Editor's Note: This transcript was automatically transcribed, so mistakes are inevitable. You can contribute by proofreading the transcript or highlighting the mistakes. Sign up to be amongst the first contributors.
You're listening to the drag. What you're about to hear contains strong language, drug and alcohol abuse and descriptions of physical violence that are gruesome in nature. Some listeners might find this distressing. If that's you, please take caution as we navigate the story about the life and death of Jennifer Cave. It's Thursday, August 18th, 2005, a sweltering day, and sunny Austin, Texas, almost 100 degrees, but that's normal here. Close to 50000 students are pouring onto campus to start the school year at the University of Texas and oh yeah, football season is right around the corner.
Texas star quarterback Vince Young is gearing up to lead the team on a national championship run. Just a few blocks from it, an SUV rolls into the student neighborhood west campus, it parks in front of the orange tree condos and two adults step out. The narrow tree lined streets are filled with U-Haul and minivans, parents and students are everywhere, unloading boxes and moving furniture into apartments at the stately brick houses around the neighborhood.
Members of sororities and fraternities are starting their yearly rituals. But the two parents who step out of the SUV don't have any boxes and they're not moving anyone in. Sharon Cave and her boyfriend, Jim Sedwick, have just driven up to Austin from their home in Corpus Christi, a coastal town about three hours away. Sharon and Jim are here because Sharon's daughter Jennifer, lives in Austin and she hasn't returned any of their calls. And the day before, Sharon got a call from Jennifer's new boss at a law firm saying she didn't show up for her first day at work, Sharon's worried because this isn't like Jennifer.
I mean, the minute I got the call from the law firm saying she didn't show up, I I knew something was wrong. I just wasn't like her to do that, especially on something she was so proud of. Jennifer is a caring, red haired 21 year old. Like many people her age, she's figuring out how to be a responsible adult. Her family thinks that this new job is a turning point for her. Looking around the street, Sharon and Jim spot Jennifer's car parked outside of the orange tree condos.
But they still can't find her. Hi, I'm Hayley Butler, and I'm to New Thomas, this is the first episode of The Orange Tree.
Sharon and Jim have been waiting to hear from Jennifer for 24 hours since the call from Jennifer's boss on August 17th, the day before they got to Austin. Sharon calls anyone who might know where Jennifer is.
That called the mortuary. I call the hospitals. No, no, no, no, no. And the police. And the police. Yeah, that's still a real sore spot for me.
Sharon calls the Austin Police Department officers do a welfare check at Jennifer's apartment, but they don't find her either. And it's too soon for them to file a missing persons report.
The police did what they should. You've got to be missing a while before they're going to treat you as a missing person, specially when you're 21 years old.
And there's no telling how many calls in Austin, Texas, they get for I haven't seen a person and I haven't heard from my kid in two days. And turns out the kid has gone to Las Vegas and just didn't tell anybody. So the the police have to be measured in their response to those things, which they were at the time.
That was a bitter pill. I said, I know something is wrong. So we did our own investigation.
Of course, Sharon and Jim have a lot to say about their search for Jennifer.
They remember the details of it while finishing each other's sentences as they describe their own investigation into Jennifer's disappearance. Sharon testifies about their search at a trial, check the messages at home to see if there were any calls, I'd have been calling my daughters to see if they talked to her. Have you heard from Jennifer or have you heard from Jennifer? I called her dad. I called her brother, just trying to see if anybody had heard from her.
Jennifer's out of the house, but she's not fully independent yet, Sharon still helps out with bills, and that's where she starts when Jennifer disappears.
Fortunately, and yet again, being the control freak that I can be sometimes I had the girls on my phone plan.
Sharon gets Jennifer's phone records from T-Mobile and goes down the line calling every person Jennifer's recently spoken to. All of these people took the stand at a trial two years after this. Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear the actual testimonies of these individuals describing what they remember from that day. You'll hear the voices of prosecutors and defense attorneys as they asked questions that day. Sharon calls Jennifer's roommate, Denise Winterbottom, at some point later in the afternoon.
Did you hear from Jennifer's mother? Yes, I did. And had you spoken to Jennifer's mother in the past? Yes.
OK, Sharon calls the next number on Jennifer's call log Jennifer's friend, Colton Potasnik. He doesn't answer. The next call she makes is to Michael Rodriguez. A Jennifer had met at a party a few weeks ago.
