A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
As she got ready to leave for Austin for the trial, Sharon felt anxious and frightened. She’d have to testify, and she’d have to sit in a courtroom hearing horrible, graphic testimony about how her beautiful young daughter died, while the man accused of murdering her sat just steps away. Uncertain she’d get through it, Sharon confided in Father David, her pastor. He understood. But then he said something about her participation in the trial that gave her courage: “This is the last gift you can give Jennifer.”
When they arrived from Little Rock, Eddie and Bridget Pitonyak sat down with Sam Bassett and Roy Minton. In the months leading up to the trial, the defense team had considered and abandoned tactics, including suggesting the fatal shot could have been fired by Laura Hall. Despite her DNA on the gun, they decided, the evidence just wasn’t there, and the testimony of Martindill, that Hall was at his house the night Jennifer died, made that seem unwise. Both defense attorneys feared that if they angered or alienated the jurors, the jury could come down hard on Pitonyak.
Instead, Minton and Bassett attempted to prepare Colton’s parents for the likeliest outcome: Their son would go to prison. Although they’d argue Pitonyak’s innocence, the victory Minton and Bassett hoped for was the same outcome they had engineered four years earlier for a young man named Brandon Threet.
The case was another sensational one. Threet, a nineteen-year-old San Antonio college student, was accused of murdering Terence McArdle, a UT student. At a party, Threet and McArdle wrestled, at first playfully. At some point, however, Threet lost his temper, hitting McArdle in the face and kicking him. McArdle suffered brain damage, then died a few days later. Williamson County prosecutors charged Threet with murder. During the trial, Minton and Bassett convinced the judge to include lesser offenses in the charge, giving the jury the option of finding Threet guilty of not murder but manslaughter. The major difference: A murder conviction had a maximum sentence of life, but manslaughter only twenty years.
During the closing at the Threet trial, Roy Minton argued, “There is no excuse, nor have we suggested an excuse. This was one moment that has made an impact on his life. Do you believe in salvaging youth when they make a mistake?”
Minton and Bassett prevailed, convincing jurors to find Threet guilty on the lesser charge and sentencing him to twenty years. Could they do as well for Colton Pitonyak?
Finally, on the morning of Monday, January 22, 2007, Judge Flowers called the 147th District Court into order, for the purpose of seating the jury that would hear the case against Colton Pitonyak. A panel made up of eighty-eight citizens of Travis County, Texas, filed through the door. In some cases, voir dire, the questioning of potential jurors, is relatively uneventful. That would not prove true in this trial. Instead, it would be an interesting day, with the word “intent” playing a major role. The reason: the prosecutors’ lack of a motive.
To gauge reactions, Bishop and McFarland explained the law and then peppered the men and women with questions directed at giving insight into whether each individual would be able to look beyond the question of why Pitonyak killed Jennifer. The prosecutors did not have to prove motive, Bishop said, why on that particular night Colton Pitonyak decided to kill Jennifer Cave. The law required only that prosecutors show “specific intent”: that Colton Pitonyak meant to kill Jennifer Cave. That intention didn’t have to exist for any explicit length of time, not for days, hours, or even minutes. It could be formed in the split second it took for Pitonyak to point a loaded gun with his finger on the trigger.
When they took over the floor, Bassett and Minton discussed another issue: Pitonyak’s high consumption of drugs. Their approach begged the question: Foggy from the drugs, was Pitonyak capable of making an intentional decision to kill Jennifer Cave? And if he wasn’t, was it murder?
“If you’re leading up to making the case that the drugs did it, I’d have a very difficult time finding reasonable doubt,” one potential juror said.
“I am not saying that at all,” Minton countered.
The bombshells for the prosecution started even before the trial, when while questioning jurors, Roy Minton gave a preview to the week ahead: Jennifer and Colton, Minton said, were best friends, and he had no reason to kill her. Yet Pitonyak would not dispute that he was the one who fired the fatal gunshot. He took responsibility for firing the gun that killed Jennifer; but it wasn’t murder, rather an unfortunate accident.
One other thing Bassett said caught Bishop by surprise: Colton Pitonyak planned to testify.
