Father Uses Family Massacre
to Help Others
By David Lohr - AolNews.com
March 20, 2010
In the early morning hours of March 1, 2008,
two young men burst into the Caffey home in Alba, Texas, and
embarked on a killing spree. Two young children and their mother
were brutally murdered. Their father, Terry Caffey, suffered
multiple gunshot wounds but somehow managed to drag himself from
the house before it was engulfed in an arson fire.
The crime was shocking enough. But when police
revealed that Caffey's teenage daughter had been involved, the
nation was stunned.
Now, two years later, Caffey is sharing the
lessons he learned from his appalling ordeal and trying to help
others who have suffered.
"I talk to young people about the dangers of
running with the wrong crowd," Caffey, 41, said in an interview
with AOL News. "I try to use my tragedy in a positive way, to
reach out to others."
Caffey's tragedy was set in motion about five
months before the murders when his 16-year-old daughter, Erin,
began dating 19-year-old Charlie Wilkinson. Neither Terry nor his
wife, 37-year-old Penny Caffey, approved of the relationship.
"Early on, I had reservations about the young
man," Caffey said. "There were just things about him that didn't
sit right with me."
Hoping the relationship would eventually
flicker out on its own, the Caffeys went about their daily
routines and focused on their Christian church and their love of
music. Tyler, 8, played the guitar and Matthew, 13, played the
harmonica. Penny played piano at church. Erin was the vocalist,
but once she started dating Wilkinson, her interests changed.
"We had been dealing with Erin, with the
rebellion going on and keeping an eye on everything," Caffey said.
On Feb. 21, 2008, Caffey went to visit his
father, Clarence "Sonny" Caffey, and found him dead of natural
causes. It was a tough week for Caffey, but there was much more
heartache to come.
"A few days after we buried my dad, we found
out some things through Charlie's MySpace page," Caffey said.
"After we saw those things -- references to drinking and sexual
activity -- we pulled Erin aside and told her that we didn't raise
her this way and that he was not good for her."
Two days after Caffey's talk with his daughter,
Wilkinson pulled up outside the Caffey house in the middle of the
night. He had two friends with him -- Charles Allen Waid, 20, and
Waid's 18-year-old girlfriend, Bobbi Gale Johnson. Erin Caffey ran
out of the house in her pajamas to meet the group and then sat in
the car while Wilkinson and Waid entered the house.
Terry Caffey recalls that it was about 2 a.m.
when a noise woke him.
"They burst into our bedroom and opened fire,
shooting me several times," Caffey said. "Not only did they come
in shooting, they also came in with a samurai sword. After they
shot Penny, they shot me three more times in the back and once in
the back of the leg. All in all, I think I had been shot 11 times.
I could not feel the right side of my body, and nothing would come
out of my mouth. I felt I had been shot in the face. Then one of
them took the sword and stabbed Penny in the neck, nearly
Caffey said he was going in and out of
consciousness, but he thought of his children, who were asleep
"I began to panic," Caffey said. "I was trying
to get up, and I heard Matthew begin to cry out. He said, 'No,
Charlie. No. Why are you doing this?' When I heard his name
mentioned by Matthew, I knew who was in my house and why he was
there. Then I heard the gunfire. I tried to get up again, but the
blood rushed to my head, and I collapsed. I was later told Matthew
had been shot, whereas they took turns stabbing Tyler, who was
hiding in a closet."
Caffey is uncertain how long he was
unconscious. While he was out, Wilkinson and Waid had gone through
the house setting fire to the furniture.
"When I woke up, the house was on fire," Caffey
said. "I knew I wasn't able to get upstairs because the flames
were just pushing me back into the bedroom, so I crawled on the
bed and found Penny. She was already gone. I finally managed to
crawl out our bathroom window and then drag myself away from the
Roughly two hours passed from the start of the
attack until Caffey was able to crawl 300 yards through the woods
to neighbor Tommy Gaston's house. When Gaston called 911, the
operator asked him where Caffey was bleeding. Gaston replied:
"Where isn't he bleeding from? It's a miracle he's here at all."
Caffey was taken to East Texas Medical Center
in Tyler and admitted to the critical care unit. Roughly three
hours later, authorities took Wilkinson, Waid and Johnson into
custody. Erin was found hiding inside a trailer that belonged to
Waid's older brother.
Erin was not initially considered a suspect.
But during police questioning, Waid told police he had been
promised $2,000 for helping "take care of business" in the
murders. According to police, all of the statements given by
Wilkinson, Waid and Johnson were the same: The murders were Erin's
She was arrested while she was on the way to
visit her father at the hospital. All four defendants were
initially charged with three counts of capital murder.
"After burying my family, I went back to stay
with my sister for a while and was reduced to living on her couch,
and everything I owned was in the cardboard box," Terry Caffey
said. "Just a few weeks prior to that, I had a beautiful home,
acreage and a beautiful family. It was all gone."
Caffey says he suffered through months of
depression and eventually decided to take his own life.
"I planned my own suicide," he said. "I decided
that when I got well enough to travel, I was going back to my
property, and I was going to end it. So when that day came, I went
back there and stood on the ashes and began to cry to God. I said,
'God, I don't understand why you took my family. Why did you do
this? I just don't understand.'
"No sooner than I said that, I looked down and
saw this scrap piece of paper from a book. It was burned around
the edges. I picked it up, and it read, 'I couldn't understand why
you would take my family and leave me behind to struggle along
without them. I may never totally understand that part of it, but
I do know that you are sovereign. You are in control.' When I read
those words, I was like, 'Wow.' It brought me to my knees."
The page was from a book called "Blind Sight,"
a novel about a man who loses his wife and two children in a car
accident and must learn to come to grips with the tragedy.
"It was written by Jim Pence, a good family
friend," Caffey said. "He was my kids' karate instructor, and he
had written several books. I hadn't read this particular one. He
had given it to my wife about two or three years before the
murders. That crumpled page described exactly where I was at that
moment. It was then that I realized that God had put all this
together, and I knew that I had been spared for a reason."
Caffey said that before he could move on with
his life, he had to forgive those who took the lives of his
family. He intervened on behalf of Wilkinson and Waid, who were
facing the death penalty, and asked that it be taken off the
"I wanted them to have a chance to find remorse
and hopefully be sorry for what they had done, have a chance for
repentance," he said.
It took several months, but eventually a plea
deal was reached. As part of that deal, Wilkinson and Waid had to
face Caffey and explain their actions.
"The only little bit of remorse I got was from
Wilkinson," Caffey said. "He kept looking down and cried a little
bit. It was pretty tough for him. He told his lawyer later that it
was the toughest thing he ever had to do, and I said, 'That's
Caffey had an equally difficult time when he
sat down with his daughter.
"I asked her about it, and she started crying,"
he said. "She said, 'I have nothing to hide from you. I will tell
you anything you want.'"
He said Erin told him she knew of the plot but
tried to get away that night, and the others forced her to wait in
the car while they killed her family. "Her boyfriend has tried to
pin it on her, saying she was the mastermind, and he was just
going along with it because she brainwashed him, but I knew that
was not true. That's not her."
Caffey admits his decision to forgive his
daughter and the others has brought a lot of criticism, but he
says he doesn't let it bother him.
"People ask me, 'How could you forgive your
daughter and how could you forgive those who murdered your
family?' I am not trying to justify anything. This is my
In October 2008, Wilkinson and Waid were each
sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Three months later, Johnson and Erin Caffey both pleaded guilty to
murder. Johnson was sentenced to two 40-year concurrent sentences,
and Erin was given two consecutive life sentences, plus 25 years.
