A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
That spring, following Colton Pitonyak’s conviction, Sharon Cave tried to pick up the shreds of her life. It was hard. She’d found no closure from Colton Pitonyak’s conviction. “I have this vision of Jennifer,” she said, her face contorted in grief. “In it, Jennifer is angry. She’s furious, saying, ‘Momma, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not that day. That day I was trying so hard. That day I was turning my life around. That day, Momma, I was making you proud.”
Determined to use her family’s tragedy to help others, Sharon mounted a campaign. She met with her state representative, Juan Garcia, and asked him to sponsor two bills. Called the Jennifer Cave Act, the proposals would elevate the mutilation of a corpse when done for the purpose of covering up a crime to a second-degree felony. The second bill was a gift to jurors across the state who sat through terrible testimony about heinous crimes, a bill to provide state-sponsored, after-trial juror counseling.
Throughout Pitonyak’s trial, Sharon noted the stricken looks on the faces of the jurors charged with hearing the evidence. One woman cried much of the day the autopsy photos were shown, while others wiped away tears. “It wasn’t right,” Sharon said. Despite the distressing testimony jurors were often forced to sit through, Texas, along with forty-eight other states, didn’t offer posttrial counseling. Sharon wanted that changed. “We expose them to this horror and then send them home and tell them they can’t even talk about it with their wives and husbands until the end of the trial,” she said. “Then the trial ends, and we tell them to go on with their lives, without any help to cope with all they’ve seen.”
On July 12, 2007, in the red granite Texas capitol building topped with a statue of the goddess of liberty, less than two miles from the site of Jennifer’s murder, Texas governor Rick Perry signed both bills into law. Sharon had her victory, but the laws wouldn’t affect the charges pending against Laura Hall.
Yet Hall’s situation had changed.
While Sharon Cave lobbied the legislature, Bishop upped the stakes in the Hall case. Instead of one, she faced two third-degree felonies: hindering apprehension and, now, tampering with evidence, principally the dismemberment of Jennifer Cave’s corpse. Colton Pitonyak’s testimony had convinced Bishop that Hall had more to do with the murder than whisking the killer away to Mexico.
Interest in the case hadn’t died in the media. Many wondered: Could Laura Hall be the one behind the gruesome crime scene? On Monday, July 2, 2007, the headline for an article by Steven Kreytak in the Austin American Statesman asked: “Is She ‘Good Girl’ or Killer’s Helper?” It was a question people all over Austin were asking.
In Kreytak’s article, Hall’s father defended his daughter, saying, “She’d always been a good girl until she ran into Colton.” Pitonyak, he said, had been physically and psychologically abusive, burning Laura’s arm and carving his initials into her hand. During her five months with Pitonyak, Loren maintained, his daughter suffered like a battered wife.
Certainly Laura Hall had a positive side. She was a determined student. While Pitonyak waited for his trial in jail, Hall finished UT, earning her degree in government. And, Loren said, his daughter had suffered. Even with her diploma, she was nearly unemployable, let go from jobs she took under the name Ashley Hall, when those she worked for realized she was in fact that Laura Hall, the one whose photo had been all over the front page. An attorney, Bill White, hired her because her résumé stood out among the pile on his desk, and when he met her she seemed excited about the position. Then he discovered her true identity and fired her, not wanting a staff member who faced a felony indictment in a courtroom where he practiced.
As the summer wore on, there were pretrial hearings: one to consider a motion to bar Laura’s two conflicting statements from her trial. Hall’s court-appointed attorney, Tom Weber, mounted a series of arguments, but after Judge Flowers watched a video in which Hall agreed to waive her rights, the judge ruled both statements were admissible.
Through it all, Weber’s client appeared to be enjoying the media frenzy.
At the courthouse one day, Laura showed up with her parents Garboesque, hiding her head in a wildly colored silk scarf and much of her face behind large sunglasses. Yet when the Statesman’s camera caught her, Hall was grinning. Once she toyed with the cadre of reporters outside the courtroom, carrying a book with its title prominently displayed: Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary?
Later, Laura would say the title had a message, “from a ‘what have you done for me lately’ standpoint, I’d say, you know, try to get me sent to prison, destroy my reputation and probably my career, force me out of my city, and cost me my Cadillac…definitely a commentary on Colton.”
Despite Hall’s bravado in front of the camera, Andrea Jiles had the impression that her old high school friend was finally grasping the severity of her situation. “I could tell Laura was beginning to understand that she was in deep trouble,” says Jiles. “For the first time, I think, she knew this could end badly for her.”
Behind the scenes, Weber worked on Hall’s defense, hoping to find some way to mitigate the damning evidence of the crime scene photos. With court-supplied funds, he hired a psychologist to assess Hall. After examining her, the therapist warned Weber not to put him on the stand: What the psychologist had to say about the health of Laura Hall’s psyche wouldn’t help her.
Although he was well-respected in Austin, Weber hadn’t been Laura’s choice from the beginning. That he was being paid by the court, not privately by her parents, rankled her. In late July, Weber and Hall’s attorney/client relationship deteriorated further. Bishop offered Hall a deal: Plead guilty to either of the felonies and accept a six-year sentence. Weber advised that they negotiate, to try to get the sentence down to four or five years, and then take it. Hall refused. Despite everything, she still dreamed of law school, and a felony on her record would prevent that forever.
Less than a month before her trial, in early August, Loren Hall hired a new lawyer for his daughter: well-known Austin defense attorney Joe James Sawyer, who’d represented one of the alleged killers in the city’s infamous Yogurt Shop Murders, the bloody slaying of four girls in an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! shop in 1991. Not a wealthy man, Laura’s father was reluctant to supply the money, but by then he had a plan to recoup it. Fashioning himself a writer, Loren planned to sell a book on the Pitonyak case, one he’d tentatively titled Cocaine, Murder, and Mutilation: A Parent’s Perspective. In it, he’d argue, among other things, his daughter’s innocence. “We have a story the publishers should be willing to pay for,” he’d later say, his eyes glistening with excitement. “We have a story to tell.”
As the trial approached, despite a gag order imposed by Judge Flowers, Loren mounted a very public campaign. On television news interviews, he courted public opinion, repeating his contention that his daughter wasn’t a criminal but a victim, saying that she’d been physically and emotionally abused by Pitonyak. Asked by one television reporter why Laura returned to Pitonyak’s apartment on August 17, 2005, after she’d left and could have called police, Loren cried out: “She was afraid for her life!”
“The only thing Miss Hall is guilty of is being silly enough to love a self-indulgent sociopath,” Sawyer, Hall’s new attorney, told another reporter. When it came to the evidence against her, he classified it as coming from Pitonyak and being untrustworthy. “I guess if you’re in the habit of believing killers and sociopaths, you might believe that this case has some weight and merit.”
As August drew to a close, Bill Bishop reviewed the evidence Detectives Gilchrest and Fugitt had amassed against Hall. What did they have? The self-proclaimed Mouth of the South, Laura had bragged to many about her part in the carnage in the apartment and Pitonyak’s escape attempt. Had anyone repeated her words to police? It wasn’t assured. In the more than a year during which he prepared the murder case against Pitonyak, no one told Bishop that Colton was in love with Jennifer. No one recounted the evening Pitonyak came at her with a knife. Would anyone step forward to testify against Laura Hall?
The opening day of Laura Hall’s trial looming, Sharon Cave had no qualms about what she wanted. “I want Laura Hall to get everything she deserves,” Sharon said. “Everything.”