CORSICANA, Texas -- The call came in at midmorning on a chilly Monday, two days before Christmas in 1991.
Firefighter Ron Franks could see a dark column of smoke from six blocks away.
When he arrived, smoke and flames were rolling out of the windows and front door of the half-century-old frame house at 1213 W. 11th St. A shirtless man was outside.
"My babies are in there," he told Franks.
Amber, the 2-year-old, was given CPR and rushed to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead. The lifeless bodies of the 1-year-old twins -- Karmon Diane and Kameron Marie -- were recovered from a bedroom.
By any measure, the deaths of the three children were a tragedy that gripped the entire town. But the next two weeks produced yet another dimension that seemed incomprehensible: Cameron Todd Willingham, the anguished father in the front yard, was accused of setting the fire and killing his kids.
The following August, Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death. After nine state and federal courts rejected his appeals, he was executed by lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004, professing his innocence in a final statement.
A dark chapter
For many of Corsicana's 25,000 residents, the execution ended a dark chapter -- one that began unfolding the same year that American troops were fighting the first Persian Gulf War and Russians were celebrating the end of communism.
But the case of Cameron Todd Willingham has returned in this former boomtown 50 miles southeast of Dallas.
Nine fire experts have challenged the arson investigation that was fundamental to the state's case against Willingham, raising the possibility that the fire may have started accidentally. The renewed scrutiny has received national news coverage, much of it centering on Gov. Rick Perry, who denied Willingham’s late-hour bid for a postponement.
Perry, the state's longest-serving governor, has come under fire for replacing three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just as it was preparing to review fire expert Craig Beyler's report criticizing the arson investigation. Perry's critics accused the Republican governor of orchestrating the shake-up to derail the inquiry, but Perry has vigorously defended his actions, depicting Willingham as "a monster."
Ex-wife says her husband was guilty
The debate has also produced conflicting images of Willingham. Those who share Perry's view feel that justice was served, describing Willingham as a sociopath who poured accelerant on the floor of the house, who felt the children hindered his lifestyle, who beat his wife in an unsuccessful attempt to cause a miscarriage.
One witness recalled that Willingham bragged about the time he and a half brother stole a dog, beat it in the head with a stick and ran over it with a car, although Willingham later told a friend he didn't harm the animal.
"I believe he was guilty," his ex-wife said Saturday night. Stacy Kuykendall, who now goes by her maiden name, confirmed earlier reports that Willingham told her before his execution that he had set fire to the house and killed the children because he knew that she was going to leave him.
"He was sorry for what he did," she said. "He did confess."
In a lengthy statement, Stacy Kuykendall offered one of her most detailed accounts of the fire and its aftermath and her recollections of Willingham's behavior.
"Todd set our house on fire then stood outside and watched it burn. He knew our three daughters were inside this home taking there last breath. He watched them die," she said. "Governor Rick Perry called Cameron Todd Willingham a 'monster' and indeed he was."
Willingham's defenders, including other members of his family, acknowledge that Willingham, a 10th-grade dropout from Ardmore, Okla., had a history of scrapes with the law and had a substance abuse problem. They also acknowledge that he and his wife had a stormy, abusive relationship and that Willingham was sometimes unfaithful. But at the same time, they say, he was a loving father who adored his children and would never harm them.
"He was kind of a Mr. Mom," recalls his 67-year-old stepmother, Eugenia Willingham of Ardmore.
Poetry from death row
In letters from Death Row, Willingham often seemed thoughtful and introspective, sometimes expressing himself in poetry. He never wavered in maintaining his innocence throughout his 12-year confinement.
"Although I am imprisoned, I am more free than any soul can be," he wrote in a 10-line verse to conclude a letter to his stepmother in 1994.
In a letter to Kuykendall in 2000, Willingham told of enduring memories of his children.
"I still can feel them . . . there caress on my soul. I still know Ambers voice, her smile, her Cool Dude saying, and how she said: I wanna hold you! Still feel the touch of Karmon and Kameron's hands on my face, the smoky look in their eyes when they looked at me, and how we called Karmon Poke a Nose."
