“Don’t leave me, Mom.”
The ambulance bumped along gravel roads and dry creeks, twisting past blackjack oak, walnut and redbud trees, the swirling sirens piercing the quiet of the dark Texas night. In the rear, as EMTs carefully treated Terry Glynn Caffey, the forty-one-year-old home health care aide and aspiring preacher looked up at his neighbor, Helen Gaston, begging her to help him live another day.
Terry had always viewed Helen and her husband, Tommy, as parental figures—referring to them as Ma and Pa—and, now, a crisis had forced the older couple to step into the role. With his shock of white hair, sparkling eyes and face creased by years of life experience, Tommy was a rugged but caring man partial to cowboy hats and flannel shirts. Molded into the archway to his homestead were the three words that best expressed his life philosophy: DEDICATED TO GOD. His wife had a matronly, proud countenance, not because she felt more righteous than her neighbors, but—some would argue—because she legitimately was.
Tommy and Helen had rescued Terry when he’d stumbled through their door, after crawling some three hundred yards through a wooded field from his burning home. Blood poured from five separate bullet wounds. One of the slugs had entered Terry’s face, breaking his nose before crashing through an ear. Another narrowly missed his brain. Terry’s arm, back and shoulder were punctured in the assault. Yet, like the Biblical character Job—to whom Terry would regularly be compared in the coming months—he remained alive, empowered by his faith and the goodness he felt radiating from Helen.
The barrage had come in the dead of night—Terry estimated the time at about three AM—as he slept in the ground-floor master bedroom beside his thirty-eight-year-old wife, Penny. She was the source, friends said, of the musical ability the couple’s three children inherited and regularly exhibited during worship at the Miracle Faith Baptist Church.
Penny screamed, and, as Terry lifted an arm to protect her, the couple was peppered with more bullets. One literally shot Terry out of the bed.
From another part of the house, there was the sound of one of the children shouting out in pain and bewilderment.
In the scattered homes nearby, few heard the commotion. Those who did stirred in their beds, mistaking the gunshots for thunder, before rolling back to sleep.
Terry blacked out. When he came to, Penny’s throat was slashed, and flames engulfed the upstairs area where the kids slept: Tyler, eight, Matthew—or Bubba—thirteen, and Erin, the petite, pretty, sixteen-year-old blonde who’d recently enrolled at Rains High School in nearby Emory. Somehow, Terry managed to get to his feet. He felt nothing on the right side of his body. Desperate to help his children, he thought about rushing into the main part of the house. But the fire was impossible to infiltrate.
He decided to save himself, wiggling through the bathroom window. “The hardest thing I ever did that cool winter night,” he later wrote in an excerpt published by his ministry, “was to … leave my family inside an inferno, knowing that I would never see them again this side of heaven.”
Outside, Terry’s eyes darted. He dropped to his hands and knees, uncertain if his attackers were following. Tommy and Helen’s home seemed an eternity away, but he started there, knowing that once he reached the couple’s doorstep, he’d be safe. It was a lengthy journey, aggravated by the loss of blood. At times, he’d manage to stand and walk a few paces, then crumple to the ground. Terry staggered into trees and fell over logs. He was light-headed, weak and distraught over the fate of his family. At one stage, he claimed, he asked God to take his life. Still, Terry kept going.
“God,” he said, according to Walking in the Light of the Living, a CD produced for his ministry, “just give me the strength to stand up and get over there and tell who did this. Somebody needs to know who murdered my family.… Then, you can take my life.”
The long, draining expedition continued. Terry slipped into a creek, gulping water and nearly drowning. His feet pushed forward and fingernails dug into sediment, as Terry clawed his way out. From a distance, he spotted a flicker of light in the Gastons’ window. He’d later compare that sparkle to the brightness of his Creator, leading him away from the wickedness he’d suffered.
“For thou hast delivered my soul from death,” he quoted Psalms 56:13. “Wilt thou not deliver my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living?”
An astounded Tommy Gaston discovered his friend on the welcome mat, struggling to prop himself into a sitting position, dirt and grass mixed with the blood caked onto his skin.
“I need help.”
“Where’s Penny? Where are the kids?”
“They’re all dead.”
The exchange broke Tommy’s heart. His nephew Joey Weatherford, the editorial cartoonist at the Greenville Herald Banner, later noted the bond that his uncle enjoyed with Terry. Tommy “thought the world of Terry,” Weatherford said. “He thought he was a really sweet guy.”
Like Terry, Tommy was “in the world, but not of the world,” focusing on church-centered activities while earning a living as a propane truck driver. Penny Caffey, the pianist at Miracle Faith Baptist Church, played in Tommy’s gospel band, the Gaston Singers, performing at local churches and recording independently produced albums.
“Everybody kind of knows everybody at the little churches out here,” said Weatherford. “We might go to different churches, but we’ll say, ‘Hey, come over and sing at our church.’ And everybody will go. It’s kind of a friendly thing, going to see your neighbor or your friend.”
