A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
An article on the West Campus killing in the Austin American Statesman that Sunday identified Jennifer but had few details about her death, except a quote from Sid Smith, whom Jim had appointed as the family spokesperson. “Jennifer was a wonderful person,” Smith said, “a bright kid, outgoing and a good student.” Still on the run, Colton was being sought, and UT students were nervous, especially those moving into the Orange Tree, which now was known on campus by another name: “The Murder Tree.”
“I need to move,” one student told her parents. “I just don’t feel safe anymore.”
That morning, Sharon and Jim drove to the funeral home to make arrangements. When it came time to pick out Jennifer’s casket, Sharon couldn’t bring herself to enter the display room. It was such an unbelievable task, to have to pick out a casket for one of her children. Jim walked into the casket-lined room as Sharon stood outside. He described the ones he thought would be appropriate. From the doorway, Sharon peeked in and saw one he’d chosen, and nodded.
Little information was coming in from Austin, and it was all being funneled through Sid, who’d not only taken on the press but would act as a liaison with APD. Although Austin appeared quiet, something important did happen that day. Colton instant-messaged Nora Sullivan, nothing specific, just things like, “What’s up?” She wasn’t on the computer at the time he was, so they’d never actually corresponded, but Sullivan called to tell police, and two officers showed up at her door wanting to take her computer into headquarters. By then, Sullivan realized that the commotion at Colton’s apartment wasn’t just a drug bust but a killing, and that Jennifer, someone she liked, was dead.
The officers didn’t have a warrant, and Sullivan vetoed giving up her computer. Her television hadn’t arrived yet and she didn’t even have a radio, so the computer was her only entertainment, she told them, but she did offer something else. “You know, the night this happened, Colton knocked on my door at three in the morning. And he had blood on him.”
That afternoon, for the second time, the wispy blond college senior went to APD headquarters to give a statement, this time revealing everything, including how Colton told her a bizarre story about a gunfight with drug dealers. Why hadn’t she told them before? “They didn’t ask me that question,” she says. “They didn’t ask when I’d last seen Colton.”
When the prosecutor, Bill Bishop, heard the account of Sullivan’s late-night visitor, he pegged it as insight to the time of the murder. Jennifer’s body was so badly abused and decomposed that Dr. Peacock hadn’t been able to estimate time of death in any terms except days, but Bishop interpreted Colton’s visit to Sullivan as an attempt to cover up gunshots at his condo. From that point forward, the assistant district attorney believed that Jennifer died shortly before Pitonyak showed up at Nora Sullivan’s door.
In Corpus Christi, after the morning at the funeral home, Jim grew increasingly worried about Sharon. She needed to talk to someone, he decided, not just anyone but someone who’d lost a child. He could think of no one who’d had a child murdered, but a friend, a dentist, had lost a sixteen-year-old daughter to cancer. Jim called, and that afternoon the man came over and sat down with Sharon, and for a little while, they talked. Before he left, he told Sharon, “Jennifer will come to you in some way to let you know she’s all right. It happened to me, and it will happen to you.”
Sharon told Jim about the conversation, and he said perhaps their friend was right. Maybe, somehow, Jennifer would return to say good-bye. Sharon felt less hopeful. Since the night Jennifer disappeared, Sharon’s strong link to her middle daughter had felt severed. Until the law firm called, Sharon hadn’t sensed that Jen was in trouble or missing, and, except for that brief time she sat in Jennifer’s room at Denise’s, surrounded by her daughter’s few possessions, Sharon hadn’t felt Jennifer near.
A few hours later, Sharon and the rest of Jennifer’s family planned her funeral. Jim, Sharon, and their children all gathered in the living room to talk with Father David, telling stories about Jennifer and laughing, keeping at bay the terror and the sadness that now stalked their lives. Looking around the room at the faces of her surviving children, Sharon felt an all-consuming anxiety, a building fear. “I started to think that Colton might come after Vanessa, Lauren, or Clayton,” she says. “He’d hurt me once, and I’d told him I’d gone to the police. That’s why he’d run. What if he went after another of my children to punish me?”
