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

Chapter 18

At 1:30 A.M., Jim followed in his Suburban, and the police, with Sharon and Vanessa in separate squad cars, led him to APD’s brown brick headquarters building, off I–35, in downtown Austin. Once there, they were escorted upstairs to homicide, where their accounts would be taken. The events of the last two days were now evidence that needed to be documented in the search warrant application for Pitonyak’s apartment. Jim worried about Sharon. She knew Jennifer was dead, but there was much she didn’t yet understand.

At APD headquarters, Jim, Sharon, Vanessa, and Aaron were all ordered not to talk to anyone or one another, and then Jim was taken into one of the interview rooms to give his statement. He recounted everything that had happened the previous two days, from first learning that Jennifer was missing to walking into the bathroom and finding the headless body.

“You know he wasn’t finished, don’t you?” the detective remarked. “Ya’ll interrupted him, so he couldn’t finish.”

Jim hadn’t thought about it, but now that he did, it made sense. “Yeah,” he answered.

At about that same time, across Austin, Denise slept when someone pounded on her door. She stared out the peephole at two police officers. “Are you Denise Winterbottom?” they asked, when she opened the door.


“Do you know a Jennifer Cave?”

“She lives here,” Denise said. “She’s a friend.”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” the officer said. “Jennifer’s dead and you need to come with us.”

Shaking, Denise went into her bedroom and pulled on clothes for the drive downtown. When they walked her past the door that said homicide, Denise understood what had happened. Two plainclothes officers escorted her to an isolated cubicle. One of the officers began describing the crime scene, and Denise felt ill. Barely able to believe what she was hearing, Denise had the feeling that they were gauging her reaction.

“I don’t understand why she went out,” Denise told them. “She told me she was going to bed.”

They asked questions about Jennifer, what she was like, where she hung out. When they asked about the drugs, Denise acknowledged that Jennifer had a history of drug use. When they brought up Colton, Denise said, “I don’t like him, but I barely met him,” she says. “But Jennifer told me, she said, ‘Colton will kill me someday.’”

When they’d finished, the detectives walked her out, and Denise looked over and saw Vanessa crying.

Sharon saw Denise, but just nodded at her. They weren’t supposed to talk, and it all felt awkward, strained. By then, Jim was finished, and the homicide department was buzzing with activity, all aimed at getting the search warrant typed up and ready to be signed.

At one point, Sharon noticed Nora Sullivan. She didn’t know who she was, and later she’d feel foolish recalling how she’d worried about the young girl with the long blond hair who sat eating out of an Outback Steakhouse carryout bag, looking upset. “There’s been an accident, and I’m at the police station,” Nora told someone on her cell phone. Sharon kept wondering where Nora’s parents were, why someone wasn’t coming to help her.

Later that morning, Nora was brought into an interview room, where Detective David Fugitt waited to interview her. She still didn’t know what had happened to Jennifer, and thought that perhaps there’d been some kind of an accident at Colton’s, or that he was in more drug trouble. If Fugitt asked about the last time Sullivan saw Colton, she later wouldn’t remember. She left without telling the detective about Pitonyak’s 3 A.M. visit to her apartment, never really considering that it might be important.

In the waiting area, weighed down by her grief, Vanessa lay with her head on Aaron’s lap, when a detective came about four that morning to collect Sharon and bring her to an interview room. Her mother wasn’t gone long when Vanessa heard Sharon scream, “This can’t be happening. I didn’t even get to say good-bye.”

Vanessa’s entire body ached. She’d never felt so alone.

When the interviews were finally done, Sharon and Jim were taken downstairs to the lab, to be fingerprinted. Once the APD forensic team had their search warrant and could start processing the crime scene, their prints would be needed to match with those on the crime scene, to determine what they’d touched. In the lab, the girl assigned to collect the evidence walked in and said, “Hi, I’m Jennifer.”

Sharon began sobbing violently, and Jim held her, then tried to reassure the startled lab tech. “It’s okay,” he said. “It’s not about you.”

