A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
On Friday, June 9, 2006, Austin temperatures crept up, flirting with one hundred degrees, unusual for so early in the summer. “A scorcher,” Officer Barbaria said in the elevator on his way to the courtroom. “Makes me glad I work nights.”
Meanwhile, inside the 147th District Court, the two sides took their places: Jim, Sharon, Vanessa, and Scott Engle on the right, behind the prosecutors, and Eddie and Bridget Pitonyak on the left, behind their son’s lawyers. Both families appeared heart-flutteringly anxious. Everyone gathered in the packed courtroom understood how important this hearing would be. If Minton and Bassett succeeded, some questioned whether the prosecution would still have a case.
Winning, however, wasn’t an easy matter; the defense attorneys had to show one of two things: either that Jim Sedwick didn’t have a reasonable reason to be concerned for Jennifer’s safety and well-being when he broke into Colton’s apartment, or that he’d done so at the suggestion of the police.
At 1:35 that afternoon, all in the crowded courtroom stood, and Judge Wilford Flowers entered and took his place behind the bench. Moments later, Jim and Sharon were ushered from the courtroom, to await the call to take the stand and testify. Then the side door swung open and two deputies walked through, with Pitonyak between them. Colton’s wrists and ankles were chained, his hair little more than stubble, and he wore a loose-fitting prison uniform, with thick black-and-white horizontal stripes. Yet he still had a slight swagger, the bravado his friends would recognize. The guard took off his handcuffs, and Pitonyak glanced at his parents and then sat down next to Sam Bassett.
“We’re here to hear testimony on defense motions,” Judge Flowers read. “Mr. Bishop, are you ready?”
“Yes, your honor.”
“Yes, your honor.”
As the prosecutor’s first witness, Sharon Cave took the stand.
“Are you the mother of the victim, Jennifer Cave?” Bishop asked.
“Yes, I am,” Sharon answered, her voice strong despite appearing uncertain, even frightened. Jim, who often testified as an expert witness at trials, had coached her about what to do on the stand, principally to listen carefully to the questions and to concentrate on the person asking them.
From his seat at the defense table, Colton stared down at the sheet of yellow legal paper before him. Occasionally, he’d glance up long enough to catch a glimpse of Sharon, quickly returning his eyes to the paper, scribbling notes to Bassett and Minton.
“When is the last time you talked with Jennifer?” Bishop asked.
“Tuesday, August 16th,” Sharon answered, wiping away a tear. “About 5:45 that evening.”
With Bill Bishop in the lead, asking the questions, Sharon told the story of that horrible two-day period a year earlier: from Jennifer’s joyous news about the new job, to Jim’s dreadful discovery inside condo number 88.
“Did you ever go in that apartment?” Bishop asked.
“No, sir,” Sharon answered in a sad, hoarse voice. Neither did Vanessa.
“Did anyone you talked with on the seventeenth or eighteenth give you permission to enter that apartment?” Bishop asked.
“No,” Sharon answered, her voice again firm.
Why had they gone in? he asked.
Because Colton Pitonyak was the only link they had to Jennifer, she explained. “He was the last person to be with her. Her car was there.”
When Roy Minton took over, he smiled, his manner courteous and a bit folksy, with a soft Texas accent. His summer-weight suit hung loose on his wiry frame when he placed his hands on his hips, and his graying hair was carefully combed back. His glasses were thick, but behind them his eyes had a slight twinkle. Minton asked what Michael Rodriguez had told her about his conversation with Jennifer after midnight on the night she disappeared.
“That Jennifer was with a friend. That the friend was very upset and that she was going to take him home,” Sharon answered, looking over at Pitonyak, who continued to write on his sheet of paper.
“Rodriguez told you that she was with a friend?”
“That she was with her friend Colton,” Sharon answered.
“Did the officer tell you that he didn’t have probable cause and he couldn’t enter the apartment?” Minton asked, referring to the first APD officer to respond to the scene, the one who refused to help Sharon and Jim open the door.
“He said, ‘I can’t help you. I’m sorry. I’m leaving,’” she answered, looking directly at Minton.
“Did he tell you what you could do?” Minton asked. This was an important question; to get the judge to rule in his favor, Minton needed evidence that the officer suggested Sharon and Jim act on their own.
