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.

He learned, for instance, that she called him "Daddy" until she found out it hurt her father's feelings. Richardson's home was a refuge, a safe place for her to run when her alcoholic parents feuded. She spent much of her childhood within shouting distance of him. The family would gather on the porch, Cacy's father playing the fiddle and Richardson picking on his steel guitar. She saw less of him after her parents moved to San Saba when she was a teen, a little over a hundred miles northwest of Austin. But she always returned to Fort Stockton to visit.

She dropped out of high school as a senior, pregnant with a son, and married the child's father. The relationship didn't last. Pregnant with their second son, she divorced him and then left San Saba for Benbrook, southwest of Fort Worth. Her next-door neighbor, a man named Billy Cacy, never forgot the day she moved in. She looked like a pixie, with sandy hair she wore short and curly, a delicate figure and big green eyes. He wanted to marry her the moment he saw her. "She was a good-looking girl and she had two babies and she was a hard-working girl."

They married six months later, in 1967. Billy adopted her two boys, and they moved back to West Texas to be near her family. They lived in some desolate country near the Pecos River, in a shack without running water, housing her parents and Richardson as well. Her uncle and her father had purchased the rights to some aging oil wells that were near the end of their productive lives. Richardson taught Billy how to roughneck.

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 kept the books and filed the paperwork. Oil was going for around $3 to $4 a barrel. The wells weren't worth an oil company's time, but they pumped enough to keep food on the table. They took every meal together, and passed the evenings playing dominoes and listening to Richardson and Cacy's father make music.

Between 1972 and 1978, the price of oil quintupled. They weren't rich by any stretch, but times were better than they had ever been. Cacy's father bought her a house in nearby Imperial for $800, then he sold his stake in the oil lease and bought a house in Ruidoso, New Mexico. In 1980, he hit a patch of gravel on his way back to Texas and was killed in the crash. Richardson drove five hours to New Mexico, loaded Cacy's mother's things into his pickup, and brought her home. "My mom was just destroyed," she recalled. "She was gonna live up there all alone, and he went and got her and it made her happy."

Uncle Bill had always loved Cacy's mother, Zalie, like a sister, but Cacy knew he felt something more than that. He was a lifelong bachelor, but he married her the following year at age 66.

They moved back to Fort Stockton, and for a few years Richardson was happier than he had ever been. But Zalie's health was poor. And after only five years of marriage, she died. He'd lost his brother and now his wife. Cacy worried for him. He'd become depressed, suicidal. Cacy and Billy had divorced by then, so she and her daughter Gina moved in with Richardson. She took care of the lonely man and brought him to life again. She cooked and cleaned for him. He napped during the day and worked through the night in his shed, welding and fabricating oil-slickened equipment from his wells. He wore grease-soiled clothes roustabouts aptly referred to as "greasers" around the house, often sleeping in them.

If Richardson was rough-hewn, his house was worse. A hail storm had severely damaged the roof, and when it rained, water runneled onto the living room carpet. Instead of repairing it, they removed the ceiling board and placed a trash bin underneath.

They got by. Richardson sold a little oil. Cacy managed a motel. Sometimes she drank to excess, when the financial and emotional strain of raising a daughter and son with an absentee father became too great. She suffered a breakdown and had to be hospitalized for several weeks. She could lean on Richardson, though, and he on her. "He was always around. He's always been around," Cacy's son Blake said. "They were just best friends."

Hurst could not reconcile the official story with what he had learned. He couldn't envision Cacy murdering her uncle, much less for the nearly destitute man's worthless estate. The house wasn't insured, and the price of oil had fallen. Richardson was thinking about shutting his wells down. Where was the motive?

He was beginning to see another likelihood emerge. Richardson smoked two to three packs of cigarettes a day. His bed sheets, his clothing, the furniture all had cigarette burns. When he lost one between the cushions, he'd douse it with the nearest cup of coffee. Out in the oilfield, fire was a constant. When things went missing out on the lease, he taught Cacy's sons to look for the nearest pile of dead mesquite limbs and to set fire to it. It was a pack rat den that would likely contain what they'd lost. He taught them to light cooking fires from the venting natural gas of plugged oil wells.

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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