The pattern has led to an enriched musical atmosphere in the region. In 2005 Kerosene, the debut album by country singer Miranda Lambert—the daughter of a husband-and-wife private investigator team from the town of Lindale—went platinum. Three singles on her next album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, released in 2007, yielded three Top 40 hits on Billboard’s country charts.
Yet, when Penny and her children played in church, their role model was never some nationally known entertainer, but their neighbor, Tommy Gaston. The admiration was not based solely on Tommy’s musical abilities, but the qualities he exhibited day to day. As a result, when Terry was in the throes of his worst tragedy, he found the presence of Tommy and Helen familiar and soothing.
The Caffey and Gaston properties were set deep in the woods, in places where children could romp in nature, isolated from the decadent variables available in large cities and, to a lesser extent, small towns. This was the country. By day, horses and cattle lazed on the grass of nearby homes, beside large bales of hay. At night, stars twinkled from the heavens, and it was easy to stand, enveloped in blackness below pine tree canopies, and feel a connection to the higher power invoked in Bible study and the hymns the Caffeys sang so passionately in church. Yet now, as police cruisers blared off U.S. 69, the secluded nature of these homesteads could have been an obstacle to emergency medical personnel, were it not for the flames guiding them to the Caffey homestead.
Moments after their arrival, the oxygen tanks in the van Terry used to deliver medical supplies to home health care patients exploded, igniting the scene even further.
As night gave way to dawn, the long blood trail investigators discovered winding across some twenty acres of woodland told the story of Terry’s agonizing flight from the crime scene. Remarkably—or miraculously, as his friends would later opine—even after traversing the length of three football fields, Terry was conscious, providing small details in a barely audible tone.
He estimated that his laborious escape had taken nearly an hour, and he quickly concluded that the killers did not finish him off because they thought he was dead.
Rains County sheriff’s deputy Charles Dickerson found Terry on the floor of the Gastons’ living room, clad in a soggy t-shirt and pajama bottoms. His feet were bare, save for one sock.
“I’m not going to make it,” he said.
“It’s okay,” Dickerson replied reassuringly. “Help is on the way.”
In the months to come, Helen would suffer recurring nightmares, recalling the ghastly sight of her neighbor, hovering between life and death. At the other end of the blood trail, back at the Caffey home, Helen knew that the findings would be worse. But she didn’t want to lose Terry, as well. So, for the forty-mile ride to East Texas Medical Center in Tyler, she provided the prayers and reassuring words he needed to stay alive.
* * *
Back on the Caffey property, officials arrived from a number of agencies. Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) conferred with the Texas Rangers, and determined that a sifting operation was necessary to retrieve the spent shell casings from firearms used in the attack. A canine named Nina was deployed to detect the remains of any flammable liquids used to set the fire. Members of the Emory volunteer fire department who’d earlier responded to the emergency call at the Gaston residence noted that only a portion of the Caffeys’ southwest wall remained standing. Inside, the pier beams and first-level floor were intact—nothing else. Firefighters fanned out along the grounds, extinguishing flames. But every so often, they’d be required to double back and snuff out the hot spots that rekindled after their arrival.
The items salvaged from the home reflected the story of the Caffey family, as well as the account of the assault: standard household appliances taken for granted during their day-to-day routines, the piano where Penny refined her skills and passed them on to her children, a clock—previously located on a wall above the kitchen refrigerator—stopped dead at 3:55 AM.
Penny’s body was found in the doorway between the master bedroom and utility room, with three .22-caliber rimfire shell casings below her body. Police noted that two were in relatively good condition—most likely because the corpse protected them from the blaze. Bubba, the seventh-grader, was located in the living room, in front of where the couch had been positioned. Nearby was the guitar stand that he generally kept in his room.
Police theorized that both Bubba and the stand had crashed through the second floor after the home was set on fire.
Back in the master bedroom area, the charred corpse of the fourth-grader, Tyler, was discovered on top of the remnants of his parents’ bedsprings. In between were several coat hangers, as well as sections of unburned clothing belonging to his sister, Erin.
Police concluded that, during the attack, Tyler had ended up in Erin’s closet. When the second floor collapsed, Tyler’s body plummeted onto the first level.
Of all the Caffeys, only Erin could not be accounted for at the crime scene. This was bewildering, since Terry and Erin had spoken earlier in the night. In recent months, there’d been a great deal of tension between Erin and her parents. The girl could be strong-willed, defiant, even, some alleged, calculating, when she wanted her way. But not so calculating, friends of the family presumed, to play a role in anything this vicious.
* * *
In an area where incidents of this type were rare, and residents tended to know one another through church and family ties, the effect on the emergency workers was immediate. One firefighter, upon seeing the bodies of the Caffey boys extracted from the home, fell to his knees in despair.
Rains County sheriff David Taylor told the press that authorities could not determine whether the victims died from gunshot wounds or the fire: “The bodies have been so badly burned.”
Texas Ranger John Vance had been in law enforcement for two decades, working as a highway patrol sergeant and Walker County sheriff’s deputy prior to joining the Rangers division. “I’ve seen a lot,” he said. “But—because of the brutality here, and the fact that the children were targeted as victims—this was as upsetting as anything I ever encountered.”
