A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
Weeks after his arrest, Colton moved into a rented second-floor unit at the Orange Tree, a condominium project in the heart of UT’s West Campus, surrounded by imposing frat and sorority houses, including gracious old colonials with manicured yards. The priciest addresses in the university area, West Campus had panache among UT students. While a one-bedroom could be found for $600 a month or less on other parts of the campus, on West Campus most went for more than a thousand.
The Orange Tree, too, was of note. A quality development, it was a good investment, and some parents bought the units, then sold them when their sons or daughters graduated, often making enough appreciation in the four or five years to recoup all or much of the money they’d laid out for their children’s educations. The parking garage took up most of the first floor of the complex, with the majority of the condos built above it on the second and third floors. An open second-floor courtyard ran nearly the length of the complex, with a swimming pool in the center, the scene of all-night weekend parties.
From the Orange Tree, the campus was a brisk five-minute walk, and a sign posted on the garage barred interlopers. Near-campus parking spaces were at a premium, and less fortunate students fought the daily annoyance of finding a close-in spot. The Orange Tree, with its parking lot, was a rarefied setting by UT student housing standards.
That August, as every August for decades before it, freshmen arrived at the university, both apprehensive and excited about their futures. Some pledged at the houses surrounding the Orange Tree, and the sound of young women leading sorority cheers and chants filled the streets, while at the frat houses, young men milled about discussing plans for the fall and what houses they would pledge. Just three years earlier, Colton Pitonyak had been such a bright-eyed student.
That summer, with classes starting at the end of the month, the glassy-eyed, unkempt Colton moved his belongings into Orange Tree unit number 88, a small studio. It should have been his senior year, but he’d earned only enough credits to be a sophomore.
Unit number 88 had little room to spare. Colton tucked a bed into the alcove to the left of the door, between a glass block divider and a hallway that led to the vanity and the bathroom areas. To the right, just inside the red door marked with gold numbers, was a small living room area. Colton positioned his television next to the fireplace and across from a dark cloth couch and a coffee table. Through a doorway to the left of the television was the kitchen, dark wood cabinets lining the walls and the dishwasher visible from the living room. To keep out prying eyes, he hung heavy curtains over the three living room windows, which looked out onto the courtyard.
Outside, the staircase to the apartment above formed a roof over his front door, shading it from the often blistering Texas sun. From the closest stairway, the UT campus was easily visible and, surging above a lush green carpet formed by the leafy crowns of gnarled live oaks, the school’s famous clock tower. When the carillon rang, it echoed through the Orange Tree’s courtyard.
That month, Jim and Sharon drove to Austin to see Jennifer. Sharon was apprehensive about the meeting. She was disappointed in the way Jennifer was living her life and intended to tell her. It was frustrating talking to Jennifer and getting promises that never materialized.
“Well, I didn’t find a job,” Jennifer said, when they sat down at a Fuddruckers hamburger restaurant.
Jim had stopped on the way and picked up a copy of the Austin American Statesman and two free newspapers with employment ads. “If you’re not going to go to school, get a good full-time job with benefits, Jennifer,” he said. “Look at all these jobs.”
They went through ones he’d circled, but Jennifer had reasons that none of them would work: They were too far or didn’t interest her. She wanted something with more pay or better benefits.
In the past, Jim had always been the one reassuring Sharon, cautioning her not to get upset; Jennifer was just going through a stage. This time, even he was angry. “You know, Jennifer, this is bullshit,” he said, and he got up and left, going outside to smoke.
“Well, great. He’s mad at me,” Jen said, cocky.
Sharon tried to talk to her, but Jennifer was evasive and revealed little about what was going on in her life. They argued and Jennifer cried, and the emotional distance between them loomed so vast, it saddened Sharon. “Forget school,” she advised. “Get a job until you figure out what you want to do. Don’t even waste any more money registering for classes.”
“Well, I can’t do anything to make you happy, Mother,” Jennifer said.
“Yes you can, but that’s not what’s important here. It’s about you building a good future,” Sharon said, meaning it. “I love you, Jennifer. I just want you to do well in life.”