“The officer made it very clear that he had to leave, and he couldn’t help us,” Sharon said.
Sharon was excused from the witness stand. She walked from the courtroom, and Jim entered. Bishop didn’t ask him to repeat all the court had already heard from Sharon. Instead, he centered on a few issues. He got into the record Eddie Pitonyak’s comment on the telephone, when Sharon called asking for his help to find Jennifer. Pitonyak “said that Bridget thought Jennifer, not Colton, was the problem,” Jim said.
For a moment, the courtroom was silent, and Eddie Pitonyak’s words hung in the air. It sounded as if even at that late date, after all they’d been through with their son, they were still in denial about what he’d become.
“What was your purpose when you entered the apartment?” Bishop asked Jim.
“I was looking for Jennifer,” he explained, sadly.
“Were you worried that something might have happened to her?”
“Did you think you might have to get to Jennifer to help her?”
“Did Colton Pitonyak’s father give you permission to enter that apartment?
“No, sir,” Jim said.
When Sam Bassett took over, he asked Jim where the car was.
“Less than half a block” from the apartment, Jim said. If it had been farther, perhaps Bassett could have claimed Jim and Sharon didn’t have reason to suspect Jennifer was inside the condo. Jim admitted he saw no indications outside the apartment of foul play, and that he’d initially moved Jennifer’s car, then returned it. “I thought I made a bad decision,” he said.
“Did you tell the police officer you were going to call a locksmith?” Bassett asked.
“Yes,” Jim said.
The odor in the apartment came up when Bishop put Mark Gilchrest on the witness stand. The detective first entered the apartment at 10 A.M., the morning after the body was discovered, after he’d brought a copy of the search warrant to the site. Based on his experience, he said, if Jim hadn’t entered, within a day or two, by August 21, police would have been on the scene anyway, called by neighbors who smelled the heavy, sickening stench of decomposing human flesh.
“When was Colton Pitonyak arrested?”
“Colton was deported on the 23rd of August,” Gilchrest said. The implication was clear: Whether or not Jim had gone inside, police would have been looking for Pitonyak by the twenty-first, and he would still have been arrested.
“The body would have been detected before the twenty-third?” Bishop asked.
“Yes, sir,” Gilchrest said.
With the case’s lead detective on the stand, Minton went through the search warrant paragraph by paragraph, asking where the information had come from. Bishop objected, but Minton argued that he was entitled to continue his line of questioning, if not today, then at a future hearing, and Judge Flowers ruled that he could continue. When it came to writing the search warrant, Minton made it sound as if everyone at APD had his hand in it, relaying information to the detective who typed it up, and Minton pointed out that the search warrant described an unnamed victim.
“You knew the deceased was Jennifer Cave, didn’t you?” Minton asked.
“No, I did not,” Gilchrest responded.
Minton wanted to know if Gilchrest had gone inside the night the body was found.
“No,” he said. The information in the search warrant had come from the first officer on the scene.
An afternoon break in the hearing was called, and the courtroom cleared. Colton was removed, taken back to a holding cell. With the courtroom nearly empty, Roy Minton took the opportunity to explain to the Pitonyaks that some of the issues he’d brought up, including how many people had worked on the search warrant, weren’t really significant. Judges, he said, had boxes in their heads that they checked off, but they would do so only if they heard an indication that a law was broken.
“We have one issue, and that’s if a police officer told them they could go inside,” he said. “Sometimes you’ll get a young, inexperienced officer, and he’ll say, ‘I can’t go in there but you can.’”
No one had testified that had happened in this case. Sharon and Jim both insisted the officer had said only that he couldn’t help them, and that he had to leave. “You understand what I’m saying,” Minton asked, looking directly at Eddie.
“Yes,” he said, appearing stunned. “I do.”
Minton was preparing his clients for failure.
Not ready to give up, Bassett told his more senior colleague that he wanted to call Officer Barbaria to the stand. Minton shrugged. “Have at it,” he said.
The officer who’d first entered Pitonyak’s apartment was then called, and he described the evening the body was found. When he arrived on the scene, he walked toward Jim, but had not been able to understand what the excited man was telling him, if someone were hurt or having a drug overdose. Barbaria entered the apartment, he said, believing he’d find a woman overdosing in the bathroom, not a headless body.