As members of the community woke up, word slowly spread about the disaster at the Caffey house. The moment he heard the news, Carl Johnson, a family friend, drove to the scene, hoping to assist in some way, remembering the imagery of the family performing in church and the paternal feelings he’d always had for Terry.
“I just love them to death,” he told KLTV News. “It was just like losing one of my kids when I found out about it, Erin, Bubba, Tyler, I knew every one of them since they were just kids.”
Private investigator Jerry Carlisle, the former police chief in the small town of Point, learned about the crime from a congregant at his church. “We have a phone system,” he explained, “where if anything happens to anybody, or somebody needs prayer, we all call each other. Well, I got the call, and I went out there. And I talked to a friend of mine who was guarding the entrance to the property. He was an old law enforcement man, and he was almost in tears. And this was several hours after it happened.”
* * *
Sometime in the morning, Erin Caffey was located at a home not far from the crime scene, and rushed by ambulance to Hopkins County Memorial Hospital in Sulphur Springs. The girl appeared distressed and extremely confused. Police and relatives wondered if she’d been drugged and kidnapped by the assailants.
Penny’s mother, Virginia Daily, met Erin in the hospital. “I went in and I told her that her mother and brothers were dead,” Virginia told The Dallas Morning News. “She broke down. I saw grief and terror in her eyes.”
As hospital personnel attended to Erin in the trauma room, Shanna Sanders, the youthful chief of police for the Rains Independent School District, interviewed the student, alongside Sheriff’s Deputy Serena Booth. Erin replied to most of their questions in a mumbly, little girl voice, telling a tale about being trapped in a smoky room inhabited by two males with swords.
According to Erin, they commanded her to “get down and stay down, face down.”
“What were they wearing?” Sanders asked in an understanding tone.
“They were wearing all black.”
“All black. Where were you at when you first saw them?”
“I was in this house that was, like, full of smoke.”
“You were in a house full of smoke. Was it your house?”
Erin shook her head.
“You don’t think it was? Were you in a bedroom or a living room?”
“There was a couch.”
“A couch … You were by yourself and when they told you to get down, did you get down?”
“Uh-hum,” Erin responded affirmatively.
“Right. And then, what happened?”
“And then, they left. And I tried to call my friend Charlie, and he wouldn’t answer his phone.”
“You tried to call your friend, Charlie, and he wouldn’t answer. Okay.”
“And that’s the last thing I really remember until this morning, I guess, when the cops woke me up. I can’t even remember where I was or what happened.”
Sanders asked if she recognized the males’ voices. “Do you know who it was?”
“Did you do anything last night?” Sanders continued. “Any drugs or alcohol?”
As they spoke, an unfamiliar sound suddenly permeated the trauma room, a persistent beeping noise that momentarily added to Erin’s disorientation.
“They’re just checking your heart, I guess,” Sanders explained. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Sanders added enthusiastically. “You’re a tough little girl.”
The reassurance appeared to do little to allay Erin’s paranoia. “They’re coming back,” she blurted.
“I just know they’re coming after me.”
Despite Erin’s apparent fears, Virginia Daily said her granddaughter seemed comforted by the fact that Terry had survived, albeit in critical condition at the East Texas Medical Center, and asked to visit with him. A police escort was arranged to take Erin and her grandmother on the sixty-mile trip to Tyler.
Accompanied by his sister, Mary Horn, Terry had been rushed into surgery to remove the bullets from his back and head. As he recovered, drifting in and out of consciousness, he asked for his daughter.
“An hour went by,” he told The Dallas Morning News, “then two or three hours went by. I was like, ‘Where’s Erin? Where’s Erin?’ ”
The news that she was healthy and en route to Tyler renewed his commitment to live.
In a parched voice, speaking barely above a whisper, Terry theorized about Erin’s fate. “They told me my daughter’s safe,” he told a detective. “They found her wandering around. I don’t know if she escaped” the house.
He recalled “being conscious through some of what was going on.” And he remembered another salient fact: he’d been shot by two young men. Terry couldn’t identify the first one. But—he couldn’t be more certain—the second was nineteen-year-old Charlie James Wilkinson.
Charlie. The same Charlie his daughter said she’d tried to phone after the mysterious kidnappers left with the swords. The clean-cut but luckless teen who Erin had been dating for close to four months. The Charlie who initially attached himself to the Caffey family, only to become aggrieved and angry when Terry urged him to back off.
His lawyers, friends, even some members of law enforcement, would describe Charlie Wilkinson as a lonely but likeable kid desperate for love and acceptance—the reason, it was theorized, that Erin appeared to control him with such ease. Some fellow Rains High School students claimed his greatest crime appeared to be wearing his cowboy hat in class. But when police tracked him down in the hours after the murder and arson at the Caffey home, he did nothing to help his cause.
“I ain’t got no conscience,” he said. “I’m a psycho maniac.”
Copyright © 2011 by Keith Elliot Greenberg