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

Chapter 6

Jennifer had been in Austin for nearly a year in December 2003, the month Colton was arrested for the first time. She was thin and had no real goals, and Sharon worried that her middle daughter was taking drugs. She asked her, but Jennifer insisted, “I’m okay.”

Mostly, Jennifer was Jennifer, flinty and shy, worldly and innocent, self-assured and unsure. She’d become increasingly comfortable with her good looks, wearing flirty little dresses, and Sharon loved to take her shopping; what fun to hit a sale at Dillard’s or Ann Taylor, combing through the racks, looking for just the right dress to go with Jen’s beautiful long red hair, something to bring out those remarkable blue eyes.

That spring semester, school didn’t go well. Jennifer talked as if she intended to study, but within weeks she lost interest, rarely going to class, and eventually dropped most of the classes. Still, she seemed happy. Jennifer was in love with Mark; that Sharon was certain of. Jennifer talked of him constantly, Mark this, Mark that. For Sharon, it was fun to see Jennifer in the throes of her first real love.

Mark, blond and six feet tall, handsome, had grown up in another small Texas town, and Sharon liked him. He studied hard at UT and was doing well. Mark’s parents had taken to Jennifer just as quickly. “Every time she visited, she was good to have around,” said his mom with a soft chuckle. “She was so intent on helping, not being a burden, that she’d pull out the vacuum and start cleaning. We laughed and had fun, and I thought Sharon had raised her well.”

Along with her boyfriend, Jennifer had fallen in love with Austin. She lived in her little apartment off Riverside, with a black cat with green eyes she rescued off the street. In the mornings, she frequented Little City, a bohemian coffee shop on Congress Street, in view of the state capitol. Evenings, she worked as a hostess at Sullivan’s, a posh steakhouse with a 1940s boxing motif, in Austin’s trendy Warehouse District. The place had a jazz and cigar bar and catered to an upscale clientele. Jennifer loved dressing up and going to work. Once there, she worked hard, always smiling and happy to pitch in. One night when Jim and Sharon had dinner at the restaurant, one of the managers mentioned, “We all love Jennifer here. She’s doing a great job.”

If Sharon was disappointed about Jennifer’s lack of drive when it came to college, she was mollified by the fact that her middle daughter appeared to be prospering. Jim felt Jennifer was faring well. “If she wants to work, let her work,” he advised Sharon. “College will be there when she’s ready.”

Their lives were all going on, and they didn’t see a reason to worry.

In Corpus, Jim bought and gutted a house three doors away from his house. The new place, a single-story house that wrapped around a courtyard and a swimming pool, looked dark at first, but he and Sharon hired a contractor who knocked down walls, opening it up. Along with the new house, Sharon had started a new business, her own company, selling promotional items, everything from bill caps and shirts with embroidered company logos to pens and awards. It was exciting having something of her own, and all the children were proud of her. “The kids knew Sharon had rough times and she’d come through them,” says Jim.

That uncut Cave umbilical cord connected them all: Sharon in Corpus; Vanessa in Dallas; Jennifer in Austin; Lauren, who’d graduated from high school and moved to Denton, Texas, to attend the University of North Texas; and Clayton in Sinton. Their cell phones rang throughout the day. Lauren and Jennifer, the almost twins, remained mildly estranged but dependent on each other. When Lauren considered Jennifer’s thinness, she worried. “She looked like she was taking drugs,” says Lauren. “I asked her about it, but she told me to live my own life.”

Still, when Jennifer drove to Denton that fall to see Lauren’s school, the younger sister was glad to see her. “I was so proud that she’d come all that way to be with me,” she says. “It just meant the world.”

Two years after leaving Corpus, Jen still had that calm shyness she’d had since childhood and a need to smooth over the rough times for others. When a high school friend moved to Austin, Jennifer took her on a tour of the city. When the girl called again months later, crying because she feared she was pregnant, Jennifer invited her over and suggested she bring a pregnancy test. Then Jennifer stayed with the girl, talking her through it while she took the test. “She made me feel like everything would be okay,” says the girl, whose test was negative. “She acted like it wasn’t a big deal.”