At 9 A.M. the following morning, Monday, a warrant for Colton Pitonyak’s arrest hit the Travis County District Clerk’s office. While the indictment had come down two days earlier, the contents had been kept secret. In the signed warrant were the first details: how the call from the law firm alerted Sharon to Jennifer’s disappearance; the calls to missing persons; and the events that led up to Jim opening Pitonyak’s window, climbing in, and finding Jennifer’s body, the bloody machete in the dishwasher, and the hacksaw on the corpse’s chest. The most shocking words were those associated with the condition of Jennifer’s corpse: “parts severed…multiple stab wounds.”
The charge against Colton Pitonyak was murder, with a potential range of punishment from probation to life in prison. Despite the gruesome details of the case, Pitonyak wouldn’t be eligible for the death penalty, since in Texas the ultimate punishment required a murder accompanied with the commission of a second felony: robbery or kidnapping, or special circumstances such as the murder of a police officer.
That same day, Detective Walker arrived at the McFall forensic facility to execute the search warrant on Colton Pitonyak’s Toyota Avalon. Crime scene specialist Kimberly Frierson was there to take photos and process evidence. Without a key at their disposal, Walker called a Pop-A-Lock technician to open the right passenger side back door, which had already been fingerprinted.
Starting from the outside, they examined the car and the contents. Inside, they found a road atlas with an interesting omission: Someone had torn out the page of southern Texas that showed routes from Austin into Mexico. When Frierson opened the center console, she spotted something else of interest, wedged between receipts and insurance information: a Smith and Wesson .380 caliber, semiautomatic pistol.
Carefully removing the gun, Frierson clicked out the magazine, removed the bullets, and bagged it all as evidence. The .380 bullets were the same caliber as the shell casings found in Orange Tree unit 88, and when inspecting the grip, Frierson noted that someone had attempted to scratch off the gun’s serial number.
Finally, Frierson sprayed the interior of the car with Leuco Crystal Violet, a colorless spray that acts as a blood enhancement agent. When it comes in contact with hemoglobin, the solution turns a bright violet. Frierson noted on her report that no blood was found.
In Corpus, Lauren and Hailey went shopping. They bought Jennifer soft, baby blue pajamas to be buried in. Jim brought them to the funeral home, along with Jennifer’s “blanky,” the well-worn quilt Myrtle had made for Jennifer when she was a baby. Coming from her grandmother, the quilt was something Jennifer had always loved.
That morning in Austin, Scott and Denise drove to 906 McFall, the APD forensic site, to claim Jennifer’s car. The police had finished processing it a day earlier, and Scott had promised Sharon and Jim that he’d drive the car to Corpus for the funeral, and then return to Austin with friends. After he threw his things into Jen’s trunk, Scott brought Madyson to stay with Denise while he was in Corpus Christi. At the doorway, as he got ready to leave, Madyson looked up at her father. “When’s my sister coming back?” the little girl asked. It was then that Scott and Denise realized someone had to tell Madyson about Jennifer. Still, this wasn’t the time.
“Everything’s okay. We’ll talk when I get back,” Scott told the little girl, hugging her. “I love you, Madyson.”
“I love you, Daddy,” she replied.
In Jennifer’s car on the drive to Corpus Christi, Scott listened to an Incubus song entitled “I Wish You Were Here” on the radio, and he started to cry. It was one of Jennifer’s favorites, and the words sang of forgiveness. The verse repeated the sentiment that if nothing else, they would always have each other. “But Jennifer was gone,” Scott says. “And the song reminded me that she wouldn’t be coming back.”
A telephone rang at APD that afternoon, and Loren Hall, Laura’s father, was on the line. “I’m worried about my daughter,” he told an officer. Laura had e-mailed him and asked him to move her possessions out of her apartment. “I think she might be with Colton Pitonyak.”
