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You're listening to the drag. Hi, I'm Hayley Butler, and I'm Tony Thomas. For over a year, we've kept sensitivity in mind when working on this story. However, 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. Previously on The Orange Tree, I mean, the minute I got the call from the law firm saying she didn't show up, I, I knew something was wrong.
It wasn't like her to do that.
Sharon calls anyone who might know where Jennifer is. Somehow I found out that it was and 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.
Sharon and Jim get to Austin 6:00 or 7:00.
And we 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. That's when I went in through the work force.
And I don't want any police, fire or e-mail address of the emergency orange trees, 20th century.
And Jim just saw something that no parent should ever have to see. He's found Jennifer's body. This is the second episode of The Orange Tree, and in this episode, we're going to talk about a life that was lost, a life we relate to.
Hayley and I started reporting on the story when we were 21 years old and we were still students at the University of Texas at the Orange Tree Condos where Jennifer Cave's body was found. It's just a few blocks from it. And almost 15 years later, when I was going to USC, I lived just a block away in another apartment building. And I remember the laws surrounding the orange tree for over a decade.
Students who only knew bits and pieces about the case passed on their versions of the story until it got to me when people talked about what happened in Unit 88, the story focused on the details of the crime, not the victim. Jennifer was a young, caring and vibrant girl who was navigating through the best and worst parts of her early 20s.
We experienced many of the same ups and downs as we try to figure out who we are and what we want to do with our own lives. That's why we're driven to tell her story. Crimes like this one have been explored time and time again for entertainment value.
Crime coverage can be sensational and insensitive. Sometimes the true crime genre can reduce a victim's life to their last few minutes. We didn't want to do that.
And that's why we're going to spend the next 30 minutes telling you Jennifer's story. As a child, Jennifer's family lives on a farm in Bishop, a typical Texas town of just over 3000 people. It's about 40 miles away from the Texas coast. Jennifer's sister, Lauren, describes Bishop as a small town where most people are farmers or have blue collar jobs. When you live in Bishop, you raise animals and that's just what you do as kids. Sharon's other daughters hated getting down in the dirt, but not Jennifer.
Taking care of the livestock was one of her favorite parts of living there.
We raised pigs growing up, so we always had that responsibility. Jennifer particularly was very good at it.
That's Jennifer's sister, Lauren Cave, who's about a year younger than Jennifer. She's one of the four cave kids. One of the cows was having a hard time delivery, and Jennifer just took matters into her own hand and delivered all of the piglets. I mean, I can kind of remember like it was yesterday, because just watching her step in and just help deliver these pigs was insane because she couldn't have been over 10 or 11 at the time. And so that you just had that, you know, intuition to go for and help this mom out.
I grew up in Austin, New York, for me, and we both found our way to the University of Texas, which is set among high rises instead of prairies. We can't imagine a 10 year old girl enthusiastically getting down in the dirt to deliver piglets. Bishop is small, so small that the elementary, middle and high school buildings are clustered together on one block.
All of our siblings who are always together, like we would get to see our sister in high school, sometimes just like walking around, like during lunch breaks and stuff like that. We had a lot of friends growing up. We we went to every football game on Friday night. I was the big event.
We've never been to Bishop Hayley and I have spent the past year driving through small Texas towns for interviews.
Here's what you'll likely find in nearly every single small town. A Dairy Queen, a white church with the steeple, maybe two, three or four churches, a hardware store, a tire store, maybe another hardware store. And right in the middle of it all, every single time. A giant high school football stadium, Jennifer loves playing sports and she also rides her bike around the block with her brother Clayton and her sisters, Vanessa and Lauren.
We have to played in, say, by the twins. But I mean, we we're not we're not even like Irish kids because we're not that close. You know, we're not nine months apart or anything like that. But even though we shared a room like we would sleep in the bed most nights together, books, everything, like she was a big time reader and I was not. And so but she would read to me every single night, going to sleep as close as they are.
Their mom sees their differences.
