A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
“They got him. They got him,” Scott heard Vanessa screaming when he awoke the next morning. Jennifer’s friends filled the condo, and Vanessa was crying and jumping up and down on the telephone, talking to her mother.
“They found Colton,” she shouted. “They arrested him!”
Scott ran to hug her, and pretty soon everyone in the condo was awake, talking about Colton Pitonyak’s arrest in Mexico. After so much sadness, it was the first reason they’d had to rejoice. Afterward, Vanessa went back to bed and fell quickly to sleep, the first peaceful sleep she’d had since the night before Jennifer disappeared.
By then, detectives Mark Gilchrest and David Fugitt were en route to Eagle Pass to interview Pitonyak. They’d considered flying, but Gilchrest didn’t trust small planes, so they drove south, heading toward the Maverick County jail, figuring that without airports to contend with, it would be almost as fast. By the time they arrived, Loren Hall had already come and gone. Bellino had called him as soon as he’d finished turning Pitonyak over to the jail guards, to let Hall know they had his daughter at the point of entry. While they were on the telephone, Hall confided in Bellino. “He sounded upset and frustrated, and he said that Laura was trying to grow up on her own,” says Bellino. “I had the impression that he thought this was all rebellion, and that he was trying to hold on to her.”
While she waited for her father, Smith watched Laura Hall pace the facility, talking to herself and acting strangely. She wanted to call Colton’s attorney, saying she had to get him out of jail. At one point, an agitated Hall said, “I’ll kill anyone who hurts Colton.”
Whatever the issues between the father and daughter, when Loren Hall arrived, Laura ran to her father and threw her arms around him.
Loren Hall asked Bellino about reclaiming the car and Laura’s things, along with Colton’s possessions still at the Casablanca. Bellino advised Hall to wait to drive into Mexico until daylight, when it would be less dangerous. But Hall and his daughter didn’t take the advice, instead leaving immediately for Piedras Negras. Customs called Bellino two hours later. Laura Hall was coming back across the border in her Cadillac.
“Do you want us to detain her?” the border patrol officer inquired.
“No, APD didn’t ask us to hold her,” Bellino answered. “There are no charges pending against her.”
After checking in with the Maverick County Sheriff’s Department, Gilchrest and Fugitt went directly to the jail. Because of the severity of the charges against him, Pitonyak was on a suicide watch, his shoelaces and belt confiscated. Guards brought a handcuffed Pitonyak to meet with the two detectives, and Gilchrest read Pitonyak his Miranda rights: He had the right to an attorney, and anything he said could be used against him. The talking ended quickly, when Colton Pitonyak asked for a lawyer.
At 6:30 that morning, Said Aziz was in his car driving to Texas. He planned to stop in San Marcos before continuing on to Austin to get ready for classes to start at UT in a week. Following reports of the news unfolding in Austin, Aziz had thought a lot about Jennifer, whom he considered a friend. That morning a long article had run in the Austin American Statesman: “Police: UT Student Used Saw to Butcher Body.”
When Said’s cell phone rang and he answered, he heard Laura Hall’s voice. “You wouldn’t believe the shit coming down,” she said. “Colton’s been arrested. The Mexican cops broke our hotel door down. I can’t believe they found us so fast.”
Telling him about the early-morning raid, Hall sounded excited, elated at the drama she’d become enmeshed in.
“How long have you been involved in all this?” Said asked.
“I have been up in this shit since like two hours after the shit started,” she crowed.
“Well, what’s going on?” he asked.
“Basically, I’m fucked,” she said, but then she went on to explain that she had a plan. Her intention was to tell police that she believed she and Colton were on a vacation, and that she knew nothing about Jennifer’s dismembered body in his bathtub. “I’ll be okay.”
At eight that morning, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City issued a press release: “Thanks to quick action on the part of Mexico’s immigration authorities and the US Marshals service, Colton Pitonyak will be held accountable in the US for one of the most horrific murders ever committed in the state of Texas.”
By then, Andrea Jiles’s cell phone was ringing in Houston. “You wouldn’t believe what’s happened,” Laura said, again sounding excited. “Check the Internet.”
Laura hung up, and Jiles, who was recovering from foot surgery, got up and logged onto her computer. She typed “Colton Pitonyak” into Google and felt queasy as a list of news articles appeared, including the wanted poster from the U.S. Marshals office.
“My phone is probably tapped,” Hall said, when she called back. “Colton’s in jail.”
“Why aren’t you in jail?” Jiles asked.
“They aren’t going to get me,” Hall said. “I didn’t do anything. We were just on vacation.”
