Produced by Chuck Stevenson, Jenna Jackson, Anthony Venditti and James Stolz
(This story originally aired March 20, 2010. It was updated on Dec. 18.)
In the summer of 2005, police were called to an apartment in Austin, Texas. Inside, a woman's body lay in the bathtub; her hands and head severed. Police would soon learn the butchered victim was 21-year-old Jennifer Cave.
For Travis County Prosecutor Bill Bishop, the case is indelible.
"As far as murders go, this is a very clean murder. He shot her through the arm, bullet traveled into the chest, through the heart pretty much killing her instantly. It was the post-murder behavior that made it so grotesque.
"The mutilation was anger... it wasn't any effort to hide the body or get rid of the body. It was just playing with it, like it was toy," Bishop tells "48 Hours Mystery" correspondent Maureen Maher.
The apartment belonged to Colton Pitonyak, a University of Texas business student. But Colton was nowhere to be found.
"The kitchen I think was the oddest room to me because it was sparkling clean," Bishop tells Maher.
"Really? A boy's dorm room was sparkling clean? His kitchen?" Maher asks in disbelief.
"Even looked like the floors had been mopped. They found a machete that was in the dishwasher."
Police urgently needed to know everything about Colton and Jennifer.
"I have never heard anyone say anything but that she was one of the nicest people they knew," Bishop says of Jennifer.
But as the investigation grew, the most intriguing player would be Laura Hall.
"In your mind you're 100 percent convinced that Laura Hall was absolutely a part of the dismemberment and mutilation?" Maher asks.
"I believe she was," Bishop replies.
"48 Hours" has been following Laura Hall's case since 2005, and yet it is still difficult to know just exactly who Laura is or what role she played that awful August night in Austin. The events are so hard to believe. And many say, so is Laura.
As Laura tells it, she had nothing to do with the horrific crime. But she admits she is guilty of falling in love with the wrong man. "Oh, I loved the guy," she says. "I loved Colton Pitonyak."
Laura and Colton met at a party in the spring of 2005. She was also a student at UT, a government major with hopes of becoming a lawyer.
"I was really attracted to Colton from the beginning. I thought he was a very sexy guy. He was hot. We immediately just got together. Right away. It was great," she says smiling. "We would spend days together at a time. We'd just stay in the house all day. Yeah," she continues with a laugh, "I felt I was on top of the world when I was with Colton."
"Until you get to know Colton," she continues, "you can't see on the surface that there's something wrong underneath."
So without knowing anything was wrong, Laura says she showed up at Colton's apartment just before dawn on Aug. 17, 2005. He'd called her saying he needed to talk.
"He answered the door really kind of paranoid and fearful. And I'm kind of like, sitting up, 'Colton, what's the deal, what's going on?' I'm kind of starting to freak out a little bit. And he says, 'Come here. Come here.'"
Laura says Colton led her into the bathroom.
"There was a dead woman curled up in his bathtub. And I said. 'That's a mannequin.' I mean, that's how much I did not believe or wanna believe... I was like, 'Man, oh my God, you know, 'What happened?'"
Laura says Colton had been drinking and says he didn't remember what had happened.
"I remember him goading me out of the bathroom with a knife that had blood on it up to the hilt... The last thing you wanna think is this person that I've had sex with has, you know, killed somebody. So you kind of want to know, who came in here and did this? And the other thing you kind of think is, 'Well, there's one. Am I next?'"
But then, surprisingly, Laura says Colton just let her go.
Laura says she went home. "I mean I still - I was in denial, OK."
Asked if it never occurred to her to call police, family or friends, Laura says, somewhat defensively, "It didn't seem like a good move. I mean, look, I didn't know what was gonna happen if I called the police, OK? There was nothing I could have done to save her life at that point."
Maher asks, "Did you have any concern for the girl who was dead?"
Laura sighs before answering. "I wasn't able to even process - and even today, I have not processed the emotions. I didn't know who she was."
Jennifer Cave grew up in Corpus Christi, in a family of five girls. She had spent time in Austin as a student, but was about to start work at a law firm.