They would play Barbies and Lauren would have Jennifer said it all and Jennifer would organize it all, set it all up, and then Lauren would come in and play. But Jennifer had to set it all up and unfortunately, she had to put it all up to Lauren. Was it real good helping her sister? She was just a funny, funny kid.
Sharon calls Jennifer the prototypical middle child. She doesn't like the spotlight and she leaves most decisions up to her siblings, whether it's how to spend a summer day or where to eat dinner unless it's sushi. She hates sushi. Jennifer often goes out of her way to make sure everyone around her is happy from her friends at school to her family. She's a peacekeeper and she has a big heart. The earliest memory Sharon has of this is when Jennifer was a little girl and brings home a classmate who Sharon has never seen before.
But Jennifer came in one day and she said, can she spend the night? And I said, Well, you're not really good friends with her, are you? And she goes, No, but she doesn't have any friends. So can she come over and spend the night?
Sharon isn't too worried about Jennifer's draw to those who need a little extra TLC. In most cases, it's innocent, like asking a friend from school to sleep over. She figures with age maturity, Jennifer will learn to put up boundaries and draw a line when she can't help someone.
Does she still talk to her dad? Yes. OK, Jennifer, once again, being who she was, she had a very, very, very soft spot for her father, Sharon, and her first husband, Charlie.
Jennifer's biological dad separate when the kids are little.
We really kind of stopped being her dad as much because there was the there was no effort from him to, like, pick us up or come see us or anything like that.
I remember one time a hurricane was coming. She's like, Mom, you've got to go over there and you've got to do this. If her dad would get sick, mom, you've got to go to the hospital was like, you know, she's like, yes, mom, you have to do that. So, yeah, Ginnifer, out of all of them, Jennifer worked the hardest to have the relationship to nurture the relationship and to be the caregiver to her dad.
And I will tell you right now, if she was still here, she she would still be in that role.
Sharon and Jim have a name for Jennifer's draw to help people, whether it be her dad, a friend or an acquaintance.
They call it the stray dog theory.
She was seemed to be attracted to the stray dog, be that in dogs or be that in humans, that sometimes she was very sympathetic to to other people to a fault.
I mean, to the point where can not both be like, oh, it's hard to think of helping others is dangerous, but especially as young women were often torn between the desire to help others and a fear of potential consequences. We've been warned about our entire lives. It's a cautionary tale as classic as Little Red Riding Hood and. You try to navigate adulthood, were warned of wolves in sheep's clothing, but what do you do if the wolf is clearly in need of help?
If you're listening to this podcast, you're probably interested in true crime, but do you know what it takes to report a true crime story thoroughly and with senDon't worry, I had to look it up, too. But high school is a time of change. You know, she started like branching out and making her own friends and she cried about the competition and you know who she was growing into a teenager. But, Jennifer, social life isn't the only thing changing. Family dynamics are shifting as well. Sharon makes a 40 minute commute from Bishop to Corpus Christi nearly every day. She works in advertising at the Corpus Christi Caller Times.
I used to visit Corpus Christi in the summers with my family. And when Tanya and I went there to interview Sharon and Jim, the city had not changed. It's a tropical city of about 300000 people on the Gulf of Mexico. It's filled with beige buildings built in the 1970s. Its attractions include a World War Two aircraft carrier and a long stretch of sandy beaches dotted with seafood restaurants promising the freshest shrimp. It's in Corpus Christi that Sharon meets Jim Sedrick, their mutual friend.
Jim's an accountant in town. His office overlooks the beach and the boardwalk. He's tall, soft spoken and a good listener. They began dating, sharing their first kiss under a streetlight on the Corpus Christi boardwalk. Sharon introduces Jim to the girls. And as things start to get serious between the two. Sharon decides to move to Corpus Christi. The move to Corpus Christi makes sense for the family. Sharon's close to her job at the paper and closer to Jim, but Jennifer isn't so stoked.
