Burning Injustice

Shaky evidence sent Sonia Cacy to prison for burning her beloved uncle to death. Now she's destitute and fighting the state to clear her name.

Burning Injustice
Brantley Hargrove
Sonia Cacy, convicted of murder by arson, boards a bus in early December, homeless, heading south to be with her son.

Smoke seeped from the eaves of the house and into the predawn darkness in a blue-collar Fort Stockton neighborhood in West Texas. The picture window looking out onto the street was aglow; the living room inside, a furnace, chugging smoke through a hole in the ceiling. It gathered in the attic and pressed down into the northwest bedroom and the office. Tar-black smoke and shimmering heat rolled across the living room ceiling and banked down the walls, spreading outward, blistering paint in the bathroom, melting plastic utensils in the kitchen.

Dois Clawson, a neighbor, heard pounding on her door at around 6:15. She peered warily out the window and saw no one, so she returned to bed. In the early morning quiet, though, there was "a commotion" next door. Clawson looked out through the window again and saw her neighbor, Sonia Cacy, wearing only a short, nylon nightie against the chill fall air, tracing frantic circles in her front yard. She hurried over to Cacy and asked what was wrong.

Her house was on fire, Cacy said, and she believed her uncle, Bill Roscoe Richardson, was still inside. Clawson saw the flames now through the window. She asked Cacy if she had called the fire department. She said she hadn't.

Dallas attorney Gary Udashen has represented Cacy for years.
Can Turkyilmaz
Dallas attorney Gary Udashen has represented Cacy for years.
Sonia Cacy, nervous but hopeful, waits for a bus to take her to her son's home in Port Aransas.
Brantley Hargrove
Sonia Cacy, nervous but hopeful, waits for a bus to take her to her son's home in Port Aransas.


Cacy's front door was locked, so Clawson hurried back inside to call 911. Cacy stayed near her home and scanned for signs of her uncle in the thickening murk through the glass. When Clawson returned, she saw Cacy, a pretty 44-year-old with wide-set green eyes, just a shade over 5 feet tall, punching through the panes of the picture window with her small fists. Clawson gripped her arm and pulled her back, fearing the holes in the window would feed the flames.

She asked Cacy how she'd escaped.

Through her bedroom window, she replied.

They circled around to the far side of the house. Cacy leaned in through the window and pulled back, coughing. There was no air inside, she said. It was too hot. It was dark out, but Clawson would later testify that she didn't see smoke. As they returned to the front yard, Fort Stockton police officer Robert Curtis arrived. Cacy was screaming, "My uncle's in the house!"

Curtis kicked the door in and smoke poured out. He could see tongues of orange fire lashing through black, boiling clouds. He got on his belly and crawled through the door. Before he was halfway in, he said he felt "a pressure, pushing me down." Cacy was clambering over him to get inside. The officer wrapped her up, hauled her out of the doorway and told Clawson to hold her back. Cacy wrenched free and dashed toward the door again. "She was scratching, trying to get back into the house and, like I said, she was highly emotional, crying, and just struggling and trying to break loose," he testified.

"We took her over to [my] house and she calmed down for just a few minutes," Clawson said. "And then she wanted to go back outside because she said they weren't going to get Uncle Bill. And I got her a house dress ... to cover her pajamas."

Two other officers arrived and asked Cacy where Richardson might be. She said she thought he was in the living room. Officer Rick Carreon, who had been to the house on another fire call just over a week before, found a garden hose and pointed its weak stream at the flames. Another officer, Armando Villesca, crawled through the door, the beam of his flashlight penetrating only a few feet through the dense smoke. He found Richardson off to the left, near the corner of the living room. His body was so badly burned that it had the plastic, featureless appearance, he said, of a "mannequin." The officers decided to leave him inside.

"I didn't think there was anything we could do," Villesca later testified. "So we moved out, pulled ourselves out."

The officers were nauseated from smoke inhalation, retching dryly in the yard. Clawson's arms held a struggling Cacy in a bear hug, but could not keep her back. Cacy charged the house and was tackled by the officers again. She begged them to help her pull Uncle Bill out of the fire. Until the authorities finally took her to Pecos County Memorial Hospital, Cacy fought them, cursed them, even punched victim services coordinator Betsy Spencer in the gut.

On the ride to the hospital, soot staining the skin beneath her nose and around her mouth, blackening the front of the red house dress Clawson had given her, Cacy recounted the morning. What she wasn't sure about, Clawson said, was how she woke up. "She first told me Uncle Bill woke her up and told her to get out, and then later she told me she wasn't sure whether she had imagined that ... or if it had actually happened."

She asked Clawson if she thought Uncle Bill was dead. Clawson told her she believed he was. "She said, 'Are you sure he didn't get out?' And I said yes ... like she could not comprehend that actually he had died."

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My Voice Nation Help

For all the scientific evidence gathering and critical analysis one would expect in an arson investigation, the outcomes in this case and others were based on assumptions and a refusal to question the status quo. What happened to Cameron Willingham is both a tragedy and an outrage. Thank God the tide is changing with regard to fire investigation. I hope for the innocent to be vindicated and freed before it's too late.

ScottsMerkin topcommenter

loafer dude knocks one out of the park.  Great read