A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
In October, two months after Jennifer’s death, Sharon saw Colton Pitonyak for the first time, in a courtroom at a motion hearing. She would later remember staring at the man accused of murdering her daughter. One question nagged her: Why? She left feeling physically ill and couldn’t eat for days.
Andrea Jiles visited Laura Hall in jail that fall. Her friend had bruises around her eyes and a lump on her forehead.
“What happened?” Jiles asked.
“I fell out of bed,” Laura replied, without elaborating.
The two friends talked, and Laura told Jiles that it had been her idea to flee to Mexico, and she was still standing by Colton.
“How can you do that? He killed a girl,” Jiles said. “That girl is dead.”
“Well, this is all bullshit,” Laura said. She’d already told Jiles the plan she and Colton had agreed on before his arrest: that they’d blame each other for the killing, and the jurors, unable to discount reasonable doubt, would have no choice other than to let them both go. “I have to do everything I can to help Colton,” she said.
“My friend was no longer my friend,” says Jiles. “I didn’t go to the jail to talk to her again.”
That November, Sharon and Jim flew to Norman to attend a football game with Lauren and Hailey, and Sharon noticed a young cheerleader on the field, a pretty girl with long red hair and freckles. Sharon wanted to talk to the girl, to touch her, and Jim had to explain to her that she couldn’t, that she’d scare the girl.
The holidays came, and at Jim and Sharon’s house, neither one could serve a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. They kept recalling Colton’s words to the hardware store owner, Breed, that he needed the hacksaw to cut one up. Neither could eat steak, either. The sight of blood turned their stomachs. Christmas was subdued, Sharon spending much of it in bed, and at one point, nine-year-old Hannah, Jennifer’s young cousin, the one she’d played with so happily coloring the year before, nudged Vanessa.
“I really miss Jennifer a lot,” Hannah said.
“It’s okay. I do, too,” Vanessa replied.
In Austin, another little girl talked of Jennifer often. At times she said Jennifer came to play with her. And each night, Madyson insisted she had a visitor. “My sister comes and tucks me in,” she said.
As 2006 began, Jim had to have another talk with Sharon. For months, he’d been spoon-feeding her details on the case on a need-to-know basis, before they hit the newspapers and television stations. It was all he could do to protect her.
The press had been clamoring for Jennifer’s autopsy, and now they had it. No longer under wraps, the report was being released, including the drug and alcohol screening. Not surprisingly, Jennifer’s remains had tested positive for meth, pot, and alcohol. Yet the amounts were small. “Recreational levels,” the medical examiner would classify them.
As Jim had told Sharon earlier, the cause of death was the gunshot wound to the torso that severed Jennifer’s aorta. But along with severing her head and hands, there were cuts to her face, neck, and chest. They were postmortem, but troubling. “I wondered what they did in that apartment to my baby’s body,” Sharon says. “I didn’t want to think the awful things I was thinking.”
In January, two weeks after being released from jail when her parents paid her bond, Laura Hall moved in with Sammi, her friend from the Pena law firm. Sammi’s boyfriend, Chris, was unhappy with the arrangement, but went along with it because Sammi felt strongly that they needed to help her friend. Much of the day, Laura spent lying around the house, often high. Sometimes she talked about the flight to Mexico, describing it the way one might a honeymoon. One night, Sammi pulled Chris to the side.
“Laura said she helped Colton cut off that girl’s head,” Sammi said. Hall had said she and Colton were both high on drugs at the time. Later, Laura made a joke of the whole thing, laughing as she jeered, “Don’t worry, I won’t cut off your head.”
Melancholy for Colton, Laura found a photo of him in a Spanish-language newspaper, cut it out, and carried it with her. “This is the only photo I have of my boyfriend,” she said.
Despite her avowed devotion to Pitonyak, Hall briefly dated a friend of Chris’s. “This girl’s fucking crazy,” the guy told Chris one day, saying that Laura had been making some odd statements. She’d said she’d seen the inside of a human being, and one day, while drunk and high, asked, “Do you know what it’s like to take somebody’s life?”
“Have you gone to visit Colton in jail?” Hall demanded when Nora Sullivan answered her cell phone.
“Yeah,” she said.