Approximately seven hours after Jim discovered the body, they were leaving homicide, when Detective Gilchrest pulled Jim to the side. The detective asked if they would remain in Austin for at least one more day, to meet with him again on Saturday. Jim agreed, and then Gilchrest asked one more thing: “I don’t want you to tell anyone about what you saw in that apartment, not even Sharon,” he said. “Until we arrest this guy, we don’t want that out there.”

“Okay,” Jim said. “You’ve got it.”

As they walked through the APD parking lot to his Suburban, Jim, Sharon, and Vanessa saw two tired, tattered-looking men walking toward them, and Jim realized they were undercover officers.

“We’re sorry about what happened,” one said to them.

“You’ve been out working?” Jim asked.

“Yeah,” one said. “We were looking for Colton Pitonyak down on Sixth Street. No sign of him.”

In the Suburban on their way back to the Omni, no one talked. “There was nothing to say. Jennifer was dead,” says Vanessa. In the hotel room, Jim and Sharon lay down on the bed, and Vanessa nestled in beside her mother. They held each other and tried to sleep.

After calling Eli the night before, Scott waited up until after midnight, hoping Sharon would call. When she didn’t, he sat on the edge of his bed, closed his eyes, and tried to visualize Jennifer. All he could see were dark clouds. In bed, he tossed, unable to sleep, feeling sweaty and anxious. At 5:30 that morning, he thought he was dreaming that someone was pounding on his apartment door. He suddenly woke up and realized it wasn’t a dream. He looked out the peephole and saw two police officers.

“Do you know a Jennifer Cave…a Colton Pitonyak?”


“We’d like you to come downtown with us.”

After Jennifer moved out, a friend of Scott’s, Maci, had moved in to help with Madyson. Scott stuck his head into Madyson’s room, and quietly woke Maci, asking if she could watch the little girl. When Maci agreed, Scott went to his room to dress. Just then the telephone rang.

“Jennifer’s dead,” Denise said, when Maci picked up.

Maci ran to tell Scott. “Jennifer’s dead?” Scott repeated to the police.

“Yes,” one of them said. “We’re sorry.”

As Denise had earlier, Scott walked past the homicide sign and realized that Jennifer’s death wasn’t an accident. It was then that the horror of what had happened came into sharp focus. In the interview room, the first thing the detectives asked was where Scott had been the night Jennifer disappeared. “At home, in my apartment. Madyson, my daughter, and her babysitter, Maci, were there,” he said.

The police talked, asked questions, but Scott barely listened. “All I could think of was that the girl I loved was dead,” he says.

With a series of photos on the table, the detectives asked Scott to pick out the man he knew as Colton. It wasn’t hard. There was the disheveled drug dealer he’d met, the thug Colton Pitonyak had become, in his mug shot, his dirty black hair wild and a goatee circling his mouth.

When Maci called Laura Ingles at eight that morning to tell her Jennifer had died, Laura screamed so loud that her neighbors from surrounding apartments rushed to check on her. She drove to the police station, offering to tell them whatever she knew. All the while, she kept thinking of that last phone conversation, the night Jennifer disappeared. “I couldn’t remember if before I hung up I’d told Jennifer that I loved her,” says Ingles. “I just couldn’t remember.”

“Did she suffer?” Laura kept asking the detectives.

“We can’t tell you anything,” one said.

The story of an unidentified woman’s body found in a central Austin apartment broke at 8:45 that morning. “There were signs of obvious trauma,” the television reporter said. “And it’s being investigated as a murder, the fifteenth in Austin this year.”

A short time later, Scott finished giving his statement, and the detectives said he could leave. He’d been thinking about the message he’d left for Eli. Jennifer’s murder wasn’t Eli’s fault, Scott knew. He didn’t want to hurt his friend. So he called Eli’s phone number and left a second message: “Eli, I’m sorry for what I said. It’s not your fault Jennifer’s dead.” After he hung up, Scott didn’t know where to go, but he knew he had to find Vanessa and Sharon. He called and found out they were at the Omni.