"At about 3 o'clock, the law firm called me," says her mother, Sharon Sedwick. "And they said, 'Jennifer has gone to work for us.' And I'm like, 'Oh yes, I know.' I said, 'She's so excited.' I said, 'Thank you so much for giving her this opportunity.' And it kind of got quiet. And he said, 'Well, there's a problem,' and he said, 'We're concerned." He said, 'Jennifer didn't come to work today.' And I said, 'What?'"
Sharon says she knew something was wrong. "That's just not who Jennifer was. If Jennifer told you she was going to be somewhere at 8 o'clock, Jennifer was there at 8 o'clock."
Sharon began frantically calling around to find her daughter and discovered Jennifer had been out with Colton. When she finally got Colton on the phone, he told her nothing.
"Colton's going, 'No man, I don't know. I haven't seen her. I don't know what you're talking about.' And I'm like, 'Were you with Jennifer?' 'Oh man, no, I wasn't with her. Well, yeah, I saw her for a few minutes, but no I wasn't with her,' and he hung up."
Jennifer's stepfather, Jim Sedwick, also spoke with Colton.
"Hey dude, I'm eating pizza, don't bother me any more. Quit calling me,'" Jim remembers Colton saying.
Sharon and Jim decided to head to Austin hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.
"I remember that night - when we were trying to figure out what we were gonna do and getting some clothes packed. We stood right here in [the] hallway. And I looked at Jim and said, 'This is gonna be really bad, isn't it?' And he said, 'Yeah, I'm afraid it could be.'"
The next day, Aug. 18, 2005, Sharon and Jim Sedwick hit the highway and raced four hours from Corpus Christi to Austin, and straight to Colton Pitonyak's apartment. He was the last person to be seen with their daughter, Jennifer Cave.
It was early evening by the time they arrived. They found Jennifer's car nearby.
Sharon says, "We start knocking on the door and we knock on the windows and we walk around the apartment seeing if there was a back door."
"We're really getting scared that something bad has happened inside that apartment," says Jim.
At around 8 p.m., Jim calls 911, but when the cops arrive, they wouldn't break in without a search warrant. So after they left, Jim muscled his way in through a window.
Jim says the place was completely dark. "All I had was a flashlight. I just started crawling through the window trying to push the drapes out of my way. And I was yelling, I said, 'Please don't hurt me. I'm here to help you. I'm not here to hurt anybody. This is Jim.'"
He says the place looks like a wreck, as if there had been a struggle. Jim tells Sharon to wait on the porch to protect her from what he feared he might find inside.
"So I kept going down this hallway, and then there was another door on my left which was closed. And I opened that door. It had the light in there. It appeared to be a bathtub, and I was seeing something. So I flipped the light switch on... and there she was," he remembers.
Jim had found Jennifer... or what was left of her.
After calling 911, police raced back to the apartment and began the search for Colton. They quickly found out something they didn't expect. Colton was not your typical clean-cut business student. He had a serious problem with drugs, especially cocaine. He was also a small-time dealer.
"He held himself out as a gangster," Prosecutor Bill Bishop says. "I mean he had all the 'Scarface' posters."
Colton also had a collection of gangster movies. "'Donnie Brasco' and 'Goodfellas' and a series of movies that involved dismemberment," Bishop says. "I know one of them involves dismemberment with a machete."
Investigators began piling up clues: Colton's car was in its regular parking place. Inside, was the gun they believed to have been used to kill Jennifer Cave. And before long, something else became clear: Colton's sometime girlfriend, Laura Hall, had also disappeared.
Loren and Carol Hall desperately tried to reach their daughter.
"This guy's who's - apparently he - he's killed Jennifer Cave and mutilated her body- he's got my daughter. He's got my daughter," Loren Hall recalls thinking at the time.
Finally, they got through to Laura's cell phone. Laura told them she had crossed the border into Mexico with Colton.
"She told me, 'Dad, Colton's killed someone and they found a body.' I heard this rustling, like someone's grabbing the phone from you. And that's when I said, 'Man, you need to turn yourself in,' and he goes, 'Your daughter had nothing to do with this. You need to get her out of here.' I thought, 'Yeah, I'm very aware of that. You need to get her out of there.' She looks just like Jennifer Cave. Who's gonna be next?" Loren says.
Laura's parents say they feared Colton was going to kill their daughter.
"We thought we'd never see her again," says Carol.