When Hall asked how Pitonyak was, Sullivan answered, “Fine.”
“Don’t tell me he’s fine,” Hall chastised. “I just got out. Jail is a hellhole.”
Alarmed by Hall’s accusatory tone, Sullivan explained that she meant Colton was well considering the circumstances. In fact, the last time they visited at the jail, they spent most of the time talking about the UT football team, which had just won the national championship. Even watching from jail, Colton was excited about the win. Looking at him in his jailhouse uniform, Sullivan asked if she could bring him clothes, maybe a Ralph Lauren sleeveless “wife beater,” to wear underneath. Colton explained he wasn’t allowed clothes from the outside.
That day on the telephone, Hall said that the regulations of her bail didn’t allow her to visit Colton, but that she’d like to go along the next time Sullivan went, to wait in the lobby, hoping he could see her through a window as she arrived and left. Although it seemed odd, Sullivan agreed, and not long after, Hall went with her to the jail. While Sullivan talked with Colton, Hall waited in the lobby.
As always, Colton seemed in good spirits. He told Sullivan that he was studying Spanish, and teaching some of the Hispanic inmates English. His mother had been sending him books. He seemed to be settling in well, and, at one point, he told Sullivan a story about his roommate, how the prison guards had asked the inmate if he’d share a cell with Pitonyak. With such a grisly murder charge against him, the guards weren’t sure how comfortable the other inmates would be around him. “A couple days later, the guy admitted he was concerned,” Pitonyak said, laughing. “He said, ‘Dude, you’re cool, and I thought you’d be some kind of a freak.’”
Sullivan thought that her friend Colton, with his brilliant intellect and his private school education, must have been an unusual inmate in many ways.
After Sullivan brought Hall to the jail, Laura peppered Nora with questions about Colton. Later, after another such visit, Sullivan became so worried Hall was depressed that she took her to the student health center.
In February, Colton appeared at a hearing. He looked pale after spending nearly six months in jail, and his mop of dark hair was gone. He’d shaved it off.
By then, Bill Bishop had police collecting everything they could on Pitonyak, from his school records to his rehab records. Officers combed through cell phone records and downloaded the information off Colton’s cell phone, retrieved from his backpack in Hall’s green Cadillac. On it, they found photos of the wares he sold, mounds of ecstasy pills.
Meanwhile, Roy Minton spent time with Colton at the jail. His assessment hadn’t changed. This was going to be a tough case. That his client was younger than some of his grandchildren upset Minton. At Minton’s age, it was tough to see someone in his early twenties with his life altered forever. To prepare for the trial, Minton had hired Edward Hueske, a gun expert. If and when the case went to trial, the .380 Smith and Wesson would be a big piece of evidence for the defense. They needed someone who could explain the weapon’s flaws, to convince jurors it could easily be unintentionally fired.
The main focus, however, wasn’t trial preparation, at least not yet. Both sides were busy researching and writing briefs and motions on the central issue to the entire case: the legality of Jim Sedwick’s entrance into Pitonyak’s apartment the night he discovered Jennifer’s body. If Judge Flowers sided with the defense, without the evidence from the apartment, there might never be a trial.
In March, Sharon spent Jennifer’s birthday lying on the floor crying. She wondered what Jennifer looked like inside the coffin and if they’d sewed her hands and head back on before they buried her. At times, Sharon fought back a sense of dread and sheer terror, wondering what would happen if Colton Pitonyak was released from jail, worried that he’d come after her or her surviving children. “I screwed his plan up by calling and saying I’d call the police. He didn’t have time to finish with Jennifer,” she says. “Colton blames me. He hates me. I know.”
At times, Sharon wondered if she carried some of Jennifer’s grief with her. She didn’t believe her daughter had found happiness in heaven. “She died so sad,” Sharon says. “She wasn’t ready to go.”
Searching for answers, Sharon called a psychic. “I wanted to know if Jennifer cried out for me,” she says. “All he told me was that there was a lot of blood and violence.”
