A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
The moon shone a tarnished red-gold over Austin just before sunrise on Tuesday, August 28, 2007, Laura Hall’s twenty-fourth birthday and the first morning of testimony in her trial. The color came from a celestial event, a lunar eclipse. The day before, a panel of eighty jurors had filled the courtroom. One quarter had to be disqualified because they’d read press reports and already formed an opinion about Hall’s guilt or innocence. In the end, the jury consisted of six women and six men.
In the courtroom, many of those who’d been at the Pitonyak trial congregated again. Missing were Pitonyak and his parents. Colton, who was already appealing his conviction, would not testify at Hall’s trial. This time Laura’s parents, Loren and Carol Hall, occupied the front bench on the courtroom’s left side, flanked by Laura’s grandmother and her husband, and Carol’s sisters. Directly in front of them, Laura, dressed in a severe black suit, heels, and an ivory blouse, her hair now a walnut brown, sat between her attorneys: Joe James Sawyer, a dapper raconteur, whose expensively cut suit had a white handkerchief precisely folded in the right breast pocket; and Antonio Wehnes, a balding, somewhat portly man, who would ask no questions but monitored testimony.
Something was new about Stephanie McFarland, who sat beside Bill Bishop at the prosecutor’s table. Roundly pregnant with a daughter, she smiled a bit more freely and, with an additional seven months of experience in the courtroom, seemed more at ease. After McFarland read out loud the two felony indictments against Hall—hindering apprehension and tampering with evidence—Bishop rose to begin opening statements.
Sharon and Jim appeared weary, and Hall, poised with her ballpoint pen over a yellow legal pad, sized up Bishop with contempt as he laid out the case, leading jurors through the events that preceded and followed the murder. That was important, he explained, because Jennifer’s murder “leads us to the charges against Laura Hall.” He described again that fateful night, another Tuesday in August, two years earlier, when Jennifer went out to dinner with Colton Pitonyak. She died in the early morning hours, and two days later, Jim Sedwick walked into Pitonyak’s bathroom.
There would be evidence that proved Hall was Pitonyak’s willing partner in the murder’s bloody cover-up and his attempted escape, Bishop said. Then he detailed bits of that evidence, including the border crossing videotape that clearly showed Laura driving the man she loved into Mexico. What would the jury base their decision on? In addition to the physical evidence, Bishop said he would present “statements made by Laura Hall.”
After Bishop’s brief opening, Sawyer stood and looked sternly at the jury. “The devil is in the details,” he said. The evidence would be in the dates and the times, he proposed, alerting the jurors to pay close attention to minor details.
Ironically, he then reconstructed the crime the way prosecutors had to convict Pitonyak, theorizing that Jennifer was killed as she pulled away from Colton, cleaning up her life and ridding herself of him. But Sawyer proposed something else, something new: that Pitonyak killed Jennifer because he coveted the experience of taking a human life. Colton Pitonyak, Sawyer said, fantasized about murder. Bloodthirsty, Pitonyak lusted over not only the killing but desecrating a body. Why did this exclude Sawyer’s client from the dismemberment? Pitonyak was too greedy to share either experience with Hall, the lawyer hissed. “There was a beast inside Colton Pitonyak, and no one had ever seen his face,” he said. “The beast who wanted to see what it was like to kill.”
Charming but diabolical, Pitonyak victimized two women, Sawyer said: one, Jennifer; the other, Laura Hall. Rather than a Ma Barker, the young woman at the defense table was frightened and abused, a girl in love who unquestioningly believed when Pitonyak claimed Jennifer’s death had been an accident. “She was as much a pawn in the hands of Colton Pitonyak as Jennifer Cave,” said Sawyer, his voice rising. Laura Hall’s “not guilty except of loving someone too much, and making stupid, foolish mistakes.”
From that point on, that first day of trial laid out a trail of events. Jennifer Gass, another of the friends, recounted seeing Jennifer and Colton on Sixth Street that night, and Jennifer’s warning to Melissa Kuhl: “Colton is crazy.” Ryan Martindill and Star Salzman told how Hall stayed at their apartment, and Michael Rodriguez recounted his last conversations with Jennifer before her death. At times it was difficult to see Hall as the victim Sawyer described, as when Martindill testified about the night she had “Colton” tattooed on her ankle.
When Martindill said Hall appeared traumatized by Colton’s arrest, Sawyer had him repeat that on cross-examination. Laura Hall was a woman suffering, the defense attorney wanted the jurors to understand.
Sadly, Jim and Sharon took the stand and detailed for one last time to a jury the events of the terrible day they’d found Jennifer’s violated corpse. Sawyer asked them no questions, but he had one for Scott Engle. “Did Jennifer relate to you that [Colton] once threatened her with a knife?” he asked.
“Yes,” Scott said. “She did.”
It was the first glimmer in the courtroom at either trial of Pitonyak’s true character, and that he hadn’t snapped that night but had a history of violence. Sawyer wanted that episode before the jurors because it fit the picture he’d paint of Pitonyak, a threatening man who abused women.
