A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
“Tell me about your friend, Colton,” Sharon asked Jennifer one day on the telephone, when her middle daughter was in a particularly talkative mood.
“Well, he’s from Arkansas,” Jennifer said. “And he goes to UT.”
“Is he a boyfriend?” Sharon asked.
“He’d like to be, but he’s not,” Jennifer said. “I don’t think of him that way.”
In hindsight, if Sharon had known what was truly going on with Jennifer that summer 2004, she would have gotten in the car, picked her up, and taken her somewhere to get help. But living 217 miles away in Corpus Christi, she had no way of judging for herself. Jennifer had all new friends, most people Sharon hadn’t met, and a life separate from Sharon and Jim. If Sharon had interceded, would it have made a difference? Therapists and counselors say unless a patient wants help, there’s little they can do. Jennifer was twenty years old, and Sharon was in a quandary familiar to tens of thousands of parents across America and the world every year, powerless to make an adult child do what she should.
On the phone, Jennifer sounded well, and when Sharon saw her, except for being thin, Jen looked the same, a beautiful, young girl without a care in the world. Sharon didn’t know how the drugs were eating away at Jennifer, taking over her life, and making things she never would have done in the past seem all right.
That summer, Jennifer worked at Nordstrom’s junior department as a clerk. She lived with Michaela Sloan, a friend who worked in the misses dress department. Like so many others, Michaela was drawn to Jennifer, and they quickly became close friends.
Much of the time, Jennifer went to Colton’s apartment. For most drug users, money controls how much they can consume. Once Jennifer hooked up with Colton, she no longer had that cap on her desires. “Jennifer would disappear for days, over at Colton’s,” says Michaela. “I knew Colton was using and selling. He was heavily into the drugs. Once Jennifer got involved with him, he took her down with him.”
Financed by his drug sales, Colton flashed a bankroll and gave Jennifer all the drugs she wanted, bought her food, took her out. They meshed well together. They both hungered after good times, never missing the opportunity to party. Jennifer enjoyed the frenzied and exciting Sixth Street scene and Fourth Street, where Austin had a burgeoning, more sophisticated bar scene. The Light Bar was one of her favorites. At the trendy, minimalist bar with a wall-size waterfall, the DJs played fusion or techno club music, layering recordings on top of each other, matching beats, for a heavy, hypnotic sound. She liked the lyrics strong, soulful, evoking emotions. As she had in high school, Jennifer spent the nights on the dance floor, her hands in the air, swaying her body, losing herself to the music, her enjoyment fueled, at least in part, by the drugs. Colton appeared to enjoy the club scene as much as she did, and they danced, drank, and indulged in his bounty of drugs. He took cocaine, Xanax, and a variety of drugs, while Jennifer took ecstasy and meth.
More than a decade earlier, Jennifer had been a little girl in love with The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps the drugs transported her to an Oz of sorts, much as the tornado had Dorothy. With the drugs, her nagging self-doubts were calmed, the world was more beautiful, there was nothing to fear, no one to disappoint, no future to fret over, only the immediate moment to enjoy.
Yet all wasn’t well. Jennifer and Michaela once went to a house with Colton for a party. Drugs were scattered throughout, and people sat all over shooting up and snorting coke. “It was the scariest place. We couldn’t believe we were there,” says Michaela. “When we went out with him, Colton was touchy-feely with Jennifer. He rubbed her back and they talked. They were close. At times, he seemed possessive of her.”
If Jennifer left, Colton got angry. He wanted to be with her. “But she didn’t want to be with him, not that way,” says Michaela. “If we went out together and didn’t include him, he got upset because she was doing things with someone else.”
“I don’t believe Colton,” Jennifer complained at such times. Even when Colton grew petulant, Jennifer never looked overly concerned, certainly not fearful.
“Jennifer was the type of girl who tried to look like she could take on the world. She never let on if she was worried or afraid,” says Michaela. “And she had this really big heart. We’d fight, and she’d say, ‘You’re right. I’m sorry.’ She couldn’t tolerate it when people argued. She just couldn’t fight or have anyone mad at her.”
When Jennifer came home to Corpus, she appeared to be relatively well. She liked her job at Nordstrom’s, and she talked about enrolling at the community college again in the fall and getting back on track. She earned extra money helping Sharon, and by the time Jennifer left, she’d worked around the house, organizing Sharon’s closet, grouping the clothing by season and color, and lining up all Sharon’s shoes in boxes marked on the outside. Sharon worried about Jen, but didn’t know what to do. She didn’t give her money for rent, but Jen’s car was failing, with one breakdown after another. Not knowing about the drugs and the parties, Sharon thought Jennifer seemed to be doing better. So Sharon and Jim arranged for Jennifer to buy a new car, a 2003 black Saturn Ion. It was her first car in her name, her first car loan, and Jennifer was proud.
