A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
Parenthood is a dance of sorts. Mothers and fathers carry into their child-rearing years the baggage of their own upbringings, their strengths and weaknesses, their biological and emotional temperaments. Children are mysteries, creatures to be nurtured, loved, worried and prayed over. Yet too often, for good reasons as well as bad, parents misstep. Try as they may, there are rarely easy answers. What works with one child, doesn’t with another. And when lives spin out of control and collide, they can throw a family into turmoil.
“Mom always did everything she could for us to make things good,” Lauren says. “But we were rambunctious kids.”
The first to hit her difficult years was, not surprisingly, the oldest. Vanessa was beautiful and popular, and the entire family adored her. Perhaps especially Jennifer, who saw her older sister as what every girl coming of age strives to be: exciting and vibrant, independent and confident.
A stunning girl with the figure of a model, the kind who turns heads when she walks into a room, Vanessa was in high school the year Charlie and Sharon divorced. Her senior year, she was homecoming queen, and that year she had her first serious boyfriend, a teenager Sharon didn’t care for. The tension in the house escalated, they argued, and Vanessa left home and moved in with her boyfriend’s family. Sharon wanted her home. “Mom was up nearly every night, crying,” says Lauren. “I’d never seen her so upset.”
The other three children took to their mother’s bed, hoping to comfort her. “Vanessa was a wild child at that point,” says Sharon. “For a while, she put me through hell.”
The crisis ended when, the teenage romance over, Vanessa crawled unannounced through the window one night and into her bedroom. In the morning, Sharon found her oldest daughter asleep in her own bed. For at least a little while, the family was whole again.
When Vanessa left Bishop for Blinn College, in College Station, Texas, the craziness escalated. Not unlike many college students, she focused not on her studies but on what made her feel good at the time, and Sharon responded with “tough love,” coming down hard on her. “I told her she could do so much with her life,” Sharon says. “She had to pull it together.”
It would be a difficult few years, ones filled with sleepless nights and emotional arguments, but eventually Vanessa did just that. She moved to Dallas, where she finished college, earning a degree in communications and landing a job as a marketing coordinator. “I was so proud of her. We all were,” Sharon says. “She’s one tough little cookie. She hung in there and made it all work.”
Meanwhile in Bishop, Jennifer remained a shy high school student. Her excitement revolved around basketball games, cheerleading, reading, and the outdoors, everything she’d grown up loving. She wasn’t a child who adapted well to change, Sharon knew. But still, life isn’t static, and lives rarely stay the same.
The year Vanessa left for college, when Jen was fourteen, Sharon began commuting to Corpus Christi, where she took a marketing job with the Caller-Times newspaper. Back and forth from Bishop, she commuted more than an hour a day. “It was hard,” Lauren remembers. “All of a sudden, our mom wasn’t with us. We were doing for ourselves, watching over Clayton after school.”
Looking back, Clayton admits he was a challenge. “I was a real handful for my sisters,” he says. “Lauren would get so mad. Jennifer was the one who was always there for me. She’d take me places, and we talked.”
Still, Jen as well as Lauren resented the responsibility, wanting their mother home with them as she’d always been. They didn’t understand why Sharon was gone so often. “We were angry, especially Jennifer,” Lauren remembers. “Both of us felt it was unfair, when we were still just kids.”
The following year, 1999, four years after her divorce, Sharon played matchmaker, trying to find a date for a girlfriend. Sharon’s friend Harold Shockley, a Corpus Christi banker, recommended she set the woman up with a friend of his: Jim Sedwick, a lanky CPA with big blue eyes, a gravelly voice, and a determined gait that telegraphed a take-charge attitude. Shockley thought Sharon’s friend and Jim might hit it off. The two met, but neither Jim nor the woman expressed interest in a second date.
A partner in a well-established Corpus Christi accounting firm, Jim, like Sharon, had been born and raised in South Texas. Divorced, he had two teenage daughters, Whitney and Hailey, who fit in age between Sharon’s three girls. Although Sharon liked Jim when Harold introduced them, “I wasn’t looking for a man in my life. I had four kids to raise.”