Still, it was Nora Sullivan’s time on the stand that proved the focal point of the day. After she testified to her early morning visit from Pitonyak, in which he tried to cover for the noise of the gunshot by making up a gunfight with drug dealers, McFarland asked Sullivan to recount a conversation she’d had with Laura Hall, one in which Hall described her role in the aftermath of the killing.
Blustering, Sawyer rose to his feet, objecting, and the jury was removed from the room. The prosecutors weren’t playing fair, he maintained. Under the judge’s orders, they were required to inform him of incriminating statements made by his client.
Bishop protested. The judge’s order included only statements to law enforcement personnel, he said. The argument built, both men standing before the judge, insisting the law was on their side.
What admission elicited such fervor?
Sawyer read out loud from McFarland’s notes: Hall told Sullivan that on the Wednesday following the killing, Hall lost patience with Pitonyak. Instead of using the hacksaw to dismember Jennifer’s body, he sat in the living room drinking beer and watching television. Sullivan had the impression that Hall took over and finished the job.
Judge Flowers looked at both attorneys, appearing uncertain, and then put off his decision until later. He wanted time to consider his ruling. Hall’s words to Sullivan were incriminating, and the stakes were high.
The afternoon filled with police officers and crime scene specialists, all testifying as they had at Pitonyak’s trial about their roles on the crime scene and in the investigation. Sharon and Vanessa left the courtroom before the twelve jurors looked up at the screen on the courtroom wall at photos of Jennifer’s desecrated body in Pitonyak’s bathtub, and the horror was again driven home. Then jurors heard that Laura Hall was a probable contributor to DNA found on a blue shop towel purchased at the hardware store, the gun and its six-bullet magazine, and flip-flops found in the bathroom.
With the DNA expert on the stand, Sawyer asked for more time to review his notes, and the trial ended for the day. As she left the courthouse, Sharon fumed over an encounter with the woman on trial. Leah Smith, one of the counselors in the DA’s victims’ assistance office, blocked the door to keep others out briefly that morning while Sharon and Vanessa used the woman’s restroom, a common practice to protect victims and their families in high-profile cases. Carol Hall walked up to the restroom door with Laura, and Smith asked them to wait. Her mother agreed, but Laura stormed past Smith into the restroom. Vanessa stood guard outside the door to the stall her mother used, as Hall chided: “There’s no law that says we can’t use a public bathroom.”
At that moment, Laura Hall looked far from Sawyer’s depiction of a young woman easily controlled or victimized.
More DNA testimony began day two of the trial. On cross-exam, Sawyer went through the long list of items processed by the lab, pointing out that most tested positive not for Laura Hall’s DNA, but rather for Jennifer’s and Colton’s. Had investigators checked Jennifer’s nail clippings for blood? he asked. No, the DNA expert admitted. They didn’t. Sawyer looked mystified.
Compared with Minton and Bassett, Sawyer was a different breed of lawyer, more the showman, and more openly aggressive. When the bullet found inside Jennifer’s head was put before the jurors by Dr. Peacock, Sawyer tried to defuse the damaging information by demonstrating in a nonchalant manner for jurors how the gun was shot into the severed neck. Still, one of the women turned away while Peacock held up the X-ray of Jennifer’s skull with the bullet inside. The X-ray showed the head unattached to the body, seeming to float in space, a disturbing image. On another X-ray, one of Jennifer’s severed hands looked like a glove without an arm, except for the ghostly white outline of bones.
At Colton Pitonyak’s trial, autopsy photos were displayed on the courtroom screen. This time, Dr. Peacock held them up to show jurors as she talked of the knife wounds across Jennifer’s face, throat, and chest. “The flesh appears waxy,” she said, pointing at the deep cuts. That there was no hemorrhage, no blood, meant, Peacock explained, that they were postmortem, after death, most likely between four and twenty-four hours after the killing.
Throughout the grisly testimony, Laura Hall sat nearly motionless, her face without emotion, as if it meant little or nothing to her. She adopted a lawyerly pose, writing in her yellow legal pad, as jurors stared at her with questioning eyes. When Dr. Peacock talked of the difficulty of decapitating a corpse, one male juror looked at Laura Hall and gulped.
During cross-examination, Sawyer took up the wound to Jennifer’s hand, the only cut on the corpse that showed signs of hemorrhage, albeit slight. That wound, Dr. Peacock said, was different from the others. It took place before all blood pressure was lost, making it peri-mortem, either just before or after death. Sawyer described it as a defensive wound, one that could have happened when Jennifer grabbed Pitonyak’s knife. Dr. Peacock agreed that was possible, but she failed to give the defense attorney what he wanted. Sawyer floated a theory that the wound to the hand meant all the wounds covering Jennifer’s face, throat, and chest happened soon after her death, before Laura arrived on the scene.
“I can’t say that,” Dr. Peacock said.