All along, Jim and Sharon assumed that Pitonyak would face charges not only for murder but for what he’d done to Jennifer’s body. “I’m surprised there aren’t any additional charges on here,” Jim said, one day when they met with the prosecutor in the DA’s offices in Austin. Bishop frowned. Then he explained: In Texas mutilation of a corpse was only a misdemeanor. When the legislature passed the law in the 1800s, they envisioned grave robbers, not would-be gangsters on drugs attempting to dispose of evidence.
On the way home to Corpus Christi in the car, Sharon and Jim talked about the unfairness of the law. The dismemberment of Jennifer’s body had hurt them all deeply. Jim had the horrible memory of discovering her body, and Sharon had to live knowing what they’d done to her child, that they’d butchered her. She wasn’t allowed to see Jennifer one last time, even in her casket. She never again touched her hair or kissed her good-bye. Sharon still had nightmares that all of Jennifer hadn’t been found. “It wasn’t right,” Sharon says. “It just wasn’t right.”
Meanwhile, in Dallas, Vanessa had nightmares of the night they found Jennifer’s body. She heard her mother screaming over and over, “He killed her. I know he killed her.”
“Don’t come in. Don’t come in,” Jim cried out in her dreams.
After her stay at Chris and Sammi’s place, Laura, going by her middle name, Ashley, subleased a unit at the Gazebo Condos, on Twenty-eighth and Rio Grande, just a few blocks from the Orange Tree. Hall was back in school at UT, taking classes, getting ready to graduate, and working at a restaurant, Baby Acapulco, a loud Mexican place. She’d dyed her medium brown hair red, jarring to those who remembered Jennifer’s long red tresses.
One of her new neighbors, Will Gallahue, a twenty-one-year-old UT journalism major, noticed her early on. The Gazebo’s residents were nearly all students, a close-knit bunch who often got together on weekend evenings, when they sat in the open courtyard in lawn chairs, drinking beer and relaxing. At first, “Ashley” kept to herself, not really socializing. She posted a note on her door, asking anyone wanting to reach her to call before knocking.
Before long, Gallahue, an intense young man who composed electronic computer music, began noticing other odd things about his new neighbor. Ashley nearly always appeared angry and, more often than not, high on drugs. At times when he knew she was alone, he heard her shrieking in her apartment, as if venting emotional pain. Once, early on, she stopped to talk to him, complained about her parents, and then out of the blue asked, “Do you know anybody who can get rid of evidence?”
Assuming she was joking, Gallahue responded, “No, but if anyone comes around, I’ll give you a call.”
As she met people around the complex, Ashley began seeing one of Will’s friends, a guy who had his own drug problems. He had a girlfriend, but hung out with Hall on the side, doing drugs. One night, Will awoke at four in the morning to the sound of shattering glass. Out in the courtyard, Laura raged. Will’s friend had gone out with his girlfriend that night, instead of spending the time with her. “I’m going to kill him,” Ashley screamed.
To Gallahue, Ashley’s anger didn’t seem normal. “There was a constant barrage of threats,” he says. “She didn’t calm down.”
Before long, word spread through the complex that Ashley was Laura Ashley Hall, and the other residents began calling her “the Mexico chick.” At times, one or another ventured a question about the case against Colton. Laura answered that Colton would be freed on technicalities, that he’d never be found guilty.
At the end of March, a new thread popped up on the Hornfans.com Web site: “Pitonyak (West Campus Murder Suspect) Trial Set.” Four days earlier, Judge Flowers had scheduled the Pitonyak trial for October 9, 2006, seven months in the future. But first, there would be an important pretrial hearing on June 9, one to hear arguments and testimony on the defense’s motion to exclude the evidence from the apartment.
A poster on the Web site who called himself PatronSaint noted: “I rarely root for the death penalty. Right now I am rooting for death.”
Eastside wrote: “Jennifer Cave. Jennifer Cave. Jennifer Cave. I hate that I knew the story just by reading his name and I couldn’t remember hers.”
Another poster wrote: “No evidence = No Trial. To get a murder conviction the case needs the apartment evidence.”
“I know the big problem here is my going in the apartment,” Jim told Bill Bishop that spring, as the date for the pretrial hearing approached.
“We don’t think it’s going to be a problem,” Bishop responded. “Let’s not worry yet.”
“Okay, but what if we lose?” he asked.
“That could be a problem,” Bishop said.