Alerted by his call, APD investigated, and then called Deputy U.S. Marshal Vincent “Vinnie” Bellino in his office in the Rio Grande Valley. By the time they gave the information to Bellino, APD investigators had found a traffic ticket issued to one Laura Ashley Hall for traveling at an unsafe speed with an expired state tax sticker. At 1:46 A.M. on the night Pitonyak disappeared, Hall was pulled over in her green 1994 Cadillac Concours in Valverde County, north of Del Rio, Texas, where a bridge spanned the river into Mexico.
Assigned to the Lone Star Task Force, set up in 2003 to return fugitives to the United States, Bellino had worked for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department for sixteen years before joining the U.S. Marshals. As part of his job, he developed relationships with his Mexican counterparts, especially immigration authorities. Still, Bellino couldn’t assure APD of the Mexican government’s cooperation. “It’s hard to know what they’ll do in a given situation,” says Bellino. “But relationships have gotten better, and we do get more fugitives out.”
To check out the video from the Del Rio Bridge, Bellino assigned Deputy U.S. Marshal Joseph Smith, an officer with brown hair and thin lips, to take Pitonyak’s wanted poster, Laura’s driver’s license photo, and the information on the green Cadillac. Smith was told to concentrate on tapes from Thursday, August 18, the day Hall and Pitonyak were suspected of crossing into Mexico. One thing in particular made it easier: “Most of those who cross the border in Del Rio are Hispanic,” says Bellino. “Two white kids would stand out.”
Later, Smith called Bellino with good news; he’d found video of Hall driving the Cadillac license number P72BWK over the border at 2:36 that morning. Bellino and Smith now knew when and where Hall and Pitonyak entered Mexico, but that didn’t answer the most important question: Where was Pitonyak now?
That afternoon, at the Casablanca Inn in Piedras Negras, Pitonyak again got on the lobby computer to check his Facebook account. By then, the friends listed on his page had dropped from forty-seven to forty-one. As news of the murder spread, more would pull off his Web page, not wanting to be associated with someone whose name filled the newspaper as a fugitive suspected of murder. When Fernandez reviewed the accounts that afternoon, he noticed the young Americans had fallen behind on their hotel bill. He needed another payment. He called Hall, who brought down cash.
Early that afternoon in Corpus Christi, Jennifer’s friends began arriving for her funeral. Jim had made arrangements for them to stay in a friend’s condo on the beach, one he, Sharon, and the girls, especially Jennifer, had always enjoyed. When Vanessa was in the elevator with Scott, the door wobbled, stuttering back and forth, not closing, causing the elevator bell to ring, ding, ding, ding.
“Do you see what Jennifer’s doing?” Vanessa asked. “That’s been happening all day.”
Scott looked at Vanessa as if she’d lost her mind, but then she said, “Okay Jennifer, you can close the doors now. We know you’re here.”
Scott watched wide-eyed as the elevator doors slid closed.
Visitation began at the Seaside Funeral Home that afternoon at five and was set to run until seven. Sharon and the family arrived early. The casket was closed. Sharon still didn’t know about the horror that had been inflicted upon Jennifer’s body, and she begged to see her lost daughter one last time, to touch her and look at her face as she said goodbye. Without explaining why she couldn’t, Jim insisted that wasn’t wise. Standing beside the casket, Sharon sobbed and clawed at it. “I want to see my baby,” she pleaded. “Please, I want to see my baby.”
Thinking nothing else this awful could ever happen in his life, Jim held her. “You can’t,” he said. “You have to trust me on this. You can’t.”
The funeral home was filled with flowers and pictures of Jennifer with family and friends. When the doors opened, a long line of hundreds of well-wishers walked toward the family, wanting to shake hands or hug and share their condolences.
Pulling together her remaining strength, Sharon held on, determined not to break down. She held up surprisingly well, but then halfway through the vigil, Sid pulled Jim to the side. Moments later, Jim asked the funeral director to turn off the music and to close the doors on the line of mourners still waiting outside. When the doors closed, Jim stood in the center of the room.