Yet it would be the afternoon witnesses that would deal the worst blows to the defense. One after another they took the stand and talked of Hall’s love of Colton or what she’d told them about her own actions in the Orange Tree bathroom.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Joseph Smith recounted how an agitated Hall paced the border crossing office waiting for her father in the early-morning hours following Colton’s arrest. She talked without being asked questions, sometimes as if to herself. Smith said she ranted about her love of Pitonyak and quoted Hall as warning at one point that she’d “kill anybody who hurt Colton.”
What Smith insisted he didn’t see were any injuries on Hall, any signs that Colton Pitonyak abused her. The only injury Hall complained of that morning was that Mexican police had been rough with her during the arrest. She said they’d “tried to give her a compound fracture of her right arm.” But when Smith inspected Hall’s arm, he saw nothing.
During cross-exam, Sawyer asked Smith to look at two dates: the first on the entrance of the green Cadillac into Mexico and the second the date on the warrant for Pitonyak’s arrest. “There is no question that at the time the car crossed into Mexico, there was no signed warrant for Colton Pitonyak’s arrest?” Sawyer asked.
“No question,” Smith agreed.
On the stand, Said Aziz looked guarded. He clearly didn’t want to be there, as he read from his statement to police the many things Hall told him on the day after Colton’s arrest, including the first phone call when she said, “I have been all up in this shit since like two hours after the shit started.”
When he asked her why she’d protect someone who’d murdered a girl much like herself, Laura professed her love for Pitonyak and said, “That’s just how I roll.”
When he asked how they’d gotten to Mexico, Hall said, “We just hauled in my Caddy.” As they’d talked, Said grew angry. He liked Jennifer, but Hall voiced no concern that her boyfriend had just killed a girl. Instead, Hall bragged that she’d do anything to protect Pitonyak. In front of the jury, Aziz put Laura Hall’s plan: that she’d stay out of trouble by telling police she thought they were on a vacation.
Aziz said he warned her several times to cooperate with the police but had the impression Hall wasn’t listening. Only after he pointed out that he thought she was crazy for helping Pitonyak and that “everyone else would be talking to police,” did Hall change her attitude. After detectives Gilchrest and Fugitt were at her parents’ RV park questioning her, Hall told Aziz a completely different story: that she didn’t know about Jennifer’s killing when she and Colton left for Mexico.
“Were you lying before or now?” Aziz asked.
“Before,” Hall answered.
When he took over, Sawyer tried to defuse the damaging testimony. During cross-exam, Aziz agreed with Sawyer that Laura was a “pretty nice girl,” yet his agreement sounded halfhearted. And Laura’s old friend said something else: Hall never appeared afraid of Pitonyak, and she had a long history of telling lies. “I don’t know that I ever knew her to be very truthful,” Aziz said.
That was only the beginning of a bad afternoon for the defense.
Soon, Nora Sullivan got back on the stand. Backed with a favorable ruling on the admissibility of her testimony, she recounted a conversation with Hall about the afternoon following Jennifer’s killing. Pitonyak watched TV, drinking, and Hall was miffed at him for not carrying through with the dismemberment. Sullivan had the impression that a frustrated Hall did the work herself.
Sawyer stood behind the defense table, his face flushed, angry. “Ms. Sullivan, you have lied to this jury from the start about your relationship with Colton Pitonyak, [haven’t] you?” Sawyer stormed.
“That’s incorrect,” Sullivan said.
Sawyer argued over and over, suggesting that, like Hall, Sullivan was enamored of Pitonyak. That wasn’t true, Sullivan insisted. Yet she hadn’t called police after his early-morning visit and didn’t come forward even after the crime scene tape went up around Pitonyak’s apartment.
“You said nothing?” he said.
“That’s true,” Sullivan agreed. She also hadn’t told prosecutors about Hall’s statements, not until the week before the trial. Sawyer found that odd. Sullivan’s explanation was a simple one: “No one asked me about Laura Hall before that.”
On the witness stand, Henriette Langenbach looked like the neighborhood grandmother. She told in detail her conversations with her cellmate in the Travis County jail. Laura couldn’t understand “the fuss” being made over the murder. Colton, after all, was brilliant, a scholarship student. He mattered. Jennifer? “She was nothing. She was nobody. Just a fucking waitress ho,” Langenbach quoted Hall as saying.
Hall loved Colton, and her main concern was finding a way to free them both. She was angry with her father, calling him “that fucking bastard,” because he’d called police. Laura wanted him to hire a new attorney, someone “to help her concoct a credible story to get her and Colton out of the mess they were in.”
In the gallery, Loren Hall sat stoic. One could wonder how many times his daughter, his only child, had screamed at him. At the defense table, Laura, too, showed no emotion. In fact, throughout the trial, she remained focused on the testimony and appeared calm, as if someone else, not she, were on trial. “The Ice Princess,” a few members of the media congregating outside in the courthouse hallway dubbed her. Her face unnaturally pale, she appeared bloodless and cold, her eyes vacant.
