A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
Despite her hopes, Sharon moved Jennifer to Austin with some trepidation. She knew her middle daughter had dabbled in drugs, that Jen drank and had a history of befriending the wrong people. Yet she trusted in the other Jennifer, the happy, charming young woman with the wide smile and the big heart. Perhaps Sharon had no choice. Jennifer was legally an adult and claiming her independence. All Sharon could do was trust that the girl who tried so hard to please, to make everyone around her happy, would learn to trust in herself and find her way.
Eddie and Bridget Pitonyak, on the other hand, probably had no such qualms about how their younger son would tackle college and, following that, life. From his earliest days, Colton Pitonyak was an exceptional student, remarkably intelligent and focused on the future, bright-eyed and ready, the kind of young man any mother would want for a son, the type of young man any mother would want a daughter to date. But there were two sides to Colton Pitonyak. Perhaps his parents didn’t know the other Colton, the one with the quick temper and the thirst that couldn’t be quenched.
The Pitonyaks came from rural beginnings. Bridget, a slight woman with chin-length blond hair and an effervescent personality, grew up with the last name of Waddell in the small farming town of Carlisle, Arkansas. In her 1978 senior photo from Carlisle High School, she looked like the good girl next door, wearing a modest sweater, her long, silky brown hair held back in a barrette.
Four years older than Bridget, Eddie was a bit of a fireplug, dark-haired, not tall in stature but well-built, with a determined, bulldog face. He’d been raised on the rich, fertile soil of a rice and soybean farm situated east of Little Rock between Hazen and Stuttgart. Like his father and grandfather before him, Eddie farmed in the early years of his marriage. But when the farming market took a downturn in 1984, he moved on. Those were hard years for America’s farmers, and Eddie and Bridget had two young sons to build a future for. Their older son, Dustin, was then three, and Colton Aaron Pitonyak, just two, had been born on September 5, 1982.
“Farmers were going broke,” Eddie has said. “We had to try something else.”
The something else was a move into the farm machinery business. It would prove to be a good choice for Eddie, whom friends describe as an intense and quiet man. After leaving farming, Eddie started as a sales rep and manager for an equipment company. Eight years later, when Colton was ten, Eddie used his experience to start a wholesale farm parts distributorship. It was obvious that Eddie Pitonyak was a man on the move. After he sold the parts company to a Dutch concern, in 1995, he moved the family to Chesapeake, Virginia, peanut-farming country, to become president of EDCOR, Inc., a spare-parts company that supplied dealers. It was a short foray east, and a year later, the Pitonyaks were living back in Arkansas, where Eddie founded Pitonyak Machinery Company, PMC, geared toward buying and selling farm equipment. Eventually Eddie would expand, acquiring a company that had a good name, one that had been around since 1913: Brandt, a farm machinery company headquartered in Bridget’s hometown of Carlisle.
Over the years, while Bridget sold real estate, Eddie nurtured the company. By 2006, he had twenty-five employees. At the PMC/Brandt plant surrounded by a chain-link fence, steel panels came in through a bay door and left as large-scale farm equipment, including grain carts that held one thousand bushels and levelers used to cultivate land for planting.
Though the plant was in Carlisle, the Pitonyaks lived thirty miles away in Little Rock, Arkansas’ largest city and the state capital, situated on the banks of the Arkansas River. Named after a stone outcropping that marks where the Mississippi Delta merges with the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains, this part of Arkansas is a rugged land, one that offers spectacular scenery: the wide river, the rolling hills, the lush landscape that during fall deer-hunting season turns brilliant gold and red. In this southern city of more than six hundred thousand, locals enjoy their catfish fried, their breakfast sausage smothered in gravy, and pie à la mode.
“Little Rock is a big city with a small-town mentality,” says someone who grew up there. “But it’s a divided city. There’s the poor, and there’s the rich.”
Judged by most standards, the Pitonyaks were well off. By the time the boys were teenagers, they lived in a large English Tudor with a wood-shingle roof on a quiet West Little Rock street. Named after the posh private country club it surrounded, their subdivision, Pleasant Valley, was considered one of the most affluent addresses in the city. Even within Pleasant Valley, the Pitonyak homestead on Valley Club Circle was impressive, a large, sprawling home on a hill across the street from a golf course, with a long driveway and an oversize lot covered with pines, magnolias, and a Bradford pear tree. It was a congenial setting, a neighborhood sightseers drive to ogle the houses. In Pleasant Valley, the neighbors were affluent professionals, including doctors, lawyers, and top executives. They lived well and could afford to give to their children the best America had to offer.
