathleen Hector, the detective in missing persons who’d taken Sharon’s report. After reviewing her report, it appeared Hector had followed standard procedure, but that didn’t keep Sharon from being furious that the detective didn’t take further action when she first found Jennifer’s car.

Meanwhile, each time he had to explain what he’d seen inside the apartment, Barbaria looked more shaken. No one could blame him. Like Jim and the EMTs who first responded, Barbaria hadn’t been able to brace himself for the shock. Now that they’d designated the condo a crime scene, no one could enter until they had a search warrant signed by a judge. To do that, police had to pull the information together to write up the warrant. With a dead body in the apartment, everyone wanted to make sure that the investigation went by the book.

The lead homicide detective on that night, Mark Gilchrest, heard about a suspicious death about 11:15, an hour after the 911 call came in. At midnight, Gilchrest arrived on the scene, where he circulated and talked to witnesses. One of the homicide unit’s senior detectives, Gilchrest was a broad-shouldered man with a mustache. At APD, the detective was known to be unemotional and precise, methodical and determined. This night, Gilchrest listened to reports of what waited for them inside Colton Pitonyak’s condo. Without seeing the atrocity for himself, the detective already looked mad as hell.

Backing up Gilchrest were two others from homicide. With three years in the unit, Detective Keith Walker was younger than Gilchrest, with ears that stood out from his long face, and a chin that ended in a dimple. Walker was a new father, who was known to be obsessive about following up leads, and his role in the case would be to run the crime scene, coordinating the forensic team and guiding the search of the apartment.

The third detective, David Fugitt, would take statements from witnesses. Wearing Clark Kent glasses and a dark flat-top, Fugitt had been in homicide for four years, coming from the family violence unit. At the time he’d made the change, APD offered two options: homicide or the cold case unit. Fugitt took homicide because he wanted the experience. Being on 24/7 was one of the downsides of the job. It left little time for a social life.

By then Officer Barbaria had questioned the students in the surrounding apartments about the tenant in unit 88. Colton Pitonyak, it turned out, was well known at the Orange Tree, as he was throughout campus, as a source for drugs. When he reached unit 66, the apartment some of the gawkers pointed to as the home of a girl who knew Pitonyak, Barbaria knocked, and Nora Sullivan opened the door. By then it was the middle of the night, but Sullivan was still wide awake. Barbaria asked questions, but sensed Sullivan wasn’t being forthcoming. Before long, he told her, “I’d like you to go downtown to give us a statement.”

Downstairs on the street, Vanessa and Sharon had been separated again, Sharon taken to sit in a squad car. Despite the information circulating through the clutch of officers and paramedics, Jennifer’s mother and sister still didn’t fully understand what had happened. They hadn’t been told about the condition of Jennifer’s body. Grappling with the horror of losing her daughter, Sharon was already precariously close to giving in to the urge to just let go, to give herself over to the grief. About midnight, she looked up at the Orange Tree through the car window, and thought about her other children. Clayton and Lauren would have to be told. How would she tell them? How could she? And Vanessa? Sharon looked across the street at her oldest crying on the curb and wondered if she would ever recover.

Glancing back and forth from the apartment complex, to the street, to the paramedic assigned to stay with her, Vanessa fought the terror that surrounded her that night. She knew Jennifer was dead. Not only had the firefighter she’d stopped to ask told her, but now she remembered hearing Sharon scream, “He killed her. I knew he killed her.”

All the way to Austin that afternoon, Vanessa had feared that her sister was dead, but knowing was different. She’d accepted the possibility that Jennifer might have died of an overdose. Although that was horrible, murder was so much worse, nearly inconceivable. At times, Vanessa feared she would “lose it.” She hyperventilated, and the paramedics talked to her, calming her down. One brought her a paper bag to breathe into, so she could catch her breath. Finally, a paramedic sat beside her and talked, in a soothing, reassuring voice, about skydiving. When she began to shake, he described how it felt to soar through the air, free, and, for a little while at least, Vanessa held on.