For months, Minton and Bassett had suggested that with so much pretrial publicity, seating an impartial jury in Austin could be difficult, but that didn’t prove the case. By the time they left the courtroom that day, prosecutors and defense attorneys had agreed on six women and eight men, including two alternates, who would be charged with deciding Pitonyak’s fate.
Still, as he picked up his files to put them in his briefcase, Bishop wondered: Could he rely on what the defense attorneys seemed to be indicating, or was Roy Minton introducing one approach to mislead him, only to argue another during the trial?
Usually the opening day of a sensational murder trial is marked by a static excitement, but the Pitonyak case broke that mold. Although the courtroom filled with reporters, lawyers, and spectators eager to hear the evidence and judge for themselves, the tenor was subdued, unusually quiet. Even when the judge wasn’t on the bench, talking was muffled. The horror of what had been done to Jennifer’s body permeated the proceedings. One spectator came strictly to get a look at Pitonyak. “I wanted to see for myself what kind of an animal could do that,” she said. “When I looked at him, he looked normal. It was terrifying.”
Sitting in the defendant’s chair that morning, Pitonyak resembled the young businessman he’d once planned to be. He wore a gray suit and dark tie, his hair was cut short, and his face had broken out, perhaps from stress. The blemishes only made him look younger than his twenty-four years. As he waited for opening statements, he rarely glanced at his parents, who clustered together, leaning on each other, on a bench two rows back. Instead, the young defendant stared straight ahead, has face placid and unemotional.
Meanwhile, Bridget looked tired and sad. At times, Eddie appeared angry, as if he reined in deep frustration. Dustin sat beside them. Anyone seeing the two young men would have quickly realized they were brothers; they looked so much alike. By then, Dustin, who’d been the lesser high school student, had earned a master’s degree and gone to work with his father, while Colton, the family star, faced up to life in prison.
From her perch beside the judge, Rita Grasshoff, the court reporter, turned on her computer and set up her supplies. Over the years Grasshoff, a woman with a kind smile and a warm manner, had seen a parade of defendants, some found guilty, some innocent; some that never made a headline, and others, like Pitonyak, whose crimes made them infamous. One of the first trials she worked was in Florida, that of America’s most famous serial killer, Ted Bundy. Decades later, Grasshoff would remember Bundy as “cavalier,” a “showoff.” At times, he huddled so close to her during bench conferences that she felt the warmth of his breath, sending chills through her.
Big cases attract crowds, and Grasshoff wasn’t surprised that the courtroom for the Pitonyak trial was standing room only. As jurors took their seats, Judge Flowers called the case to order. He looked pensive behind the bench, listening to last-minute motions.
TV and print reporters filled the courtroom and the hallway outside. Both families kept their distance from the press, but the Pitonyaks nearly flinched when a reporter walked past. Outside the courtroom, they walked briskly, rarely looking up, often turning away to hide their faces from the camera. As they had in Little Rock, Colton’s family fought to wall themselves off from prying eyes.
At the prosecutors’ table, Bishop and McFarland worried. Pedro Fernandez was an important witness, and arrangements still weren’t in place to bring him to the United States. McFarland had been negotiating for much of the month, but federal authorities wouldn’t bend. If he came, they wanted Fernandez kept in jail during his stay in the United States. The Mexican hotel clerk balked at the idea and refused to come. Fernandez wasn’t a U.S. citizen, and Bishop had no legal authority to force him. “I’m a Travis County prosecutor,” says Bishop. “I can’t make either Fernandez or the U.S. government do anything.”
Behind them sat Jim, Sharon, Vanessa, and Scott, waiting for the first day of a trial they hoped would finally bring justice if not closure. Jim’s cousin, Jack Bissett, M.D., with his dark hair streaked gray, and his wife, Tracey, sat beside them. An Austin infectious diseases expert, Bissett had grown up with Jim, and he’d been there to support him throughout the ordeal since Jennifer’s death. At the trial, he’d be able to answer Sharon’s and Jim’s questions about the medical testimony.
Once Judge Flowers called the court to order, Stephanie McFarland read the charge against Colton Pitonyak to the jurors: murder. Then Bill Bishop began his opening, setting the stage for the case he and McFarland would put before the jury.