It's a fun vacation spot, but moving there, that's different. Their new school is nearly as big as their old town. I'll just say the move to Corpus, which was difficult for her. She was at a terrible age. I think she was either junior or junior or sophomore year. It was a bit of a culture shock. It probably felt like it was my mom and I against her and not so much like with malice or anything like that.
But I was excited. My mom was excited and Jennifer just was it. And it totally makes sense because she was going to be a junior in high school. That is social suicide, just up and leave and try a new school. Sharon promises, Jennifer, that if she tries out the new school and doesn't like it, she could move back to Bishop and finish high school. But Sharon goes out of her way to make sure that doesn't happen.
Unbeknownst to us, to our mother, God bless her. She was very concerned with us making the right kind of friends and making sure that we had people to kind of say hi to and act like they knew us whenever we started school one day during summer break. Sharon here is that one of Jim's co-workers is throwing a pool party when that local teens are going to be, she sees it as an opportunity to help her girls make some friends in the new town.
And my mom didn't tell us when we she said we're going to the pool and pick this up. One afternoon, we were excited. We put on our swimsuits and we go to a pool for sure, but to a pool party with all these young high school girls that we would eventually be going to school with. And that was very overwhelming because we didn't expect that she bamboozled us. And we still I still give a crap about it today.
Among all the changes, new town, new school. Jennifer finds a confidant in her mom's new boyfriend, Jim. But once we did meet Jim, she and I were very close. She fell in love about as hard as I did.
She liked to hang out with me. We talked a lot. We talked one on one a lot. And she always trusted me and talked to me. And I could tell she was struggling. She was struggling with the change in high school and all that sort of thing. And so but she was great with my Haley.
Jim's daughter, Haley is about the same age as Jennifer. And as soon as they meet, it's an instant friendship. They bond over, make up new music mom wouldn't approve of and Spanish swearwords. High school graduation is getting closer. Jennifer gets her braces off the day before a class photo. Perfect timing. She smiles just a bit wider. She's confident. And with that confidence comes new attention. A certain point. I definitely think she started to feel herself because she did just blossom into a beautiful woman and people and guys were starting to notice her.
And I do think that that gave her a sense of acceptance. But then it also I do think maybe some time it was the wrong guys. You know, she was making some terrible decisions. And then I was like, well, don't do that, like try to be there for her. And then, you know, sometimes when she would she would choose to go hang out with these people instead of hanging out with me. And that's normal sister stuff that is normal, just like I'm growing.
You're younger than me. Like lives are changing. Like, yes, of course. You're always going to feel a little left behind.
We remember our high school years way too clearly and we get it. Turning into a teenager means the way you party changes. You go from cartoon theme balloons and cake to kegs and kissing. But having an active social life doesn't mean Jennifer cares any less about school or her future. She wants to go to college and she'll do what it takes to get there. Jennifer was very, very, very smart. She did not much like going to school her last year of high school and tended to not show up.
They would call me. Invariably, though, she still graduated in the top 15 percent of her class when the time comes to choose a college.
Jennifer lands on Texas State, a university 30 miles south of Austin. It's nestled in the hills of San Marcos. Like Corpus Christi, San Marcos is main attraction is a body of water, a small river where you can go swimming or tubing. It's not unlikely for students to wear their bathing suits under their clothes to class.
But unlike Corpus, Jennifer is all alone here. Yeah, I did go up. She came home quite a bit to she she wanted to come home. She wasn't happy at Texas State, just it just didn't work. And I knew she was unhappy. She she didn't know anybody yet again because she wasn't a joiner. It just wasn't it wasn't successful.
After a semester at Texas State, Jennifer wants a change. She moves to Austin. It's also a college town, but much bigger. There's a ton of nightlife, jobs and life music. She transfers to Austin Community College, also known as ACSI.
Hi, I'm Hayley, senior producer at The Drag. When we started working on the Orange Tree to New and I had the chance to talk to incredible local reporters about their original coverage of this case, we also had the opportunity to ask questions to some of our favorite long form journalists. We were able to storyboard with Dr. Deaths, Laura Beil when she visited campus. And we asked Pamela Koloff some of our most confusing questions about the Texas prison system. Those interactions left us even more inspired journalism students and recent grads report, write and produce the podcasts that come out of the drag.