“We all had the same life,” says a friend of Colton’s. “We lived in nice big houses and never wanted for anything.”
Among their Pleasant Valley neighbors, the Pitonyaks were well thought of. “We’re talking about a wonderful family here,” says one. “These are good people, who did their best for their children.”
So much so that one young man who grew up with the Pitonyak boys would say, “If I could have picked different parents, I would have picked Bridget and Eddie. They were dedicated to Dustin and Colton. Especially Bridget’s world revolved around the boys.”
Physically, both boys resembled Eddie, dark-haired and medium height, compact but strong-looking. There was no question that Dustin was like his father. Quiet and reserved, they loved the outdoors, and Eddie and his oldest spent time fishing and hunting. Those were two things Colton didn’t care about. From the beginning he had other interests, from skateboarding to playing the guitar. When Dustin and Eddie won a fishing contest in Virginia in 1996, Colton wasn’t in the photo. And when they went hunting, he stayed home. “Colton told me he didn’t like firing a gun. He didn’t want to kill anything,” says a grade school friend.
Once Colton went hunting with his father and brother, and when they killed a deer and began gutting it, Colton threw up. “Colton always had a weak stomach,” Eddie would say.
“Bridget understood boys,” says one neighbor. “She knew how to handle the boys.” And while Dustin seemed to have more in common with his father, Colton was closer to his mother. “Colton thought the world of her,” says a good friend. “He talked about her all the time, about how his mom had done this or that for him.”
Looking back, Bridget would describe her younger son as an exception from the start. “He talked before he could walk,” she said. By three, Colton was reading. When someone told him in second grade that Santa Claus didn’t exist, Bridget asked, “What do you think?”
“There is no Santa,” Colton replied. Then he presented her with a dictionary and pointed at the entry for Santa Claus, where it defined the jolly man in the red suit as “an imaginary figure.”
The Pitonyaks were religious people. Eddie’s father, Tommy, was a member of the Knights of Columbus in Slovak, the town where his family attended the local Catholic church. From the time Colton was in second grade, with the exception of their brief time in Virginia, Eddie and Bridget enrolled them in Catholic schools. In Little Rock, they attended Christ the King Catholic school and church, an imposing structure built in 1967 to serve the city’s affluent western suburbs.
“People assume that if you go to Christ the King, you’re rich,” says one former student. “It’s the rich folks’ parish.”
At Christ the King, students attended morning Masses and, along with math and English, memorized the Ten Commandments and read the Bible. According to the school’s Web site, “the purpose of Christ the King Catholic School is to instill the spirit of the living Christ in all students so that they may develop spiritually, physically, academically, and socially into responsible, strong Christians.”
At least to outsiders, the Pitonyaks appeared to be a special family. For the annual Medieval Festival at the school, Bridget sewed a purple and green jester costume, first worn by Dustin, then Colton. She paid attention to the details, sewing bells on the hat and stuffing the curled toes of the shoes. “That’s the kind of mom Bridget was,” says a mother of one of the boys’ classmates. “She went the extra mile and made sure her boys had one of the best costumes.”
At Christ the King, both of the Pitonyak boys made good grades, but Colton was brilliant. He habitually made the all-A honor roll. But he wasn’t what the other kids would label “a nerd.” He played sports, including football and basketball, and acted as a guard on safety patrol. “He was smart but really outgoing,” says one of his classmates. “A lot of fun to be around.”
In the classroom, Colton was a force to be reckoned with. “He overwhelmed teachers at times. He had a strong personality, and he was hyper, incredibly smart,” says one friend. “Colton seemed bored at school. You’d think he wasn’t paying attention, but he’d be the one who always had the A on his tests.”
As an altar boy, dressed in a pure white robe, Colton assisted the priests during Mass and helped serve Communion. Standing before the altar, lighting the candles, Colton appeared virtuous. His dark hair carefully combed to the side, he’d meticulously memorized every step. But then Colton was that way with everything, focused and not afraid to study hard to make sure he had it right. Bridget would one day say that her younger son enjoyed serving at the priest’s side so much that when others didn’t show up, Colton volunteered.
“Colton excelled at everything he did,” says a childhood friend. “He seemed to be able to do absolutely anything he wanted to and do it well.”
Yet even at such a young age, there were indications that Colton Pitonyak had another side.