“I’m sorry, but everyone except immediate family has to leave,” he said. “We appreciate your coming, but ya’ll need to go.”
Some hesitated for a moment, unsure, looking at one another for guidance, but soon everyone followed Jim’s order and left. Only immediate family remained in the funeral home with Jennifer’s closed casket. In the pit of her stomach, Hailey knew they were about to hear horrific news. She looked at Lauren and worried that she simply couldn’t endure more. Hailey knew Lauren well enough to understand that she handled information better if it came when she was prepared to hear it. “Please leave this room,” Hailey told her.
With no alternative, Jim explained that in Austin the newspaper and TV stations had found the arrest warrant and were pushing to get Jennifer’s autopsy. “I have to tell you something that’s fixing to run on the six o’clock news,” he said. “Anyone who doesn’t want to hear needs to leave, now.”
Lauren looked at Hailey, and turned and left.
After she’d gone, Jim explained Jennifer had been shot and she’d died quickly, but there was more. After her death, someone had mutilated her body, cutting off her head and hands. As he spoke, Sharon and Vanessa screamed, their bodies violently shaking. Jennifer’s grandmother, Myrtle, sobbed, as Vanessa ran outside. Hailey, not able to bear more, ran out after her. When one of Jim’s friends found Vanessa, she was again sitting on a curb, much as she had at the crime scene, this time rocking and staring into space.
“I’d like a cigarette,” she said, although she wasn’t a smoker. When the man gave it to her, Vanessa couldn’t hold it, and it fell into the gutter. The man helped her up and brought her to his car, then drove her home.
One of Jim’s cousins, a physician, followed them home to help, and from the house, Jim called their family doctor, who rushed over to care for Sharon and Vanessa, who were both near hysteria.
In Little Rock, Tommy Coy watched the evening news that night and heard that Texas authorities were searching for Colton Pitonyak on a murder charge, in a horrific case in which the body of a young woman had been dismembered. Coy stared at the television. The report, he thought, had to be wrong. But the news anchor had clearly said Colton Pitonyak, who’d graduated from Catholic High School. For a little while, Coy sat and wondered, and then he went to an upstairs closet and pulled out a box of student mementos, things he’d kept from his best students.
After rummaging through, he pulled out a handwritten note from Colton dated 2001, thanking him for writing a recommendation to help him get into UT’s business school. Coy read and reread the note, thinking about the kid he knew.
“I was baffled,” says Coy.
Sam Bassett also heard the reports not long after he reached Austin that evening. At first, he couldn’t quite believe the news about the condition of the body. Then, he thought about what this meant for the case, the publicity and the shock for Colton’s parents. “This wasn’t going to be your usual case,” he says. “But I liked Bridget and Eddie Pitonyak, and I knew I’d do what I could to help their son.”
Deputy U.S. Marshal Aaron Greenwood called Vinnie Bellino at 7:30 that evening, with more information via APD from Loren Hall. Hall had reported that he believed his daughter was contacting him from a hotel in Piedras Negras. As soon as he hung up the telephone, Bellino put in a call to his counterpart in Coahuila, the Mexican state that includes the city of Piedras Negras, asking to meet him at the border in Eagle Pass. At the international boundary line on top of the bridge over the Rio Grande, Bellino gave Mexican officers a wanted poster for Pitonyak, a driver’s license photo of Laura Hall, and a description and license plate number for her green Cadillac. “This Pitonyak’s tied to a really brutal murder,” Bellino told those gathered. “We need to find him and get him in custody, quick.”
A while later, Laura Hall called the front desk at the Casablanca Inn, and Pedro Fernandez answered.
“Are you going to help us sell the car?” she asked. “We want to leave.”
“I don’t want anything to do with you two and your problems,” he replied.
“That’s okay,” she said. “But please don’t tell anybody about us.”
That evening in Corpus Christi, Scott, Vanessa, and the rest of the twentysomethings were on the beach. They took wine, beer, and blankets. “We were going to say good-bye,” says Vanessa.
