Episode 5: Obsession
Haley Butler: It’s August 26, 2005. Laura hasn’t had her green Cadillac since returning from Mexico. It was impounded after she and Colton Pitonyak were detained, but Austin Police call her to tell her she can come pick up her keys. Laura walks into the Austin Police Department just two days before her 22nd birthday.
Tinu Thomas: But when she gets to the front desk, she’s told she won’t be able to pick up her keys just yet. Instead, officer’s appear and usher her into a small, white room. Inside is a metal table and three chairs. She’s asked to sit.
Haley: There’s a video camera in the top corner of the room which captures what happens next.
Tinu: A man enters the room, detective Mark Gilchrest. Laura recognizes him. After Colton’s arrest, Gilchrest drove to Tarpley to take Laura’s statement at her parent’s house.
Haley: After Gilchrest, a female officer walks into the interrogation room, pats Laura down and empties her pockets.
Tinu: Laura hesitantly hands over her phone, she seems worried that they’ll go through it, Gilchrest assures her they won’t.
Laura Hall: I mean are you guys going to be looking over my information?
Mark Gilchrest: Oh no. We can’t do that without a warrant.
Laura: Ok… lemme find it I have so much stuff in here right now.
Gilchrest: Alright, I’ll be right back.
Haley: Gilchrest walks out of the room and Laura waits on the edge of her seat for five minutes. He returns with his partner, Detective Keith Walker.
Laura: If you’re saying I might be in some kind of trouble…
Gilchrest: Read that…
Laura: Oh my god…
Gilchrest: Laura Ashley Hall you are under arrest for hindering apprehension. I want you to understand what’s going on, okay?. If you want to start talking to your attorney, I’ll bring the phone in here.
Laura: Are you arresting me right now?
Gilchrest: You’re under arrest.
Laura: Oh my god.
Tinu: What you’re hearing now is audio from the video-taped interrogation of Laura Hall after her arrest that day at the Austin Police Department. Since you can only hear so much, we’ll describe what happens next. At the start of the interrogation, you can see it on her face — Laura doesn’t realize just how much trouble she’s in. She’s wearing a black band tee, dark wash jeans and flip flops. A casual outfit for picking up groceries, walking your dog or grabbing your keys from a police station. Her long dark hair is parted slightly off center.
Haley: She’s sitting with her elbows on the table, looking straight down at her lap. Walker reads Laura her Miranda rights and Gilchrest asks if she wants counsel. Laura covers her face with her hands. She looks up and runs her fingers through her hair. In just 45 seconds she waives her rights.
Gilchrest: Sign your name right below…
Laura: I received and understood the warning on the other side of this card. I do waive these rights —-
Gilchrest: And you agree to do that?
Tinu: Laura wanted to be a lawyer. She had even worked at a legal firm in Austin shortly before this. So, it’s likely that Laura knew how important it was to call your lawyer as soon as you get in any legal trouble.
Haley: We wonder why she wouldn’t call a lawyer right away like Colton did.
Laura: What’s going to happen?
Gilchrest: You’re going to go to jail… You’ve got to tell the truth. You’re going straight to jail and you’re going to be in jail for a long time. Do you have $175,000?
Laura: Oh my god … what do you want to know?
Haley: I’m Haley Butler.
Tinu: And I’m Tinu Thomas. This is the 5th episode of The Orange Tree.
Haley: Detective Gilchrest walks out of the room for a meeting. Detective Walker takes his chair and clasps his hands together. Laura’s hands do most of the talking as she describes the morning of Jennifer Cave’s death. When she’s upset, she flips her hands outward. When she’s thinking, she runs her fingers through her hair.
Tinu: Laura tells the detective she was sleeping over at her friend Ryan Martindill’s place when Colton called her that morning.
Laura: I received a phone call from Colton Pitonyak at 6:30 in the morning. I was sleeping.
Tinu: He asked her to come over. She says she made Ryan take her to her apartment so she could grab her car. And she was eager to get to Colton’s place because well… she missed him.
Laura: I had wanted to see him and I had been sending him some text messages saying I had missed him. He hadn’t been around that much.
Haley: Laura tells detectives she and Colton were having relationship problems and she wanted to fix things.
Laura: Back at Ryan’s house before he took me to my car I called Colton and I was like “what are you doing?”—- And he was like “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to come over to my house today.” And I was just like “What are you talking about? I just woke somebody up.” Like, I mean I’m just saying I didn’t know at that point that there was a serious situation going on. So it may sound weird now, I feel weird saying, but I didn’t know.