There was something else the elder woman said Laura told her: “that the six days she spent with Mr. Pitonyak in Mexico were the happiest of her life.” Along with destroying evidence, Hall told Langenbach another reason to mutilate the body: “How many grandmothers can tell their grandchildren that they cut up a human body?”
From under her dark hair parted in the middle and falling over her eyes, Hall glanced up at the jurors, and half of them stared back at her as if she were an alien.
“Everyone in jail knows about jailhouse snitches, don’t they?” Sawyer charged, detailing how information could be traded for favors, including lighter sentences.
“But I didn’t get anything,” Langenbach answered. Yes, she had a criminal record, but her case had already been disposed of when she first spoke to police about Hall. And Langenbach had never asked either the police or prosecutors for any favors in return for her testimony. She wanted nothing. “It was just the right thing to do,” she said.
Langenbach’s offenses involved fraud and deception, Sawyer said, and she’d swindled or deceived.
“Yes,” she admitted. “Yes, sir.”
“You are good at deceiving people?” he accused.
“If you say so,” she answered.
Yet, if Langenbach lied, how did she know so many details? And why was her testimony eerily similar to that of others? After the woman left the stand, Javier Rosales testified, repeating his words from the Pitonyak trial, that Laura Hall said she “masterminded the escape and helped cut up the body.”
“We would have gotten away with it if I hadn’t called my father,” Rosales said Hall had told him. “He turned us in.”
To Langenbach, Hall had said Jennifer was a nobody. Rosales said his coworker told him, “It was a victimless crime.”
In the gallery, Jennifer’s mother and grandmother cried.
Detective David Fugitt appeared nervous as he took the stand as the final witness of the day. He had reason to be. Gilchrest was supposed to be the one on the stand, but his father was in surgery, and that duty had fallen on Fugitt just hours earlier. He knew the case, but Gilchrest was the one who’d prepared for trial.
With Fugitt, McFarland went over the cell phone calls and messages Colton and Laura made the morning of Jennifer’s death. Sawyer used the detective’s testimony to pound home what he characterized as a glaring mistake by police: their failure to obtain records documenting what towers Hall’s cell phone calls bounced off on the day the body was dismembered. Those records could have confirmed where she was during important times.
The problem was that until Pitonyak’s trial, Hall wasn’t a suspect in the dismemberment. Her location on that day didn’t become an issue until she was under investigation for tampering. By that time, more than a year after the murder, Fugitt said the cell phone companies had long since destroyed all the tower records.
Sounding infuriated at APD, Sawyer charged, “Did you ever so much as just try to get cell phone information on those calls?”
The jury left for the afternoon with the charge that APD hadn’t done its job hanging in the air. The following morning, Lauren, Hailey, and Whitney joined Myrtle, Sharon, and Jim in the gallery. When court reconvened, Sawyer again attacked Fugitt about the lack of tower records. Only this time, the detective came prepared, holding up a textbook from a course he’d taken on cell phone records in which it said companies retained tower activity records for one month.
“Is it still your answer to this jury that cell phone information is only kept for thirty days?” Sawyer stormed.
“Yes,” Fugitt said.
Quickly, Sawyer changed the subject, asking, “How many jailhouse snitches contacted APD on this case?”
“Two I’m aware of,” Fugitt said, but Sawyer attacked again, saying he didn’t want Fugitt’s recollection, but the exact number.
“What about Virginia Hill?” the defense attorney asked.
Looking perplexed, Fugitt said he’d never heard of Hill. “There are only two statements in the case book,” he said, pointing at the two thick loose-leaf binders on the shelf before him, the notebooks where Gilchrest had tracked the investigation and evidence.
Hill was a fellow inmate of Hall’s, and raising her name but not explaining any more left an unanswered question before the jury. If Sawyer hoped to put APD on trial, claiming they’d botched the investigation and unfairly charged his client, Gilchrest’s absence played into his hands. Fugitt, however, refused to cooperate.
Rather than losing his patience, he simply stood his ground. “To the best of my knowledge, there are only two statements,” he said.
With Fugitt, Sawyer constructed a chart, showing the times of phone calls between Jennifer, Colton, and Laura that day before the murder. He implied this would be important later, but didn’t explain how. The defense attorney pulled out Colton Pitonyak’s Facebook profile, asking David Fugitt to read the movies listed as his favorites: Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco, Scarface, and more.
“Goodfellas has one of the most graphic dismemberment scenes in the movies, doesn’t it?” he asked Fugitt.
Fugitt said he had heard that but didn’t know, and Sawyer went on, detailing scenes in the other movies and in a Sopranos DVD found in a Netflix envelope on Pitonyak’s coffee table, including an episode in which Tony Soprano dismembered a body in a bathtub.
“Did you determine what course Colton Pitonyak took that summer, his last course at the University of Texas?” Sawyer asked.
The course was entitled The Human Body.
“As a detective, do you see a pattern developing that is going to culminate in violence?” Sawyer asked.