Tim Lim, a year older than Colton, would long remember the day he first met Colton Pitonyak in piano class. The piano instructor brought Colton into the room to introduce him to Lim. “This boy’s from your school,” she said. In front of their teacher, Colton was always on best behavior, polite and calm. He practiced and advanced quickly, becoming quite good on the piano. But Lim saw something else in him.
One day Lim remarked to Colton, “You’re a good piano player.”
“I know I am,” Colton snapped back.
If his classmate’s ego seemed inflated, something else bothered Lim more: He grew to believe that Colton Pitonyak was a racist. Christ the King was a nearly all-white school, and Lim and his brother were the only Asian-American students. “I was older than Colton, and usually there’s a pecking order. The underclassmen in a private school don’t hassle the older kids,” he says. “But Colton didn’t have any respect for that.”
Instead, Colton poked fun at Lim, making derogatory remarks about his Asian heritage. Frequently when Lim drank out of a water fountain, Colton came up from behind and pushed his face into the water, while he mimicked a Chinese accent. When Lim looked up, Colton Pitonyak was walking away laughing. “He was this punk kid,” says Lim, “But in front of the teachers he put on this angelic show.”
Still, those close to him didn’t see anything particularly duplicitous about young Colton. Was it more a case of a boy just being a boy? “Colton was a nice funny kid. By the time he’d grown up he seemed like any normal teenage boy allowed to get just a little wild,” says a relative. “I never thought of it as being too excessive.”
Along with the piano, Colton played guitar, and he loved music. In eighth grade, he performed with two friends in the school talent show, playing the guitar while they sang Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” “They were really good,” says a childhood friend. “He seemed really passionate about music.”
From Christ the King, the Pitonyak brothers moved on to Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys, one of the city’s more prestigious institutions. Nearby was Mount St. Mary Academy, a private all-girls school. Both were conservative, disciplined, and focused on academics. Catholic High reserved the right to turn down applicants not up to its high standards. “We’re a college-preparatory school,” says the school’s guidance counselor, Brother Richard Sanker, a scholarly man with gentle sags under his eyes. “Nearly all our boys go on to college, many top schools not just in Arkansas and the Southwest, but the nation.”
The school, founded in the thirties, is far from impressive on the outside, a low-slung building on a hill, hidden by trees. Catholic High’s colors are purple and gold, and the 640 boys who attend are expected to present the right image: khakis, button-down shirts with ties, clean-cut with no facial hair. The school boasted an exceptional curriculum including classes in Latin, British literature, anatomy, and physiology. It abstained from labeling any classes as honors level, reluctant to foster an “intellectual elitism.” It’s a school where an A requires at least a 93, and a B an 85.
Outside the main building, the United States, Arkansas, and Catholic diocese flags fly over the school. Inside, visitors are greeted by a statue of Christ with his arms extended in welcome. Two days a week students attend Mass in the school chapel, a solemn place with stained glass windows. Each time he walked into the chapel during the four years he attended classes at Catholic High, Colton Pitonyak passed a plaque of the Ten Commandments that included “Thou Shall Not Kill.”
“We’re not immune from the problems other schools have,” says Brother Sanker. “But we try hard to instill Christian values, and we rarely have any kind of a problem at the school. We can’t control what happens after the students leave, however.”
For students who break the rules, the price is high: expulsion. “We don’t tolerate drugs or alcohol on the campus,” says Sanker. “Rarely do we have a student who comes to the school drunk or high.”
A gregarious teenager, Colton arrived at Catholic High School a straight-A student, one year behind his brother. Tommy Coy, a math teacher who would have both the Pitonyak boys, found they were both good students, but Colton was special. “Dustin wanted to go to the University of Arkansas and have a good time. He wasn’t a troublemaker, he just seemed comfortable with himself,” says Coy. But Colton “was brilliant and driven.”
At Catholic High, Colton signed up for and made the football team. He took a class in moral theology and ran with a crowd of mostly other Catholic High and Mount St. Mary kids. He studied and made exceptional grades. “Colton had this incredible ability to focus,” says a fellow student. “He was whip-smart. We all copied from his chemistry homework. He was just outstanding at everything he did.”
But Colton’s dark side arrived at Catholic High as well.
Tim Lim wasn’t happy to see his fellow pianist walk through the high school’s doors. “It started all over again, the name calling, the harassment,” says Lim. “I watched Colton put on a façade in front of the teachers, and then mock me. I grew to expect some kind of a slur from him.” That Colton was bright “made it seem worse that he could be filled with so much hatred.”
