Book: A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder
Author: Kathryn Casey
Review: I lived in Austin right before this tragedy happened so I thought it would be an interesting read. First off, the title of this true crime novel is misleading. Jennifer Cave was a cheerleader many years before the murder happened and Colton Pitonyak was several years removed from his days as an altar boy. The title should reference something about the dangers of drugs.
Cave, a pretty redhead, grew up in Texas and became a party girl in high school. She moved to San Marcos and later Austin for college, dropping in and out of classes while moving from job to job. Colton Pitonyak was an upper middle class kid from Arkansas who moved to Austin for a scholarship at University of Texas' business school. Pitonyak quickly spiraled downward into the drug scene, both using and selling. These two met at a party and developed an unhealthy relationship. Pitonyak wanted to date Cave, while she kept him in the friend zone and used him for free drugs. Cave told friends on numerous occasions that she didn't feel safe around Pitonyak and foreshadowed her own fate that he would one day kill her. Her concerns proved correct when their relationship ended in tragedy. After a night of partying on 6th Street, Pitonyak killed Cave, dismembered her body and attempted to flee to Mexico with his crazy pseudo girlfriend, Laura Hall. Pitonyak was quickly caught and convicted of murder while Hall was convicted of tampering with evidence.
This was my first Kathryn Casey book and I like the general way it was arranged. A background on the key players and the events leading up to the crime were the first half, while the back half focused on the court case. I knew nothing about the case prior to reading this so I had no preconceived notions. The general writing style was almost too casual for my taste but it was very readable.
It is clear that Casey did a lot of research and became extremely close to the Jennifer Cave's mother, almost too closer perhaps. Almost every person who interacted with Jennifer thought she was the sweetest person ever, while Colton was practically portrayed as the devil. There was some attempt to humanize Colton during his time in Austin but it seemed halfhearted (In Casey's defense, I think his parents declined to be interviewed for the book). While I have no doubt that Jennifer was a sweet person, it is clear she was a drug addict (a fact her mother seemed unable to admit) who would have been homeless if not for the charity and kindness of her friends. She engaged in reckless behavior that was alarming, including several months before her murder, she was living with her boyfriend and doing drugs while his young daughter was napping. She was attempting to clean up her life and started a new job at a law firm the day before her murder. Her mother believes she was turning everything around-we'll never know the truth but I think the depth of her addiction too great for her to quit on her own willpower. Colton certainly seemed so deep into his addiction that his endgame was prison by one means or another.
I also disagree with Casey's theory on how the murder happened. At his trial, Colton claimed he was high on meth for a week and does not remember killing Jennifer, but must have by accident because she was his friend and he had no reason to kill her. Prosecutors were never able to determine a motive. Casey claims the motive was that Colton wanted a romantic relationship with Jennifer and she didn't (I would think that the detectives assigned to the case would have asked that question when interviewing witnesses). Casey's hypothesis is that Colton forced Jennifer to his apartment with a knife, she told him she was trying to break out of the drug scene, did not want to date him and he shot and murdered her. I believe she went to his apartment willingly to do drugs (pot and meth were found in her system) and he shot her by accident. She was shot in the arm and the bullet then traveled to her chest and killed her immediately. His attorney's didn't seem to highlight this fact but it seems odd that someone would purposefully try to kill someone by shooting them through the arm. His actions following her death are incomprehensible and it is shameful that under the Texas penal code they only warrant a misdemeanor. The extent of Hall's participation in the dismemberment will never been known (her DNA was found on only four items in Colton's apartment related to the crime but she bragged about her actions to several 'friends' including making statements about the case on facebook of all places). It is frightening to think that Laura Hall will be out of prison in just a few years.
My heart goes out to both the Cave family and Pitonyak family. I cannot imagine the horror of a child being taken before their time in such a manner, nor knowing that you raised a child who could do something like this to another human being. As a parent, this book resonated with me. I have two young children and the drug use/abuse by Jennifer, Colton and their various friends is absolutely frightening.