A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
In Little Rock, the Pitonyaks moved that spring. They sold the house on a cul-de-sac they’d purchased when Colton was a senior and bought a more expensive home in their old neighborhood, Pleasant Valley. It wasn’t as grand as the house across from the golf course they’d sold three years earlier, but it was a charming English Tudor with a wood shingle roof.
In Corpus Christi, Jim and Sharon made changes as well, finally selling Jim’s old house and moving into the remodeled home. Sharon had done an amazing job, and the thirty-year-old house looked modern. The fireplace area in the bedroom was perfect for a small sitting space, and nearly every room had a view of the pool. The kitchen was bright and airy, and the living room warm and cozy. Sharon decorated the two extra bedrooms, one for her girls and one for Jim’s. She hung a collage for each of the girls, filled with photos and mementos, and in the Cave sisters’ bedroom, she included a print of three women under hairdryers and one Jen found of three stylish women wearing floppy hats. Sharon was happy. She had a lot going right in her life, but she worried about Jennifer.
It would turn out that Sharon had reason to be apprehensive.
That spring in Austin, Mark ended his relationship with Jennifer. Distraught, she didn’t show up for work at Sullivan’s, and then walked into the restaurant to report for duty high on drugs. They fired her. “The breakup with Mark really hit Jennifer hard. She went off the deep end, on a binge that lasted for days,” says Sharon. “We didn’t know what to do. We were worried. I wanted her to go to a rehab.”
Sharon insisted that Jen needed help, in the form of an inpatient rehab program. Jennifer claimed as staunchly that she wasn’t an addict. Yes, she used drugs, she admitted, but not a lot. The breakup hurt her, and she’d made bad decisions. She understood that. But she wasn’t a drug addict.
“I’m not there, Mom,” she said. “That’s not who I am. I’m not that person.”
“You’re giving me every sign that you are, Jennifer,” Sharon said. She could see that her middle daughter’s life was in chaos. Jennifer wasn’t going to school, and now she had no job and no money coming in. Still, Jennifer didn’t look like a drug addict. She had the same bright-faced, wholesome appearance she’d always had. Her daughter just needed some tough love, Sharon decided, hard lessons to convince her to straighten up. That was the approach she’d taken with Vanessa, and it had worked. It would for Jennifer, in time.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t send you to a hospital?” Sharon demanded.
“You don’t need to,” Jennifer said, sobbing. “I’m not there yet.”
“If this keeps up, I will,” Sharon warned.
“Don’t do that,” Jennifer pleaded. “Please, those places are bad. One of those places could really screw me up.”
Later Sharon would realize that something else happened about that time. Jennifer met Colton Pitonyak.
By then, Colton was back at UT, taking classes, doing well. He had all As going into spring break, but he gorged on booze, cocaine, and Xanax over the vacation and never went back. Colton found the classes easy but staying off the drugs hard. At the end of the semester, he’d earned three Fs and one C. Later, he’d say that wasn’t a report card he phoned home to brag about.
If Sharon thought counseling could help Jennifer, Colton had already gone through his first round, an alcohol program required as part of the plea bargain that wiped away his DUI, and come away with an even bigger problem than before. “It didn’t do any good,” he’d later say. “I just wanted to get it over with.”
At any one time, Jennifer Cave had four or five friends who thought of her as their best friend. Something about her appealed to people. Few could verbalize exactly what it was, other than her broad smile and her way of making them feel accepted. “She never judged anyone,” says Thornberry, her old friend from Bishop. “In small towns, you grow up accepting everyone. Jennifer was that way to the extreme. She never wanted anyone to feel bad, so she went out of her way to make everyone comfortable.”
Perhaps that’s why Jennifer kept that tie with Charlie, unlike Lauren, who had little use for their father after the pain he’d caused in her childhood. Something else seemed to come from those years with her father. “I think Jennifer felt like she didn’t have to be afraid of people, that no one would ever really hurt her,” says Lauren. “I think that came from living with our dad. He’d yell and scream and threaten, but he never physically hurt us. And Jennifer always felt like she could handle our dad, and if she could handle our dad, she could handle anyone.”
Throughout her coming of age, Jennifer made it a habit to pick the wrong friends. At times, that had gotten her in trouble. Now, as she neared adulthood, she had another new friend, Colton Pitonyak. Perhaps Jennifer didn’t see who he really was. Or perhaps she thought she saw more in him than others did. “Jennifer looked for the good in people,” says a friend. “She was just that way. And on one side, Colton was this tortured genius, this brilliant but troubled guy.”
Caring about Colton Pitonyak wouldn’t turn out to be a good thing for most young women. No matter where their lives were when they met, if they got too close, he pulled them into his world, the seedy underside of Austin, a netherworld fueled by drugs.
So it would be for Jennifer, beginning that spring 2004, when they met at a party. “There was an immediate attraction,” a friend of Colton’s would say. “He was drawn to her.”
Justin Walters met Colton that same spring. He was introduced to him by a friend, as a potential connection for drugs. Justin, an affable, bright, scrub-faced, preppy UT student, looked like a someday lawyer, but he was hooked on cocaine. He’d tried repeatedly to quit, but couldn’t. “The drugs get in your soul. The first time I used cocaine, I went on a three-day binge,” he says. “It grabs you and won’t let you go.”
