A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
Within days of the first Statesman articles on the case, blogs, chat rooms, and message boards filled with Laura Hall and Colton Pitonyak postings and chats. The bloggers dissected the case, culling through everything they could find in the newspapers and on television for fodder. Hornfans.com, a Web site for UT sports fans, had multiple threads where all aspects of the news coming out in the papers were bantered about. At the same time, two groups sprang up on Facebook: “I’m scared of Colton Pitonyak,” and “Laura Hall is insane.”
Seeming to not be able to keep herself from responding, Hall shot e-mails back. “Hey Fuckface,” she wrote to one. “I just found your cutesy groups. I’m sure you will post this message. You know nothing about me. You know nothing about Colton. And if you’re not careful, you’re looking at a lawsuit. For the record, I think your smartass approach to our legal problems is about the sickest thing I have ever seen anyone do. You disgust me. So tell all your buddies who think he’s scary and crazy, that I messaged you.
“Yes, I admit, people like you bother me. Maybe that makes me weak, but I don’t care. I just can’t let this kind of stuff go. I had to say something. If nothing else, respect me for that…”
Someone posted a response: “She thinks posting on a website is sick? What is killing a girl and cutting up her body?”
Not long after, a friend called Hailey. “Log onto Facebook, and look at Laura Hall’s page,” the girl said. There, Hailey read a posting Hall must have done as soon as she returned to Texas: “Colton is innocent. He’s the most generous, kindest person that I have been blessed to spend time with. There is no way he is anything but innocent. If anyone has anything to say to the contrary, I dare you to say it to me.”
Under the heading Status, she wrote: “In a relationship,” next to Location: “Deported,” and under Summer Plans: “Police ruined my summer.”
By then, Laura had called Andrea Jiles again, furious with her parents. “My dad was the one who called the police,” Hall fumed. Jiles tried to explain to Hall that her parents were worried about her, but Hall wasn’t listening. “My parents are bitches,” she said. “I’m leaving.”
Within days of being expelled from Mexico, Laura Hall was on her way back to Austin. Since the police still had the Cadillac, she took the bus. Once she arrived, she called Ryan Martindill, the friend she was with the night of the killing, and asked him if he would pick her up at the bus station, and if she could stay with him for a while. Martindill agreed and picked Laura up, but he and his roommate, Salzman, had tickets to hear a band that night at Stubb’s, a legendary Austin barbecue joint with live music. Afterward, they hooked back up with Laura, who showed off how she’d spent her time while waiting for them. On her ankle, she had a new tattoo, one that read: “Colton.”
On Thursday, August 25, a week and two days after Jennifer’s disappearance, detectives Gilchrest and Fugitt returned to Eagle Pass to pick up Colton Pitonyak at the Maverick County jail and transfer him back to Austin. First, however, they had someone to talk to: Pedro Fernandez. They met Fernandez at the border and listened as he detailed his encounters with the two young Americans. Fugitt’s ears picked up when the desk clerk mentioned he’d taken a photo of them the night at his house.
“Can you e-mail it to me?” Fugitt asked.
“Sure,” Fernandez agreed.
When Gilchrest and Fugitt drove into Austin, they took Colton Pitonyak to the Travis County jail, where he was fingerprinted, photographed, and booked under a million-dollar bond. Sam Bassett arrived hours later, eager for his first interview with his infamous client. When Bassett asked what happened, Colton said, “I don’t remember.”
Blaming a fog of drugs and alcohol, Pitonyak maintained he recalled little about the entire two days, from going out with Jennifer the night before, through the shooting and dismembering the body. But he was sure of one thing. Jennifer was his friend, he said, and he wouldn’t have shot her on purpose.
“What were you thinking?” Sam Bassett asked. “If you shot the girl by accident, why didn’t you call the police?” If Colton had picked up the telephone and called 911, the defense attorney believed prosecutors would have had little evidence to suggest it wasn’t accidental. At most, Pitonyak would be facing manslaughter charges, not murder.
“I don’t know,” Colton replied.
