D.A. SLAIN

04.02.13

The Storm of Violence That Killed Texas District Attorney Mike McLelland

Kaufman County D.A. Mike McLelland said his combat skills and his gun were good enough to keep him alive after a colleague was slain. He was wrong, Michael Daly reports from Forney, Texas. Plus, Christine Pelisek on the Aryan Brotherhood's chillingly efficient structure and an anonymous writer who was behind bars with members of the gang.

A detective at the scene on Monday theorized that the killer or killers struck during a powerful thunderstorm that swept through the Texas town of Forney early Saturday morning.

The thunderclaps might well have masked the gunshots, as nobody in the surrounding houses called the police. The bodies of 63-year-old Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, 65-year-old Cynthia McLelland, were not discovered until one of their five children was unable to reach them by phone and asked a friend to check on them early Saturday evening.

The wife was found near the front door. She may have been responding to knocking, thinking it might be somebody needing help in the middle of the storm. Her husband was found toward the back of the suburban-style brick house, still wearing pajamas.

By one report, the police who responded recovered 14 shell casings from an AR-15 assault rifle. The .223 caliber was the one used at Sandy Hook elementary school. The formula for horror was also the same.

“Bodies and a lot of shell casings,” a law enforcement official was quoted as saying.

The very ferocity of the attack elicited a theory about the motive.

“Revenge.”

Mike McLelland was a combat veteran of the Gulf War and had recently announced that he did not even walk his dog without a gun. His wife reportedly told members of her quilting club that she, too, was carrying a pistol. But that did nothing to save the McLellands when violence struck like the storm, leaving bloody proof that a gun is no assurance of safety even in the fabled realm of the Texas Rangers.

McLelland had started carrying a gun after the daylight killing of Kaufman County deputy prosecutor Mark Hasse on January 31. One or perhaps two gunmen had climbed out of a silver or gray vehicle and shot Hasse to death in a parking lot. The gunman was said to have been masked and clad in black with a military-style vest. He either used a weapon that did not eject shell casings or he had the presence of mind to retrieve them before speeding away.

“It’s such an anomaly,” a stunned McLelland told the press afterward. “This doesn’t happen. The bad don’t hate prosecutors. They know we’re just doing our job just like they are. It’s so completely out of the ordinary and so strange that people are having a hard time getting their head around it, because this is not business as usual.”

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An undated file photo taken from the Kaufman County, Texas, website shows Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland. (Kaufman County via AP)
The danger beyond the immediate threat is that criminals will take the killings in Texas and Colorado as something the cool killers are doing.

At church, McLelland asked his fellow worshipers to put something in the collection basket toward a reward for the capture of the killer. McLelland’s wife was interviewed outside the quilting shop in Kaufman and expressed fear for her husband’s safety.

“It’s very sad,” she said. “I feel like my husband could be in danger, too.”

Over the weeks that followed, a sheriff’s car was parked in McLelland’s driveway. But the deputies could not stand guard forever. They returned to their usual duties as McLelland made it clear he would not be intimated and would make sure the “scum” who killed Hasse were brought to justice.

On March 19, the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Tom Clements, was shot to death when he answered his door in an attack that has not yet been linked to the Hasse killing. The prime suspect, Evan Spencer Ebel—who had been freed from prison four years early due to a clerical error—subsequently died in a shootout with Texas police some 100 miles from Kaufman County. Ebel is believed to have been a member of the 211 prison gang.

McLelland had served 23 years in the Army, and he assured everyone that he was better able to defend himself than some other law enforcement officials “because, basically, I’m a soldier.” He suggested that the way things were going, his colleagues would be well advised to hone their own combat skills.

“The people in my line of work are going to have to get better at this, because they’re going to need it more in the future,” he told the Associated Press two weeks ago.

As good as McLelland may have been, it did not save him or his wife on Easter weekend. The suspects include the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a prison-spawned gang distinguished from the national Aryan Brotherhood by its hyperviolence. It is said to have been involved in as many as 100 killings since its founding in the 1980s.

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Kaufman County Sheriff David Byrnes, center, speaks at a news conference, March 31, 2013. (Mike Fuentes/AP)

The Kaufman County District Attorney’s office was one of four local agencies that joined with federal authorities to indict 34 members of the gang in November of last year. The Kaufman authorities were warned in December that the gang’s leaders had called for “mass casualties or murder” in retaliation. The same day Hasse was murdered, the gang’s top two leaders, Marshall “Dirty” Meldrum of Dallas and Christian “Tuff” Dillon, pleaded guilty to racketeering in Houston federal court.

But Hasse had apparently not been directly involved in going after the gang. He was nonetheless the leading felony prosecutor and may have dealt with some worse-than-bad guys.

And McLelland had been particularly aggressive in narcotics enforcement since his election as district attorney in 2010. He had spoken of making the county “drug-free.” Drug dealers could hardly have welcomed that.

The question now is whether the killings in Kaufman County and perhaps in Colorado were the work of an organization or the reflection of a trend. They might, in fact, be both. An organization such as the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas may be setting a trend that could persist after the arrest of the killers.

Prior to Hasse’s death, only 11 prosecutors had been murdered in the United States in the past half century. Criminals know that if they do kill a prosecutor, they will be subject to the full wrath of society. But a prison gang is made of those who have already felt that wrath and are ready to express their own.

The danger beyond the immediate threat is that criminals will take the killings in Texas and Colorado as something the cool killers are doing. The cartels in Mexico, which are said to have dealings with the Aryan Brotherhood, slay troublesome officials as a matter of course. With the murder of two prosecutors in as many months, Kaufman County would fit right in south of the border.

As the sun set on Monday, crime-scene tape was still strung around the McLelland house. Water left over from the thunderstorm on Friday and the one that followed on Sunday stood in a drainage ditch that had been dry during a long drought.

“It’s the first rain we’ve had,” a deputy said.