Haley: When she finally got to Colton’s place and he let her in. She spotted a pinkish-purple purse on the ground.
Laura: I was like what’s this… Is there a girl here? What’s going on? Whose is this? And he wouldn’t let me touch it. He wouldn’t let me touch it. He was just like no, or whatever, and told me to shut up and quit being a ho about things.
Tinu: She tells Detective Walker that they fought about the way Colton treats her. She says Colton didn’t want to deal with the fight – so he tried to throw her out of the apartment. Not the first time, but Laura didn’t budge. She wanted to stay and fix things, no matter what.
Laura: I don’t like being thrown out of someone’s apartment, it hurt my feelings. He threatened me…
Walker: How so?
Laura: He didn’t issue me any verbal threats but physically… At first he tried to reach out to take my hand to take me out and I wasn’t leaving and he had a weapon in his hand.
Haley: Laura tells the detective that Colton had a wood board, a machete and a gun in the apartment. She says Colton wasn’t holding any of the weapons at the time, but she’s seen him accidentally fire a gun before.
Laura: I had heard that rounds had accidentally gone off. I saw a round accidentally go off in there one time.
Walker: But not this time?
Haley: Then, Laura tells the detective she leaves his apartment. She doesn’t want to fight with Colton anymore, especially not with the weapons laying around his place.
Walker: You got to leave and you think you were there about how long?I realize that you’re not sure, but about how long?
Laura: Yeah… I mean… It felt like I was just there for like an hour or so.
Tinu: The detective isn’t so convinced.
Walker: I’m not saying you are, I’m just saying if there’s something that you remember or something you wish to change, you tell me. A recollection or you’re like “Oh, yeah! I just remembered…” that’s okay, you just need to tell me, okay?
Haley: Walker asks Laura if she saw anything out of the ordinary at Colton’s place that day.
Walker: Did you notice the blood on the floor?
Laura: I noticed a spot on the floor by the bed. I did not know it was blood.
Haley: Laura tells Walker that it wasn’t unusual to see spills around Colton’s place and that if she did see something that day, it didn’t stick out as odd to her.
Walker: You didn’t know it was blood and you noticed it. But it wasn’t usual, right?
Laura: It wasn’t unusual to see spills on Colton’s floor.
Haley: Detective Gilchrest returns from his meeting and Laura breathes a sigh of relief.
Laura (to Gilchrest): I like you, you ask really good questions.
Tinu: Gilchrest, the older of the two officers, speaks in a low baritone. He looks like the middle aged detective you’d see in movies inexplicably holding a styrofoam cup at all times. He has a graying mustache and is wearing practically the same outfit in every photo we could find of him. Blue-gray button up and a tie, sensible khaki pants.
Haley: He speaks slowly and intentionally. He encourages Laura to tell him more, to tell him what she remembers, as best she can.
Gilchrest: Let’s try to stay on track as to what happened and get the facts down.
Laura: Okay, keep me on track.
Tinu: He sounds fatherly at times, asking Laura if she needs to use the restroom, if she’s comfortable. He even gets her some food from Wendy’s. He’s playing the good cop right now.
Gilchrest: I just can’t stress enough Laura how important it is for you to go ahead and get the true story out and then after that we can talk about Colton, we can talk about the mental anguish and how you afraid you were of him and all that, okay?
Laura: After this, no matter what, am I going to jail?
Gilchrest: You will be going to jail today.
Laura: No matter what?
Gilchrest: No matter what. I can’t undo the warrant.
Haley: Laura fidgets for a second, runs her hands through her hair and takes a long sip of the coca cola Gilchrest got for her.
Laura: Okay… I knew there was a body in the bathtub.
Haley: Laura just admitted to seeing Jennifer’s body that morning to Gilchrest, something she’d denied up until now.
Laura: What I should have done was called the police. I should have said it’s cool Colton, it’s cool and I should have called y’all, but, the thing is, if I went for my phone Colton had a knife out.
Haley: She tells Detective Gilchrest a new story. This time, when she arrived at Colton’s house that morning they didn’t fight about Colton calling her a ho. Across from the interrogation table, Laura reaches her hand up to look like she is holding a knife.
Laura: He had a silver knife out. That he held to me in the bathroom… to my gut.
Tinu: And that’s when she says she saw Jennifer Cave’s body for the first time.
Laura: Open the shower curtain… There’s a body in the bathtub with a machete on top of it. So he tells me to go home and I… I leave.
