Texas prosecutors’ slayings unnerve rural Kaufman County

April 6, 2013

The judge was on the phone.

“Yep, I said I’ll do anything,” Bruce Wood told the person on the other end, rubbing his forehead. “They asked me to do a eulogy. I don’t know what I’m going to say.”

Elsewhere in the Kaufman County Courthouse, a sheriff’s deputy was handing out bulletproof vests. “I brought the smallest one,” he said to a secretary, who stared at the khaki armor as he explained how to adjust the side straps should the need arise. “These have the neck for a female.”

Outside, two armed guards escorted a white-haired judge from his parked car to the mirrored doors of the yellow brick courthouse in a county where little seemed the same anymore.

“Judge! How are you doing?” shouted a reporter.

“Everybody is making do as best as we can,” he said.

All this past week, people in this rural county 30 miles southeast of Dallas were trying to figure out what life here had become. Their district attorney, Mike McLelland, had been shot to death in his home along with his wife, Cynthia, the weekend before. Two months earlier, Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse had been gunned down in a parking lot off the courthouse square.

Now, as a memorial service for the McLellands approached, people had all kinds of questions. They wondered whether they were safe, whether there might be more targets. Were the killers outsiders or possibly their neighbors? Were the slayings of two county prosecutors the result of Texas score-settling or the start of some even darker chapter in the annals of U.S. law enforcement?

Dozens of FBI agents, Texas Rangers and local investigators have been searching for people who might have had grudges stemming from McLelland’s two years as district attorney, or from the hundreds of cases Hasse handled during three years as a county prosecutor.

Among those who have been questioned is a former justice of the peace, Eric Williams, convicted last year of stealing computers from a county building in a case that Hasse prosecuted and McLelland had trumpeted. In a statement from his attorney, Williams, who is appealing his conviction, said he is cooperating with authorities, who have not commented on the matter.

Federal law enforcement officials said this past week that another focus is the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, which they describe as an extraordinarily violent prison gang involved in methamphetamine trafficking and other criminal enterprises. According to the state’s annual gang threat assessment, the group has had contact with Mexican drug cartels. McLelland was one of four Texas district attorneys involved in an investigation that led to federal indictments against 34 alleged gang members, including senior leaders, announced in November. McLelland’s office also secured two life sentences for James “Wreck” Crawford last year, an “enforcer” in the gang convicted on kidnapping and other charges.

Hasse was not involved in that case. But he had been preparing another one against a member of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas who was eventually handed over to federal prosecutors, according to a person with knowledge of the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

Besides such theories, though, investigators have not unveiled any evidence linking McLelland and Hasse’s killings. It remains unclear whether they have any substantial leads in either case, leaving people here searching for the right words or the right explanation to make sense of what has happened.

‘Something bigger’?

Down the street from the courthouse, in a small law office by the Taco Bell, Eric Smenner was making sense of it by moving the pistol he once kept in a drawer to a zippered pouch on his belt. He was keeping the blinds across his office window shut.

“I just thought, ‘Do I really want people to know I’m sitting here?’ ” said Smenner, a defense attorney who was good friends with Hasse.

It was a rainy evening, and Smenner sat at his computer pulling up Hasse’s court cases, something he has done a few times looking for some hint as to why his friend was killed. He tabbed through hundreds of files — burglaries, assaults, a case where a robber wore a gorilla mask. He looked over dozens of drug possession cases, ones that often entailed methamphetamine cooked in houses and trailers along the two-lane roads that connect the little towns and subdivisions spread across the county.

“You just never know — it could have been anything,” said Smenner, who said he thinks the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas could be involved. “If it turns out to be a local thing, we’ll process it that way. If it turns out that this is the beginning of something bigger — drug cartels coming to this side — that is troubling.”

Either way, Smenner said, a line had been crossed that has left him feeling profoundly different, not just because he had lost a friend but because he felt he had lost something else, too.

“It’s kind of like 9/11. I remember feeling the world had changed,” he said. “Our county has changed. That feeling of safety and security is not there anymore.”

All around, people were saying the same kinds of things.