When Sharon took her shopping for clothes, Jen appeared grateful and happy, and Sharon hoped yet again that perhaps her middle daughter was finding her way. “Now, leave here with that new car and your new clothes and do something,” Sharon told her. “Prove to me that you’re serious, and I’ll send you to any school you want to go to.”
“I will, Mom,” Jennifer said hugging her. “I love you. I’ll make you proud.”
“I love you, too,” Sharon said. “And I am proud of you, Jennifer. I always have been.”
Jennifer drove off in her new car bound for Austin, and Sharon hoped her daughter meant it, that she’d refocus her life. Sadly, as they had so many times before, Jennifer’s good intentions evaporated in her self-doubts and now her growing reliance on drugs. Before long, she’d lost the Nordstrom’s job, and Sharon ended up making the payments on the black Saturn Ion.
Along with Michaela, there were other like-minded girls Jennifer met at parties and at clubs. Friends introduced them, or they simply started talking and never stopped. Eva Taylor spent much of the summer with Jennifer, doing drugs, mainly meth, pot, ecstasy, coke, or mushrooms. They wore little dresses with straps or T-shirts, shorts, and platform sandals, all the rage, and went to the bars, where middle-aged men bought them drinks and they danced long into the night.
“Everyone was doing meth that summer,” says another of the girls Jen hung with. “It was like the drug of choice. Smart people with good jobs were doing it. It didn’t seem like a dirty drug. So many people were doing it that meth felt like drinking a cup of coffee.”
Within days of hooking up with a new friend, Jennifer introduced her to Colton. “She didn’t like going to his apartment alone, because he’d try to keep her there. It made her uneasy,” says Eva.
Before they arrived, Jennifer explained to her friends that they couldn’t get drugs unless they stayed and used them with Colton. He was more than willing to supply whatever they wanted, but his recompense was time with Jennifer. It would have been easy to believe that Jennifer used Colton simply for free drugs, but it wasn’t true. Eva and others noticed that Jennifer and Colton had a special connection. They laughed and talked, finishing each other’s sentences. “They were cute together, silly, giggling and stuff,” says Eva. “They were rolling around on the floor, hysterical, telling jokes only the other one got. Jennifer liked going there, being with Colton.”
The drapes pulled in the apartment, Colton sat in the dark, more often than not already high when they arrived. One night, Eva watched as Jennifer and Colton were on the floor together, Jennifer acting like her family nickname, Frog, leaping about on all fours, and Colton roaring and acting like a lion.
The apartment in disarray, Colton turned on the dishwasher. Out of dishwasher detergent, he squirted liquid dish detergent inside. It overflowed into the kitchen, bubbles everywhere, and Jennifer and Colton giggled like grade school kids. After a while, Jennifer spent more and more time at Colton’s. “It got to the point where she couldn’t get friends to go with her, and she went alone,” says Eva. “She didn’t like doing that, but she never seemed to be afraid of him.”
One day, Eva and Jennifer went driving with Colton, and police pulled them over and searched his 1994 white Toyota Avalon. Nothing was found, and Colton snickered all the way home, saying the police were “too stupid” to know where to look. Back at the apartment, Colton showed Jen and Eva his bodybuilding video, and Eva glanced from the muscular, fit, bright-eyed teenager on the screen to the drawn young man with the glazed and sagging eyes sitting on the couch. On other days, heavy rap music with gritty talk of sex and guns filled the apartment or a gangster movie flickered on the television. “Did you see the scene in The Godfather when…” Colton said, eager to talk about gory scenes.
On another night, Jennifer went to a meth house with Nicole Ford, a friend she’d met at one of the clubs. It was on such nights that the reality of what she’d become involved in hit Jennifer. The two pretty young women looked around the room at the shrunken faces of the other drug users as the lighted rose pipe, a glass cylinder containing the melting crystal meth heated by a lighter or a flame, was passed from one to the other, each sucking in the fumes. Afterward, they talked. “We were worried about each other,” says Nicole. “Jen would say, ‘Do we look like they do? Is that who we are?’”
At times, Jennifer told Nicole that she felt as if she were being chased by a devil, a demon. The need for drugs stalked her and wouldn’t let her go. “In the beginning, meth doesn’t seem like a dirty drug. It’s fun, gives you energy, and you lose weight. But the withdrawal is awful,” says Nicole. “You feel like your skin is on fire. A meth house is like walking through the gates of hell.”