When Sharon and Jim went out to lunch a few weeks later, it was business. As part of his practice, Jim handled trusts and estates, and Sharon’s father had recently died. But they had a great time together, talking and laughing, and they felt a strong attraction. Before long, Sharon and Jim were a couple.
On the one hand, life was looking up for her. When the marriage with Charlie ended, Sharon swore that if she ever fell in love again it would be with someone who respected her. “I wanted my kids to see a healthy relationship,” she says. “And I had that with Jim.”
Still, it was hard on the family. In addition to the long hours commuting to and from work, she now carved out what time she could to spend with Jim. There were crock-pot meals and casseroles made ahead. “But I always knew that the kids came first,” Jim says. Their first date was spent in the bleachers watching Jennifer and Lauren cheerlead at a football game. Most nights, Sharon ran from work to see Jim, and then rushed home to Bishop to be with Jennifer, Lauren, and Clayton. In the end, Sharon would say she spent “most of 2000 exhausted.”
That year Sharon turned forty, and the Cave sisters thought it was the most romantic thing they’d ever encountered when Jim took their mother to New Orleans to celebrate.
In fact, all Sharon’s children grew to love Jim. A calm, solid presence, he moved easily into their lives, and he and Jennifer formed a special bond. Jim took the family deer hunting that fall. The furnace was out in the girls’ cabin, and a blue norther blew in, an unusually chill wind coming in from the north. Jen was the only one awake and ready to go with Jim at five that morning. “I figure I might as well be cold out in the deer blind,” she told him. They didn’t see any deer, “but we had a great time,” he remembers.
As she began high school, Jennifer came of age. She was still inordinately shy, but felt comfortable in Bishop, where most of the town had watched her grow up. But then, what must have felt like the inevitable happened. Sharon came home and announced that they were moving to Corpus Christi.
It was the logical thing to do. Living in Corpus, Sharon could jettison the hour commute, and she and Jim could live closer, to see where their relationship took them. “I was ready to leave Bishop. I couldn’t wait,” says Lauren. “But Jennifer didn’t want to go. She was really mad at our mom.”
Moving from a small town into a city where her high school had more than two thousand students terrified Jennifer. Sharon promised that if it didn’t work out well, Jen could return to Bishop to live with a friend and graduate with her class. Only then did Jennifer agree. Sharon worried about Clayton more than the girls; he struggled with epilepsy, and there were all the temptations city life offered a young boy, so they made the difficult decision that he would move in with Charlie in Sinton, a small farming town just north of Corpus.
That summer, Sharon and the girls packed their possessions into the moving van. Corpus Christi awaited them, a warm and vibrant city. Yet for a young girl from a small town like Bishop, it offered an excess not just of possibilities, but also distractions. Before long, Jennifer would enter a world from which she would never successfully separate. “Vanessa never lured Jennifer into the drinking and partying,” says Lauren. “It’s more like Jennifer caught a glimpse, and it looked exciting. Jennifer wanted to be one of the cool kids, and this was a way to fit in.”
On a bay off the Gulf of Mexico and at the mouth of the Nueces River, Corpus Christi, the largest coastal city in South Texas, lies two hundred miles south of Houston. The first Europeans to explore the area were the Spanish in the 1600s. An important center of Confederate commerce during the Civil War, the city in 1919 was devastated by a massive hurricane that killed nearly four hundred. By 2000, more than 277,000 residents dwelled in the sprawling, blue-collar city of palm trees, feathery pines, and one-story houses. The main highway ran along a coastline lined with refineries and into downtown Corpus, where high-rise condominiums hugged the bay. From there, expressways fanned out like fingers reaching into the suburbs. Jim lived south of downtown, in a newer part of the city, and Sharon rented a townhouse not far away.
Visitors to Corpus Christi’s Mary Carroll High School were greeted by a fanciful mosaic of a pouncing tiger, the school mascot. The school colors were navy blue and white, and the motto was “We prepare our students for their futures.” Built in the fifties, Carroll was a large, rambling place, busy with the confusion of thousands of teenagers rushing to classes. For Jennifer, “it felt overwhelming,” says Sharon.
