Every two months, Terry Caffey drives 200 miles to see his daughter, Erin, in prison.
Originally published 17 October 2012;
It’s astonishing he makes this journey, as his daughter was instrumental in the murder of the rest of their family – her mother, Penny, 37, and brothers Matthew, 13, and Tyler, eight.
Angry her parents were trying to break up her destructive relationship with boyfriend Charlie Wilkinson, then 19, the pair plotted a violent act of revenge against her family.
Although Erin didn’t carry out the sickening murders, she hid in a getaway car as Wilkinson and an accomplice, Charles Wade, 20, shot her mum and brother Matthew dead, then repeatedly stabbed terrified brother Tyler to death.
They also left dad Terry for dead after shooting him 11 times.
“Losing my wife and sons was unbearable, but to learn my daughter was responsible destroyed my world"
Erin, now 19, is serving two life sentences. But Terry has come to terms with her appalling betrayal and even hopes he’ll live to see her released from prison.
Terry says: “Losing my wife and sons was unbearable, but to learn my daughter was responsible destroyed my world. I miss my family every day.”
He adds: “I know Erin wasn’t her true self the day of the murders. Charlie convinced her the only way they could be together was if they killed us.
“Erin tortures herself every day over what she did. I love her despite the pain she’s caused.”
Before meeting Wilkinson, Erin was a model daughter. Terry – who works as a preacher in Texas, US – says: “She loved school and dreamed of being a chef. She was close to her brothers – they’d fight like normal siblings, but they loved each other. They’d go fishing together and play in the garden. And Erin had a great relationship with Penny.”
But things changed when Erin turned 16 and met Wilkinson at a restaurant, where she worked part-time. Terry says: “I didn’t like him. I worried about him being older than her and he seemed arrogant and rude.”
Within weeks of them starting a relationship, Erin began dabbling with alcohol and drugs.
Terry says: “Her school work began to suffer and she started to lie about where she was and came home smelling of beer. I saw photos on her MySpace page of her drinking with Charlie and messages about her using drugs and having sex. As a Christian family, it worried us – that’s not how she was brought up.”
Disturbed by the change in her, Terry begged her to end the relationship and eventually issued an ultimatum. He says: “Penny and I told Erin she couldn’t see Charlie as long as she was living under our roof. I thought she’d go mad, but she was strangely quiet.”
Two days later, on 1 March 2008, Terry’s life changed forever. Extraordinarily, after hearing Terry had banned him from seeing Erin, Wilkinson and his friend Charles Wade, broke into the family’s home in Texas at 3am and began their killings, while Erin – who’d sneaked out – waited in a car with friend Bobbi Johnson, then 18.
Terry recalls: “I was in bed with Penny when I heard a loud blast. I sat up and saw a figure in the darkness, who then opened fire on both of us. I tried to shield myself, but was shot several times in the upper body and face and lost consciousness.”
While Terry was unconscious, Wilkinson and Wade went to the boys’ bedroom. They shot Matthew in the face, while Tyler was slashed repeatedly with a samurai sword. The evil pair then set fire to the house and fled.
“I tried to get to the kids, who slept upstairs – I thought Erin was up there too – but I didn’t have the strength to fight the flames"
Terry says: “When I woke up, I was on the floor, choking on my blood and my right side was numb. I climbed on to the bed and saw Penny. They’d shot her, slit her throat and left her nearly decapitated. Her injuries were so vicious, I knew she’d gone.
“The killers were still in the house, as I could hear my sons begging for their lives and screaming: ‘Charlie, why are you doing this?’ I knew instinctively it was Charlie Wilkinson and that the attack had been planned.
“I tried to get to the kids, who slept upstairs – I thought Erin was up there too – but I didn’t have the strength to fight the flames. I didn’t know for sure they were dead, but in my heart I knew they couldn’t have survived, especially after seeing how brutally they’d killed Penny. I managed to escape by crawling out of the bathroom window. I felt like a coward for saving myself. I wanted to protect my family, but I couldn’t.”
After Terry crawled to a neighbour’s home, he was airlifted to hospital. When he came round three hours later, he thought he’d lost his whole family. He told police the perpetrator was Wilkinson, as he’d heard the boys shout his name. Police arrested Charlie and found Erin hiding in his bedroom. Terry was ecstatic when his sister Mary, 39, told him Erin was alive, but his joy turned to disbelief when, just 15 minutes later, he learned she’d been charged with the murders.
Terry says: “I screamed and tried to rip the drips out of my arms. I was crying and shouting: ‘No, not Erin.’ It was unthinkable she’d been involved.”
Terry was kept in hospital for six days before going to live with his sister. He says: “I’d have nightmares about the boys dying and Penny being shot. I wished I’d died with them. I don’t remember much of the funeral, but I know I cried until there were no tears left. I was completely grief-stricken. I felt hopeful Erin was still alive, but also hatred, knowing she was part of the reason my family was gone.”
Terry visited Erin in prison a month after the murders. He recalls: “I needed to understand what had happened. I felt sick, but when I saw Erin in her prison suit, it broke my heart. I was only allowed to see her through a glass partition. She’d lost weight and her eyes were sunken. She kept sobbing and apologising. I had so many questions, but her lawyer said I couldn’t ask her anything about the crime until after the trial, so we made small talk.”
Ten months after the murders, Erin took a plea bargain after all three of her accomplices said she had asked Wade and Wilkinson to kill her family. She was given two life sentences for the murders of her brothers with an additional 25 years for her mum’s death, but will be eligible for parole aged 59.
Wade and Wilkinson were also convicted of the murders and given life in prison without parole, while Johnson pleaded guilty to being an accomplice and got 40 years.
"I know people will find it hard to understand my forgiveness, but she’s my daughter and I’ll always love her, no matter what"
Terry visited Erin every two months at Gatesville Prison, Texas. He says: “After the sentencing, Erin told me her side of the story and said the last thing she’d wanted was for any of us to die and she’d been brainwashed by Charlie. I felt guilty I hadn’t made sure she stopped seeing him. Then, maybe my wife and sons would have lived.”
Over the next three years, Terry regularly visited Erin and gradually learned to forgive her. He still visits every few months. He says: “At first, we talked about that night. But it was distressing, so we started chatting about my job and the culinary courses she does in prison.”
Since the murders, Terry has found love with new wife Sonja. He met her at work in October 2008 – seven months after the murders – and married her a year later, becoming a stepdad to her two sons. And despite the pain Erin has caused, Terry hopes he’ll live to see the day she gets out.
He says: “Erin will be 59 by the time she’s eligible for parole and I’ll be 86. I pray I can have a few years with her. I know people will find it hard to understand my forgiveness, but she’s my daughter and I’ll always love her, no matter what"