A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
On April 6, 2001, the spring Colton Pitonyak graduated from Catholic High, Blow premiered, a movie starring Johnny Depp as George Jung, who in the seventies partnered with the Medellín drug cartel to powder the noses of Hollywood and then America. In real life, Jung made tens of millions escalating U.S. drug habits, introducing first celebrities and later the general populace to cocaine. In the movie, the young drug king lived the dream, even pairing up with a woman portrayed by the stunning Penelope Cruz. The movie was dark and moody, and in the end Jung lost his money and his freedom.
In August when classes commenced at the University of Texas in Austin, more than fifty-two thousand students flooded the local shops and bookstores, where everything possible was covered in UT burnt orange displaying the university’s longhorn logo. But alongside the UT notebooks, T-shirts, sweatpants, and key rings were Blow posters sold to decorate apartments and dorm rooms. If Blow didn’t suit, the bookstores stocked posters from HBO’s The Sopranos and gangster and drug movies, including Goodfellas, The Godfather, and the brutal Scarface.
The stores stocked the posters for a simple reason: They sold.
“Scarface was our generation’s movie,” says one of Colton’s friends, with a shrug. “We listened to gangster rap and saw the rappers’ mansions on MTV. They showed off their home theaters with their DVD collections. Scarface was always there. It’s all about the image. You may be a white suburban kid, but you’ve gotta be tough.”
In Austin, the University of Texas comprises a city within the city, covering 350 acres with 156 buildings, organized into eighteen separate colleges. At Jester Hall, UT’s largest dorm, so enormous that its thirty-three hundred residents have their own zip code, kids from small towns and big cities unpacked their computers and their clothes, perused their class schedules to buy their books, and a healthy percentage of the young men hung a gangster poster on the wall. For most of them, it would be a brief fascination, an imaginary armor perhaps to toughen them up for their first experience away from home. The first time out from under parental supervision, freshmen spread their metaphoric wings, setting their own limits, and many paid as much attention to fitting in as to classes and grades. Once settled and accepted, most moved on, abandoning the need or the desire for a tough-guy image: But not all.
While the masses moved into dorm rooms, Colton Pitonyak took the path of the privileged. He pledged a fraternity and moved into the Delta Tau Delta house, at Twenty-eighth and San Jacinto, on the north side of campus, a rambling stone building with the fraternity’s symbol proudly displayed. Windows overlooked the street, and inside leather couches and an Oriental rug formed a sitting area under soaring ceilings, while the walls were lined with photo montages of members dating back to when the chapter, Gamma Iota, began in 1904. Residents’ rooms fanned out from the lobby, past the cafeteria. Late-model sedans, SUVs, and pickup trucks filled the parking lot, and the basketball courts off to the side had a homemade wooden bar for parties.
On campus, jeans and UT shirts were ubiquitous attire, proper for nearly any and all occasions. Colton arrived on the campus looking much as he had in Little Rock, wearing polo shirts, jeans, shorts, and tennis shoes. As the son of well-to-do-parents, much of what he owned was marked with the Polo logo, the designer Ralph Lauren’s pony-riding polo player. Yet one frat brother remembered Colton’s expensive shirts, jeans, and shorts all seemed oversize, and that he wore his baseball cap backward, which seemed odd for a prep school grad.
At the University of Texas, the Greek scene, a.k.a. fraternity and sorority life, was flourishing, one of the most active in the nation. The Delts were known as an old-line, big-name fraternity, with a comfortable house, overseen by the stereotypical frat mom, a rather crusty, fiftyish woman who looked out for her boys. “The fraternities talk about raising money for charity, but it’s all about the parties, and the Delts had amazing parties,” says a student. Because the Delt house is on the North Campus, not the West Campus where most of the frats and sororities have impressive houses, it tends to “fly under the radar,” another says. “They seem to be able to get away with more.” One of UT’s most famous Delts was the hard-partying actor Matthew McConaughey.
Some UT students would look at frats as a good place to network, while one Delt would later look back and say it felt more like “paying for friends.” Within the fraternity, Colton quickly stood out as someone who was “different,” says a frat brother. At the parties, Colton flirted with the young sorority women. He could be charming and fun, at times the life of the party, and they seemed drawn to him, and he to them.
One evening, a frat member named Frank talked to two young women he found rather pedestrian conversationalists and decided to exercise the tactic known as “the classic hand-off,” calling over an underclassman, introducing the girls, and then excusing himself and walking away. The pledge he called over was Colton, but before Frank could extricate himself, Colton made an excuse and left. Frank was dumbfounded, thinking this was a pledge who didn’t understand the customary order of frat life. But then something else happened.
