Updated: May 8, 2020
WARNING: Some sources may contain graphic images.
The death penalty is a pretty controversial subject, at least in the United States where I live. But regardless of your opinion on the legalities of capital punishment, I think most people can agree we don’t want anyone executed who is actually innocent. Unfortunately, it does happen. This is the story of a man who was convicted of a triple murder and sentenced to death, but who may or may not have actually committed the crime. This is the story of Cameron Todd Willingham.
Cameron Todd Willingham was born on January 9, 1968 in Ardmore, Oklahoma. His parents divorced when he was a baby and his mother effectively abandoned him. When he was thirteen months old, his father, who had already remarried, took custody of him and he was raised by his father and stepmother.
Different sources said different things about what name Cameron Todd Willingham went by. Some said he was known to family and friends as Cameron, but most referred to him as Todd. So I’ll be calling him Todd for the rest of this blog just for the sake of clarity.
As a teenager, Todd got into the habit of sniffing paint. According to his father and several other family members, this paint sniffing drastically changed Todd’s personality, affected his judgment and may have at least contributed to his later life of crime. In fact, his stepmother would later say he was usually high when he committed crimes.
Todd dropped out of school in the 10th grade. I couldn’t find any records of crimes he committed as a juvenile; I’m pretty sure they happened, but the records were later expunged. The earliest I could find began in 1986, when he would have been about 18 and was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon and carrying a concealed weapon. He was arrested three more times that year, once for burglary, once on six counts of auto burglary and once for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The latter charge stemmed from him selling paint to a minor, and another arrest for the same thing followed in January 1987.
From April 1987 to September 1988, Todd was arrested five more times, for things like grand larceny, theft and DUI. According to one report, he also stole a dog and killed it by beating it with a stick and running over it with a car. He was also known for paint sniffing, as well as selling paint and beer to minors.
In 1988, Todd met Stacy Kuykendall, who was a senior in high school at the time. It’s not clear exactly when their relationship became romantic, but it was pretty quick. On August 21, 1989, about a year after they’d met, Stacy gave birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter named Amber. On December 18, 1990, she gave birth again, this time to twin girls Kameron and Karmon. Todd would later say fatherhood made him settle down and not want to get in trouble anymore.
Despite this statement, his legal troubles continued. He was arrested five times between February 1989 and September 1991. These arrests were mostly for theft, but one was for making a terroristic threat — he tried to run Stacy’s aunt off the road with his car, and threatened two of her other relatives. In August 1991, police were called to his home and found him in the front yard screaming at Stacy, calling her a whore, a bitch and a slut. She later denied this incident. Todd Henry Bailey, Todd’s neighbor who claimed he killed a dog, also later recalled an incident where, according to him, Stacy came to his house and asked to use his phone to call for help because Todd was threatening her.
If you couldn’t tell from these last two incidents, Todd and Stacy’s relationship was volatile. They frequently broke up and got back together, and multiple witnesses said Todd was abusive. One report says he tried to kick Stacy in the stomach when she was pregnant with the twins to cause her to miscarry. She denied this as well, and also said he’d never hurt their kids. She would also later testify her doctor never found any indications of her being abused when she was pregnant.
Rumors swirled that Todd was unfaithful, but Stacy only admitted to one other girlfriend he had, and this was while they were broken up. According to her, she went by his apartment and saw his new girlfriend’s car outside, so she scratched the paint on it. At the time, Todd was at Stacy’s house, watching the kids.
Other witnesses would later claim Todd never really acted like a father to his children, never tried to comfort them when they were upset and wasn’t really around much anyway.
At some point in his on again, off again relationship with Stacy, they moved to the small town of Corsicana, Texas, about 55 miles south of Dallas, to be close to Stacy’s family. Despite all their troubles, the couple married in October 1991.
