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 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.
And I remember her sober me up and saying, like, you know, we got to figure this out to figure this out, you know? And I think at that point I was like, just there's no figuring this out, you know? You know, this isn't something you just it just happens and you just run off into the sunset with some love story and disappear in Mexico. It's January 23, 2007, at the Travis County Courthouse, a full courtroom watches as a new witness prepares to testify at Colton Bertoni trial.
She's a beauty student, and the story she's about to tell takes place at the orange tree condos around three a.m. after Jennifer and Colton left 6th Street. This is the story the jury heard.
Nora Sullivan is a communications student at UTI in 2005. She's wide awake in her apartment just a few doors down from Colten. She's on her laptop. When she hears a knock at the door, it's her friend Colton. He looks drunk and like he's on drugs, but she's used to seeing him like this. He tells her that he's lost his phone. He asks her if he can use her phone to call a friend. She's cool with that and invites him in as Colton dials his friend on her phone.
She grabs them some cigarettes and a couple of beers out of the fridge. Colton's friend doesn't answer.
Colton tells Norah that he was just in a fight with what he calls some Mexicans back at his apartment and gunshots were fired. He asks if she heard anything she didn't. She's known him for about a year and figures he's probably just being drunk and stupid, as usual. Then she says he pulls a gun out and unloads it in front of her, saying he doesn't want it to accidentally go off. She looks down and notices a red smear on his arm.
Two years later, she tells a jury it looked like blood. I'm Tanya Thomas. And I'm Hailey Butler. And this is the fourth episode of The Orange Tree. Colton had half a handle of vodka and had taken some Xanax before going downtown with Jennifer that night. Colton remembers going to the restaurant to celebrate Jennifer's new job, but after that, he said he blacked out and has no solid memories until he wakes up the next morning and discovers Jennifer's body in his bathtub.
That includes having no memories of Nora Sullivan's story about him coming over at three a.m.. It's been almost a year and a half since Colton was arrested, and this whole time he's been awaiting his trial at the Travis County jail a few blocks away. His parents, Eddie and Bridget Potasnik, are sitting in a waiting room of a law firm. The firm is Roy Minton's. Roy Minton is a legendary Austin defense lawyer known for his charm, sharp mind and folksy way.
He talks to juries. His firm is known to take on cases of heavy hitters. The office is just a few blocks from the courthouse where part of the street is named after Minton himself. Here's Colton's dad, Eddie Meninas, and going to his office. And he leaned back and I wore cowboy boots like I did, and he put his cowboy boots on the desk. First time we met with him, he proceeded to tell us to get together about a quarter million dollars.
And then our son, Minton's partner, Sam Bassett, is much younger than Mitton but still has almost two decades of experience representing clients in criminal cases. Bassett is a soft spoken defense lawyer who got both his business and law degrees from the University of Texas.
So it was really the first real high profile case and it was probably the most intensely scrutinized profile case that I've handled.
There've been a couple since this isn't Bassets first case with the Potasnik. He actually represented Carlton on an earlier cocaine charge and was able to get him off with 30 days in jail and mandatory rehab. Eddie wanted to bail Colton out immediately after his arrest, but he says that on Bassets recommendation, he didn't. Coltons been in jail for about 17 months now and his trial date is steadily approaching. Just a block down from Minton's firm is the district attorney's office, Assistant District Attorneys Bill Bishop and Stephanie McFarland are assigned to Jennifer's case and consult closely with Sharon and Jim.
This is Jim. They have a deep passion for what they do, and I have a great admiration for what those local prosecutors do because it's it's a tough job. And he I know that he and Stephanie, they worked late. I mean, when that trial was going on, they did they were working until 9:00 or 10:00 at night. And they're back there the next morning trying that case. In fact, the prosecutors co-authored an article reflecting on the trial.