After school, the Pitonyak house was a busy place, the boys’ friends coming and going, sometimes sitting on the white brick wall that bordered the driveway, smoking and talking. “Even though he was in prep school, Colton was kind of a skater type…wearing baggy jeans and shorts,” remembers a friend. “He would skateboard, and was good at that, too.”
Bridget would later say that Colton had as many friends who were girls as guys. One of them was Tracey Ryan, a cute girl one year younger, who went to Mount St. Mary. Years later, Tracey would describe Colton as a boy who’d take his shirt off in the rain to give it to a girl without an umbrella. On the weekends, sometimes Ryan’s girlfriends slept over at her house, and boys from Catholic High knocked on the window. Tracey let them in, and when it got loud, her parents came to investigate. If Colton was among the interlopers, Tracey’s mom never minded. “My mom always loved Colton,” she says. “So long as he was there, I was not in trouble. He was the responsible one.
“Colton was like a brother to a lot of people,” says Tracey. “He always checked in with his parents when he was out late, and if he had too much to drink, he walked home instead of drove.” Sometimes the parties were at the Pitonyaks’ house. On one such night a friend sat talking to Colton, a junior that year. They drank beer and discussed the normal things teenage boys are interested in: girls, school, and sports. “Everyone drank,” remembers one girl. “Even the smart kids.”
Looking back, the teenagers coming of age in Pleasant Valley would see their upbringing as privileged. “There was this thing about the rich kids. We all hung out together, kind of a rich-kids’ cult, a bunch of rich kids who would do anything to cover up their mistakes,” says one of Colton’s friends. “We had lots of money, and we thought we had impunity, we could do whatever we wanted and no one could touch us.”
There was an undercurrent in Little Rock, a need for boys to be tough, to stand by their word, and to grow into men’s men. “There was a lot of testosterone floating around, and on weekends, especially Friday nights after football games, the kids wandered off into the woods. There were lots of places to get lost with friends,” says a friend of Colton’s. “The guys would find reasons to fight. Colton was kind of a wimpy kid in some ways. He got in lots of fights, but he never won. When he was drinking, he had a short temper. And Colton drank a lot.”
Another of Colton’s classmates would later agree: “We didn’t have anything to do but drink, do drugs, have sex, or go to church. Colton wasn’t into hunting and such like most Southern boys, but he did love to drink.”
There was little doubt that Colton Pitonyak had multiple sides: the scholar and gentleman his teachers and Tracey knew, the racist Tim Lim met, and the insolent drunk many saw emerging. By his junior year, boys from Catholic High, not unlike those across the nation, experimented with not only drinking but drugs, mainly pot. Colton was among them. “I saw him smoking pot a lot,” says one friend. “But then, lots of kids did.” With Colton, however, it seemed to have more than the usual effects. Mixed with alcohol, pot made him mean.
One night at a party, high and drunk, Colton screamed without reason at one of the Mount St. Mary girls, calling her a slut and a whore. “My brother and my boyfriend were there,” she remembers. “They beat him up, pretty bad. I never liked talking to Colton after that, and he avoided talking to me, probably afraid of my brother.”
Colton’s fights became a regular occurrence. “If someone called you out to fight and you didn’t, the others ganged up on you and beat your ass,” says a friend of Colton’s. “You had to stand up and defend yourself. We were a bunch of rich kids with too much time on our hands and a fascination with being hard-core tough.”
One day relatives visited the Pitonyaks and noticed a car with a window smashed. Bridget said they thought some of the boys’ friends might be responsible. Whether or not his parents were aware of it, Colton was building a reputation as someone who got into brawls. “Colton wanted to be tough, because that was a way to be popular,” says a friend. “And Colton cared about being popular.”
Louis Petit began at Catholic High in his sophomore year and was seated alphabetically near Colton. They became fast friends, hanging out together, going on summer and spring break trips. Petit, tall and thin, is the son of a family that owns a Little Rock restaurant, and in the summer of 2000, he and Colton worked out together, lifting weights at Powerhouse Gym. Perhaps Colton thought bulking up would help him win a few of those fights in the woods, or perhaps he was just trying to fulfill the expectation that the kids in Arkansas had, that to be a real man he had to be strong.