There’s conflicting information on exactly when the move to Corsicana happened. In a police interview on New Year’s Eve of that year, which we’ll get to later, Todd said they’d lived in the house for about a year and a half, which would put them there in the summer of 1990. But in later trial transcripts, Todd’s father said he didn’t move in with Stacy until they got married in 1991. So I’m not sure why there’s a discrepancy. Nevertheless, by the Christmas season of 1991, the Willinghams had settled into their home in Corsicana. Unfortunately, this family life wouldn’t last.
By December 1991, the Willinghams were still holding things together. 22-year-old Stacy worked in her brother’s bar, while 23-year-old Todd had worked several different jobs before recently being laid off from his job as an auto mechanic. The couple was about two months behind on their rent and had stopped paying some of their bills to afford Christmas presents for 2-year-old Amber and one-year-old Karmon and Kameron.
On the morning of December 23, according to Todd, he woke up just after 9 am, around the time Stacy was leaving the house to pay bills (at least the ones they were paying) and to buy Christmas presents. Todd heard the twins crying, so he gave them bottles, put them on the floor and set up the childproof gate at the childrens’ bedroom door. Then he went back to sleep.
(Another source said Stacy actually put the twins on the floor earlier that morning, and Todd simply gave them bottles and left them on the floor.)
He woke up about an hour later when he thought he heard Amber calling for him. The house was full of smoke. He went to the childrens’ bedroom, but couldn’t find them either. In fact, according to his story, the air was so thick with smoke, he mistook a doll for one of the children.
He claimed to stay in the room for two to three minutes, but escaped when debris began falling from the ceiling. After exiting the house via the nearby front door, it was too hot for him to go back inside the house.
Around 10 am, 11-year-old Buffie Barber was playing outside with her sister when she smelled smoke. (Most sources listed her last name as ‘Barbee’ but the trial transcripts list it as ‘Barber.’) At first, she thought it was coming from the house of Shelia, her next door neighbor. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane Barber, that Shelia’s house was on fire. They ran outside together and heard Todd screaming “My babies are inside burning up. Help me.” Buffie told him to go back in the house and get them, but he just stood there. She did, however, claim to see him break a window on the front porch.
Diane Barber went back home to call for help, but her phone wasn’t working. So she ran down the street to another neighbor’s house and called 911. After she left, Todd broke two bedroom windows with a pool cue, but flames only poured out of the open space.
Fire trucks arrived on the scene around 10:26 am. Todd had to be restrained because he was so hysterical and wanted to go back in the house.
Firefighters found Amber in the master bedroom. At that time, it was unclear if she was alive or dead. The twins’ bodies were found on their bedroom floor after the fire was extinguished. The firefighter who found them said they were “burned beyond any possible survival.” They were pronounced dead at the scene.
Amber was rushed to nearby Navarro Regional Hospital. Her heart wasn’t working and she wasn’t breathing. Doctors attempted to resuscitate her, but she never exhibited any vital signs. About 15 minutes after her arrival, she was pronounced dead.
The Corsicana Fire Department began looking into the fire right away after it was extinguished. It didn’t take long for them to become suspicious. They searched the house for evidence of electrical problems or anything else that might have caused an accidental fire, but claimed to find none. They also had the gas company come to the house and check for gas leaks, but they also found nothing. A sample they took from the house and sent to a lab for testing had charcoal lighter fluid, which could have been used as an accelerant. Deputy state Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez noted “pour patterns” on the floor that indicated liquid that had taken awhile to soak into the floor. According to Vasquez, if the liquid had been put there accidentally, such as a drink that someone spilled, it would probably be cleaned up pretty quickly. The liquid in the Willingham house had seeped underneath the floorboards, supposedly because it hadn’t been cleaned up and, therefore, had been poured intentionally. Vasquez also believed the areas with more damage indicated places where this liquid accelerant had been poured.
There were other signs as well, they said. Metal springs from the childrens’ beds were white, which indicated severe heat. There were also burn marks underneath the floor in the childrens’ room, supposedly a sign that a liquid accelerant was used because the burn marks were caused from the liquid seeping underneath the floorboards. Investigators also noted weblike cracks through the window glass, often called “crazed glass.” This was thought at the time to be a clear sign that a fire had an accelerant. Overall, they claimed to find over 20 indicators of arson.