Tinu: Laura tells Gilchrest she left the apartment right after that. She also explains that she didn’t call the police when she left because she says Colton knew dangerous people and that he had weapons on him.
Laura: At that point, yeah you’re right, I probably should’ve called the cops that would’ve been an opportunity for me to do that. However…. Two goals: One, get out of this bathroom, get away from the tub. Two, don’t let Colton think you’re gonna call the police.
Haley: Her phone rings a few hours later.
Laura: So he called me back and told me to meet him at Mr. Gattis.
Tinu: Laura tells detectives after eating pizza with Colton at Mr Gatti’s, they head back to his place, together.
Laura: Once again I shouldn’t have gone back there, but like I said I was already too deeply involved. I had already seen the body. My life was in danger. You know what I mean? It was. And I wasn’t going to play games with that.
Haley: Laura says at the time she felt threatened, but also she still couldn’t believe Colton was capable of killing someone. She says she feels horrible admitting to details that make him look guilty.
Laura: I mean at that point I didn’t know if he was guilty or innocent, do you know what I mean?
Gilchrest: Right, and did you think maybe on some level, this is kinda cool?
Laura: Uh, no, haha. Are you crazy?
Gilchrest: That’s what you told us the other day.
Laura: I didn’t tell you I thought the situation was cool.
Gilchrest: No? Kinda cool being with a bad guy…
Haley: Gilchrest asked Laura earlier whether she had a Bonnie and Clyde complex.
Gilchrest: Were you just trying to have an adventure?
Laura: I don’t know what I was trying to do. There were so many different things going on in my mind.
Tinu: Gilchrest leans in towards Laura with one elbow on the table. In the corner, detective Walker keeps his head down, steadily taking notes. They’ve been there for about 2 hours now and Gilchrest is still pushing, asking Laura again to start from the top and again if Colton mentioned anything about what happened between him and Jennifer the night they went to sixth street.
Laura: He said a lot of different things concerning that situation.
Gilchrest: Tell me about it. When you said “what the hell happened?” What did he tell you that happened?
Laura: He said that she called and wanted to come over and he left the door unlocked. He told me that she came in with a gun and started firing rounds at him.
Haley: Gilchrest asks her if she believed that story and if she saw any other signs to corroborate what Colton told her happened with Jennifer.
Gilchrest: Did you see any injuries on him at all?
Laura: His knuckles were hurt.
Gilchrest: Like scraped or cut or?
Gilchrest: Bruised, ok
Haley: Laura tells detectives she left Colton’s place again that evening. But this time, Colton went with her. They drove to Laura’s house to get her luggage. She says this entire time Colton never admitted to shooting Jennifer.
Gilchrest: Do you really think that with everything that you know up to this point, that Colton didn’t do this?
Laura: I’ve been forced to consider the possibility.
Gilchrest: It’s more than a possibility. It’s a fact. And it’s something you’re gonna have to deal with.
Laura: Did he? I mean did he?
Tinu: Laura is getting really emotional by this point. She’s shaking her head and repeating the same question about Colton’s innocence over and over.
Laura: Did he?
Gilchrest: He certainly did.
Laura: He did?
Gilchrest: We don’t just go around putting murder charges on people for no reason. You know..
Laura: I don’t want to believe it
Gilchrest: You need to wake up Laura.
Laura: I don’t want to believe it (crying).
Tinu: Detective Gilchrest keeps pressing for more. He knows Laura’s obsessed with Colton. He’s seen the photo they took together in Mexico. He knows Laura dropped out of her classes at UT while on the run with Colton. And he knows Laura was suspicious of Jennifer and Colton’s relationship. Laura continues to sit with her arms crossed.
Gilchrest: Were you there when he killed her?
Haley: Laura shakes her head no the question about her being there when Jennifer died. Gilchrest reminds her that although tedious, he has to keep asking her these questions to make sure. Detective Gilchrest can’t lean further so Gilchrest inches his chair closer to Laura.
Gilchrest: Did you consciously in any way shape or form to either commit the murder or cover up the murder?
Laura: No…no, I didn’t try to help him cover it up at all, other than what you already know about how I was involved in the Mexico scenario.
Gilchrest: I’ll ask you again… did you kill Jennifer?
Laura, faintly: No.
Gilchrest: Were you present when Jennifer was killed?
Laura, faintly: No.
Gilchrest: You sure? If it came down to it, would you be willing to take a polygraph exam? Just on the question of did you kill Jennifer?
