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.

They checked her in at the hospital. The doctor noted singeing on her hair and some small cuts on one hand and on her legs. She was coughing up a "black-tinged sputum," and was suffering from bouts of vomiting brought on, the doctor reasoned, by stress and trauma. Her best friend, Loretta Scott, a schoolteacher, arrived not long after. "She was crying and incoherent, pretty much." Cacy kept asking about Uncle Bill. Had she heard anything?

For a patient in her state, it wouldn't be uncommon for the doctor to prescribe something to calm her down. But on the way to the hospital, Officer Carreon had raised Spencer on her two-way radio. On that day, November 10, 1991, he wanted her to relay to the hospital staff: "Do not sedate her."

At 4 that afternoon investigators walked through the house, reading the story of fire on the walls and following it back to the place where it started. Bill Richardson's body still lay on the soggy, soot-blackened carpet. Fort Stockton Fire Marshal Frank Salvato called in a representative from the state fire marshal's office, as well as Steve Kenley, fire marshal in Ozona, a hamlet of 3,000 or so an hour and half east of Fort Stockton.

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.


They began at the outer reaches of the fire's destruction in bedrooms dusted with soot, searching for signs like trackers reading a game trail. They traced the smoke line as it descended lower and lower into the living room, where the fire was contained. A plastic clock was fused to the wall. In the corner, a television had melted. Salvato noted a web of fine cracks in the picture window, known as "glass crazing," which he attributed to the presence of an accelerant. Kenley eyed the charring to rafters spanning the hole in the ceiling, where the heat and smoke had been drawn into the attic. Richardson lay below, his clothes consumed by the fire but for the waistband of his pants and a few shreds of underwear. The skin on his legs was gone. Nearby were the remains of a collapsed aluminum cot. The investigators remarked on the pattern beneath it, burned into the carpet and deep into its padding. They believed they had found the area of origin. By the end of that day, Salvato had arrived at a conclusion.

"Noting area burn patterns; glass crazing, smoke travel, position of victim, statements from police officers, firemen, neighbors and Ms. Cacy, and two suspicious fires in the same house one week prior made this investigator to determine this fire to be arson," he wrote.

Word of the fire traveled quickly among Fort Stockton's 8,500 residents. It was a cowtown and rail depot until a massive Permian oil deposit was discovered in 1926. The fortunes of the town rose and fell with the price of a barrel ever since. Richardson was an oilman himself, but of the least prosperous kind; he operated a few stripper wells he bought from an oil company that figured they were too played out to fool with. Cacy had lived with or near him for most of her life and had recently returned to Fort Stockton after caring for her injured son and ailing husband, whom she was separated from. She considered Richardson a father and called him "Papa," and he had loved her like a daughter.

Now, she settled in to the reality of his death in a hospital room while Clawson daubed the soot from her face with a washcloth. Victim services coordinator Spencer recalled her saying repeatedly, "I don't think I can live long without my Uncle Bill."

It was at this moment that Officer Carreon stepped into the room and asked for a statement and a blood sample. Cacy was furious, and it was clear she blamed the police for failing to rescue Richardson. "None of this would have happened if the police had done what they were supposed to do in the beginning," she had said, according to testimony from Spencer. Cacy wouldn't give Carreon "a fucking thing," she spat, until she had spoken with an attorney. Within an hour or so, though, her friend had calmed her down. She went out into the lobby and informed the officer that Cacy was ready.

"And when I walked up and said this, the policeman was rather belligerent and said, 'You're right, she's going to give ... because we're going to subpoena her,'" Scott recalled.

Cacy wrote this terse statement, which she was assured she could later expand on: "My uncle woke me, I can't remember if he shook me, or what. I couldn't see or breathe. I went out a window. I knocked on the neighbor's door. She held me. I tried to go back. That's all I can remember."

That evening, a group of police and fire investigators filed into her room. Carreon handed her a warrant authorizing him to retrieve a blood sample and fingernail scrapings. Cacy quietly complied, and they left. The blood sample would test negative for the presence of drugs or alcohol.

Cacy had become the only suspect in an investigation that found what it believed was clear evidence of arson. As they combed the house, they found Richardson's handwritten will naming her the sole beneficiary of his estate.

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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