Episode 4: Whodunit
Haley Butler: Hi, I’m Haley Butler
Tinu Thomas: And I’m Tinu Thomas
Haley: 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: It’s January 23, 2007. At the Travis County courthouse, a full courtroom watches as a new witness prepares to testify at Colton Pitonyak’s trial.
Tinu: She’s a UT student and the story she’s about to tell takes place at the Orange Tree Condos around 3 A.M., after Jennifer and Colton left sixth street. This is the story the jury heard.
Haley: Nora Sullivan is a communications student at UT in 2005. She’s wide awake in her apartment, just a few doors down from Colton’s.
Tinu: She’s on her laptop when she hears a knock at her door. It’s her friend Colton. He looks drunk and like he’s on drugs, but she’s used to seeing him like this. He tells her that he’s lost his phone.
Haley: He asks if he can use her phone to call a friend. She’s cool with that and invites him in. As Colton dials his friend on her phone, she grabs them some cigarettes and a couple beers out of the fridge. Colton’s friend doesn’t answer.
Tinu: Colton tells Nora he was just in a fight with what he calls “some Mexicans” back at his apartment and gunshots were fired. He asks if she heard anything. She didn’t. She’s known him for about a year and figures he’s probably just being drunk and stupid as usual.
Haley: Then, she says he pulls a gun out and unloads it in front of her, saying he doesn’t want it to accidentally go off.
Tinu: She looks down and notices a red smear on his arm. Two years later, she tells the jury it looked like blood.
Tinu: I’m Tinu Thomas.
Haley: And I’m Haley Butler…. And this is the fourth episode of The Orange Tree.
Orange Tree Theme Music
Tinu:Colton had half a handle of vodka and taken some Xanax before going downtown with Jennifer that night.
Haley: Colton remembers going to the restaurant to celebrate Jennifer’s new job. But after that he said he blacked out and has no solid memories until he wakes up the next morning and discovers Jennifer’s body in his bathtub. That includes having no memories of Nora Sullivan’s story about him coming over at 3 A.M..
Tinu: It’s been almost a year and a half since Colton was arrested and this whole time, he’s been awaiting his trial at the Travis County jail. A few blocks away, his parents, Eddie and Bridget Pitonyak are sitting in a waiting room of a law firm.
Haley: The firm is Roy Minton’s. Roy Minton is a legendary Austin defense lawyer known for his charm, sharp mind and the folksy way he talks to juries. His firm is known to take on cases of heavy hitters. The office is just a few blocks from the courthouse where part of the street is named after Minton himself. Here’s Colton’s dad, Eddie.
Eddie Pitonyak: Um, Minton is going to his office and he’d lean back and you know wore cowboy boots like I do and he put his cowboys boots on the desk. And the first time we met with him, uh, he proceeded to tell us to get together about a quarter million dollars and uh you know defend our son.
Tinu: Minton’s partner Sam Bassett is much younger than Minton but still has almost two decades of experience representing clients in criminal cases. Bassett is a soft-spoken defense lawyer who got both his business and law degrees from the University of Texas.
Sam Bassett: So it was really, uh, the first real high profile case and it was probably the most intensely scrutinized profile case that I’ve handled. There have been a couple since.
Haley: This isn’t Bassett’s first case with the Pitonyaks. He actually represented Colton on an earlier cocaine charge and was able to get him off with 30 days in jail and mandatory rehab.
Tinu: Eddie wanted to bail Colton out immediately after his arrest, but he says that on Basset’s recommendation, he didn’t. Colton’s been in jail for about 17 months now. And his trial date is steadily approaching.
Haley: Just a block down from Minton’s firm is the district attorney’s office. Assistant district attorneys Bill Bishop and Stephanie McFarland are assigned to Jennifer’s case and consult closely with Sharon and Jim. This is Jim.
Jim Sedwick: They have a deep passion for what they do and I have a great admiration for what those prosecutors do because it’s, it’s a tough job. And he worked, I know that he and Stephanie, they worked late. I mean, when that trial was going on—
Sharon Sedwick: They did
Jim Sedwick: —they were working until nine or 10 o’clock at night and they were back there the next morning trying that case.