I would say Michael called me back between four thirty and five and he said that, yes, he had talked to Jennifer. And what other questions did you ask him?
I said, do you know where she was? Do you know who she was with as she sits in her office in Corpus Christi? Sharon has two phones and a yellow legal pad in front of her on her cell phone. She's talking to Michael Rodriguez. Michael, tell Sharon that he and Jennifer spoke on the phone several times the night she went missing.
As Sharon's talking with him, her office phone rings, she puts the second phone to her ear with Michael Rodriguez still on the other line.
Somehow I found out that it was.
I said, I'm looking for Jennifer. I said, have you seen her? And he said, no. And Michael was on the other line. He goes, That's not right. OK, so you're talking to both of them?
I have both of them on.
I have two phones in my ears.
OK, Michael, tell Sharon that can't be true. Jennifer told Michael she was going downtown that night and she was going with Colton. Michael testified about these calls in a trial.
Years later, what basically she said she had a friend that was having some issues and that she wanted to go hang out with them. And then she mentioned that his name was Colton.
So Colton studies business that he and Jennifer friends, but she hasn't spent much time with him recently. Sharon doesn't believe Colton story. She asks him again if he saw Jennifer the night she went missing. Colton admits that he was out with Jennifer, but he insists that he only saw her downtown. Michael Rodriguez, who is still on the other line, remembers Jennifer describing a longer night with Colton.
After going through Jennifer's phone records, Sharon leaves her office to meet up with her boyfriend, Jim. They decide to call Colton again. He doesn't pick up. Sharon knows something is wrong.
She's the kind of mom who talks to her children every day, sometimes with multiple calls a day, in the past there had been times when Sharon couldn't get a hold of Jennifer for several days in a row, one of those last times Jennifer had been with Colton.
Of course, it became more and more apparent that she had been Colton. And my stomach began to her because I knew that there had been problems, that he was that he was a problem. She had told me that summer she's like, Oh yeah, mom, he's in trouble again. And oh, mom, he's in rehab. She said, he's a mess.
Sharon still looking for answers about what's happening with Jennifer, 200 miles away when an Austin area code rings on her cell phone. I said, Colton, please, do you know anything about Jennifer?
And he said, Dude, I'm eating pizza with my friends. Leave me alone.
Was that I don't know where she's at. Sharon and Jim stay the night in Corpus Christi.
They'll head to Austin first thing tomorrow. Jennifer's sister, Vanessa, who lives in Dallas, will meet them in Austin.
Hi, I'm Mikaela Mondragon and associate producer for The Orange Tree and one of the first ever interns at the Drag, I can't stop talking about this podcast with my friends and family. If you're like me, I want to talk to other people who like the podcast. Join the Orange Tree Discussion Group on Facebook. Caylee Anthony will occasionally drop by to answer your questions to go to Facebook dot com forward slash group's forward slash orange tree podcast. On the way there, Sharon calls the Austin Police Department, she speaks to Officer Cathy Hector and tells her everything she wrote on a yellow legal pad.
Jennifer is officially classified as a missing person. Officer Hector calls the friends that Sharon had called from Corpus Christi the day before Jennifer's recent ex-boyfriend, Scott Angle, as well as the last person who spoke to Jennifer Michael Rodriguez. She also calls Jennifer's friend, Colton Potasnik.
He was the only person I couldn't get a hold of. I talked to one of the one of the male friends of hers, and I asked, do you know Colton Potočnik?
And you said, yes, I do. And so how do you know him? He says, well, he's a drug salesman around campus and on his apartments where he lives.
So he's a student. He says what used to be and I ask Dina where he lives. And he told me and he told me where it was.
Officer Hector drives to the orange tree condos there. She finds Coltons, white Toyota Avalon and Jennifer's black Saturn Ion. She places her business cards on both their windshields and heads up to Colton's apartment. On the second floor, she knocks on the door of unit eighty eight. No answer.
She watches her business card in the door and calls Sharon. She tells her that Jennifer's car is at Colton's apartment and that nobody is answering the door.
When I said I can't do anything else because we think she's probably with him, she could have gone off and got married. I don't know. We don't know what the circumstances are, but I can't do anything else at this point.
This is the last thing Officer Hector can do for Sharon and Jim. She leaves the orange tree. Sharon and Jim get to Austin. They drive past the University of Texas campus and into the student neighborhood, they find Jennifer's car.
She must be close. They walk up to the second floor of the orange tree to eighty eight, the door is a faded, burnt orange ute school color with a gold tinged 88 marker right in the middle, no answer.