"Colton flipped out," Laura explains. "He wanted to get out of town. He ended up saying, 'Take me to Mexico,'" Incredulously, she adds, "So, I did."
Laura says she was afraid for her life, and that's why she drove him to Mexico. "I was trying to stay alive."
Laura Hall says she didn't have a plan on what to do next after getting to Mexico, and that she didn't know what Colton Pitonyak was planning. "He was incoherent and in a sense, so was I. We were in no condition," she explains.
Colton and Laura fled Austin 16 hours after the murder. They drove Laura's dark green Cadillac some 200 miles to the Mexican town of Piedras Negras, a quiet border town just on the other side of Eagle Pass, Texas.
They weren't in Mexico for long. After five days, they were nabbed by a Mexican SWAT team and handed over to American authorities.
Back in Austin, Colton Pitonyac was charged with murder on Aug. 23, 2005. Laura was not arrested, but when police questioned her, she was less than cooperative.
"It was just too soon. I had just gotten away from him. I mean, I wasn't ready to be rational yet," she explains to Maher.
Asked what she told police, Laura says, "Just that I thought we were on vacation, I don't know anything about it, Colton's a great guy and he didn't do it."
"And that was a lie?" Maher asks.
"Of course," Laura admits.
Three days later, Laura was questioned again. "I know what's coming," she tells Maher. "Like I already know. They're gonna do something and you're not gonna like it."
Laura was arrested and later charged with "hindering apprehension" for her role in Colton's escape. Police didn't believe Laura's story that Colton had forced her to drive him to Mexico.
"I did not want to go to jail. I can't go to jail," Laura tells Maher. "That's just a whole new set of nightmares coming at me that I'm not ready to deal with."
Laura agrees to talk to police, but initially holds back. The interrogation lasts nine grueling hours.
In the end, Detective Mark Gilchrest finally gets Laura to give up the gruesome details. She admits that she saw the body in the bathtub, but claims it was Colton's idea to dismember it.
"He said he was gonna cut up the body and get rid of it," she told the detective.
Asked if Colton had asked her to help him, Laura tells the detective, "No! He told me to get out of there."
"I think that people are going to look at this and they're going to see how articulate you are, and they're going to say, 'OK, either this girl is really stupid or she's a sociopath," says Maher. "With all due respect, which one is it?"
"Well it's neither," she replies. "I'm definitely not a sociopath."
But Laura does admit to a problem with men.
"I'm stupid with men. I'm absolutely stupid with them," she says. "I didn't want to hurt him, which ... sounds kind of sick... Looking back, everything that came out of that man's mouth was a lie or a game or a trick. And he didn't care who got hurt in the process."
"I definitely feel like my life is closing in on me right now," Laura says of her situation. "I feel this huge weight of pressure - a dark cloud around me that is the police and the District Attorney's office that could snatch away what I have at any second. So like, I definitely feel shackled."
From September 2005, when she was arrested, until Colton Pitonyak's trial in January 2007, Laura Hall stood by Colton.
Prosecutor Bill Bishop believes the evidence against Colton was very strong.
"You'll hear that Ms. Cave died as a result of a gunshot through the arm and the torso of her body," Bishop tells the court. "You'll hear after her death she was dismembered. Her hands removed. Her head removed."
"We knew him to be the only person in her company that evening once they left Sixth Street, the location obviously of her body being in his apartment," Bishop tells "48 Hours." "He went to a hardware store and bought cleaning supplies such as ammonia and Febreze, masks, gloves and a hacksaw.... The clerk asked him what he needed a hacksaw for and he said he was frying a turkey and needed a hacksaw to cut it up because it was frozen."
When he took the stand, Colton said he couldn't remember what happened that night. He claimed he was strung out on drugs and alcohol.
Asked how he got back to his apartment, Colton said, "I assume Jennifer took me."
And he couldn't he explain the shooting. "I have no idea what happened that night."
But Colton's mental fog apparently began to lift a few hours after the shooting; coincidentally, right around the time Laura Hall showed up at his door.
Colton testifies, "I can't remember exactly what I told her, but I showed her Jennifer's body."
"And what did she say?" the attorney asks.
"She just said, 'What are we gonna do?'"
