Episode Seven: Fifteen Years
Tinu Thomas: Laura Hall told us that all of Colton’s appeals that go after her are false, and she doesn’t know what happened to Jennifer. In a Facebook conversation, she wrote:
Haley Butler: “I paid my debt for being a young, vulnerable and easy target for abuse. I was convicted for a crime I had no involvement in. I only aided in his flight from justice. I’m the only one who did not get justice, but I believe—I struggle, oh how I have struggled in God, in my belief system—my God can bring something bright and beautiful after the worst storms.”
Tinu: In the summer of 2019, we found Laura Hall on Facebook. I friended her and sent her a message. And to our surprise… she messaged back.
Tinu: Laura and I chatted through Facebook Messenger. She was released from prison on parole in March of 2018.
Haley: We had hoped to record her voice telling her story , but she didn’t want to do that. What you’ll hear now are some of the conversations Tinu had with Laura, and I’ll be reading Laura’s messages.
Haley (as Laura): Oh no no no no please. That was so long ago, I never discuss it. I lost the case, and I have a new life. I don’t want it to be tainted. At some point this has to be over for me, I beg you, please don’t do this. I’m literally shaking and crying just to read this. Please, please, for me and my family, let me have a new life. I am begging you. Please don’t do this. I just want it to be over…thought it was.
Tinu: Hi Laura, I understand your concerns. We’re doing this podcast because we believe what happened to Jennifer Cave could happen to any girl. And as students ourselves at UT, we feel a deep connection to this story and want to know why this would happen. We want to cover this accurately, fairly and sensitively. To do that, we want to hear everyone’s stories.
Haley (as Laura): I’ll message you tomorrow.
Tinu: We were several months into researching this case. We’d already talked to a bunch of people about Laura’s role in the crime and her trials. We even did some research and found and talked to some of her friends from that time.
Haley: We wanted to get a deeper understanding of who Laura was. We wondered if the person she presented herself as in the media was a front—a character to protect who she really was. We reached out to several people that knew her, and they declined to be on the podcast…
Tinu: …which is why we kept following up with her via Messenger. We wanted to give her an opportunity to tell her story 15 years later—like we were doing for everyone else.
Haley (as Laura): I have left you as a Facebook friend because I assume you copied everything before you messaged me. We will see. I have to think and relax. This has brought up a lot of tears and heartache. I can’t answer tonight. Thank you for at least being cool about it.
Tinu: Totally understand, message me anytime.
Tinu: Laura’s Facebook posts were clear about her trying to integrate back into society. Many were very transparent about her confusion with how social media works. She tried to update friends and family on the last decade of her life through statuses. She also posts about her mental health and daily life.
Tinu: She even did those viral Facebook surveys where you say odd things about yourself. In one, she answered dozens of questions, including:
Tinu: Favorite holiday?
Haley (as Laura): Thanksgiving.
Tinu: Received a ticket?
Haley (as Laura): Yes, several.
Tinu: Watched someone die?
Haley (as Laura): No.
Tinu: When Laura finally messaged me back, she makes something clear: she doesn’t want to rehash that part of her life, and she doesn’t want us to do it either.
Haley (as Laura): I don’t want this to be about me at all, out of respect for everyone, because there are people who probably have their own opinions and wish I was dead instead. Their loss is valid regardless. Let’s keep in touch. This is really hard for me, so I’m sorry for not being, like, more professional or prompt or whatever you might have hoped.
Tinu: Prior to this, her entire personality seemed like a trope in a Lifetime movie. But if we’ve learned anything from making this podcast, it’s that tropes can mask the full story.
Tinu: All we knew about her were these crazy things that we’d heard about. So when we started talking to her, we were really hoping to find out if there was more to it. So we sent her a list of questions we had.
Haley (as Laura): I’m sorry, this is too much for me. After reading these questions, I have no interest in reopening this chapter of my life. I have suffered enough for what Colton did. Of course I had nothing to do with the mutilation, I thought that was a given. I look forward to moving on and can not risk my mental health by rehashing this hell. I wish you the best, and I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help to you. Good luck in your future career.
