True-crime stories are a staple in podcasting, these days. And they’re often sensational tellings of murders or other crimes that don’t focus on the people whose lives were changed forever – victims and their families. “The Orange Tree” is a new podcast series from a pair of recent University of Texas journalism graduates that looks back at a murder near the UT-Austin campus, 15 years ago. Jennifer Cave was brutally killed by an acquaintance in an apartment near campus.
Tinu Thomas cohosted and coreported “The Orange Tree.” She’s also a part-time producer at KUT in Austin. She told Texas Standard host David Brown on Friday that she first heard of Cave’s murder from friends, as they walked in the West Campus neighborhood where Cave died.
“Someone pointed up at the Orange Tree, and said, ‘Have you heard about the murder that occurred at this condominium complex?'” Thomas said. “From that point, it was just something that sparked an interest in my mind.”
Cave was due to begin a new job on the day her family found she wasn’t answering phone calls. She was 21 years old. Cave was found dead in the apartment of Colton Pitonyak, a UT student and drug dealer, who had been Cave’s friend. Before Cave’s partially dismembered body was found, Pitonyak fled to Mexico with Laura Hall, also a UT student. They were returned and Pitonyak and Hall were tried for the crime.
“This really shook the community, and the fact that everyone was so young that was involved, and the fact that the crime that happened to Jennifer … was so heinous,” Thomas said.
The murder and subsequent trials of Pitonyak and Hall were covered extensively in Austin and beyond.
Thomas said she and her cohost, Hailey Butler, wanted to cover the case from a “younger perspective.” Like Cave at the time of her death, Thomas and Butler were 21 when they began reporting the story.
“We felt this really strong connection to who she was as a person,” Thomas said. “We saw ourselves in her, we saw our sisters in her, we saw ourselves in her, we saw each other in her.”
Thomas said talking to Cave’s family, many of whom had not spoken about the crime publicly before, was emotional, and will keep the case in their minds for a long time.
Being able to hear the voices of those affected by a story makes podcasting a highly personal medium, Thomas said.
“When this story was originally covered, you got to hear from some of the people involved in this case on paper,” she said.
True-crime stories can become sensationalized, and Thomas said she and Butler sought to avoid that outcome, even though details of the case make it ripe for such an approach.
“We did our best to try to tell it sensitively, and to try to tell it from a perspective of the victim’s family, as well as every other player involved,” she said.
“The Orange Tree” is available on Apple Podcasts and other podcast directories.
Web story by Shelly Brisbin.