Tinu: In fact, the prosecutors co-authored an article reflecting on the trial. The article, “The Murderer Next Door,” was published in a journal for district attorneys. In it, Bishop and Macfarland write that they expected Colton’s team to go after Laura Hall – the other UT student who went with Colton to Mexico – as an alternative perpetrator. After all, neither Colton’s nor Laura’s DNA could be excluded from the gun or the machete found in Colton’s apartment.
Jim: When we learned that Roy Minton is who they had hired, we’re like, wow, they went and got the best, you know.
Sharon: it was intimidating.
Jim: Yea, It was intimidating,
Sharon: It was intimidating.
Haley: On Monday, January 22nd, 2007, the streets surrounding the Travis County courthouse are swarming with a horde of reporters from TV stations and newsrooms across the country.
Tinu: Before the trial begins, presiding Judge Wilfred Flowers makes a surprising decision. He says he’ll allow Court TV network to broadcast the trial nationwide.
Haley: The courtroom itself is unremarkable. Blue gray seats fill the room, light wood paneling lines the walls. But The Austin Chronicle’s court reporter Jordan Smith recalls that day as anything but ordinary.
Jordan Smith: The courtroom was a freaking circus. (laughs) Total circus. Um, you know, Court TV is there. There’s … it’s like literally standing room only. There’s people, I mean, not only reporters obviously and family and the people that you would ordinarily see in a courtroom for any kind of trial, but there were so many people that were just, you know, coming to see this spectacle, basically. You know, people who had been following it in the news, tons of people that worked in the courthouse, you know, just constantly popping in.
Tinu: Two families are seated on opposite sides of a packed courtroom.
Haley: Colton is clean shaven and wearing a suit. He looks like a classic McCombs Business student about to make rounds at a job fair. He looks nothing like the wild-haired man in his arrest photo.
Tinu: His face is expressionless, pale. And he’s sitting incredibly still. Before the trial, the Travis County jail doctor has given him antidepressants to relieve his anxiety.
Haley: Cameras are aimed towards the witness stand and a crowd of people settle into their seats. The court proceedings begin and the room falls silent.
Tinu: With the room at attention, prosecutors make their opening statements. And then, Judge Flowers calls on Sam Bassett to do the same. A room full of people inch to the edge of their seat to hear how Colton’s defense will prove his innocence.
Haley: To everyone’s surprise, Bassett starts his opening statement by saying that this quote will not be a who-done-it. Bassett tells everyone right off the bat that Colton will testify himself. Bassets also says that Colton will tell the jury that he himself killed Jennifer but that he did not do it on purpose.
Haley: Colton’s lawyer is not saying he’s innocent, but rather, he’s relying on his clients’ lapse in memory to defend him. We’ve told you bits and pieces of people’s stories of that night. Like how Nora said she saw Colton with what looked like blood on his arm around 3 A.M that morning. But now, we’re going to walk you through the story that was presented in court by the prosecution and defense. Everything from the time Colton and Jennifer left the bars on Sixth Street to when he and Laura took off to Mexico.
Tinu: Friends of Jennifer testify that they last saw her on sixth street around midnight. They say Jennifer seemed sober and saw her leave with a clearly drunk Colton at the end of the night.
Haley: Michael Rodriguez testifies that when he last spoke with Jennifer at 1:05 A.M, she sounded like she had a handle on things.
Tinu: Then, Nora Sullivan takes the stand. She tells the jury about that night when she was on her computer. She says Colton came in with this wild story about a shootout with the unidentified Mexican guys. She says Colton told her there were two or three guys that he fought with and gunfire was exchanged.
Haley: After Michael’s call to Jennifer at 1:05 A.M, there are no testimonies to fill in what happened with Jennifer and Colton until Nora’s testimony that places Colton at her door around 3 A.M.. And she just told the jury that she saw a smear that looked like blood on his arm.
Tinu: Colton says he doesn’t remember getting back to the Orange Tree or going over to Nora’s. But his lawyers let him take the stand to tell the jury exactly what he does and doesn’t remember.
Recording from Colton’s Trial:
Unidentified:Can you state your name for the court and the jury please, sir?