Tinu: Several months passed. We assumed we wouldn’t hear from her again, but we didn’t stop trying. In the summer of 2019, on our way back from another interview, the two of us and our producer Robert took a detour. We decided to make a visit to the RV park where Laura grew up.
Tinu: As we drove through the hilly, brush-filled countryside, I tried to imagine what it would be like to grow up there. The RV park is in a very small town deep in the Texas hill country. We drove past the RV park twice before we noticed the sign to the entrance. As we turned in, we passed several RV’s nestled between thistles and brush on the large plot of land. Smack dab in the middle was the only non-mobile home, in front of it a sign read “office.”
Tinu: We knocked on the door and waited for someone to answer. A man opened it. He looked a little older than he did in TV coverage…but we knew it was Laura’s dad. We put out our hands, but he wouldn’t shake them.
Tinu: A week before, we’d called to ask him if he was willing to talk. We told Loren who we were and that we were from UT and doing this story. After the first one, he stopped answering our calls. So when he opened the door to two young women and a man wearing a UT baseball cap, we figured he must’ve known. But, he still went through the motions of asking us if we were there to buy an R-V, like he was offering us a get out of jail free card. We said ‘no,’ but that we did want to talk about his daughter.
Tinu: He slowly walked over to the edge of his patio, looking up towards the sky. After a long pause, he finally responded, “I can’t help you.” So we left.
Tinu: Laura’s parents must have told her about us showing up to the RV park, because all of a sudden she’s back in my inbox… and she’s not happy. This is what she wrote:
Haley (as Laura): Please leave my parents alone. They had nothing to do with any of this, and they live in a small community. They are getting older. Please, Tinu, don’t burn me on this. Journalists have awful reputations, but I figured since we’re both Alums maybe you were being straightforward with me. I have been very much so with you. Maybe I can give you some help, if that’s what it takes to keep my entire family out of this.
Tinu: Before we could reply, she kept going, explaining why she was back on social media to begin with.
Haley (as Laura): It’s like this … I lived my entire life as a happy friendly person who was crippled with severe anxiety, ok? After everything was said and done with all of that, I decided no more living in fear. Yes I still have panic attacks, etc., nightmares, the works, but I wanted to reach out to good people I’ve known who support me regardless, and make new friends based on other things, because I have left that behind. It took a huge amount of work, but I’ve had to. I feel very strongly for the now Sedwick family—pray for them, wish them all the best, forgive them for my part—and hope that for their health, they can forgive me.
Tinu: She asked me to step into her shoes.
Haley (as Laura): Just please, consider for a moment in your mind that like we said, I had nothing to do with the mutilation at all. I wasn’t even a party, nor would I have been. Consider the hatred I’ve received, the blame, what a hell a decade in a cage must have been like. Consider that I was/am innocent of those accusations, and imagine how much this has hurt me. Of course, I was a victim too. I can’t express that enough to you. My time was served regardless. It’s supposed to be over for me.
Tinu: And then, in an instant, she seemed worried that she told me more than she wanted to.
Haley (as Laura): Maybe you weren’t the right person to say those things to. I guess it isn’t really your fault or whatever. Maybe your connection with me will help you become a better journalist We’re people, you know, all of us, not tags or labels. Honestly I don’t know what’s up with your project, but I’m kinda curious. Honestly I’d really like for you to tell me what you personally think happened. I’m sorry for all the long, frantic messages. My dad just told me today. He was trying to protect me, because I was protecting him by not sharing about the podcast. I was shaking and sweating all over again. Oddly enough, and maybe stupidly, I’ve enjoyed talking to you, even if some topics did make me
Tinu: I was out of the office that day. Lathered in sunscreen and laying out on the grass in front of a pool with a book when the office came to me. My phone dinged, and I was reluctant to look over, worried it would disrupt my relaxation. Another ding, probably mom again. One more…. And then like 3 in a row. So, I put my book down and my eyes widened as I turned my phone over. It was Laura and she was still typing.