Laura: Yes, absolutely.
Haley: A detective that worked the case told us that the question of a polygraph is often brought up to suspects and witnesses during interrogations to try and get them to open up, but not always used. Laura doesn’t end up doing a polygraph. Laura’s taken to jail right after her interrogation that day. Almost two years later, Laura will sit at a counsel table in the Travis County courthouse with her lawyer, Joe James Sawyer. Her hair will be pinned back. She’ll be sharply dressed in a collared shirt and suit, papers spread out in front of her. In college, it was her dream to be in this spot pursuing a law degree. But instead, she’ll be the defendant in the case and DNA analyst Cassie Carradine will testify to the jury that Laura Hall’s DNA cannot be excluded from the gun… or the hacksaw.
Haley: Joe James Sawyer, or Jim Sawyer, was easy to find.
Tinu: A quick Google search brought his website to the top of our results.
Haley: Sawyer THE lawyer dot com.
Tinu: When we first contacted you about the case, what was the first thing that went through your head? What did you remember first about this case?
Jim Sawyer: This is one of those cases you never really forget. You might forget some of the details, you might forget order of witnesses, but the facts in this case are so horrific and the public reaction was so immediate and so negative that you can’t forget it.
Tinu: He was our first interview when we started reporting on this case. When we met him for the first time, Sawyer was dressed to the nines. From his ostrich skin boots to his well-coiffed hair, he turned heads when he walked into the studio and it’s no surprise that he looked like he was ready for his close up. Sawyer loves the camera. His website is filled with links to T-V specials he’s done for the high-profile cases.
Haley: And he’s had many opportunities to be covered by the media. Before representing Laura, Sawyer represented a defendant convicted of another well-known Austin crime, the yogurt shop murders in the 90s. The case was widely covered by the media and so was Sawyer in his ostrich skin boots. His client, Robert Springsteen, was convicted on four counts of capital murder, but Sawyer helped him get his conviction overturned.
Sawyer: One of my weaknesses is that the more challenging the case, then the more likely I am to take it.
Haley: This case was no different, in fact, this time he wasn’t the only one looking to be on camera. Laura, was too.
Sawyer: There are times that you have clients who simply refuse to listen. Did I ever think that she was incompetent? No, it wasn’t a lack of intellect, it was something else.
Tinu: Laura pulled a lot of stunts throughout her trial, many of which made headlines. She walked into court one day holding the book “Are Men Necessary,” by Maureen Dowd. Another time she showed up with her hair dyed red.
Sawyer: One of the, uh, uh, newspaper reporters asked me, he said, “She comes down the hall, like she’s starring in a movie. What’s this about?” And I said, I don’t know. And I didn’t, but she made everything newsworthy. She certainly kept people’s eyes on us.
Tinu: Sawyer has a steel trap memory, especially when it comes to reciting fantastical personal anecdotes. And he has a lot of these about his time spent representing Laura. We asked him to start from the top.
Tinu: So we want to know about your reaction to the case before you got involved. What did you think when you first heard about the murder of Jennifer Cave?
Sawyer: I knew what everyone else knew. I knew that she had been accused. I knew that there had been an alleged dismemberment of the body. Her head’s been cut off. Her hands had been cut off. They’re in bags. But I think the thing that shocked the jury the most, is that one of them had to have taken her severed head and then used the gun that killed her and fired a bullet through her neck, her severed neck, so that the bullet lodges at the base of her skull.
Tinu: Sawyer walks us through Laura’s trial. It’s scheduled to be eight months after Colton’s. And she’s facing up to ten years for hindering apprehension and tampering with evidence.
Haley: Hindering apprehension means helping Colton flee to Mexico and tampering with evidence meaning being at the crime scene and possibly taking part of the mutilation of Jennifer’s body.
Tinu: Assistant DA’s Bill Bishop and Stephanie McFarland, the same pair who prosecuted Colton, now have the chance to put Laura behind bars. Judge Flowers is presiding again, as he had for Colton’s trial. But this time, he says no cameras.
Sawyer: My duty is to tell my client what I think about the facts. Tell her what I think about the alternatives, but let her choose. Yes, I’m going to tell my client honestly what I think, but then she makes the choice and I carry it out as best I can. Laura wanted a trial and I told her, “ma’am, I will do my absolute best.”
Tinu: So can you tell us a little bit about your strategy approaching this?
Sawyer: My strategy was to use the physical evidence to show them A) that she is as much a victim to Colton Pitonyak as Jennifer Cave was. That he only had to call and she’s there. That, like Jennifer, she can’t say no.
