Episode One: The Orange Door
What you’re about to hear contains strong language, drug and alcohol abuse and descriptions of physical violence that are gruesome in nature. Some listeners might find this distressing. If that’s you, please take caution as we navigate the story about the life and death of Jennifer Cave.
Haley Butler: It’s Thursday. August 18th, 2005. A sweltering day in sunny Austin, Texas… Almost a hundred degrees but that’s normal here. Close to 50,000 students are pouring onto campus to start the school year at the University of Texas …and oh yeah… football season is right around the corner. Texas’s star quarterback Vince Young is gearing up to lead the team on a national championship run.
Haley: Just a few blocks from UT, an SUV rolls into the student neighborhood: West Campus. It parks in front of the Orange Tree condos and two adults step out.
Tinu Thomas: The narrow tree-lined streets are filled with U-Hauls and minivans. Parents and students are everywhere, unloading boxes and moving furniture into apartments. At the stately Greek houses around the neighborhood, members of UT’s sororities and fraternities are starting their yearly rituals.
Tinu: But the two parents who step out of the SUV don’t have any boxes and they’re not moving anyone in.
Haley: Sharon Cave and her boyfriend Jim Sedwick have just driven up to Austin from their home in Corpus Christi, a coastal town about three hours away. Sharon and Jim are here because Sharon’s daughter, Jennifer, lives in Austin and she hasn’t returned any of their calls.
Tinu: And the day before, Sharon got a call from Jennifer’s new boss at a law firm saying she didn’t show up for her first day at work. Sharon’s worried because this isn’t like Jennifer.
Sharon Cave: I mean the minute I got the call from the law firm saying she didn’t show up, I knew something was wrong. Uh, just wasn’t like her to do that, especially on something she was so proud of.
Haley: Jennifer is a caring, red-haired twenty-one year old. Like many people her age, she’s figuring out how to be a responsible adult. Her family thinks that this new job is a turning point for her.
Haley: Looking around the street, Sharon and Jim spot Jennifer’s car parked outside The Orange Tree Condos, but they still can’t find her.
Haley: Hi, I’m Haley Butler…
Tinu: and I’m Tinu Thomas. This is the first episode of The Orange Tree.
Tinu: Sharon and Jim have been waiting to hear from Jennifer for twenty four hours since the call from Jennifer’s boss. On August 17th, the day before they got to Austin, Sharon calls anyone who might know where Jennifer is.
Sharon: I called the mortuaries, I called the hospitals. No, no, no, no, no.
Jim Sedwick: And the police, obviously, she called the police.
Sharon: And the police… that’s still a real sore spot for me.
Haley: Sharon calls the Austin Police Department. Officers do a welfare check at Jennifer’s apartment, but they don’t find her either. And it’s too soon for them to file a missing person’s report.
Jim: Police did what they should have done.
Sharon: I know…
Jim: You gotta be missing a while before they’re gonna treat you as a missing person.
Sharon: Especially when you’re 21 years old.
Jim: And there’s no telling how many calls in Austin, Texas they get for —
Sharon: I haven’t heard from my kid today.
Jim: — missing persons and I haven’t heard from my kid and two days. And turns out the kid’s gone to Las Vegas and just didn’t tell anybody. So the police have to be measured in their response to those things, which they were.
Sharon: At the time that was a bitter pill. I said I know something is wrong. So we did our own investigation, of course.
Tinu: Sharon and Jim have a lot to say about their search for Jennifer. They remember the details of it well. Finishing each other’s sentences as they describe their own investigation into Jennifer’s disappearance. Sharon testifies about their search at a trial.
Sharon: [I] checked the messages at home to see if there were any calls. I had been calling my daughters to see if they’d talked to her. Have you heard from Jennifer, have you heard from Jennifer? I called her dad. I called her brother, just trying to see if anybody had heard from her.
Haley: Jennifer’s out of the house, but she’s not fully independent yet. Sharon still helps out with bills. And that’s where she starts when Jennifer disappears.
Sharon: Fortunately, yet again, being the control freak that I can be sometimes, I had the girls on my phone plan.
Haley: Sharon gets Jennifer’s phone records from T-Mobile and goes down the line, calling every person Jennifer’s recently spoken to.
Tinu: All of these people took the stand at a trial two years after this. Over the course of this podcast you’ll hear the actual testimonies of these individuals describing what they remember from that day. You’ll hear the voices of prosecutors and defense attorneys as they ask questions.