Tinu: She was worried again about the podcast and some other thing. I explained that our goal is to give her a voice in this story, just as we have done for everyone else in it. I explained that several people have talked about her in the podcast, and we wanted to give her the chance to respond to that and tell her own story. She said she didn’t know many other who people who were involved in the case.
Haley (as Laura): They were friends with Colton, and since his whole deal right now is about nailing me, I’m sad but I’m not surprised.
Tinu: Yet again, without a prompt, she begins to talk.
Haley (as Laura): The thing is, it’s become political, so without a signed confession from Pitonyak, which I’ll never get because of his weak character, I’ll never be exonerated. There’s this made up character called Laura Hall that was made out to be some kind of psychopath. Pitonyak has lots of friends and a wealthy family, and I was dealing with untreated PTSD from an unreported sexual assault, beginning with court appointed lawyers. Do the math, you know? I look back and feel only sadness and shame
Tinu: This is what I said: as someone who just graduated college myself, I can see how a young woman would be severely impacted by something like this left untreated, and this story can really help shed light on that for other young women in college. She replied, but not to what I said…kind of just talking out loud.
Haley (as Laura): I’m the only one who did not get justice, obviously you know. Let’s just call him “asshole,” because let’s face it he is, is trying to trade places with me—my freedom for his lifetime in a cage. I can’t risk those rich people coming at me again by speaking publicly.
Tinu: She seemed constantly torn.
Haley (as Laura): You understand my dream was just to be able to live a normal life again, without people talking about me right in front of my face, or even knowing. I crave anonymity. I require it because I wasn’t acquitted. The more I appear in the media, the more views stuff gets. Do you see my dilemma?
Tinu: She said previous journalists had burned her. Speaking of… the 48 Hours documentary she did in her early 20s was still on her mind.
Haley (as Laura): I mean, I said what I said on 48 Hours way back when as best I could, though I was too frozen with anxiety to really do well. I was so scared, right? And that did not help me.
Tinu: We tried a few more times to get her to talk on tape for this podcast, but she was worried about having her voice recorded—we assume because of what happened with her phone calls from jail.
Haley (as Laura): I’m scared of the phone. We’ll see. I definitely don’t want to do anything live, voice or otherwise. There are certain things I would tell you if I thought it could make a difference in how things were presented or in a way add my voice without actually adding my voice. Yes, there are a few things I would like to address, based on what I’m guessing you’ll be hearing from, but just wait for it. I want to get it all out in one run, after this weekend.
Tinu: So we waited…And waited…And waited. No response. So, we messaged her again, reiterating as we had before that if there was anything she wanted to say about the case today or in the past, this was the time to do it. She didn’t respond for a while…. And the next time we heard from her, she said she had decided for sure that she didn’t want to be recorded, and from here on out, she wanted to let her former lawyer Jim Sawyer speak for her. You heard from him in episode 5. He said he still believes she is innocent of this crime.
Tinu: Months passed. Laura surprised me by messaging me on Facebook even though she last told me to address all questions to her lawyer. She asked how the podcast was going (pretty good) and she again denied that she had anything to do with Je nnifer’s death or the mutilation of Jennifer’s body. We had told her earlier we would use the conversations I’ve had with her in this podcast. I saw her reaching out again as a chance to make sure she understood what that meant..
Tinu: Laura, what you’ve told me so far on here has greatly informed my perspective. In fact, we’re already planning to include a lot of what you said, quoting it directly so as not to twist your words, into our script.
Haley (as Laura): I thought I might end up quoted, which I’m actually fine with. I hope it comes out as not crazy. I ought not speak further for my safety. Just know that I had nothing to do with anything other than driving him and that I wish I hadn’t. I’m sorry.
Tinu: Laura does not live in Texas, and by court order, isn’t allowed to be in Travis County.