Lauren, a sophomore, integrated easily into the school, making new friends and continuing where her days in Bishop left off. But Jennifer’s shyness made that impossible. One year ahead of Lauren, Jennifer, a junior, struggled with the lack of self-esteem that had plagued her from childhood. She remained that little girl in the closet, listening to her father’s anger pulsate through the house, when all she wanted was for everyone to be happy. Yet she had Lauren, her little sister, her almost twin. Worried about how Jennifer would fare, Lauren changed her entire class schedule to sit with Jennifer at lunch.
Sharon, too, did what she could to ease the transition, throwing a party to introduce the girls when they moved in. She thought that perhaps all would go well, when on the first day of school Jennifer and Lauren were invited by a group of girls for breakfast tacos at Nano’s Taqueria, a popular neighborhood spot. But whether or not the other teenagers were ready to accept Jennifer, her own self-doubt undermined her and kept her from seeing herself as others did.
There wasn’t a single moment when Sharon realized her middle daughter had grown up. But by the time she entered Carroll, Jennifer had transformed into a striking young woman. At five-foot-five, she weighed perhaps 120 pounds. She still had her red hair and bright blue eyes, but she had more than her physical beauty. At times, it was as if a light shone inside Jennifer. “She had this amazing spirit,” says her childhood friend Janna. “Jennifer could truly light up a room.”
Heads began turning when the shy young girl from Bishop entered a room, the same way they did for Vanessa. “Jennifer had kind of grown into her face. We started looking a lot alike,” says Vanessa. “She loved the attention, but deep down inside, she was still the little freckle-faced girl with big glasses.”
That Christmas, Jim’s daughters, Whitney and Hailey, came to visit, and they easily melded with Sharon’s girls. Sharon and Jim called them “our babies,” and loved the stir it caused when they walked into a restaurant with five attractive young women. “The waiters tripped over each other to take care of us,” Jim laughs. Under the tree for Jennifer was her first cell phone, and she quickly became addicted to it. “Jennifer’s just like you,” Jim teased Sharon. “She gets in the car, starts the engine, and makes a call.”
That invisible yet uncut cord that tied the Cave women together now included four or five cell phone calls a day. Sometimes, Jim joked that Sharon spent half the day talking to her girls about everything from what they wanted to wear to school the next day to where they were going after the dismissal bell.
When it came time for the holidays to end, Hailey decided not to return to Oklahoma, where she lived with her mom, Jim’s ex-wife, Susie. “I saw this noisy, chaotic, open family, and I wanted to be part of it,” she says.
“And we were off,” Sharon says.
Although Sharon and the girls still lived in the rented town home, the Sedwicks and Caves had already begun thinking of themselves as a family. One friend compared them to the Brady Bunch, busy, boisterous, and fun, with a lot of strong personalities. They gave one another nicknames. Jim became Buffalo; Hailey was Goat; Whitney had the moniker Monkey; Sharon was Cat, because of her penchant for leopard-print clothes; Lauren was Turtle; and Vanessa was Deer for her big brown eyes. For his ability to “tear things up,” Jim later said they should have renamed Clayton Bull in China Shop. Jennifer, who loved the little amphibians, was called Frog.
With her amazing memory, high school was easy for Jennifer, and she rarely studied. She picked up part-time jobs, her first at a small restaurant, and began mixing with a new group at school. Her braces came off, gifting her with a perfect, wide smile. Jennifer wore flirty dresses and strappy shoes, and her looks opened the door to the world of the cool kids, the kids who partied on weekends in whichever house was without parents. Still, she wasn’t by nature a joiner. Lauren would later believe that Jennifer started drinking to fit in. What began as a few drinks quickly escalated. “The drinks made Jennifer feel more at ease,” says Lauren. “She could laugh and be fun, the life of the party.”
Before long, Jennifer had a status in the new school, one that would, for the first time in their lives, split the younger sisters apart. Lauren stayed with her own group, kids involved in school projects, yearbook, and student council, while Jennifer joined the party crowd. “We’d been like the same person basically, we were so close,” Lauren says. “But I was worried. I didn’t want to have that kind of reputation. I had to separate from her, but that hurt. I think it hurt us both.”