There were a couple of other noteworthy things in the house. There was a grill on the front porch, around where liquid accelerant was thought to be. The grill has been cited many times as an actual reason why the fire spread so fast. But there was actually a gap between the concrete porch, where the liquid accelerant was found, and the wood threshold, where grill apparently was. The liquid couldn’t have flowed there. Another thing in the house that struck investigators as off was a refrigerator blocking the back door, seemingly preventing anyone from escaping that way.
On Christmas Eve, the day after the fire, autopsies were conducted on the Amber, Karmon and Kameron. Their cause of death was determined to be carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of smoke inhalation. Their deaths were listed as homicide, based on information from Manuel Vasquez’s office.
But forensics weren’t the only indicator that something was off. Todd’s other neighbors who witnessed the blaze said he was overly concerned with his car and ran to move it away from the fire so it wouldn’t get damaged.
After the fire, Todd was checked into the hospital and stayed overnight. When Stacy got the news and later arrived, she asked her husband point blank why their children hadn’t survived but he had. He had nothing to say.
Sometimes between 2:30 and 3 that afternoon, Buffie Barber’s sister, Brandy, went to the hospital with her friend Stephanie to visit Todd. Stephanie suggested asking Todd if he wanted anything to eat, which he did. So they got him food from Jack in the Box and brought it back to his room. But Brandy was surprised that someone who had just been through what he had would be thinking about food. Another source said Todd was overheard at the hospital asking a friend to go to Whataburger and get him food.
A nurse at the hospital said she saw a woman, presumably Stacy, enter Todd’s room and that he was irritated because she didn’t want to come right up to his bed. The nurse thought this was unusual behavior for people who had just lost their children.
Around 6 pm on the night of the fire, Todd and Stacy talked to news reporters. Diane Barber was there as the cameras filmed the couple, and claims to have overheard Todd tell Stacy that he’d gone back into the house, but she never saw him do that. She would later say she didn’t think Todd did enough to rescue his children. A policeman who also witnessed the interview said Todd was much calmer than he had been earlier.
Other reports say Todd was partying at a bar “immediately” after the fire, though he was supposedly still in the hospital at this time, so this might have actually happened a day or so later, on Christmas Eve. A community collection taken up by Corsicana residents for funeral costs was reportedly spent on boots and darts.
On Christmas Eve morning, their neighbor John Henry Bailey said he saw Todd and Stacy at the scene of the fire, cleaning up debris. According to Bailey, the couple was laughing and “cutting up” — not behavior he expected from people who had just lost all of their children as well as their house. After the police arrived later on, Bailey said, they suddenly became somber. A police chaplain later said he thought Todd’s grief was faked because he seemed “too distraught,” as if he was putting on a show.
Around noon on December 27th, Manuel Vasquez arrived at the scene to help the fire marshal make a sketch of the house. He also noted that the heater in the childrens’ bedroom was switched to the ‘off’ position, seemingly ruling out the idea that it caused the fire accidentally. When Todd arrived later on in the day, a firefighter claimed he was unusually upset about his dartboard that had been destroyed in the fire. At the funeral held for his daughters, witnesses said they overheard Todd whispering “You’re not the one who was supposed to die” over Amber’s coffin. Corsicana Fire Department sergeant Jimmie Hensley also claimed Todd had told people he didn’t want his kids.
In addition to all this, parts of Todd’s story just weren’t adding up. For starters, his injuries were, from all accounts, relatively minor. He had first degree burns on his face and neck, a second degree burn on his shoulder, singed hair and blisters. He showed no signs of smoke inhalation at the hospital. His carbon monoxide level was normal for a smoker or someone who lived with a smoker — and he and Stacy both smoked.