Colton Pitonyak: Colton Aaron Pitonyak
Haley: This is unusual. Jury members rarely get to hear from a defendent in a murder trial. Here’s Colton’s lawyer, Roy Minton, questioning Colton on the stand.
Roy Minton: Shows in evidence it shows that there was a text that was made by you to Laura at 5:34 A.M. that morning. Do you remember sending that text?
Colton: No sir, I don’t.
Minton: Alright. Do you believe that when you were making these telephone calls at 5:30 that you discovered or do you have any recollection as to whether or not you had discovered her body?
Colton: I don’t think that was until a little bit later.
Minton: You think it was later? Do you sit in there now, straight arrow, do you have an independent recollection of which came first? These, these telephone calls or, or you finding Jennifer.
Colton: Um, I’m not sure. Everything kind of, kind of blurred together.
Minton: But, you do have some recollection?
Colton: A little bit.
Minton: Alright. Tell the jury, if you can, when you discovered Jennifer’s body.
Colton: I mean it was sometime that morning. I went back to the bathroom to use the restroom and she was laying in the bathtub and I came out. I don’t know. It’s all, it’s all kind of a blur, everything kind of spinning, kind of mixing together.
Minton: What was your, what did you think about that at the time when you saw your friend Jennifer dead in the bathtub?
Colton: I got scared and I, I panicked.
Minton: What did you do?
Colton: I tried to call Laura back and tell her not, not to come by, but, but she insisted on coming by.
Tinu: About six miles south, at her friend Ryan Martindill’s apartment, Laura is responding to Colton’s text messages. They’ve been calling and texting each other for a few hours now.
Haley: Laura would’ve driven over right away but she says she doesn’t have her car at Ryan’s place. Ryan Martindill testifies that Laura woke him up at 7 in the morning, asking him to drive her to her car so she could hang out with Colton.
Tinu: Laura makes her way to the Orange Tree Condos in her green Cadillac despite Colton’s request for her not to. He needs the space to try to figure out what happened and what to do. Colton’s own lawyer Roy Minton grills him about what he did and did not do the morning he discovered the body.
Minton: Son, why did you not call the police, the fire department, an ambulance?
Colton: I was scared. I, I didn’t know what happened. I, I wanted, I wanted to. I panicked.
Minton: Do you have any recollection of the circumstances surrounding Jennifer’s death?
Colton: I have no idea what happened that night.
Minton: Who killed her?
Colton: I did.
Minton: Are you certain of that?
Colton: Yes, sir.
Minton: How can you be certain?
Colton: Everything points to it. There’s, I can’t think of anything other thing that happened.
Minton:Why would you have ever killed Jennifer?
Colton: I don’t know. There is no way it would have been on purpose.
Minton: There’s no way you would do it on purpose?
Minton: Well we all kicked this around. Do you have any reason to believe that Laura came over there and shot and killed Jennifer?
Colton: No, sir.
Haley: Colton does vaguely remember opening the door of his apartment to find Laura standing there.
Minton: Alright. You recall her getting there?
Minton: What did you do?
Colton: I, I can’t remember exactly what I told her, but I, I showed her Jennifer’s body.
Minton: Took her down to the bathroom and showed her Jennifer’s body?
Colton: Yes, sir.
Minton: What did she say?
Colton: She just said what are we going to do?
Tinu: Around 3 P.M. on August 17, 2005, the owner of hardware store, Breed and Company, Jeff Breed, is working. His store is nestled in a little green neighborhood just north of West Campus. Like most days, Jeff is stocking goods and tending to his customers, when he notices a disheveled young man roaming his aisles.
Haley: Breed approaches him and asks if he needs help. The young man says yes and looks down at a handwritten list. This is what he ended up purchasing:
Tinu: Kleenex, bathroom tissue, shop towels, 55 gallon drum liners, spot shot carpet cleaner, Ace ammonia, Febreze odor eliminator, ace latex gloves, saw handi-hack and dust masks. The hardware store owner says he asked Colton what he needed all that for and he testified that Colton said he was frying a turkey and needed to cut the turkey up. Colton swears he didn’t write the list.
Minton: Alright and the list that was, that you had with you when you met Mr. Breed, had you filled out that list?
