A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)

Author’s Footnote

There was something I’d wondered for a long time, a nagging thought that refused to leave as I watched Sharon and her two surviving daughters cope with their grief, but at the same time worry more about those around them than they appeared to about themselves. I saw Jennifer in them, the girl who, despite everything, never gave up on Colton Pitonyak. Even after he’d threatened her with a knife, she saw him as a friend, one she brought a home-cooked dinner on a foil-covered plate. “Do you think we teach our daughters to care too much about others?” I asked. “In the process, do we mislead them into thinking they can fix people?”

“Maybe,” Sharon said, wiping away a tear. “Maybe that’s true.”

In Austin, little Madyson was growing up. Jennifer’s surrogate daughter was a first grader, a pretty little girl with sad eyes, so much older than her scant years. “Want to see my sister?” she asked me the first time we met. “I’ll show her to you.”

She took my hand and guided me upstairs to Scott’s bedroom, and he popped a DVD into the television. Moments later the video from the funeral filled the television screen, one of Karissa Reine’s photos of Jennifer, taken just a few months before her death. On the screen, Jennifer grinned coyly at us, lighting up the room, her red hair cascading down her freckled shoulders and her blue eyes sensual and content. On the dresser beside us, Scott had propped up the painting his friend had done before Jennifer’s death, the now prophetic painting of just her torso. Before it he had a plaque that read: “Heaven.”

“My sister comes and plays with me,” Madyson told me. “We play dolls in my room. And at night, she tells me stories in my bed.”

I looked at Scott, and he smiled. “Yeah,” he said. “Madyson talks to Jennifer. A lot. She says Jennifer visits her when she’s alone in her room.”

So many still felt Jennifer in their lives, her joy and her sadness. Some remarked that they believed she watched over them, working in their lives.

After more than twenty years of writing about unexpected and all too often violent deaths, I’d often talked to family and friends left behind who recounted smelling their dead loved ones’ perfume, feeling their touch, sensing that they were standing beside them, even hearing their voices or seeing their fleeting images. Unfinished business, they told me. Their loved ones returned to them, they said, visited one last time, perhaps to say good-bye.

Over the years, I’d had some strange occurrences, including unlikely coincidences. None prepared me for what happened in Austin one sunny Saturday morning. I was nearing the end of my research and wanted to canvass the apartment complex Laura Hall lived in at the time of Jennifer’s death, to see if anyone who lived near her remembered her. I got a late start and then forgot something and had to return to the hotel to retrieve it. An hour later than planned, I pulled up in front of the sprawling brown brick complex on Oltorf, south of downtown. I was disappointed to see that it was fenced and gated, when I noticed an open exit gate. I made a U-turn and pulled into the parking lot.

Driving around, I saw scattered families, a few men, and two or three women, coming and going, but talked to no one, searching for the right apartment. Then I changed my mind. Before I sought out Laura’s neighbors, I decided I’d talk to a few people at random, to ask about the apartments in general, get a sense of who lived there. As I made my decision, I noticed a young woman with long brown hair putting a cooler into her trunk. I parked behind her, got out of the car, and walked up, introducing myself.

“I’m Kathryn Casey,” I said, holding out my hand. “I’m working on a book on the Colton Pitonyak case, and Laura Hall once lived in this apartment complex. May I ask you a few questions?”

The stranger took two steps away and began shaking. I backed up a few steps, fearing I’d unintentionally frightened her. She folded her arms across her chest as if to get warm, although it was in the mid-eighties that day.

“You’re Kathryn Casey?” she asked.

“Yes, I’m an author, and I’m—”

“I know who you are,” she cut in. “I’m Nicole Ford.”

Nicole was Jennifer’s friend, and I’d been trying to reach her for a year, without success. Now, in a metropolitan area of more than a million, I stumbled upon her in an apartment building parking lot. Making it even odder, it wasn’t her apartment complex. A friend lived there, and Nicole had walked outside only moments before I saw her.

“Jennifer brought you here,” Nicole said, absolute certainty in her voice. “She wants me to talk to you.”

The sun beating down on us, we stood next to her car, and she talked. What she told me that day would change the way I saw Jennifer. I’d talked to many people who knew Jennifer, but only Nicole understood how Jennifer felt about the drugs she was taking, especially the methamphetamines, because Nicole had been there with her. “The drugs were eating away at our lives,” Nicole said. “Jennifer called meth a demon, said that it was chasing us, and that if one of us couldn’t get away from it, the other one had to promise to go on with her life.

“I never thought it would end this way,” said the young woman. After Jennifer’s death, Nicole had at first gone on a drug binge, then, with the help of her family, she kicked her habit. She was going back to school, doing the things Jennifer had so wanted. “Jennifer was determined to kick the drugs and make something of her life. I thought she would leave me behind,” Nicole said. “Instead, I had to go on without her.”

Nicole and I talked once more after that day, and I e-mailed her a photograph of Jennifer. She had none and wanted something to remember her by.

Jennifer Cave. Colton Pitonyak. Laura Hall. Three young lives, three bright students, three devastated families. So much had been lost: Jennifer was dead. Colton and Laura were both sentenced to years in prison. Perhaps we’d never know precisely what happened in Colton Pitonyak’s apartment that night. But, after more than a year of research, I felt I understood. So many pieces had come together that the puzzle took shape.

Colton had a knife the last night he and Jennifer went out, the one he used to cut the girl’s wristband off at the Treasure Island bar on Sixth Street. He was high and drunk, as he’d been for days, and strung out like he was a week earlier when he threatened to get his gun and shoot Laura.