The blinds are down on the three windows to the right of the door where they knock again, this time louder and longer and continue to wait. Where could Jennifer have gone without her car?
The two halls are pulling out, the sorority chanting has stopped and the sun is setting. It was a long chain of events. We found the car, so we knew the car was there. That was probably six or seven and we'd beat on the door. We looked around. We you know, you keep beating on the door and you're looking around and trying to figure out what you should do.
Sharon and Jim decide to leave and wait at a hotel.
Instead, they take Jennifer's car with them thinking, OK, if she comes back looking for the car, she's going to call that my car's been stolen or something. And again, it was very poor logic at the time, but we did it using directory assistance, sharing calls at hypertonic Colton's Stad.
She wants to know if Eddie knows where Jennifer and Colton are.
Eddie and his wife are having dinner with some friends. When he gets Sharon's call, he tells her he doesn't know where either of their kids are. Sharon and Jim are back to square one, trying to figure out where Jennifer is all on their own. They drive to the orange tree and put Jennifer's car back in the same spot. Jennifer's sister Vanessa joins Sharon and Jim in front of Unit 88.
The door is locked, but what's inside may help them find Jennifer. They call the Austin Police Department again. So police come out.
They're very, very nice patrol officer.
Explain the whole situation. He looks around, goes everywhere, knocks. There's no on site manager. The orange tree, that's all condominiums privately owned. He couldn't find anything and he said nothing I can do.
The police say there's no probable cause to break into Colton's apartment.
She hasn't been missing long enough. There's nothing we can do. It's nighttime now, and Jennifer's family is still waiting outside of the orange door of Youna 88.
Sharon notices something out of place about one of the unit's three windows.
Sharon spotted this little broken piece of glass about the size of a nickel up in the corner of one of those windows. And so I had a pair of broken sunglasses in the in my vehicle, so I went down there and got this piece off of a sudden glass and we were able to pick that piece of glass out of there that eventually led to being able to get the window unlatched.
That's when I went in through the window and it was very, very dark. All I had was a flashlight and I started yelling in there, it's jam.
I'm not here to hurt you. I'm looking for Jennifer. Don't shoot.
Sharon and Jim are not married at this point, but he's been a father figure to Sharon's kids for years, taking them on camping trips and helping them through the challenges of becoming adults. Jim has a close bond with Jennifer. He and Sharon have been struggling to help Jennifer get on the right path. Jim calls Jennifer rudderless, Jennifer phones him frequently for life advice and direction when she feels lost. She doesn't know what she wants to do with her life or where she belongs, just that she wants to make him and Sharon proud when she gets her new job.
Jennifer calls right away to let them know that she's found her daughter. But now Jim can't find Jennifer, so I was yelling and of course, there was no response. And so I stood there for a few minutes making sure somebody wasn't going to wake up. And there wasn't some response before I went over that couch, you know, into the room anyway. Then obviously the rest went to finding the body. Jim backs out of the apartment and blocks the door, he tells them to call 911 immediately.
Jim just saw something that no parent should ever have to see. He's found Jennifer's body, and I never. She wanted to go in.
Vanessa wanted to go in and I just said, call nine one one nine one one can easily fire or e-mail address of the emergency departments, 25 30. So that's the same one. We have a lot of stuff on the way. I just need to be able to confirm his conscious and breathing. I think that you see, is he you believe that doing CPR? I do that. I also believe that we've got a crime scene here that I don't want to serve.
About midnight 30, my husband wakes me up and says, Cathy, your commanders on the phone, Brad's on the phone. I thought, this is not good because commanders don't call you at 12, 30 in the morning. They just don't. He says, have you been working a missing persons case? And I said, yes, I've been working all day on that case, trying to find this young lady for her mother. And her mother's going to be at my office tomorrow morning is what she told me.
He said, well, I'm out here at a crime scene is pretty bad. Austin police detective Richard Barbaria gets to the orange tree condos just as firefighters are finishing their assessment of the crime scene. He heads into the condo into what he thinks is a drug overdose case, but he's not at all prepared for what he's about to see.
Can you describe for us what it was you saw?
It was a female body with the head missing and the hands missing, and it was propped up in the bathtub facing the doorway. So basically, when I walked in her bodies is basically like this facing the doorway. And it caught me off guard because I had my flashlight. Even though the lights on, I'm like, OK, where's your head? You know, because I thought there were some towels and blankets or a carpet there. And I was like, OK, where she at?