Bassett didn’t soft-pedal the odds for his young client, and later when he and Minton talked with Bridget and Eddie, they laid out the problems with the case as well. The condition of Jennifer’s body would infuriate a jury, and that Colton said he didn’t remember what transpired that night would only make it doubly hard to defend him.
In 2003, two years earlier, an infamous case had gone to trial in Galveston, Texas, that of New York real estate heir Robert Durst. Represented by a dream team of Houston attorneys, including Dick DeGuerin, Chip Lewis, Brian Benken, and Mike Ramsey, Durst was accused of murdering Morris Black, his neighbor in a dilapidated apartment building. At the time, Durst was living as a woman in Galveston, hiding out after he left New York under a cloud of suspicion involving the disappearance of his wife, Kathie, and the California murder of a family friend, Susan Berman. After shooting Black, Durst cut up the body, put it into garbage bags, and then took it one step further, throwing the bags into Galveston Bay.
At the trial, Durst took the stand and testified that he shot Black in self-defense, and then, assuming no one would believe him, disposed of the body in a state of panic. By consistently separating the shooting from the dismemberment, Durst’s lawyers won an acquittal for their mega-wealthy client.
That strategy, however, wouldn’t work in Colton Pitonyak’s case. Since he insisted he didn’t remember the shooting, Bassett and Minton couldn’t argue self-defense, because their client couldn’t get up on the stand and describe what happened.
“This was going to be tough,” Bassett said. “Really tough.”
Still, there were things the two defense attorneys could try. Their first effort would be to try to exclude the evidence from the apartment by filing a motion challenging its admissibility. If they convinced Judge Flowers that Jim Sedwick entered Colton’s apartment illegally and that his entrance constituted an illegal search, none of the evidence from the apartment, including Jennifer’s body, would be admissible in court. If successful, the tactic could essentially wipe out the prosecutors’ case.
Meanwhile, more trouble brewed for the defense attorneys that day at the McFall facility, where crime scene investigator Lee Hernandez processed Laura Hall’s green Cadillac. The car was cluttered with papers and fast-food debris. In the back right seat lay a dark maroon sombrero. During the search, Hernandez found a receipt from a Valero station where Hall filled up the tank and had the car washed before the trip to Mexico, nineteen gallons purchased at 3:47 that afternoon, and a copy of the traffic ticket from the Valverde County Sheriff’s Department.
In the backseat, Hernandez also found a backpack filled with men’s clothing. The contents were those of a privileged young man, one who wore Ralph Lauren underwear and socks, shirts, and slacks; and the Bank of America credit card and the passport in the backpack were both in the name of Colton Pitonyak.
The day after Colton’s return to Austin, ballistics came back on the gun found in his car and the bullets removed from Jennifer Cave’s body. They matched. The SW .380 found in the Toyota Avalon’s console was the weapon that shot both the bullet that killed Jennifer and the bullet found in her skull. The remaining bullets in the gun and those in Jennifer’s body also matched a box found in Pitonyak’s apartment, zipped inside a purple camera case. They were copper with exposed lead bases, full-metal jacket design.
When the cell phone photo arrived from Pedro Fernandez in Detective Fugitt’s e-mail, he pulled it up. On the screen, he saw Colton Pitonyak and Laura Hall hamming it up in Mexico, looking like two college kids on vacation. Like Fernandez, however, Fugitt noted something particularly odd: Colton gagging the nose and mouth of the stuffed Mickey Mouse. Even then, in Mexico, after Jennifer’s death, Pitonyak mimicked the tough guy.
Since they’d discovered her involvement in Pitonyak’s attempted escape, there’d been talk at APD and in the Travis County District Attorney’s office about what if anything to do with Laura Hall. Once the news broke about Hall’s flight with Pitonyak into Mexico, Ryan Martindill told APD she was at his apartment the night Jennifer died, so it seemed doubtful that she was involved in the actual killing. Still, there were other possible charges besides murder.
That same day, the twenty-sixth, Detective Gilchrest called Laura Hall and told her she could pick up her car at the McFall unit. APD had finished with it. First, however, she needed to stop at his office. When Hall called Andrea Jiles to tell her, Jiles scoffed, “They’re not giving you your car back. They’re going to arrest you.”
