Raising Cain Against Abel

There wasn't room enough on the family's West Texas ranch for two feuding brothers. So Cody Cardwell took up arms against his older sibling.

"There were five of us, and we pulled it out of a hat. I ended up as neighbors to both of them," says sister Ruth Cherry. "I favored Cody, and he always liked me too, I guess. I never could get close to Bill. Never wanted to."

Bill's chunk and Cody's chunk butted up against each other. The problems were compounded because Bill regularly drove past Cody's house on a right-of-way to tend cattle on an in-law's piece of the ranch. The fatal shooting occurred at this gate as Bill was passing through. The only possible eyewitness to the shooting was Cody's wife, Millie, who may have watched it from a living room window. She and Cody have since sold their piece of the ranch and moved to nearby Menard.

One in-law, who asked not to be named, said Cody's declining health -- and not a lifelong sibling rivalry with Bill -- led to the shooting. "Cody had been diagnosed with cancer. The doctor told him if he didn't quit smoking, he'd lose his kidneys. He quit, and it put him more on edge. I could tell you all kinds of things Cody did that were strange," she says. But, she says, Bill and Cody often worked together without friction, and Bill had faithfully visited Cody when he was in the hospital for cancer treatments. "Cody was very sick and had been forced to retire from the Paint Creek Ranch that he loved. I just feel that if Cody stopped to think, it would not have happened. He was sick that morning," she says.

Bill Cardwell sometimes came to town with a gun in his belt
San Antonio Express-News
Bill Cardwell sometimes came to town with a gun in his belt
After the shooting, Cody Cardwell called the police to say the "trouble" was over.
San Antonio Express-News
After the shooting, Cody Cardwell called the police to say the "trouble" was over.

The lawyers who will face each other in court say the trial's outcome will depend upon how the jury evaluates the claim of self-defense.

"Bill's family feels that Cody was the aggressor, that he was the angriest and making the most recent threats. I don't think there was any doubt they were both making threats," says Brown, the prosecutor. "I don't believe the self-defense issue, and I really don't think the jury will believe it either."

Cody declined to talk about the case. His lawyer, Pat Patillo of Kerrville, says that his client shot to protect himself and that Bill was armed. "Bill did have some fencing pliers. Anything could be a deadly weapon. It was more the totality of the situation, Cody knowing his brother, and the difficulties they had, that gave him the mind-set that he had to defend himself," he says. He is still uncertain about putting Cody on the stand. "I prosecuted for seven years in Houston, both in state and federal court, and the general attitude of the public is, if you don't talk, you don't walk. I really don't think the presumption of innocence exists with the public," Patillo says.

Also pending in Sonora is a wrongful-death suit filed in civil court against Cody by Bill's three adult sons. One of them, Odie, lives in the house his father owned. Odie says he spoke to his father on May 4, 1997, the night before the shooting that turned the enormous Cardwell family inside out. "I said, "How are things with Cody?' and he said, "It's not any better. He's blabbing all over town about everything I've stolen from him. He needs to shut up,' " Odie recalls. "I said, "Dad, when you go to Thelma's place, go around. Don't go by Cody's.' And he said, "Son, that's easy for you to say,' and I guess it was."

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