You know? And that's when I realized there was no head.
Was there anything else that you immediately noted and knew was important?
It was the axle on her chest. Can you describe what you mean by that?
I don't know how to describe it as a small, skinny blade and you can change it out. And it was laying right on her chest and on the blade.
I remember seeing portions of flesh and blood and and it was used to cut the body. Was there anything on the floor of the bathroom?
There was a garbage bag there. Did you touch it?
I didn't bother looking at or touching it because I knew just by the shape of the bag, I knew what parts were in the bag.
I didn't put it together until a couple of years ago, actually, is when Jim came out, I said, Are you sure it's Shirker? And he said, I think so. I saw the freckles on her feet, freckles or angel kisses, by the way. So, uh, because we used to always tell her God loved you so much that he kissed you the most. This is the story of the life and death of Jennifer Cave, a young woman whose body was found just a few blocks from the University of Texas, we lived and took classes near the crime scene.
And we had heard this story around campus a lot, so much so that we thought it happened recently.
But when we looked into it, we realized it was 15 years ago. We wondered why she was still on people's minds. I'm Hailey Butler, and I'm Tony Thomas. When we started this project, we were senior journalism students at the journalism school is pretty tight knit, so it was surprising that to new and I had never run into each other before this project. But as soon as we met, it became clear that we both felt the same way about nearly everything.
As we dug into the case, we couldn't help but notice the similarities between us and Jennifer, but it's unsurprising. We were the same age, living in the same city. With this point of view, we wanted to avoid some of the things that make us wary about the true crime genre. We're talking about people's lives and we've been driven to tell the story with sensitivity and care.
Many of the people involved in this case haven't talked about it publicly in 15 years. Others have never shared their stories with the public at all. We were able to talk to a lot of them, and as we did, we became closer than we ever thought we could to the story. And we knew it was our job to tell the story responsibly. After this gruesome crime scene was discovered, Colton Potasnik, whose apartment Jennifer's body was discovered in, was nowhere to be found.
And as it turns out, he was with another student, a young woman who would do anything for him. Next on the Orange Tree, we're going to talk about a life that was lost, a life we relate to all of our siblings who are always together, like we get to see our sister in high school sometimes just like walking around, like during lunch breaks and stuff like that.
You always wonder, why did she why did she make that choice to go back down to Sixth Street with Colton tonier after she had already made that break? And nobody nobody knows the answer to that other than the stray dog theory. The Orange Tree is a production of the drag and audio production house that's a part of the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism and the Moody College of Communication.
It's reported, produced and hosted by me, Haley Butler and me to New Thomas. Our executive producer is Robert Quickly. The studio sound engineer was David Alvarez. This podcast was created in partnership with Katie Austins, NPR station special. Thank you to Coatis Debbie Whyatt, Matt Largey and Todd Callahan for their guidance, studio space and technical support. The podcast was fact checked by Lisa Rowe at the Massu Helps with story structure and editing news. Audio tape and trial footage in several episodes were generously provided by KXAN, Austins, NBC Station and CAVU Austins ABC station.
Christian MacDonald is the dregs. Technical director Matty Thomasin designed the podcast artwork Sabrina Labov letter marketing and PR efforts working with the Moody College and Kutty special thanks to Kathleen McElroy, Alexis Chavez, Kelsey Whipple, Claire Boyle and David Janah for their guidance and support.
The drag is made possible thanks to the Dallas Morning News Innovation Endowment and by individual donations. Since the drug is part of the Muthee College, a UTI, we've had the help of several students who serve as associate producers for this podcast. They include Sidney Jones, Simmen Pouliot, Candace Baker Tuesday Dear in Reagan, Ritterbusch Allaster Tulba, Riley Miller, Meredith Palmer, Kadija, Bill de Miah, follow us and Mikhaila Mondragón for the full list of students and others who helped with this podcast.
And for more details on the orange tree, check out our website, The Drag Out of Your Dotcom.
While you're there, click on the donate button to support this podcast and the work of student journalists. The Drag is a non-profit organization, so we really appreciate your help. Also, please consider supporting Katie or your local NPR station. Hi, I'm Hayley, senior producer at the Drag Journalism Students and Recent Grads Report Right and produce the podcast that come out of the drag. Help us turn these students into the next leaders in immersive, long form audio storytelling by donating at the drag audio dotcom donate.