A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
The first article on the case appeared in the Austin American Statesman the following morning, Saturday, August 20, 2005. In the metro section, it was small and said simply that Jennifer Cave, age twenty-one, had been found dead with obvious trauma Thursday night and that police were seeking Colton Pitonyak, twenty-two, on a first-degree murder charge.
At nine, Travis County deputy medical examiner Dr. Elizabeth Peacock again stood over Jennifer’s remains in the morgue, along with two crime scene specialists: Ceballos, there to bag evidence, and James Bixler, assigned to take autopsy photographs. Detective Gilchrest, the lead detective on the case, stood by as well.
The day before, the head, hands, and body were all wrapped in sterile sheets, a final attempt to collect any trace evidence. Dr. Peacock conducted a vaginal examination and took swabs, to look for evidence of rape. No semen would be found, and there was no evidence of sexual assault. When she cut away Jennifer’s halter top, Dr. Peacock, along with an assistant, rolled the body over to unhook Jennifer’s bra. For the first time, Peacock saw a bullet hole, a gunshot wound in Jennifer’s upper right arm, eight and a half inches below her shoulder. When she moved the arm, Peacock discovered that the bullet had exited without hitting the bone and gone directly into Jennifer’s chest from the right side.
That Saturday morning, during the autopsy, Dr. Peacock cut into the body to trace the path of the bullet. She found that the incision made by the bullet entered between the fourth and fifth ribs and then sliced into the lower lobe of the right lung before cutting directly into the aorta, the body’s largest artery. It was a devastating wound; Peacock knew such catastrophic injury to the aorta would kill within seconds.
Following the wound path, from right to left, front to back, and slightly downward, Peacock discovered a pool of coagulated blood inside the chest cavity and, twelve and a half inches below the left shoulder, a medium caliber, fully jacketed, minimally deformed bullet.
On the right side of Jennifer’s face and upper neck, Peacock documented stab wounds, eighteen of them. She noted the pale, waxy appearance of the skin around the incisions and saw “no vital reaction” at the site of the wounds; in other words, no bleeding. That the wounds hadn’t hemorrhaged led Peacock to classify them as postmortem, or after death. Other similar wounds were found on Jennifer’s right forearm, her upper arm, her left thigh, and ten more to her chest and lower neck, all, too, postmortem. Most of the wounds were smooth and straight, some intersecting to form Vs.
Someone had cut repeatedly into Jennifer’s body after death, for no apparent reason.
One knife wound on the palm of Jennifer’s left hand, however, was different. There Dr. Peacock saw a slight pink that suggested it occurred peri-mortem, close to the time of death, while Jennifer still retained some blood pressure.
The biggest surprise of the day began when Peacock X-rayed Jennifer’s severed head. On the X-ray, she saw what appeared to be a bullet inside the skull and behind the left temple. What the physician couldn’t find was an entry wound. Only when Dr. Peacock inspected the cut surface of the severed head did she discern the truth: After the bullet to Jennifer’s aorta killed her, someone cut off her head. Then a gun was fired upward, into her head through the severed neck.
Along with the dozens of cuts to the body, it now appeared even more certain that someone had defiled Jennifer’s dead body for no reason other than amusement.
As is always done, tissue samples were taken to send for analysis, to check for substances, including toxins, drugs, and alcohol, and then, the autopsy completed, Jennifer’s body was zippered into a bag to be transported to Corpus Christi for burial.
Under the heading Conclusion on her report, Peacock wrote: “Based on the anatomic findings at autopsy and investigation available to me at this time, it is my conclusion that Jennifer Cave, a 21-year-old white female, died as a result of a gunshot wound which penetrated the lung and aorta. There were extensive peri-and post-mortem sharp force injuries.”
Just before ten that same morning, Jim, Sharon, and Lauren drove to APD headquarters to meet with Gilchrest. At this point, the detective had been assigned to the case for thirty-five hours. In any murder investigation, the first forty-eight hours are the most important. If a suspect isn’t identified and apprehended within two days, statistics showed that the percentage of closed cases drop rapidly with each subsequent day. The first thing Sharon thought when she saw the bulky detective was that Gilchrest appeared to be in a slow burn. “I wouldn’t want that look directed at me,” she says.
