A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)

Chapter 24

West Campus was still percolating with the aftermath of the killing. News reports offered tips on how women could stay safe, including advice from a private investigator on how to do background checks on potential dates. Meanwhile, Gilchrest and Walker searched Pitonyak’s apartment one last time before releasing it to his parents and the landlord. In particular, they hoped to find the missing bullet. While three casings had been found, they’d discovered only two bullets: both removed from Jennifer’s body. Where was the missing bullet?

Gilchrest paid particular attention to the torn-up couch, where a bullet could wedge inside cushions and be hard to find, but never discovered what they’d come looking for. Instead, the detectives recovered an orange, barrel-shaped purse from under the bed, one with Jennifer’s cell phone and wallet inside.

One other thing they logged into evidence that day, found near the coffee table, was a Burger King bag with a receipt attached, for a $6.16 meal purchased the day Jennifer disappeared. Just after Colton Pitonyak left Breed & Co. Hardware, he bought a value meal with a medium Coke and fries, requesting no onions.

When Bishop saw it, he shook his head. Minutes earlier, Pitonyak was shopping for tools to cut up Jennifer Cave’s body, which lay decomposing in his bathtub, but he obviously hadn’t let it spoil his appetite.

“In Arkansas, Those Who Knew Suspect Are Baffled by Arrest” read the Statesman headline on August 28. Neighbors and friends of the Pitonyaks talked to the reporter about the Colton Pitonyak they knew, the brilliant student and seemingly happy young man. “We’ve known that child forever,” said one woman. “It could be any one of our kids. That’s what’s most frightening.”

For their part, Bridget and Eddie Pitonyak weren’t talking. As soon as the publicity hit, they’d built a wall of sorts, keeping to themselves. “We’d see them and it was the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room,” says one of Bridget’s friends. “No one mentioned Colton sitting in a jail in Austin or what he was accused of doing to that poor girl.”

In South Texas, Jennifer’s family tried to come to terms with her death. Clayton, at times, wondered if it were all a bad dream. He sometimes woke up mornings and, for a little while, forgot. Then it came flooding back. Jennifer was dead.

Hailey felt guilty, wondering if she might have been able to protect Jennifer, if she’d stayed closer to her. And Lauren scanned the Internet, looking at the articles on nights when Hailey was out of their apartment, when she was alone and could absorb it on her own terms. Afterward, she felt sick and awkward, as if everyone watched her. At times, Vanessa thought of something funny and wanted to tell Jennifer, only to remember she couldn’t.

Sleep was difficult for Sharon, and when she did, there were the nightmares. In them, she saw Jim’s frightened face as he emerged from the apartment. And she dreamed of Jennifer, how angry she must be that she was robbed of the opportunity to prove herself. More than anything, Sharon longed to touch her daughter’s long red hair and whisper good-bye.

In early September, after the chaos had started to settle, Jim drank coffee on the patio, covered with potted plants from Jennifer’s funeral. Since they’d moved into the house, he and Sharon had been attempting to lure hummingbirds to the yard, planting flowers to attract them and hanging a hummingbird feeder. All without luck.

On this morning, however, Jim looked up and saw one of the tiny, vibrating birds hovering next to the feeder. Fascinated, he watched, and the bird left the feeder and flew directly over to five brightly painted angel figurines he’d picked up a year earlier on a trip to Colorado. The angels were supposed to ward off evil spirits, and he and Sharon had hung them across the back of the house, at the time dedicating one to each of their girls. To Jim’s surprise, the hummingbird went from angel to angel, as if kissing them.

This is crazy, Jim thought.

The next morning, however, it happened again. And then, in the afternoon, the hummingbird was back. This time Sharon was outside with Jim, and it appeared the bird was talking to each of the angels, facing them and flitting from one to the other.

“She’s right here,” Jim said.

“What’re you talking about?” Sharon asked.

“That little bird is Jennifer,” Jim said. “She’s come to check on us.”

Her heart breaking, aching for any connection to Jennifer, Sharon didn’t believe the bird was her daughter, but she did want Jim to find what peace he could. He’d been so brave, so wonderful, and they had both been through so much.

For nearly a month, the hummingbird visited daily, watching Jim drink his coffee. Then it left and never returned.