The Gulf breezes were strong, and they talked about Jennifer and played CDs, including the Incubus song Scott had heard on the radio on the way there that day, “I Wish You Were Here.” As it played, they held hands and sang along, then ran out into the waves together, letting the cold water wash over their bodies.
On the U.S. side of the border, Vincent Bellino was in the department’s Eagle Pass office, maintaining a vigil, hoping for word on the whereabouts of Colton Pitonyak. At 12:30 that night, the phone rang.
“We found the Cadillac,” a Mexican officer told him.
The Mexicans had moved quickly, appearing to want Pitonyak out of their country as much as Bellino and a squad of homicide detectives wanted him under arrest in Austin. The plan was to take Pitonyak by surprise, before he could get to a lawyer and fight extradition. Because he was without legal status in the country, the Mexican police planned to expel Pitonyak as an illegal immigrant. For all intents and purposes, “Colton Pitonyak was like a wetback in Mexico,” says Bellino. “He wasn’t born there, didn’t have citizenship, and could be kicked out at any time.”
Dressed in jeans, boots, and a T-shirt, Bellino drove to the line down the center of the Eagle Pass Bridge, the border between the two countries. A little while later, the plainclothes Mexican police arrived in a beat-up white van. Bellino got inside, and they escorted him across the border and drove the short distance to Piedras Negras, pulling into the parking lot at the Casablanca Inn. Once there, they stopped near an old green Cadillac. Bellino checked the license plate number. It was Laura Hall’s. Glancing up at the hotel, the deputy U.S. Marshal saw Hall and Pitonyak on a second-floor walkway, smoking and talking.
“That’s them,” Bellino whispered.
With that, Mexican officers backed up the van to transport Bellino back across the border. He had no authority in Mexico, and they didn’t want him in their country when they apprehended Pitonyak and Hall. Back in the Eagle Pass office, Bellino waited with Smith, hoping Mexican authorities wouldn’t hesitate too long and lose their prey.
An hour later, Pedro Fernandez was at the inn’s front desk when a squadron of Mexican police entered. Without asking any questions, they proceeded directly through the hotel, outside, and into the parking lot. Fernandez followed and watched as the officers banged on Pitonyak’s room. Pitonyak opened the door, and the officers rushed in and grabbed him. Colton Pitonyak said nothing as he was handcuffed and brought from the room, but Laura Hall, sounding like the lawyer she one day hoped to be, screamed: “We’re American citizens. You’re violating our civil rights. You can’t arrest us.”
At 1:40 A.M., Mexican police called to report that they had Pitonyak and Hall and were about to deport them from Mexico. Bellino and Smith rushed back to the center of the one-hundred-yard-long international bridge in two cars. At the boundary line, they waited. Again the white police van pulled up and stopped. The Mexican officers climbed out, bringing the two young Americans with them. Pitonyak looked dirty and disheveled, wearing a green T-shirt, too big Ralph Lauren Bermuda shorts, and a pair of $100 tennis shoes. Relieved to have his suspect in custody, Bellino signed the documents, and the Mexicans left.
In two cars, one of the young Americans with each, Bellino and Smith drove the short distance to the U.S. Customs office, where Colton Pitonyak was officially welcomed back to Texas, then quickly read his rights and arrested. Bellino entrusted Hall, who had no charges pending against her, to the custody of the customs officers, and Bellino, Smith, and an INS officer took Pitonyak and left for the Maverick County jail. On the way, Colton spoke for the first time: “What am I being charged with?”
“Murder,” Bellino said.
“If this is a murder charge, I know what this is about,” Pitonyak said.
They asked no questions, and he offered nothing else.
When they arrived at the jail, the sally port entrance, a set of two doors used to isolate and secure vehicles brought into the facility, wasn’t working, and Bellino got out with the INS officer to walk inside and let the jailers know they’d arrived. While he was in the car alone with Joseph Smith, Pitonyak spoke again.
“I really fucked up,” he said.