“Come here,” Sharon said.

Scott didn’t have his car with him, so he ran to the hotel. It was a mile or so, and when he arrived he was hot and sweaty. Vanessa opened the door and wrapped her arms around him, and they both wept. When Laura Ingles arrived an hour or so later, Vanessa hugged her tight and sobbed, “He killed my little sister.”

On the edge of the bed, Scott sat shaking and crying so hard he couldn’t talk.

Detective Gilchrest arrived at the Orange Tree condominiums at ten that morning with the signed search warrant, and the team of APD personnel who’d been there much of the night into the morning finally began processing the evidence in Pitonyak’s apartment.

Along with patrolmen who maintained the perimeter, three crime scene officers were on the scene, eager to get busy. To prevent disturbing evidence, the body would be left in place, in the bathtub with the brown rug over it, until the forensic team finished processing the scene. There was no need to hurry. The paramedic in charge had called in the information to nearby Breckenridge Hospital at 10:30 the night before, where a physician pronounced the Jane Doe dead. Despite Jim’s assumptions, the police weren’t yet ready to officially identify the deceased.

Everyone on the scene knew what to expect. They’d all been briefed on what waited for them in the bathroom.

Detective Walker, who’d coordinate the processing of evidence, was still on the scene, and he gave crime scene supervisor Kimberly Frierson permission to enter Orange Tree unit 88. As the first order of business, Frierson videotaped the entire scene, documenting where everything was before work began. While Frierson videotaped, Walker accompanied officers downstairs to the parking garage to inspect Colton Pitonyak’s car. Along with the apartment, Gilchrest had written the warrant to include Pitonyak’s white Toyota and Jennifer’s black Saturn. Walker issued orders for both cars to be towed to 906 McFall, the APD forensic workshop, for processing.

Once Frierson finished the first videotape, Walker entered the apartment for the first time with Vince Gonzalez. It would be their job to identify and photograph evidence where it lay, before collection began. Gonzalez started by shooting photos of each room, then parts of the rooms, finally zeroing in on particular items. Evidence lay everywhere they looked, all around them. In the living room, Walker pointed out two spent bullet cartridges near the couch. Only in the kitchen did it appear someone had attempted to cover up what had taken place. The floors were clean, the countertops wiped down. Yet, here, too, they found disturbing evidence. When they opened the dishwasher, a machete lay across the bottom rack. Blood and hair still coated its thick blade.

One item Gonzalez decided on his own to photograph, a phone number written on the wall with the name J. Ribbit above it. It was Jennifer’s cell phone number, written under a reference to the sound made by her family nickname, Frog.

What wasn’t going on inside or outside unit 88 that morning was a lot of talking. Often, to keep murder scenes from weighing on them, detectives and officers banter back and forth as they work, a way of lightening the load. This day, the scene fell oddly quiet. “You could tell that everyone was upset,” says one who was there. “No one felt untouched.”

As he scouted the apartment, Walker placed small, hard plastic tents with numbers, the type restaurants sometimes use to mark tables, beside evidence he wanted photographed and collected. He moved a pillow near the bed and saw red stains on the carpet. Blood? He pulled out an evidence marker and placed it beside the bloodstain. That carpet section would be cut out and bagged. Beside the bed, Walker found an ACE hardware bag. With his hands gloved to protect the evidence, he inspected a receipt that lay inside. Looking it over, Walker realized that the day before Jennifer’s body was discovered, Colton Pitonyak purchased items that included a hacksaw, ammonia, carpet cleaner, dust masks, blue shop towels, Febreze fabric freshener, and latex gloves. It didn’t take much imagination to understand what Pitonyak intended to use the items for.

