The murder of Jennifer Cave
occurred in the West Campus area of Austin, Texas. On August 18, 2005,
Cave's body was discovered. Chuck Lindell of the Austin
American-Statesman said that it was the "most infamous West Campus
crime". As of 2009, as the appeals process occurred, the case still made
headlines in newspapers.
Jennifer Rae Cave originated from Corpus Christi,
Texas. She was one of five girls in her family. She attended school in
Bishop, Texas before moving to Corpus Christi in 2000. In 2002 she
graduated from Mary Carroll High School in Corpus Christi and in August
of that year she traveled to San Marcos, Texas to attend Texas State
University (previously Southwest Texas State University) as a finance
major. She dropped out after one semester and worked at a restaurant in
Austin, Texas, while briefly attending Austin Community College,
Riverside Campus. She sometimes used recreational drugs. Before her
murder, she began to work for a law firm, as a legal assistant.
Perpetrator and accomplice
Colton Aaron Pitonyak was a finance major at the
University of Texas at Austin, originating from Bryant, Arkansas in
Greater Little Rock. Prior to coming to Austin, Pitonyak attended
Christ the King School and Catholic High School for Boys in Little
Rock, Arkansas. He was a National Merit Scholar, In the year 2000
Pitonyak was one of seven senior finalists at his high school and
one of 166 senior finalists in the state. Pitonyak had high grades
and earned a scholarship to attend UT Austin. He was a member of the
Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Pitonyak had also once entered a rehabilitation
program for drugs. In 2004 police found cocaine, prescription sleeping
pills that he had unlawfully obtained, and anxiety medication in his
apartment. He was arrested for possession of illegal drugs. Pitonyak had
no previous record of violent crime. Authorities said that Cave and
Pitonyak had no previous discord prior to the murder.
Laura Ashley Hall was a University of Texas at Austin
student who at one time had been Pitonyak's girlfriend. Prior to Hall's
re-imprisonment beginning in 2010, she lived in the area around Bandera,
Texas with her parents. She had plans to take the Law School Admission
Test (LSAT) so she could become a lawyer.
On August 16, 2005, Cave and Pitonyak went to
Sixth Street in Downtown Austin to celebrate Cave's new job. Cave
and Pitonyak went to dinner before Cave was murdered.
Jennifer Cave died in Pitonyak's apartment at the
Orange Tree Condominiums, at 2529 Rio Grande Street in West Campus,
Austin, Texas. Bill Bishop, a prosecutor in the Travis County, Texas
government, said "As far as murders go, this is a very clean murder. He
shot her through the arm, bullet traveled into the chest, through the
heart pretty much killing her instantly. It was the post-murder behavior
that made it so grotesque. The mutilation was anger
it wasn't any
effort to hide the body or get rid of the body. It was just playing with
it, like it was toy."
Upon discovery, Cave's body had been partially
dismembered and had many stab wounds. A hacksaw had been placed on her
abdomen. After her death, she had been shot in the head once. Toxicology
tests concluded that during her death, Cave had alcohol, marijuana, and
methamphetamines in her system.
Discovery of the body
On the morning of August 17, 2005, the law firm where
Cave worked called Cave's family to say that she did not show up for
work. Sharon Sedwick, Cave's mother, and Jim Sedwick, her stepfather,
discovered that she had been with Colton Pitonyak. Pitonyak told Sedwick
that Cave was not around and asked them to leave him alone. On August 18
the Sedwicks traveled to Austin and found Cave's car at Pitonyak's
apartment. Jim Sedwick called 9-1-1. The police said they could not
search the apartment without a warrant. Jim Sedwick broke into the
apartment after the police departed. After he discovered Jennifer Cave's
body, Jim Sedwick called 9-1-1 again.
Escape and capture
On the day that Cave's body had been discovered,
Colton Pitonyak and Laura Hall escaped from the United States, using
Hall's automobile. Authorities found that the two had crossed into
Mexico on August 18, 2005. The two were in Mexico for five days. A
Mexican SWAT team discovered the two in a Holiday Inn in Piedras Negras,
a city on the Mexico-United States border across from Eagle Pass, Texas,
on August 23, 2005. The Mexican law enforcement drove the two to the
Mexico-United States border. There, U.S. Marshals arrested Pitonyak.
