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Demons in the house: E. Texas man details escape from attack

02:41 PM CDT on Tuesday, March 10, 2009

By SCOTT FARWELL / The Dallas Morning News

First in a three-part series

EMORY, Texas – Terry Caffey can still taste the blood and gunpowder.

East Texas man recalls night of horror
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He can hear the staccato gunfire, the shrieks of terror and the plaintive wail of his 13-year-old son – "Why? Why?"

He can feel the heat and suffocating smoke from the fire that rolled along the floors and up the walls of his cabin tucked in the piney woods of East Texas.

And he can see his wife – a humble woman whose fingers danced and spirit soared at her church's piano – slumped at the foot of the bed, her neck slashed so savagely that a coroner's report would say she was nearly decapitated.

It's been a year.

Enough time, Caffey says, for the stomach-knotting truth to be told about what happened that terrible morning about an hour east of Dallas, when two young men armed with guns and a sword killed his wife and two boys, then torched his home.

Enough time for the anger, pain and hysteria about his 17-year-old daughter's role in the murders to fade.

Enough time to confront what is for him an uncomfortable truth: You love your kids no matter what. Even after they try to kill you.

Optimism before tragedy

Sometimes, Terry Caffey's mind won't shut off, but on the night of Feb. 29, 2008, he dropped off quickly.

He'd worked 14 hours and interviewed for a higher-paying job.

His wife, Penny, nuzzled up next to him and pressed for details – "Do you think he's going to offer you the job? Are you going to take it?"

Caffey rolled over, lifted up on one elbow and kissed her.

"He basically said I could have it if I wanted it," he said. "I told him I'd come home and talk to you and we'd pray about it."

They agreed to discuss it in the morning. Caffey switched off the light.

After years of driving used cars and shopping at garage sales, things seemed to be looking up.

Penny had started driving for the local Meals on Wheels program. It didn't pay much, but she enjoyed getting out, bumping down the area's rural roads, and shining a light in lonely, dark corners.

She had always been a gentle soul, quick to tear up, the first to volunteer. They met 19 years ago at a church in Garland, where she was playing the piano.

"Basically, she had me at 'Hello,' " he said, his face backlit by the memory. "I was captivated."

They were married eight months later.

Erin came along the next year, followed three years later by Matthew, whom they called Bubba, and Tyler, who was born in 1999.

Penny home-schooled the children soon after the family moved from Celeste, population 800, to Emory, population 1,200, about three years ago.

The transition to a larger school district was bumpy.

"I guess you'd call it culture shock," Caffey said. "Emory has a lot of bisexual kids; it's like it was almost cool to be bisexual. One of the first things that happened was some girl wanted to be Erin's little girlfriend. And I was like, 'That ain't happenin'.' "

But after three years of home schooling and much discussion, the children re-enrolled in public schools in 2008. The boys seemed to thrive, but Caffey and his wife were concerned about Erin.

A 16-year-old freshman, she was infatuated with Charlie Wilkinson, an 18-year-old senior – whom Caffey describes as cocky and disrespectful.

There was friction from the beginning.

The first time he met Wilkinson, Caffey said, Wilkinson was sprawled across Caffey's favorite recliner in the living room, chomping gum.

"I asked him, 'Do you always sit like that?' and he said, 'Yeah,' " Caffey remembered. "And I said, 'Well, not in my chair you don't. Stand up and greet me when I come in the room.' "

Issues with boyfriends

Caffey often had issues with his daughter's boyfriends. Once at church, Erin's parents caught her spooning with a boy while sitting at a picnic table. His hand was wandering up her shirt.

"She was wanting to date all these little thugs who wouldn't work, and these little bums and troublemakers," Caffey said. "She was drawn to them. It was aggravating."

Good parenting isn't always popular, Caffey believes, and Christianity isn't always easy.

That's one of the reasons he nailed a split cedar log to a tree at the end of his driveway. It said "The Caffeys" and "Joshua 24-15," which reads:

"But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve. ... But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."

The night of the murders, Erin Caffey walked underneath that sign and climbed into a silver Dodge Neon with her boyfriend, Wilkinson, and his friends, 20-year-old Charles Waid and 18-year-old Bobbi Johnson.

After planning how to kill her family, investigators say, Erin stayed in the car as the young men walked toward the home carrying guns and a sword.

