Charles Dickerson 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 had originated.
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 family.”
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 slept.
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 your hands.”
“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 deputy.
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,