“Evidence will show…” Bishop began. Hands behind him, pacing in a short line in front of the jury, the solidly built prosecutor outlined the evidence. Bishop planned to take the jurors on a journey, from Jennifer’s first exciting day on her new job, through her final evening on Sixth Street with Colton, to Bill Thompson’s call to Sharon to tell her that her daughter hadn’t shown up for work, through Jim Sedwick’s gruesome discovery. “Jennifer Cave died as the result of a gunshot,” Bishop said. “After her death, Colton Pitonyak dismembered her, cutting off her head and her hands…based on the evidence you will hear, I believe you will find the defendant guilty.”
Next up was Sam Bassett, who got quickly to the point by emphasizing that for a murder conviction, Pitonyak had to have acted knowingly and intentionally. Pitonyak stared blankly at the defense table as Bassett said, “This isn’t going to be a ‘who-done-it.’ Colton will tell you he caused the death of his friend, Jennifer Cave.” But then the caveat: “He’ll also tell you there’s no reason in the world he would have done that intentionally or knowingly.”
From the defense’s opening statement, the second defendant in the case, Laura Hall, entered the courtroom, although not physically, but rather by name and implication. “You will hear from Colton. You will not hear from Laura Hall…[but] Laura Hall’s DNA was on the gun,” Bassett said, emphatically slapping his hands. Colton could try to implicate others, “but he’s not going to do that.”
In a forceful voice, Bassett talked of Colton’s growing-up years, the bright scholarship student, and the Catholic school kid from a good family. “How did we get from there to here?” he asked. The blame lay with Colton’s addiction to alcohol and drugs.
The cause of death, Bassett pointed out, was a single gunshot wound. The “horrible situation became worse” when Laura Hall arrived on the scene. Colton accidentally killed Jennifer, Bassett insisted. As for the atrocity of the mutilation, the defense laid all the blame on Hall. “You’ll hear Colton say, ‘There is no way I would have intentionally and knowingly caused the death of my good friend Jennifer Cave,’” Bassett concluded. “That’s why I’ll ask you to find the defendant not guilty.”
Although Bassett spoke of guilt and innocence, seated behind the prosecutors’ table, Bishop and McFarland realized that the defense’s plan was no longer in question: Bassett was admitting Colton’s guilt and instead was laying the groundwork for a lesser charge and a shorter sentence. Yes, Colton Pitonyak was guilty, Bassett was saying, but not of murder. At the most, his client had committed the lesser crime of manslaughter.
In the audience, Sharon leaned against Jim, while Vanessa held on to her mother’s arm. Both women fought back tears. Something Bassett said stung Sharon: Colton, drugged and drunk the night of the killing, didn’t remember shooting Jennifer. “I hoped he’d remember every detail,” she says. “I hoped he’d never forget, that not a day would go by when he didn’t relive what he did to Jennifer. That’s my wish for Colton Pitonyak.”
“Did [Jennifer] ever call you?” Bishop asked his first witness, Thompson, the attorney who’d hired her the day before her death.
“No, sir,” Thompson said. He’d just detailed August 16, Jennifer’s first and only day on her new job. She’d done so well that Thompson had offered her a better position. Then, on the seventeenth, Jennifer never showed up and never contacted the office.
While Bishop laid out the timeline for Jennifer’s disappearance, Minton and Bassett had points of their own they hoped to make. “Let me ask you a few questions about your conversation with Jennifer,” Minton said. “Did you have any information on her at all?”
Thompson explained that his administrative assistant weeded through the job applicants. That responsibility wasn’t his.
“[Jennifer] was a bright, attractive girl?” Minton asked.
“Both those things, yes,” Thompson agreed.
“Since then have you had occasion to look into her background, how many jobs she had?” Minton asked. Although Jennifer wasn’t on trial, her history of job hopping and drugs was something Minton wanted before the jury. This young woman was troubled, he was suggesting.
“No, sir,” Thompson said.
From that first witness, Roy Minton tried to humanize Colton in front of the jury. He put his hands on his client’s shoulders, calling him a “boy,” and a “young man.” Old enough to be Pitonyak’s grandfather, the lead defense attorney acted the part, scolding his client at times, as if Pitonyak were an errant child. This was not a hardened criminal, a cold-blooded murderer, Minton’s words and body language implied. Colton was simply an inexperienced young man who’d briefly lost his way.