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Thirty miles between the two cities doesn't seem too far on a map, but San Marcos and Austin are drastically different. The move from one to the other can be jarring. And I know because I made that same move at the same point in my life. For me, the change was good. Suddenly, I was surrounded by more options for food, our jobs, and of course there was a better nightlife. But all the options can be overwhelming. Jim and Sharon sensed that with Jennifer when she moves.
So then it was, well, I'm going to move to Austin and I'm going to go to I.C.C. and I went to help to move to help her get settled in her apartment. But yet again, because she was, as Jim said, rudderless and didn't know what she wanted to do. I had lunch with her one day in Austin.
We were we were coming back from somewhere and we met her. You know, she was in the ditch. I mean, she she wasn't intoxicated or anything like that.
I mean, but she was you could tell she was definitely not happy and not on her game. And you all actually got into big argument. But we had a right to intervene in that argument. And Sharon got frustrated with her as a parent does, because, you know, you have the opportunity here. You know, you can go to school, somebody will pay for that. You know, we want you to do this. And so, you know, the opportunity was there and Jennifer just wasn't taking the bait.
When you're in your early 20s, it's hard to know who you are. You're not a kid, but you're not an adult either. Your parents want you to find a successful career, but your friends want to go out. Jennifer wants to do both. Jennifer is feeling lost and alone somewhere in the murky middle, unsure of what she wants and how to get there.
I remember one time standing with her in front of a mirror and I said, I don't know why you can't see what I can see someone who's beautiful, smart, caring, and we're looking in the same mirror. Why can't you see that? Why can't you see all the potential? I see, she said, because I can't. In Austin, Jennifer works in the service industry around this time, she meets a young man named Colton Potasnik at a party.
He's a business student at UT. He has grand aspirations for the future. But like Jennifer, he's lost. He's really smart. But school isn't his main focus. He just wants to party and make sure his friends do, too. And he's actually found a way to fuel his party lifestyle by selling drugs. Jennifer is open with Sharon and Jen and there are many phone calls. She mentions Coltons, drug use and the fact that he's been in rehab.
They have concerns about Jennifer spending time with somebody like Colton, but Jennifer promises that it'll all be OK.
She knew Colton was a bad guy, but it was OK.
I can make him better. You know, he's a smart guy. He got admitted and come school business, you know, this, that and the other. And he's having this problem with drugs. But I'm going to be the one that's going to help him.
They hang out a lot. And when they do, it's not always a party. Sometimes it's just sitting in the same room watching TV or messing around on the computer. Being 20 is confusing. You feel like all the things your parents warned you about, the people they tell you to stay away from aren't that scary. Sometimes they can be fun and you can feel unstoppable. When people talk about the night Jennifer died, a lot of questions revolve around how much alcohol she drank and what kind of drugs she was on.
Her autopsy revealed that she was using recreational amounts of amphetamines, methamphetamines, alcohol and marijuana that night.
We don't know why, except it was probably for the same reasons anyone does drugs.
There's so many unanswered questions in this case. Why she had these drugs in our system is one of them, especially when she was so excited to go to work early the next morning. But we don't really care about the drugs she was on because it doesn't answer for what happened to her. Too much focus on the answers to these questions reduces her personality and the situation she was in, and it also blames the victim. We have friends like this. In fact, we are like this.
And this crime could have happened to any one of us. In the summer of 2005, Jennifer moves into her friend Dennis Winterbottom's apartment after living with her ex for a few months, Dennis tells Jennifer she doesn't have to worry about rent as long as she gets back on the right track. It's August 16th, 2005, a Tuesday Jennifer interviews for a part time position at a law firm in downtown Austin. The firm calls her back almost immediately after the interview.
They want her to come in and try out the job. By the end of the day, she's offered a full time position, one that makes her parents back home in Corpus Christi hopeful.