“I can’t believe Colton didn’t even remember my name,” one of the girls said.
“Well, there are thousands of people at UT. It’s hard to remember everyone you meet,” Frank said. “Don’t take it personally.”
“You don’t understand,” she said, still peeved. “I slept with him last week.”
That same Colton Pitonyak hosted his old friend from Little Rock, Tracey Ryan, and her friend, inviting them to stay with him in his room at the Delt house. When they did, he was the perfect gentleman, including giving the two girls his bed and sleeping on the floor.
In so many ways, Colton seemed such a contradiction. Some of his new brothers noticed an apparent disconnect in the new member, as the brilliant Catholic school kid from suburban Little Rock slowly took on the mannerisms of the inner-city kids in the rap videos. “He was always about acting tough,” says one. “Colton talked about doing drugs, bragging that in high school he went into the bad sections in Little Rock to buy cocaine. We didn’t know whether to believe him or not.”
For most, it didn’t matter. The drug scene was flourishing in Austin, a laid-back city with a serious sense of funk, which prides itself on being on the liberal edge. “This is Austin,” says one Delt, as if the name of the city alone explained. “Even the studious kids smoke pot. It’s expected.”
Drugs, of course, weren’t unusual anywhere in America. Cities from the Midwest to the East Coast to the West Coast struggled with drugs smuggled in daily from across the borders. And partying was an obsession at most of the big college campuses. In Austin, however, it had been elevated to nearly an art.
Evenings, students flocked en masse to “the drag,” seven blocks on East Sixth Street, bordered by I–35 on the east and Congress Avenue on the west, a slice of hotels and restaurants, trendy nightclubs, and seedy neon-lit bars, taverns, T-shirt and souvenir stores, tattoo and massage parlors, many in rambling storefronts that date back to the 1800s or early 1900s. On weekends, rock, hip-hop, rap, country-and-western, and jazz reverberated through open doors, and the street was barricaded off, to protect the overflowing crowds.
Rough-edged, with strippers in netting and feathers, disheveled homeless men, even the occasional transvestite in furs and paste jewels circulating among the crowds of students, the drag offered an eclectic charm with a vaguely dangerous undercurrent. As nights on the drag passed, clutches of twentysomethings, many tripping-over-their-own-feet drunk and/or high, spilled out onto the street, where they congregated in small groups that ebbed and flowed, forming and re-forming as they scattered from one circle to another, from one bar to the next, hoping for a good time. Colton Pitonyak was front and center. “He took to Sixth Street like a convert to Communion,” says one friend. “On Sixth Street, Pitonyak was in his element.”
On Sixth Street, Colton was as disorderly and abrasive as he’d been in Little Rock. “He kept trying to get into fights,” says the friend. “If he couldn’t get into one with a stranger in a bar, he’d pick on a friend.”
Despite the distractions Austin offered, Colton initially focused on why he was there, his drive to be a major force in business. That first year, he earned As and Bs, a feat in the highly competitive McCombs School. All seemed to be going well, even if there were subtle changes in the way he dressed and acted. After years of having his attire dictated by parochial school dress codes, as the months passed at UT, Colton’s polo shirts looked baggier, his beard and hair scruffier. A few of his frat brothers began to wonder about him. A rumor circulated that he tortured a cat in the frat parking lot, and then there was the morning Colton was found asleep in the alley behind the Delt house, passed out on garbage bags filled with debris from the party the night before.
In Little Rock that year, Eddie Pitonyak expanded PMC, Pitonyak Machinery Company, by putting together the deal to buy the Brandt farm machinery company. In an industry newsletter, Eddie cautioned Arkansas delta farmers, his main customers, about buying from companies without their interests at heart, those headquartered in states where congressmen weren’t pushing for farm subsidies. “If enough people say something, these companies will call their congressmen,” he said.
The following August 2002, his second in Austin, Colton moved from the frat house to an apartment in a converted house on Elmwood Place, across the street from the Delt house’s parking lot. He hung with a group that included Roel Escobar, a slightly built young man from Houston, and Juan Montero, a bulkily built UT student Colton met during freshman orientation. Montero and Pitonyak were kindred souls, since the former also had as one of his goals “making that all mighty dollar.” One of Montero’s favorite sayings was Machiavelli’s “The end justifies the means.”