Angry, Jennifer stormed off, and when she drove from the parking lot, she was still sobbing.
All the way home to Corpus, Jim and Sharon cried. “The drugs were ruining Jennifer’s life,” Sharon says. “We knew it, but we felt helpless. We tried, but she just wasn’t listening.”
From Corpus Christi, Sharon continued to call Jennifer daily. At times, Sharon knew Jennifer was upset with herself, like the day she recounted running into a high school friend who was graduating from college in a year.
“When are you graduating?” the girl asked Jennifer.
“I’m not,” she replied.
“I felt like a dummy,” Jennifer told Sharon.
“Well, Jennifer, you should feel like a dummy,” Sharon said. “You’re screwing this all up. But the good news is that you can turn it around anytime you want.”
Always her daughter’s loyal supporter, Sharon urged Jennifer to make changes. As she’d done so many times before, Jennifer insisted she would but then did nothing. As always, before Sharon hung up, she said, “I love you.”
“Colton got arrested,” Jennifer said on the telephone to Sharon, one day. Then she told her about the possession charge. “His attorney wants him to go into rehab.”
Hughes was trying to negotiate a deal for Pitonyak, the same type of plea bargain that had dropped his DUI down to a misdemeanor. So far, the prosecutor resisted. That fall, Colton talked constantly about his drug case, analyzing his attorney’s strategy and bantering about what Judge Flowers might rule.
Meanwhile, Jennifer continued to be at loose ends. She didn’t have a job and partied so often that Michaela kicked her out, and before long, Amy realized that Jennifer was living in Colton’s apartment. Amy thought that, too, was odd. She couldn’t understand their relationship, except that she sensed Colton wanted more from Jennifer than just friendship.
That fall, Jennifer stayed at Colton’s for little more than a month. Why she left was something she never truly explained, except to say that something had frightened her. One night after she moved out, she was at a friend’s apartment listening to music and talking to Justin Walters. When he asked why she’d left Colton’s, she said only, “I didn’t feel safe there.”
Taking it at face value, Justin assumed Jennifer didn’t like all the students dropping in to buy drugs or the suppliers Colton dealt with, underworld types. “Colton complained that his parents weren’t sending him the money they used to, and he’d started doing bigger deals. He wasn’t nickel-and-diming it anymore. The higher-ups in the drug chain are not nice people,” says Justin. “The higher up, the more unsavory.”
That night when Justin and Jennifer talked, Colton showed up, looking for Jennifer. “I want to talk in private,” Colton said to her. To Justin, Pitonyak looked strung out.
“No, no, no,” Jennifer said, visibly frightened.
“What if Justin is in the room with us?” Colton asked.
Jennifer thought about that for a while, and then agreed.
Later Justin realized the conversation lasted only twenty minutes or so, but it felt like he, Colton, and Jennifer were in the bedroom together for more than an hour. Over and over, Colton told Jennifer, “I love you. We belong together.”
“I don’t feel that way about you, Colton,” she said.
As he watched, Justin sensed that Colton had thought long and hard about what he would say to Jennifer, planning how he would convince her to be with him. Colton looked surprised at first and then angry that his profession of love didn’t propel Jennifer into his arms with a breathless “I love you, too.”
As he continued to plead, Colton grew progressively angrier, his voice louder, his face flushed, and his words more insistent. “I love you,” he said. “Why shouldn’t we be together?”
“No,” she said. “It’s not going to happen. I don’t love you that way. We’re friends and that’s all.”
“I love you, and I want to be with you,” he pleaded. “Please, let’s…”
“You scare me, Colton,” Jennifer said with an air of finality. “I can’t be with you.”
“You’re scared I might have a knife?” he said. With that, Colton pulled out a knife, a black-handled folding knife, the type used in hunting. He popped the blade open and locked it in place.
“Oh, my God,” Jennifer screamed, running into the nearby closet.
Colton rushed toward her, but Justin, taller and heavier, held him back, inserting his bulk between Colton and the open closet. All the while, Justin talked calmly, trying to cool the situation down. Since they’d met, Justin had often been able to placate Colton when their other friends couldn’t, on nights when Colton seemed intent on starting brawls.