Looking somber in a black dress, Denise Winterbottom then took the stand. Stephanie McFarland rose to ask the questions, expanding the timeline of that fateful day. When Denise awoke that morning around six, Jennifer was missing. “The room was empty,” Denise said. “I felt something was wrong.”
“It’s fair to say that you observed Jennifer using drugs?” Sam Bassett asked.
“Yes,” Denise said. She’d seen Jennifer smoke pot, and she knew she used meth.
“It wasn’t a secret, was it?” Bassett asked.
“She was honest with me,” Denise said.
The day would dissolve into a parade of witnesses, all setting the stage for the horror that took place in Orange Tree unit 88. Three of those who gathered on Sixth Street that night testified, including Jeffrey Sanderson, who relayed how eager Colton Pitonyak seemed to procure an eight ball of drugs and how he pulled a knife out to cut off a girl’s wristband. Yes, Sanderson admitted, he’d described Colton to police as seeming as if he’d “fried” his brain with drugs.
“That’s a descriptive way of saying his brain wasn’t working right?” Minton prodded. The defense wanted jurors to see Colton as unable to make a rational decision.
“Yes, sir,” Sanderson agreed.
When Melissa Kuhl took the stand, the girl whose birthday was being celebrated on Sixth Street that Tuesday night, she described how Jennifer confided Colton “is crazy,” and then how she watched Jennifer and Colton walk away from the Cheers Shot Bar and turn the corner, disappearing from her sight.
A break was called, and Sharon left the courtroom, followed by Ellen Halbert, the head of the DA’s victims’ assistance office. In the women’s restroom, Sharon washed her hands, when Bridget Pitonyak bustled in.
“Sharon, Sharon, please I want to talk to you,” Colton’s mother pleaded.
To avoid her, Sharon rushed into one of the stalls and closed the door. The last thing she wanted to do was talk to Colton’s mother.
“I’m so sorry…” Bridget began.
Standing between Bridget and the bathroom stall door, Halbert put up her hand. “This is inappropriate,” she said. “It’s not the time or place. Please leave.”
Bridget looked flustered and upset, disappointed. Jennifer’s death must have been weighing heavily on her. Ever since testimony began, she’d stolen quick glances at Sharon, perhaps identifying with the pain Jennifer’s mother endured. Certainly the Pitonyaks were suffering. But then, as Sharon would later say, “their child is still alive. They can still talk to him, still tell him they love him.”
When testimony resumed, the chronicle of Jennifer’s final night continued to play out. Michael Rodriguez recounted how Jennifer complained Pitonyak was acting up, urinating on one car and threatening to break the window of another. Colton’s cell phone was missing, Jennifer had said, and she was helping him find it before she took him home. “I’ll call you when I get to my apartment,” she promised. But Rodriguez fell asleep, and his phone never rang.
“You didn’t sense any fear in her voice?” Bassett asked, making his point that Jennifer had no reason to fear Colton, that they were friends.
“No…if I would have, I would have made plans to meet her somewhere,” Rodriguez replied.
Two hours later, Colton banged on Nora Sullivan’s door. Pitonyak had been drinking, and he babbled about a gunfight with Mexican drug dealers. “Did he seem…highly intoxicated?” Bishop asked Sullivan.
“He was functioning fine, talking fine,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan insisted she didn’t worry about Colton having a gun in her apartment at three in the morning. “Were you ever concerned for your safety?” Bassett asked.
“No, not at all,” she said.
At times, Sharon Cave’s face so reflected her grief that it was painful to watch her on the witness stand. When the questions became too agonizing and her emotions too raw, she paused, grimaced, and took a deep breath. Then, remarkably, she went on.
“Are you close to your children?” Stephanie McFarland asked.
“Yes,” Sharon said. McFarland brought a framed photo to the witness stand, and Sharon identified the fresh-faced high school senior with bright blue eyes as her dead daughter, Jennifer. The prosecutor placed the picture on a ledge in front of the judge, facing the jury. For most of the rest of the trial, when the jurors looked at the judge’s bench, Jennifer looked back at them.