Like other UT students, Colton and his pals went to football and basketball games, where they held down their middle two fingers with their thumbs and flashed the school’s hook-’em-horns sign, in support of Texas Longhorn sports and the school mascot, Bevo, a longhorn steer. At night, they migrated with thousands of other students to Sixth Street and the bars.
Jared Smyth pledged the Delts that fall and met a chain-smoking Colton sitting outside the frat house. A sophomore finance major, Colton was still doing well in classes, and he told Jared about his $150,000 in scholarship money. UT’s business school was tough, and Jared was impressed, plus Colton seemed like a good guy. Jared wondered why Colton was such an outsider at the frat house.
When Smyth asked around, he heard the stories about Pitonyak. Brother Pitonyak, he heard, often looked glassy-eyed and high. When Colton showed up at parties, he stayed until the empty beer keg floated in the barrel of ice water, and the alcohol and drugs made him aggressive. At the Delt house, Colton Pitonyak’s bad-boy act started to worry the other members; some wondered if it had become more than an act.
When Colton went home to Little Rock, he and Tracey Ryan again spent time together. To her, Colton was the same great guy she’d grown up with. Still, one night when she was supposed to see Colton, she ditched him in favor of a night with her old girlfriends. That didn’t stop Colton, however, from consoling Tracey after another group of friends didn’t show up to go out with her as they’d said they would. Tracey called Colton crying, then picked him up and brought him to her house, where they spent the night watching movies and talking. A gentlemanly Colton didn’t rebuke Tracey for standing him up; he never even mentioned it.
Spring semester 2003, Colton earned an impressive 3.5 grade point average. That summer, he stayed in Austin, picking up part-time jobs and taking classes. After his first two years, Colton was on track to become yet another triumph for McCombs, a school that educated more CEOs of S&P 500 companies than any other. UT business grads ran major companies across the nation, from ConocoPhillips and American Airlines, to H. J. Heinz. Colton often talked in more esoteric terms, expressing pure moneymaking goals like becoming a venture capitalist. At other times, he bragged about his future, saying that one day he’d eclipse even billionaire Donald Trump, whose television show, The Apprentice, was high in the ratings.
Yet that summer, Colton rarely made it to class and barely squeaked through. By then another kind of talk surrounded Colton; some suspected the drugs had become more than a pastime. Word around the Delt house was that Pitonyak was hooked on the drugs he’d been toying with ever since he arrived in Austin. Some sized up the new Colton Pitonyak and didn’t like what they saw.
More and more his frat brothers pulled away, and Colton spent less and less time at the Delt house, rarely even showing up for parties. Before long, Colton left North Campus and moved into a rundown apartment complex on UT’s West Campus, a long, narrow, Moorish-looking building called the Camino Real apartments, constructed around an interior corridor with a swimming pool. When his old friends from the frat ran into him, Colton laughed too loud, got too close when he talked, smelled of alcohol, and cursed like a rapper on steroids. And he talked about drugs. To close friends, Colton bragged that he’d hooked up with a prime source, one he called “the Asians,” a Vietnamese-American gang with a connection for top-grade ecstasy, a club drug that heightened sexual pleasure. The “Asians” sold to Pitonyak at $3 a pill, and he bragged that because of their purity, he could trade the pills at $10 apiece to other dealers for marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, and Xanax. On the street, he sold the ecstasy pills for up to $15 each.
“I can get you anything you want. Absolutely, fucking anything,” he told a frat brother one night. “If it’s a drug, I’ve got a supplier.”
Cocaine was big on campus, along with pot and ecstasy. Meth or methamphetamine was popular with the girls. Cheaper than cocaine, it jazzed up their metabolisms, made sleeping and eating inconsequential, and the weight dropped off. In a society intent on body image, where magazines like People and Us displayed emaciated starlets and pseudo celebrities on their covers, thin was the rage, and meth made it easy. Never mind that melting the crystals, called “ice” or “shards,” and inhaling the fumes burned up bodies and minds so fast that at thirty, users looked fifty. Twentysomethings considered themselves bulletproof, rarely worrying about what might or might not happen decades in the future.
Some of his college friends began buying from Colton Pitonyak. It seemed safer than circulating through Sixth Street looking for pot or coke or risking a trip into Austin’s shadows to meet a dealer. Before long, he was approaching students on the street, asking if they were in the market for drugs.