Johnson will be eligible for parole in 24 years. Erin will not be
eligible until she serves roughly 40 years of her sentence.
Terry Caffey has since remarried and is now a
stepfather to two children. He stepped down from his job with a
medical supply company last year and now focuses on his ministry
and speaking engagements. He also recently released a book,
"Terror by Night," which details the murders of his family and his
rise from tragedy. He co-authored the book with Pence, author of
On Thursday, Caffey began a two-week speaking
tour. He will be visiting churches and public schools to talk
about everything he has endured in an effort to reach out to
others in a positive way.
"I get e-mails and letters just about every day
from all over the country, from people who are hurting and
suffering," Caffey said, "people who are going through maybe
similar things or maybe things just totally completely opposite of
what I have gone through, but yet I have been able to help."
Erin Caffey, 17, gets 2 life
terms in family death
January 3, 2009
EMORY, Texas — A teenage girl charged with
capital murder for her role in the deaths of her mother and two
young brothers agreed to a plea deal that could make her eligible
for parole when she's 59, her attorney said.
Erin Caffey, 17, accepted the agreement Friday,
said defense attorney William McDowell. She had been scheduled to
be tried as an adult next month in Hopkins County.
"I think it was a just sentence," McDowell
said. "Everyone is pleased with it."
Authorities said Caffey, her boyfriend and two
other co-defendants plotted to kill Caffey's parents because they
didn't approve of her boyfriend. Caffey was 16 at the time of the
Police reports said she and Bobbi Gale Johnson
waited in a car down the road from Caffey's home in Alba while
boyfriend Charlie James Wilkinson, 19, and Charles Allen Waid, 20,
went on a shooting and stabbing rampage before setting fire to the
Penny Caffey, 37, and her sons Mathew, 13, and
Tyler, 8, died in the attack in March. Terry Caffey, 41, was shot
five times but escaped from the burning house, saying he
recognized Wilkinson shooting him and his wife in their bed,
sheriff's officials said.
Caffey has since recovered from his gunshot
All four defendants were initially charged with
three counts of capital murder. Prosecutors had said they didn't
plan to seek the death penalty against Erin Caffey.
Wilkinson and Waid also avoided the death
penalty in November by pleading guilty for their involvement in
the killings. McDowell said both would likely receive life
sentences with parole
Johnson, named as an accomplice who did not use
a weapon, was sentenced to 40 years in prison and may be eligible
for parole in 20 years, the Tyler Morning Telegraph reported
Alba is about 60 miles northeast of Dallas.
Daughter, 16, charged in murder of mother,
March 3, 2008
A teenager has been formally
charged in the killings of her mother and two young brothers, a
crime that has left the family's tiny Texas town of Alba reeling.
Police are not releasing the
daughter's name because she is a juvenile, but said they believe
she was angry because her parents would not let her date one of
three other suspects.
Authorities say the girl took
part in the slayings, The Associated Press is reporting.
She was found hiding in a
mobile home where one of the suspects lived, said Rains Sheriff
Also arraigned on three counts
each of capital murder are: Charlie James Wilkinson, 19; Charles
Allen Waid, 20; and Bobbi Gale Johnson, 18, who is female.
Bond was set at $1.5 million
for each of the four, said Traylor.
Traylor said the teenage
daughter had been dating Wilkinson.
"Early on in the investigation
it was revealed that the juvenile and one of the suspects were
dating and made to break up," Traylor said in a statement.
The Caffey family was sleeping
when the pre-dawn attack on Saturday began, he said.
According to Traylor, the
mother, Penny Caffey, 37, was shot and stabbed. Tyler Caffey, 8,
was stabbed. Mathew Caffey, 13, was shot and stabbed. Authorities
said they found the family in the ashes of their home, which had
been set on fire.
The teenage girl's father,
Terry Caffey, was shot in the head but was able to crawl 300 yards
to a neighbor's home where 911 was called. Caffey helped police
identify one of the suspects, said Traylor.
The sheriff told reporters
late Sunday that Terry Caffey was on his way to surgery to have
four slugs removed.
Carl Johnson, a family friend,
told the AP he saw the bloody trail the father left as he dragged
himself to a neighbor's house.
Johnson told AP the family
members were musicians and that the boys played guitar and
harmonica and the mother is a church piano player.
"I just thought the whole
world of the family," said Johnson, 75. "They were good Christian
people. [The father] was like a son of my own."
The killings shocked many in
the small east Texas town, the town's mayor said Sunday.
"There hasn't been a murder
here in 18 years," said Orvin Carroll, longtime mayor of Alba -- a
town of about 430 people east of Dallas.
"We are all just a little
shocked. This is a place where people do not lock their doors. But
that is changing," Carroll added.
"We can't believe this could
happen to a mother and her children. Not here."
Investigators Say Family
Opposition to Boyfriend May Be Behind Brutal Texas Murders
March 2, 2008
Investigators say a bloody attack on a rural
East Texas family's home may have resulted from family opposition
to a daughter's boyfriend.
Rains County Sheriff department confirmed
Sunday a 16-year-old girl is one of four suspects being held for
the violent murders of her mother and two brothers.
The girl, whose name is being withheld due to
her age, is the girlfriend of one of the suspects, investigators
revealed. Neighbors told MyFOXDFW.com that the girl's parents,
Terry and Penny Caffey, were trying to break up the couple.
"I knew that Terry and Penny didn't like him
and were going to make her split up with him," the unidentified
neighbor told the station.
The teen was found by police early Sunday
hiding at the home of one of the suspects, although it was not
clear from the police account which of them she was dating or
where she has been hiding.
The four suspects, which include the
unidentified teen, 19-year-old Charlie James Wilkinson,
18-year-old Bobbi Gale Johnson and Charles Allen Wade, 20, went
before the Justice of the Peace and were formally charged Sunday
morning with three counts of capital murder each, police said. All
remained in Rains County Jail with bonds set at $1.5 million.
The scene of the attack was about 20 acres of
pine-canopied, remote woodland on a narrow gravel road with just
two other homes between the small East Texas towns of Emory and
Alba. That is about 60 miles northeast of Dallas in Rains County,
the second-smallest county in Texas.
Penny Caffey, 37, was killed along with her two
sons, Tyler Caffey, 8, and Mathew Caffey 13, according to police.
All had been shot and stabbed multiple times. Terry Caffey was in
critical but stable condition Sunday in East Texas Medical Center
in Tyler, where he was being treated for a gunshot wound to the
Despite his wound, the father was able to crawl
about 300 yards to a neighbor's house to seek help. Meanwhile,
flames consumed the Caffeys' home with the bodies of Mrs. Caffey
and their two sons inside.
The sheriff said authorities could not
determine whether gunshots or the fire caused the deaths of Penny,
Tyler, 8, and Mathew, 13, saying, "The bodies have been so badly
Autopsies have been ordered.
Carl Johnson, a family friend, said he drove to
the secluded road early Saturday after being told of the fire.
Johnson described the family as musicians, the
boys playing guitars and harmonica and the mother piano at church.
He said he'd often tell the teenage daughter that he wanted her to
sing at his funeral.
"I just thought the whole world of the family,"
said Johnson, 75. "They were good Christian people. (The father)
was like a son of my own."
Harold Read, who lives about a mile away, said
he was awakened by what he thought was thunder around 4 a.m., the
time when authorities were first called to the house.
"All you read about out here are ticky-tacky
crimes in the local paper," said Read, 67. "I never lock my doors.
This is a quiet place."