Always there was that connection between the mother and three daughters. When something bad happened, Sharon never really needed a telephone to know. Something else warned her, an inner voice that whispered all wasn’t well. The night Vanessa had a car accident, Sharon knew before the phone rang. When Jennifer had her first auto accident, Sharon was already pacing the floor.
“Looking back, I didn’t handle it well,” says Sharon. “I wasn’t a loving mother that day.”
Jennifer didn’t come home, instead going to Jim’s. “Your mother didn’t mean it,” Jim told her about the argument they’d had.
“She hurt my feelings,” Jennifer replied.
Feelings were being hurt on both sides, fueled by anger and resentment, and the tension in Sharon Cave’s small townhouse built. By the spring of her senior year, Jennifer was tired of school, and she argued with Sharon, not wanting to go. To Sharon’s chagrin, Jennifer had a new boyfriend, a dark-haired senior named Brent.
Once Brent brought Jen home after 2 A.M. Sharon waited at the curb, yelling when they pulled up, ordering him not to come back to the house again. The boy looked terrified, and Jennifer was mortified. At times, Sharon caught her middle daughter lying about where she’d been, which led to more screaming matches. Then there was the night Jennifer and a girlfriend were pulled over in a car. The police officer found pot, and arrested both the girls. Sharon was beside herself, until the friend admitted the drugs were hers, and the charges against Jennifer were dropped.
The mother and daughter argued yet again, and Jim chastised Sharon, telling her, “She’s not going to listen to you when you’re angry like that.”
Yet by then he had his own concerns. His younger daughter, Hailey, had begun hanging out with Jennifer, going to the same parties. For Hailey, it would turn out to be a brief waylay, a little fun before she charted a straighter course. As Vanessa had before her, Hailey wouldn’t need any help realigning her life.
In Sharon’s darker moments, when she fretted over the turn Jennifer’s life had taken, Vanessa’s and Hailey’s successes reassured her. If they came around, why wouldn’t Jennifer? The party scene would grow old, Sharon told herself. Jennifer would move on. Yet as the months passed, Jen continued to flip-flop between the shy, smart, sweet girl she’d always been and the angry teenager who saw no reason to listen to her mother.
If the alcohol helped, the pot’s fuzziness must have done even more to camouflage Jennifer’s uncertainties. With friends, there were two Jennifers. The first was the one Sharon knew, the kind, intense, smart, and caring girl who’d do whatever she could to help a friend. When Leah Cook broke up with her boyfriend, Jennifer was the friend who drove her to the beach, where they sat and talked, Jennifer comforting Leah and reassuring her that life would go on.
Yet on the Carroll High School campus, Jennifer was known as a “party chick.” After a spate of car accidents, Jennifer’s friends began calling Lauren to pick up her sister at parties. When Lauren arrived, teenagers milled around outside the houses, smoking pot and talking. They were the “chill” crowd, the low-key kids. Inside the house were the partiers, throwing down shots and dancing. Jennifer was always among them, her hands up in the air, losing herself to the heavy beat of the music reverberating through the house.
The new Jennifer made Lauren uneasy, as if she instinctively sensed this change in her sister would not end well. On the nights Jennifer partied with friends, Lauren couldn’t sleep. “I was always paranoid that something would happen to her. I didn’t want to pick her up. I didn’t want to see what she was doing. I didn’t want to know,” Lauren says. “People talk. I dissed her on the way she was living her life, so I knew others would gossip, too.”
When Lauren complained to Jennifer about the company she kept, Jen snapped that it wasn’t her little sister’s business. And when Sharon expressed alarm, Jennifer waved it off, playing on the guilt her mother felt for uprooting her to Corpus. “You moved me here, and this is what the kids are like here,” she’d say.
Throughout that year, Jim and Sharon talked of merging households, moving her possessions into his home, but they held off. Forming a new family was hard enough without an out-of-control teenager to contend with. “Jennifer wouldn’t listen to me. She said she didn’t have to,” Sharon says. “We shouted and screamed at each other, but it didn’t help. As bad as things got, though, we never stopped telling each other ‘I love you.’”
