By Darla Atlas Alex Tresniowski
June 08, 2009 12:00 PM

In just a few moments, Terry Caffey lost everything that mattered to him in this world. Penny, his loving wife of 17 years; his boys Matthew, 13, and Tyler, 8, who always wrestled past their bedtimes; his two-story house in Emory, Texas, his favorite recliner, a dryer that made funny noises—all of it, everything, wiped away. “Now what I miss is hollering upstairs to tell the boys to knock it off,” Caffey, 42, says today, a year after the tragedy. “I miss the squeaky dryer that used to drive me crazy.”

Yet it is not just that Caffey lost everything—it is how he lost it that nearly drove him to take his own life. On March 1, 2008, a loud blast roused him from sleep at 3 a.m. Before he could even get his bearings, his wife had been shot and killed, and Caffey himself had been shot in the head. Barely conscious, he heard his older son cry, “No, Charlie, no!” before more gunshots rang through the house. Then flames shot up his bedroom walls. Somehow Caffey survived, crawled out a window and wound up at a hospital, where he learned the full extent of the horror: His then-16-year-old daughter Erin was under arrest for taking part in the plot to kill her family. “When I found out, I just lost it,” says Caffey. “I didn’t want to accept it. That, for me, was rock bottom.”

But Caffey’s story does not end there with utter, unthinkable despair. Since the tragedy, he has pulled himself out of his suicidal depression and done something many people cannot comprehend—he has forgiven his daughter. Police say she planned the attack, along with her boyfriend Charlie Wilkinson and two friends, because her parents forbade her from seeing Wilkinson. This January Erin, who pleaded guilty to three counts of capital murder, was sentenced to two life terms plus 25 years. Caffey fought with prosecutors to drop their insistence Erin have no chance of parole, and she is now eligible when she turns 59, though Caffey hopes it will somehow happen sooner. “Even when our children break our hearts, we still love them,” he says. “She isn’t some stranger; she’s my flesh and blood. It’s my job as a parent to forgive her.”

Police, though, believe Erin was not just a vulnerable teen running with a bad crowd—they say she was the mastermind. “If it weren’t for her, this crime never occurs,” says Richard Almon, lead investigator in the case. “It was something she wanted done, and she was the manipulator. I believe she is evil.” Caffey thinks Erin may have told Wilkinson she wished her parents were dead. But he flatly rejects Almon’s characterization of her as evil. “Deep down I know she loved us and didn’t really want us dead,” he says. “She is not the monster that’s been portrayed.”

Caffey still smiles when he recalls Erin as a “cheerful kid” who sang solos in church “and never gave us any trouble”—until she started dating schoolmate Wilkinson, 18. Caffey, then working for a medical supply company, found Wilkinson arrogant and possessive, and when Erin started breaking house rules, Caffey and his wife demanded she stop seeing him. Just three days later Wilkinson and a friend, Charles Waid, 20, burst into Caffey’s house and shot his wife in bed. Caffey tried to shield her and was shot in the head. When the gunmen left, “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, the kids,'” says Caffey. “That’s when I heard pow, pow, pow, pow.”

His son Mathew, known as Bubba, was shot in the head and neck. With Tyler, “they just stabbed him over and over,” says Caffey. While Erin and another Wilkinson friend, Bobbi Johnson, 18, waited in a car, the attackers burned down the house. Incredibly, Caffey survived at least six bullets, including one that shattered his cheekbones and nasal passages. When he asked about Erin at the hospital, his sister finally told him the truth.

Devastated, Caffey considered suicide. “I was going to get me a couple of bottles of Jim Beam and take all the medication they gave me,” he says. But a friend handed him a Bible, which pulled him back from the brink. In the weeks that followed, Caffey began seeing a counselor, taking antidepressants and giving speeches to church groups about what happened. (He is now also writing a book.) All of that, he says, helped him heal.

A big step was coming to terms with what his daughter did. He went to visit her at a detention center in Emory about a month after the attack. At the sight of her in an orange jumpsuit, he broke down. Erin, through a glass partition, said, “Daddy, don’t cry,” At first Caffey simply felt helpless. But “one day I said, ‘I’m just so angry!’ I want to grab her and wear her butt out.” Because Erin’s case was pending and their conversations likely taped, Caffey followed her lawyer’s advice and never talked about the crime. But on one visit, Erin sobbed and said, “I want Mama.” Caffey replied, “Mama’s not here anymore.” “I want to go home,” Erin pleaded. “Take me home. I want to see Mama and the boys.” Caffey, heartbroken, said, “We don’t have a home anymore.”

Within weeks of the crime, he had decided to forgive her. “It still hurts that they’re gone,” he says. “But if I’ve got anger and bitterness in my heart, I won’t be able to move on.” Remarkably, Caffey has also forgiven the three men who took his family from him. (Wilkinson and Waid pleaded guilty to the three murders and were given life sentences without parole; Johnson received a 40-year sentence.) His relationship with Erin—who Caffey says is not ready to talk publicly—is a work in progress. “She’s starting to ask questions,” he says. “She didn’t know that Tyler had been stabbed. When I told her, she just lost it.”

Caffey has also allowed himself to seek joy in life again. In 2008 he started dating Sonja Smith, 38, a divorced coworker with two sons; last October they were married and now live in her comfortable brick home in Wills Point, Texas. “Of course there will be days when he’s sad,” says Sonja. “But to me, his strength and faith are amazing.”

Most days, the pull of Caffey’s new life and family are enough to keep his mind off the past. He has an easy rapport with his two new sons Blake, 17, and Tanner, 9; they call him T-Daddy and hug him when they come home from school. “Tanner’s very outgoing, just like my Tyler,” he says. One recent afternoon Caffey was working on the computer while Blake and Tanner played. “The boys were arguing about something and the washing machine was going, and I stopped what I was doing and just listened,” he says. When Sonja came by, she saw Caffey in tears and asked if he was okay. “This is the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard,” he told her. “It’s the sound of home.”