During this first meeting, Gilchrest explained that the autopsy was completed and that the cause of death was a gunshot wound. The detective didn’t go into any detail about the many wounds found on the body or its condition, but he reaffirmed what Jim and Sharon had been told the previous afternoon, that fingerprints conclusively identified it as Jennifer.
Angry about what she’d just learned in a text message from a friend, Lauren then claimed the detective’s attention. “There’s this Web site,” she told Gilchrest. “It’s called Facebook.com, and a lot of the college kids are on it. I’m on it, and most of my friends are. My friend says Colton Pitonyak is on it.”
In truth, Lauren simply wanted Colton off the Web site. Facebook was something she enjoyed, and she didn’t want the person targeted as the likeliest suspect in her sister’s killing on the same Web site she logged onto. Lauren wanted Gilchrest to make Facebook take Colton Pitonyak off. But Sharon would later remember how interested Gilchrest appeared in Lauren’s information for another reason: Facebook had the potential to yield evidence.
After leaving Gilchrest, they drove to Denise Winterbottom’s apartment, to collect a few of Jennifer’s things. When Denise opened the door, Sharon walked in crying and nearly collapsed. Jim and Lauren brought her to the couch, and Denise ran for a wet towel to put on Sharon’s forehead.
“Thank you for being Jennifer’s friend,” Sharon said. “Thank you for taking her in.”
Once she felt up to it, Sharon and the others went to Jennifer’s room. It looked like Jennifer, neat and orderly, with her clothes organized and hung in the closet and family pictures around her. Sharon sat on the bed, feeling, for the first time since her daughter’s disappearance, that Jennifer was near.
Crying, Jennifer’s family collected a few of her favorite things, including Jennifer’s jewelry box, an afghan, and a picture of Lauren and Jennifer together, the two of them in their cheerleading uniforms. Sharon gathered Jennifer’s craft box, one filled with beads and paints. Inside were Scooby Doo gift bags for party favors Jennifer bought for Madyson’s upcoming birthday party, acrylic paints, and two unopened packs of college-ruled notebook paper. In the past two years, Jennifer had lived a nomadic life, accumulating little. For her twenty-one years of life, she’d left little behind but photographs and memories.
The trip to Corpus Christi that afternoon felt every bit as long as the journey they’d taken two days earlier to Austin. Jim led the way in his Suburban, and Vanessa followed later in her car, driven by a friend who’d flown in from Dallas. As soon as they arrived at the house, Sharon went directly to her bedroom and her bed. Jim called their family doctor and the pastor of their church, All Saints Episcopal’s Father David Stringer, a kind man with graying temples and the beginning of laugh lines around his eyes. The physician gave Sharon tranquilizers and sleeping pills, and when she awoke, she saw Father David at her side, praying.
Jim and Sharon’s good friend Harold Shockley, whom Jennifer once worked for at the bank, arrived that afternoon, not knowing what to say but wanting to help. Lauren let him into the house, then, a short time later, said, “My mom wants to see you.”
Shockley found it difficult to walk into the bedroom. He knew only that Jennifer had been murdered, but that was enough. He didn’t have children of his own, but he’d been the Cave/Sedwick family’s unofficial Uncle Harold for years, and he knew that no parent ever expects to bury a child. When he saw Sharon, she was in bed, crying. “You need to watch out for Jim,” she told him. “He’s seen things that no one should ever see.”
Sharon had reason to be concerned. Not only had Jim lived through a horrific experience, he’d been ordered not to tell anyone what he’d seen. By then, Jim realized he couldn’t remain completely silent. He had to talk to someone. While Sharon lay in bed, Jim left to talk to the one person he thought would understand, Sid Smith, the private investigator friend who’d advised them throughout their ordeal. Smith was a former homicide detective, and Jim believed his friend could shoulder hearing the gruesome details.