Haley: That day, Sharon calls Jennifer’s roommate: Denise Winterbottom.
Prosecutor Stephanie Macfarland: At some point later in the afternoon, did you hear from Jennifer’s mother?
Denise Winterbottom, on stand: Yes I did.
Macfarland: Had you spoken to Jennifer’s mother in the past?
Haley: Sharon calls the next number on Jennifer’s call log, Jennifer’s friend Colton Pitonyak. He doesn’t answer.
Tinu: The next call she makes is to Michael Rodriquez, a DJ Jennifer had met at a party a few weeks ago.
Sharon: I would say Michael called me back between 4:30 and 5. And he said yes, he had talked to Jennifer.
Prosecutor Stephanie McFarland: What other questions did you ask him?
Sharon: I said, do you know where she was? Do you know who she was with?
Haley: As she sits in her office in Corpus Christi, Sharon has two phones and a yellow legal pad in front of her. On her cellphone she’s talking to Michael Rodriguez. Michael tells Sharon that he and Jennifer spoke on the phone several times the night she went missing.
Tinu: As Sharon’s talking with him, her office phone rings. She puts the second phone to her ear with Michael Rodriguez still on the other line.
Sharon: Somehow I found out it was Colton and I said, “I’m looking for Jennifer.” I said “have you seen her?” and he said no. And Michael was on the other line and he goes “that’s not right.” He said she was with him.
Stephanie McFarland: Okay, so you’re talking to both of them at the same time.
Sharon: I have both of them on, I have two phones in my ears.
Stephanie McFarland: Okay.
Tinu: Michael tells Sharon that can’t be true. Jennifer told Michael she was going downtown that night, and she was going with Colton. Michael testified about these calls in a trial years later.
Michael Rodriguez: Um, well, basically she said she had a friend that was having some issues, and that she wanted to go hang out with him. And then she mentioned his name was Colton, so…
Haley: Colton studies business at UT. He and Jennifer are friends, but she hasn’t spent much time with him recently.
Tinu: Sharon doesn’t believe Colton’s story. She asks him again if he saw Jennifer the night she went missing. Colton admits that he was out with Jennifer two nights ago, but he insists that he only saw her downtown. Michael Rodriguez, who is still on the other line, remembers Jennifer describing a longer night with Colton.
Haley: After going through Jennifer’s phone records, Sharon leaves her office to meet up with her boyfriend Jim. They decide to call Colton again. He doesn’t pick up.
Tinu: Sharon knows something is wrong. She’s the kind of mom who talks to her children every day, sometimes with multiple calls a day. In the past, there’d been times when Sharon couldn’t get a hold of Jennifer for several days in a row. One of those last times, Jennifer had been with Colton.
Sharon: Of course, it became more and more apparent that she had been with Colton and my stomach began to hurt ‘cause I knew that there had been problems. That he was, that he was a problem. She had told me that summer, she’s like “oh yeah, mom, he’s in trouble again. And oh mom, he’s in Rehab.” She said “he’s a mess.”
Tinu: Sharon’s still looking for answers about what’s happening with Jennifer two hundred miles away when an Austin area code rings on her cell phone.
Sharon: I said “Colton, please, do you know anything about Jennifer” and he said “dude, I’m eating pizza with my friends. Leave me alone. I don’t know where she’s at.”
Haley: Sharon and Jim stay the night in Corpus Christi. They’ll head to Austin first thing tomorrow. Jennifer’s sister, Vanessa who lives in Dallas, will meet them in Austin.
Tinu: On the way there, Sharon calls the Austin Police Department. She speaks to Officer Kathy Hector and tells her everything she wrote on her yellow legal pad. Jennifer is officially classified as a missing person.
Haley: Officer Hector calls the friends that Sharon had called from Corpus Christi the day before, Jennifer’s recent ex boyfriend, Scott Enge, as well as the last person who spoke to Jennifer, Michael Rodriguez. She also calls Jennifer’s friend Colton Pitonyak.
APD officer Kathy Hector: He was the only person I couldn’t get a hold of. I talked to one of the one of male friends of hers, and I asked, “Do you know Colton Pitonyak?” and he said “Yes, I do.” And I said “How do you know him?” He says “Well, he’s a drug salesman around campus and on his apartments where he lives. I said “Is he a student?” and he says “well he used to be.” And I ask “Do you know where he lives?” and he told me “yeah” and he told me where it was.