Throughout her testimony, Sharon appeared as vulnerable as an open wound, bleeding sorrow. She recounted her last conversation with her daughter, how happy Jennifer had been that day, her disappearance, and Sharon’s frantic rush with Jim to Austin. What did Colton Pitonyak say to Sharon when she pleaded for information about her daughter?
“Dude, I’m having pizza with my friend,” he told her. “Don’t bother me.”
When Sharon repeated his words, she looked over at the defense table. Colton stared blankly down at his hands, and Sam Bassett seemed to bristle. She looked back at Pitonyak and he looked up, but Sharon saw no emotion in his eyes. They looked dead and cold.
With Sharon, McFarland took the jury to the Orange Tree and condo 88. Sharon recounted knocking on the door, calling out the name of the daughter everyone in the courtroom knew was already dead and mutilated, Jim entering the apartment, the horrible smell of decomposing flesh, and the frantic call to 911.
“I knew it was Jennifer when Jim came out and said he saw her feet,” Sharon said, sobbing. “Jennifer had freckles on her feet. I knew then.” In the gallery, Jim and Vanessa helplessly watched. Sharon’s face was a mask of utter misery.
“I feel sorry for both of us,” Minton said, when he stood up to begin cross-examination. “I hate like the devil to ask you questions.”
Despite any reluctance, Minton had a job to do, and he started his inquiry where it would tell the most about what had transpired in Jennifer’s life, the path she took from high school to college to Austin. School, work, drugs, and partying, Jennifer’s life seemed in chaos at times.
“Jennifer was having a hard time finding herself,” Sharon admitted. Minton handled her questioning gently, calmly, and before long she’d returned to the gallery, where Jim slipped his arm over her shoulder and she cried.
On the stand, Scott Engle talked about the “connection” he and Jennifer felt the first time they met and how the relationship ended. He left a voice mail on Colton’s telephone the day Jennifer disappeared. When Colton called him back, Scott mentioned that Sharon had called the police.
“What did he say?” Bishop asked.
“[Colton said,] ‘That bitch is going to get me arrested,’” Scott repeated.
In the jury box, one of the men turned and looked at Colton, his eyes boring into him.
“You knew she was using methamphetamines,” Minton said to Scott. “People on that can get aggressive.”
“I never saw that,” Scott said. “I’ve never seen a problem with her thoughts…her way of doing things…she took great care of my daughter.”
What about Colton? Minton wanted to know. In his statement to police, Scott had written, “Colton is crazy.”
“Was that the drugs or was he psychotic?” Minton asked.
“I could never balance the two,” Scott responded.
When the prosecutor questioned him, Jim kept his eyes on Bishop. Articulate and calm, Jim described the terror of walking into Pitonyak’s dark apartment and the horror of finding Jennifer’s decapitated body.
“There’s a body,” he repeated, looking weary. He’d told this painful story too many times, relived the nightmare too often. “Sharon asked, ‘Is it Jennifer?’”
On cross-examination, Sam Bassett asked questions. No, Jim wasn’t concerned about Jennifer’s use of drugs the night that she disappeared. He’d talked with her, and she was excited about her new job. As he answered, Jim glanced at Colton seated beside his attorney. Like Sharon, he searched the younger man’s face. Like Sharon, Jim saw no emotion and nothing to indicate remorse.
After Jim left the witness stand, a parade of investigators testified, from Richard Barbaria, the first APD officer to enter the apartment, through the forensic investigators who photographed and collected the evidence. “Were you made aware that there was a decapitated body in the apartment?” McFarland asked crime scene specialist Victor Ceballos.
“Yes, ma’am,” he responded.
“Let’s take them one at a time,” Judge Flowers ordered with Vince Gonzalez, the crime scene specialist who’d taken the photographs. Bishop had labeled each photo he planned to bring into evidence, organizing them to take the jurors through the apartment, just as Gonzalez had experienced the scene, through Colton Pitonyak’s front door, the debrisstrewn efficiency with an ACE hardware bag near the bed and fired shell casings on the cocktail table, into the kitchen where the bloody machete waited in the dishwasher, toward the bathroom, where the full horror awaited them.