And his story of escaping the fire had holes in it. Since Amber’s body was found in the master bedroom, I think it’s safe to assume that Todd’s account of her running into the bedroom after he woke up is probably accurate. According to Todd, he then told her to get out of the house. This struck Jimmie Hensley as strange because, as he put it, “If he couldn’t see where to go, how is his 2-year-old going to find a way out?” He also found it weird that Todd would just leave Amber in the master bedroom if they were already together and could escape together. Maybe he wanted to go back and get the twins, but the idea of leaving a toddler to fend for themselves in a house fire is strange. Yet another version of Todd’s story said he never even realized Amber was in his room, which contradicts everything else he’s said about the first few minutes after waking up.
Todd initially said he escaped out of the front door, then later said he’d escaped out the back door. He also told police he’d gone to the kitchen first, when he’d originally said he went to the childrens’ bedrooms first. According to Vasquez, Todd couldn’t have been in the bedroom at the start of the fire because he would have sustained more injury and possibly smoke inhalation. It was also impossible for him to have been in the childrens’ room for as long as he initially claimed — two to three minutes — for the same reason. When he escaped from the childrens’ bedroom to the hallway and out the front door, he also should have sustained more injuries to his feet due to the extreme heat of the floor— but his feet weren’t injured at all. Overall, Todd’s injuries just didn’t appear consistent with escaping a fire of this magnitude.
Todd was interviewed on New Year’s Eve by Jimmie Hensley. He brought up several different possible reasons for the fire, which he said was probably electrical. Their microwave had blown up about three weeks before the fire, and he said they could smell wiring from loose wires and hear popping. He also brought up squirrels in the attic.
But Jimmie Hensley wasn’t buying it. He felt Todd’s tone sounded more like bragging than remorse or sadness. As he later said, “Just his whole demeanor to me looked like he just wanted to tell a story.”
Hensley showed Todd pictures of his daughters’ bodies, hoping this would break him down and convince him to confess. Todd did start crying when he saw the pictures, but it didn’t last long and he never confessed.
The physical evidence, Todd’s actions and his contradictory statements led Hensley to believe the fire was arson. As he put it: “After a while in this business, you get to judge people by their actions and their looks…From the very time I sat and talked to him, I just I knew he wasn't being honest with me.”
On the night of January 8, 1992, about two weeks after the fire, Todd and Stacy were in a car when a SWAT team forced them to pull over. Todd was arrested and charged with murder. After the murder charge, he stopped cooperating with authorities.
Todd’s trial was set for August 1992. On August 3, a pre trial hearing was held. Stacy and two of her brothers wanted a change of venue because Todd couldn’t possibly get a fair trial in Navarro County due to the media coverage. The motion was denied.
Before the trial, Todd was offered a deal — plead guilty and he’d get life in prison, rather than risk a death sentence. He turned it down because he didn’t want to plead guilty for a crime he said he didn’t commit.
His trial began on August 18, 1992. The prosecution claimed Todd poured a “combustible liquid” on the floor in childrens’ room, hallway and entrance around mid morning, then started the fire with the intent of killing the children. Around the time of the trial, the district attorney of Navarro County at the time told reporters Todd set fire to kill children because they got in the way of his beer drinking and dart playing. Prosecuting attorney John Jackson was against the death penalty but eventually decided Todd was an exception because it was an especially brutal triple murder.
Forensic evidence took up a big chunk of the prosecution witnesses’ testimonies. A few things mentioned were multiple points of origin, intense heat and attempts to debunk the theory that the fire was accidental.
Even though there was plenty of forensic evidence presented, the prosecution also called on another inmate, 22-year-old Johnny Webb, who claimed he’d heard Todd confess to setting the fire to cover up an accidental injury to one of the children at Stacy’s hands.
The defense called very few witnesses — two, maybe three. Todd didn’t take the stand because his lawyers didn’t think he’d make a good witness and, he claimed, he didn’t feel like he needed to. The case went to the jury after just two days, and they were out for about an hour before returning with a verdict. Cameron Todd Willingham had been found guilty of capital murder. The next day — August 21 — he was sentenced to death.