By late Saturday, firefighters sifted through
the ash and singed metal that was all that remained from the
house. A wooden sign tacked to a tree in the family's dirt
driveway read "Joshua 24:15," and a burned van was parked near
where the home once stood.
Joshua 24:15, a verse from the Old Testament,
reads in part, "But as for me and my household, we will serve the
Four Teenagers Arrested In Connection To
Triple Murder Investigation
By Tracy Watler - Kltv.com
March 1, 2008
Three members of one family have been found
dead at a burnt home in Rains County and local high school
students are being accused in their deaths. The three bodies were
found at a home about halfway between Alba and Emory off of
As the sun began to set on the Rains County
Road, investigators were still sifting through rubble. It's all
that's left of a two-story home, belonging to the Caffey family.
"It's a scary scene, I mean you just you don't
want to imagine, I guess you imagine the worst and hope for the
best," says Rains County Sheriff David Traylor. Called out to the
home around 4:00 a.m. Saturday for an apparent gunshot victim and
house fire, they also found:
"Three victims have been found in the
residence, a burned residence," said Traylor. "The victims have
been burned, and they have been sent to Swift's for autopsies."
Those victims have been identified as Penny Caffey, 39, and her
two sons, an eight-year-old and 13-year-old. The father, Terry
Caffey, was shot, but made it out of the burning house alive.
Bleeding, he crawled to a neighbor's home for help.
Right now, it's unknown if the three victims
died from the fire, or gunshot wounds.
"At this time we do not know, the bodies have
been so badly burned," said Traylor. The Rains County Sheriff's
Office is releasing little details, but we do know four suspects
have been arrested, two boys and two girls. All have been charged
with three counts of capital murder.
"I just can't believe something like this would
happen in a small town," said Emory resident Joyce Bell. "It's
really sad." The alleged murder investigation is the talk of the
town. We spoke with several people at "Ya'll Come Back Cafe," who
say they knew the two boys who've been arrested in connection to
"They partied sometimes, but they were never
bad kids to me, I mean shocked me hearing about it because they're
not like that, especially towards me," said one friend, who hung
out with them all the time, even talked to them Friday night.
"I don't understand how they just changed in an
instance, I don't understand," said the friend. "I think there's
something that influenced them because they're not that type of
"I just can't believe it," said Emory High
School student Montrel Christian. "You just wouldn't think
anything like that would happen to him." KLTV 7 is starting to
learn more about the victims. The mother, Penny Caffey, was an
employee of Meals On Wheels. She worked as a substitute driver,
delivering meals to members of the Emory community. The father,
Terry and the young children were all very involved in their
church. They were sang and played instruments for the church
band. Everyone in Emory is horrified to hear of their deaths,
especially those who knew the family.
"I just love them to death," said family friend
Carl Johnson. "It was just like losing one of my kids when I
found out about it, Erin, Bubba, Tyler, I knew everyone of them
since they were just kids." Right now, investigators are left
figuring out how the family died, piecing together a puzzle out of
Investigators tells us there were five members
of the Caffey family, including a 16-year-old daughter. They say
she is alive, and was not shot, but they will not tell us where
she is and if she was, in any way, involved.
KLTV 7 is starting to learn more about the
victims. The mother, Penny Caffey, was an employee of Meals On
Wheels. She worked as a substitute driver, delivering meals to
members of the Emory community. The father and young children
were all very involved in their church. They were sang and played
instruments for the church band.
Flesh and Blood
Why did a small-town girl have her family
By Pamela Colloff - Texas Monthly.com
was the only officer on duty on March 1, 2008, when the call came
into the Rains County sheriff’s office just after four-thirty in
the morning that there had been a shooting at the Caffey
residence. The Caffeys lived in a modest cabin set deep in the
woods along a one-lane gravel road outside Alba, a rural community
of 492 people halfway between Sulphur Springs and Tyler. Most
folks around Alba and Emory, the nearby county seat, knew the
family; Penny played piano at Miracle Faith Baptist Church, and
her husband, Terry, was a home health aide and lay preacher. Their
daughter, Erin, worked as a carhop at the Sonic. They also had two
sons: Matthew, known as Bubba, who was in the seventh grade, and
Tyler, a fourth-grader. The Caffey children—who had been
homeschooled for three years—were shy and well mannered, though
sixteen-year-old Erin was the least reserved. A slight, pretty
blonde, she was known for her beautiful singing voice, which she
showcased in soaring gospel solos at Miracle Faith on Sundays.
Dickerson headed east along U.S. 69 and turned
down the road that led through the woods to the Caffeys’ house,
following the crooked path as it rambled beneath pine canopies and
over dry creeks, past a neighbor’s hand-lettered sign that read,
“Acknowledge thine iniquity—Jeremiah 3:13.” Daybreak was still a
few hours off, and the road beyond the glare of his headlights was
pitch-black. Dickerson strained to see a mailbox or a landmark
that might orient him to his surroundings, but the houses were few
and far between. At a bend where the trees thinned out, he spotted
a murky orange glow in the distance. As he drove nearer, he could
see that a house was on fire. Dickerson realized that he was
looking at the Caffey home.
The cabin appeared to have been burning for
some time; the structure was engulfed in flames, and the metal
roof had begun to buckle under its own weight. Dickerson radioed
his dispatcher to mobilize the county’s volunteer fire departments
and sped down the road to Tommy Gaston’s house, where the 911 call
Gaston, a genial man with a head of white hair,
was the Caffeys’ closest neighbor, and he looked relieved to see
the sheriff’s deputy at his door. Just beyond him, sprawled across
the living room floor, was Terry Caffey. He had been shot five
times: once in the head, twice near his right shoulder, and two
more times in the back. His face and upper body were caked with
blood. Although it was a cold night, the 41-year-old was wearing a
T-shirt, pajama bottoms, no shoes, and a single wet sock. He had
stumbled and crawled five hundred yards from his home, where he
had been left for dead, to Gaston’s—a journey that had taken him
nearly an hour, all told. Along the way, he had fallen into a
creek, where he had almost drowned, but he had kept moving,
staggering toward Gaston’s house as the fire behind him grew more
intense. There was so much blood that Dickerson could not tell
where he had been shot. “They’re all gone,” Caffey told the
sheriff’s deputy, his voice breaking. “Charlie Wilkinson shot my
The ambulance was
about to pull away from Tommy Gaston’s house when sheriff’s
investigator Richard Almon, who had hurried to the scene, climbed
inside. “I don’t think I’m going to make it,” Caffey sputtered,
straining to catch his breath. Almon crouched beside the gurney
and asked him a few hurried questions. Charlie Wilkinson was his
daughter’s boyfriend, Caffey told the detective, and he and his
wife had recently demanded that Erin stop seeing him. Charlie had
broken into the house and shot Caffey and his family as they
Almon clambered out of the ambulance and shared
what he had learned with chief deputy Kurt Fischer. In rural
communities as small as Alba and Emory, there are no strangers,
and Fischer shook his head when he heard Charlie’s name. His boys
were friends with the clean-cut high school senior and had fished
and gone four-wheeling with him many times before; in fact,
Fischer told the detective, he had spotted Charlie’s car parked
outside Matthew Waid’s trailer while driving to the crime scene.
Waid was a few years older than Charlie, and Charlie and his
buddies sometimes drank at his place and stayed the night.
All the lights were out in the rundown blue
single-wide when Fischer and sheriff’s deputy Ed Emig pulled up
outside. A teenager whom Fischer did not recognize groggily came
to the door; he was unsure if Charlie had spent the night or not,
but he agreed to let the officers in. Fischer walked from room to
room, stepping over piles of dirty clothes and empty beer cans as
he went, startling Waid and his girlfriend from their sleep.
