Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky. Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. Fire lashed through the hole.
He broke another window; flames burst through it, too, and he retreated into the yard, kneeling in front of the house. Diane Barbee, returning to the scene, could feel intense heat radiating off the house. Within minutes, the first firemen had arrived, and Willingham approached them, shouting that his children were in their bedroom, where the flames were thickest. More men showed up, uncoiling hoses and aiming water at the blaze. One fireman, who had an air tank strapped to his back and a mask covering his face, slipped through a window but was hit by water from a hose and had to retreat.
He then charged through the front door, into a swirl of smoke and fire. Heading down the main corridor, he reached the kitchen, where he saw a refrigerator blocking the back door. Todd Willingham, looking on, appeared to grow more hysterical, and a police chaplain named George Monaghan led him to the back of a fire truck and tried to calm him down. While he was talking, a fireman emerged from the house, cradling Amber. As she was given C. Monaghan and another man restrained him. Willingham was taken to a hospital, where he was told that Amber—who had actually been found in the master bedroom—had died of smoke inhalation.
According to the medical examiner, they, too, died from smoke inhalation. News of the tragedy, which took place on December 23, , spread through Corsicana. Several stores along the main street were shuttered, giving the place the feel of an abandoned outpost. Willingham and his wife, who was twenty-two years old, had virtually no money. The community took up a collection to help the Willinghams pay for funeral arrangements.
Fire investigators, meanwhile, tried to determine the cause of the blaze. He was tall, with a crew cut, and his voice was raspy from years of inhaling smoke from fires and cigarettes. He had grown up in Corsicana and, after graduating from high school, in , he had joined the Navy, serving as a medic in Vietnam, where he was wounded on four occasions. He was awarded a Purple Heart each time. Short, with a paunch, Vasquez had investigated more than twelve hundred fires. Arson investigators have always been considered a special breed of detective.
The only way to beat it is to think like it. To know that this flame will spread this way across the door and up across the ceiling. I am just the interpreter. Once, he was asked under oath whether he had ever been mistaken in a case. Following protocol, they moved from the least burned areas toward the most damaged ones.
I have not made any determination. The men slowly toured the perimeter of the house, taking notes and photographs, like archeologists mapping out a ruin. Upon opening the back door, Vasquez observed that there was just enough space to squeeze past the refrigerator blocking the exit.
The air smelled of burned rubber and melted wires; a damp ash covered the ground, sticking to their boots. In the kitchen, Vasquez and Fogg discerned only smoke and heat damage—a sign that the fire had not originated there—and so they pushed deeper into the nine-hundred-and-seventy-five-square-foot building. Most of the damage there was also from smoke and heat, suggesting that the fire had started farther down the hallway, and he headed that way, stepping over debris and ducking under insulation and wiring that hung down from the exposed ceiling.
As he and Fogg removed some of the clutter, they noticed deep charring along the base of the walls. Because gases become buoyant when heated, flames ordinarily burn upward. But Vasquez and Fogg observed that the fire had burned extremely low down, and that there were peculiar char patterns on the floor, shaped like puddles.
Sunlight filtering through the broken windows illuminated more of the irregularly shaped char patterns. The fire had burned through layers of carpeting and tile and plywood flooring.
Fogg examined a piece of glass from one of the broken windows. On the concrete floor of the porch, just outside the front door, Vasquez and Fogg noticed another unusual thing: brown stains, which, they reported, were consistent with the presence of an accelerant. By now, both investigators had a clear vision of what had happened.
The house, in short, had been deliberately transformed into a death trap. The investigators collected samples of burned materials from the house and sent them to a laboratory that could detect the presence of a liquid accelerant. The sample had been taken by the threshold of the front door. The fire was now considered a triple homicide, and Todd Willingham—the only person, besides the victims, known to have been in the house at the time of the blaze—became the prime suspect.
Police and fire investigators canvassed the neighborhood, interviewing witnesses. Several, like Father Monaghan, initially portrayed Willingham as devastated by the fire.
Yet, over time, an increasing number of witnesses offered damning statements. Diane Barbee said that she had not seen Willingham try to enter the house until after the authorities arrived, as if he were putting on a show. I had the feeling that [Willingham] was in complete control. The police began to piece together a disturbing profile of Willingham. Born in Ardmore, Oklahoma, in , he had been abandoned by his mother when he was a baby. His father, Gene, who had divorced his mother, eventually raised him with his stepmother, Eugenia.
Gene, a former U. In , he met Stacy, a senior in high school, who also came from a troubled background: when she was four years old, her stepfather had strangled her mother to death during a fight. Stacy and Willingham had a turbulent relationship. On December 31st, the authorities brought Willingham in for questioning.
Fogg and Vasquez were present for the interrogation, along with Jimmie Hensley, a police officer who was working his first arson case. Willingham said that Stacy had left the house around 9 A. Amber was still in bed, Willingham said, so he went back into his room to sleep. Get out of the house! He never sensed that Amber was in his room, he said.
Perhaps she had already passed out by the time he stood up, or perhaps she came in after he left, through a second doorway, from the living room. After he patted out the fire on his hair, he said, he got down on the ground and groped in the dark. Finally, he stumbled down the corridor and out the front door, trying to catch his breath.
He saw Diane Barbee and yelled for her to call the Fire Department. After she left, he insisted, he tried without success to get back inside.
Book Review: Smokeless Fire, Samantha Young
The investigators asked him if he had any idea how the fire had started. Willingham speculated that the fire might have been started by something electrical: he had heard all that popping and crackling. We had three of the most pretty babies anybody could have ever asked for. During the interrogation, Vasquez let Fogg take the lead.
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Finally, Vasquez turned to Willingham and asked a seemingly random question: had he put on shoes before he fled the house? A map of the house was on a table between the men, and Vasquez pointed to it. Vasquez was now convinced that Willingham had killed his children.
If the floor had been soaked with a liquid accelerant and the fire had burned low, as the evidence suggested, Willingham could not have run out of the house the way he had described without badly burning his feet. A medical report indicated that his feet had been unscathed.
Willingham insisted that, when he left the house, the fire was still around the top of the walls and not on the floor. He just talked and he talked and all he did was lie. Still, there was no clear motive. Ultimately, the authorities concluded that Willingham was a man without a conscience whose serial crimes had climaxed, almost inexorably, in murder. On the night of January 8, , two weeks after the fire, Willingham was riding in a car with Stacy when SWAT teams surrounded them, forcing them to the side of the road. Then they arrested him.
Willingham was charged with murder.
Smokeless Fire by Samantha Young
Because there were multiple victims, he was eligible for the death penalty, under Texas law. Unlike many other prosecutors in the state, Jackson, who had ambitions of becoming a judge, was personally opposed to capital punishment. They had little doubt that he had committed the murders and that, if the case went before a jury, he would be found guilty, and, subsequently, executed. Martin and Dunn advised Willingham that he should accept the offer, but he refused. The lawyers asked his father and stepmother to speak to him.
Book Review: Smokeless Fire, Samantha Young
His parents went to see their son in jail. Though his father did not believe that he should plead guilty if he were innocent, his stepmother beseeched him to take the deal. Willingham was implacable. It was his final decision.