When she again had the witness, McFarland asked Fugitt to read from Hall’s Facebook page, including her favorite movies, many the same as Pitonyak’s, and her favorite quote from horror writer Peter Straub: “You’re part music and part blood, part thinker and part killer. And if you can find all of that within you and control it, then you deserve to be set apart.”
What was written on Facebook next to Hall’s summer plans on the day Jennifer was murdered? “I should really be a more horrific person. It’s in the works.”
Sawyer went on the defensive. “Laura Hall isn’t guilty of killing anyone, is she? She didn’t kill Jennifer Cave?” Sawyer demanded.
“We don’t believe so. No,” Fugitt said
The questioning of the detective ended, and Bishop stood and said, “The State of Texas rests.”
Joe James Sawyer had presented many issues during his emotional arguing before the jury, among them that Laura Hall was an abused woman manipulated by Colton Pitonyak and that something in the timeline of the telephone calls would prove she couldn’t have participated in butchering Jennifer Cave’s dead body. But when he took over the courtroom, his first two witnesses were recalled state witnesses.
First Sawyer brought back the AT& T employee who testified earlier about Pitonyak’s cell tower activity as he fled Texas. Yes, the manager said, he’d made up the chart prosecutors presented, one showing the locations of the towers. When Sawyer asked when the chart was constructed, the manager said just weeks before the trial.
Did that mean that Fugitt misled the jury, that phone companies stored information indefinitely and that it could be accessed at any time? Sawyer’s line of questioning seemed to suggest that. Still, the information on Colton Pitonyak’s cell phones had been requested even before his arrest, and kept at APD for evidence. What about Hall’s?
“Do you know how long the information is stored as regards to cell towers?” Bishop asked on cross.
The man frowned. He wasn’t sure.
“It isn’t kept forever?” Bishop asked.
“No,” he said.
In his second appearance as a witness at Hall’s trial, Keith Walker, who’d recently earned his sergeant’s stripes, was asked by Sawyer about a subpoena that had been referred to during Fugitt’s testimony, a subpoena issued within a week of Jennifer’s killing for Laura Hall’s phone records. In the document, Gilchrest requested not only her call records but accompanying tower activity. When the information from the cell phone company arrived, however, the tower information wasn’t included.
“Isn’t this an enforceable subpoena?” Sawyer asked. “Why didn’t you follow through?”
Walker said he didn’t know, but added that many of the companies are uncooperative.
With Walker, Sawyer again emphasized that the warrant for Pitonyak’s arrest hadn’t been signed yet when Hall drove him out of the United States and into Mexico.
Then, to the surprise of many in the courtroom, after Walker’s testimony, Sawyer rested. Other than the two recalled prosecution witnesses, the defense attorney presented no one to bolster his client’s case. Laura Hall did not take the stand in her own defense.
Still, as the attorneys and the judge prepared for closing arguments, Sawyer would prove victorious in an important way; he successfully argued to include lesser, misdemeanor offenses as options for the jury on each of the two charges against Hall. Bill Bishop appeared disappointed. For Sharon, it was a grave setback. “I want a felony on her record, so she can never be a lawyer,” Sharon said. “I want what she did to follow her for the rest of her life.”
After a short break, closing statements began, with McFarland taking the lead.
Laura Hall loved Colton Pitonyak, she said. But hers was a dangerous love. “This dark obsession led Laura Hall to a place none of us can imagine. Colton Pitonyak led Laura Hall down the road to hell, but he went down it with her and exposed both their inner beasts.”
“What did Laura Hall tell Deputy U.S. Marshal Smith?” McFarland asked. “That she loved Colton Pitonyak so much she would kill for him.”
Hall’s love for Pitonyak was tattooed onto her body, and she defended him whenever she could. At the same time, “she refused to acknowledge the humanity of Jennifer Cave,” calling her names and labeling her murder a “victimless crime.”
How did jurors know what she’d done, that Hall understood Pitonyak had committed a murder and helped him anyway as he first tried to destroy evidence, and then spiriting him off to Mexico? Hall’s DNA was in the bathroom. She had to have been in the condo after Pitonyak returned from the hardware store, McFarland pointed out, because Laura’s DNA was also on a blue shop towel Colton purchased that day. Sawyer’s suggestion that his client wasn’t at the Orange Tree while Pitonyak cut up the body didn’t hold up in the face of the evidence.
When it came to Hall’s motive, McFarland pegged it as her love for Pitonyak. “She wanted to solidify that relationship,” the prosecutor said. “She wanted him indebted to her…this obsession quenched her beast.”
“I’m going to talk to you first about the law,” Sawyer said. “You are a jury, not vigilantes, and you have to follow the law as best you can.”
Their decisions were to be logical, not based on passion or emotion, he said. Then he asked them to keep in mind when they considered the hindering charge that the warrant had not yet been issued for Pitonyak’s arrest when Laura drove him into Mexico. While the dismemberment was horrific, Sawyer suggested it didn’t constitute tampering with evidence. Why? “Dr. Peacock didn’t tell you that she wasn’t able to do a complete autopsy on the body because of the dismemberment,” he said. “The evidence was still there…Dr. Peacock could still examine it. It was used as evidence.”