And for the first time, Colton started shifting the blame. Except for the murder itself, he blamed Laura for almost everything.
In court, Colton says he did not cut Jennifer's body with the knife." There's no way I would have done what was done."
"Of course he remembers all that - then incriminates me and nothing about his own actions," Laura comments sarcastically.
Laura says he's lying and that she had nothing to do with the dismemberment.
But the jury never heard Laura's side of the story. On the advice of her lawyer, she never took the stand at Colton's trial. It's something she regrets.
"I had no idea he was going to do what he did," she says.
Colton Pitonyak was found guilty and sentenced to 55 years in prison.
Then, it was Laura's turn.
"I am accused of some unspeakable things. I am facing 10 years in prison for mutilating a body. Colton did that. I want people to look at me for what I am. They have just created a fictional character and put my name on it. Everyone has pointed their finger at me," she says.
In February 2009, in a surprising twist, Laura Hall is released from jail because a court ruled her sentencing hearing wasn't fair. She's out on bond while prosecutors fight to put her back in jail.
It was an appeals court in Austin set Laura loose. It upheld her conviction, but threw out her five-year sentence. She will get a new sentencing hearing. It all has to do with the testimony of a taxi driver in Laura's original sentencing hearing, who swore Laura was a passenger in his cab.
"And in making the small talk people do, he found out her boyfriend was accused of murder," Laura Hall's lawyer, Joe James Sawyer explains. "And he inquired, 'Oh, who is he accused of killing, Miss?' The answer in the presence of that jury, quote, 'Some bitch.' End quote. 'Some bitch.' I watched my jury and I saw women and men flinch at that answer."
Sawyer knew the cabbie's description of such callous and cold behavior was deadly. "And then they ask him, 'Can you identify that woman in court today?' 'Why yes,' he said, 'She's sitting right there by Mr. Sawyer.' And that would be Laura Hall."
Asked if the cab driver is lying, Laura tells Maher, "I never said that to him. He's certainly mistaken, if not flat out lying, yes."
As it turns out, the cab driver actually failed to identify Laura when investigators showed him a photo lineup. And then, it got worse when the district attorney failed to tell Laura's attorney about that - which was a significant legal mistake.
Prosecutor Bill Bishop was held accountable. "Mistakes were made," he says. "But it certainly wasn't a pattern of misconduct or an attempt to railroad or conspire against Miss Hall, as Mr. Sawyer would have you believe."
Because of the DA's mistake, Laura will be sentenced again. She could get more time or be let go permanently.
All along, Laura would continue to fight a current of public rage that she believed was sweeping away her very life.
"I think my life has been destroyed," she says. "I think if people set out to kill me, done. ...I can't live in Austin. I can't live in Texas."
And it is about to get much worse. "We have new evidence that we've developed that establishes that Colton was not responsible even for the killing," Joe Turner tells Maher. Turner says he "never did" believe that Colton Pitonyak shot Jennifer Cave.
Colton's lawyer suggests Laura Hall murdered Jennifer Cave. Her motive: jealousy.
"It's impossible for me to have been jealous of Jennifer Cave because I not only didn't know her, but I didn't know she existed," Laura tells Maher. "I'm innocent of all this. This was Colton's mess."
But according to Pitonyak's lawyer, once in jail, during a group therapy session, Laura told other inmates she is in fact the killer.
"They stated that during the group that inmate Hall confessed to the murder of Jennifer Cave," Turner explains.
But Laura has a strong alibi: at the time of the murder, she said she was staying with a friend - a friend who backed up her story in court.
"The state itself says she didn't get there until in the morning. Do you think for one moment that if the state could plausibly have put her at the scene, it would not have done so?" Hall's attorney asks.
"Did you have anything to do with the dismemberment of Jennifer's body?" Maher asks Laura.
"Absolutely nothing to do with it," she replies.
"Did you have anything to do with the murder?"
"No! God, no."
But Jim and Sharon, Jennifer's parents, weren't surprised by these latest accusations, because Laura Hall had frightened them since the first minute they saw her.
"The thing that I am most fearful about is that she will choose my family to yet again hurt," Sharon says. "She's a psychopath. I mean, when you look at Laura, there is nothing there. At all. Nothing. There is no soul."
