A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
Bishop, Texas, lies thirty minutes by car south of Corpus Christi and inland from the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s a world away from the hubbub of the city. Surrounded by fields of sorghum and cotton, the town grain elevator weighs the bounty from the fields, determining the financial health of the townsfolk. With a population that hovers just over three thousand, it’s typical small-town America: a Dairy Queen and a truck stop, schools and churches that form the core of the community. The land is flat, the sky is big, and the horizon a full 360 degrees. Relentlessly straight roads appear to drop off the edge of the earth, and the local chemical plant is a city of pipe, its smokestacks burning off residue in a bright, hot, golden flame.
Jennifer Cave grew up in a quaint farmhouse, just outside town, on land that shares a fence line with the legendary King Ranch. Her parents, Charlie and Sharon, bought the place and its five accompanying acres in 1983, a year after they married. At the time, Charlie intended to fix it up, but, as is the way with old houses, it seemed there was always something left perpetually undone.
It was the second marriage for Sharon, a fun-loving woman with a broad, high-wattage smile. She’d grown up on a farm in nearby Alice, Texas, an oil town whose fortunes fluctuated with the price of a barrel of crude. During a teenage rebellious streak, she ran away at eighteen and married, giving birth to her oldest, Vanessa, in 1979. By then that marriage was troubled. They divorced, and then she met and married Charlie, a tall, handsome man who earned his living as a welder. He was a gregarious sort, the kind who’d never met a stranger, yet she’d later label him “mistake number two.”
Sharon was a warm woman, the kind who greets friends with a hug and spends more time asking if others need anything or are comfortable than worrying about herself. She was that way with Charlie, believing she could somehow make him a better husband and a better father. “I always had a mission with Charlie,” she says, sadly. “When he wasn’t drinking, he was outstanding. Charming and fun. But I was always waiting for that other shoe to drop.”
Vanessa was closing in on five when Jennifer was born on March 12, 1984. “She was a Gerber baby,” Sharon says, with a chuckle. “Soft, and round, beautiful.” Jennifer had red hair, her maternal grandfather’s piercing blue eyes, and a generous helping of freckles. A year later, Lauren made her appearance, followed quickly by Clayton.
From the beginning, Sharon was fascinated by her children, in awe of them. “They were these perfect little creatures,” she says, “and a constant source of amazement. I used to watch them, just to see what they would do.”
Charlie named Jennifer his “Fuffa,” and she became his sidekick. She was a tomboy, playing sports, fishing; an accomplished butterfly catcher, and a daddy’s girl. One year when she was still quite young, Jen asked for a “pelican” gun for Christmas. She meant a pellet gun, and her mistake made Charlie laugh. “It was really like Sharon had two kids, Vanessa and Lauren, and Jennifer and Clayton were mine,” says Charlie. “Those two were a lot alike. They loved the outdoors. Jennifer was my other boy.”
“Jennifer used to say that she and I were alike because we both had really big hearts,” says Clayton, a thin young man with shaggy brown hair and a thoughtful manner. “She said that was something we inherited from our mom.”
Their parents were both musical. Charlie sang in a country-and-western band, and Sharon played piano and sang at church. Jennifer wasn’t heir to those talents. “She couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket,” says Sharon, with a chuckle. “But even as a child, she loved music, and she loved to dance.”
At times, Sharon told her girls that she was envious of their sisterhood. She’d had two brothers but no sisters. “I’m so jealous that you have each other growing up,” she’d say. “You don’t know how lucky you are.”
The four children were a handful; that was true. At home, in an old shed behind the house, they raised pigs and participated in 4-H events. There were softball and soccer games, dance classes and spelling bees, county fair baking and sewing contests. “One minute they’d be ripping each other’s hair out and the next they’d be hugging,” Sharon says with a short laugh. Vanessa egged her siblings on, coaxing them to perform “all-star wrestling” on her bedroom floor. More often than not, the three girls and baby brother, as they called Clayton, played in the closet that connected Vanessa’s bedroom with Jennifer and Lauren’s room, dubbed “the little girls’ room.”
During the day, Sharon worked in the bookkeeping department at the Celanese plant just outside Bishop. When school wasn’t in session, the children stayed with Sharon’s parents on the farm in Alice. Their grandmother, Myrtle Custer, a woman with pin-straight bearing and cropped snow-white hair, sewed the girls wide-skirted and puff-sleeved dresses, and in pictures their cheeks were rosy and their smiles innocent. Jennifer and Lauren were so close, sharing the same bedroom, hugging and talking constantly, heads always together, that, although they were fourteen months apart, the whole family began to think of them as almost twins.