Waking up to a nightmare

Terry Caffey awoke to gunshots and his wife's guttural screams. Instinctively, he threw his right arm over her body – taking three bullets in the forearm and three in the shoulder – before a seventh round caught him in the right cheek and exploded through his ear.

That one blew him out of bed, face down.

Moments later, someone shot Caffey three more times in the back.

"He came up and kicked my foot to make sure I was dead," he said. "There was heavy breathing, and I could hear them reloading. I was basically just waiting for them to shoot me in the back of the head. But it got very quiet, and he walked off."

Caffey passed out.

When he regained consciousness, furniture crashed, glass shattered and footsteps marched upstairs toward his children's bedroom.

His right arm hung limp because a bullet had severed a nerve. He scrambled to his knees.

Then he heard his 13-year-old son Bubba cry out – "No, Charlie! No! Why? Why are you doing this?"

Caffey collapsed again, then awoke to chaos. The picture window in the living room exploded, and fire seemed alive, crawling across the floor, up the walls and jumping across the doorway.

Caffey climbed over the bed and found his wife, Penny, slumped against a wall.

"It was a horrific scene," he said. "I had never seen so much blood in my life."

Caffey stumbled into the bathroom, lost in the darkness, choking on the acrid smoke. He felt along the walls until he found the shower curtain and fell into the bathtub.

"I knew the window was right there above the tub, and I pushed open the lock and I couldn't get it to open," he said. "So I'm pounding on it and pushing up, and all the sudden it shoots up."

He thrust his head into the cool morning, filled his lungs with air, and rolled out onto the ground.

"You know the story about Moses when God split the Red Sea and there was dry land there?" he asked. "It was almost like that. There was a tunnel of flames, but I never got burned."

What should he do?

He low-crawled behind a nearby propane tank, leaned against it, mind spinning.

Windows glowed orange, and fire licked at the eaves of the roof. Wind swirled through the pine trees, Caffey's breath was labored, and he considered his next move.

Crawl out to the road for help? No, the killers may still be out there.

Try to get around front and rescue his children? Impossible, his home was exploding from within.

"I started to get coherent again," he said. "And then it occurred to me, 'Hey, this propane tank could blow up.' "

On his belly, he wriggled under a barbed-wire fence that divided the homestead from his 13 acres of pine-studded ranch land. He scooted into the woods, struggled to his feet, stumbled and landed on a log the size of a grown man's waist.

"I thought my lungs were collapsed; I couldn't breathe," he said. "I had blood coming out of my nose, my eyes, ears, mouth."

Sapped of strength, he rested his head on the fallen tree and looked into the flames. It seemed like he was only there a moment, but later, crime scene investigators said Caffey must have lingered at the log. It was smeared with blood.

He pushed up and walked on, navigating another fence, and zigzagged toward Tommy and Helen Gaston's home about 300 yards across a pasture. It was pitch black. Fog hugged the ground, and temperatures dipped into the low 40s.

"I would walk a few steps and then look back at the house," he said. "The fire was getting bigger and bigger; it was unbelievable. I couldn't understand why nobody was coming."

After falling into a creek bed and scrambling up the other side, he leaned against a tree and looked back again at the flames. They were shooting above the treetops now.

"That's when I said, "God, just take me. I can't make it,' " he said. "The reality hit me, 'I'm all alone.' "

Morbid thoughts ran through Caffey's mind.

Would wolves eat his body? Would his neighbor find him the next morning? Would police ever find the men who murdered his wife and children?

The last thought pushed him to his feet.

"My only motive at this point was letting somebody know who killed my family," Caffey said. "I remember standing up and looking back at the house one more time. And then I turned my back and never looked back again."

That's when he saw it.

An orange flicker of light – a nightlight in Tommy and Helen Gaston's kitchen.

It took Caffey about an hour to crawl and stumble the length of three football fields to his neighbor's house. He arrived a few minutes after 4 a.m.

Tommy Gaston found him sitting on the mat at his front door.

"He was bloody all over," Gaston said. "His first words were, 'I need help.' And then he called Charlie Wilkinson's name and said somebody else was with him."

Gaston asked about Penny and the kids.

Caffey replied, "They're all dead."

Coming Monday: Terry Caffey learns the shocking news that his daughter is implicated in the attack on their family.

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