Haley: To prove this to a jury, Sawyer calls Jason Mack to the stand.
Tinu: Jason Mack, Colton’s friend who you heard from just a few episodes ago, knows Laura well and has spent time with her on many occasions, mostly at Colton’s place. One time, she showed up to the Orange Tree looking to get some money she’d loaned Colton. Here’s what Jason says happened that day while on the stand at Laura’s trial.
Haley (as Mack): Colton had been drinking a lot. Pretty much everyone there had been on some kind of drug or another. He was really agitated. He was out of his prescription for Xanax for anxiety and so he was like spazzing out. He went to his drawer, the desk on the left hand of the apartment by his bed, and pulled out the gun. He was like, “this bitch is getting on my fucking nerves. I’m going to shoot her.” I was like, dude, chill out, man. You are saying you’re going to shoot somebody over some — I mean, you owe her money and she’s your friend. You’re going to shoot her? You’re fucking crazy dude.
Tinu: Jason goes on to say that he had to talk Colton down from shooting Laura.
Haley (as Mack): He was like, should I shoot her, and I was like no dude, don’t shoot her for real. It’s not cool, dude. Put the gun away.
Tinu: Sawyer asks Jason where Laura was when he was inside trying to calm Colton down.
Haley (as Mack): She was outside on the steps crying because he had thrown her out, like physically thrown her onto the patio where the pool area is at.
Sawyer: I think she was the product of her life experience. I think she slavishly devoted herself to someone who was everything she wasn’t: brilliant, rich, handsome.
Haley: We know the feeling of being young and in love with someone and wanting to be loved back.
Tinu: The worst of our obsessions lead us to an embarrassing double text or accidentally clicking “like” on their photo from 2010.
Haley: But even Laura’s lawyer says that her feelings for Colton went beyond this.
Sawyer: She was clearly, no one doubted it, obsessed with him. I mean love is the improper word. Obsession I think is the right word.
Tinu: The second part of Sawyer’s strategy is to show the jury who he believes Colton REALLY is. To prove to them that Colton wasn’t just a leather jacket wearing, cigarette smoking cool kid you’d see in a movie. Rather, Sawyer argues that Colton WAS a real life bad guy. He sold drugs, manipulated women and endangered the lives of those close to him.
Sawyer: The facts themselves tell you this guy is such bad news. It’s only a question of time until he injures someone, until he kills someone.
Haley: Sawyer uses examples of Colton’s interests to solidify his bad boy image to the jury.
Sawyer: There was a man who had an episode of the Sopranos sitting on a coffee table that featured the dismemberment of a body in a bathtub. His favorite films featured dismemberment, you know, Scarface. I think Donnie Brasco. And so those were the facts that I wanted to seize on. This was a man who is predisposed to the most evil conduct you could possibly conceive of. That he loved it. He was obsessed with it. If you remember, and if I remember correctly, he had a Scarface poster in the kitchen. I mean everywhere you looked, he had the toy guns, the search for yet an additional weapon, uh, online. Those were the things I wanted to use to persuade a jury that he used everyone around him and that he was dangerous.
Haley: Sawyer also tries to use the physical evidence in Laura’s favor to try to prove that Colton is the only one who could have mutilated Jennifer’s body.
Sawyer: When I had Doctor Peacock on the stand, I was asking her how hard is it ma’am to use a knife to remove a hand? And she said it would take considerable strength and determination. Now she can’t offer the opinion that it was Colton, but she was trying to say yes, this would be extremely difficult. You know, you look at the facts. If he had simply shot that girl and then they left the body, I think then, if you were in Laura’s position, it’s still defensible. But she comes over and no matter how you interpret the facts, the one irreducible fact is, a jury is going to know that when she leaves with Colton, Jennifer’s body has been dismembered.
Tinu: During the trial, the same prosecutors who went to great lengths to try to prove Colton mutilated Jennifer’s body, now shift their attention and the blame… to Laura.
Haley: Bishop and McFarland argue she was smitten and obsessed with Colton and that she would have done anything for him.
Tinu: Including lending him money…
Haley: Standing outside his apartment after he kicked her out…
Tinu: Writing the hardware shopping list and using the hacksaw.
Haley: Bishop and McFarland bring several people to the stand that corroborate her obsession with Colton.