Yet the two youngest sisters were very different. Lauren was outgoing, afraid to talk to no one, quick to make friends. In contrast, Jennifer was a shy, quiet girl. While her sisters could form a head of steam and boil over, she rarely complained. Jennifer didn’t cry when she needed stitches just above her eye at two. When she fractured her elbow, she said nothing. Sharon wouldn’t have guessed if she hadn’t heard Jennifer moaning in her sleep.
Even before Jennifer began school, Sharon understood that her second daughter was “scary smart.” All the children attended Bishop’s public schools; high school, middle school, and elementary strung side-by-side on a long block of beige brick buildings and playgrounds. Vanessa, Lauren, and Clayton had to study. Jennifer picked everything up easily. A voracious reader, she consumed the books in the school library and had a nearly photographic memory. Yet her intelligence never translated to self-confidence. By school age, she wore glasses, and later came braces. She hated her freckles. Sharon tried to reassure her. “I told Jennifer that she had them because she was so special. That her freckles were spots where the angels kissed her before she came down from heaven,” she says.
Still, Jennifer grew up self-conscious and withdrawn. At school, she sat with Lauren and her circle of friends at lunch and sought them out on the playground during recess. “I made the friends, and Jennifer and I shared them,” Lauren remembers. When Jennifer moved up with her class to middle school, she circulated back to the elementary school whenever possible to be with Lauren. After school, they walked home together, sometimes with Jennifer lagging behind Lauren and her friends, reading a book.
When they read the series The Babysitters’ Club, Jennifer, Lauren, and Janna Thornberry, Lauren’s best friend, tried to decide which of the characters in the book they most resembled. They all knew without discussion that Jennifer, or Jen as they sometimes called her by then, was their “Mary Anne,” the shy, sweet bookworm. “Jen had this gentle sarcasm,” says Janna. “She could be so funny, and she always got the joke. But when someone didn’t understand, she never ridiculed them. Instead, she explained why the rest of us were laughing.”
Life in small towns seems to move slower, and Bishop was a safe place to grow up, comforting and friendly. “Everybody knows everybody,” Sharon says. “And everybody’s in bed by nine.”
The summers were long and spent at the beach in Corpus or swimming in their grandparents’ pool, and the pranks for the most part harmless, like toilet-papering houses and, in high school, sabotaging another class’s homecoming float. Jennifer played volleyball, basketball, and tennis, and worked on student council. From elementary school on, both Lauren and Jennifer were cheerleaders.
At football games, they wore their green and gold uniforms with “Badgers” across the front, jumping high in the air, waving their pompoms and urging their school team to a win. With two girls on the squad, Sharon was the cheerleading mom who coordinated snacks and drinks. In church, she ran the kitchen. There, Jennifer learned the Lord’s Prayer, and Psalm 23, her favorite, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
In 1992, when she was eight, Jennifer’s 222-pound black-and-white Poland hog, Spot, won reserve grand champion at the Nueces County livestock show. That year in Sunday school, Jennifer wrote down what she wanted God to do for her. She asked for a new job for her father, that her grandparents were kept safe on a trip, and wishes for everyone else in the family, but nothing for herself.
“That was just Jennifer,” said Sharon. “She always thought first about others.”
Despite appearances from the outside, in a community as small as Bishop, many understood that all wasn’t idyllic at the Caves’ charming farmhouse on the outskirts of town. “Everyone knew how Charlie was when he drank,” says Sharon. Alcohol had the power to change her jovial husband. He stormed through the house, raging at Sharon, while the four children hid in their play closet, the one between the girls’ bedrooms. At times, one or more of the children, especially Jennifer or Clayton, emerged to plead with their father to stop his rampage. “He’d shout at them and tell them to shut up,” Sharon says. “And it would go on, sometimes all night.”
Vanessa comforted her younger siblings, while they tried not to hear the turmoil that tore through their wood-frame house. “It was like clockwork, before, during, or after any holiday,” says Sharon. “I was always a nervous wreck, waiting for it to happen.”
The next morning, the old Charlie apologized, begging Sharon’s forgiveness. For many years, she gave it. Too long, Vanessa thought. “Mom let it go on much longer than it should have,” she says.
It was confusing for all the children. They loved the sober, happy Charlie. “My dad’s a big man, and he always made us feel like little girls when we were with him,” says Lauren. “He made us feel protected, even though he did some bad things.”