Hall was allowed to leave by herself.
On August 23, 2005, Colton Pitonyak was charged
with murder. Laura Hall was arrested in September 2005.
On Monday January 29, 2007 Pitonyak, then 24, was
convicted of murder. On the same day, the jury panel recommended a 55
year prison sentence for Pitonyak. Pitonyak received a 55 year sentence.
Pitonyak will be eligible for parole when half of his sentence was
served, when he is age 51. Outside of court, Jim Sedwick said, as
paraphrased by Harriet Ryan of Court TV that "there was only a
two-and-a-half-year functional difference between the jury's sentence
and the life term. In Texas, those sentenced to life are eligible for
parole in 30 years."
In 2007 Hall was convicted of tampering with evidence
and hindering the apprehension of Pitonyak. The former charge originates
from the dismemberment of Cave's body. She was sentenced to five years
for the tampering and one year for the hindering, with the sentences to
be served concurrently. Jordan Smith of the Austin Chronicle said
"The relatively light sentence, after an emotional appeal from Hall's
father, suggests that the delay in reaching a verdict reflected some
division in the jurors' judgment of Hall's culpability. But Hall's
trial, like Pitonyak's, in the end produced little understanding either
of what really happened to young Jennifer Cave or, most especially, why
her supposed friends ended her life with such brutal, emotionless, and
unthinking cruelty." On February 19, 2009 the Texas Third Court of
Appeals canceled her sentence. The court stated that her sentencing
hearing was not fair. Hall was released on bond.
In 2010 a jury in Travis County, Texas sentenced Hall
to the maximum possible sentence, including prison and $14,000 ($14739.2
when adjusted for inflation) in fines. The sentences, to be done
concurrently, include ten years for tampering with evidence and one year
for hindering apprehension. She would get credit for two years that she
had already spent in confinement prior to the sentencing.
On Monday February 8, 2010, Hall was placed in county
custody prior to her new sentencing hearing. On August 3, 2010, Hall was
taken into the custody of the state prison system, the Texas Department
of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). She was initially assigned to the Plane
State Jail. On October 28, 2011, the state denied parole to Laura Hall.
She became eligible again in November 2012.
As of 2013, Colton Pitonyak, TDCJ#01413729 and State
ID (SID)#07004898, is incarcerated in the Robertson Unit.
As of 2013 Laura Hall, TDCJ#01654372 and SID#07572662
is incarcerated in the Hobby Unit.
Cave's visitation was held at the Seaside Funeral
Home on Monday August 22, 2005 and the funeral was held at the All
Saints Episcopal Church on Tuesday August 23. Cave was buried in a
Kathryn Casey wrote the book A Descent into Hell:
The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas
Murder about the crime. HarperCollins Publishers published the book.
Jurors find college
student guilty of killing and dismembering woman, sentence him to 55
Jan. 30, 2007
AUSTIN, Texas A district court jury convicted a University
of Texas student of murder Monday, rejecting his defense that the
shooting of a young female friend occurred accidentally while he was
drunk and high on drugs.
In separate deliberations later in the day, the same
panel recommended that the student, 24-year-old Colton Pitonyak, serve
55 years in prison. The judge who presided over the trial immediately
imposed that sentence.
Pitonyak, a former National Merit Scholar described
as the one-time "shining star" of his all-boys Catholic high school in
Little Rock, Ark., will be eligible for parole at age 51, when he has
served half the sentence.
Asked by Judge Wilford Flowers if he had anything to
say before sentencing, Pitonyak bowed his head and said quietly, "I want
to apologize to everyone here."
Pitonyak was convicted of murdering Jennifer Cave,
21, in his apartment Aug. 17, 2005. The victim's mother, Sharon, who
testified in both phases of the trial, greeted the sentence with tears
and a smile.
"We are very, very happy with the verdict," she said
Pitonyak sat stone-faced through both verdicts and
through the testimony of a half-dozen witnesses, including his parents,
who asked jurors for leniency.
"I believe with everything that I am that Colton
could not and would not have harmed his best friend in the world,"
Pitonyak's mother, Bridgett, testified through tears.
During his testimony last week, Pitonyak called Cave
"my best friend" and said he was in an alcohol and Xanax-induced
blackout that left him with no memory of firing a bullet into her chest.