Tinu: Laura’s jail cellmate Henriette Langenbach takes the stand. She tells the jury that while Laura was awaiting her trial in their shared cell, they talked. Langenbach testifies that Laura confessed to her that she helped Colton cut up Jennifer’s body. Langenbach says Laura also told her she had given Colton the shopping list for the hardware store run. She said they planned to dismember Jennifer’s body in order to get rid of anything that could identify her. And that Laura was frustrated with Colton because he wasn’t following through with the plan.
Haley: And that she spoke ill of Jennifer, calling her a quote “fucking waitress ho.” Langenbach says Laura said she would have bragging rights about mutilating a body to her grandkids. This gave Langebach the impression that Laura was in charge of the operation.
Tinu: Sawyer makes the point to ask Henriette Langenbach about her criminal history to try to show the jury that she was an unreliable witness.
Sawyer: In the end did it matter? No. Why? Because of Laura. And I told her once, it’s as if you want to be convicted. If this persists, then disaster lies before us.
Tinu: The prosecutors also call taxi driver Doug Conoley to the stand. Conoley says that in August 2006 he got a call to pick up a girl named Ashley from West Campus. A side note, Laura’s going by her middle name at this time, which is Ashley.
Haley: She needed a ride to her job at Tex-Mex restaurant Baby Acapulcos. Famous for its purple margarita. In a conversation during the ride, Conoley says the girl spoke to him about her legal troubles.
Tinu: The young woman admitted to Conoley that she’s facing charges for harboring a fugitive who she says was her boyfriend. When he asked what crime her boyfriend was in trouble for, she said it was for murder and that the victim was quote “some bitch.”
Haley: She went on to say that the girl caused her a lot of difficulty and that her name was Jennifer Cave.
Tinu: Along with Conoley’s testimony, prosecutors also present the jury with the video of Laura crossing the border into Mexico, Colton in her passenger seat.
Haley: As well as that infamous photo of Laura and Colton smiling on the floor of hotel manager Pedro Fernandez’s home.
Sawyer: There’s a videotape of them crossing into Mexico in her Cadillac and then they have these six days when they’re on the run and she later tells her friend, and I’m quoting, “these were the best six days of my life.”
Haley: DNA becomes a point of contention in the trial.
Tinu: There were four weapons found at the scene.
Haley: A gun, a buck knife, a machete and a hacksaw.
Tinu: All four were tested.
Haley: Tests showed that BOTH Colton and Laura were likely contributors to DNA that was found on the gun, its magazine and the hacksaw left on Jennifer’s body.
Tinu: Only Jennifer’s DNA was found on the buck knife.
Haley: But the state’s DNA expert says with the amount of Jennifer’s blood on the knife, anybody else who touched it would not be able to be identified.
Tinu: Jennifer’s DNA was also on the machete.
Haley: Colton’s DNA was found to be a likely minor contributor.
Tinu: Laura’s DNA was excluded from it. DNA results are a little confusing. We’ll try to walk you through it.
When officials find your DNA on something, your DNA profile is matched against an FBI database that is made up of convicted offenders, certain arrestees, and forensic casework DNA profiles. Additionally, known suspects’ DNA may also be genotyped and compared. Your DNA profile is assigned an estimated frequency at which the DNA profile would be expected to occur in a particular population group.
Haley: For example, when the DNA expert in Colton’s trial talked about the grip of the pistol used in the shooting, he said that Colton could not be excluded as being a contributor to the mixture and that there was a probability of only 1 in 126,500 that a random Caucasian person could have contributed to the mixture. So, there is very strong support that Colton’s DNA contributed to the mixture on the pistol grip, however it is not 100 percent definitive.
Tinu: Dr. Rachel Houston is an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University. She specializes in forensic biology. Dr. Houston helped us interpret the DNA findings in the trial.
Haley: Dr. Houston wrote that depending on the method used to calculate these numbers, they may not be as accurate as they could be and that it’s hard to say definitively without seeing the DNA profile itself. For Laura, the state’s DNA expert says that it is 1,112 times more likely that Laura contributed to the mixture than if an unknown, unrelated individual contributed DNA to the gun grip.
Tinu: The prosecutors say those odds show it was likely her.
Haley: But Sawyer argues that it easily could have been somebody else’s DNA. Laura doesn’t take the stand for her trial. After all the witnesses were heard and closing arguments were made, Laura faced the jury verdict.
Tinu: Ultimately, Laura is found guilty of both charges: Hindering apprehension and tampering with evidence.