Tinu: Officer Hector drives to the Orange Tree Condos. There, she finds Colton’s white Toyota Avalon and Jennifer’s Black Saturn Ion. She places her business cards on both their windshields and heads up to Colton’s apartment on the second floor. She knocks on the door of unit 88.
Haley: No answer. She wedges her business card in the door and calls Sharon. She tells her that Jennifer’s car is at Colton’s apartment and that no one’s answering the door.
Hector: I can’t do anything else because we think she’s probably with him. She could have run off and gotten married. I don’t even, we don’t know what the circumstances are, but I can’t do anything else at this point.
Tinu: This is the last thing Officer Hector can do for Sharon and Jim. She leaves the Orange Tree.
Haley: Sharon and Jim get to Austin. They drive past the University of Texas campus and into the student neighborhood. They find Jennifer’s car. She must be close.
Haley: They walk up to the second floor of the Orange Tree to unit 88. The door is a faded burnt orange, UT’s school color with a gold-tinged 88 marker right in the middle.
Tinu: No answer. The blinds are down on the three windows to the right of the doorway.
They knock again, this time louder and longer and continue to wait.
Haley: Where could Jennifer have gone without her car?
Tinu: The U-Hauls are pulling out, the sorority chanting has stopped and the sun is setting.
Jim: It was a long chain of events. We found the car, so we knew the car was there. That was probably 6:00 or 7:00. We beat on the door, we looked around. You keep beating on the door and looking around trying to figure out what you should do.
Tinu: Sharon and Jim decide to leave and wait at a hotel instead. They take Jennifer’s car with them.
Jim: Thinking, okay, if she comes back looking for the car, she’s going to call. That “my car’s been stolen” or something. And again, it was very poor logic at the time, but, anyway, we did it.
Haley: Using directory assistance, Sharon calls Eddie Pitonyak, Colton’s dad. She wants to know if Eddie knows where Jennifer and Colton are.
Tinu: Eddie and his wife are having dinner with some friends when he gets Sharon’s call. He tells her he doesn’t know where either of their kids are.
Haley: Sharon and Jim are back to square one, trying to figure out where Jennifer is all on their own. They drive to the Orange Tree and put Jennifer’s car back in the same spot. Jennifer’s sister Vanessa joins Sharon and Jim in front of unit 88.
Tinu: The door is locked. But what’s inside may help them find Jennifer. They call the Austin Police Department again.
Jim: So the police come out there. Very, very nice patrol officer explained the whole situation. He looks around and goes everywhere and knocks. There’s no onsite manager at the Orange Tree. That’s all condominiums, privately owned. He couldn’t find anything and he said “nothing I can do.”
Haley: The police say there is no probable cause to break into Colton’s apartment.
Jim: She hasn’t been missing long enough, there’s nothing we can do.
Haley: It’s nighttime now and Jennifer’s family is still waiting outside the orange door of unit 88.
Tinu: Sharon notices something out of place about one of the unit’s three windows.
Jim: Sharon spotted this little broken piece of glass about the size of a nickel up in the corner of one of those windows. And so I had a pair of broken sunglasses, in the uh, in my vehicle. So I went down there and got this piece off of a sunglass and we were able to pick that piece of glass out of there that eventually led to being able to get the window unlatched. That’s when I went in through the window and it was very, very dark. All I had was a flashlight. I started yelling in there “It’s Jim! I’m not here to hurt you! I’m looking for Jennifer! Don’t shoot!”
Haley: Sharon and Jim are not married at this point, but he has been a father figure to Sharon’s kids for years, taking them on camping trips and helping them through the challenges of becoming adults. Jim has a close bond with Jennifer. He and Sharon have been struggling to help Jennifer get on the right path.
Tinu: Jim calls Jennifer “rudderless.” Jennifer phones him frequently for life advice and direction when she feels lost. She doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life or where she belongs, just that she wants to make him and Sharon proud. When she gets her new job, Jennifer calls right away to let them know that she’s found her rudder.
Haley: But now Jim can’t find Jennifer.
Jim: So I was yelling and, of course, there was no response. And so, stood there for a few minutes making sure that somebody wasn’t gonna wake up. There wasn’t some response before I went over that couch, you know, into the room. Anyway, then, obviously the rest… we end up finding the body.
Tinu: Jim backs out of the apartment and blocks the door. He tells them to call 911 immediately …
Haley: Jim just saw something that no parent should ever have to see. He’s found Jennifer’s body.