With so much tension in the house, it’s not surprising that Jennifer was fascinated by another little girl growing up in a farmhouse. She watched The Wizard of Oz so often, she wore out the tape. Perhaps she dreamed that she, too, could escape to a beautiful wonderland, one without her father’s angry rages. Through it all, Jennifer and Clayton were the ones who stayed close to their father. While Vanessa and Lauren turned away from Charlie, Jennifer played peacemaker, attempting to calm his outbursts.
“Jennifer was never judgmental. She never wanted to make anyone feel bad or out of place,” says Thornberry. “She was the type of person who never got into a lot of drama. She didn’t see things as the end of the world.”
For the most part, the Caves had a normal life, “except when Charlie was on a tear,” Sharon would say years later. Despite all Sharon had been through, she stayed with Charlie. “I’d convinced myself I could save Charlie from himself. We went to counseling, and I thought inside there was a really good person worth saving. But I could see what it was doing to the kids. In the end, he came home drunk one time too often.”
The afternoon the marriage ended, the Thursday before Easter vacation, Charlie arrived home late. Sharon watched the minutes tick off the clock, knowing that when her husband returned he would not be the easygoing Charlie she’d fallen in love with. She was right. He was in a foul mood. Drunk and angry, he threw everything from the refrigerator against the floor and walls, and the girls and Clayton again spent the night in the closet, banding together for support. “I wasn’t an angel, either. I had a temper,” Sharon said. “But this couldn’t continue.”
In the morning, the thirteenth Good Friday of their marriage, Sharon told Charlie, “I’m taking the children for their Easter photos and shopping. When I get back, I expect you to be gone.”
“For how long?” Charlie asked.
“From now on,” Sharon replied.
Charlie didn’t argue. “I think he knew he’d kicked that dog one too many times,” Sharon says. “By the time I got out of that marriage, it was a wonder I could walk upright, that I had any self-esteem left.”
Looking back, Charlie wouldn’t peg the demise of the marriage on his drinking. “We just couldn’t get along,” he says. “It didn’t work, and we went our separate ways.”
After the divorce, all the children except Vanessa, whose father was Sharon’s first husband, were ordered to visit Charlie. Lauren didn’t want to go. Throughout their young lives, Lauren had been the strong one, but it was Jennifer who took her sister under her wing. She led the way, putting her arm around her younger sister and saying, “It’ll be okay, Lauren. We’ll be all right.”
Of the girls, only Jennifer made it a point to visit Charlie. She didn’t hold a grudge for the turmoil and pain he’d caused in their family. “That just wasn’t Jennifer,” says Vanessa. “She never stayed angry at anyone. She never gave up on anyone. She absolutely refused to.”
After the divorce, Sharon and her young brood moved into a small house in town, but life continued, at first, relatively unchanged. In junior high, Jennifer and Lauren begged Sharon for a dog, a dachshund like one of their friends had. When they found a small brown dachshund on the way home from school and no one came to claim it, Jennifer called it “a gift from God,” and they named the little bundle Ginger. From that point on, Ginger went everywhere with Sharon and the children.
At times, Sharon loaded the four children and Ginger in the car, windows down, radio turned up, and barreled down the long, empty country roads, while they sang along to Aerosmith or Fleetwood Mac. “I had so much fun with them,” Sharon says. “They were the center of my life.”
In junior high, hiding behind her glasses, braces, and freckles, Jennifer still thought of herself as awkward and unattractive, even though her hair was a rich red and her eyes startling blue under thick lashes.
Despite her shyness, Jennifer had her place in the town. She loved children and became one of Bishop’s most sought-after babysitters. One year, she read The Diary of Anne Frank over and over, studying the Holocaust, deeply touched by the suffering. At times, Sharon worried that her middle daughter cared too much about others. The friends Jen brought home from school were most often new kids or children like her, those who felt as if they didn’t fit in. Sharon began to think of them as “Jennifer’s strays.”
Charlie was around, but not as much, and the children leaned on their mother. She cooked dinners for a houseful of kids before football games and took them to a friend’s condominium in Corpus on the beach in the summers. Although growing up quickly, Jennifer must have felt caught between her two sisters, Vanessa the natural beauty and Lauren the cute, fun, outgoing one.
It was in junior high that Jennifer began to change. First, her owlish, big-framed glasses were replaced by contact lenses, showing off her extraordinary blue eyes. That year in her gold and forest-green cheerleading outfit, Jennifer jumped a little higher. She appeared to finally be opening up to the world. She still loved the outdoors, but the tomboy was giving way to an attractive young girl. A new Jennifer was emerging.
“I don’t know if Jennifer ever really understood how pretty she was,” says Sharon. “I think deep inside she was always that shy, freckle-faced kid, the one who just wanted everything to be all right and for people to get along. Maybe it was because she never really believed in herself that…”