At Smith’s house, Jim described the horror of walking into unit 88 and finding Jennifer’s slaughtered body, and he cried. There was little Smith could do but be there to comfort him. Underneath it all, Smith was disappointed, wondering why APD hadn’t found justification to enter Pitonyak’s apartment. If they’d been the ones to go inside, his friend wouldn’t have had to.
“You did the best you could, Jim,” Smith told him. Then he voiced a theory similar to the one the Austin officers had told Jim. “If you and Sharon hadn’t called, he would have finished the job, cutting her up and throwing away her body. They probably wouldn’t have ever found her.”
That weekend, Jim and Sharon’s doorbell rang constantly. Vanessa found herself wishing the well-meaning neighbors, family, and friends bringing food would simply go away. She was exhausted and angry and overflowing with grief. Concentrating on doing what had to be done, Lauren took over her mother’s role, focusing on taking care of everyone else, greeting well-wishers and accepting their Tupperware containers of home-cooked dinners and desserts.
While the search for Colton Pitonyak continued, in Austin, the sides in the battle that would one day wage over his freedom formed. That afternoon, Gilchrest filled in the assistant district attorney who’d handle the case. Bill Bishop was in his mid-thirties, with penetrating blue eyes. With his prematurely salt-and-pepper hair and dark eyebrows, some thought he resembled a little older Taylor Hicks, of American Idol fame. Bishop had been with the DA’s office since 1999, and he was the chief prosecutor in the court of Judge Wilford Flowers, the same judge who’d presided over Colton Pitonyak’s drug charge just months earlier. Bishop’s father was a well-known civil attorney in Austin, and Bill grew up wanting to be a lawyer. When he graduated from UT, he decided against civil law, because those cases rarely went to trial.
“I wanted to be in a courtroom,” he says. “I enjoy it.”
When he first heard about the Pitonyak case, Bishop had just returned from a month-long family leave, after the birth of his second daughter. He couldn’t help but identify with Sharon and Jim. What horror to lose a daughter in such a brutal way.
As soon as Bishop’s assignment came in, Gilchrest gave him a thumbnail of the case. By then many of the warrants had already been written, including permission to search Pitonyak’s apartment and car and one for his arrest, charging him with murder. Gilchrest tossed the file folder of crime scene photos at Bishop. “Take a look,” he said. Bishop, of course, knew what to expect. He was used to homicide cops treating the goriest photos as mundane. “It’s the way they deal with it,” he says. “They have to be almost intentionally callous. You have to look at it that way.” The hardest part for Bishop was sitting down and watching the DVD of the crime scene, with the footage of the body in the bathtub.
After reviewing the file, Bishop agreed with Gilchrest; keeping a lid on the details as long as possible would keep the “crazies” away, the usual suspects who showed up to confess to every sensational case or habitually called in to say they had information. The murder’s location surprised Bishop. He hadn’t handled many cases on the UT campus, usually nothing more than drunk drivers and misdemeanors. By the time Bishop read Gilchrest’s report, the detective had already amassed a full thirty pages. Bishop went through the evidence list marking, in addition to Gilchrest’s orders, what he wanted tested for DNA. In this case, the forensic evidence would be vital in telling the grisly tale.
On the other side, the Pitonyaks were busy. Their call came in while Sam Bassett was in Chicago. Although Colton had yet to be arrested, Eddie Pitonyak wanted to line up his son’s attorney, the one who’d been successful in plea-bargaining Colton’s drug charge down to a misdemeanor. “They found a body in my son’s apartment and they’re looking for him,” Pitonyak said. Eddie sounded baffled and worried to Bassett on the telephone. “What do we say to him if he calls?”
“He needs to call me and come to my office, and then we need to call the police,” Bassett advised. After he hung up, Bassett called a cell phone number Eddie gave him for Colton. No one answered, but he left a message.