Haley: Colton remains in prison in Abilene, Texas, serving his 55 year sentence. In the meantime, he daydreams about pursuing his goals training in martial arts. He says he still has anxiety, but now he handles it with yoga and breathing exercises. His parents even found him a school that would work with prisoners so he could finish his degree in Sports Nutrition.
Haley: Since the beginning, Eddie and Bridget have believed in their son’s innocence. They talk frequently on the phone and visit Abilene when they can from Little Rock. Bridget and Colton discuss the books they have been reading and catch up what’s going on within the family. Eddie and Colton talk sports, and Eddie catches Colton up on the most recent MMA fight.
Eddie Pitonyak: Yeah, we’re not, we’re not giving up, if you know me very well, I’m pretty hard headed.
Bridget Pitonyak: We never give up.
Eddie: We’re just stuck with, and you know, in our long lives we’ve been through some ups and downs through the years. Of course, this was a big one, but we’re not giving up. Something—I keep feeling like something’s going to happen. Maybe from this podcast, right. A person may listen to it, you know, I don’t know what can happen, but maybe some—somebody out there I feel like is gonna do something, you know, to get to the truth. We’ll get a new trial. Fine. Find him guilty? That’s fine. But I don’t think so. With all the evidence we’ve got right now. I mean, if they just look at it. I—it’s unreal if somebody did.
Bridget: You know, we’re gonna keep fighting. We’re gonna keep fighting until Colton is sitting at my dinner table.
Tinu: Although there are understandable hard feelings between the two families, Bridget told us this unprompted.
Bridget: We have a deep, genuine sympathy for Sharon and the family, and we want them to know that no mother should have to lose a child, especially in a tragic way.
Tinu: Here’s Colton:
Colton: I want everybody to be able to move on, and I don’t wanna, like, keep this going—keep reopening scabs and stuff like that. But, I would think everybody would want to know what actually happened, and, uh, you know, just, I mean, it’s not cool we got a conviction, you know? And I think, I don’t know, it’s just, I think people know—you know I don’t know what they think and what they think about it—if they think justice has been done and that … you know, that I’m back in the news and, like, ‘ oh look, you know, this scumbag just can’t let it lie and let us live in peace’, you know. And if they think that, or if they have doubts in their mind. I don’t—I don’t know how they think, you know. But, I think at the end of the day, that, you know, there’s gotta be—there’s gotta be some kinda, some truth, to come out.
Haley: Sharon and Jim say the appeals have been hard on their family. They believe justice was served.
Sharon Cave: In our case, we know justice was done. We’ve got sentences, people are in jail. I hate the word closure, so there is an end to that aspect of it…so closure is not a really good word. There are different steps that are ending. One of these days, I hope, we’re finally through with trials and hearings.
Jim Sedwick: We are.
Haley: Sharon and Jim told us they participated in this podcast so they could have some control over Jennifer’s story. True to character, they also hope it will help others.
Jim: If one college student listens to this and decides ‘you know, I don’t think I’m gonna do this’ or ‘I’m not gonna do that, and save somebody’s life’… it’s worth it. And, you know, I’d love for young ladies y’all’s age that might listen to this to say ‘I been hanging out with old so and so, maybe—maybe that’s not such a good idea.’ And if that could happen, then this is all worthwhile.
Sharon: You don’t have just five senses, you have a sixth sense. And that sixth sense, if you will just stop and listen to it, it will really guide you.
Haley: Sharon has returned to Door 88 at The Orange Tree multiple times over the years since the crime. She knocks, but no one answers.
Sharon: I’m still looking for the answer. I’ve even gotten out, walked up the door and knocked on the door looking for the answer. It’s not there. I’ve looked. I have looked to see if the window got fixed. I did look the first time I went, I went to see if the window had been fixed. But, I went looking for the answer. It’s not there.
Tinu: As Sharon held her daughters in the courtroom during Colton’s sentencing, she remained strong for them. But for Sharon, it wasn’t enough to extend her strength to her family. As she glanced around the courtroom, she saw others that could use her help as well—the jury, who had to hear the gruesome details of Jennifer’s death.
