A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
A year after Jennifer Cave’s death, at the start of the fall 2006 semester, the University of Texas installed emergency call boxes throughout the West Campus area. Students were still on edge, and many didn’t feel as safe as they once had on campus. One site seemed particularly scathed; although good rental units were scarce, condo 88 at the Orange Tree remained empty and up for rent. Even the sought-after location and convenient parking didn’t make up for being the scene of the most gruesome killing in UT’s long history.
In Little Rock, those who knew the Pitonyaks marveled at the tight lid they kept over the case, appearing to confide in few. When Tommy Coy, Colton’s math teacher from Catholic High School, saw Bridget at a Weight Watchers meeting, he asked about Colton. She explained that all hadn’t gone well for her younger son, and for the first time Coy heard that at UT Colton had become deeply involved in drugs. Later, he’d say he was stunned, finding it hard to picture his star student as an addict. “As a teacher, you think you know what lies ahead for students,” he says. “But no one can really look into the future.”
Just after one on the morning of Thursday, August 25, a UT student named Matt logged onto Facebook.com and e-mailed Laura Hall/Ashley Holiday: “Did you help Colton hack that girl up?”
At 9:34 that morning, Ashley e-mailed back: “I’m not snitching on my boy and don’t accuse him of doing anything illegal right now, or I’ll hack you up.”
That evening at 5:57, Matt e-mailed again: “Laura, I’m shocked. I can’t believe you’d threaten me.: (”
“Ugh, Matt,” she responded. “I’m half kidding. Why would you even randomly ask me such an awful question? I don’t think you are a friend of Colt’s.”
“You seem like the kind of person who would help Colton do something like that,” Matt responded.
The conversation went back and forth, and then Hall, posted: “…I made him leave the country with me. What does a hacksaw have to do with a death by gunshot? What passion? That girl was a whore…Besides you asked if I helped. That would involve me confessing to something I did. Never ask that. Why are you asking me stuff that just makes me angry? Why are you doing this? Do you have a death wish? BTW, where do you live and who put you up to this?…You read like a nice guy, Matt, but you’re starting to piss me off.”
In early September on Facebook, Nora Sullivan and Juan Montero posted birthday greetings to Colton, who turned twenty-four in the Del Valle jail. On September 12, Laura Hall logged on to update her “Ashley” profile, posting “God is dead,” under Religious Views. As to her relationship status, “It’s complicated.” She defined her residence as “Sell-out,” her activities as “Living a double life,” her interests as “I’m just way, way to [sic] serious about everything to be writing personal shit like that up here.” Under work information, she listed her company as “Waste of my life,” her position as “Lazy,” and her description as “Being a bad kid.”
“Ashley is not giving a fuck,” she noted.
Meanwhile, DNA evidence funneled into Bishop’s office. The salt-and-pepper-haired prosecutor had a mountain of reports to go through. Looking at the forensic evidence, in Bishop’s opinion, it wasn’t hard to see what had happened. Colton had left blood and DNA on the tools used to carve up Jennifer’s body, from the machete to the bathroom faucet he used to wash his hands.
One thing, however, was surprising: Colton’s DNA was on the gun, the murder weapon, but so was Laura Hall’s. “That certainly added a twist,” says Bishop. He reasoned that Hall couldn’t have been the killer, since she was with Martindill at the most logical time of the murder, between 1:05 A.M. when Jennifer talked to Michael Rodriguez and just after 3 A.M. when Colton banged on Nora Sullivan’s door. But Dr. Peacock hadn’t been able to determine a firm time of death. Hall’s DNA on the murder weapon could give Colton’s defense attorneys leverage in front of a jury, the ability to argue that perhaps she pulled the trigger and fired the lethal shot.
There was also the word “motive” to consider. So far, Bishop didn’t have one. Later, he’d say that no one told him that Colton thought of Jennifer as any more than a friend or that he’d once professed his love and then come at her with a knife. Bishop wondered if maybe Colton was angry at Jennifer because she wasn’t buying drugs from him any longer. He was in money trouble, and if she’d been a good customer…?
With two hundred cases on his schedule, Bishop couldn’t yet devote his full attention to the case. Sometimes victims’ families resent that. But when Sharon and Jim called, they never pushed too hard. Since their first meeting, Bishop had prepared them for the realities of a murder trial. “Time will drag. At points, you won’t see anything going on. It’s going to be a long process,” he said. “You have to hang in there and trust me.”
Meanwhile, Bassett and Minton worked on preparing their case. They, too, saw the forensic evidence, including Laura’s DNA on the gun. That was enticing. What had she done with the gun? The forensic evidence had just become interesting.
In response, Minton and Bassett asked for a delay in the trial, to do their own DNA testing. “We wanted to see what else was out there,” says Bassett. “We wanted a careful look.”