His defense was dealt a blow early Monday morning
when, in advance of closing arguments, the judge ruled jurors could not
consider lesser charges of manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide
as alternatives to a murder conviction. Beginning in jury selection,
Pitonyak's attorneys had sought to convince the jurors that the lesser
charges, which do not require a specific intent to do harm, were more
Without those options, jurors faced a stark choice
between intentional murder and a complete acquittal.
In her summation, prosecutor Stephanie McFarland told
jurors they had only to look at the treatment of Cave's dead body for
evidence of his state of mind toward her.
Her corpse, partially dismembered and pierced with
stab wounds, was discovered in the bathtub of Pitonyak's apartment the
same day he fled to Mexico.
"He sawed her head off. He sawed her hands off. He
stabbed her in the face. He stabbed her in the chest," the prosecutor
said. "If they mutilate the person's body, it tells you a lot about
their intent toward that person."
Another prosecutor, Bill Bishop, ridiculed Pitonyak's
testimony that it was his lover and fellow college student, Laura Hall,
who took the lead in a botched attempt to cut up and dispose of the
victim's body. The prosecutor noted that DNA around the body belonged to
the victim and Pitonyak, not Hall.
"She managed to do it without leaving any DNA. She's
an absolute genius," Bishop said in a mocking tone.
Hall faces hindering apprehension charges at her own
trial later this year for driving Pitonyak to Mexico in her Cadillac.
She invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and
refused to testify.
Defense attorneys argued that Pitonyak may have
accidentally discharged his 9 mm gun while trying to clear a round from
the chamber. One of his lawyers, Sam Bassett, took pains to tell the
jury he personally found the treatment of Cave's body disgusting.
Turning away from the jury box and toward the defense table, Bassett
said, "Colton, that conduct is inexcusable."
But, he added, that "repulsive behavior ... does not
answer the question, 'Did he mean to kill his friend?'"
The jury of seven men and five women deliberated just
an hour and 25 minutes before returning a guilty verdict. As the foreman
pronounced the word "guilty," a cry of joy rose up from the gallery,
where the victim's mother, siblings and 20 other friends and relatives
were seated. Cave's ex-boyfriend, Scott Engle, clapped twice and thrust
his fists in the air.
Pitonyak remained expressionless and calmly sipped
water from a Styrofoam cup.
During an hour-long penalty phase, Cave's mother,
Sharon, brought many of her supporters to tears as she recounted the
effects of her daughter's murder.
"I take antidepressants now. Sleep is a hard thing to
come by," she said, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.
She recalled her daughter, one of her four children,
as the "bond" that kept the family together.
"Jennifer was everybody's favorite," she said
prompting sighs and laughs from her sisters, brother and other relatives.
Cave, a petite redhead who had struggled with drugs
since dropping out of college, was killed the day after she had landed a
good job as an assistant at a law firm. Friends said the job appeared to
be the first step in turning her life around.
The witnesses who took the stand on Pitonyak's behalf
described a young man whose life was on the opposite trajectory. As a
high school student, he had earned straight As.
His algebra teacher told jurors that Pitonyak's
lowest grade was a 98 percent. A classmate, Louis Petit, described him
as performing at "an almost genius level" and another friend, Ben Smith,
told jurors he seemed destined for success.
"If you asked anybody, he had one of the brightest
futures, and I mean, he was a good guy," he said.
Both classmates, however, said that in recent years
Pitonyak's drug addiction made him unrecognizable.
"He was not the Colton that I knew. He was very
solemn, very reserved, a definite change," Petit said.
His parents, Eddie and Bridgett, read statements
detailing Pitonyak's childhood and his academic successes, which
included admission to the university's prestigious business program and
a partial academic scholarship.
Eddie Pitonyak, however, caused grumbling in the
gallery when he spoke of his sorrow for "the accident with Jennifer."
Bridgett Pitonyak addressed the victim's mother directly from the
"I only met Jennifer once, but she was lovely," she
Sharon Cave, however, lowered her head and shook it
in a slow, "No."
Defense attorney Roy Minton asked jurors to sentence
Pitonyak to no more than 20 years in prison.
"This boy is salvageable," he said.
Prosecutors asked for a life sentence. Under state
law, the jury could have sentenced him to as short a term as probation
and as long a term as 99 years.