“Put the knife away, Colton,” he ordered. “We talked about this before. I don’t want weapons around. It’s dangerous.”
At first Colton pushed harder toward Jennifer, and Justin thought that his friend intended to enter the closet and loom over her, frightening her. Justin never considered that Colton could actually hurt Jennifer. Colton was threatening at times, out of control, but Justin had never seen him hit a woman. Despite Colton’s gangster demeanor, Justin believed that on some level his friend was still the funny, bright college kid. The old Colton just didn’t emerge as often as he used to, now that the drug-dealing Colton was in control.
Finally, Colton put the knife away, and, while Jennifer hid, Justin talked him out the door. Once Colton was gone, Justin consoled a frightened Jennifer. Perhaps, if she’d been thinking clearly, Jennifer would have ended the relationship then, excising Colton Pitonyak from her life. But the tie that bound them was strong.
“Jennifer never stayed mad at anyone,” says Justin. “I don’t think she ever believed in her heart that Colton could hurt her.”
Not long after, Jennifer began telling friends that she and Colton had talked, and that while he wanted more from her, he agreed they would only be friends. Perhaps she truly believed that he was able to turn off his deep feelings for her, bury them and go on.
That October, Eddie Pitonyak was in Austin, and Colton introduced him to Jennifer. Later Bridget would say that she and Eddie heard Jennifer’s name often from Colton that year. In fact, she was the only girl he’d mentioned to them since moving to Austin. Eddie gave Colton his credit card that night to take Jennifer out for dinner. By then, Eddie and Bridget knew about Colton’s arrest and the charges pending against him. They must have felt much like Sharon Cave: that they had little control over their son and feared where his life was taking him. How they must have agonized over what was happening to him. Colton had been a star, a son to be proud of, but now they faced a battle to simply keep him out of prison.
On his attorney’s advice, that November, Colton committed himself to La Hacienda, a posh drug and alcohol treatment center in Hunt, Texas, not far from Austin in the bucolic landscape of rolling and jagged hills called the Texas Hill Country. The thirty-two-acre campus on the Guadalupe River had walking paths and a waterfall. The facility offered a full medical and counseling staff for individual and group therapy, and prayer and meditation sessions in an open-air, A-frame chapel on the river, called Serenity Hill.
The Pitonyaks undoubtedly hoped the facility and its well-trained staff would repair the damage the drugs and alcohol had done to their son. Certainly, La Hacienda had everything Colton needed if he were so inclined. Later Colton would say, however, that his stay there was a performance, put on for the benefit of Judge Flowers and the prosecutor, to convince them to lower the charges; Colton Pitonyak had no desire to change.
With his superior intellect, Colton had no problem saying what he needed to in order to successfully complete the rehab program. Once released and back in Austin, Colton drank and used drugs with all the determination he had before the weeks of therapy. La Hacienda hadn’t even slowed him down. “His schedule and his consumption would have exhausted most mortal beings,” says a friend.
Meanwhile, Jennifer was still floating around, staying with one friend, then another. Just before the holidays, she met Katrina deVilleneuve, a pretty, compact young woman, with smoky dark eyes and a strong, supple body, who worked as a dancer at an Austin topless bar. A few years older than Jennifer, Katrina came from a tumultuous childhood. Her mother died young of cirrhosis of the liver, after years of alcohol and drug abuse. Her only brother died in a car accident when Katrina was sixteen, and her father of a brain aneurysm when she was twenty-one.
A friend brought Jennifer to a party at Katrina’s house, and introduced the two women. When Katrina learned Jen had nowhere to stay, Katrina invited her to move into her two-bedroom duplex, a cluttered, funky place with a pink living room and electric-blue bedroom. Katrina had a spare bedroom, and Jennifer quickly agreed.