“What are we doing?” Jennifer asked.
“I don’t know,” Nicole replied.
“This drug is like Satan,” Jen said. “It won’t let us go.”
Later, Nicole looked back on those months she spent with Jennifer. “We’d try to quit, and we would for a while,” she says, her eyes serious and sad. “But then one of us started using again and pretty soon we were both doing it. There were months where we planned our days around getting high. I felt like I’d lost my soul.”
Meanwhile, Colton’s behavior was growing increasingly odd. When Justin went to see him that summer, Colton stared out the apartment window, as if obsessed that someone was after him. “He hung out with a lot of unsavory types,” says Justin. “Scary people, the ones he bought the drugs from, some of the people he sold to. And he thought the police were watching the apartment. He was paranoid.”
When someone knocked on the door, Colton checked through the peephole before letting him in. “Colton looked worse and worse. He kept losing weight, and he was thin and covered with sweat,” says another friend. “Colton had changed.”
Large amounts of cash funneled into Colton’s small apartment. One night, a UT student, a sophomore named Larry, called to say he and his friends wanted cocaine. Colton had started selling to him six months earlier, after he’d approached Larry and a group of his friends outside a UT apartment building. Over that time, Larry paid Colton thousands to feed his growing habit. Without Larry asking, Colton fronted him the coke, and then showed up unannounced, threatening and demanding payment, sending Larry scrambling for the funds. This night, Larry was already $300 in arrears, but Colton sounded friendly on the telephone, so Larry wasn’t worried.
“Sure, come over,” Colton said.
When Larry arrived, he walked past a cluster of Colton’s friends in the living room, bunched around a coffee table covered in money. Colton invited Larry to the kitchen to do a line of coke. When Larry bent down, without warning, Colton clubbed him in the face. Blood streamed from Larry’s broken nose, but Colton’s friends watched and did nothing.
“He said he was going to do that when you called,” one kid said.
Larry went outside and peeled off his shirt to mop up the blood, as Colton followed. He didn’t apologize but talked calmly, as if nothing unusual had just happened. “You need to pay me, dude,” he said.
Violence was becoming a growing part of Colton Pitonyak’s life.
One night, Colton crashed at Justin’s apartment. When he got up the next morning, Justin walked into the living room and found Colton asleep on the couch. On the floor beside him lay a gun. Justin did a double take. At Colton’s apartment, he had paintball guns that looked like assault weapons. They acted like kids at times, chasing each other around and shooting the guns. But when Justin inspected this gun more closely, he realized it was real, “a revolver like the kind cops use.”
Months earlier, Justin had talked with Colton after he’d come to the apartment with a knife. “I instituted a no-weapons policy. I didn’t want him bringing that kind of stuff to my place,” says Justin. Obviously, Colton wasn’t concerned about violating Justin’s rules. Not knowing what to do, Justin decided to say nothing: “This time I just told myself, I’m going to get my books and leave.”
Colton signed up for two classes in summer school 2004. He finished one and dropped the other. Later, even he would say that “my paranoia was out of control.” He was on cocaine, booze, Xanax, and Ambien.
On July 4, 2004, around nine that morning, Dustin Dobervich, a UT math major, sat in his first-floor apartment, number 104, at the computer, next to the living room window that looked out on an open passageway. He’d lived next to Colton Pitonyak for months and heard little from him. Around the complex, he’d seen Pitonyak coming and going, sometimes saying, “Hey,” and nodding as he walked past. He’d never had a conversation with him, and Colton, by college standards, was a relatively quiet neighbor. Lots of people came and went, music played, but nothing excessive, and Dobervich thought little about him.
That day through the slats in the blinds, Dobervich saw someone standing in the passageway outside his window, men wearing tennis shoes and blue jeans. He heard arguing. “I figured it was a bunch of guys wrestling around, joking,” he says. “I didn’t think anything of it.”
Voices rose, and suddenly someone pushed someone else into Dobervich’s window. It crashed, shattering into shards of glass that showered down, some into the apartment. Dobervich jumped back, and outside the figures scattered. By the time Dobervich rushed outside, everyone was gone.
Angry about the mess and the lack of a living room window, Dobervich called the building manager. He wasn’t in, and Dobervich left a message and decided to start cleaning up. He’d just begun when someone knocked on his door. He opened it and found Austin PD officers K. Covington and Corporal K. Yates.
“I was just about to call you guys,” Dobervich said.
“So, you didn’t call? Who did?” one of the officers asked.
“I have no idea,” Dobervich said.