Sawyer: If someone asks me what led Laura Hall to being convicted: her words, her words, her words. So do I blame the jury in this at all? Do I think, do I fault him in any way? Absolutely not. I think they did what they had to do. Was I pleased with a punishment verdict in the first trial? Yes.
Tinu: Laura’s sentenced to prison for five years.
Haley: While Laura sits in prison, Sawyer is still working on her case. He discovers that the prosecution made a mistake during Laura’s trial. It turns out, the taxi driver Doug Conoley couldn’t identify Laura in a lineup and Sawyer wasn’t made aware of this.
Sawyer: The many things the state did to conceal evidence, to cheat us out of evidence when it was nonsensical. To this day, I don’t understand why they did it.
Tinu: Based on the new evidence, Laura gets a resentencing hearing.
Haley: Allison Wetzel replaces Bill Bishop as the lead prosecutor.
Sawyer: When it came back for retrial, I faced one of the most capable, brilliant lawyers I’ve ever squared off against. Not only in that occasion, but many occasions. Her name is Alison Wetzel.
Haley: Wetzel was a chief prosecutor in the county’s child abuse division and is especially drawn to this case.
Prosecutor Allison Wetzel: I handled, I think, about a dozen child homicides in my career. So they’re cases with, um, serious injuries, um, terrible damage to victims, things that wreck people’s lives. And I felt like it was my job to care about it and to make the jury understand why they should care.
Sawyer: If you sent Ali to a class on how to cheat, she would fail. She is, she has integrity, but most of all she has an intellect.
Tinu: Between the first trial and the resentencing, Sawyer knew to be wary of what Laura might do or say.
Sawyer: When I found out that Alison Wetzel was going to have the retrial, I knew that I was in trouble. That woman leaves nothing undone, nothing.
Haley: So Sawyer wasn’t surprised when Wetzel called him.
Sawyer: She called me early one morning at home, uh, and said, I found something. And I said, I bet I know what you found. I bet you found a jail call or two, didn’t you? And she said, yes, Jim. But again, no surprise because by then I knew my client and by then I knew her propensity for outrageous statements.
Tinu: Wetzel called Sawyer to let him know that she’d gone through Laura’s jail phone calls and that she would be using some of the audio in court to help make the case against Laura.
Wetzel: There’s a warning at the beginning of every call so that, um, the person on the other end as well as the inmate can tell that this call’s being recorded and may be monitored. And it is just often very surprising what, um, jail inmates will say on the phone. And I think they maybe assume that there’s too many of them and that there’s no way they can listen to every call.
Phone Audio: “Hello this is a collect call from “ASHLEY” an inmate at Travis County Correctional Complex”
Tinu: Five months into her sentence, Laura calls her grandma from prison. She wants to know if she saw the 48 Hours segment that aired the night before, One that she stars in.
Laura: But I was calling because I wanted to see if you saw my show last night?
Arlene Mosely: I did. I did.
Laura: Did you like it?
Mosely: I started to send you an email and say something about it over the email. Well you came on pretty good. You looked good and you came on okay.
Haley: The 48 hours episode is called “In Too Deep.”
Tinu: The title is a reference to something Laura says during her interrogation and a play on words about her love for swimming. Laura stresses to reporters that she had nothing to do with ANY part of the crime and that the only thing she’s truly guilty of is loving the wrong man.
Haley: Laura and host Maureen Maher sit in a dimly lit room for a one-on-one interview. The camera is focused on Laura’s face.
Maureen Maher: It never occurred to you to call the cops? Or your folks? Or your friends or anyone?
Laura: It didn’t seem like a good move. I mean, look, I didn’t know what was gonna happen if I called the police, okay? There was nothing I could’ve done to save her life at that point.
Haley: In her call to her grandma, Laura says that she watched the documentary air from jail and that she felt it wasn’t being as well received as she had hoped.
Laura: This weird lady, this lady that is a counselor here said, she said she hated it and she said…
Laura: … “Honey, I would’ve told them not to air it.” She thinks I come off as phony and arrogant.
Mosely: I didn’t –
Laura: I didn’t see that.
Mosely: I didn’t either.
Laura: I thought I was extremely sincere.
Haley: When the resentencing begins, Wetzel not only has all the witness testimonies from the first trial to use against Laura. This time she also has audio of Laura herself for the jury to hear.
Wetzel: So those jail calls were really a really significant piece of evidence because they gave us such a view into her character and her personality. She talked about her case. She talked about how angry she was. She was so angry at, well, really everyone, but you know, she was very angry at her parents that they wouldn’t post her bond.
