The prime suspect in the killings of the Kaufman County district attorney, his wife, and a deputy prosecutor was until 11 months ago a respected justice of the peace known to ride to work with his briefcase on a Segway.
On weekends, 46-year-old Eric Williams would zip around the North Texas town of Kaufman in the Segway clad in fatigues from his other life as an officer in the Texas Guard.
Then, in May 2011, just five months after his election as justice of the peace, a surveillance video camera caught Williams carrying three Dell computer monitors out of the county Information and Technology Department.
“After I viewed the video, I couldn’t believe what I saw,” Captain Ernesto Zapeda of the Kaufman County Sheriff’s Office testified when the resulting 2012 theft case went to trial last March. “I saw Judge Williams walk out of the IT department with some computer monitors.”
Newly elected Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland, who had been sworn in along with Williams, was personally prosecuting the theft case. He was joined by Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse, who led Zapeda through his testimony. Zapeda said and he and others from the sheriff’s office had arrived with an arrest warrant at the justice of the peace’s office in the late morning.
“The judge greeted us, “ Zapeda testified. “I told the judge that I had a warrant for his arrest ... He kind of looked shocked ... He said, ‘This is some joke, right? Somebody’s gonna say ‘surprise,’ or you know, along those words. And I said, ‘Judge, I wouldn’t joke about this’ ... He uttered, ‘There’s some simple explanation.’ I said, ‘Judge, right now we’re gonna take you to the sheriff’s office. You can talk about that there.’”
Zapeda knew Williams personally and added, “I’ve never arrested a judge before, and a friend before ... But I had to do my job.”
Zapeda testified that one of the missing monitors was on Williams’s desk and that his county-issued monitor was in a locked closet. Another Dell monitor was in the back seat of Williams’s truck, along with numerous guns and a considerable amount of ammunition.
“There was a lot of, lot of weaponry, lot of firearms in there, “ Zapeda said.
Zapeda testified that Williams had consented to a search of his house, where “quite a few” more guns were found. Defense attorney David Sergi established during cross-examination that Williams had served as a reserve Kaufman County deputy and had been trained by the department. Williams himself had been a “weapons and safety” instructor with the Texas Guard, as well as the commander in charge of the armory.
Sergi sought to discount the video evidence because the prosecution had introduced a kind of highlight reel without preserving the full original. The jury convicted Williams after deliberating 3 1/2 hours.
“Eric Williams is an elected official, and he is a thief,” prosecutor Mark Hasse had said during his summation.
On April 10, 2012, Williams appeared for sentencing. McLelland and Hasse called to the stand an attorney named Dennis Jones. He testified to overhearing Williams rant about a fellow attorney:
“First thing I heard was Eric say, ‘I’m going to kill him. I am going to kill him, his wife, his kids. I’m gonna burn his house down. I’m gonna to stab him.’”
The prosecutors also called to the stand Janice Gray, a court official who had briefly dated Williams after meeting him at a conference in the mid-1990s. She broke it off, she said, but he pressed her to have dinner when she encountered him at a subsequent conference.
“I told him no, I didn’t think so. I didn’t think that that would be a good idea,” Gray testified. “And we talked for a little bit, and he said he had something he wanted to give my son, and then he, he showed me a gun he had and said he had gotten this new gun.”
She went off with some colleagues to a sports bar, only for Williams to appear, tap her on the shoulder, and ask to speak with her.
“He told me he had a gun in his bag, and if I turned around and walked away ... he would use it, ’cause he didn’t have anything to lose,” she told the court.
Hasse asked, “What did you do when he made that statement?”
Grey replied: “I just stood there ... And then a couple of other girls came over that I had been there with. And they kind of just kind of got on each side of me, so I just walked away with them, and then he left.”
She said she contacted the police after she got back to the hotel.
“They stayed in front of my hotel room that night,” Gray said.
An officer was escorting her to a conference room the next morning when she spotted Williams, she said. She ducked into a bathroom while the officer took him away. She said she had told the police that she did not need to pursue criminal charges so long as Williams stayed away from her.
Hasse asked if Gray had been frightened at the moment that Williams told her he had a gun and would shoot her if she tried to walk away.