“No, they’re not,” Laura insisted.
When Hall walked in, however, instead of handing her the keys, Gilchrest presented her with a warrant for her arrest. The charge: hindering apprehension, a third-degree felony. Her bail would be set at $175,000.
“Do you understand how serious this is?” Gilchrest asked. “…Do you have $175,000?”
If not, Gilchrest informed her, she was going to jail.
Looking back, Gilchrest would say that Hall looked surprised and rattled. She’d already refused to talk to them without a lawyer, but now she insisted she wanted to give a statement. Gilchrest left to ask the advice of others, then returned and said she could talk if she wanted to, but she’d have to sign a form waiving her Miranda rights.
At first, Hall seemed uncertain about what to do. Gilchrest reviewed the charge with her and talked about the options for her sentence, from probation to ten years in prison. “Do you understand the gravity of the charges against you?” Gilchrest asked. “Do you want to make things right?”
Hall said she did, and signed the Miranda document.
When Gilchrest asked about Colton’s emotions when he talked of Jennifer’s killing, Hall said that he repeated over and over that he’d killed his best friend.
“Was he excited, bragging, remorseful kind of…?” Gilchrest asked.
“Remorseful, definitely,” she said.
“Are you trying to protect him again?” Gilchrest said, with a slight laugh.
Hall laughed along. “Yeah,” she said. “He was real upset about it, but I don’t know if that’s because he got caught…he cried over what this would do to his family. He was real messed up over that.”
At the end of a more than nine-hour session with detectives, Laura Hall signed a statement that rivaled the graphic, horror-filled vampire novels she had loved in high school. Colton Pitonyak, Hall maintained, had forced her to help him. When she arrived at the apartment, she said, Pitonyak whispered, “There’s a body in the bathtub.”
He brought her to the bathroom, “pulled back the shower curtain and showed me a body.” Although he didn’t say who the victim was, he claimed it was one of three people who had come into his apartment brandishing guns. Deranged, in Laura’s account, Pitonyak was the epitome of a villain, even licking a bloody knife and cackling. In this new version, Laura portrayed herself as a victim, bullied into helping Pitonyak, who threatened to push Hall into the bathtub with the dead body. With the body in the next room, Hall said she and Pitonyak had sex on the couch. At one point, Pitonyak, Hall insisted, threatened her with a knife and a gun.
There were many inconsistencies that called the truthfulness of the statement into question. Hall admitted she left the apartment and went to the bank, put gas in the car, called a friend, and even took a nap in her apartment. If she’d cooperated out of fear, why hadn’t she called police? And Hall’s statement didn’t match the physical evidence, as when she claimed a cackling Pitonyak stabbed Cave in the heel. No such wound was noted on the autopsy.
In Laura Hall’s new version, it was entirely Colton Pitonyak’s idea to flee to Mexico.
When Gilchrest asked why Pitonyak murdered Cave, Laura first said Cave owed him money, and then later that Colton killed Jennifer because she didn’t want to “be around him” anymore.
In the signed statement, Hall talked of Pitonyak’s emotions about the killing again: “[Colton] said it was hard, it was weird…It was like he cared; but then he didn’t.”
Hall’s new statement didn’t keep Gilchrest from acting on the warrant for her arrest. Bill Bishop would later say that he never offered Hall any kind of deal to testify against Colton. “I didn’t trust her to get up on the witness stand and tell the truth,” he says.
That day, Laura Hall was booked, her bail was set at $175,000, and she was assigned a cell in the main jail downtown. When her parents didn’t come up with bail money, she was moved to unit E at the Del Valle satellite jail, a sprawling facility on the city’s southern outreaches. Perhaps not surprisingly, Hall didn’t mesh well with the other women on the unit. They made fun of her, and some, although she wasn’t charged with murdering anyone, called her “that serial killer chick.”
A few weeks later, Hall was escorted to unit C and taken to the second floor. For the coming weeks she’d share her small living quarters with a grandmotherly woman named Henriette Langenbach.