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.