That Saturday, Colton and Laura’s friend Said Aziz called APD anonymously. A friend had called him in New York, where he was getting ready to drive back to Texas to begin the fall semester at UT. “I think Jen got murdered and they’re looking for Colton,” the person said. “You should know that they have a picture of you. But don’t worry. They asked where you are, and I told them you’re in New York.”
The picture was one Nora Sullivan had taken that the police found on Facebook.com, a photo of Juan Montero thugging it up for the camera surrounded by his friends, including Said and Colton in the background. Once he knew what had happened, Aziz dialed APD. He told the person who answered the telephone: “If you’re looking for Colton Pitonyak, he’s probably with a girl named Laura Hall.”
A city of 142,000, Piedras Negras, Mexico, lies directly across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas, and it calls itself “La Puerta de Mexico,” in English, “Mexico’s door.” Piedras Negras translates to “black rock,” referring to the region’s coal deposits, but it’s better known as the self-proclaimed birthplace of the nacho. It’s popular for bird hunting in the fall and partying college students year round.
While Gilchrest pulled together the investigation in Austin and Jennifer’s family struggled with her death in Corpus Christi, in Piedras Negras, Colton Pitonyak was interested in entertainment. That afternoon he and Laura Hall traipsed down from their second-floor room to the Casablanca Inn’s lobby, where he logged onto Facebook.com, perhaps just to pass a bit of time.
As he had been the night before, Pedro Fernandez manned the hotel’s reception desk, where the average cost of a room was $56 per night. He was used to Americans frequenting the place, including church members who built houses for the poor. Next to a bodega and a busy nightclub, and near a Wal-Mart, the 140-room hotel had a swimming pool, a restaurant, and a bar with video games.
As Pitonyak played around on the computer, he talked to Fernandez about the cost of booking flights to Cuernavaca, Mexico, seven hundred miles south. Hall stood protectively beside Pitonyak. From watching the two together, Fernandez assumed they were boyfriend and girlfriend.
Off and on, Fernandez talked to other guests about his plans for the night. His wife and child were visiting family, and he planned to watch his satellite television. Pay-per-view was hosting an Ultimate Fighting Championship competition, a mixed-martial-arts battle waged inside an octagon-shaped cage. It was one of Pitonyak’s favorite sports, and it didn’t take long for the dark-haired, scruffy-looking young American to approach Fernandez.
“Is there someplace in town I can go to watch?” he wanted to know.
Fernandez considered the possibilities but couldn’t think of a bar that would air such a brutal fight. Pitonyak asked if Fernandez could tape it for him. “I could,” Fernandez agreed. “You don’t have a VCR in the room, but you could go to Blockbuster, across the street, and rent one.”
They talked for a while, and then Fernandez made an offer. “Why don’t you come to my house to watch?”
That night at 11:15, Fernandez was ready to leave the Casablanca. Laura and Colton waited for him in the lobby. Pitonyak was dressed in a navy polo shirt and shorts, and Hall had on a UT T-shirt and shorts. They both wore navy blue bill caps that sat backward on their heads. Fernandez called a cab, they stopped at a liquor store for a bottle of Bacardi rum and a twelve-pack of beer, and then arrived at Fernandez’s house, where the cab let them off. A little while later, Fernandez gave his guests the house tour and poured drinks while they waited for the competition to start.
At first, all seemed well. They talked, mostly about the competition and a Web site Pitonyak liked, Sherdog.com, which profiled the fighters, and Fernandez used the time to size his guests up. They seemed like nice enough young Americans. They were happy, appearing carefree. His assessment changed, however. As they watched the fight, Pitonyak quickly showed the effects of the rum, and Fernandez wondered how much his guest had to drink before they arrived. As Pitonyak became increasingly drunk, the alcohol loosened him up, and he talked.
“Can you help us sell the Cadillac?” he asked Fernandez. “We need the money.”
