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 noted two suspicious fires at the residence just more than a week before, which occurred within hours of each other. Salvato connected the dots. The fire department hadn't been out to Richardson's house until after Cacy returned from caring for her husband and son.

A report came back from the medical examiner in San Antonio, concluding Richardson had died of "thermal burns" over 95 percent of his body, not from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. This fit perfectly with the story Kenley divined from the ashes of the living room. Much of the heat from the burning furniture around the body had escaped through the hole in the ceiling, so what was the source of the well-documented heat damage throughout the room? And where had it gone? By the time firefighters arrived, the blaze had been tamped down with a mere garden hose. "How can you have this searing heat and then have it diminish?" he wrote. "There is only one answer for this. Something burned very hot and very fast in this room. So hot and so fast that the vent was unable to handle it. Then, whatever it was burned up."

In the deep burn patterns beneath the melted cot, he saw the signature of just such a hot, fast fire. This was consonant, he believed, with the pouring of an accelerant. Paired with the report from a Bexar County lab that indicated the presence of something like gasoline in cloth remnants from the body, Kenley suspected the fire on Young Street was murder.

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.


Meanwhile, Cacy sorted through the ruined furniture in the living room. The family portraits, photo albums and baby pictures that had enjoyed an altar-like corner on the bookcase, near where Richardson was found, had been destroyed. She washed her sooty clothes again and again, adding lemon juice and baking soda. But the smell of the fire clung stubbornly, and she had no choice but to throw them out.

The funeral home took what cash Richardson had in his bank account for burial expenses. It didn't cover the tab, so Cacy paid the balance and buried him in an inexpensive, cloth-lined casket. She wished she could have done something more, but was comforted in the knowledge that Richardson had never been a man known for style or extravagances. Her home uninhabitable, she moved in with her estranged husband in Fort Worth.

On April 16, 1992, some five months after the fire, Cacy was indicted for the murder of her uncle.

Inside the buff sandstone of the Pecos County courthouse, a clean-cut district attorney in his mid-30s made a promise to the jury on February 23, 1993. "You'll hear testimony that on November the 10th, 1991, this defendant smelled highly of alcohol. She reeked of liquor. You'll hear testimony that she was uncooperative with the police officers, cussing them, even punching one of them."

By the end of week, Albert Valadez continued, "I believe each and every one of you will be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that this defendant, Sonia Cacy, caused the death of Bill Richardson by setting him on fire."

Over the course of several days, Valadez called to the stand Dois Clawson, the officers at the scene and the local fire marshal. He called Charles Bux, a pathologist from Bexar County, who testified to Richardson's grievous burns and to his agonizing death by fire. Valadez brought out Richardson's will, recovered from the bureau in Cacy's room, bequeathing his estate to her. And Steve Kenley, the fire investigator from Ozona, held the jury's rapt attention as he discussed the burn patterns, the charring of the rafters above Richardson's body, the soot on Cacy's clothes and face, and the singeing of her hair.

"If you've ever started a fire with gasoline or any type of flammable stuff ... and when you light it, you'll notice you have a little fireball," he said. "Well, that rises. It rises up to the point that it'll hit the ceiling of the house, then it'll have the tendency to — to come back."

"And might that gasoline from the ceiling cause her hair to singe?" Valadez asked.

"It could."

But the most damaging testimony came from Bexar County toxicologist Joe Castorena, who told the jury that the clothing remnants analyzed by his lab were positive for traces of a Class II accelerant, like gasoline. Tests performed by a Dallas lab on carpet samples beneath the cot and the body were negative for accelerants. Kenley explained it away by telling the jury that all traces of it most likely burned up.

Cacy's court-appointed attorney, Tony Chavez, presented a meager defense. He called as witnesses Cacy's son, Blake; Loretta Scott; a firefighter from Odessa with no training in arson investigation; and a beautician who burned some hair by holding it above a cigarette lighter to prove that it could singe without coming into contact with the flame. He hired no expert witnesses to challenge the medical and scientific testimony presented by the prosecution. About the finding of an accelerant, he said during his closing argument: "I have no quarrel with that. I have no quarrel with that."

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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