Haley: Jennifer’s sister, Lauren Cave, remembers this specific moment at Colton’s trial.
Lauren Cave: Like there’s one girl in particular that was, like, young and she had a very hard time with it and, and I just—it made sense at the time. It was just like, wow, when you, ‘cause you don’t know these things whenever you get thrust into, um, this type of experience of going and sitting through a trial, like, you don’t know, that there’s not any recourse for jurors. Um, you know, a mother’s instinct, I imagine, is well, we’re gonna fix this because we’re not gonna let somebody else experience this pain. Um, and so, I think that that was her way of kinda coping—of well, if I can’t do it for my kid anymore, then I’m gonna have to try and figure out a way to do it for someone else.
Haley: Sharon’s instinct to help was met with her strong will to take action. When she made up her mind to help the jury, she wanted to help every jury member in Texas who has to deal with processing difficult information. She went to her Texas state representative, Juan Garcia. Together, they drafted legislation to help create change that Sharon wished she saw during the original trial.
Juan Garcia: There’s really two components of Jennifer’s Law, and the first piece that Sharon raised was, as traumatic as it was for her, she felt the jurors—the everyday citizens, fellow Texans—who had gone through this as well were wrestling with some of the same things she was. The irony being that while the trial is going on, that most human way of dealing with something traumatic—being able to talk to your friends and your loved ones—of course they couldn’t do during the trial, right. They were sequestered and unable to share what they see.. So, the first part of Jennifer’s Law was to offer and formalize the treatment and counseling that jurors who’ve been a part of graphic, sexual violence cases can seek help and have some aid in making the transition back to everyday life. The second piece, of course, of course, is the shocking news, that I think was a revelation to so many of us, about the desecration of a corpse. And the fact that at the time in Texas, depending on circumstances, it could still just be a misdemeanor. It was really just left over from the old, uh, grave robbery date.
Haley: Sharon was heavily engaged in the process from the very beginning.
Juan: Absolutely, she was. She was into the weeds on every comma and period of that legislation. She essentially, I think she would say, that she essentially became a part of our staff and became very close with, uh, to this day.
Tinu: The Jennifer Cave Act was passed with bipartisan support in July 2007—two years after Jennifer’s death. It made the standard of punishment for mutilation harsher and applicable to crimes like this one in Texas. Because it passed after the original trials in this case, it did not affect the outcome of Colton or Laura’s convictions. A 2009 amendment to this law served to give juries on cases of crimes like this one the opportunity to get counseling.
Haley: Lauren and Jennifer spent every night together in their shared room in their childhood home. In high school, the sisters got separate rooms, but most nights Lauren and Jennifer would fall asleep in the same bed…and Lauren says she preferred it that way. Eventually, Jennifer moved to Austin and Lauren found her way to the University of North Texas, but the four-hour driving distance didn’t keep the sisters apart. They called each other weekly and talked on the phone for hours on end. After Jennifer died, the habit of dialing Jennifer’s number was still ingrained on Lauren’s finger tips.
Lauren: It took a very, very long time after that to really accept and understand that Jennifer was gone. Like, it, it felt almost like throughout that process that she was going to, like, take the stand and be like, ‘let me tell you what really happened.’ And I know that sounds insane, but, like, it just, I kind of always was like, oh, well, like, you know. It just took really, it took me a very long time to really accept that she was dead. And I don’t know what it, I can’t really, I mean I feel like I remember once upon a time that I remembered whenever, um, I finally felt like, oh no, she’s gone. And, but I mean I would call her cell phone a lot just to hear her voice.
Lauren: There’s never been an instance in my life where I’m like, oh, everything’s okay now…’cause it’s not, I mean, my life is amazing. I, I have had a lot of amazing experiences, but every time I have an amazing experience, I can’t help but think like, ah, God, I really, really wish Jennifer would have gotten to do this in life. Like every point of my life that has been exciting or cool or, you know, any success that I’ve had or anything like that, I just constantly am thinking: man, I wish Jennifer would’ve gotten to do this.