“Laura Hall has no burden at all. She is cloaked in innocence,” he said, reminding them that defendants are presumed innocent unless proven guilty.
Arguing again that Hall wasn’t involved in the dismemberment, he insisted that if she had been, she would have made Pitonyak dispose of the bags holding the head and hands. “[Pitonyak] couldn’t let Laura know that he’d dismembered the body. He ran out of time,” Sawyer said. “He knew damn well that if he asked her for help to dispose of the body, she would have refused…the state is wrong!
“…If my daughter had made these choices, I’d be down on my knees just like her dad,” the attorney said, gesturing to Loren, who began sobbing, loudly enough so the courtroom could hear him. While her father cried, Laura didn’t blink, instead staring blankly at her attorney, as if involved in some macabre show of emotional fortitude.
Colton was again put on trial as Sawyer asked: “What did Laura Hall and Jennifer Cave have in common? Both were drawn to this man. He murdered for no reason. He is the center of his universe and no one else exists.” Colton Pitonyak was a man who primed himself for murder and fantasized about cutting up a human body. “If Laura Hall had been with Colton that night, she might be dead,” Sawyer speculated.
The defense attorney attacked those who said Laura confided in them that she’d helped Colton cut up Jennifer’s body: Nora Sullivan, Henriette Langenbach, Javier Rosales. All lied, he said.
At the end, Sawyer’s voice quieted. Laura Hall became enmeshed in this tragedy out of love. “I’ve never loved anyone that much. I’ve never loved anyone that way,” he said. Then he pleaded with the jurors to stand their ground if they believed the state hadn’t proved their case. “In the end, I’m confident you’ll say not guilty.”
“I don’t envy you your job. It’s hard. It’s especially hard when you’re dealing with a word-master, someone who is going to twist what you see, twist what you read and try to make it seem something that it’s not,” Bishop began.
Sawyer jumped to his feet. “Pardon me, Mr. Bishop,” he called out. Turning to Judge Flowers, he said, “If he’s talking about me, I object. That’s outside the scope of an acceptable final argument.”
Looking amused at the banter between the attorneys, Judge Flowers dismissed Sawyer’s objection, and Bishop forged ahead, detailing what jurors knew to be true, including that Hall gassed up the car and washed it for the flight to Mexico. It didn’t matter that the warrant wasn’t yet signed, the prosecutor maintained. If jurors let Hall off because of that, they were setting a precedent for “an efficient hindering apprehension…if you procrastinate you might be guilty…That’s not the law.”
As to the tampering charge, it wasn’t necessary for them to succeed in hiding the evidence, they simply had to try. “If you intend, then you are guilty…I know that you know that.”
If jurors doubted that Hall tampered with evidence, Bishop suggested they look at two photos in evidence, and he held them up before the jury: Jennifer’s high school graduation picture, and one of the gruesome photos of her dismembered body on the autopsy table. “The manner in which she was found, that’s the offense,” he said.
And then there were the admissions the woman who called herself “the Mouth of the South” had made to so many, including telling Said Aziz, “I have been all up in this shit since like two hours after the shit started.”
“‘All up in this’ does not mean that you don’t know there was a body in the bathtub,” Bishop said. The other witnesses backed up Aziz, and none of them had anything to gain from their testimony. In all their accounts, there were common threads, that Hall loved Colton, that she’d do anything for him.
“That’s how I roll,” she’d said. She was proud of her role in the murder. “She wanted to be a Bonnie to his Clyde, but for that to work he had to be out on the streets to continue the spree.”
The jurors left the courtroom at 2:53 on Thursday, the third day of the trial, and the waiting began. The hours clicked by slowly. Members of the media speculated on what time a verdict would come in, but the guesses of one after another didn’t materialize. Dinner hour passed, and the jurors sent out for a pizza, working on hammering out a verdict.
Shortly after, at 7 P.M., the interested parties returned to the courtroom. The jury had a question. It wanted to review testimony: the answers of the expert who placed Laura Hall’s DNA in the bathroom.
When ordered to by the judge, with the jury again in their seats, Rita Grasshoff, the court reporter, read the DNA testimony to the jury directly from the trial transcript. According to the forensic expert, the odds were 1 in 43 Caucasians that it was Laura Hall’s DNA on the blue shop towel. When it came to the flip-flop found next to the bathtub, the odds were higher: 1 in 402 for Caucasians.
The jury left to continue their deliberations, and as soon as they were gone, Laura Hall grinned, made a fist, and said, “Yes. Oh, yes.”
If the jurors were looking at the DNA, did that mean they didn’t believe the witnesses? Laura appeared to believe that it did. Jennifer’s family worried that Hall was right, that jurors might find her either not guilty or guilty of only the lesser charges, both with maximum sentences of one year. Two misdemeanors would allow Hall to become a lawyer, to go on with her life as if she’d played no part in the horror of Jennifer’s murder.