Fischer told them he needed to talk to Charlie Wilkinson.
As Fischer continued down the hall, he saw that
a blanket covered the empty door frame of one bedroom. Pulling the
blanket back, he shone his flashlight inside. He could see Charlie
lying on a mattress, awake, wearing only blue jeans. A
semiautomatic handgun lay on the floor beside him.
“Charlie—it’s Kurt,” Fischer said. “Let me see
“What’s going on?” Charlie said. He hesitated,
and Fischer thought he might reach for the gun.
“Let me see your hands,” repeated the chief
He led Charlie outside in handcuffs and sat him
on the porch; he read the teenager his Miranda rights and told him
that he was being taken in for questioning. The Caffey family had
been attacked and killed earlier that morning, Fischer informed
him. Charlie hung his head and was quiet.
“Were you involved in this?” Fischer asked.
“No, sir,” Charlie said, shaking his head. “I
got drunk last night and passed out.”
Deputy Emig went inside to get Charlie a shirt
and his cowboy boots. As Emig carried them out to the porch, he
noticed that they were spattered with blood. The officers put
Charlie in the back of the squad car, where he stared out the
window in silence as they drove through the woods toward Emory in
the predawn gloom.
At daybreak, the fire was still smoldering.
Volunteer firefighters had struggled for several hours to put out
the flames, but the house had burned down to its foundation. Later
that day, when the bodies of the two Caffey boys were pulled from
the rubble, one firefighter, overcome with emotion, fell to his
After Charlie was
brought to the county jail, Fischer obtained a search warrant from
the justice of the peace and returned to the trailer to collect
any evidence that might tie Charlie to the crime scene. In the
living room, he found a camouflage-colored purse with a driver’s
license inside it belonging to Erin Caffey. He began searching the
back bedroom where Charlie had been found. There was no overhead
light, so he pulled a blanket off one of the windows to illuminate
his view. Spent shell casings lay scattered across the carpet, and
next to the mattress sat a box of ammunition. Fischer picked up a
black-and-white Western shirt, and a used condom slipped onto the
Near the closet, he lifted up a blanket that
was piled on the floor and noticed a shock of blond hair. For an
instant, he thought he had found a doll. He pushed the hair aside
to get a better look and watched, dumbfounded, as two eyes opened.
A girl was sitting with her back to the wall,
in a fetal position. Fischer drew his gun and commanded her to
show him her hands, but she just stared at him.
“What’s your name?” Fischer asked.
“Erin,” she stammered. Fischer recognized her
from her driver’s license photo.
The chief deputy brought her into the living
room, where Matthew Waid and his girlfriend sat on the couch.
Fischer had already informed the couple that the Caffey family was
dead. Waid stared at the girl in disbelief and confirmed that she
was Erin Caffey.
“How did you get here?” Fischer asked her.
Erin stood wide-eyed in her pajamas,
bewildered, as she surveyed the room. “I don’t know,” she mumbled.
“Where am I?”
Erin’s pastor, Todd
McGahee, once joked that if he had five more of her, he could fill
his church on Sundays. Erin was cute and petite, with blue-gray
eyes and a flirtatious smile, and she thrived on attention. Boys
often came to Miracle Faith just to see her, and several of them
credited her with bringing them closer to Jesus. At the Sonic on
Emory’s main drag, she was the only carhop who delivered her
orders wearing roller skates, and most afternoons, her admirers
parked on whichever side of the drive-in she was waiting on. Yet
despite her effect on boys, she struck people as hopelessly naive.
“She gushed innocence,” remembered a co-worker (who, like many
teenagers interviewed for this story, asked to remain anonymous).
“A lot of guys flirted with her, and she would just blush and
smile and duck her head down and skate inside and tell me, ‘That
guy wanted my number!’ And I’d say, ‘Did you tell him that your
mom would be answering the phone?’”
Terry and Penny Caffey were protective—some
said overly protective—of their daughter. Her homeschooling had
begun when she was thirteen, after the family had moved to Alba
from Celeste, a small town about an hour’s drive away. Terry and
Penny had wanted to be closer to Miracle Faith, where they were
then serving as the church’s youth ministers. Erin and her
brothers had initially enrolled in their new public schools; she
started the eighth grade at Rains Junior High, and Bubba and Tyler
attended Rains Elementary. Then, that fall, an incident at the
junior high had upset Terry and Penny: A girl who had been showing
interest in Erin had kissed her in the hallway. The Caffeys
abruptly pulled their children out of school a month into the
academic year, and Penny began teaching them a Bible-based
curriculum at home. She and Terry hoped that the individual
instruction might benefit Erin, who had been diagnosed with
attention deficit disorder and lagged behind her classmates. It
was an isolated existence for an otherwise social girl whose life
was largely circumscribed to Miracle Faith and her parents’ house,
six miles from town.
Faith was the cornerstone of the Caffeys’
lives. They attended Bible study on Wednesday nights and church
every Sunday and set aside several hours each week to rehearse
gospel songs—with Penny playing piano, Bubba on guitar and
harmonica, and Erin singing vocals. (Tyler, the youngest,
preferred to play outdoors.) Terry and Penny had met at a revival
meeting in Garland when she was 21 and he was 24, and their strong
Baptist faith had always bound them together. Above their driveway
hung a polished cedar plank with the inscription: “The
Caffeys—Joshua 24:15.” The verse, which Terry had committed to
memory, was a reminder that they had chosen a righteous path: “If
it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom
ye will serve . . . as for me and my house, we will serve the
Lord.” Their children also shared their devotion. Bubba used to
witness to whoever would listen, and Erin cried tears of joy when
she sang her Sunday church solos—so much so that sometimes she had
to stop, mid-verse, to collect herself. “I know there’s no such
thing as perfect, but in my book, they were,” said Tommy Gaston,
who was a frequent guest in their home and played in a gospel band
When Erin turned sixteen, in July 2007, she got
her driver’s license and an old Chevy pickup and started working
at the Sonic. “She was so sheltered,” said her co-worker.
“It was like she was seeing the world for the first time.” One day
at a church fellowship meeting, Miracle Faith’s new youth director
came upon Erin making out with a teenage boy. Several kids had
already seen her sitting on a picnic table behind the church,
kissing the boy while he eased his hand up her shirt. Erin had
invited him over to her house before and considered him to be her
boyfriend. But Terry and Penny, who separated the two teenagers
that day at Miracle Faith, were deeply embarrassed by her
behavior. “You’re not going to see that boy no more,” Terry told
was not the most polished guy to take an interest in Erin. He
always seemed to be broke, and he drove a beat-up 1991 Ford
Explorer that had to be push-started. He was good-looking in an
unassuming kind of way, with sandy hair and light-blue eyes, and
he nearly always wore Wranglers, black cowboy boots, and an
oversized black Western hat. (On MySpace, he went by the name
Hillbilly.) He had met Erin at the Sonic a few weeks before the
start of his senior year, having just returned home from boot camp
at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, with his Texas National Guard unit.
Charlie would later remember the electricity of the moment when
Erin had glided up to his car window to deliver his order.
“Instant vibe,” he said, snapping his fingers.
Charlie lived in the country with his father,
his stepmother, a stepbrother, a stepsister, and a
half-sister. His dad worked at a paper mill outside Dallas. His
mother had moved to Del Rio after his parents divorced, and he saw
her only once or twice a year. An avid hunter, he spent much of
his time fishing and tracking wild hogs through the brush, and
like most of his friends, he was proficient with a firearm. He
planned to go on active duty after graduation. He had never been
arrested, and at school, he had no serious disciplinary
problems—but he was hotheaded, and other students knew it was easy
to get a rise out of him. “Some guys would really tease him and
pick at him until he would get angry,” remembered a classmate.