“You’re going to go to jail,” Jiles warned. “They’re just working on gathering enough evidence to book you.”
“Don’t say that,” Hall said, for the first time sounding worried. “They aren’t going to get me.”
Laura Hall made at least one more call that Tuesday morning, phoning Colton’s attorney, Sam Bassett, to tell him of the arrest. Bassett immediately contacted an Eagle Pass attorney, hiring him to meet with Pitonyak. Bassett needed to make sure his client didn’t talk to police. Then he went in to talk to his mentor, Roy Minton.
Gracious and old-fashioned, Minton had headed the go-to firm in Austin for decades, and Sam Bassett was one of the old man’s favorites. “He’s one of the best young lawyers I’ve known,” he says. It was Minton’s opinion that defense lawyers could be too aggressive, too caustic, and that doing so only backfired on their clients. Bassett respected the older man. Often dressed with a bit of Texas flair, Minton had an optimistic attitude and appeared comfortable in his own skin. Bassett had seen other criminal defense attorneys eaten up by working with clients who’d done terrible crimes or by being unable to free clients they believed innocent. Minton wasn’t like that. “You do the best you can for the client,” Minton says. “And you accept that there are a lot of things you don’t control.”
At about that time in Corpus Christi, there was a silent ceremony unfolding at Jim and Sharon’s home, on a quiet street surrounded by trees. Hailey, Vanessa, and Lauren pulled out Sharon’s clothes, looking for something for her to wear to the funeral. They found a black dress, and then slipped her into it. Lauren sat her on a stool in the bathroom, and Sharon tried not to look into the mirror while her daughters curled her hair and applied her makeup. Later, Sharon wouldn’t remember what she’d worn, and she wouldn’t care.
In honor of Jennifer, who’d loved sexy, strappy shoes, all the Cave and Sedwick women wore “girl shoes,” high heels. Vanessa’s were gold stilettos. And Sharon asked them to wear something blue, Jennifer’s favorite color.
As they were leaving for the funeral, Sharon looked at Hailey in her black dress. “You’re not wearing any blue?” Sharon asked.
“Yes, I am,” Hailey said. “I’m wearing a blue thong Jennifer bought me.”
At 11:30, Laura Hall called Aziz again. The conversation lasted about ten minutes, and much of it was dedicated to Laura’s angst about protecting Colton. She was in love with him, and said she would do anything she could to help him.
“Colton doesn’t merit loyalty. He’s an axe murderer who killed a person we both knew,” Aziz argued. “A girl a lot like you.”
“You shouldn’t judge Colton,” Hall replied. “Colton told me what happened. It was an accident…Colton said I could help by sticking up for him…There’s a difference between manslaughter and first-degree murder…If I help him, he might walk.”
“I might believe it was an accident if Colton just shot her, but look what he did to her,” Aziz said. “How did you get to Mexico?”
“We just hauled in my Caddy,” she said.
“Colton killed a girl, someone like you,” Aziz said again. “Why would you help him?”
“I love him,” Hall replied. “And that’s just how I roll.”
To Said Aziz, Laura Hall sounded as if she thought she were involved in a romantic getaway, a grand adventure with the man she loved. When Aziz referred to them as gangsters “like Bonnie and Clyde,” Hall laughed.
After his 11:30 call from Laura Hall, Said Aziz didn’t know what to do. It seemed she was pulling him into the murder case, somewhere he had no desire to be. He picked up the telephone and called APD, where an officer asked him to skip San Marcos and drive directly to Austin, to give a statement to police.
Meanwhile, with Colton Pitonyak lawyered up, Gilchrest and Fugitt decided to go back to Austin via Tarpley, Texas, to stop at the Caribbean Cowboy RV Park to interview Laura Hall. When they got there, Hall did as she’d told Aziz she would; she wrote and signed a statement that said she knew nothing of a killing and that she’d thought she and Pitonyak were on a romantic getaway. When Gilchrest asked if Laura knew what had happened at Colton’s apartment, she answered, “I wish I did.”
During the course of the interview and statement writing, Laura Hall claimed that Jennifer’s body in Colton’s bathroom could have been “a set up.”
“I would like to say for my statement that Colton wasn’t a sicko,” she said. “He would not shoot this girl on purpose. That’s my opinion.”
Gilchrest and Fugitt did one more thing; they confiscated Laura Hall’s green Cadillac.
At one that afternoon, All Saints Episcopal Church in Corpus Christi overflowed with hundreds of mourners, there to pay their last respects to Jennifer Cave and grieve with her friends and family. The church full, many stood outside, where reporters from both Austin and Corpus congregated as well. Television cameras rolled and still photographers snapped photos.