Colton and Petit spent months learning poses and stances, building muscle. One night at a party at the Pitonyaks’ house, no one could find Colton until a group discovered him in his bedroom, putting on artificial tanner for a bodybuilding competition the next day. Colton and Petit tried out for the Mr. Teen Arkansas title, but didn’t win. “It was really funny,” says a friend of Colton’s. “He worked at the bodybuilding like he did everything else, really focused. Colton never did anything halfway.”
By the fall of 2000, Dustin had graduated from Catholic High and gone off to the University of Arkansas. That year, Colton was a senior at Catholic High, wearing his class ring and the purple, green, and gold school tie. His parents sold the big house on Valley Club Circle and bought a smaller house in the nearby St. Charles subdivision. At the end of a cul-de-sac, with a lot and a price tag one-third smaller than the old house, the new house, at least as neighbors saw it, was an indication that Eddie and Bridget were scaling back, downsizing now that Dustin was gone and Colton was getting ready to leave.
On September 19 of that year, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ran a list of the 166 seniors in the state who were National Merit Scholar finalists. There were seven at Catholic High, including Colton Aaron Pitonyak.
Tommy Coy, Colton’s math teacher, had continued to be awed by his brilliant young student, not only by Colton’s intellectual capabilities but also by his determination. That year, Colton presented a class project on the stock market. Coy was so impressed that he asked the young man who’d helped him.
“No one,” Colton said, and Coy didn’t doubt it.
“It was mind-boggling how much he knew about the stock market,” says Coy. “Absolutely amazing.”
In Coy’s grade book, Colton scored nothing below a 98 in calculus and ranked among the top five students in the class, this at a school where many were high achievers. Coy never saw a wrinkle in Colton Pitonyak’s demeanor. “I never even saw him get angry,” the teacher says. When Colton asked, Coy happily wrote letters to universities, urging them to accept Colton.
His senior year, Colton had one goal in his sights: the University of Texas in Austin’s blue-chip McCombs Business School. It was difficult to get in, highly competitive, even more so for out-of-state students, but Colton was determined. To Coy and others, Colton talked like a young Donald Trump or Dale Carnegie, a budding tycoon destined to conquer the business world.
Catholic High legend would later have it that when Colton showed up to take the ACT, the American College Testing Program exam that universities use to judge whom they admit, he was hung over from a party the night before. If so, it didn’t hurt him. Colton scored a 32 on the exam, only four points below a perfect score.
At graduation that spring, 2001, Colton was sixth in his class and had a perfect 4.0 grade point. To do that he’d averaged 93 or above in every class he’d taken in his four years at Catholic High. His stellar grades attracted $150,000 in scholarship money. Colton had also applied to the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, but his parents would later say they were pleased when he chose UT because it was closer to home. Along with the acceptance came a full academic scholarship.
There must have been celebrating in the Pitonyak house the day Colton’s acceptance letter arrived from McCombs. It was yet another honor in Colton’s fast-growing list of accomplishments. His teachers, family, and friends alike had reason to believe there were more conquests ahead for the young man, who in his high school graduation photo looked like a perfect son, snappily dressed in a coat and tie, his dark hair carefully trimmed and combed. Colton’s Catholic High yearbook carried a testament from his family: “Colton, you have made us very proud,” from Eddie, Bridget, and Dustin.
In July, Bridget took her son to UT’s orientation. Once there, she was even more impressed. It turned out that Colton was one of only twelve admitted from out of state to McCombs that fall. At UT, he bought his grandmother a present, a bumper sticker for her car. Beside the “My Grandson Goes to the University of Arkansas” banner for Dustin, she now had one in honor of Colton that read, “My Grandson Goes to the University of Texas.”
In the fall of 2001, Colton Pitonyak had the world spread out before him like a sumptuous buffet. He had the advantages many crave but so few have: a family who loved him, loyal friends who supported him, and the money, credentials, and intellect to aim as high as his imagination could take him. He brought three of his favorite books to Austin with him: The Three Musketeers, Robinson Crusoe, and The Power of Positive Thinking. Tommy Coy expected to one day see his former star pupil make his mark as a sage venture capitalist or Wall Street mogul.
“We all expected truly great things of Colton,” Coy says. “He was that outstanding.”
Just four years later, Colton would be in headlines across the country, his face splashed on national television. But the context would be very different from anything Tommy Coy ever imagined. Instead of making his name as a financial tycoon, Colton Pitonyak would be forever linked to the most gruesome murder in the history of the University of Texas, and family and friends in Arkansas would be left to wonder how it happened, and why.