Sharon and Vanessa left before the photographs of Jennifer’s mutilated body were displayed on a screen behind the witness, for the entire courtroom to see. They’d decided Jim was right, that there were images they were better off not seeing. Jim and his cousin Bissett stayed. “I thought I’d seen it all before, and I could stay for this as well,” says Jim. At times, he didn’t want to look, but nothing the prosecutors displayed on the screen rivaled the horror of being in the apartment that day, seeing Jennifer’s poor, mutilated body.
The last thing the jurors witnessed as the first day of testimony came to an end was a photo of Jennifer’s dismembered body: her hands and head in trash bags and her violated body in Colton Pitonyak’s bathtub.
Austin was in a drought, and few complained when rain soaked the streets and impeded rush hour traffic the following morning. Outside, I–35 was clogged with a river of cars, while inside the courtroom, more of the investigators took the stand, including Detective Keith Walker. He’d accompanied the body to the morgue, where Dr. Peacock fingerprinted Jennifer’s severed hands.
When Maurice Padilla, the DNA specialist, took the stand, he testified that Colton’s DNA was all over the bathroom and the tools used to dismember Jennifer’s body. But then he testified to the test results that worried Bishop and McFarland: Laura Hall’s DNA on the gun and on the outside of the magazine that held the bullets. It wasn’t surprising, Bassett pointed out, that Colton’s DNA was on the gun. It was his gun, and he’d handled it often. But why was Hall’s on the gun? “Mixtures [of DNA] don’t indicate how much someone has handled an item?” Bassett asked.
“Correct,” said Padilla.
Bassett put a photograph of the black-handled knife on the screen, the one prosecutors labeled “the buck knife.” On the serrated blade was the logo for Eddie Pitonyak’s farm equipment company, and in the gallery, Sharon’s throat tightened. It was a promotional knife, and she recognized the model as one she sold through her business to clients who used them for advertising.
Then Bassett turned his attention to the DNA evidence, not what was before the jury but what was missing. APD hadn’t swabbed the handles of the hacksaw or the buck knife for DNA. How else could they know who was holding them? “Was any portion of the handle [of the hacksaw] before or after the fingerprinting swabbed?” Bassett asked.
“Not by me,” Padilla answered.
On the witness stand, Jeff Breed testified that Pitonyak had a list of cleaning supplies when he entered the hardware store the afternoon after the killing. When Breed asked him what kind of saw he needed, the disheveled young man asked for something cheap to “cut up a turkey.”
“Did he act intoxicated?”
“No,” Breed answered. “I smelled alcohol, but he didn’t act intoxicated.”
Jurors and the crowd of spectators watched as on the screen the hardware store surveillance tape played, showing Pitonyak pushing a shopping cart up to the checkout to pay for supplies he planned to use to clean up evidence and dismember Jennifer’s dead body.
Before the medical examiner took the witness stand, Jim brought Sharon to a small room outside the courtroom. There was something he hadn’t told her, something about the autopsy. “I need to tell you something that’s about to come out. They found a bullet,” he said, not wanting to go on but needing to. “Someone shot into Jennifer’s head through her neck, after they cut her head off.”
“What?” Sharon sobbed, and Jim held her. “How many things did they have to do to my child’s body? Why did they have to keep hurting her? She wasn’t doing anything but lying there dead.”
It seemed the horror of Jennifer’s death had no end.
When Dr. Peacock took the stand, she and McFarland went over the main findings, concentrating first on the gunshot wound that killed Jennifer. As Peacock demonstrated the path of the lethal bullet through Jennifer’s body, Colton Pitonyak looked away. Then she talked about the cuts to Jennifer’s face and chest and the bullet lodged in her skull. All were postmortem, after death, and those listening knew what they meant. Pitonyak, Hall, or both, most likely high on drugs, had not only dismembered but played with the corpse, toying with it, slicing into Jennifer’s cold flesh and shooting into her skull. In the gallery, Sharon Cave seethed, believing that perhaps she understood why they’d done it. Colton and Hall were angry with Jennifer, furious that her body lay there taunting them.
“It was pure evil,” says Sharon.