The duplex was filled with the trappings of Katrina’s trade, filmy lingerie and stiletto heels, wigs, and makeup. She’d started dancing two years earlier, when a friend told her she could make $100 a night. She didn’t believe her, but tried and it was true. Early on, her father objected and she quit, but he died not long after, and she went back to the clubs. She’d worked at most of the topless venues in Austin: Joy, Sugars, and Maximus. The money wasn’t the only attraction, although it was more than Katrina could make anywhere else. “I like the attention,” she says. “I like being told I’m pretty. I get to dress up and flirt. It’s like you’re getting dressed up to go out, but you get paid for it.”
When she met Jen, Katrina danced five nights a week at Ecstasy, a club off Springdale, and was considering massage school, although she hadn’t yet applied. “I’m not going to do this forever,” she said. “I’m not going to be a forty-year-old dancer.”
While Katrina went to work, Jennifer watched television, listened to music, and cleaned the duplex, organizing Katrina’s closet, as she’d done for Sharon the year before, putting Katrina’s costumes in order and boxing up and color-coding her shoes. In the wee hours of the morning, Katrina made her way home. At times, they stayed up and talked, took ecstasy or smoked pot. Jennifer told her about Charlie and his drinking. “I wish you could have had my dad,” Katrina told her. She adored her father and kept a framed photo of him on top of the television. “He was a great guy.”
At times, Jennifer cried. There was something wrong, an emptiness that Katrina believed Jennifer couldn’t find a way to fill. Jennifer talked of disappointing her family, and Katrina held her to comfort her. “I think she was trying to pull it together,” says Katrina. “She talked so much about wanting to make her family proud.”
Off and on, Jennifer circulated over to Colton’s. She told Katrina about the night with the knife, and Katrina warned Jennifer never to see him again. “Colton’s okay if he’s not high,” Jen said. “I just make sure I’m not alone with him.”
Yet more often that not, she voiced a growing frustration with him. One night in particular, Jennifer returned from Colton’s upset. “I can’t fix him,” she said, crying. “I try, but I can’t.”
“Jennifer, you can’t fix anyone but yourself,” Katrina, older than her years, replied. “Just concentrate on you.”
If she tried, Jennifer never found a way to turn her concern for Colton off.
One evening, she stopped at Colton’s with a foil-covered plate of food she’d made for him, on her way to listen to music with friends on Sixth Street. Off and on, she cut hair for people, a knack she’d developed in high school. Whenever Colton asked her to, Jennifer stopped at the Orange Tree with her scissors and a comb, to cut his.
That winter 2004 was unusually cold, and one night during Christmas break, Amy, Jennifer, and Colton were at his apartment in the Orange Tree, snorting cocaine and smoking pot, watching television and talking. Temperatures had been near freezing at night for weeks. “It’s fucking cold out,” Colton said, looking out the windows. “Come on. Let’s jump in the pool.”
Colton tore his clothes off and sprinted naked through the door into the frigid courtyard toward the swimming pool. Laughing hysterically, the others followed, discarding their clothes on the way, jumping into the icy water. “It was wild,” Amy says. “A supreme college moment.”
When he went home to Little Rock, Colton ran into his old high school friends, Ben Smith and Louis Petit. “He was out of it,” Ben would say later. “It didn’t matter if it was ten in the morning, Colton was high.”
“He wasn’t the Colton I knew,” says Petit. “Colton had definitely changed.”
The hearing that would determine if the evidence found in Colton’s apartment could be used against him in court came up that December. As important as it was, he didn’t show up. Colton’s attorney, David Hughes, went to the Orange Tree, but Colton didn’t answer the door to unit 88. The Pitonyaks instructed Hughes to go in through a window, if necessary, to get their son and take him to court. As instructed, Hughes pried open the unlocked window and began to climb in, just as Colton, asleep on the couch directly below the window, woke up and rolled onto the floor.
On the trip to the courthouse, Colton had little to say.
Before Judge Flowers that day, Hughes argued that the evidence, namely the drugs found in Colton’s apartment, should not be admissible. The drugs, the pills, and the statements Colton made should all be excluded because it was the poisoned product of an illegal search. Police had no right to enter unit 88, Hughes argued, and their actions violated the Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments.
Judge Flowers denied the motion, and Colton Pitonyak faced a trial and, if he lost, up to two years in prison.