Charlie might strike his desk or storm out of the classroom when
he was provoked, but he usually walked away from a fight.
Throughout the fall, Charlie visited the Sonic
to see Erin. For Halloween, she dressed up as a fifties carhop,
coasting around the Sonic in a homemade pink-and-white poodle
skirt with a pink scarf knotted at her neck. Shortly after that he
worked up the nerve to ask her out. She was instantly taken with
him, and Charlie too seemed to be infatuated. “He was totally in
love with her and considered her his soul mate,” Dion Kipp Jr., a
friend of Charlie’s, later told investigators. “Charlie talked
about Erin twenty-four-seven.” Though the Caffeys would not allow
Charlie to take Erin out alone, the two teenagers still managed to
spend much of their time together. Charlie dropped by the Sonic
every afternoon during Erin’s half-hour break, and at night, he
was a frequent guest at the Caffeys’ house. If Erin and her
brothers built a bonfire in the backyard after supper, as they
often did, he lingered by her side. At nine o’clock, the Caffeys
made sure that Charlie was headed for the door—but after he said
goodbye, Erin usually called him and talked to him until her ten
o’clock phone curfew. (On the weekends, they had until eleven.)
Charlie also began attending church at Miracle Faith. “What I knew
of Charlie, he seemed like a nice boy,” said Pastor McGahee. “I
don’t think anyone worried about him and Erin at first. We thought
it was just puppy love.”
In December Erin asked her parents if she could
return to public school. Her brothers had already reenrolled that
fall after Bubba, who was thirteen, told them that he missed his
friends, and the Caffeys—who were eager to free up time for Penny
to earn some extra income—agreed to let Erin go back before
Christmas. At school, where she enrolled as a freshman, she and
Charlie were inseparable; they ate lunch together and walked down
the hall hand in hand, and sometimes they slipped away to Erin’s
pickup to fool around. Terry began allowing them to go out for
dinner every now and then, with the assurance that Charlie would
have Erin home no later than nine-thirty. Often they went to a
friend’s house where they could be alone, and after Christmas,
they had sex for the first time. One night not long afterward,
Charlie pulled his car over on a country road, knelt on the
pavement, and presented Erin with his grandmother’s engagement
ring. It was a promise ring, he told her. Though it was not a
formal proposal, he was declaring his intentions.
Penny noticed the ring on Erin’s finger a few
days later at a church function and ordered her to give it back.
Charlie was playing basketball outside the fellowship hall that
afternoon, and Terry pulled him aside. “This is totally
inappropriate,” he told the boy, who shrugged. “You’re promising
yourself to my daughter? Do you realize she is sixteen years old?”
Terry had already begun to grow uneasy with how fast the
relationship seemed to be moving. He did not care for Charlie, and
he was not happy about how much time the high school senior was
spending with his daughter. He had never gotten over Charlie’s
nonchalant attitude when they first met; Terry had come home from
work, and Charlie—his legs slung over the side of Terry’s
armchair—had not bothered to stand up or shake his hand. “I don’t
like that boy,” Terry used to tell Penny. “If he can’t show me any
respect, how does he treat our daughter?”
From then on, the Caffeys limited Erin’s time
with Charlie to once a week, in their home, under their watch.
Furious with her parents, Erin told her aunt that she planned on
running away to be with Charlie when she turned seventeen. More
and more she and her mother were at odds, and Erin once called
Charlie in tears to report that Penny had slapped her in the heat
of an argument. Then, in early February, Penny overheard Erin
giggling one night past her phone curfew—Erin had sneaked her cell
phone into her room to call Charlie. Penny informed her daughter
that she was grounded. Erin’s car keys and phone were taken away,
and for weeks, her parents drove her to and from school. Worst of
all, as far as Erin was concerned, Charlie’s weekly visits to the
house were suspended.
Killing her parents,
Erin told Charlie, was their best option. She talked about the
idea relentlessly. In school, she brought up the subject once or
twice a day; during a lunch break in mid-February, a junior
overheard her tell Charlie that killing her parents was the only
way they could be together. Charlie, who turned eighteen that
month, wanted to be with Erin, and he promised to do whatever it
took to make her happy. His father used to joke that he had “lost
puppy dog syndrome”—he tried to help whoever was down on his luck;
Erin was someone he wanted to rescue. Charlie told several friends
that he intended to kill her parents. Still, sometimes he seemed
ambivalent about their plan. He only wanted to run away with Erin,
he told a buddy. As late as two days before the murders, he
gloomily admitted to the same friend that he wished he could just
get her pregnant so the Caffeys would have no choice but to accept
him. But Erin was insistent. She was too young to have a baby, she
said, and as long as her parents were alive, she and Charlie would
have to be apart. “She had him around her finger, pretty much,”
said a girl who was a senior at the time. “She could get him to do
whatever she wanted. She asked for something, she got it.”
At Miracle Faith, people sensed that something
was wrong in the Caffey home. Penny was withdrawn for most of
February, and she declined to go on a women’s church retreat,
saying that she needed to spend more time with her family. At
church functions, Erin was aloof and distracted. During a
Valentine’s Day dinner that was hosted by her youth group, she
stood idly by, too preoccupied to even fill water glasses. The
pastor’s wife, Rebecca McGahee, was deeply troubled by her
demeanor later that month, when she sang at her grandfather’s
funeral. Terry’s father had died of a heart attack on February 21,
and though none of the Caffeys had been close to him, they
performed “Amazing Grace” in his honor. Terry and Bubba played
harmonica, with Penny on piano. But Erin—whose jubilant singing
often brought parishioners to their feet—turned in a listless,
halfhearted performance. Her voice faltered, and her cousin, who
did not have her natural talent, outshone her. Rebecca sensed that
something was spiritually wrong with the girl. “Erin’s anointing
had lifted,” she said. “She couldn’t sing a lick.”
On February 27, three days before the murders,
the Caffeys demanded that Erin break up with Charlie. Earlier that
day, Penny had stopped by the local library, at her sister’s
suggestion, and gone online to look at Charlie’s MySpace profile,
which had included comments about having sex and getting drunk.
When Erin came home that afternoon, her father and mother were
waiting for her in the living room. “It’s over,” Terry told her.
“You’re breaking up with him today. I mean, it’s over now.” To
their surprise, she did not protest. She had wanted to break
things off with Charlie for a while, she tearfully confessed, but
had not been sure how. Before the family left for Bible study,
Erin promised that she would end things with Charlie.
You’re Erin Caffey?”
chief deputy Fischer asked the girl again. She nodded and looked
as if she might throw up. In her flower-print pajamas, with her
blond hair pulled back into a ponytail, she seemed sweet and
guileless. She glanced apprehensively around the trailer. She was
disoriented, and Fisher thought that she appeared to be under the
influence of some kind of drug.
“Can you tell me what happened?” Fischer asked.
“Fire,” she said, her voice trailing off.
Erin was taken by ambulance to the Hopkins
County Memorial Hospital, in Sulphur Springs, where she was given
a full medical assessment. At the suggestion of Detective Almon,
she was interviewed in the hospital’s trauma room by Shanna
Sanders, the young, personable chief of police for the Rains
Independent School District who was on a first-name basis with
most of the high school’s students. Sheriff’s deputy Serena Booth
sat in. At the time, Erin was believed to be a victim—a girl who,
investigators presumed, had been kidnapped after the murders.
Gently, Sanders asked Erin what she remembered.