Colton: No sir.
Minton: Are you certain?
Colton: Yes, sir.
Minton: Then, who had?
Colton: Laura Hall.
Haley: After he gets the supplies, Colton doesn’t go back to the Orange Tree right away. Instead, he stops by Burger King. He orders a hamburger with no onions and then heads back to his apartment with the supplies.
Tinu: One of the most difficult parts of this case is learning what happened to Jennifer’s body after she died. Sharon Cave walks out of the courtroom because she doesn’t want to see or hear the details of what happened to her daughter that next morning.
Haley: Medical Examiner Elizabeth Peacock takes the stand. Dr. Peacock has short cropped blonde hair and a no nonsense personality. As gruesome as this crime was, Dr. Peacock isn’t phased by the details. This is her job. She’s done this a lot.
Tinu: Dr. Peacock says Jennifer died from a gunshot wound to the torso and that it was a relatively quick death. The details of what’s done to her body afterward are disturbing. As a warning, you might want to skip ahead by a few minutes.
Haley: Standing in front of a diagram of a human body, Peacock shows the jury the photos of what happened to Jennifer after she was killed. Peacock says Jennifer’s autopsy shows a bullet shot into her arm that had then entered her right breast. She says Jennifer had stab wounds on her face and neck that occurred after she had died. Then, an X-ray shows that another bullet was fired into the head after her head had been removed.
Tinu: Bassett asks whether someone would have to intentionally shoot into the open neck to get a bullet into the brain. Peacock said quote with that trajectory, that seems to be obvious.
Haley: Former Austin American-Statesman reporter Steven Kretyak says the medical examiner’s presentation still pains him nearly 15 years after he witnessed it in court.
Steven Kretyak: Often they show pictures of the victims too, to prove that they died and sometimes to shock the jury. And some of them they show medical examiner. When the medical examiner testifies as you know, that there’s going to be pictures of, of the dead body. And often I would just leave. I mean if it was nobody, somebody was shot in the heart and there was no, uh, controversy over, that’s how they died and what. I mean, I’m not as tough mentally and emotionally as some of the police or medical examiners and the other people deal with this. Um, so I would leave and this, this trial I, I, I decided the cause of death and what happened to her body was important to the, to the facts of the case and what happened. I thought it was my duty to look and watch and I still, to this day, I could, I felt like I could press print in my mind and see the pictures of Jennifer’s body with no head and no hands on the medical examiner’s table. It’s just pretty, pretty awful
Tinu: Now that the jury knows the details of Jennifer’s mutilation, the question is why it was done and who could have done it.
Minton: Do you have a recollection of you doing any cutting on that body at all?
Colton: No, I, I didn’t cut on the body.
Minton: Did you take that knife and cut on Jennifer’s body with it?
Colton: No, I did not.
Minton: How can you be sure?
Colton: There’s no way I would have done what was done.
Minton: Well what didn’t, truthfully son, didn’t you know that Laura was in the process of seeing to it that that body was cut up into several different pieces? Isn’t that correct?
Haley: Colton testifies that a few hours after getting back to his place from Breed and Company, he and Laura leave once more to have pizza for dinner. There, he gets two separate calls. One from Sharon Cave and another from Jennifer’s ex boyfriend. They call him to let him know the police are getting involved.
Minton: What did, uh, what did Laura do?
Colton: She just, she said we had to get out of town and you know, we went by her place. She went and packed a bag and we went by a friend of her’s place to pick up some rum.
Tinu: Colton and Laura take Laura’s green Cadillac to pick up a bottle of rum she left at her friend Ryan Martindill’s place the night before.
Minton: At that time, how much whiskey had you drunk that day?
Colton: I am not sure of the exact amount. Just that, I had been drinking since I woke up.
Minton: How many different pills or drugs did you have that day?
Colton: I don’t know, two, three, four, just spaced out during the day.
Haley: They consider going to Houston and getting a hotel room. But Colton says Laura took the idea a step further.
Minton: What time do you think you all left town?
Colton: I’m not sure. It was, it was dark.
Minton: Where did you go?
Colton: We just started driving and she said something about going to Mexico and that’s where we ended up.