At an October 4 hearing, Judge Flowers agreed, and Colton Pitonyak’s trial was reset for January 22, 2007.
A few days later, Marty Heidgen, the Catholic High grad charged with driving drunk the wrong way on a New York highway, hitting a bridal limo head on, and killing two people, was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen years to life in prison. The impunity the rich kids in Little Rock felt they had didn’t appear to be playing out well outside Arkansas.
In November, Laura Hall was back on Facebook.com, this time changing her favorite movie to one of Colton’s: Scarface. She typed under Activities: “Avoiding APD, posting bond.” Her favorite books? “The entire criminal law section.” Under Interests: “Escalades, Ferraris, alcohol, rap music.” Under About Me, her profile read, “I am w/o? the Mouth of the South.”
A week later, she logged on again, and the About Me section changed to: “Don’t fucking talk to me about Colton. If you have something stupid to say, you’re not qualified to talk, and you’d never have made it through my door and never will. Fucking die. I hope it hurts.”
“I hate it when skanks think they are allowed to have dinner with my lovers,” she added the following day. She still had a photo of Colton with his bros, including Juan Montero, posted on the Web site. Underneath it, she’d written: “Whether or not they changed my life, for the better of course, love ya, boys.”
About that time, Hall/Holiday posted on Colton’s wall: “Guessed your music!”
That Thanksgiving in Corpus Christi, Sharon and Jim still couldn’t serve turkey, and Sharon cried over the buttermilk pie, Jennifer’s favorite. A few days later, Hall again updated her Facebook profile, changing her employer to “Brilliant,” and her position to “Baller.” She noted: “I get paid a shit load.”
As the leaves turned gold and red in Little Rock, one of the Pitonyaks’ old neighbors took out stationery and a pen and sat down to write them a note, something supportive, something to let them know that she thought of them as good people, that Colton had been a good kid, and that it must have been “all the drugs.”
The woman sat there for a while, looked at the clean sheet of paper, and then put it back in the box and put the box back in the drawer. “I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to say,” she says. “What do you say to someone whose son cut a girl up?”
Meanwhile in Corpus Christi, Jim worried about Sharon. The trial was coming up after the first of the year, and although he hadn’t seen them, he knew the crime scene photos would be horrific. “You’ve been remarkable the way you’ve handled this without going crazy,” he said. “But seeing something is more acute than imagination. If you stay in the courtroom and see the pictures of Jennifer’s body, they could put you over the edge.”
Sharon nodded; she understood. “I’ll think about it,” she said. Part of her still felt she needed to see Jennifer, to witness all that had happened.
At the district attorney’s office, Bill Bishop wasn’t letting himself feel any too confident. Sure he had a lot of DNA evidence, but as he saw it, the Pitonyak trial could still be lost. “Everything we had was circumstantial,” he says. “No one saw Colton Pitonyak point the gun at Jennifer Cave and pull the trigger.”
Then, just before Christmas, a switch at the DA’s office brought a new prosecutor into Bishop’s court, Stephanie McFarland. With straight dark hair and a heavy fringe of bangs, a trim figure, and a pale complexion, she was a new mom who spent weekends caring for her son, reading, or working on the old house she and her husband had bought.
Although he’d never tried a case with her, Bishop heard that McFarland was good in the courtroom, able to evoke emotion. He tended to be forceful but analytical. He thought they would work well together. All McFarland knew about the Pitonyak case came from office scuttlebutt and the media. She knew it was gory and would take mountains of work, a conclusion confirmed when Bishop showed her the boxes of crated evidence covering his office wall and a timeline that filled up most of a yellow legal pad.
“It was awkward,” recalls Bishop. “I said, ‘Welcome to the 147th District Court, and we need to talk about Colton Pitonyak.’”
“I definitely wouldn’t use the word ‘excited,’” she says, about hearing she’d been assigned to the case.
The third person on the prosecution team would be Jim Bergman, a broad, tall, white-haired, retired APD patrolman, who worked as an investigator in the DA’s office. A Vietnam veteran with a booming voice, he says, “What I was qualified to do when I got back from Nam was to be either a cop or a hit man. I decided to be a cop. I’m not smart enough for anything else.”
Born and raised on a Blanco County, Texas, cattle ranch, he kept a dummy grenade in his office. “That’s my complaint department,” he growls. “Take a number.”
Bergman had one gripe in particular. After nearly three decades in law enforcement, he believed the world was only becoming more violent. And when it came to the Pitonyak case? “It’s one of the most gruesome ones I’ve seen. I’m always amazed at what we human beings do to each other,” he says.
The defense, too, was getting ready for battle.
After the first of the year, Minton and Bassett sat down with Pitonyak again at the jail. “It looked very difficult,” says Bassett. “How much more evidence can someone possibly leave behind at a crime site?”