In a timid, childlike voice that Sanders had to strain to hear,
Erin spoke haltingly, offering few details. She seemed confused,
repeatedly telling the officers that she was fourteen years old.
She had woken up in a house full of smoke, she said. There had
been “two guys with swords” dressed in black who had ordered her
to get down on the floor. Though she was unsure how she had gotten
to the trailer, she said, she did remember trying to call her
“friend” Charlie and being unable to reach him. Then she drank
“some stuff” that was offered to her at the trailer, and she could
not recall anything afterward. She was teary at the start of the
interview, but otherwise she showed little emotion. When Sanders
asked if she had anything else to say, Erin whispered, “They’re
coming after me.”
Sanders and Booth would later reflect on the
fact that Erin had not smelled like smoke, and Sanders regretted
that she had turned away to give Erin some privacy when her
maternal grandmother, Virginia Daily, had come to tell her that
her father had, miraculously, survived the attack. But that
morning, the two officers felt only pity for the soft-spoken girl
who had just lost her mother and two brothers. They stayed with
her for five hours until she was released from the hospital, then
offered to accompany her and her grandparents to the intensive
care unit at the East Texas Medical Center in Tyler to see Erin’s
father. “You’re a tough little girl,” Sanders told her.
Her story was
already beginning to unravel, though, as Charlie was being
questioned at the sheriff’s office in Emory. Detective Almon, a
plainspoken Navy veteran with a blunt, intense manner, led the
interrogation, while Texas Ranger John Vance assisted. At the
outset, Charlie muttered, “I’m in a lot of trouble.” Almon
informed Charlie that he had been identified by a victim who had
survived the attack and asked him to tell them exactly what had
happened the previous night. If Charlie was startled by the news
that he had left behind an eyewitness, he did not give himself
away. Slowly, though, he began to parcel out information. Erin had
called him the day before, Charlie said. She was, he recounted,
“still pretty pissed off about her parents telling us we could not
see each other.” Once again, she told him that she wanted them
dead. Charlie had urged her to just run away, but Erin had said,
“No, kill them.”
Around one-thirty the next morning, he told
Almon, he and a friend had gone to the Caffey home. The friend,
whom he initially refused to identify, was his hunting buddy
Charles Waid, Matthew’s younger brother. The twenty-year-old
needed money, and Charlie had promised him $2,000 if he would help
him kill the Caffeys—cash that Erin had told Charlie he would find
in a lockbox inside the house. They brought along Waid’s
girlfriend, a bubbly high school senior named Bobbi Johnson, whose
silver Dodge Neon they were driving. According to Charlie, Johnson
did not know what the boys’ plans were but had insisted on coming
with them. Charlie told the detective that when
they first drove up, the Caffeys’ dog had barked so much that they
decided to leave, but Erin called him on his cell phone afterward
and promised to keep the dog quiet when he returned. And so with
Waid behind the wheel of the Neon, they went back to the Caffeys’
The threesome picked Erin up at the end of her
parents’ driveway and rode around for an hour, talking about what
to do. Charlie told the detective that he asked Erin several times
to consider running away, but she was emphatic that she wanted her
parents dead. Finally, they turned back toward the Caffey home and
parked down the road. It was agreed that Charlie would kill Erin’s
parents, and Waid would take care of the two boys so no witnesses
would be left behind. “I ain’t got no conscience,” Charlie said to
the investigators about his decision to follow through on Erin’s
wishes. “I joined the Army to do whatever needed to be done
without thinking.” As for her parents, he said, “I intended to
kill them because I thought I was in love.”
According to Charlie, the girls had stayed
behind in the car while he and Waid went inside. They entered
through the front door, which Erin had left open. Armed with a
.22-caliber pistol and two samurai swords, they moved through the
house with brutal efficiency. Charlie crept into Terry and Penny’s
first-floor bedroom and fired at them until his gun jammed. He
handed the gun to Waid, who fixed the .22 and fired two more
shots. They left the room, and then Charlie came back and cut
Penny’s throat to make sure she was dead. The sound of gunfire had
woken Bubba and Tyler, who called out for their parents and then
locked themselves in Erin’s room.
Charlie told the detective that when he and
Waid were satisfied that Erin’s parents were dead, Waid instructed
him “to go get the kids” because “little ones talk.” Charlie had
balked, and Waid, in return, threatened to leave. Charlie went
upstairs and told the boys to come out of Erin’s room and go to
their beds. “They were scared, and I could not stand to look at
their faces,” he said. Bubba tried to put up a fight by kicking
Charlie, and when he did, Waid, who was still downstairs, raised
the .22, aimed at the balcony where the brothers stood, and shot
Bubba in the face. He fell to the floor and did not move again.
Charlie, who had narrated the night’s events with stoic
detachment, broke down as he recounted how Waid had then come
upstairs and stabbed eight-year-old Tyler. “I could not do it,” he
said, covering his face with his hands. “Why did he have to die?”
Yet Charlie said he thought he had also stabbed Tyler at least
After the killing spree, Charlie told the
detective, he had carried a suitcase of Erin’s belongings, which
she had previously packed, out to the car. She seemed happy, he
remembered. She smiled and said, “I’m glad that’s over.” He and
Waid went back inside and retrieved the lockbox, which Charlie
opened using the combination that Erin had given him. The take,
along with the contents of Terry’s wallet and Penny’s purse,
amounted to $375 and some change, he said. Then they used their
pocket lighters to set fire to furniture and clothes and
bedsheets. As they hurried down the gravel road away from the
Caffeys’ home, the teenagers could see that the house was ablaze.
They drove down back roads for a while to blow
off steam. Later that night, he told the detective, Waid dropped
him and Erin off at the trailer, where they had sex. “I hope that
God forgives me,” Charlie added.
moved forward quickly on Saturday afternoon. Almon learned that
Erin’s toxicology test—she had been screened for Rohypnol, GHB,
and other drugs that can cause memory loss—had come back negative.
She also showed no symptoms of smoke inhalation. Chief deputy
Fischer picked up Bobbi Johnson outside the restaurant where she
washed dishes, and he pulled Charles Waid over driving her car.
Johnson, who had recently played a minor role in the Rains High
School production of Oklahoma!, seemed to be in high
spirits. At the sheriff’s office that afternoon, she played dumb
with the officers until they told her they had Waid and Wilkinson
in custody, at which point she admitted what she knew. Waid, who
held out the longest, finally confessed under Almon’s relentless
Their detailed accounts of the night were
consistent with Charlie’s. A former special-ed student with a
heavy-lidded gaze, Waid showed no remorse, and he casually
recounted how he had killed the two boys. Before the conclusion of
the interview, he added a detail to the story that Charlie had
left out. As they had driven away from the burning house, he said,
Erin had cried out, “Holy shit, that was awesome!”
While the suspects were being questioned in the
sheriff’s office in Emory, Erin’s grandparents were driving her to
the hospital in Tyler, escorted by Chief Sanders and Deputy Booth.
Just a few minutes into the drive, however, Sanders’ cell phone
rang. It was Fischer, calling to inform Sanders that Erin had been
implicated in the Caffey murders and she needed to be placed under
arrest. For a moment, Fischer heard only dead silence on the other
end of the line. Sanders passed the phone to Booth. “You want us
to do what now?” Booth asked, incredulous.
Sanders pulled her squad car into a parking
lot, and the Dailys followed. She informed them that she had been
instructed to arrest their granddaughter in connection with the
Caffey murders and requested that Erin step out of the car.
Virginia Daily became hysterical and grabbed Erin’s face. “Did you
have any part in this?” she demanded.