Two scenarios were in play now and both were nightmares for Jim and Sharon. Colton Pitonyak was fighting for a new trial and Laura Hall was now fighting to clear her name.
The next legal chapter in Laura Hall's life is about to be written.
As for Colton Pitonyak, his appeal for a new trial was denied. The court rejected his claim that it was Laura - not him - who committed the murder.
"I am innocent of the murder. I'm innocent of the mutilation. I'm innocent of all that," Hall insists. "Did I drive him across the border? Yes. Am I guilty of being in love with him stupidly? Yes."
It is that bad love that forever binds Laura to Colton, and brands her, right down to the tattoo of his name on her ankle, which she got after that trip to Mexico.
"When I got the tattoo, I was still in love with him," she says. "I felt he was innocent. I felt bad for him. I felt that he didn't really do this, you know. And I was on his side, I'm sorry to say."
On Colton's side. The troubled young man seemed to somehow draw people in. Sharon Sedwick says her daughter, Jennifer Cave, was on Colton's side, too.
"Part of Jennifer's nature," she says, "is she had a real problem with stray dogs. And I'm not talking the four-legged kind."
But Sharon sensed Colton was nothing but bad news, and had begged her daughter not to get involved with him. "I'm like, 'Jennifer, please, just don't - just stay away from that,' and she's like, 'Mom, he's my friend, and he needs my help.'"
So that is how Jennifer Cave ended up going out with Colton Pitonyak on that last night of her life. Colton had reached out to her, and as usual, Jennifer responded.
"Colton called her, he said, 'You know, I really need a friend. Would you please help me? I just want to see you for a little bit. I'll take you to dinner to celebrate your new job.' And Jennifer would fall for that line every time. 'I need a friend,'" says Sharon.
Jennifer paid for that friendship with her life.
In June 2010, four-and-a-half years after Jennifer's murder, Laura Hall is back in court to be sentenced again for her crimes: for helping Colton escape and tampering with evidence - the body of Jennifer Cave.
"I spent 21 months in jail for things I didn't do," Hall says. "What more do you want?"
Now it's up to a new jury to determine whether Laura is put back behind bars or if she walks free.
"She is a convicted felon, and it's no longer about whether or not she's guilty," Prosecutor Bill Bishop says. "It is now about the appropriate sentence."
"The best thing they can do is let me go and get on with my life," says Laura.
But the prosecution sees it differently.
"We are asking for 10 years. We are asking for 10 years because that's all we can ask for - that's the maximum we can ask for. Make no mistake, we want it all," the prosecution argues.
Once again, Jennifer Cave's parents must sit through the gruesome details of her murder and dismemberment. And to add to their pain, Jennifer's mother now finds herself threatened by Laura Hall.
What Laura didn't count on was that while she was in jail, the authorities were recording her every phone call... conversations that would come back to haunt her:
"I'm a sociopath. What? Because I don't feel sorry for Sharon?
"I don't know how and I don't know when, but she's goin' down. She f-----d with the wrong girl."
"I'm pretty mad. There are a lot of people that are gonna pay for this. ...And I know everyone who's responsible."
But Laura Hall's attorney implores the jurors to make their decision based on reason, not emotion.
"You may dislike her ... is that reason that we punish?" Joe James Sawyer tells the court. "We punish people for what they really have done... Not because of what we think of them, not because we dislike them. Not because they say despicable things. They answer for their actions."
It takes the jury five-and-a-half hours to make its decision. Laura is found guilty and sentenced to 10 years - the absolute maximum the law will allow for her crimes, and twice as long as her original sentence. In the end, it may have been Laura's own callous words that did the most damage.
"Do I feel justice has been done? Do I feel like the system has worked? Yes," Sharon Sedwick replies to a reporter following the verdict. "Satisfied? How can you be satisfied when your child is gone - when your child is dead. There is no satisfaction."
Laura Hall is back in the lock-up she despises, while Jennifer Cave's parents remain focused on their daughter - who is gone forever.
"We still feel Jennifer in our lives," Sharon says. "She's still a part of us."
Adds Jim Sedwick, "She had a heart as big as Texas. And that's what got her in trouble."
Colton Pitonyak's case is still under appeal.
Laura Hall's projected release date is March 26, 2014. She will be 30 years old.
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