Tinu: Stephanie McFarland made the closing arguments for the state.
Haley: McFarland tells the jury that the fact that Colton ordered a burger at Burger King without onions just after his friend died showed that he knew what he was doing and that he was cold and calculating. McFarland says the state doesn’t need to prove a motive, just intent to kill. And intent is formed in a moment. The moment a trigger is pulled on a gun.
Tinu: McFarland argues that Colton lacks credibility for three reasons. First, he had reason to lie: to save his own skin. Second, because he was an addict and a drug dealer. And third because he mutilated Jennifer’s body, which shows he couldn’t have cared that much about her.
Haley: Sam Bassett starts off the defense’s closing arguments. He repeats that Colton killed Jennifer. He said the jury had a right to be angry with Colton and disgusted by his actions. But he argues that what happened after her death shouldn’t be confused with what caused her death.
Tinu: Bassett goes on to argue that the state’s case could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Colton intentionally killed Jennifer.
Haley: The trial takes six days. It’s now up to the seven women and five men of the jury to decide Colton Pitonyak’s fate.
Tinu: Colton’s lawyers had asked the judge to allow the jurors to consider lesser charges than murder, including manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. If found guilty of manslaughter, the maximum prison time he could face is 20 years. If found to be guilty of negligent homicide, just two.
Haley: But, Judge Flowers denies this request. So, jurors must decide whether or not Colton is guilty of murder, which could put him in prison for life. The jury leaves the courtroom just after 11:30 in the morning to deliberate Colton’s fate.
Tinu: Less than two hours later, they return, verdict in hand. Colton stares straight ahead, emotionless, as the foreman reads it outloud.
Audio from trial: Attached by, stapled to the charge of two separate sheets of paper, same cause number, style, both entitled verdict of the jury. They read as follows: We, the jury, having found the defendant, Colton Pitonyak, guilty of the offense of murder as alleged in the indictment.
Haley: Sharon and Jim tearfully embrace. Eddie and Bridget quietly hold each other in shock. Judge Flowers orders that the sentencing phase will begin at 2 that afternoon. And the state calls Sharon Cave to the stand once more.
Prosecutor Stephanie McFarland: And since Jennifer’s death, the family has gone through the wedding of Whitney. Is that correct?
Sharon: Yes. Since we’ve lost Jennifer, we’ve had a wedding. Jim’s oldest daughter Whitney got married in June. It’s hard to have an occasion that’s supposed to be so happy just be so tinged with sadness with such a loss.
McFarland: And of course Jennifer’s birthday, two Christmases.
Sharon: Jennifer’s birthday is coming up again and it’s March the 12th. My little niece, Hannah’s, is just a few weeks after her. It’s birthdays, it’s Christmas, it’s Easter. It’s Thanksgiving, which was her favorite because she loved buttermilk pie. It’s calling her on her cell phone. It’s hitting a sale at Dillard’s. It’s the little everyday things. Oh gosh, Jennifer would’ve loved that. I call her cell phone number sometimes just to see if I can catch her voice.
Tinu: The defense calls Colton’s mom, Bridget to the stand. No one has heard from Colton’s family up to this point.
Bridget Pitonyak: First of all, Sharon, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for what your family is going through. I met, I only met Jennifer once, but she was lovely. She was lovely.
For the past 17 months, I have listened to my son as he’s been portrayed as a monster, knowing that nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not in his character and never was and never has been in his character to hurt anybody, especially a friend, especially someone he loved so deeply.
I believe with everything, sorry, I believe with everything that I am that Colton could not have and would not ever have harmed his best friend Jennifer. He’s not a coldhearted murderer. He is not. He has spent the last year and a half in anguish and pain for the loss of his friend. Undoubtedly, he will spend the rest of his life with this pain. But I beg you to be lenient. We love him so much and he is such a good man. I love you, Colton. I’m sorry.
Haley: The jury sentences Colton to 55 years. He must serve 27 and a half before he’s eligible for parole.
Tinu: Throughout Colton’s trial, a young brunette woman sits at the back of the courtroom intently watching the proceedings. It’s Laura Hall. And her trial is about to begin.