“No, Grandma,” Erin told her, crying.
As a juvenile, Erin could not be taken directly
to the sheriff’s office for questioning, and so she appeared that
afternoon before a justice of the peace. “After everything we had
heard, I was picturing a monster, for lack of a better word,” said
Sergeant Vance. “Here was someone who had dreamed up a scheme to
murder her family and manipulated people into carrying out her
plan. And then in walks this tiny, meek, blond-headed girl who
couldn’t fight her way out of a wet paper sack.” The judge
informed Erin of her rights and asked if she would be willing to
speak with investigators. She declined to meet with the Texas
Ranger or Detective Almon, electing to make a written statement
instead. The brief account, put down in her girlish handwriting,
echoed what she had told Chief Sanders: There had been smoke and
strangers with swords, and she could not remember much else. She
was taken to the juvenile detention center in Greenville, where
she was held on charges of capital murder.
Less than 24 hours after the murders, Waid,
Johnson, Charlie, and Erin were all in custody.
Terry Caffey was
discharged from the hospital several days later and went to stay
with his sister in the town of Leonard, about an hour’s drive from
Alba. For a man who had been shot five times and climbed out the
window of a burning house, he could consider himself lucky; he had
a broken nose, two fractured cheekbones, and minor nerve damage in
his right arm. “I remember the nurse coming in and saying, ‘Mr.
Caffey, you can go home now,’” Terry told me when I visited him
this spring. “All I heard was the word ‘home.’ I thought, ‘I don’t
have a home. I don’t have a family to go home to.’ And I remember
weeping, just weeping uncontrollably.
“I laid on my sister’s couch for a few days,
and that’s when the despair hit me. I decided that I was going to
go back to my property and end my life. I was going to lay down
and shoot myself right there on the spot where I lost my family. I
wanted to die where they died. And then I decided, no, there’s
been enough bloodshed. I’m going to take all of the pain pills
they gave me—all the depression medication, the Xanax,
everything—drink me a bottle of Jim Beam, put a hose in the
tailpipe of my daughter’s pickup, run it up to the window, and
just fall asleep and not wake up again.
“So two or three days I pondered on this.
Somebody brought me a Bible and told me to read the book of Job.
Well, I’d read the story countless times before, but I read it
again and it was almost like I was there with Job. He lost
everything, his whole family, all his worldly possessions, but he
did not lose his faith, and God blessed him doubly. That turned me
around and got me thinking that God might have a plan for me. He
didn’t bring me through all that for nothing.
“I went back to our property as soon as I was
better. There was nothing left but the subfloor and the metal
roof. I spent days out there picking through the ashes. I would
get on my hands and knees and just dig. I didn’t find much—a Hot
Wheels car; a broken ceramic cup; a horseshoe-shaped belt buckle
that the kids gave me for Christmas. I ended up buying me a used
RV, and I moved it back up on my land. Everybody said I was crazy
for going back, but it brought me healing. I put my RV right on
the spot where my house once stood, and I stayed out there about
four months. I was so stubborn, I thought, ‘I’ll be darned if
somebody is going to run me off of our property. When I leave, it
will be when I’m ready and when God’s ready for me to leave.’ Some
nights it was pitch-black by the time I got home, and I had to
work up the courage to get out of the car. I bought me a
nine-millimeter pistol and I slept with it beside me.”
Twice a week, Terry made the trip to Greenville
to see his daughter. He could not ask Erin any of the questions he
longed to know the answers to; her lawyer had warned him that
their conversations were being recorded and anything Erin said
could be used against her at trial. And so Terry sat opposite the
only other surviving member of his family—the girl who
investigators were telling him had wanted him and his wife and
sons dead—and conversed with her about subjects as mundane as the
weather. Terry found the visits agonizing, but he felt compelled
to be in the presence of his only living child. His daughter
looked fragile and anxious in her orange prison jumpsuit, and at
the end of every visit, he made sure to tell her that he loved
her. During the many hours in which they made polite conversation,
he ventured only once to ask her a question of substance. It was a
question that preoccupied him more than his doubts about her
innocence. “Were me and your mom good parents?” he asked her as
they sat on opposite sides of the Plexiglas divider. Yes, Erin
assured him, blinking back tears. She couldn’t have asked for a
better mom or dad.
Given the complexity
that four capital murder cases posed for a small, rural county,
the Texas attorney general’s office was asked to assist the Rains
County district attorney in bringing the four defendants to trial.
Assistant attorney general Lisa Tanner, a seasoned prosecutor who
has sent four men to death row in her eighteen years as a trial
lawyer, was assigned to the case. “This was not the most brutal or
cold-blooded case I had ever prosecuted,” she told me. “But when
you took all the different factors and put them together—how young
and seemingly normal the perpetrators were; how ruthless they
were; how stupid they were; how cavalier they were; how utterly
undeserving this family was—it was, without question, the most
disturbing case I’d ever dealt with.”
The crime also defied easy explanation. Though
Charlie and Waid had been drinking that night, neither was using
drugs. Erin’s desire to have her parents killed did not appear to
be motivated by any mistreatment or trauma; her court-mandated
psychological evaluation failed to point to any evidence of abuse
in the Caffey home. Yet Tanner had no doubt that Erin had
masterminded the crime. “The phone records really did it for me,”
she said. “When I saw the phone records, I realized that it didn’t
matter if a single one of the other defendants testified against
her. We were still going to be able to convict her of capital
The phone records corroborated a pivotal point
in Charlie’s account of the murders. “From 11:46 p.m. until 12:48
a.m. that night, Erin called him six times from inside the Caffey
house,” Tanner said, reading from the case file. “But the kicker
was from 1:22 a.m. to 1:58 a.m., when she called him seven more
times. That comported completely with what Charlie told us, which
was that she kept calling and saying, ‘Where are y’all? What’s the
holdup? Hurry up. Come back, and I’ll keep the dog quiet.’”
Tanner sat down with Terry Caffey and showed
him the phone records this past June. She needed to explain to him
why prosecutors were asking the court to certify Erin as an adult.
(If certified, she would face the same punishment at trial as an
adult, including life without parole—with one notable exception:
Even when certified, a juvenile cannot receive the death penalty.)
Tanner was in the difficult position of briefing the victim of a
crime who also happened to be the parent of the perpetrator. “It
was an awful thing to have to do, to lay out to a man that his
daughter wanted him dead and was responsible for the deaths of the
rest of his family,” Tanner said. “I brought all of the relevant
documents and pictures, and we went through everything. I showed
him photos of the suitcase that Erin had packed and the burned-out
lockbox that was open to the combination that she had given
Charlie. I showed him the statement that a friend of hers had
given to investigators about how Erin had wanted them to be
killed. I told him about her and Charlie having sex afterwards,
which was by far the hardest thing to have to tell him. Terry
cried a lot and kept asking, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I don’t understand.
We didn’t see any of this coming.’”
And yet, after Terry had seen every last piece
of evidence, he continued to visit Erin and never wavered in his
support, standing beside his daughter at each court appearance
holding her hand. For the many people who puzzled over his
loyalty, there were many others, in the pews of Miracle Faith and
elsewhere, who understood it as the scriptural imperative of
unconditional love. Terry drew particular sustenance from a
passage in Romans, chapter 12: “Bless them which persecute you,” a
principle that, in the end, informed his wish that his family’s
killers be spared the death penalty. “My heart tells me there have
been enough deaths,” Terry wrote in a letter to the Rains County
district attorney, Robert Vititow, this past fall. “I want them,
in this lifetime, to have a chance for remorse and to come to a
place of repentance for what they have done. Killing them will not
bring my family back.” He asked that Charlie Wilkinson and Charles
Waid receive sentences of life in prison without parole. After
consulting with the attorney general’s office, Vititow honored his
wishes and offered them a plea deal. In November they each pleaded
guilty to three counts of capital murder.