The article, The Murderer Next Door, was published in a journal for district attorneys. In it, Bishop and McFarland, right that they expected Colton's team to go after Laura Hall, the other UT student who went with Colton to Mexico as an alternative perpetrator. After all, neither Colton nor Laura's DNA could be excluded from the gun or the machete found in Colton's apartment.
When we learned that Roy Minton is who they had hired while they went and got the best, you know, was intimidating. It was intimidating, intimidating. On Monday, January 22nd, 2007, the streets surrounding the Travis County courthouse are swarming with the horde of reporters from TV stations in newsrooms across the country before the trial begins, Presiding Judge Wilfred Flowers makes a surprising decision. He says he'll allow Court TV network to broadcast the trial nationwide. The courtroom itself is unremarkable.
Blue, grey seats filled the room. Lightwood paneling, lines the walls. But The Austin Chronicles court reporter Jordan Smith recalls that day as anything but ordinary. The courtroom was a freakin circus, a total circus. You know, Court TV is there. It's like literally standing room only. There's people I mean, not only reporters, obviously, and family and the people that you would ordinarily see in a courtroom for any kind of trial. But there were so many people that were just, you know, coming to see this spectacle.
Basically, you know, people who had been following it in the news, tons of people that worked in the courthouse, you know, just constantly popping in to families are seated on opposite sides of a packed courtroom. Coltan is clean shaven and wearing a suit. He looks like a classic McComb's business student about to make rounds at a job fair. He looks nothing like the wild haired man in his arrest photo. His face is expressionless, pale, and he's sitting incredibly still before the trial, the Travis County jail doctor had given him antidepressants to relieve his anxiety.
Cameras are aimed towards the witness stand in a crowd of people settle into their seats. The court proceedings begin and the room falls silent. With the room at attention, prosecutors make their opening statements and then Judge Flowers calls on Sam Bassett to do the same. A room full of people inch to the edge of their seat to hear how Coltons defense will prove his innocence.
To everyone's surprise, Bass's starts his opening statement by saying that this quote will not be a whodunit, Bassett tells everyone right off the bat that Kolten will testify himself. It also says that Kolten will tell the jury that he himself killed Jennifer, but that he did not do it on purpose.
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 sensitivity? I'm seriously and in my podcast request pending, I talk to Haley and to know about how they created the podcast you're listening to right now, five requests pending a production from the track, wherever you get your podcasts. Colton's lawyer is not saying he's innocent, but rather he's relying on his client's lapse in memory to defend him.
We've told you bits and pieces of people's stories of that night, like how Noor said she saw Colton with what looked like blood on his arm around 3:00 p.m. that morning. But now we're going to walk you through the story that was presented in court by the prosecution and defense, everything from the time Colton and Jennifer left the bars on Sixth Street to when he and Laura took off to Mexico. Friends of Jennifer testify they last saw her on Sixth Street around midnight.
They say Jennifer seems sober and saw her leave with a clearly drunk Colten at the end of the night. Michael Rodriguez testifies that when he last spoke to Jennifer at 105 a.m., she sounded like she had a handle on things. Then Norah Sullivan takes the stand. She tells the jury about that night when she was on her computer. She says Colton came in with this wild story about a shoot out with the unidentified Mexican guys. She says Colton told her there were two or three guys that he fought with and gunfire was exchanged after Michael's call to Jennifer at 1:00 or 5:00 a.m..
There are no testimonies to fill in. What happened with Jennifer and Colton until Nora's testimony that places Colton at her door around 3:00 a.m. and she just told the jury that she saw a smear that look like blood on his arm. Colton says he doesn't remember getting back to the orange tree or going over to Tenaris, but his lawyers let him take the stand to tell the jury exactly what he does and doesn't remember what he said. Tulane's with the tour manager, Ecclesia Colton there.
And Tony. This is unusual. Jury members rarely get to hear from a defendant in a murder trial. Here's Coltons.
Lawyer Roy Minton questioning Colton on the stand shows evidence that shows that there was a text that was made by Yuda Laura at five thirty four a.m. that morning.