And I think that's really where the encouragement came for Sharon and for me. You know, does she want to be a secretary? Maybe that's what she wants to be. That was a pretty big step in and what I hoped would be the right direction. Jennifer is excited.
She's calling all her friends and her family. She talked to them on multiple times that day to discuss the details of the new job. Sharon's just as excited. She tells Jennifer to go to Ann Taylor and buy a new outfit that she would pay for.
We know that she was very focused because her clothes for the next day of work were laid out on her. Khaki pants with a blazer and then orange top that night around 10:00. Jennifer settles in to watch some TV with Deniece before going to bed. She tells Denise that she wants to be up by six a.m. Then she goes to her room. Then she gets a call from Colton Pasternack. Jennifer's backed away from hanging out with Colton, but they're still on good terms.
Their friends. She tells him about the job and he says it's a good reason to go celebrate. He invites her to go downtown with him. But we know what she did that night, which, you know, you always wonder why did she why did she make that choice to go back down the street with Colton Plutonian after she had already made that break? And that's that's a question that's never been answered. And nobody nobody knows the answer to that other than the stray dog theory.
She picks him up at the orange tree condos and they head downtown to Sixth Street. Sixth Street is the center of Austin's nightlife. Police barriers block off either end of the street so cars can't get through and people can safely drunkenly wander the stretch of bars and the roughly six block area college students from the University of Texas and other surrounding universities flock to the area, fake IDs in hand.
Much of what you'll hear now is from the aftermath of that hot August night on Sixth Street. Austin's NBC station, KXAN, captured the following tape at the nationally broadcasted trial following Jennifer's murder. Some of what you'll hear next are people from that trial on the stand and some of it might cut in and out. At 10, 30 p.m. Just after the call with Colton, Jennifer Coles, Michael Rodriguez, a deejay she had met that summer. Jennifer calls him just after telling her roommate to wake her up for work the next morning.
Later that night, did you have a conversation with Jennifer Cave about going to see Colton? Yes, sir. Essentially, she's going to go hang out with Colton, and that was it.
Well, 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 and Jennifer go to a restaurant near 6th Street. He calls his mom earlier that day to borrow her credit card for dinner. But when they get there, the kitchen's closed. So they just order drinks. And he's had a big head start. Colton's been downing vodka and taking Xanax since earlier that day. He says he remembers being at the restaurant, but not much else. About the next 10 hours or so, while on 6th Street, they ran into some friends at a bar called Treasure Island.
To Jeffrey Sanderson, Jeffrey Sanderson is out celebrating his friend Melissa's birthday.
They met Jennifer at Michael Rodriguez's party a week earlier, but this is their first time meeting Colton.
While you were inside that bar, do you have any extensive conversation with either Jennifer Cave or on the small table talk?
Jennifer Cagers cost the table from me, so we didn't talk too much.
I talked to Colton Tarnak, where we're supposed to go get some drinks and just small talk and demeanor while you were talking about those postponing date, Jennifer. But apparently so he was more interested in some of the other girls at Bar.
Colton's always maintained that he and Jennifer were just friends. In fact, people say that night he seemed to be interested in the birthday girl, Melissa.
And did you talk to Miss Cave during that time at Treasure Island? Yes, ma'am. And what did you all talk about, Colton, and what was said when he got up?
I asked her if they were together because I thought he was attractive and she said no, but that I didn't want to get wrapped up in him because she thought he was crazy.
Were you flirting with Mr. Kim? It was Mr. Burton. And was he flirting back with you?
It's around 11 p.m. and Jennifer's friends say she doesn't seem drunk. Colton, on the other hand, is and he's a little unpredictable. Jeffrey Sanderson says Colton whips out a tactical knife from his pocket to remove a girl's wristband at the bar.
And how would you describe his conduct as context, short attention span? I was, except for the fact of the knife out and scaring me. I don't know if he's scared anybody else at the table. I guess his conduct was kind of OK. OK, yeah.