When she drove to Corpus that Christmas, Jennifer dropped in at the high school in Sinton to see Clayton. She arrived during his journalism class. Afterward, all his friends asked about her, calling her pretty and smart. Clayton was filled with pride.
Yet that winter, the entire Cave-Sedwick family had exhausted all patience with Jennifer. None of them knew what to do. Hailey wondered if Jennifer was pulling away from the family simply to continue partying. But when Hailey talked to Jennifer, she came away with the opinion that Jennifer’s troubles ran deeper. “Jennifer didn’t think she had what it took to make something of herself,” says Hailey. “She kept saying, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t do it.’ Failure was a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“You can do it, Jennifer,” Hailey argued. “We all know you can.”
There were few illusions when it came to Jennifer and drugs. The whole family knew she was using them, something she admitted but couldn’t seem to fix. “Don’t do it, Clayton,” she warned when her brother said someone had given him pot. “It was a bad choice I made, and now I don’t know how to stop.”
The holidays were emotional and difficult. At one point, Jennifer said to Sharon, “It’s hard, Mom.”
“Being with all of you, because you’re just condemning me,” she said.
Sharon took her middle daughter by the arm and escorted her into the bathroom, then stood with her in front of the mirror. “Look at yourself, Jennifer. Really take a good look,” Sharon said. “This is what the world sees. This is who you are. You’re pretty and you’re smart. You’re kind and good inside. You have so much potential.”
“I don’t feel like I can. It’s just too hard,” Jennifer said.
“You have to pull your life together. That’s where it’s at, kiddo,” Sharon said. “And you’re the only one who can do it. It’s only going to get harder if you don’t turn yourself around.”
Sharon again brought up a drug rehab program.
“Colton went to rehab. It didn’t do him any good,” Jennifer said. “He’s using more drugs than when he went in. I don’t know why he went in the first place.”
That winter, Sharon considered keeping Jennifer at home in Corpus, but decided it wouldn’t help unless she committed to change. Of them all, Lauren said little. Jennifer was important to her, an almost twin, and she wanted her back in her life, even if to do that, “I had to erase what I thought she was doing.”
With all the strife over that Christmas break, there were the happy times. Jennifer played with her eight-year-old cousin, Hannah, and Sharon loved to watch. Jennifer had always been so good with children, and the little girl loved her. Jennifer connected easily with the little girl and had endless patience, pulling out crayons and paper and glue and scissors, sleeping together on an air mattress.
Snow fell on Corpus Christi that Christmas Eve, a minor miracle since snow so rarely falls in South Texas. Afterward, the family gathered outside the house, and Jim used a timer to snap a photo. In it, Jennifer had a wide smile on her face, and no one looking at the photo who didn’t know better could have imagined the uproar in her young life.
Outside on the patio, eating pie and smoking after Christmas dinner, Jim and Jennifer talked. “I’m going to do better, Jim,” Jennifer said. “I really am.”
“Jen, don’t do this to me,” he told her, hurt by all the frustration he and Sharon both felt with her. “Don’t lie to me. Don’t tell me you’re going to go to school when you’re not. Be straight with me. You need to be careful about the path you’re on. It’s not good for you.”
“I’ll straighten out,” she said. “You’ll see.”
A week or so later, after New Year’s, Jennifer called Sharon. Jennifer had lost her cell phone, and Sharon, still determined to do the tough love approach, refused to replace it.
“Where are you calling from?” Sharon asked.
“Scott’s apartment,” Jennifer said. “I’ve moved in.”
Sharon had never heard Scott’s name before. She wasn’t sure who he was. “Who’s Scott?” she asked.
“A guy I met. I really like him,” Jennifer answered.
“Is that a good idea?” Sharon asked. “Should you be moving in with him so quickly?”
“I think it is,” Jennifer said. “I really do.”
This time, Jennifer was right. Scott Engle gave her an opportunity to become the person she said she wanted to be, one her family could be proud of. For the brief time they were together, Jennifer had a family of her own, experiencing the joy of raising a child and the devotion of a man she loved.