Do you remember sending that text?
No, sir, I don't. All right. Do you believe that when you were making these telephone calls at five 30 that you had discovered, or do you have any recollection as to whether or not you had discovered her body?
I don't think that was until later. You think it was later, do you?
Sitting there now, straight arrow. Do you have an independent recollection of which came first, these these telephone calls, or are you finding Jennifer?
I'm not sure. Everything kind of kind of blurred together.
But you do have some recollection? A little bit. All right. Tell the jury if you can, when you discovered Jennifer's body sometime this morning and went back to the bathroom to use the restroom and she was lying in the bathtub and I came out.
So it's all kind of a blur, everything kind of spinning, kind of mixing together. What was your what did you think about that at that time when you saw your friend Jennifer dead in the bathtub?
I got scared. I panicked. What did you do? I tried to call her back and tell her not not to come by, but she insists on coming by about six miles south at her friend Ryan Martindale's apartment, Laura is responding to Colton's text messages. They've been calling and texting each other for a few hours now. Laura would have driven over right away, but she says she doesn't have a car at Ryan's place. Ryan Martindale testifies that Laura woke him up at seven in the morning asking him to drive her to her car so she could hang out with Colton.
Laura makes her way to the orange tree condos in a green Cadillac, despite Coltons request for her not to. He needs the space to try to figure out what happened and what to do. Colton's own lawyer, Roy Minton, grills him about what he did and did not do the morning he discovered the body. Son, why did you not call the police? The fire department, an ambulance? I was scared. I don't know what happened. I was wondering.
I panicked. Do you have any recollection of the circumstances surrounding Jennifer's death? I have no idea what happened the night. Who killed. Are you certain of that? Yes, sir. How can you be certain? Everything points to it because I can think of any other thing that happened. Why would you ever kill Jennifer?
I don't know. There's no way I would have been on purpose. There is no way you would do it on purpose. Never. Well, we've all kicked this around. Do you have any reason to believe that Laura came over there and shot and killed Jennifer?
No, sir. Colton does vaguely remember opening the door of his apartment to find Laura standing there.
All right. You recall her getting figlia. What did you do? I can't remember exactly what I told her, but I showed her to everybody, took her down to the bathroom and showed her Jennifer's book.
So what did she say? She just said, what are we going to do?
Around 3:00 p.m. on August 17th, 2005, the owner of a hardware store, Bredon company, Jeff Bried, is working. His store is nestled in a little green neighborhood just north of West Campus. Like most days, Jeff is stocking goods and tending to his customers when he notices a disheveled young man roaming his aisles. Breed approaches him and asks if he needs help, the young man says yes and looks down at a handwritten list. This is what he ends up purchasing.
Kleenex, bathroom tissue shop towels, 55 gallon drum liners, spot carpet cleaner, ASW ammonia, fairbreeze, odor eliminator aist latex gloves saw handy hack and desk mess. The hardware store owner says he asked Kolten what he needed all that for, and he testified that Kolten said he was frying a turkey and needed to cut that turkey up. Colton swears he didn't write that list. All right. And the last that was that you had with you when you met Mr.
Breen that you filled out that list? No, sir. Are you certain? Yes, sir.
And who had the role after he gets the supplies? Colton doesn't go back to the orange tree right away. Instead, he stops by Burger King. He orders a hamburger with no onions and then heads back to his apartment with the supplies. One of the most difficult parts of this case is learning what happened to Jennifer's body after she died. Sharon Cave walks out of the courtroom because she doesn't want to hear or see the details of what happened to her daughter.
That next morning, medical examiner Elizabeth Peacock takes the stand. Dr. Peacock has short cropped blond hair and a no nonsense personality. As gruesome as this case was, Dr. Peacock isn't fazed by the details. This is her job. She's done this a lot. Dr Peacock says Jennifer died from a gunshot wound to the torso and that it was relatively quick death. The details of what's done to her body afterward are disturbing. As a warning you might want to skip ahead by a few minutes.
