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, 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 knees.
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 floor.
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 with Penny.
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 her.
Charlie Wilkinson 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’ house.
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 once.
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.
The investigation 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 questioning.
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 murder.”
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 from me.”
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 Christmas morning.”
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 said.
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.”