Willingham also apologized to Kuykendall "for not being the husband you deserved or being there when you needed me most."
"There are things that need to be said and addressed," he wrote. "Some things for closure; some for ending the chapter of our life together."
'From God's dust . . . '
But in a profanity-laced final statement before his execution, Willingham lashed out, telling Kuykendall, who by then had divorced him, "I hope you rot in hell, bitch." Bound to a gurney while Kuykendall watched from a window 8 feet away, he also attempted an obscene gesture with his hand, strapped at the wrist, The Associated Press reported.
"The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit," Willingham said. "I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return so the earth shall become my throne. I gotta go, Road Dog."
John H. Jackson, a retired judge and former assistant district attorney, led the prosecution of Willingham. As he looked back on the case over lunch at a bustling downtown restaurant last week, he said he had no doubts of Willingham's guilt despite the barrage of new questions.
"I was completely convinced that it was both a murder and an arson fire," Jackson said. "I think the death penalty opponents really do themselves a disservice by identifying this guy as a poster child. There are a lot of good arguments against the death penalty, but this is not one of them."
The man who opposed Jackson in 13th District Court now says that he, too, believes Willingham was guilty.
"He started the fire and killed the kids," said Waco lawyer David Martin, Willingham's court-appointed attorney. "His conduct was really incriminating, and his statements were irreconcilably inconsistent."
As Willingham's legal representative, Martin said he unsuccessfully tried to raise reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors and believes that Willingham should have accepted a plea-bargain offer for life in prison.
Martin said he felt compelled to speak out in recent interviews, even though he has come under intense criticism from his former client's defenders for asserting that Willingham was guilty.
"When it began to be expressed that an innocent man had been executed, I took an interest in responding to that, because that’s just not the case," Martin said in an interview at his ranch near Corsicana.
Willingham and Kuykendall lived together for several years and married in October 1991. Willingham told family members that he was determined to be a good father. He was a competent mechanic and had been working at a warehouse until he lost his job about a month before the fire. Kuykendall worked at her brother’s bar, Some Other Place, in nearby Angus.
They depended on Medicaid to help provide for the girls.
"Other than that, we had nothing," Willingham told officers. "We never had got a good foothold on our life."
On Dec. 23, Kuykendall left for work in the morning -- Willingham recalled the time as exactly 9:13 -- while he remained at home with the children.
After she pulled out of the driveway, he told police, he gave the twins a bottle. He then went back to sleep, he said, but said he was awakened by Amber's shouts -- "Daddy, Daddy!" -- and saw smoke pouring through the house.
Officer Jason Grant recalled Willingham telling him that he groped through the smoke trying to find his children as burning debris fell. He finally found a front door and escaped, he told Grant, who noticed that Willingham's hair was singed and that he had a burn on his right shoulder.
"I couldn't get my babies out," he told another witness.
Investigators became suspicious about inconsistencies in Willingham's account and his dispassionate behavior that to them seemed inexplicable for a man who had lost his children. Witnesses said that despite his frantic appearance when firefighters arrived, Willingham made no attempt to go back inside. He said he kicked open the front door but had no burn marks on his bare feet. He had also told officers that he went out the back door.
"On December 23rd, 1991 I was taken to the hospital and told that my three daughters had died in a house fire," Stacy Kuykendall wrote in her statement. "Cameron Todd Willingham, the girls' father, was at the hospital alive. When I saw Todd after having been told about my daughters, the first thing I asked him was if he could tell me why I was just told that my babies were dead and he was still alive. Todd just looked at me and had nothing to say.
"I had my doubts about what Todd was saying about what happened that day," she continued. "After Todd was arrested and told his family that he didn't do this, I had to believe that he was telling us the truth. I was 21, just lost all my children and now everyone expected me to believe that their father did this.