Yates and Covington looked surprised. Someone had called 911 asking for help and whispering the address to apartment 105, next door to Dobervich. Covington had already knocked on 105 without an answer, and the dispatcher had called the telephone number back, but no one answered. When they saw the broken glass, the officers assumed dispatch had gotten the number wrong, and it was 104. They’d also noticed that the fire extinguisher between 104 and 105 was broken and hanging from the box. Now Dobervich was telling them that he hadn’t placed the 911 call.
Dobervich watched as the officers again knocked on the door to apartment 105. Again: no answer. With that, Covington and Yates turned and left, intending to write a report and head to the next call.
A brief time later, Covington heard Yates called back to 2810 Salado, the Camino Real apartments, where Dobervich and Pitonyak lived. Another whispered 911 call from apartment 105. When Covington arrived, Yates was already there. He knocked and no one responded, and the officers wondered if someone hurt or injured could be inside, unable to get to the door. When Sergeant R. Pulliam arrived on the scene, he decided the 911 calls gave them probable cause to go in through the window.
Yates worked at prying the window open, as Covington knocked again, shouting, “Police. Open up.”
Suddenly, the deadbolt lock slid back, and the door eased open. Colton Pitonyak stood inside holding his cell phone in his hand, his eyes bloodshot and glassy and his speech slurred. The officers smelled booze.
“Did you call 911?” Covington asked.
“No,” he said.
Covington looked inside and saw white powder on a glass mirror on the coffee table.
“Do you live here alone?” Covington asked.
“Yeah,” Pitonyak said.
With that, they asked if they could walk inside. Pitonyak motioned, and they entered. One of the officers found a green baggie on the table with more of the white powder.
“I had friends over last night,” Colton said. “It must belong to one of them.”
The officers searched the apartment and found more baggies, these containing Xanax and 10 mg Ambien pills.
“Have you got a prescription for these?” Covington asked.
“No,” Pitonyak replied.
“How’d that window get broken in the apartment next door?” Covington asked.
Launching into an explanation, Colton said two young white guys were “messing around” outside, and when he walked outside to leave his apartment, they started a fight. “But I don’t know how the window was broken,” he said.
Curious, Covington asked dispatch to call the phone number that called 911, the one that had requested help at Colton’s address. Pitonyak’s cell phone rang, Covington answered, and it was the dispatch operator. “Why didn’t you answer your cell phone?”
“Why did you call the police?”
“Someone was knocking on my door trying to get in,” he said.
“Well, you’re under arrest,” Covington said. With that, the officer turned Colton around, handcuffed him, and walked him from the apartment. Dobervich was outside as they walked by, sweeping up glass. A short time later, two men in their twenties arrived, looking for Colton.
“What happened?” one asked Dobervich, looking at the broken window.
“Someone broke it,” Dobervich said, as the other man knocked on the door to Colton’s apartment. “He’s not there. The police handcuffed him and took him way.”
Three days later, on the seventh, Colton was arraigned in the Travis County Courthouse on a felony charge, possession of a controlled substance, with a potential punishment of up to two years in prison. By then the white powdery substance confiscated from his apartment had tested positive for cocaine. Later, he’d say that he didn’t initially call to tell his parents in Little Rock. The DUI had been seven months earlier. Perhaps he feared upsetting them more, or thought that if they knew, they’d take away his financial support. Whatever the reason, he made bail himself and hired a lawyer, David Hughes.
Colton’s case was assigned to the 147th District Court, presided over by Judge Wilford Flowers, who had a reputation in Travis County for being fair but tough. A courtroom veteran, Flowers is a dignified man who’d been one of the first African-American judges in the county, and he ran his courtroom with a sense of decorum.
From that point on, Colton’s favorite topic of conversation with his “bros” was legal strategy, specifically, how Hughes would get the charges either dismissed or dropped down to a misdemeanor. Pitonyak’s friends got a blow-by-blow account as the lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in Colton’s apartment that day, claiming it was an illegal search. If Hughes succeeded, none of the drugs found could be used against Pitonyak.
Meanwhile, Colton seemed anything but repentant.
Sometime later, a UT student was at a party when Colton showed up looking disheveled and high. Something happened that night that the UT student never forgot. He stood near Colton and heard him bragging about how his lawyer was going to get him off, and then expounding on what kinds of guns were the most accurate and which bullets the most deadly. Suddenly, without warning, Colton hurled a knife across the room. The blade cut into the wall with a loud thunk, and the party grew instantly quiet.
With the startled eyes of everyone in the room on him, Colton Pitonyak, the erstwhile scholarship student and once eager altar boy, now turned drug-dealing gangster wannabe, smiled.