While they watched the battle on the screen, Fernandez asked questions. What Hall and Pitonyak told him was that they’d driven into Mexico farther west, over the Del Rio Bridge, two nights earlier, and slept in a hotel near the border the first night. When they tried to drive into the interior of Mexico, they were turned back at a checkpoint because they didn’t have the title for Hall’s 1994 green Cadillac Concours. They still wanted to get to Cuernavaca, fifty miles south of Mexico City. But rather than drive, they thought they’d sell the car and buy airplane tickets.
“You’ll have to get the title,” Fernandez said. “Then you could sell it.”
Fernandez had lived in the United States, in San Antonio, for years, and he had a used car lot for a time, so he knew the ins and outs of selling cars. “Just fill out the paperwork and they’ll give you a copy of the title…” he explained, saying that they had everything necessary to get a copy of the title just over the border, at the Eagle Pass, Texas, tax office.
“We can’t go there,” Pitonyak said.
Fernandez’s eyes narrowed. He wondered why not, but instead said, “You can drive around the border, but you can’t go farther into Mexico without the title. To sell the car, you’ll need the title.”
“We’re not going back across the border,” Pitonyak said again.
That was something Fernandez didn’t understand. It was his experience that most Americans who came to Piedras Negras intended to go home. He’d never run into ones who planned to stay in Mexico. Fernandez himself hadn’t wanted to leave the States. He’d been deported, much to his chagrin, after a burglary charge. Now he looked at Pitonyak again. The American kid was eyeing him strangely, his expression angry. Fernandez considered a crudely drawn tattoo on the kid’s leg and began to wonder if the kid had gotten it in jail.
“Do they extradite from Mexico?” Pitonyak asked.
“I don’t know,” Fernandez said, feeling more certain than ever that his invitation to the two young Americans had been a mistake.
“Colton, shut up,” Hall cautioned.
For a while, they sat there, watching the fighters hammer each other on the television. When Laura asked again about selling the car, Fernandez remembered he had copies of the forms they’d need in his home office. He decided he’d get the question over with by giving them the paperwork, so they’d be quiet and watch the fight. Maybe if the American kids had the forms in their hands, they’d understand they needed to cross back over to the United States to file the papers. Explaining where he was going, Fernandez got up to walk to his office desk, but Pitonyak shadowed him. Something about the way the kid looked at him bothered Fernandez. The two young Americans were beginning to scare him.
Making the situation even more volatile, Pitonyak sneered, “I could take you,” then pulled up his shirt to expose a chrome knife tucked into the belt of his shorts. On instinct, Fernandez grabbed the knife. Pitonyak glared at him but swayed, obviously drunk.
At that point, Fernandez wanted nothing more than to get the two Americans out of his house.
Back in the living room, the pay-per-view fight was over, and Fernandez suggested he drop Hall and Pitonyak at a tavern, where they could continue to drink. They agreed and walked toward the door, but Pitonyak was so drunk he suddenly lost his footing, tumbling into Fernandez’s son’s plastic play area, filled with toys. Laughing, Pitonyak grabbed one of the child’s small sombreros and put it on over his cap. Chuckling along with him, Hall got in the playpen with her boyfriend, and Fernandez took the opportunity to flick open his cell phone and snap a picture. Just in case the evening got even more out of control, the hotel manager wanted a record of his guests.
Back on his feet, Pitonyak was so drunk that Fernandez helped him walk to the car. Increasingly worried about his own safety, the hotel clerk drove the long way back to town. If they tried to return, he didn’t want the two young Americans to remember how to find his house. Yet, he was curious. “What did you do in the U.S. that you can’t go back?” Fernandez asked, as they pulled up in front of the bar. “Kill a cop or something?”
“Don’t roll on me,” Pitonyak warned, giving him a cold, hard look.
“Shut up,” Hall warned. “Colton just shut up.”
Later, when he returned to his house, Fernandez downloaded the cell phone photo onto his computer and noticed something chilling: In the playpen, while laughing manically, Pitonyak held one of the toys, a stuffed Mickey Mouse. Looking comical in the child-size sombrero, Pitonyak grinned, but his hand was clamped tight over the animal’s nose and mouth, as if suffocating it.