Of them all, Jim was the one who seemed to understand Jen the best. They both smoked, and at family gatherings, they stood outside, enjoying a cigarette and dessert. Jim started calling Jen his “pie-eating buddy,” after they once finished off an entire chocolate pie with their coffee. He talked with Jennifer about the course her life was taking, cajoling her to understand that there was a whole world ahead of her, and that she had everything she needed, including brains and good looks, to do whatever she wanted, but he never felt as if he got through. “Deep down Jennifer didn’t believe she was capable of succeeding,” Jim says. “She always felt like something held her back.”
Despite her disinterest in school, when Jennifer graduated from Carroll High School in May 2002, she was in the top fifteen percent of her class. Jennifer’s graduation came as a relief, and Sharon hoped the worst was over. Lauren wrote in her sister’s yearbook, telling her “how important she was to me, and how much I loved her.”
That summer, Jen worked for Sharon and Jim’s old friend Harold Shockley, the tall, serious-looking banker who’d become such a beloved part of the family that the Cave and Sedwick kids referred to him as Uncle Harold. Jennifer delighted in dressing up every day and going into the office, circulating from department to department, working hard and doing whatever was needed. She always had a warm smile, and when Harold saw her, he didn’t see self-doubt or pain. He thought Jennifer Cave’s future couldn’t look brighter.
There were big plans in the works that fall: college.
That August, Jennifer left for San Marcos, Texas, a small city on a river, halfway between Austin and San Antonio, to become one of Southwest Texas State University’s more than twenty-seven thousand students. The school dated back to 1899, and changed names nearly as often as freshmen change majors, including the year after Jennifer arrived, when it became Texas State University. In its picturesque setting of green, rolling, tree-covered hills, the university’s symbol was Old Main, a red-roofed, castlelike Victorian structure that housed the school of communication. The university’s most prominent grad was President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who attended when it was still a small teachers’ college.
On her application, Jennifer designated her major as finance, and Jim and Sharon urged her to pledge a sorority, to ensure she ran with a good group of friends. Sharon brought Jennifer along with an overflowing car full of her belongings to school that fall and moved her in, spending the night in nearby San Antonio. “We had a great time,” Sharon says. “I just felt so good about it, so positive for Jennifer’s future.”
Although excited, Jennifer had mixed feelings. She had no real goals. Unlike Lauren, who’d known since childhood that she wanted to be a television news reporter, Jennifer wasn’t sure where her future lay. She seemed to be floundering, wondering where she wanted life to take her. “She didn’t want to go to college, because she didn’t know what it would do to help her,” says Lauren. “She just didn’t have a goal.”
Sharon tried to reassure Jennifer, to tell her that as a freshman she didn’t need set plans. In fact, Jen had at least two years before declaring a firm major. But Jennifer’s uncertainty was, as it had been throughout her young life, tempered with a pervasive self-doubt. She wanted to please her mother, her father, and Jim, but lurking behind her confident exterior and her wide smile was that nagging lack of self-confidence. Hailey, Jim’s youngest daughter, saw it. “I think Jen was excited to get out of Corpus,” she says. “But she was petrified out of her mind about college. She’d tell me, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t make it work.’”
Jennifer Cave’s stint at Southwest would be short. She dropped out of sorority rush after just a few days, telling Hailey, “It’s just not my thing.” Before long, Jen skipped classes, and her grades suffered. When Sharon asked why, her middle daughter always had an answer. “Your expectations are too high for me,” Jennifer said. “I’m not smart enough. I’m trying but I don’t get it.”
Sharon felt her exasperation building. Jennifer was the brightest of her four children; how could she not realize that?
When things went wrong, Jennifer called Lauren, who acted as intermediary in the building war between Jennifer and their increasingly frustrated mother. It became Lauren’s job to tell Sharon when Jennifer overdrew her bank account. “I told Mom and she started yelling at me,” Lauren says. “I really started to resent Jennifer for putting me in the middle.”