Standing in front of a diagram of a human body, Peacock shows the jury photos of what happened to Jennifer after she was killed. Peacock says Jennifer's autopsy shows a bullet shot into her arm that had then entered her right breast. She says Jennifer had stab wounds on her face and neck that occurred after she had died. Then an X-ray shows that another bullet was fired into the head after her head had been removed. Bassett asks whether someone would have to intentionally shoot into the open neck to get a bullet into the brain, Peacock said, quote, With that trajectory, that seems to be obvious.
Former Austin American Statesman reporter Stephen Crytek says the medical examiner's presentation still pains him nearly 15 years after he witnessed it in court.
Often they show pictures of the victims to prove that they died and sometimes to shock the jury and some of the medical examiners.
When the medical examiner testifies, you know, that there's going to be pictures of of dead body.
And often I would just leave. I mean, if it was nobody who was shot in the heart and. There is no controversy over that, how they died and what I mean not as tough mentally and emotionally as some of the police or medical examiners and the other people deal with this. So I would leave in this this trial, I, I, I decided the cause of death. And what happened to her body was important to the to the facts of the case.
And what happened? I thought it was my duty to look and watch. And I still to this day I could feel like I could press print in my mind and see the pictures of Jennifer's body with no head or no hands on the medical examiner's table. Just pretty, pretty awful.
Now that the jury knows the details of Jennifer's mutilation, the question is why it was done and who could have done it.
Do you have a recollection of you doing any cutting on that body at all? No, I didn't cut off the body. Do you take that knife and cut on Jennifer's body with it? No, I did not. How can you be sure?
There's no way I would have done I was done with it.
Didn't truthfully sound. Didn't you know that Laura was in the process of seeing to it that that body was cut up into several different pieces? Isn't that correct?
Yes, sir. Colton testifies that a few hours after getting back to his place from breeding company, he and Laura leave once more to have pizza for dinner. There he gets two separate calls, one from Sharon Cave and another from Jennifer's ex-boyfriend. They call him to let him know the police are getting involved. What did what did Lardo. She just she said we had to get out of town and, you know, were her place, she went packed a bag and my friend to her place to pick up some room.
Colton and Laura take Laura's green Cadillac to pick up a bottle of rum she had left with her friend Ryan Martindale's place the night before.
At that time, how much whiskey had you dropped that day?
I'm not sure the exact amount just since I woke up.
How many different pills and drugs did you have that day?
I don't know. Two or three or four just south of the.
Do they consider going to Houston and getting a hotel room? But Colton says Laura took the idea a step further.
What time do you think you all left? I'm not sure if it was dark. Where did you go? We just started driving and. She says, I'm going to Mexico and that's where we ended up.
Stephanie McFarland made the closing arguments for the state. McFarland tells the jury that the fact that Colton ordered a burger at Burger King without onions just after his friend died showed that he knew what he was doing and that he was cold and calculating. McFarland says the state doesn't need to prove a motive. Just intent to kill and intent is formed in a moment, the moment a trigger is pulled on a gun. McFarland argues that Colton lacks credibility for three reasons.
First, he had a reason to lie to save his own skin. Second, because he was an addict and a drug dealer. And third, because he mutilated Jennifer's body, which shows he couldn't have cared that much about her. Sam Bassett starts off the defense's closing arguments, he repeats the Kolten killed Jennifer. He said the jury had a right to be angry with Kolten and disgusted by his actions. But he argues that what happened after her death shouldn't be confused with what caused her death.
Bassett goes on to argue that the state's case could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Colleton intentionally killed Jennifer. The trial takes six days. It's now up to the seven women and five men of the jury to decide Colton Pasternak's fate, Colton's lawyers had asked the judge to allow jurors to consider lesser charges than murder, including manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
If found guilty of manslaughter, the maximum prison time he could face is 20 years if found guilty of negligent homicide, just two. But Judge Flowers denies this request, so jurors must decide whether or not Colton is guilty of murder, which could put him in prison for life. The jury leaves the courtroom just after 11 thirty in the morning to deliberate Colton's fate. Less than two hours later, they return a verdict in hand.