The jurors returned with the 55-year recommendation
after two hours of deliberations. Sharon Cave's boyfriend, Jim Sedwick,
who found the victim's body, noted outside court that there was only a
two-and-a-half-year functional difference between the jury's sentence
and the life term. In Texas, those sentenced to life are eligible for
parole in 30 years.
Pitonyak's parents left court shielding their faces.
His attorneys said they planned to appeal the judge's exclusion of
lesser charges and other issues.
Trial set for college student
accused of slaying, dismembering woman after date
Jan. 26, 2007
AUSTIN, Texas Jennifer Cave had dropped out of college and
struggled with drugs, but when she phoned her mother on Aug. 16, 2005,
she was bursting with good news: A law firm in the state's capital had
offered her a great job.
Her mother could tell the 21-year-old was thrilled
with her new legal assistant position. Here was a job that seemed to
offer concrete proof that the sweet, bubbly young woman finally was
getting her life back on track.
So when the firm called the next day to ask why Cave
had not shown up for work, her mother immediately sensed something was
Her worst fears were confirmed when her daughter was
discovered dead in a bathtub at an acquaintance's apartment. She had
been shot in the chest, and her body was partially dismembered.
The acquaintance, Colton Pitonyak, a University of
Texas student who had taken Cave to dinner on the night she was killed,
goes on trial for her murder this week in Travis County Superior Court.
Prosecutors have a mountain of evidence against
Pitonyak, including a surveillance tape showing his purchase of the
hacksaw used to sever the victim's head and hands.
But the case still has its mysteries. Among them is
Pitonyak, 24, and Cave had no history of discord. The
crime scene, as gruesome as a horror movie, is difficult to reconcile
with Pitonyak, a well-liked and intelligent finance major who had
grappled with drug addiction, but had no record of violence.
Also unanswered is the role of Pitonyak's ex-girlfriend,
Laura Hall, who ferried him to Mexico in her Cadillac after the killing.
The 22-year-old woman, whom one friend said considered herself Bonnie to
Pitonyak's Clyde, will face hindering apprehension charges at a later
If convicted of murder, Pitonyak, a one-time National
Merit Scholar, faces life in prison. He has pleaded not guilty to the
Searching for Jennifer
The victim's mother, Sharon Cave, initiated a search
for her daughter soon after receiving the call from the law firm on Aug.
17, 2005. She filed a missing persons report with the police and
contacted her daughter's friends.
Jennifer Cave, whose family lived in Corpus Christi,
first moved to the Austin area to attend Texas State University, but
quit after one semester. She worked at a restaurant and took classes at
a community college. Occasionally, she also used drugs.
Her roommate told Sharon Cave that Jennifer had not
returned to their apartment from a date with a man named Colton. Increasingly
worried, Sharon Cave obtained her daughter's cellphone records and
dialed the numbers listed for the night of Aug. 16.
Among the people she called was Pitonyak, who told
her that he had last seen her daughter when they had parted at midnight.
He had no idea where she might be, he told her. But another friend
Michael Rodriguez told Sharon Cave that he had talked
briefly with her daughter an hour later at 1:05 a.m. and she was
still with Pitonyak and he was behaving erratically. As they spoke,
Rodriguez told police, it sounded as if the couple were walking through
a parking lot and Cave was trying to calm Pitonyak, who, she said, had
tried to break into one car and was urinating on another.
"Rodriguez stated Jennifer told him that Colton was
very upset that he had lost his cell telephone and that she was going to
help him find it. Rodriguez stated he asked Jennifer if she was okay,
and she told him she was and that she would call him back," a detective
who interviewed Rodriguez later wrote.
Cave never called her back, Rodriguez said.
Investigators went to Pitonyak's off-campus apartment
and found both Cave's and Pitonyak's cars parked there. No one answered
his door, however.
Police told Sharon Cave and her boyfriend, Jim
Sedwick, that they lacked grounds to search his apartment and left the
The next day, with Cave still missing and no sign of
Pitonyak, Sedwick forced his way into the apartment.
"Sedwick advised officers he entered the apartment
through the front window and began yelling for Jennifer. Sedwick advised
as he walked through the hallway he smelled a foul odor and immediately
realized something was wrong," according to a police report.
In the bathroom, Sedwick encountered a gory scene.