After the evidence was photographed, Victor Ceballos, the third crime scene specialist assigned to the case, entered the apartment, carefully removing the items that were taken into evidence. An avuncular man with a wide smile, Ceballos designated each piece of evidence with his initials, VC, along with the number on the crime scene marker Walker assigned to it. VC–9 became Colton’s folding knife, one the police would later call “the buck knife.” Black-handled, with “Brandt, the most trusted name in farm implements since 1913, a division of Pitonyak Machinery Corporation” stamped on the serrated blade, the knife was a promotional item given away by Eddie Pitonyak’s company. To prevent disturbing blood evidence he could see on it, Ceballos placed the knife inside a protective cardboard sheath and then into a ventilated white glassine bag.

From the living room, the two fired cartridges were collected. To protect markings that could tie them to a weapon, bullet casings were placed in a special box. The machete became VC–12, and the hacksaw found on top of the body, VC–34.

At the Omni, Jim and Sharon tried to sleep. Telling their families that Jennifer was dead would be one of the hardest things they would ever have to do, but they decided to wait until they had an official identification from the police. Trapped somewhere between shock and grief, Sharon had no choice but to think of others. Sharon had to notify her mother, Myrtle; Clayton; and Charlie, and she had to find Lauren. Sharon assumed her youngest daughter was in Norman, where Lauren roomed with Jim’s youngest, Hailey, and they both attended the university. Jennifer and Lauren were so close that Sharon wanted to tell Lauren in person, and Jim agreed. They decided to bring her to Austin, to be with them and drive home to Corpus the following morning. They had more to do. Even in a horrific death, even in murder, there are customs that needed to be adhered to. Sharon and Jim needed to make arrangements for a funeral.

Jim called friends in Corpus, and one offered his private plane to pick Lauren up. For hours, Jim tried to call Lauren, but she didn’t answer her cell phone. When he finally reached her, he told her to go to the Norman airport, to wait for them. Lauren hemmed and hawed, at first claiming she had to work. Jim insisted, and finally the truth came out.

“I’m not in Oklahoma,” she admitted. “Hailey and I are in Laredo.”

They’d gone to South Texas with Hailey’s mother, Jim’s ex-wife, Susie, for a wedding. Lauren had talked about it with Sharon, but Sharon thought she’d convinced Lauren not to go when she’d told her about recent drug violence in the Rio Grande Valley and a spate of killings in Laredo.

“I’ll get right back with you,” Jim said. He called Lauren a little while later, and said, “Okay, I need you to go to the Laredo airport at about five this afternoon. Bring your suitcase. We’re flying in to get you.” When Lauren asked what was wrong, Jim repeated what time to be ready and asked her not to worry, but, of course, she couldn’t stop wondering what had happened that was serious enough for Jim and Sharon to come for her in a private airplane.

Detective Arthur Fortune walked into Breed & Co. ACE hardware store that afternoon with a copy of the receipt found in the bag at the foot of Colton Pitonyak’s bed. Hours earlier, Detective Gilchrest had stopped in and asked if Breed’s had a video surveillance system. They did, one that surveyed the main checkout area.

As Fortune requested, Jeff Breed played the video from mid-afternoon, Wednesday, August 17. At one point, Fortune asked Breed to pause it. On the screen was a young man who looked like Pitonyak. When Breed saw him, he remembered the young, dark-haired man with the goatee. As Fortune took notes, Breed recounted how Pitonyak had appeared lost in the store, looking at a list. The young man smelled of alcohol but didn’t seem drunk, and he’d said he needed the hacksaw to cut up a frozen turkey.

When Fortune talked to the checkout clerk who’d been on that day, Rene Carden, she also remembered the young man, adding that she, too, smelled alcohol on his breath.

Detective Fortune left Breed’s that afternoon without the video, however. Neither he nor Breed knew how to download off the digital equipment the store had just installed. Later that day, Detective Fugitt, homicide’s resident tech geek, circled over to Breed’s and hooked up a Sony Video Walkman to the surveillance camera, recording the segment with Pitonyak on a videocassette. The video Fugitt made clearly showed Pitonyak pushing a cart up to the checkout, waiting in line, checking out, and then leaving the store. In addition to the hacksaw, dust masks, ammonia, Febreze, and latex gloves, Colton purchased fifty-five-gallon drum liners, blue shop towels, bathroom tissue, and Spot Shot carpet cleaner.