“What was the first thing you noticed in the apartment?” Bishop asked on cross.
“The kitchen was empty, but there was a poster of Al Pacino as Scarface on the wall,” he said. “I thought it was odd.”
As the Pitonyaks and their attorneys left the courtroom, it appeared they hadn’t found an argument to hang their motion on. Neither Jim, Sharon, nor the police who testified described anything likely to convince Judge Flowers to set aside the warrant and suppress the evidence. Still, there were no guarantees. Who could say what Judge Flowers might do? Both families had eight nervous weeks to await his decision.
At the Gazebo condominiums, Ashley, a.k.a. Laura Hall, became increasingly reclusive. During the hearing, when the case was again in the newspaper and on television, she hung blankets over her windows to prevent unwanted eyes from peering in. Reporters knocked on her door, then turned to leave when no one answered. Judge Flowers’s decision could impact her future as well. It was likely that if the charges against Colton were dropped, those against her would be abandoned as well.
As the months passed, Laura looked thin and sickly. Her neighbor Will Gallahue knew she took drugs, and he sometimes thought of the photo she’d once shown him, her graduation photo from high school. The pretty girl in the photo with her whole life ahead of her was now an emaciated woman with black bags under her eyes. “She looked like she was decaying,” he says.
At times, she left her front door open, and he looked in and saw her sitting alone on the couch, watching television.
By then, Laura had changed her screen name on Facebook to Ashley Holiday. On June 18, nine days after the hearing, Ashley posted on Colton’s “wall,” the message thread on his page. “I can’t stop crying over you, babe,” she wrote. “I should have taken you to Paris.”
When Lauren visited friends in Austin, she got the “heebie-jeebies.” Whenever she went, Sharon called constantly, unable to shake her fear that she’d lose another daughter in the shadow of the UT tower. At times, Lauren dreamed of Jennifer. In her dreams, she heard Jennifer’s voice, and they were holding hands, as they did as children.
In Corpus one day, Sharon was unpacking groceries when Jim walked in. She’d bought a box of white kitchen garbage bags, with red drawstrings.
“You can’t use those,” Jim said, suddenly upset.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “They’re just trash bags.”
“Okay, but those are the trash bags Colton used.”
Sharon threw them away.
Concerned, Harold Shockley, their banker friend, had been watching Jim and Sharon, since Jennifer’s death, wondering how parents survived such a devastating loss. Sharon had become his hero. “She was so strong,” he says. “There were times I broke down and she didn’t. Instead she worried about everyone else, especially Jim.”
Time passed quickly as the defense attorneys and prosecutors worked on discovery, handing over seized evidence to the defense to be tested by their experts. Then, on the afternoon of August 4, nearly one year after Jennifer’s death, they were in the courtroom again. This time the Pitonyaks took the back aisle on the defense side, the last before the courtroom doors. Next to Sharon and Jim sat Leah Smith, a victims’ advocate from the district attorney’s office.
Vanessa had to work, and Lauren was in Spain, a study trip that had been in the planning for months. Still, she hadn’t wanted to go. Sharon had to convince her youngest daughter to leave, telling her Jennifer wouldn’t have wanted her to change her plans. The first weeks overseas, Lauren called home crying, afraid that while she was gone someone would kill her mother. “I got to the point where either I was flying her home or I was going there,” Sharon says. “Jim was the one who calmed her down and convinced her to stay.”
As at the previous hearing, Judge Flowers was punctual, walking into the courtroom precisely at 1:30. He looked about, from Colton Pitonyak in his prison uniform to the reporters scattered throughout the room.
After listening to a few more brief arguments, Judge Flowers cleared his voice. He’d considered the motion to suppress, he said, and didn’t agree with the arguments put forward by the defense. “Actions on the part of Jim Sedwick were not the result of any assistance or direction by the state,” he said. He also decreed that Jim had a legitimate reason to break into the apartment: concern that Jennifer could be in danger. “The motion to suppress is denied,” he ruled.
In the front row, Jim dropped his head down, in relief, and Sharon’s eyes filled with grateful tears. The prosecution had its evidence. The trial, set for October 9, would proceed.