Again, Sharon and Vanessa left the room, this time while McFarland used Dr. Peacock on the stand to introduce the autopsy photos. Jim had intended to stay, as he had while the crime scene photos were up, seated next to his cousin Dr. Bissett for support. “I figured that being a doctor, Jack could take the photos,” said Jim. “It didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t be able to.”
But when McFarland put up a photo of the pieces of Jennifer’s body lined up on a cold, steel autopsy table, Jim’s stomach lurched. “I’m out of here,” he stood up and whispered to Bissett. “I can’t do this.”
Jim wasn’t the only one that photo affected. The autopsy table photo hit the jurors hard. One, a thirtysomething woman in a matronly quilted vest, covered her mouth with her hand, while an older woman turned away. A third woman started to cry, while some of the men stared at the photo and others looked at Colton Pitonyak in disbelief.
As the second day of testimony ended, Bishop set the stage for Pitonyak and Hall’s flight from Austin. A cellular telephone expert explained how on the evening after the killing, the path of Pitonyak’s cell phone cut across Texas into Mexico.
Bishop had predicted that the trial could take up to two weeks, but it was progressing quickly. The main reason: Minton and Bassett asked few questions of the witnesses on cross-exam. Since the defense attorneys admitted Colton fired the fatal shot, they had no need to. The only witnesses the defense attorneys seemed interested in were two: With the DNA expert, they stressed what items had traces linking them to Laura Hall, and with the gun expert, Minton argued that the SW .380 could have accidentally discharged.
As the crowd filed from the courtroom, Jim Bergman drove south toward Eagle Pass, Texas, to pick up Pedro Fernandez. In a last-minute deal, U.S. immigration authorities agreed to allow McFarland to bring the hotel clerk into the country, but he’d be kept under guard in a hotel. McFarland and Bishop had Fernandez for one day. By the following midnight, Bergman had to have Fernandez back at the border, ready to turn over to an INS officer, to be returned to Mexico.
On the witness stand the next morning, Detective David Fugitt testified about what he’d discovered on Colton’s cell phone, including a text message to his mother: “Going to Houston.” In truth Pitonyak and Hall were on their way to Mexico. Photos showed the contents of Pitonyak’s backpack, everything he’d taken with him for the journey, from his collection of high-priced Ralph Lauren clothing to his passport and cell phone.
Listening to the witnesses on the stand, many wondered what Colton Pitonyak had told his parents when he was leaving Austin, especially regarding Bridget’s text message at 9:20 the night after Jennifer died. Colton’s mother told her son, “I’m a nervous wreck not knowing what’s going on…” It seemed that at least Bridget knew something troubling had happened in Austin. Yet the following afternoon, Eddie barked at Sharon and told Jim that Bridget thought “Jennifer was the problem.”
When Gilchrest, the case’s lead detective, took the stand, he brought in what at the time seemed an inconsequential piece of evidence, the Burger King bag he discovered on his final walk through the apartment, a $6.16 value meal without onions. Then, Bishop flashed the booking photo of Colton Pitonyak on the screen, for the detective to identify. The prosecutor wanted jurors to see the defendant as he was at the time of the murder, not the clean-cut, quiet young man in a suit sitting next to his attorneys, but a thug with glazed eyes and unruly hair, a goatee around his mouth, and dark stubble on his cheeks. Roy Minton asked Gilchrest no questions.
If the defense attorneys were restrained throughout the first two and a half days of the trial, their self-control ended when Deputy U.S. Marshal Vincent Bellino took the stand. He and his fellow deputy, Joseph Smith, had damaging statements to put before the jury, words Colton Pitonyak had uttered after his expulsion from Mexico and his arrest. Minton and Bassett insisted that they hadn’t been warned, as the rules required.
“Judge, we weren’t told about this,” Bassett argued. “We were supposed to have been told about any statements.”
“It was in my bucket for more than a year,” Bishop responded, referring to the container of evidence he shared with the defense during discovery.
Both sides argued, the defense attorneys maintaining the statements were inadmissible because they weren’t advised earlier of their existence, and Bishop and McFarland countering that they supplied the defense with the information along with all the other reports and interviews, and it couldn’t be held against them if Minton and Burton missed them in the pile of evidence.