If nothing else, Colton was a capitalist at heart. He had a product with a high profit margin and in ready supply: drugs. And he had buyers: his fellow students. What could have been easier? After all, he’d come to UT to make his fortune, and selling drugs was a quick means to that end. Word got out that Colton Pitonyak was dealing, and students lined up to buy.
At times, friends would later say, Colton tried to quit using and selling. “But once the word gets out on campus that you’ve got a pipeline, your phone rings,” says one of Colton’s friends. “He’d quit for a few days, and then he’d be high again, and off to deliver more drugs. He was caught up in it, the whole lifestyle.”
One of his old frat brothers, Smyth, had stayed in touch and went out a few nights with Colton, but the drugs flowed and the crowd Pitonyak hung with dressed like rappers. To Smyth, his old frat brother seemed to be walking a tightrope. Smyth guessed that it had to be coke that made Pitonyak so tense. After a couple of parties, Smyth stopped returning Colton’s phone calls and deleted his number from his cell, in college life a symbol of excommunication. “I knew no good was going to come from hanging out with Colton Pitonyak,” says Smyth.
When Colton talked to another friend that fall, he admitted his grades had dropped. High much of the time, he stayed in his apartment, rarely going to class. “But I’m going to pull it together,” he told him. “I’ve got to get my grades up or my parents will pull me out of here, and I’ll end up back in fucking Little Rock.”
As he had been with his friends in Little Rock, Colton was dedicated to his tight group that included Montero, Escobar, and Jason Mack, a muscular kid with arms covered by tattoos who’d been in and out of trouble since his teenage years. “Bros before hos,” Colton said, expressing his loyalty, raising his fist in the air.
At his one-bedroom apartment on Salado Street, Colton lived a quiet life. It wasn’t good to attract attention, not when the business transacted behind closed doors was illegal. At night, he circulated to friends’ apartments. High on drugs and drunk, he laughed, full of fun, the life of the party. One night he tore off his clothes and ran full speed into an outdoor pool at a friend’s apartment. A student who lived there would later remember, “The pool was so small that no one ever swam in it. We used it to throw our empty beer bottles in, and the homeless people bathed in it.”
Later Colton would admit that by winter 2003, he was high and drunk nearly every day. He rarely went to class and was on a collision course with failure. Then, in December, the brilliant honor student from Little Rock was jailed for driving while under the influence. Bridget came to see her younger son and realized that he had a problem. She packed him up and took him home.
In Little Rock, Colton worked out and went to the gym again, as he had with Louis Petit in high school. When his old friends saw him, they barely recognized him. “He looked like a drug addict,” says someone who ran into him at a store. “I almost walked past him. When I turned around, realized it was him, and said hello, but he looked at me and didn’t have a clue who I was. He looked high, really out of it.”
Another old friend who ran into him looked at Colton and wondered if his behavior could be explained by rebellion against a lifetime of straitlaced schools. “I figured he was finally free and decided to do it his way,” says the kid.
In January, Colton returned to Austin to start the spring semester. There a frat brother ran into Colton at a party. High, drunk, or both, Colton came up to him, got within inches of his face, and said, “You ever been to County, dog?”
The college kid realized Colton was talking about the Travis County jail, not somewhere he particularly wanted to spend a night. “No, all I’ve ever gotten is a speeding ticket,” he said. Pitonyak laughed, as if that somehow defined the other kid as not in his league. That night Colton seemed to revel in his first experience on the wrong side of the law.
In the end, it wouldn’t be about guilt or innocence; it would be about finding a way to make it all go away. Colton Pitonyak had grown up believing that he was special. His boyhood circle of friends felt they had a right to do as they wanted, without fearing the consequences. “We felt like we had impunity,” says a Little Rock native, who grew up in Colton’s circle. “We were rich kids, and when we got in trouble, we covered it up.” Sometimes their parents helped.
This time, Colton’s offense would be negotiated down, plea-bargained. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor: obstructing a highway passageway. The DUI charge disappeared, and all Colton had to do was pay a fine and go in for counseling. The only serious repercussion: UT suspended him.
In the spring, Colton, the former UT whiz kid and would-be tycoon, signed up for classes at the same school Jennifer Cave enrolled in when she arrived in the capital city: Austin Community College. At least for now, he wasn’t welcome at UT. A few months later, Colton met Jen, and events were set in motion that led to the terrible night Sharon Cave stood outside Colton Pitonyak’s condo, pounding on the door and calling out her daughter’s name, praying she’d find her alive.