“Hallelujah, praise the Lord,” Father David Stringer called out, beginning the ceremony. “Police caught the man they sought, the person they believe killed Jennifer.”
A cheer rang through the church’s high, A-framed ceiling, where a cross hung suspended over the altar.
The ceremony was at the same time joyous and sad, a bittersweet parting.
Matthew 5:9 filled the church: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are called the children of God.” Jennifer, Father David said, had been a peacemaker, a girl who wanted the happiness of others more than her own. It was so ironic that she’d died of violence.
The crowd recited the Twenty-third Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…,” Jennifer’s favorite, and Father David told the warm and sometimes funny stories he had compiled from Sharon, Jim, Clayton, and the girls during the Sunday visit to the house. He talked about Jennifer the bookworm, the little girl who loved to dance, the cheerleader in her green and gold uniform with an ear-to-ear smile on her face.
In the front pew, Jim wrapped his arm around Sharon, and Scott and Vanessa held tight hands. Lauren, Hailey, Clayton, Whitney, Charlie, Myrtle, the entire family was there, along with their extended family and friends.
“We all just latched on to one another,” says Scott.
Throughout the ceremony, music filled the church. Perhaps more than anything with the exception of her family and friends, Jennifer loved music. Sharon knew “somewhere Jennifer was probably rolling her eyes,” but she included Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman’s melancholic “Time to Say Goodbye.” Most of the songs, however, were favorites of Jennifer’s. When Josh Groban’s “You Lift Me Up” filled the church, Jim stood and motioned for others to follow. Soon everyone was on their feet, but Jim had to help Sharon and support her. Memories of the little girl with red hair who’d grown up scanning the flat Texas plain and dreaming of Oz filled the church, along with Kenny G’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
“Don’t ever let life pass you by!” an Incubus song called “Warning” urged, as Jim helped Sharon walk from the church. A motorcycle escort and a line of cars waited to spirit them away to George West, the cemetery where Jennifer would be laid to rest next to her grandfather. The grave-side funeral would be only the immediate family, and they’d taken pains to escape the clutch of media.
There, in the near one-hundred-degree heat, they stood beside Jennifer’s open grave, the casket perched over it.
“Did they find Jennifer’s hands?” Sharon asked Jim. “Is all of her in the casket?”
In the back of her mind, she remembered a photo she’d seen on the news in Austin of a police officer searching the Orange Tree Dumpster. Was it impossible to think that there were parts of Jennifer that hadn’t been found?
“Yes,” he whispered. “All of Jennifer is in the casket. I promise.”
Still, it was in the back of Sharon’s mind. Colton Pitonyak had cut her daughter up. She wanted her whole again.
Said Aziz was in the APD parking lot getting ready to give a statement when Laura Hall called again, at 3:35 that afternoon. By then, she’d talked to the two detectives, and her demeanor was far less jubilant than in the morning. She sounded distraught and confused, retracting much of what she’d told him in the morning. Aziz had the impression that the seriousness was finally sinking in and that Laura wanted to limit the damage.
“I had no idea what was going on,” she told him. “I thought we were just going to Mexico for fun.”
The statement she gave to Gilchrest and Fugitt that day said, “basically the deal was, ‘Let’s go to Mexico.’ It may have been my idea. I can’t recall. I wanted to go to Rio de Janeiro. I was excited that he wanted to go on a trip with me…I was in love with him. I liked the idea of a road trip.”
Around that time in Mexico, Pedro Fernandez walked across the Eagle Pass Bridge to talk to the border patrol agents who manned the crossing. “I work at the Casablanca,” he told them. “I know something about those two kids from Texas.”
At four o’clock, Sharon and Jim returned home. Sharon walked over and picked up a photo of Jennifer, a happy, smiling photo taken before she’d left Corpus Christi. “Jim, look,” Sharon ordered.
As much as he wanted to support her, Jim couldn’t look at it. In his mind, he couldn’t erase the memory of what he’d seen in Colton’s apartment, the horror of Jennifer’s death. Needing to feel normal if even just for a little while, he left and drove to a restaurant where many of their friends congregated. He had a drink, talked, and tried to relax.
Meanwhile, Jennifer’s two sisters mourned her in very different ways.