Jim: And I never let… she wanted to go in. Vanessa wanted to go in and I just said, call 911.
911 CALL recording:
Emergency responder: This is Austin 911. Do you need fire or EMS?
Woman: Please hurry! Please hurry!
Emergency responder: Address of the emergency?
Woman: It’s at the Orange Tree apartments, 25th street, its …
Emergency responder: Sir, this is 911 we have a lot of (unsure what she says here) on the way. I just need to be able to confirm that she is conscious and breathing.
Jim Sedwick: No, I think she’s dead.
Emergency responder: Okay, she is past, you believe she is past doing CPR
Jim: I do and I also believe we got a crime scene here I don’t want to disturb.
APD office Kathy Hector: About midnight 30, My husband wakes me up and says, “Kathy, your commander’s on the phone. Brad’s on the phone.” And I thought “This is not good because commanders don’t call you at 12:30 in the morning. They just don’t.” He says, “Have you been working a missing persons case?” And I said, “Yes. I’ve been working all day on that case, trying to find this young lady for her mother. And her mother is going to be at my office tomorrow morning is what she told me.” He said, “Well, I’m out here at a crime scene, it’s pretty bad.”
Tinu: Austin Police Detective, Richard Barbaria, gets to the Orange Tree condos just as firefighters are finishing their assessment of the crime scene. He heads into the condo, into what he thinks is a drug overdose case, but he’s not at all prepared for what he’s about to see.
Prosecutor: Can you describe for us what it was you saw?
Officer Barbaria: It was a female body with the head missing and the hands missing and it was propped up in the bathtub facing the doorway. So basically when I walked in, her body is basically like this, facing the doorway. And it caught me off guard because I had my flashlight even though the light’s on, I’m like, “okay, where’s her head?” You know, cause I thought there were some towels and blankets or a carpet there. And I was like “okay, where is she at?” you know? And that’s when I realized there was no head.
Prosecutor: Was there anything else that you immediately noted and knew was important?
Officer: It was the hacksaw on her chest.
Prosecutor: Can you describe what you mean by that?
Officer: I don’t know how to describe it. It was a small, skinny blade, and you can change it out and it was laying right on her chest. And, on the blade, I remember seeing portions of flesh and blood… and it was used to cut the body.
Prosecutor: Was there anything on the floor of the bathroom?
Officer: There was a garbage bag there.
Prosecutor: Did you touch it?
Officer: I didn’t bother looking at it or touching it because I knew, just by the shape of the bag, I knew what parts were in the bag.
Sharon: I didn’t put it together until a couple of years ago, actually it’s when Jim came out. I said, “Are you sure it’s her?” and he said, “ I think so. I saw the freckles on her feet.” Freckles are angel kisses by the way. So uh, cause we used to always tell her, “Oh, God loved you so much that he kissed you the most.”
Haley: This is the story of the life and death of Jennifer Cave, a young woman whose body was found just a few blocks from The University of Texas.
Tinu: We lived and took classes near the crime scene.
Haley: And we had heard this story around campus a lot – so much so that we thought it happened recently.
Tinu: But, when we looked into it, we realized it was 15 years ago. We wondered why it was still on people’s minds.
Haley: I’m Haley Butler
Tinu: And I’m Tinu Thomas. When we started this project we were senior journalism students at UT.
Haley: The journalism school is pretty tight knit, so it was surprising that Tinu and I had never run into each other before this project. But as soon as we met, it became clear that we both felt the same way about nearly everything
Tinu: As we dug into the case, we couldn’t help but notice the similarities between us and Jennifer. But it’s unsurprising, we were the same age, living in the same city.
Haley: With this point of view, we wanted to avoid some of the things that make us weary about the true-crime genre.
Tinu: We’re talking about people’s lives
Haley: And we’ve been driven to tell this story with sensitivity and care.
Tinu: Many of the people involved in this case haven’t talked about it publicly in fifteen years.
Haley: Others have never shared their stories with the public at all. We were able to talk to a lot of them.
Tinu: And as we did, we became closer than we ever thought we could to this story, and we knew it was our job to tell this story responsibly. After this gruesome crime scene was discovered, Colton Pitonyak, whose apartment Jennifer’s body was discovered in, was nowhere to be found.
Haley: And as it turns out, he was with another UT student.
Tinu: A young woman who would do anything for him.