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.

At the end of the five-day proceedings, the jury returned after two hours with a guilty verdict, and sentenced Cacy to 55 years in prison. Bailiffs drew their pistols, Cacy remembered, as her husband and son leapt to their feet. Blake chased her down the hall outside the courtroom as she was led away, bound for a prison in Gatesville. And were it not for chance, and the random intersection of two distant lives, her story, and the stories of others that had been irrevocably altered by fire, might have ended there. But in Fort Stockton, a town at the center of the great wide nothing of far West Texas, a statewide revolution in arson investigation was about to begin.

For nearly three years Cacy watched the world pass her by through chain-link fence and razor wire. Grandchildren were born. Milestones were celebrated. All the while, she retreated further inside of herself, the matriarch of the Cacy clan now a listless "zombie," as her daughter-in-law described her. When her 12-year-old granddaughter visited, the girl wept in confusion, asking her mother why Cacy could not come home with them. She kept the walls of her cell bare, knowing she would not be able to get out of bed in the morning to clerk for the prison substance-abuse counselors if she was greeted by the sight of all she had lost.

In 1995, however, a state appeals court remanded her sentence for a new punishment hearing. The district attorney, it ruled, had made inappropriate statements to the jury about Cacy's decision not to testify. She was released three months before the hearing scheduled for spring 1996. A Granbury attorney named Andrew Ottoway would represent her. Through a friend of his, he enlisted the assistance of an investigator from Austin named Gerald Hurst.

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.


A towering, rangy man with a long gray beard and curiously intense eyes, Hurst had an apostolic, Old Testament effect. The son of divorced parents — a sharecropper in Oklahoma and a waitress in Los Angeles — he grew up splitting his time between the prairie and Skid Row during the Great Depression. He was a precocious kid who wandered the streets, sifting through junkyards for scrap he might use to build various gadgetry. As the counterculture of the '60s took root, Hurst received his doctoral degree from Cambridge. But he didn't join the movement. He developed high-explosive nose cones on napalm bombs to more effectively distribute their payloads in the jungles of Vietnam. He synthesized rocket propellant for Harshaw Chemical. He specialized in the applied science of covert warfare, tunnel destruction and classified weaponry designed to "burn things down behind enemy lines."

Hurst eventually tired of this work. "I was using my talents to destroy things," he said. He quit and joined a businessman who bankrolled his invention of the Kinepak, a commercial binary explosive whose constituents don't become hazardous until mixed. The business was bought out and consolidated with Atlas Powder. Hurst was named chief scientist and given the run of a 140-acre campus and lab in Austin. He negotiated himself a sweetheart deal, working just 10 hours a week on lab business, free to devote the rest of his time to whatever he chose. For nearly a quarter century, Hurst consulted on big-dollar civil cases that pitted top experts like him against one another in pitched intellectual battles.

That all came to a halt when his liver began to fail, due in large part, he suspected, to a career as an industrial chemist. His own doctor had given him up for dead, ruling out the possibility of a transplant at his age. Hurst fired the physician and found one at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas who would place him on the transplant list. After near-fatal bouts with pneumonia and esophageal bleeding, he received a new liver in 1994. His odds of living beyond five years were slim.

In spring 1996, a fascinating case was dropped in his lap. He'd never testified at an arson trial before, but he was a chemist, and what was fire if not a chemical reaction? He talked his son Eric Rabbanian, a recent law school grad who'd only just passed the bar, into assisting him with the case. Rabbanian agreed, if only because he feared it would be the last case Hurst would ever take. Cacy and her husband, Billy, showed up at the doorstep of his airy Hill Country home carrying a box stuffed with transcripts and exhibits. Cacy was intimidated by this imposing figure, who listened impassively as she laid out her case, probing with the occasional question. Hurst, on the other hand, was charmed.

"He likes the damsels in distress," his wife, Gay, said with a chuckle.

He was still reading the trial transcripts as he and Rabbanian left the Hill Country and passed into the desert of the Trans-Pecos. "It was the worst work I'd ever seen," he said of the expert testimony. "I was used to working with scientists and engineers, and then I came face to face with fire investigators and I was just appalled."

Yet he began his investigation by looking for a motive: He needed to understand the relationship that had existed between Cacy and Richardson and to determine whether it was possible that she had in fact murdered him.

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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