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.

Every member of that family had seen him roasting marshmallows and cocktail weenies with a propane torch while relaxing in his recliner. Small fires in wastebaskets into which he tapped his cigarette ash were common. He burned his credit card receipts in plastic pans inside the house. One freezing day in his cabin at the oil lease, he stuck a can of aerosol paint inside a gas space heater to thaw out. He must have forgotten about it, because it exploded as he warmed his backside, searing his skin from calf to scalp with boiling paint.

That there were two fires reported within hours of each other at Richardson's house the week before he died did not surprise those who knew him. The fatal fire was foreseeable. This history alone isn't what convinced Hurst. As he and Ken Gibson, a former Arlington fire investigator, walked the ruin of Richardson's house some four years later, the early November morning in 1991 came into focus. They found a piece of polyurethane foam mattress near where the cot had been, took it outside and held a lighter to it. The foam burned furiously and was transformed into a scalding liquid. It could easily account for the burn patterns in the carpet. In the 1998 issue of National Fire Protection Agency Journal, an article referred to the material as "solid gasoline," a "deadly and pervasive peril." It discussed whether the petroleum product should be banned. There were two polyurethane foam mattresses on the cot that morning, along with a polyester blanket.

The more intense charring above Richardson's supposedly flaming body, which Kenley identified in crime scene photos, wasn't what it seemed. Gibson, who has since died, stuck the point of his pocket knife into the char on the rafters and found it evenly distributed.

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.


As for Cacy soaking a sleeping Richardson head to foot in gasoline, Gibson and Hurst couldn't see it. The stuff evaporates quickly, suffusing the air with flammable vapors. They couldn't envision a scenario in which her nylon nightie didn't instantly fuse to her body, causing severe burns. And the fireball that Kenley suggested may have bounced off of the ceiling and singed her hair? The investigators could only shake their heads in disbelief. This fire didn't need gasoline to ignite.

None of it fit the prosecution's narrative. In crime scene photos of the kitchen, they saw toast in the toaster. The autopsy indicated he was wearing his dentures, which he only wore when he ate or had company. All signs pointed to Richardson being up and about, making breakfast. But what to make of the pathologist's conclusions that he died of thermal burns? The autopsy report also mentioned that the descending artery in his heart was 80 percent occluded. His lungs were congested with a "bright-red, frothy fluid." There was soot in his mouth and in his nostrils, but none in his trachea or lungs.

The most troubling revelation, however, didn't come until the first day of Cacy's new sentencing hearing. Inside the Fort Stockton Police Department, Hurst reviewed the physical evidence. An unlined gallon paint can was handed to him. "I popped the can in the evidence room and looked into it and it was one of those Jesus moments," Hurst said.

It contained shreds of Richardson's underwear that had been analyzed by a Dallas lab specializing in such testing. It found no accelerant. No one had seen this evidence before. In the last trial, a Mason jar was submitted as the sole container of Richardson's clothing remnants, and was characterized as positive for gasoline. The paint can, toxicologist Castorena had testified, contained only some nondescript "other stuff." What's more, the can was signed and dated by the medical examiner. The jar was not, causing Hurst to question where it had come from. Why had this been kept from Cacy's attorney?

The same day, Hurst was given the test results Castorena relied on for his finding of the presence of an accelerant. Cacy's last attorney had never actually looked at them. Hurst had performed these kinds of tests before, using the same instrumentation. He wasn't seeing what Castorena saw. To get a second opinion, he showed the analysis to the same Dallas lab. The chemist told him that it certainly contained a number of byproducts from burning household items, but he did not detect the presence of gasoline either.

Hurst was stunned. Every single item from the scene was negative for accelerants. As the Fort Stockton fire marshal had testified at trial, the only accidental cause he had never been able to rule out was a cigarette. Hurst, Gibson and Cacy's attorney laid this all out for the jury during the new punishment hearing. The prosecution hammered away at what it characterized as Cacy's shifting story, reminding the jury repeatedly that she'd already been found guilty.

As the jury prepared to deliver her new sentence, Cacy squeezed Rabbanian's hand. The number they heard knocked the wind out of them. "I came in with 55 [years] and now I have 99," Rabbanian remembered Cacy saying. After everything the jury had learned, he couldn't understand how it had reached this conclusion. The young lawyer would never touch another criminal case.

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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