I noticed that you told the police, I believe, in your statement there. And we all I'm not saying you should have remembered. Is there something about why he behaved as though he had grabbed his brain? Yes, sir. That's one use of drugs.
While the group continues to drink on 6th Street, Michael Rodriguez calls Jennifer to check in.
And what was the nature of that conversation? Well, she basically explained a little bit more detail. She basically said that Colton that was a little upset, basically mentioned something about that, the only people that could help and were people that were in jail. And I didn't really understand it. And I didn't really probe into that any more than that.
And how long do you think you spoke around? Midnight.
Oh, it wasn't a lengthy conversation at that time either. I would say maybe a minute, two minutes, tops.
And what was her demeanor while the two of you were talking?
She sounded OK. I mean, she didn't sound like she was any kind of problem or issue. I mean, she just sounded like she was out hanging out with a friend. So it sounded like.
Did she seem intoxicated? No, she didn't. As we said, Coltons mixed alcohol with Xanax, alcohol and Xanax are both downers, so at this point he's looking for something that's going to pick him back up. He walks out of the bar and starts making calls. When he's done, he heads back into the bar and starts talking to Melissa. Can you tell us what you all talked about?
Just small, talked for a little bit, and then he kind of stepped away and came back and had had informed me that he talked to some friends about going to get some Coke.
When he said that to you. What did you reply? As if I go, it's like, OK, yeah, cool, but Melissa's friends are not so cool with that decision, they're not going to let her leave with somebody that they don't know.
Melissa and Jeffrey close their tabs at Treasure Island. Everyone agrees to go across the street to another bar. Jennifer and Colton walk behind them.
And what happened when you left the bar?
We went over and they were kind of behind us, still closing out their tab. We went in, started ordering our drinks already. I looked at the door and saw them at the door showing their I.D. and when I turned back, they were gone.
That's the last time Jeffrey and Melissa saw Jennifer that night. Now, it's just past 1:00 a.m., Michael calls again just to make sure Jennifer still OK and what was the nature of that conversation?
Basically, she said that she was walking towards her car and that Colton had been upset because he had lost his phone. And so she was going to help him find it. And as she was talking to me about this, she kind of stated, you know, what are you doing? That's not my car. And then I had to say he just tried to break the window of this car. And then after that, she told me a little bit more about, you know, she's kind of talking to me.
And then after that, she stated that she said again, you know, what are you doing? And then I heard her tell me that he was urinating on a vehicle. And then how did that phone call in?
Well, basically, she said that she would call me back. She said she's going to help him look for his phone and that she would call me back.
And did you speak to her again after that 105 phone call? No, sir. I always told the girls, listen to your stomach if it's wrong. Your stomach's going to hurt and you're going to know. So listen to your stomach and and throughout life and throughout things. All of them have said, you know, you're right, me and my stomach just doesn't feel right about this. I've always wondered. What, your stomach felt like that? To this day, Colten says he doesn't remember what happened that night, but what happened over the next several hours at the orange tree condos turned three families lives upside down.
Next on the Orange Tree, a body was found in Unit 88 of the orange tree. And police have yet to make an arrest.
On Monday, Austin police released Colton Bertoni arrest warrant and they're charging him with intentional murder during the early morning hours of August 17th.
Colton calls Laura to come over and hang out. He's hung over and stumbles to the bathroom, and that's where he finds the body of Jennifer Cave. He calls Laura back, urging her not to come over. She goes over anyway.
I remember her time sober me up and saying, like, you know, we to figure this out, to figure this out, you know? And I think at that point I was like, there's no figuring this out. You know, this isn't something that's fixable. 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 Cutty's Debbie Whyatt, Matt Largey and Todd Callahan for their guidance, studio space and technical support. The podcast was fact checked by Lazarro. Pallavi Cut 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.
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This story is incredibly personal to society because it is actually about his family and how they were prosecuted by a former president of Ecuador. This podcast series will make its debut in 2021 as part of the drag and audio production house at the University of Texas at Austin.