When he met with Colton at his apartment, the place was in disarray, and Pitonyak was disheveled and dressed like a rapper. He’d heard about the brilliant scholarship student, but saw little of that in the kid with the ready supply of drugs. “The National Merit Scholar ship had sailed,” says Walters. “At that point, Colton Pitonyak was a thug.”
Still, Colton was funny and bright, and he and Walters hit it off. From that point on, Walters sometimes hung with Colton’s circle of friends. At times they talked, and Walters saw a glint in Colton’s eye, an understanding about what the drugs could do for him. “Colton had a real entrepreneurial side,” says Walters. “The profit margin selling drugs was ridiculously high. By the time I knew him, Colton realized how much money he could make and how it could pay for things he wanted. Colton was in.”
That spring, Jennifer and Sharon talked two to three times a day, as they always did. Sharon was still paying for Jennifer’s cell phone and car, but not her apartment or expenses. At first, Sharon thought little of the Colton references Jen made. But then, one day, something caught her off guard. “What did you say?”
“Colton went through one of those alcohol programs, Mom,” Jennifer said. “It didn’t work for him. He just came out worse than before.”
“Who’s this Colton?”
“He’s a friend,” Jennifer replied. “He goes to UT.”
Sharon accepted Jennifer’s explanation, and thought little more of it.
Amy Pack liked Colton, too. They met when she began dating one of his friends, and Amy, reed-thin with long blond hair, thought Colton was a rare kind of guy, the type who could be friends with a girl and not want anything from her. He let her borrow his car when hers was in repair. When she didn’t want to go out, she called him and ended up at his apartment, watching television and smoking pot. “Chilling,” she says. “He was my boy.”
On those nights, Amy, who’d spent all twelve years through high school in parochial schools, swapped stories and laughed with Colton about the priests and teachers. Some nights, they headed to Sixth Street. The music in the clubs had a heavy hip-hop beat, and Colton loved to dance.
But there was that special thing about Colton, the thing so many young women seemed to latch on to. “He listened to me,” Amy says. “He didn’t turn me off.”
When she was stressed, Amy found she could go to Colton to explain what was bothering her. “He didn’t just say, ‘I don’t care,’ and turn on a sports game,” she says. “He talked to me, told me not to worry, that it would be all right. He was reassuring.”
It was Colton who, at times, became the voice of reason in the group, like the night Amy fell asleep in a bedroom during a house party. A boy wandered in, didn’t know she was there, and also fell asleep on the pile of coats. When they woke up and realized they were in the bedroom together, they laughed, but Amy’s boyfriend was furious. He wanted to beat the kid up, and enlisted his bros to help. “Colton was the one who talked him out of it,” says Amy.
Another night, one of the group contemplated suicide. It was Colton who talked him into living. “He stayed with me,” says the guy. “He was a friend.”
Amy met Jennifer at Colton’s apartment, hanging out, “talking bullshit, like we did all the time,” Amy says. At first, she didn’t like Colton’s friend Jen. The girl with the long red hair seemed almost too friendly. “I’d met girls like that, fake,” says Amy. “But then I started to realize that Jennifer was just being herself. She really was that nice.”
Sometimes Amy wondered about Colton, thinking about how he wasn’t really the way he appeared, a thuggish drug dealer. Part of Colton was still the Ralph Lauren–dressed kid from a well-to-do family with Wall Street dreams. He had a gentle smile and a soft laugh, and “he was into being true to his friends, not being stupid.”
One night, when they were “chilling,” Colton pulled out an old VHS tape, from his bodybuilding days. He popped it into the player, and Amy saw him pose in a competition, muscles bulging, his body tanned and shaved. Bodybuilding wasn’t something Amy thought particularly well of. It seemed a bit smarmy to her, but Colton was so proud of the way he looked, she started to think of it more in terms of his dedication, the work it had taken to get in shape to compete.
Of course, the Colton Amy knew looked markedly different. On the drugs, he’d become increasingly thin, his face strained, anxious. It wasn’t just his looks that had changed from the fresh-faced kid from Little Rock. High and drunk, he screamed at others, even his friends, getting in their faces, threatening. At times Pitonyak and a friend ended up wrestling until the others pulled them apart. There were nights on Sixth Street when Colton’s temper flared and he picked a fight with anyone available. “When he was messed up, Colton could be really aggressive. He gave people things, and wouldn’t remember. Then he’d accuse them of stealing. Someone would have to hold him down,” says a friend.
To Amy, a UT student majoring in communications, Pitonyak’s demeanor wasn’t unusual. “It was the typical post-adolescence thing,” she says with a sardonic smile. “Sure Colton got angry, but the other guys acted the same way. None of it was a surprise. Mostly what they did was just walk around talking bullshit.”
The one part of Colton that remained a mystery to Amy was Jennifer.
“I knew he adored her,” says Amy. “But I didn’t know if she was his girlfriend or what. I couldn’t define their relationship. When I asked him, he didn’t want to talk about it. All I knew was that he was crazy about her.”