“We were concerned that the jurors would think that Colton’s memory loss was feigned,” says Minton. “I wanted to make it clear that if it was feigned, it wasn’t to our advantage.” There was a time, early in Minton’s more than four decades of practicing law, when some defense attorneys didn’t ask defendants what had happened. Not knowing left them free to form their best arguments. But with modern forensic tools like DNA testing, techniques that can sometimes pinpoint what could or could not have happened, not knowing a client’s version was a disadvantage.
That fall, Jim Sedwick didn’t go on his annual bird-hunting trips: “I didn’t have the heart to kill anything anymore,” he says. “I couldn’t even pick up a firearm.” Meanwhile, in Little Rock, Tommy Coy talked to Eddie Pitonyak. When Eddie said he was looking forward to the trial, Coy wondered if the case wasn’t as open-and-shut as it seemed in the newspapers. Perhaps Colton was innocent. “Eddie was upbeat,” says Coy. “He expected an acquittal. After the trial, he said he was planning to bring his son home.”
Right after the first of the year, Bishop and McFarland took over the war room in the DA’s office, a nondescript, windowless beige conference room reserved for trial preparation, moving in the large stack of Pitonyak evidence boxes and lining them against the wall. Above the boxes, Bishop hung brown paper to compile the final version of the case’s timeline, covering eight days, from August 16, 2005, the evening Jennifer disappeared, through Colton Pitonyak’s arrest on the twenty-third. The timeline would be their guide to what they needed to present, an outline of the case they’d put before the jury.
That done, Bishop and McFarland culled through the pile of boxes, containing everything from witness statements and the striped halter top Jennifer wore to go out with Colton the night of her death, to the hacksaw and machete, deciding what evidence to place before the jury. As they discussed the condition of Jennifer’s body, McFarland examined the gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos, her mind filled with questions about what happened in that condo at the Orange Tree after the killing. Who’d dismembered the body?
Neither prosecutor had interviewed Laura Hall, whose attorney said that if called she would take the Fifth and not testify. But they had read her two statements to police: the first claiming she knew nothing about the killing, and the second describing Pitonyak as a bloody knife–licking fiend who threatened her life. Considering the evidence, McFarland thought the truth lay somewhere in between. “It looked to me like they had fun messing with the body, taking drugs, and cutting it up,” she says, with a disgusted frown. “Some things were clearly done for amusement, like the bullet shot through the severed neck into Jennifer’s skull. It was sick.”
As the chief prosecutor in Judge Flowers’s court, Bishop understood they would have to put on a lean case, one without superfluous evidence. “Judge Flowers doesn’t put up with bogging trials down,” says Bishop. “He’s all business, and he expects us to be as well.”
When it came to which of the hundreds of crime scene and autopsy photos to enter in evidence, honing them down would be a challenge. The photos would be incredible evidence before a jury, but Bishop understood that they had to put on just enough to tell the story. Any more and, even if Judge Flowers didn’t object, a guilty verdict could be overturned by an appeals court if it deemed the number of photos and their content as less informative than prejudicial to the defendant.
As the days to the trial counted down, Bishop and McFarland interviewed witnesses and organized their case, while Bergman hunted for witnesses. Many of them college students, they’d spread out across the state and even the country. Some didn’t particularly want to be found, hoping to avoid testifying. Meanwhile, McFarland had her hands full working with federal authorities trying to get permission to bring Pedro Fernandez into the country. With a felony on his record, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, the branch of the U.S. government that oversaw such matters, didn’t want to let him back in the United States.
When Bishop and McFarland discussed the case, they agreed that for the most part, it was straightforward: Two people were behind closed doors when one shot and killed the other. The more experienced prosecutor, Bishop had handled dozens like it in the past, albeit none with such a bloody aftermath. Still, neither he nor McFarland could guess what tactics Bassett and Minton had in mind. The prosecutors bantered about the defense’s possibilities, agreeing that the most likely arguments were that Pitonyak shot and killed Jennifer Cave in self-defense or by accident.
There was one other tactic Bishop thought the defense might try; he kept thinking about Laura Hall’s DNA on the murder weapon and a medical examiner who couldn’t pinpoint time of death. “Laura Hall was the biggest question mark,” says Bishop. “We’d heard she’d take the Fifth, but what if she changed her mind, got up on the stand, and said just enough to make the jury suspect she was the killer?”
One piece of the puzzle, however, was still missing: The prosecutors hadn’t discovered a motive. Seventeen months after Jennifer’s death, they still didn’t know about Colton’s feelings for Jennifer. Somehow, that piece of evidence was lost. Many insisted they told police, but somehow it hadn’t been related to Bishop. The prosecutors didn’t know about the night Colton professed his undying love, and then came at her with a knife. Although the law didn’t require prosecutors prove one for a murder conviction, in a trial, a motive was strong evidence. Would a jury convict without an answer to the basic question, why?