At their sentencing hearings in January, Terry
rose to address each of them in the courtroom. He spoke first to
Waid, who remained impassive, and then to Charlie. “In time, God
has shown me what it means to forgive,” Terry said as Charlie’s
eyes shone with tears. “Charlie Wilkinson, I want to say to you
today, I forgive you. Not so much for your sake, but for my own. I
refuse to grow into a bitter old man. If I want to heal and move
on, I must find some forgiveness in my heart, and that has been
the hardest thing I have ever had to do because you took so much
Today Terry lives in
a tidy brick house in Wills Point, about thirty miles southwest of
Alba, just down the road from the cemetery where Penny and the
boys are buried. He became an ordained minister in April, and he
gives his testimony most weekends at local churches, using his
family’s story as an object lesson in forgiveness. To the
astonishment of many of his closest friends, he remarried last
year. Terry found a good listener in Sonja Webb, a pretty divorcée
he met in the course of his work as a home health aide. Webb was
raising two sons on her own. She asked him to lunch last June, and
they never ran out of things to talk about.
“Terry missed being a husband and a father,”
Tommy Gaston says. “He needed somebody to lay down beside him at
night who he could tell his troubles to.” They said their vows in
October at Miracle Faith, just a few feet from where Terry’s
wife’s and sons’ caskets had rested seven months earlier. Webb’s
boys—Blake, who is seventeen, and Tanner, who is nine—bear a
passing resemblance to Bubba and Tyler. Terry, who shares a warm
relationship with his stepsons, says that, like Job, he has been
doubly blessed for never faltering in his faith in God.
Once a month, Terry makes the three-hour trip
to Gatesville, where Erin is incarcerated. At his urging, she
received a lesser sentence than life without parole; he wanted to
make sure that she had something to live for, he said. And so Erin
accepted a plea deal—two life sentences to be served concurrently,
plus an additional 25 years—which ensures that with good behavior
she will be eligible for parole when she is 59 years old. Now that
she has pled out and the specter of a capital murder trial is
gone, their conversations are no longer restricted, and Terry is
free to ask his daughter whatever he wants to know. Yet when I
visited him, he seemed hesitant. “I’ve got so many questions, and
I don’t want to hit her with them all at once,” he said. He has,
thus far, chosen to accept the story line she has provided him:
She was planning on running away that night, but then she changed
her mind. The phone calls, she told her father, were to dissuade
Charlie from coming at all. It was Charlie who had wanted the
family dead, and when he came to the house, she had been powerless
to stop him.
“I think she thought Charlie was just blowing
smoke,” Terry said. “I don’t think she actually thought he would
go through with it. I know my daughter. She cried one
time when we were in my truck and I ran over a squirrel; she’s
tenderhearted. No kid’s an angel, but I know what she is capable
of, and I know she’s not capable of murder.”
Erin told another
version of her story to Israel Lewis, the mental health counselor
who was hired to evaluate her for the defense. When she spoke to
Lewis, Erin insisted that Charlie had a volatile temper; he had
killed her family after she had broken up with him and then framed
her. “I have worked with some good liars, but Erin was one of the
best,” said Lewis, who has nineteen years’ experience counseling
juvenile offenders. “She seemed totally sincere and genuine, and I
would have put my license on the line to say that she was telling
me the truth. She spoke with tears in her eyes—‘God will save me.
He knows I’m innocent.’ I cried every time I left her jail cell.”
Only after learning the details of the criminal
investigation did Lewis realize that Erin had been manipulating
him. He continued to visit her at the county jail, but what
disturbed him most, at the end of a year of counseling, was the
realization that he could no more explain why she had wanted her
family killed than on the day he had first met her. She remained a
mystery. “You could not have paid her to say anything negative
about her parents,” he said. “I still long for the day when I know
what was hurting her bad enough to make such a decision.”
Erin declined my interview requests, but the
three other defendants each agreed to sit down with me and revisit
the early morning of March 1, 2008. They all gave similar
accounts, with Erin serving as the driving force behind the
killings. Johnson, who is serving a forty-year sentence, recalled
how Charlie had repeatedly asked Erin to consider running away as
the group had driven around before the murders. “Charlie kept
saying, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’” Johnson
recounted. “And she said, ‘Why are you asking me this? If you love
me, you’ll do it.’” (Explaining her own inability to put the
brakes on the plan, Johnson said, “I just wanted to go home, but
Charlie said it was too late, that I was already involved. He said
that if anybody said anything to anyone, that person would be
taken care of. I was scared shitless.”) Erin had seemed elated
after the killings, Johnson explained, and said that she was
“free.” In fact, Johnson said, Erin had wanted to get out of the
car to make sure that everyone was dead. And it was Erin who had
insisted that her brothers be killed, according to both Johnson
and Waid. The boys picked on her, Erin had said, and she didn’t
want them to be left in foster care. “They were ridiculous
reasons—not even reasons—just an excuse,” Waid told me. “When we
pulled away from the house, she was happier than a kid on
One afternoon this spring, I visited Charlie at
the Polunsky Unit, in Livingston, the imposing, maximum-security
prison that is best known for housing death row. Now nineteen, he
looked impossibly young for someone who will never step beyond the
guard towers and concertina wire again. He wore a starched white
inmate’s uniform, a buzz cut, and a doleful expression. He was
frank about the horror of what he had done and made no excuses for
himself. “If I was sitting on my jury, I would have stuck the
needle in my arm,” he told me. At the same time, he said, Erin was
given ample opportunity to call off the plan. “It was her idea,”
he said. “If at any time she would have said, ‘Well, we’re not
going to do it after all,’ it never would have happened.”
He had no ill words for the people he had so
viciously attacked. Of the Caffeys, he painted a nostalgic
portrait. “You know them family pictures that they print in movies
and stuff?” he said. “The old-timey ones with the white fence?
When I was at their house, that was what the family was like. They
were perfect.” When I visited the subject of his role in Tyler’s
murder, he grew quiet and studied his hands, his eyes slowly
filling with tears. “I don’t really like to talk about that,” he
It was when he spoke about Erin that his voice
softened and grew sentimental. “I would have done anything for
her,” he said. “She was very smart. Very caring. I don’t know why
she wanted it done, why it had to be like that, but she was a very
nice person.” Weeks after the killings, when he was being held at
the county jail on $1.5 million bond, he had been devastated to
learn from his defense attorney that Erin had, in fact, asked a
previous boyfriend to kill her parents too. Sergeant Vance had
interviewed the boy whom Erin was caught kissing at Miracle Faith,
and he had told the Texas Ranger that Erin had spoken to him about
her desire to have them killed—several months before she had
started dating Charlie.
“It made me question a lot of things,” Charlie
said, his voice trailing off. “After months of pushing me and
convincing me and all this, I got to thinking that maybe all I was
was just a tool.” He had not spoken to her since the morning of
the crime, and he is barred from communicating with her ever
again; he will forever have to wonder if she wanted her parents
dead so that she could be with him or simply so that she could be
free of her family’s control. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her
head,” he said. “She needs to have it looked at.”
But Charlie was more bewildered by Erin’s
behavior than bitter. Knowing everything he knew, I asked him, did
he still love her? He thought for a moment before answering my
question, and I studied his face behind the Plexiglas. “Once you
love somebody, you can’t quit,” Charlie said. “You always will.”