Like most prisoners, especially those facing life in prison or death sentences, Todd did everything he could to get out. While on death row, he wrote to numerous legal groups asking if they could give him a polygraph so he could clear his name. Another, earlier report claimed Todd had actually refused a polygraph at the start of the investigation.
While in prison, he met a woman named Elizabeth Gilbert via a prison pen pal program. When Gilbert initially met with Todd, she assumed he was guilty. But after looking through the case files, she changed her mind. She would later attempt to get him exonerated and freed.
It was an uphill battle. Todd exhausted all of his appeals, and a ‘writ’ was denied in a federal court district in 2002. The case was brought in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 but they declined to hear it. Shortly after this denial, Todd’s execution was scheduled for February 17, 2004.
But there was one last 11th hour effort to save him. Shortly before the scheduled execution, Todd’s appellate lawyer, Walter Reaves, contacted Gerald Hurst. Hurst is a chemist and fire expert. Interestingly, he also invented the mylar balloon you often buy when someone graduates or has a baby.
Hurst took one look at Todd Willingham’s case files and concluded it was “a bogus arson case” right away. He claimed there was “not one iota of evidence that the fire was arson…and much of what they considered to be evidence is not evidence at all.” I’m going to get a bit more into that evidence later, but one major thing Hurst cited was the Lime Street Fire.
On October 15, 1990, a house on Lime Street in Jacksonville, Florida caught fire. Firefighters found 35-year-old Gerald Wayne Lewis outside, holding his young son — but six other people in the house, including Lewis’s pregnant wife, had all died. Lewis was charged with murder, but the actual evidence of arson was slim. So prosecutors conducted an experiment.
“Flashover” is loosely defined as the point in a fire where everything in a room catches on fire. At the time of the Lime Street Fire, it was believed that flashover took anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes to occur after a fire was set. The prosecution assembled a team of arson experts, who went to an abandoned house in the same neighborhood as the house that had burned — one source said it was next door, another said it was two doors down. They spent several thousand dollars reconstructing the house to give it a similar layout and furniture as the house that burned. The team set a fire on the couch and watched it burn, thinking it would reach “flashover” in about 15 minutes. Instead, it took just four.
This threw a huge wrench in the prosecution’s case. Because flashover was initially believed to take a decent amount of time, they thought the victims should have had plenty of time to escape if the fire truly was accidental. This made it more likely that Lewis had killed the victims before the fire, or at least intentionally done something to them to prevent them from escaping.
But since it took less than five minutes for the fire to spread enough to cover an entire room, it was possible that they simply couldn’t escape in time — and, therefore, that the fire was accidental. In addition to this, the victims also had CO levels consistent with a rapidly spreading fire. The case never went to trial, and Gerald Wayne Lewis was cleared of all charges. This experiment was conducted in early 1991, months before the Willingham house fire, let alone Todd Willingham’s trial. By the time of the trial, Hurst realized, these findings should have been known among fire investigators.
Hurst only had a few days to prepare his report, but barely managed to finish it on time. The report, along with a petition, was submitted to Texas’s Court of Criminal Appeals as well as then-governor Rick Perry four days before the scheduled execution. They weren’t hoping for a full pardon — only a temporary stay of execution — but even that was denied. Todd reportedly found out that this final attempt had failed just hours before his execution.
Right before his execution, Todd had one final visit with his father and stepmother. He confessed that, in the ordeal, he had lied about one thing: He never went back into the childrens’ room after escaping the fire. He said he’d lied because he didn’t want people to think he was a coward.
Before his death, Todd once again proclaimed his innocence and hurled profanities at his now ex-wife, Stacy, saying he hoped she’d “rot in hell.” Around 6 pm on February 17, 2004, he was executed via lethal injection. His body was cremated, and some of his ashes were spread over his childrens’ graves.
For most true crime stories, this is where things would end, but this is just the beginning. Click here for part 2.