For her part, Lauren couldn’t get over being angry with Jennifer. She kept thinking of all the things she’d planned to do with her, to stand up in each other’s weddings, share raising their children, living their lives, celebrating their successes, and comforting each other through their failures. Jennifer had been stupid, and she’d used bad judgment. She trusted someone she shouldn’t have, and she’d let the drugs take over her life. “I kept thinking that I’d never see her again, and I was mad about that, but I also felt guilty for being angry,” she says. “I thought we’d be old ladies together, telling stories about old times.”
Vanessa’s anger was aimed more at herself, the guilt of not protecting her little sister. She found a poem that reminded her of Jennifer, an e. e. cummings poem, “i carry your heart with me.” It expressed her innermost feelings, her determination to have Jennifer with her, if not physically, then spiritually. No matter where Vanessa went or what she did, Jennifer would be with her. “When I marry and have children, they’ll be Jennifer’s, too,” she says. “For the rest of my life, I will share everything with her.”
Already, there was something Vanessa knew she needed to do for Jennifer.
When Scott left for Austin, Vanessa followed him. Madyson needed to be told that Jennifer was dead, and Scott confided that he couldn’t imagine being the one who told her. He simply didn’t know what to say. Wanting to protect the little girl Jennifer loved, Vanessa offered to help. So they sat together in Scott’s apartment, where Jennifer had been so happy, and talked, Vanessa using the story her mother had told Jennifer when she was a little girl.
“Madyson, you know how Jennifer has all of those freckles?” Vanessa asked.
The little girl nodded.
“She hated those when she was little because they made her different. But Jennifer didn’t know that the freckles made her special. They’re angel kisses,” she said. “The angels loved Jennifer.”
“Uh huh,” Madyson said, with a nod.
“Well, honey, all the angels just missed Jennifer so much. They loved her so much, that they asked her to come back to heaven to be with them, and Jennifer said she would.”
“When will she come back here?” the little girl asked, looking concerned.
“Once you go up to heaven, you can’t come back,” Vanessa said.
“What if I want to talk to her?” Madyson asked.
“Anytime you want to talk to Jennifer, close your eyes and think of her,” Vanessa said. “Think really hard, and tell her whatever you want. She’ll hear you.”
“But I want to talk to her here,” Madyson said. “I want her to be with me.”
Tears filled the little girl’s eyes, and she sobbed. “Don’t cry, Madyson,” Vanessa said, holding her. “Jennifer’s not gone. She’ll always be with you. Now you have your very own guardian angel.”
Later that day, Vanessa was driving back to Dallas when Scott’s friends gathered to finish moving him out of the apartment. He had the house rented, and he didn’t want to stay any longer. The apartment reminded him too much of Jennifer.
The following Friday night, many in the circle of friends gathered for a memorial service of their own for Jennifer at Scott’s new house. From there, they went to the Canary Roost, the bar where Karissa worked. Laura Ingles, Eli, Katrina, many who knew Jennifer and loved her were there, and the night felt strangely subdued. The friends talked, listened to music, and laughed. Scott got up on stage and sang a song and dedicated it to Jennifer.
Before Jennifer entered his life, Scott and Katrina had dated, and this night they fell easily into bed together. It was familiar and comforting. They held each other, and soon they were making love. At one point, Scott looked up, and Katrina’s eyes were closed and she seemed far away.
“Look at me,” he said, but her eyes remained shut. Scott felt something odd was happening, believing that Katrina couldn’t open her eyes.
They made love with more passion than ever before, more than Scott had ever experienced. When it was over, Katrina rolled off him, trembled, and opened her eyes. They lay there for a minute, and then, for no apparent reason, Katrina jumped up and screamed.
“What’s wrong?” Scott shouted.
“I know this is strange, but that wasn’t me,” Katrina said, trembling. “It felt like I wasn’t in my body. It felt like Jen was here.”
Just then, they heard a crash.
Scott rushed downstairs, found nothing wrong, no reason for the loud noise, and then stood in the kitchen, staring out a window into the backyard. Suddenly, he noticed a shadow in the distance. As he watched, the shadow drifted toward the house. “It came through the closed door into the kitchen, and then it circled past me,” he says. “I got this chill, felt a cold breeze, like a whoosh. Every hair on my body stood up, and I had an overwhelming feeling that it was Jennifer. I started to smile, and I couldn’t stop.”
As quickly as it appeared, the shadow vanished, and the house was quiet.
Upstairs, Scott told Katrina what had happened, and she, too, believed that Jennifer had been with them. Then, as suddenly as the first time, it happened again, another crash. Scott ran downstairs, but this time found nothing. Scott stood in the living room and laughed.
“Scott, did that really just happen?” Katrina asked when he returned to the bedroom.
“Yeah,” he said. “I think it did.”