Why did Jennifer go into unit 88 that night? Why, when she’d told so many she feared Colton? I don’t believe she did so willingly. In my theory, Jennifer agreed to see Colton because she worried about him. He was upset about the test, the car, his life. She drove her car to be in control. She simply hadn’t counted, however, on Colton being armed with a weapon. High and drunk, he used the knife to force her inside his apartment.

One statement in Laura Hall’s strange second statement to police that rang true was when she said Colton killed Jennifer because she didn’t want to be around him anymore. I believe this was the night Jennifer Cave finally gave up on Colton Pitonyak. When the girl he loved told him their relationship was over, the angry, bitter Colton, the one who picked fights on Sixth Street and broke a drug customer’s nose, emerged. Perhaps Colton demanded money, claiming Jennifer owed him for all the drugs he’d given her during their friendship. Perhaps he refused to allow her to leave him alone, to face the reality of what he’d become, a drug-dealing heavy.

Two pieces of evidence, one supplied by Henriette Langenbach and the other by Dr. Peacock, the medical examiner, answer the question of what happened in Jennifer Cave’s final moments. Laura told Langenbach that Colton and Jennifer argued, and that they were fighting when the gun went off. The medical examiner’s testimony backs that up. Two wounds to Jennifer’s body were peri-mortem, occurring near the time of death. One was a defensive wound, a cut in the palm of Jennifer’s hand, as if she’d tried to grab Pitonyak’s knife. The other, a bruise, could have been the result of a fall or a blow to the head.

Was the shooting an accident? A week earlier, on a meth binge, Pitonyak threatened to kill Laura Hall. If Jason Mack hadn’t been there, he might have murdered her. The night of Jennifer’s death, Pitonyak was angry over his lost cell phone, and then, perhaps, over what he saw as Jennifer’s desertion. Again, he reached for a gun. This time, Colton pulled the trigger.

Laura’s defense attorney, Sawyer, was right when he said Colton Pitonyak was itching to kill. Murder was the last step in his transformation into the gangsters he idolized.

Hours later Laura Hall entered unit 88, and from that point on, all became chaos. Hall’s account to Henriette Langenbach fit so much of the evidence, perhaps it’s as close as Hall or Pitonyak will ever come to disclosing the madness that followed Jennifer’s murder. His DNA all over the bathroom indicates he did most of the work dismembering Jennifer’s body, but Hall’s DNA was there as well, including on that blue shop towel that proves she was there after he’d purchased the hacksaw.

After Pitonyak’s trial, when Sharon and I first spent time together outside the courtroom, she still seemed consumed by grief. His conviction had given her little peace. Despite the guilty verdict, she found no comfort, and Sharon envisioned Jennifer, too, in turmoil, unable to accept death. “I think she’s still saying, ‘It wasn’t supposed to happen, Momma. Not that day. Not when I was turning my life around.’”

In the seven months that followed, there were good times and bad. That summer, Jim gave Sharon a beautiful engagement ring. They made plans for the future. But the pain wasn’t behind them. Passing the Jennifer Cave Act helped, but it wasn’t enough.

At Laura’s trial, Sharon and I sat together waiting for the verdict to come in. “I’ve been thinking about something,” she said. “I keep thinking I’d like to go back to the late nineties and just stay there.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It was hard then. I was a single mom with four kiddos to take care of, but it was good. It was just the kids and I, and we were happy. They were young, before the hard times came,” she said. “I love Jim, but this isn’t about him. I just want…”

Sharon stopped, but she didn’t have to finish the sentence. I understood. She wanted her family back, before she learned how real evil is in the world. She wanted Vanessa, Lauren, and Clayton before life spread them from Oklahoma, to Dallas, to Sinton, and Jennifer before the nightmare that put her in her grave.

“I finally put up her headstone,” Sharon said. “Jim and the girls insisted. It was hard, but I picked out one that’s very simple, just Jennifer’s name and dates, and a little frog in the corner.” A smile edged across Sharon’s face, not of happiness but of loss. Sharon and Jim also planted a bush upon the grave, an esperanza that blooms with beautiful orange trumpet-shaped flowers. Esperanza is Spanish for “hope.”

After Laura’s trial ended, we talked again. She and Jim were back in Corpus. She’d spent the day after they returned in bed, hugging their little dog, Lulu Belle. “She’s so sweet and warmhearted. Jim and I think she has Jennifer’s sweet spirit. Her kind heart,” Sharon said. At times, Sharon felt they all carried Jennifer with them. “She’s made us better people. I know she’s made me more tolerant of others, taught me patience. But she’s so missed. That’s why we look for her in hummingbirds and a little dog.”

Despite all she’d endured, Sharon wondered if more pain waited in her future. An invitation to a wedding had arrived, and the bride was one of Jennifer’s friends. Sharon cried while reading it. “How many weddings, graduations, babies will come, and I’ll have to think, that’ll never happen to Jennifer?” she asked. “We’ll never see that splash of red hair walk into a room. It just kills me that I’ll never have a redheaded, blue-eyed grandbaby.”

The pain had never eased. Two years after Jennifer’s murder, time hadn’t healed. Perhaps it never would. But Sharon and Jim were both determined Colton Pitonyak’s bullet wouldn’t end their lives as it did Jennifer’s. Somehow they had to find the strength to put the horror of Jennifer’s death behind them. “I tell the kids, now we all have to really live. We need to enjoy our lives, relish them, not waste a single day,” Sharon said. “You see, we have to live for Jennifer, too.”