In the yogurt shop across from the courthouse, Lisa Blake, an assistant manager, said she kept batting away the question of who might be next. She found herself thinking back on not only the idyllic parts of Kaufman but also the discordant ones, recalling shady friends of the family or conjuring the locally notorious criminals of her youth.

“Some of those people must be getting out of jail now,” she said, stocking saltines in a dispenser.

At the Mulberry Peddler antique shop a few doors down, saleswoman Becky Dorough, standing amid stacks of cake plates and punch glasses, said that so many people had come to Kaufman County to escape but that “maybe it’s that you can’t ever truly escape.”

Elsewhere, police cruisers were monitoring public gatherings, from a prayer group that was meeting outside the courthouse each night to the weekly meeting of the Quilt Guild at Landmark Church of Christ, where ladies devoted the evening to remembering Cynthia McLelland, who was a member.

“It’s real bad,” said a woman walking in.

Cruisers were parked outside the brown brick homes of county judges and prosecutors and interim district attorney Brandi Fernandez. A placidly tough lawyer, Fernandez said that she had serious security concerns about stepping in for Mike McLelland but that she could not think of another way to function.

“In this line of business, there is no other way,” she said. “It’s the only way it makes sense.”

The Kaufman County GOP Club, the Republican Men’s Club and the Lions Club, all of which counted McLelland as a regular, canceled their weekly meetings out of respect for him.

John Cook, president of the GOP Club, found himself hyper-vigilante as he drove to Bible study or the grocery store, partly for his own security and partly in the far-fetched hope that he might glimpse something useful to the investigation.

“I can’t believe I’m scoping out a parking lot,” he said after walking into a Starbucks. “Are we a Third World country?”

Cook was good friends with McLelland, who wore a black cowboy hat and was all Texas swagger when he talked about “getting the bad guys out of Kaufman.”

“He was a strong Christian conservative,” Cook said. “He was always in the middle of helping people. Whether it was a fundraiser or whatever, he was there.”

Cook’s cellphone rang. It was McLelland’s best friend, Skeet Phillips, who had been so worried about McLelland’s safety after Hasse was killed that he had taken it upon himself to look after him, sticking close by with a gun whenever he could. Phillips and his son, a Dallas police officer, were the ones who discovered the McLellands’ bodies last weekend, and he had been struggling.

“Are you doing okay?” Cook asked him now.

It was a question repeated all week, and especially Thursday, when the courthouse shut down at 11 a.m. and it felt as if the whole county was headed west to Sunnyvale First Baptist Church, where snipers were positioned on the roof and where Texas Gov. Rick Perry, three pastors and many more family members and colleagues would try to make sense of things at the McLellands’ memorial.

‘Great souls’

Judge Bruce Wood decided on something simple.

Standing behind Mike McLelland’s flag-draped coffin, he read a short biography of the couple. He talked about how Mike “could be quite a character” and how Cynthia always seemed genuinely interested in how he was doing.

“She’d say, ‘Judge, are you doing okay?’ ” Wood recalled.

As he spoke, people in the crowd of more than 2,000 nodded or said “yes” or gave other signs of recognition, because they too had known Cynthia and Mike, as people do in small towns. She was the one who always brought cookies to the courthouse or was sewing a quilt for a friend, and who had lately been concerned about her husband’s safety. He was the one who loved to tell a story in the courthouse hallways, who referred to those who killed Hasse as “scum” and had begun carrying a gun everywhere he went.

“I don’t know what the murderer hoped to accomplish by killing these two great souls,” said Bruce Bryant, chief investigator for the Kaufman County District Attorney’s Office. “. . . But we will not stop. . . . I promise we will soldier on.”

The service lasted about an hour. Afterward, a long line of white-gloved officers saluted Mike McLelland’s coffin, followed by less-formally attired officers and finally a few county judges, elected officials, county workers and others who wished to say goodbye. Snipers continued to watch from the rooftop, a police helicopter flew overhead, and dozens of officers ringed the church keeping guard.

As the line made its way past the coffin, through the doors of the sanctuary and finally out into the church lobby, a woman stepped aside.

She had something to say, one more attempt to explain, one more eulogy.

“Oh goodness,” she said to herself, starting to cry. “Goodness, goodness, goodness.”

Jerry Markon and Alice R. Crites contributed to this report.

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