Then there was the day in late October when Lauren’s cell phone rang and one of Jennifer’s friends whispered more bad news: Jennifer was in jail. Again Lauren reluctantly delivered the message. Furious, Sharon called the jail, and one of the officers explained that Jennifer had been found in her dorm room with a boy who was smoking pot. The woman advised her to hurry and bail Jennifer out.
“She’s just losing it in here,” the officer said.
Worried and angry, Sharon put Jennifer’s bond on her credit card, and she was released. The matter ended as Jennifer’s high school escapade had when the boy said the pot was his, and the charges against Jennifer were dropped. When the mother and daughter finally talked, it didn’t go well. Sharon was livid and told Jennifer as much. “Why do you keep picking up these strays?” she asked. “Why do you hang out with people who aren’t good for you?”
Jennifer didn’t have an answer.
Despite the boy’s confession, the damage for Jennifer had been done. Her counselor informed her that she’d be allowed to finish the semester at Southwest, but having the pot in her room had broken a campus rule, and she wouldn’t be allowed to return for the spring semester.
Sharon was upset, yet Jennifer didn’t appear to be. “She never really wanted to be there in the first place,” says Lauren. “She never felt like she fit in.”
That December 2002, Jennifer packed her belongings for yet another move. She had a boyfriend, Mark, tall and blond, a good kid from a nice family, one Sharon thought well of. He was leaving Southwest and moving to Austin to continue his education at the University of Texas. Jennifer wanted to move to Austin to be near him, to get her own apartment, find a job, and attend Austin Community College.
Jim and Sharon were both in favor of the move, hopeful that Jennifer just needed time to maneuver through her problems and consider her future.
By then, Sharon had moved in with Jim and blended households, so they donated their excess furniture to Jen. Charlie loaded it into a trailer and hooked it up to his welding truck, then drove to San Marcos in January 2003. They packed Jennifer’s few college possessions, mainly clothing, and with Jennifer in the lead in her rundown car, they caravanned on I–35 to Austin.
“Jennifer, slow down,” Charlie said on his cell phone that day, as Jennifer wove in and out of traffic. The welding truck and trailer couldn’t change lanes as easily as her little Dodge Intrepid. “You’ll lose me, and I’ll get lost.”
“Just follow me,” Jennifer said, with a laugh. “I’ll get you there.”
Despite all Jennifer put the family through, Charlie couldn’t help but be proud. Sure, Jennifer had her ups and downs, but his little Fuffa had grown into a beautiful woman. On the outside, she looked confident and excited about her future, even if inside a shy little girl from Bishop worried about being alone in a bustling metropolitan area with a population of more than a million. The same girl who’d once resisted moving from Bishop to Corpus Christi now looked like she was ready to take on the world.
“It was just impossible not to love her,” Charlie says. “Jennifer had a smile that could melt a heart.”
After Charlie left, Sharon arrived to help Jennifer decorate her small apartment off Riverside Drive. It was just around the corner from Austin Community College, where Jen enrolled in classes for the spring semester. Jennifer was approaching nineteen years old and brimming with excitement. For the first time in her life, perhaps, she was in love. Mark, the young man she’d followed from San Marcos, lived nearby, and he’d already brought Jennifer home to meet his mother, who found her to be “a really lovely young girl.”
As Sharon drove out of Austin a couple of days later, the Texas state capitol’s graceful dome and the austere UT clock tower stood out in the postcard-blue sky from the city’s forest of hotels and office buildings. Thick-leaved live oaks bordered downtown sidewalks in front of office buildings and old storefronts, some dating back more than a century. Any misgivings Sharon had as she settled Jennifer into her new home weren’t enough to give her pause. “I thought Jennifer would find herself in Austin,” Sharon says. “I hoped it was a good place for her. I wanted so much to see her grow into the woman I knew she had the potential to become.”
There was, of course, much that Sharon couldn’t yet know. She didn’t understand the powerful lure of Austin’s wild side, its vibrant nightlife with its deeply entrenched drug scene, and she hadn’t yet heard the name of the young man who would fall in love with Jennifer and ensnare her in his dangerous, delusional world: Colton Pitonyak.