The Kaufman County district attorney, who was shot dead along with his wife, had put away many ‘problem children.’ From Texas, Michael Daly reports on the new possible suspects. Plus, Christine Pelisek reports on a Texas prosecutor who’s pulled out of a major Aryan Brotherhood case.
Former Kaufman County justice of the peace Eric Williams might be a primer suspect had he not volunteered so readily to submit to a gunpowder residue test after the shootings of the two men who had prosecuted him for theft.
The first of the gun residue tests followed the January 31 killing of Kaufman County Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse in broad daylight in a municipal employee parking lot.
The second gun residue test was conducted during a late-night meeting with investigators in another parking lot, at a Denny’s. This was hours after Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia McLelland, were discovered shot to death in their home.
Williams’s lawyer says both tests were negative. The lawyer, David Sergi, reports that his client also let investigators examine his cellphone.
“This guy has nothing to hide,” Sergi says. “We went through the same drill last time.”
Sergi notes that Williams had learned just the day before the McLelland killings that an appeals panel had agreed to hear oral arguments in his ongoing effort to get his 2012 conviction overturned.
“We want to be able to focus on Eric’s innocence of the crimes he was convicted of, as opposed to something he had nothing to do with,” Sergi says.
The investigators understandably took an interest in Williams as someone who reportedly had been heard to utter death threats in the past and who had been prosecuted by McLelland and Hasse.
Ironically, Williams and McLelland had both been elected in 2010 after unseating incumbents. They had posed for a picture along with the other new county officeholders after their swearing in on January 1, 2011.
“I think it’s probably somebody Mike prosecuted and he didn’t realize how dangerous they were,” said Anderson County District Attorney Doug Lowe.
Less than six months later, in May 2011, Williams was indicted by McLelland’s office for the theft of three computer monitors from a county building. Hasse joined McLelland in prosecuting the case, which included surveillance video that apparently shows Williams carrying boxes marked Dell from the county annex. The jury deliberated for three and a half hours before returning a guilty verdict.
“I’m ecstatic,” McLelland told the press afterward. “It shows the community that elected officials should be, and are, held to a higher standard. It’s not the old system over here any more.”
At the sentencing, McLelland and Hasse asked the judge to impose a prison sentence. Those who took the stand at the prosecution's behest included an ex-girlfriend who is reported by the Kaufman Herald to have testified that Williams said “he had something for my son” and then flashed a gun. The woman, Janice Gray, further testified that on another occasion he threatened to shoot her if she walked away from him.
There was also testimony by a local attorney who, by the Kaufman Herald’s account, said he had overheard Williams become so angry with another lawyer over a mixup involving a mediation proceeding that he threatened to kill not just the man but his family and leave his house a pile of smoking ashes.
Williams’s attorney, Sergi, insists the reports of the threats were exaggerated and taken out of context, and that his client never threatened to kill anybody’s family.
“He got mad at somebody at some point," Sergi says.
The defense also called witnesses, including Lt. Col. Troy Abbott, the commander of a Texas State Guard unit where Williams served as executive officer. Abbott testified that Williams had overseen the armory and that none of the weapons or anything else had ever gone missing.
Williams’s wife also testified, saying she had health problems and relied on her husband's assistance. She and Abbott and even the lawyer who said he had overheard the dire threats all asked that Williams be spared incarceration.
The judge agreed, sentencing Williams to two years’ probation. McLelland voiced his disappointment to the press but noted that Williams still faced losing his law license and his military commission.
“I think we can live with what we got,” McLelland said.
When Hasse was killed, Williams was one of the first people the investigators questioned. He would have had to be beyond brazen, as well as self-defeating, to then kill McLelland and his wife on Easter weekend just after receiving news that he had a chance for an appeal.
Even so, the court records surely make Williams a person of interest, no less so because by his own witness’s account, he was familiar with military-style weapons such as might have been used to kill the McLellands.
Other past cases the investigators are likely looking at include the conviction last year of John “Wreck” Crawford, an enforcer for the hyper-violent Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Crawford has plenty of reasons to hate McLelland, who sent him away for two life terms. But Hasse was not involved in that or any other Aryan Brotherhood cases.
In a twist, the lead prosecutor in the Crawford case was Brandi Fernandez, who is now serving as interim Kaufman Court district attorney until Gov. Rick Perry names a permanent replacement.
Crawford had kidnapped an errant member’s wife to force him to submit to having his ABT tattoo either cut or burned off as punishment for failing to regularly attend “church,” as the gang’s meetings are called. The member balked and gunfire erupted.
The member made his own way to the hospital to have his wounds treated. Crawford was arrested as he slouched in his truck with multiple wounds to his chest. He was medevacced to Dallas and survived only to face the smart and skillful Fernandez in court.
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound enforcer must have raged inside to have this physically unprepossessing woman send him away for good. Fernandez’s successful prosecution of Crawford was hailed by her boss.
“I’m just ecstatic about the sentences,” McLelland told the press. “It shows that those people can’t come down here and run roughshod over folks in Kaufman County.”
McLelland spoke with the no-nonsense attitude of a longtime soldier who did not go to law school until he was 40. He had both a rookie’s headlong enthusiasm and a veteran’s wisdom as he cited the case as a lesson.
“This shows that things that happen in TV movies happen right here in Kaufman County,” McLelland said. “Bad things don’t just happen other places.”
Five moths later, Hasse was killed. McLelland has now suffered the same fate. One small bit of his rookie-veteran spirit, the same zeal that he evidenced with Williams, survives in a sign posted in the clerk’s office on the second floor of the county courthouse.
“Bounce A Check, Go To Jail
District Attorney Mike McLelland”
At the other end of the hall is McLelland’s former office, where Fernandez is now doing all she can to bring the killer or killers to justice. Those who arrived at the courthouse on Tuesday to see her included Doug Lowe, the district attorney of nearby Anderson County.
Lowe paused outside to speak to reporters and expressed some skepticism that the murders were the work of the Aryan Brotherhood, reasoning that an informant in the organization or its periphery would have tipped off law enforcement by now.
“They call them snitches,” Lowe later noted.
He observed that prosecutors deal with a great number of disturbed individuals.
“We deal with some problem children,” he said.
He then announced, “I’ve got to go see somebody.”
Lowe found the district attorney’s staff to be still rattled but Fernandez staying steady.
“She’s calm, cool, and collected,” he says. “Mike, he picked a good one when he picked her.”
Lowe later offered an opinion based on long experience but no inside information.
“I think it’s probably somebody Mike prosecuted and he didn’t realize how dangerous they were,” Lowe said.
In the meantime, the media had gathered outside the house where Williams still lives. The only statement from the interim district attorney was the whole office would stay true to its purpose.
“Understandably, apprehensions are high in the office, but every employee remains dedicated to carrying on their prosecutorial efforts while recovering from this tragic event.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Doug Lowe is the District Attorney of Arlington County. He is the District Attorney of Anderson County.