At 2:30 in the afternoon, after he’d spent more than fifteen hours on the crime scene processing evidence, Detective Keith Walker was relieved by another detective. Walker, however, wasn’t going home. Instead, he’d accompany the victim’s corpse to the morgue. It was time to remove the corpse from the bathtub.

The sight was so horrific it was difficult to look at the grotesque scene as simply evidence to be collected, but that was precisely what Walker and the forensic team had to do. Walker’s first order of business after videotaping and photographing the body was to have tape lifts used, strips of clear plastic tape used to pick up and preserve loose evidence, such as hair and fibers. The brown patterned rug still lay over the corpse, and everything in the bathtub had to be transported together, to disturb as little as possible.

Along with the rug, the black trash bag on the bathroom floor would accompany the body. No one had looked, but all believed Jennifer’s head would be found inside. When Jennifer’s arms became visible, they had their first clue that the bag might contain more. Jennifer’s head wasn’t the only thing missing. Both her hands were gone, severed at the wrists.

Something else became visible when they moved the body from the bathtub, a third bullet casing, found in the bathtub near the drain. Ceballos marked an evidence box and slipped it inside, one more item to be processed in the lab.

At 3:20 that afternoon, the body and the accompanying bag arrived at the morgue and was rolled on a gurney into an autopsy suite, where it was laid on trace evidence sheets, sterile sheets used to collect any remaining fibers or hairs. As Detective Walker and Ceballos stood nearby, deputy medical examiner Dr. Elizabeth Peacock opened the large, black trash bag. Inside were two black bags. When she took them out, she found a smaller white trash bag with a red pull cord inside each. Dr. Peacock, a woman with a long neck, glasses, cropped dark blond hair, and a competent manner, opened the first white bag, and found Jennifer’s severed hands.

It must have been an unsettling sight as Dr. Peacock held and fingerprinted the small, delicate severed hands. The hands were photographed, and then the second bag was opened. If Detective Walker had any doubts about the victim’s identity, looking inside the second white bag silenced all arguments. Jennifer’s head was removed and set on the autopsy table beside her body. She still wore her earrings and her makeup, and, except for stab wounds across the side of her face, she looked remarkably like her Texas driver’s license photo. Yet that wasn’t sufficient.

When he left the morgue, Walker went to APD and compared the fingerprints from the corpse with those filed with Texas Department of Public Safety’s drivers’ license records. When they matched, the victim had an official name: Jennifer Cave.

After she heard the news that they now had a positive identification, Sharon called Clayton and Charlie, to tell them that Jennifer was dead. They cried, and when she hung up, Sharon worried, both about her son and that her ex-husband could have another stroke. She called friends and asked them to go to Charlie’s house to be with them. Meanwhile, in Sinton, as soon as his mother hung up the telephone, Clayton dialed Jennifer’s cell phone: “Hello, this is Jennifer. I’m not here now, but please leave a message.” He called over and over again that evening, just to hear his dead sister’s voice.

Photographic Insert

The old farmhouse on the edge of a small South Texas town where Jennifer Cave grew up.
Photo Kathryn Casey

Sharon had four children: Vanessa (rear), Jennifer (left front), Clayton (center), and Lauren (right front). For photographs, Jennifer took off her glasses.
Courtesy of the Cave family

As a little girl, Jennifer hated her freckles. Sharon told her they made her special, that they were the places angels kissed her, before God sent her down from heaven.
Courtesy of the Cave family

Jennifer and Lauren, here in their uniforms, were cheerleaders through elementary and middle school, into high school, jumping in the air, shouting out cheers, and urging the Bishop, Texas, teams to victory.
Courtesy of the Cave family