The jury left for their homes that evening at 10:30, and the Cave family, the Hall family, and the crush of media reporting on the case left as well. At nine the next morning, they were back, and the jury again deliberated. As the day wore on, the worrying started. Was the jury hung? Would they reach a decision?
Finally, at 4:40 that afternoon, Billy Pannell, the bailiff, escorted the twelve jurors back into the packed courtroom. They’d reached a verdict. As the foreman read the decision, Lauren and Jim sat on either side of Sharon, and they all held hands. Whatever it was, they would have to live with it. To reclaim their lives, they had to move ahead, they had to put Jennifer’s murder and the pain of the past two years behind them.
“On the felony charge of hindering apprehension, we find the defendant not guilty,” the foreman read, and Sharon and Jim both grimaced. Sharon hung her head, and put her arm around Lauren to comfort her. As they had all feared, the jurors had found Laura guilty not on the felony hindering apprehension charge but on the misdemeanor. Sawyer’s argument that Pitonyak’s warrant had not yet been signed at the time Hall spirited him across the border had won.
Behind the defense table, Laura Hall grinned, but it would prove premature.
“On the felony charge of tampering with evidence,” the man continued. “We find the defendant guilty.”
Sharon’s frown turned into a soft smile. Her eyes closed, and she seemed to be praying, thanking God. Jim, wrapped his arm tighter around her, and Lauren looked at her mother, their eyes meeting. Hailey, not understanding what had happened, fumed, believing the jurors had decided against them. Jim would later explain to his younger daughter that Laura Hall would pay for what she had done to Jennifer, for her role in their suffering.
In the end, the jurors decided that while Colton Pitonyak may have led Laura Hall down a path that descended into the depths of hell, she walked with him willingly.
The jury filed out. They’d return the following Tuesday, after the Labor Day weekend, to decide what punishment Hall should receive. Bishop rose and addressed Judge Flowers. “We ask that Ms. Hall be taken into custody,” he said.
“Denied,” Flowers said.
Meanwhile, Laura Hall remained emotionless. If there were any indication that she understood what had just happened, it was only that as she stood for the judge to leave, she appeared just slightly unsteady.
The court adjourned, and a short time later, Jim, Sharon, Laura, Myrtle, Hailey, and Whitney all left the courtroom, believing that justice would be served the following Tuesday.
A short time later, Loren Hall sat alone outside the courthouse on a black wrought-iron bench, his eyes wide and disbelieving. He shuddered slightly, holding back tears. “I don’t disagree with what the jurors said,” he whispered. “I’m only sorry for all Laura’s been through.”
At five minutes to nine the following Tuesday morning, Laura wasn’t in the courtroom. Her parents stood in the hallway waiting for her, and a murmur went through the audience. Could she be on the run, reliving the flight into Mexico with Colton Pitonyak? When she finally arrived, she had her new boyfriend in tow, a young man who resembled Pitonyak, his dark hair buzzed short; he slouched in his seat with a scruffy five o’clock shadow. As she had every day of her trial, Laura looked like the lawyer she now could never be, her hair resolutely anchored into a severe bun with a heavy silver clasp.
The first witness called by the state was Doug Conley, a nattily dressed taxi driver who’d picked up Laura on August 6 of the previous year, to take her from her West Campus apartment to her job at Baby Acapulco. In the cab, Laura mentioned that she was facing a felony, as if to explain why she was working as a waitress. When Conley asked what it was about, Laura said it had something to do with her boyfriend who was facing a murder charge.
“Who did he kill?” Conley asked.
“Some bitch,” Hall snapped. A full year after Jennifer’s death, Laura Hall still had no remorse, no understanding that a young woman had lost her life and that Jennifer’s family had suffered.
When Bishop asked if Conley could pick Hall out in the courtroom, he pointed directly at her.
“Do you have a tape recording of this conversation?” Sawyer asked on cross-exam.
“No,” Conley said. With that, the state rested.
On the witness stand, Loren cried. His daughter, he said, was a gifted athlete and a determined young woman. “Has she ever been convicted of a felony, prior to this?” Sawyer asked.
“No,” Hall answered.
He talked of Laura’s prowess as a swimmer and on the soccer field. She’d played trombone in high school and been on the debate team her freshman year in high school. The year she was the captain of the team, she took them all the way to a national competition. “That’s where she excelled,” Loren said. “She wanted to be a lawyer.”
Like Bridget and Eddie Pitonyak with Colton, the Halls had given Laura advantages. In high school, Laura had gone to a camp at the University of Michigan and spent a month at Dartmouth, honing her debating skills.
“Even after [her arrest], she went back and got her UT degree,” Hall said, crying.
Seated at the defense table, a glassy-eyed Laura dabbed away faint tears, her first in front of the jury.
Loren listed the law firms Laura had worked for. What he failed to mention was that at all but the first she’d been hired under the name Ashley. When the firms discovered she was Laura Hall, she was fired.
