Prepare to do some hard reading.
You see, The Dallas Morning News has just finished taking a giant leap back into journalism history in a hellish three-part series built on the kind of serial, storytelling journalism that used to be common in American journalism. I think this is a good thing, when the material fits.
You make the call. Would you keep going after reading this, the top paragraphs in the first installment of the “Demons in the house” series?
EMORY, Texas – Terry Caffey can still taste the blood and gunpowder.
He can hear the staccato gunfire, the shrieks of terror and the plaintive wail of his 13-year-old son — “Why? Why?” He can feel the heat and suffocating smoke from the fire that rolled along the floors and up the walls of his cabin tucked in the piney woods of East Texas.
And he can see his wife — a humble woman whose fingers danced and spirit soared at her church’s piano — slumped at the foot of the bed, her neck slashed so savagely that a coroner’s report would say she was nearly decapitated.
It’s been a year. Enough time, Caffey says, for the stomach-knotting truth to be told about what happened that terrible morning about an hour east of Dallas, when two young men armed with guns and a sword killed his wife and two boys, then torched his home.
Enough time for the anger, pain and hysteria about his 17-year-old daughter’s role in the murders to fade. Enough time to confront what is for him an uncomfortable truth: You love your kids no matter what. Even after they try to kill you.
The religious themes in the story are constant, which is fitting since the lone survivor — the voice for the series — has taken his pain and turned it into a new ministry, while taking strong actions to show just much he is willing to forgive his daughter and the evil young men who, one way or another, stole her away from her family. It’s hard to keep these kinds of killers out of the electric chair in Texas, but Terry Caffey was willing to take the steps to save their lives.
It’s some story. It isn’t perfect, in large part because Erin Caffey, her lover and the other young people caught up in the plot cannot speak for themselves at this point in the legal dramas surrounding them. Thus, when we hear Erin’s voice it is filtered through the memories of family members who are anxious to believe her.
Another detail is sure to cause debate. Many readers are going to flinch at the father’s claims that his family was shocked by a culture of bisexuality — in a small, Bible Belt town in East Texas — that confused his daughter before she finally veered off into the premarital relationship that turned deadly.
This old-fashioned crime story is told in gritty, nasty detail, but the dominant perspective is that of a conservative — but stunningly forgiving — father and there is no way around that journalistic reality. Many readers will want to join in asking this crucial question that Caffey asks himself in part II of the series, during a confrontation with Erin:
Where did we go wrong?
“No, daddy, no,” Erin replied. “You and momma were good parents. You treated us real good. You can’t blame yourself.”
He continued to visit the jail, but Erin’s attorneys warned them not to discuss the case. They talked about the weather and what they ate for lunch. But the questions hung in the air, arcing between their eyes, until Caffey could no longer resist. He knew their conversations were recorded, but using a combination of sign language and his eyes, he asked her, “What did you know?”
He said Erin blurted out an answer before he could stop her — “Daddy, I tried to stop them but I couldn’t.”
Caffey says he believed her, and still does. Erin, he says, was manipulated by an older and controlling boyfriend, Charlie Wilkinson. Feelings of puppy love led to the worldly temptations of sex and alcohol, and feelings of guilt.
“I think giving herself to him like that messed her up,” said Caffey. “We brought her up to believe sex was for the marital bed, and I think she figured, ‘I already slept with this guy, now I’m going to have to marry him.’ ”
Needless to say, the experts at the local Planned Parenthood office would dispute this interpretation of the facts. But, again, that is not the story that is being told here. Will the News follow this up at some point in the future, when the killers can tell their side of this twisted tale? Let’s hope so.
But by the time we reach the finale, reporter Scott Farwell takes us to the theological turf that sensitive readers would know is coming. Ultimately, for Caffey, God had to be placed in the dock to face some ancient accusations.
Why does a loving God allow good people to stray, suffer and die?
This is, you see, the story of Job.
It is, however, the story of Job as told in the age of Christian niche marketing. This outcome will inspire some readers and infuriate others.
Terry Caffey says he’s been bestowed with blessings, too. A year after the murder of his wife and two sons, ages 13 and 8, he has remarried, retooled his work life and reinvigorated his Christian ministry. Caffey says he has forgiven his 17-year-old daughter and three of her friends, who were convicted of the murders earlier this year.
“I don’t believe God saved my life to go work in a factory making pencil erasers or something. I feel God saved my life because he’s got a purpose for it,” Caffey said. “I want people to know you can move forward and you can find forgiveness. I want my life to be a testament to that.”
The marketing of that message has already begun. Caffey is working on a book about the murders, selling his CD “Walking in the Light of the Living,” and has launched a Web site, www.terrycaffey.com. An agent for his publisher is negotiating summer appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and Dr. Phil.
During the day, he repairs rental houses for a real estate investor. At night, he works as an evangelist, preaching at churches and speaking to youth groups.
Read it all and, parents, keep some tissues near. This father has not given up on his daughter, which is an amazing story no matter what you think of some of the details.
Photos: Matthew, Terry, Tyler, Penny and Erin Caffey (left to right); Erin’s police booking shot.