Jim, surrounded by his girls (left to right, rear row): Hailey, Jim, Sharon, Vanessa; (front row): Jennifer, Whitney, Lauren.
Courtesy of the Cave family

Lauren, Jennifer, Sharon, and Vanessa at Jennifer’s high school graduation. By then, Jennifer was already changing, coming out of her shell. Her glasses and braces were gone, and she was turning into a beautiful young woman.
Courtesy of the Cave family

As Jennifer came of age, she and Vanessa (left), looked more alike. Both turned heads when they entered a room.
Courtesy of the Cave family

Nora Sullivan and Colton Pitonyak lived just six doors apart at the Orange Tree condominiums.
Courtesy of Nora Sullivan

Colton Pitonyak arrived at UT a scholarship student, but gradually refashioned himself into a drug-dealing thug.
Austin PD photo

Christmas 2004 brought an end to what was known in the Cave family as “Jennifer’s dark year.” That day a miracle of sorts happened—snow—in South Texas, a rarity. (Back row, left to right): Jim, Myrtle, Sharon, Whitney, Clayton; (front, left to right): Hailey, Lauren, Vanessa, Jennifer.
Courtesy of the Cave family

Living with Scott, Jennifer felt more at ease, happier than her friends had ever seen her. Yet dark fears still haunted her, and she grabbed life with both hands, fearing she had little time to enjoy it.
Courtesy of K. Reine

Scott Engle fell in love with Jennifer, and for a little while, his love changed her life.
Photo Kathryn Casey

A precocious, waifish little girl, Madyson called Jennifer “Mom.”
Photo Kathryn Casey

Katrina deVilleneuve was a topless dancer with a heart of gold who grew frightened when Jennifer told her of Colton Pitonyak’s threats.
Photo Kathryn Casey

Denise Winterbottom befriended Jennifer, inviting her to move into her apartment when she needed a place to stay.
Photo Kathryn Casey

Eli went with Jennifer to reclaim her possessions, including the star Whitney made for her.
Photo Kathryn Casey

Laura Hall fell in love with Colton Pitonyak, but he “treated her like a muddy little dog,” says a friend.
Austin PD photo

Sharon, Jim, and Vanessa pounded for hours on the door marked 88 at the Orange Tree condominiums.
Photo Kathryn Casey

Michael Rodriguez would later regret that he didn’t ask Jennifer more questions, but at the time she insisted all was well.
Photo Kathryn Casey

Colton Pitonyak’s gun. A week earlier, he’d threatened to shoot Laura Hall with it.
Austin PD photo

When they opened the dishwasher, police found a machete inside, with blood on the blade.
Austin PD photo

The ACE bag inside the apartment, next to blood on the carpet.
Austin PD photo

“That’s just how I roll,” Laura Hall said about her getaway with Pitonyak in her green Cadillac.
Austin PD photo

At first Pitonyak and Hall looked like any other vacationing students. Then Pedro Fernandez grew worried and snapped this photo to have a record of the strange young American couple.
Courtesy of Pedro Fernandez

Despite decades as a police officer and then a DA’s investigator, this was a case that Jim Bergman would never forget.
Photo Kathryn Casey

Stephanie McFarland and Bill Bishop took on one of the most gruesome murder cases in Austin’s history.
Photo Kathryn Casey

From one of the best known law firms in Austin, Sam Bassett (left) and Roy Minton had to separate their client from the aftermath of the murder.
Photo Kathryn Casey

Bridget and Eddie Pitonyak, Colton’s parents, kept to themselves throughout the trial, rarely talking to anyone.
Photo Kathryn Casey

Laura Hall, here in the courtroom, dyed her hair red, something those who knew Jennifer found unsettling.
Photo Kathryn Casey

Scott’s shrine in his bedroom, including the prophetic painting of Jennifer’s torso, praying hands, and a small plaque that reads: “Heaven.”
Photo Kathryn Casey

Two hours later, Lauren waited at the Laredo airport, worried, frustrated, and annoyed. She wondered if her father had suffered another stroke, if he had died. She kept urging herself to calm down. Jim’s ex-wife, Susie, and Hailey stayed with her, trying to help but not knowing what to say. When the small plane landed and the stairway came down, Sharon, doubled over, could barely walk, and Jim looked as if he hadn’t slept in weeks. Lauren noticed she and Sharon had worn the same outfits, and she made a joke of it. “We’re twins,” she said.