Jennifer Cave's bloody body lay in pieces in the
bathtub. A hacksaw rested on her abdomen. Her chest was marked by knife
wounds. An autopsy would later determine that she had been killed by a
bullet that struck her right arm and torso. A second shot had been fired
into her head after she was dead.
Toxicology tests showed Cave had methamphetamines,
marijuana and alcohol in her system when she was killed.
Investigators summoned to the scene found a knife and
a machete, both marked with blood, in the apartment. There was one
bullet shell under her body and another on the coffee table in the
Detectives traced the hacksaw to a hardware store,
where they found a tape of Pitonyak strolling the aisles on Aug. 17,
after Cave's death.
An employee told police that Pitonyak had smelled
strongly of alcohol. The store owner said that when he had asked why
Pitonyak needed the saw, he replied that he wanted to "cut up a turkey."
He noted that Pitonyak also purchased ammonia, towels, carpet cleaner,
large plastic bags, gloves, a face mask and odor eliminator.
Police filed a murder charge against Pitonyak and
began searching for him. As they looked, authorities learned all they
could about Pitonyak. He had grown up in Little Rock, Ark., and
graduated from a Catholic high school there, where he had earned top
grades and a scholarship to the University of Texas.
"He was a very bright student, and held a lot of
promise," a former teacher told the Austin American-Statesman.
In recent years, however, Pitonyak seemed to jettison
his clean-cut, academic image. On the popular social networking site
Facebook.com, he used the screen name "ILoveMoneyAndHos" and listed his
college graduation date as 2010 nine years after he entered the
Among his favorite quotes was one from Al Capone: "You
can get a lot farther with a kind word and a gun than a kind word alone."
Pitonyak also was in trouble for drugs. He did a
stint in rehab, and in 2004, he was arrested for drug possession after
police found cocaine and illegally obtained prescription sleeping pills
and anti-anxiety medication in his apartment. He pleaded to a
misdemeanor and served 20 days in jail, but his lawyer would later
acknowledge he remained "up to his eyebrows" in drugs.
Using signals from his cellphone, police determined
that Pitonyak had crossed into Mexico.
Another break came when the father of his former
girlfriend and fellow University of Texas student, Laura Hall, contacted
police. Loren Hall told investigators that four days after the killing,
she had e-mailed him and asked to remove everything from her apartment.
He suspected that she might be with Pitonyak.
Armed with this information, authorities combed
border surveillance video and found an image of Hall's green Cadillac
crossing into Mexico on Aug. 18 at 2:41 a.m., the night following Cave's
On Aug. 23, Mexican authorities found Pitonyak and
Hall in a Holiday Inn in the town of Piedras Negras. They drove the
couple to the border, where Pitonyak was arrested by U.S. law
enforcement agents and Hall was allowed to leave on her own.
Homicide detectives from Austin interviewed a hotel
clerk who said the couple had asked him questions about Mexico's
extradition policy and how they might sell the car to make some quick
cash. The clerk, Pedro Fernandez, told the officers he was suspicious
when the pair said they could not return to the United States to get the
title for the vehicle.
"White people don't want to go back to their country?
What's going on?" he said.
The same day as Pitonyak's arrest, a friend of Hall's
phoned police and said that she was bragging about having helped
Pitonyak. The friend, Said Aziz, told authorities that she said she was
desperately love with him, to the point of seeing them as "Bonnie and
Clyde," and believed that with her assistance, he might "walk" from the
"She told him that she wanted to protect Colton and
that she wanted to help him," according to a police report.
When Aziz expressed shock that she would try to
assist "an axe-murderer," she replied that the death was "an accident"
and said, "There is a big difference between manslaughter and first-degree
Police quickly arrested Hall on charges of hindering
Facing her own felony trial this year, Hall is not
expected to be a witness for either side at Pitonyak's trial.
His lawyer had not specified a defense, but in
comments during jury selection, he indicated that Pitonyak and Cave were
"the best of friends." He said his client may take the stand to give his
account of the events that lead to Cave's death.
The attorney, Roy Minton, also said he plans to ask
the judge to allow jurors to consider two lesser charges: manslaughter
and criminally negligent homicide.
The eight men and six women of the jury, a panel that
includes two alternates, is set to hear opening statements Tuesday