Stares straight ahead, emotionless as the foreman reads it out loud, attached by stapled to the charge of two separate sheets of paper, same cause numbers style, both entitled Verdict of the jury. They read as follows. We, the jury, having found the defendant, Colton Platania, guilty of the offense of murder as alleged in the indictment.
Sharon and Jim tearfully embrace Edie and Bridget quietly hold each other in shock, Judge Flowers orders that the sentencing phase will begin at 2:00 that afternoon, and the state calls Sharon Cave to the stand once more.
And since Jennifer's death, the family has gone through the weird wedding of Whitney.
Yes, since we've lost her. We've had already jumped all to start with, he got married June.
But it's hard to have a case of that supposed to be so happy, just be so tinged with sadness, with such a loss.
And of course, Jennifer's birthday, two Christmases birthday is coming up again, Sparkasse the 12. My little niece had it's just a few weeks after her. It's birthdays, it's Christmas. It's Easter. It's Thanksgiving, which was her favorite because she loves buttermilk pie. It's called her on her cell phone tip the cell. It's the little everyday things. Oh, gosh, Jennifer would have loved that. I call her cell phone numbers, laptops, just to see if I can catch her voice.
The defense calls Coltons mom Bridgitte to the stand. No one has heard from Coltons family up to this point.
First of all, Sherrard sorry I'm so sorry for what your family is going through. It's only met Jennifer once, but she was lovely.
She's lovely. For the past 17 months, I've listened to my son as he's been portrayed as a monster, knowing that nothing could be further from the truth.
It's not in his character.
Never was and never has been in his character to hurt anybody, especially a friend, especially someone he loved so deeply.
I believe with every. Live with everything that I know, they cultic know it would not have hired his best friend in the cold hearted murder is not. He spent the last year and a half in anguish and pain for the loss of his friend. Undoubtedly he'll spend the rest of his life with this pain. But we love him so much and he's such a good man. I love you can't. The jury sentences Kolten to 55 years, he must serve 27 and a half before he's eligible for parole.
Throughout Coltons trial, a young brunette woman sits at the back of the courtroom intensely watching the proceedings. It's Laura Hall and her trial is about to begin. Next on the Orange Tree, Laura will sit at a council table in the Travis County courthouse with her lawyer, Joe Sawyer. This is one of those cases you never really forget. So you walk us through Laura's trial. It's scheduled to be eight months after Coltons. My strategy was to use the physical evidence to show them that she is as much a victim to and Potočnik as Jennifer was in the end of the matter.
Now, why? Because of Laura. I'm not planning like I we're playing when I was playing when they arrested me. I'm not playing their game now. Yeah. I don't know why I'm in jail, but this isn't part of a deal that was part of the deal. Wouldn't be here, that's for sure. 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 got 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 Drag's Technical Director. Matty Thomasin designed the podcast artwork Sabrina Labov letter marketing and PR efforts working with the Moody College and cute special thanks to Kathleen McElroy, Alexis Chavez, Kelsey Repoll, Claire Boyle and David Srinath 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 at UT, we've had the help of several students who serve as associate producers for this podcast. They include Sidney Jones, Simon Pouliot, Candice Baker Tuesday, Domingo's in Reagan, Ritterbusch Allaster Tulba, Riley Miller, Meredith Palmer, Kadija, Bill de Maya Fawwaz and Mikhaela 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 Audio 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 Kutty or your local NPR station. Hi, my name is Testbeds, and I'm Alyssa Hernandez, we're the host of Crooked Power, a podcast about how the free press stood firm against the crooked power.
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 track and audio production house at the University of Texas at Austin.