Sharon didn’t even smile.

“There’s been an accident,” Jim finally told them as they all grouped together in a small room in the airport offices. “Jennifer’s been killed.”

“How?” Lauren asked.

“Somebody killed her,” he answered.

Nausea welled up inside her, and Lauren hurried to the wastebasket and started retching, her whole body shaking. She screamed and cried, but it would last only minutes. From that moment forward, Lauren wouldn’t cry for her almost twin for more than a year.

Along with a search warrant for the apartment and cars, Gilchrest had a signed warrant for Colton Pitonyak’s cell phone records. Once they came in, showing what towers the telephone was bouncing off on the night of August 17, a pattern was easily apparent. Shortly after Sharon hung up the telephone with Pitonyak, warning him that she’d called police, he was on the run. His cell phone showed that someone had used it while cutting a southbound path through Texas, leading to the Mexican border. Calls went out to the FBI and the U.S. Marshals office, asking for their help in finding Pitonyak, but there were problems. First, Pitonyak’s cell phone calls had been recorded nearly two days earlier, giving the fugitive a formidable head start. Second, no one knew what type of car he would be in. His Toyota, after all, was locked up in APD’s forensic processing center.

That afternoon, nearly three days after Jennifer’s disappearance, the U.S. Marshals office, a division of the federal Department of Justice, issued a wanted poster for Colton Aaron Pitonyak, distributing it to the agents working throughout Texas, especially those on the border with Mexico. Pitonyak had blue eyes and brown hair, at five-eleven weighed 170 pounds, and he was to be considered armed and extremely dangerous. The bulletin warned, “Approach with caution.”

Four years earlier, Colton had lived the cloistered life of a Catholic schoolboy. Now, at just twenty-two, he was a wanted criminal living a fantasy that matched Scarface or any of his favorite gangster movies. Colton Pitonyak had transcended a level most criminals never reach: He was being searched for by the FBI, the U.S. Marshals office, and Austin PD for what many were already calling the most brutal murder in the history of the University of Texas.

That evening, Jim, Sharon, and Lauren flew back into Austin. The next day, Jim and Sharon had the appointment with Gilchrest, and then they’d all drive home to Corpus. Jennifer’s autopsy was scheduled for the morning, and then her body would follow. Sharon had already decided where her daughter’s gravesite should be, beside her grandfather. “I had this crazy feeling that if I did that, my dad would protect Jennifer,” Sharon says. “I wanted her to be safe.”

Late that evening, many of Jennifer’s friends congregated at Eli’s, to band together to comfort one another. Many were crying, including Eli, who didn’t appear to be able to stop. He lit a candle, one scented with apple spice, Jennifer’s favorite. Friends noticed that he talked about her in the present tense, as if he hadn’t yet absorbed that she’d died.

Meanwhile, at eleven that evening, in Piedras Negras, Mexico, a city just over the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, Laura Hall walked into the Casablanca Inn, and Pedro Fernandez, a heavyset man with glasses, looked up. He was the manager of the establishment, which had the look of a converted Holiday Inn. The place was busy that evening, and Fernandez had stayed late to help the desk clerk. When he saw Laura and the young, dark-haired man next to her, Fernandez assumed they were college students on a holiday.

“Do you have a room?” Hall asked.

“We’re pretty full,” Fernandez said. “I have to check.”

Ten minutes later, Fernandez gave the couple the good news. He had a vacancy. Hall handed Fernandez a credit card and two University of Texas IDs. One was in Hall’s name, the other was in the name of her traveling companion: Colton Aaron Pitonyak.