Tinu: The phone call you’ll hear is Laura talking to her mom from prison.
Carol Hall: Hi, how are you doing?
Laura: I’m ready to go home.
Carol: Yeah, well, no reason to go on about that because you know that’s not gonna happen anytime soon.
Laura: Loren told me it was gonna happen, so why are you trying to tell me that it’s not?
Carol: It doesn’t make sense.
Laura: What doesn’t make sense?
Carol: First, we spent every penny we had to get you out of jail when…
Laura: Tell me you’re not gonna piss on my good fortune.
Wetzel: Even though she had been warned that they were being recorded. It definitely seemed like she was unguarded.
Laura: But I can’t stay here.
Carol: Well, it’s probably gonna happen that way, Laura.
Laura: I’ll kill you.
Carol: Well, I hope you don’t.
Wetzel: She blamed other people for her being in jail. It was just constantly, she was constantly angry that she was still in jail.
Laura: Post the bond. They know I’m probably getting ready to hang myself with my underwear because they know me and they’ve seen me in action and they know that I’m really at that point. They don’t even give two shits. I think they’d be relieved if I were dead because then they wouldn’t have to pay for me anymore.
Carol: Yeah, I hate for you to feel that way.
Laura: Does it seem that way though?
Carol: I mean, when I look at it from your point of view, yeah.
Laura: And my point of view tends to be negative and ugly and right.
Wetzel: I think the statements that she made that came across worse in the courtroom were the things that she said about Sharon.
Laura: I thought that dead girl’s mom sounded like a real moron.
Mosely: That who did?
Laura: That dead girl’s mom.
Mosely: Yeah, oh yeah.
Laura: That awful SLUT with the blonde hair from the news, and I HATE that woman. I hope she goes to hell, frankly, I will take her there myself if I get the opportunity. And I don’t care who knows. I hope they put that on the seven o’clock news that I said that because I mean it and it’s true. I hate her more than anything alive. And asking me to understand her would be like asking her to understand me and I’m right, so she can do that. But if she can’t then I won’t.
Mosely: Yeah, she needs to.
Laura: She needs to alright, I’ll see to it that she does.
Sawyer: I can truthfully say that with Laura Hall, you could never see it coming. The biggest single difference in that second trial and punishment is that Alison took the hundreds of calls that she had made and widdles them down and there’s one that made it go from five to ten. In my opinion, how on earth could a young girl get on the phone with her mother and her father… and I’m going to repeat what was said for the jury: Mother, who do you blame for this? Laura, that bitch. And when I get out of here, that bitch is going down. And then the father asks, well what about the judge?
Wetzel: We want to play a conversation about some things that she said about Judge Flowers specifically. And the defense objected that it was too prejudicial. So we’re up in front of the bench and Judge Flowers was listening to their objection and they told him that the statement was too prejudicial, but they didn’t tell him what the statement was. So Judge Flowers hadn’t heard the evidence. And so he looked at me and said, “what is it? “And what it was was that she had referred to Judge Flowers as a “motherfucker.”
Sawyer: I was watching that jury and I thought, it’s all over.
Tinu: Laura’s sentence is doubled to 10 years.
Sawyer: All these years later, I have absolute strangers stop me in vain against me asking, how could you do it? I think one of the things that people forget is that just imagine if we created a class of crimes in this country that meant you couldn’t be defended. Then what the hell would we be doing? You know, I explained to a group once when I was in a seminar that if Hitler had survived World War II, we wouldn’t have executed him because we would have created a martyr and fascism might have gone on, unchecked. Instead, we would have tried him. We would have let the world know what he did as we did with the war trials at Nuremberg. I said, so let me ask you, do you think that the tribunal would have appointed the most capable and the most articulate lawyers to represent Hitler or the worst? And the answer is the best, so that there could never be a question he got anything but excellence.
Tinu: So you would take the case, would you change anything about the way you approached it?
Sawyer: If I could change anything, obviously it would be my client’s behavior and her words, But maybe I could find a new way to reemphasize Colton Pitonyak’s behavior, his aberration, the timeline for that evening. And the fact that really no matter what her words, that Laura was a victim. That all of that showing off and her words were just a reflection of her obsession with him. But yeah, I would do it again.
Haley: Laura has served her time in prison and is out now. However, her name is brought up again and again in appeals that Colton Pitonyak’s defense team has been filing since his 2007 conviction and all the way up to today.
Tinu: You’ll hear about those in the next episode.