Later, she said, "I reminded him that he had already told me that he never attempted to go into the girl's room and try to save them, that he actually got out of bed, told a two-year old to get out of the house and then walked out the front door. I asked him why wouldn’t an innocent man testify on his on behalf? Todd said it was because he told different stories about what happened that day and once you have said it you can’t take it back."
The guilty verdict
The cornerstone of the state's case was the arson investigation, which concluded that accelerant was splashed on the floor and near the threshold of the door, presumably to block rescue attempts.
Jackson, the prosecutor, also relied on testimony from Johnny Webb, who was in jail in a robbery case when Willingham was behind bars on the murder charge. Webb, who got to know Willingham while working as a jail trusty, said Willingham told him he set the fire to conceal an injury that his wife had inflicted on one of the kids children. "He said that he took some kind of lighter fluid, squirting around the walls and the floor and set a fire," Webb testified. "He said he had done it."
Webb has since returned to Corsicana after serving a 15-year prison term. In a recent interview, he stood behind his testimony, which he said subjected him to constant "torture" and recriminations from fellow prisoners because he was branded as an informant.
Jackson said Webb at one point recanted under pressure from inmates but at the same time reassured the former prosecutor that he had told the truth.
"I didn't lie," Webb told the Star-Telegram. "I just know what the dude told me. My testimony was a very small part of that case."
After a two-day trial, the jury of eight women and four men deliberated an hour on Aug. 20, 1992, before finding Willingham guilty. After hearing additional witnesses and deliberating for nearly eight hours, jurors recommended the death penalty.
Henry Ponder, the last juror chosen, said he underwent a kind of "sorrow" after the jury assessed the death penalty and was unable to talk about the case for four months. But based on the evidence, "We just felt like that was right -- never looked back," said the retired life insurance salesman, now 81.
Pen pal, then a defender
Elizabeth Gilbert, a Houston playwright, got to know Willingham through her work as a death penalty opponent participating in a pen-pal program for inmates on Death Row. "I was struck by the differences" between the man she had come to know and the "horrible person" portrayed in court, Gilbert said. She then began looking into the case, starting with a trip to Austin to review court records.
"It didn't look like they had much of a case," Gilbert said she ultimately concluded.
Gilbert said she was struck by Willingham's polite behavior and his skills as a writer. After she was paralyzed in a car wreck, Willingham's letters cheered her and helped her recover. She has also written a play based on her conversations with the inmate.
"I just felt like this was someone who as a young man was put on a path he had no control over," Gilbert said.
'Four lives lost'
Willingham was raised by his father and stepmother, Gene and Eugenia Willingham, and grew up in Ardmore. He was in Boy Scouts and Little League but began sniffing paint in his midteens. Substance abuse led to encounters with the law, including burglary and bicycle theft and a stint in boot camp.
A younger half brother -- who was raised separately from Willingham -- is serving a life sentence in connection with a drug-influenced killing spree that left four people dead in Texas and Arkansas, authorities said. When he was 20, Willingham got to know the half brother, Davey Crockett, when he went to visit their biological mother in Gainesville. For a while, they had the same circle of friends. But Willingham said he was not involved in the crimes that sent Crockett to prison and was with Kuykendall on the night of those murders.
Eugenia Willingham said her stepson never displayed violence around family members and was always courteous and polite. Later, after he and Kuykendall had the children, he talked often about his kids.
Willingham's father died of prostate cancer in 2005.
Eugenia said she has never doubted Willingham's innocence. For years, she said, she and other relatives sought to draw attention to the case, with little success until the Chicago Tribune published a 2004 investigative report questioning the arson inquiry. The New York-based Innocence Project has taken a lead role in the case, featuring daily updates on its Web site.
"Our family has never believed this was anything but a tragic accidental fire resulting in the deaths of the three precious children," said Patricia Cox, one of Willingham's cousins. "We see it as the loss of four lives -- not three -- because Todd was also a casualty."
(Star-Telegram researcher Cathy Belcher contributed to this article.)