“What irritates the hell out of me is that you gave a specific discovery order to the state to disclose statements,” Bassett objected.
The defense attorneys were angry, and Judge Flowers frowned, saying he could understand their sentiments. Flowers glared at the prosecutor, but said, “I am going to let those statements in.”
After the break, Bellino described Pitonyak’s arrest at the Casablanca Inn in Piedras Negras, Mexico, and what he said on the drive to the Maverick County jail: “If this is a murder charge, I know what this is about.”
What had Pitonyak told Deputy Smith? “I really fucked up.”
Afterward, on the video screen, jurors watched Hall in her green Cadillac driving Colton across the border at Del Rio into Mexico.
It was then that Pedro Fernandez, bulky in his sport coat, glasses perched on his nose, took the stand.
As a rapt audience listened, Fernandez described the two young Americans as looking like vacationing students. From the beginning, the things they said struck Fernandez as odd. They’d wanted to sell the Cadillac, and their plan was to disappear into Mexico’s interior. “I never met somebody who would come to Mexico and wouldn’t want to go back to their hometown of the U.S.,” Fernandez said, with a shrug, still appearing perplexed at the prospect.
At his home that night, watching the fighting match, Fernandez took a knife away from an agitated Pitonyak and snapped a cell phone photo of his two guests. In the picture McFarland displayed on the screen, Pitonyak and Hall smiled as if they hadn’t a care in the world, in a child’s playpen.
“Why did you take a picture?” Minton asked, appearing irritated, his voice booming through the courtroom.
“Because I was suspicious of them,” Fernandez said.
When Minton pressed, asking how Fernandez had been able to take the photo without Pitonyak and Hall objecting, the hotel manager pulled out his cell phone and flipped it open. “It’s easy, you take out your phone and snap,” he said, demonstrating.
Minton scowled, while Fernandez looked over at Pitonyak. He recognized the hard, cold look on the defendant’s face. It was the same one he’d seen on Pitonyak in his house that night, the one that frightened him so much that he took a circuitous route from his home to prevent Pitonyak and Hall from showing up at his door.
A short time later, at 11:40 A.M. on the third day of the trial, Fernandez stepped down from the witness stand and Bill Bishop stood before the crowd and announced, “Your honor, the state rests.”
A buzz went through the courtroom after the prosecutors announced the conclusion of their case. While Bergman ushered Fernandez to his county car for the 450-mile round trip to return him to the border, word spread outside the 147th District Court that at 1:30 Laura Hall would appear with her attorney, Tom Weber. On the chance that it might be true, a barrage of cameramen and reporters staked out the entrance. At 1:15, Hall, wearing jeans and a gray sweater, sunglasses on top of her head, walked beside Weber toward the courtroom. She glared at the reporters recording her every move.
“On behalf of my client I am going to assert our Fifth Amendment rights,” Weber said, as he and Hall stood before Judge Flowers with the jury box empty.
“We ask the prosecutors to offer Laura Hall limited immunity so she can testify,” Bassett said.
Bishop had thought long and hard early on about offering Hall some kind of a deal, but he saw no advantage. He had two diametrically opposed statements from her, which meant she’d have no credibility in front of the jury. And he personally didn’t believe that Laura Hall recognized and would tell the truth.
“The state is not going to grant immunity in this matter,” Bishop said.
As quickly as the hubbub over Hall’s arrival began, it ended. Cameras rolled until she made her way into the elevator and the door closed.
From their arrival in Austin the Monday before the first day of testimony, Sharon and Jim stayed at a downtown Radisson hotel. That afternoon, after Bishop rested, Sharon went to their room to change into her tennis shoes, while Jim stood in the open parking garage, smoking and talking to his office on his cell phone. A white Toyota Sequoia drove in, and Jim glanced at the driver and thought it looked like Bridget Pitonyak. He looked down and saw Arkansas license plates.
A little while later, Sharon arrived, and he told her that the Pitonyaks were staying at the same hotel. “Surely, we’re not that unlucky,” Sharon said.
Any doubt, however, soon disappeared; a short time later, Sharon and Vanessa sat on a lobby couch, when Eddie and Bridget walked through, arm in arm.