To demonstrate his daughter’s fortitude, Loren Hall recounted how she struggled with math. To graduate from UT, she needed to pass a math class. Her final semester, she had a 24 average until she hired a tutor. Working hard, Laura brought her average up to 84 and graduated.
“That’s determination,” he said. “We were really proud of her.”
Colton changed Laura, her father said. After meeting Pitonyak, Laura talked of women in derogatory terms, calling them bitches, strippers, and the like.
“Has she talked that way ever since?” Sawyer asked.
“It’s taken a while,” Loren said. “…But she’s trying to build herself back up.”
Laura was on medication, her father said, although he didn’t say what kind or for what reason. “Give her a chance,” he pleaded. “She’s on her way to recovery. I’m asking for probation. I know she’ll prove herself worthy.”
In the gallery, Sharon Cave seethed, wanting to get on the witness stand to beg jurors to come down hard on Laura. Sharon wanted to tell jurors how her life and the lives of everyone who loved Jennifer had been torn apart by both the murder and the atrocity of what Colton and Laura had done to Jennifer’s lifeless body. Their actions had cheated them of even being able to see Jennifer, of one last opportunity to say good-bye. Laura Hall didn’t kill Jennifer Cave, but she’d dealt everyone who’d loved her a devastating blow.
Sharon, however, wouldn’t get that opportunity. Not long before, in Judge Flowers’s court, a drug case against the girlfriend of a convicted murderer was reversed because the murder victim’s family gave emotional testimony during sentencing. The appeals court ruled that since the girl wasn’t charged with the murder, the testimony of the victim’s family was improper. “We didn’t ever want to have to retry Laura Hall,” Bishop said. “We didn’t want to take any chances.”
After Laura’s father, Sawyer called a surprise witness, Colton’s good friend Jason Mack, wearing baggy jeans and T-shirt, his arms covered by tattoos. He explained how he’d stayed with Colton in the months before Jennifer’s murder. The Colton he described on the stand was edgy from drugs and itching to kill. High, Pitonyak hadn’t slept in days when he killed Jennifer. His Xanax prescription had run out, and he was wired, even the smallest things annoying him. The week before, Mack said he was at Colton’s when Hall came over. In a foul mood, Colton kicked her out. Laura sat outside in the courtyard, crying, as Colton pulled the gun out of a drawer. “She’s driving me fucking crazy. I ought to just kill the bitch,” he said, referring to Laura.
Mack talked Pitonyak into putting the gun away, and then he took Laura to a friend’s house, where he cautioned her to stay away from Colton Pitonyak. “He’s too fucked up. It’s too dangerous.”
Left unsaid was what everyone in the courtroom knew: Laura Hall hadn’t stayed away. She idolized Colton, and no one could have convinced her to leave him. Instead, when he needed a ride to pick up his car, he knew Laura would take him, and she did.
Stephanie McFarland began closing in the punishment phase by explaining the law to the jurors, their options on both charges from probation to prison time, one year for the misdemeanor and up to ten years for the felony conviction in tampering with evidence.
“You are the representatives of the community, and the state wants you to send a message,” she said, asking for the maximum penalty.
“If a life can be salvaged, isn’t that better than not?” Sawyer countered. “The idea of redemption is central to many of us. Forgiveness is a concept that for many of us is a core value.”
Bill Bishop wrapped up the arguments, speaking for Sharon, who hadn’t been allowed to speak for herself: “Jennifer Cave can never graduate from UT. She’ll never work at a law firm,” Bishop said. Laura Hall “caused her mother to have to endure a funeral with a closed casket…I never thought anything could be worse than burying a child, but it is worse to bury a child and have to have a closed casket.”
Again, the jurors filed from Judge Flowers’s courtroom, and the waiting began. Six hours later word spread and the courtroom filled. Laura Hall stood between her attorneys as Judge Flowers read the jury’s decision: one year on the misdemeanor hindering charge and five years on the felony tampering with evidence conviction.
Hall didn’t cry, nor did her parents. But she appeared shaken, and when the judge asked her if she had anything she wanted to say, in a shaky voice she said, “No, Your Honor.”
Eight jurors left the courtroom, but four remained to hear Sharon Cave’s allocution, her post-trial opportunity to personally address Hall. “Laura, I want you to know that this would never have been a victimless crime,” Sharon said. “Unlike you, people loved Jennifer. Unlike you, Jennifer had a beautiful soul and heart. Unlike you, Jennifer will be missed…
“I hope Jennifer haunts you every day of your life, because what you and Colton did was horrific,” she said. Laura sat at the defense table, ashen white, glaring at Sharon, while she continued. “If there is a hell, I hope you burn in it.”
When Sharon returned to her seat, Jim held her while she cried. By then, two deputies surrounded Laura. Sawyer’s cocounsel, Wehnes, handed Loren his daughter’s purse, and then Laura’s hands were handcuffed behind her. All the while the woman the press had dubbed “the Ice Princess” stood proud, head up, never bowing, even as the deputies urged her toward the side door, where she’d be taken to the Travis County jail.