Despite the ups and downs of her own life, Jennifer worried about her family. When Hailey told Jim and Sharon one weekend that she was staying at Jennifer’s apartment in Austin when she was really with friends, Sharon ordered Jennifer to pick Jim’s youngest up. In the car, Jennifer chastised Hailey, demanding, “What do you think you’re doing?”

“What do I think I’m doing?” Hailey charged back. “What are you doing, taking classes you never finish?”

“I’m excited about my job,” Jennifer said, dismissing Hailey’s accusations.

Although Jennifer hadn’t done well in the spring semester, Sharon had great hope for that fall. One class in particular grabbed Jennifer’s interest, a political science course. Intrigued with the ideas, Jennifer called Sharon off and on throughout the week, saying, “We had this conversation in class today…” Before long, Sharon began to hope that maybe, just maybe, Jennifer had found her niche.

But then the bad news came: Charlie was in San Antonio working when a friend rushed him to the emergency room. Jennifer’s father had suffered a series of strokes that left him disabled. Worried about him, Jennifer rushed home. While her classes continued on through the fall in Austin, Jennifer commuted back and forth to Sinton, trying to help care for her father. She became his rock, supervising his medical care. “When she went back to Austin, she called,” says Charlie. “Jennifer was a good daughter.”

Sharon was pleased that Jennifer wanted to help her father, but that semester, again, she fell behind and pulled out of her courses, leaving her credits paid for but unearned. “What happened with Charlie just seemed to derail Jennifer again,” says Sharon.

When Jennifer came home for Christmas that year, 2003, Sharon urged her to focus her life, go to class, and earn a degree. It bothered her that a girl with Jennifer’s potential wasn’t using it. But Jennifer insisted that college wasn’t important. “I’m fine and I’m happy,” she said. “I’m living the way I want to.”

To get her point across that Jennifer was on the family payroll only if she was moving ahead with her studies, Sharon told her that from there on out, she was on her own. She’d need to pay her own bills, including her rent, until she proved that she was serious about school. It was time for Jennifer to understand, Sharon decided, how hard it was to make ends meet and how much a college degree could help.

After dinner, as always, Jim and Jennifer took plates of pie and their cigarettes outside. They stood on the patio, eating and talking, Jim trying to explain why Sharon pushed so hard, that she wanted her children to be independent, to live good, prosperous lives. Jennifer was angry and hurt.

“You have the desire and the ability to do well,” Jim said. “You have all the ingredients. You just need to apply yourself.”

“I do know what I want to do,” Jennifer said.

“What is it?” Jim asked.

“I want to go back to school. I want to get a degree.”

“Then do it, Jennifer,” he urged. “You’re the only one standing in your way.”

“I will,” she said.

Jim knew that Jennifer craved their approval, and he wanted to believe her, but he couldn’t. He’d seen her make plans too many times and then not follow through. He wondered if this time Jennifer meant it or if she was just “blowing smoke up my ass.”

Off and on, Clayton and Jennifer had some alone time to talk. The brother and sister had always been close, and he confided in her that he’d been to a high school party where kids pushed him to drink and take drugs. “Don’t let anyone talk you into anything. If you don’t want to, don’t do it,” she said. Then she got quiet and intensely serious. “Once you start, you may not be able to stop.”

With no money coming in from Sharon, Jennifer had only a small monthly stipend from her grandparents’ trust fund, which was supposed to pay for college. Worried about money, Jennifer gave up her apartment and moved with a friend, Kristina, into a less expensive one in Austin. Lauren came to visit one weekend, and the two sisters stayed up all night, sharing stories as they had when they were children. “I always thought that if Jennifer knew I was there for her, she’d clean up her act,” Lauren says. “But in the end, I guess it wasn’t enough.”

The arrangement with Kristina lasted for a few months. When Jennifer couldn’t pay her share of the bills, Kristina kicked her out, keeping some of Jennifer’s possessions to sell to pay the electric bill. Jennifer’s world was shaky, but she hadn’t hit bottom. Soon something would happen that would throw her life into chaos, and Sharon’s deepest fears would come true, as Jennifer’s life spun further out of control.

In the Cave family, 2004 would forever be known as Jennifer’s “dark year.”