“Yes, sir,” she said.
“And did you believe that from looking at him and the way he said what he said, did you believe him capable of shooting you?” Hasse asked.
The defense attorney objected. The judge instructed Hasse to rephrase his question.
“What were your thoughts as to the possibility or the willingness or the likelihood that he would use a gun based on what you heard?” Hasse asked.
“I thought he would probably use it,” Gray said. “I was scared.”
“Are you still scared of Eric Williams today?” Hasse asked.
“Yes,” Gray said.
The defense countered with two military associates and then Williams’s wife, who described him as a loving and attentive husband. McLelland then rose to offer the prosecution’s closing argument, asking the judge to impose the maximum sentence of two years behind bars.
“Everybody that’s had anything to do with him is terrified of him,” McLelland said of Williams. “And if nothing else, two years in the state jail would give them some piece of mind for at least 24 months. That’s worth something.”
McLelland said Williams was all the more deserving of prison time for being an elected official who had betrayed the public trust.
“I think what’s at stake here to a great deal is the credibility of the courthouse to the people in Kaufman County,” he said. “Every night they see corrupt public officials and corrupt businessmen and things like that arrested on the TV ... And in the end they get something like some slap on the wrist, like probation.”
The defense attorney, Sergi, argued that Williams had already been punished enough.
“I cannot stand here before this court and imagine what Mr. Williams is going through right now,” Sergi said. “I don’t think this court can imagine. I don’t think these gentlemen to my right over here can imagine.”
He was referring to McLelland and Hasse.
“To see everything that you have worked hard for come crumbling down,” Sergi said. “We can stand up and say, ‘Well, you know, that’s his fault, and blah, blah, that’s fine.’ The fact of the matter is what is the result of what has happened already? What has happened to Eric? He’s lost his law license. He has lost a bench. He will lose his military commission. All of those things that mean something to him he will lose.”Sergi was in essence saying that now Williams really did have nothing to lose.
“How’s he gonna live?” Sergi asked. “I don’t know.”
Then Hasse rose.
“No remorse. No admission of responsibility. Nothing. He just flat-out bald-face keeps lying about everything,” Hasse said of Williams.
Hasse reminded the court of the testimony concerning death threats that included killing the lawyer’s wife and children and burning down their house.
“This is not a three monitor theft case only, Judge,” Hasse said. “This is four death threats, an arson threat.”
Hasse went on, “You can’t get more dishonorable from an elected official than this. Judge, you just have to send the message that this is absolutely unacceptable conduct in Kaufman County by anybody to do all of this. To scare people. To threaten people. To steal from people. Even if you’re not a public official, this is unacceptable conduct demanding pen time.”
Hasse said he only wished he could ask for more than the maximum.
“Two years is not nearly enough,” he said. “It’s just the best you can do.”
Judge Michael Chitty gave Williams two years’ probation. McLelland’s remark to the press would later acquire a terrible irony.
“I think we can live with what we got,” he said.
Hasse began carrying a Glock pistol, which did nothing to save him on January 31, when a figure stepped up to him in broad daylight in the busy parking lot behind the courthouse and shot him in the head.
The gunman escaped, but at the emergency room where the slain Hasse was taken, McLelland reportedly said he felt sure Williams was behind the killing.
Williams agreed to submit to a gunpowder residue test, which reportedly was negative. Williams remained McLelland’s prime suspect. McLelland reportedly said he was only unsure whether Williams had hired somebody to do it or had just done it himself.
McLelland made it known that he was carrying a gun, as was his wife. They both were found shot to death on the Saturday before Easter. She had been shot with a revolver by the front door, he with a military-style .223 rifle toward the back of the house.
That night, Williams met investigators in a Denny’s parking lot and submitted to another gunpowder residue test, which was reportedly again negative. He also allowed investigators to check his cellphones.
His defense attorney, Sergi, noted that Williams had just that Friday been told the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Dallas had agreed to hear oral arguments that the video evidence should have been disallowed. Sergi suggested that this would hardly have been the time for Williams to seek revenge.
But shooting an armed prosecutor in a parking lot and then the armed district attorney and his wife in their home with neighbors all around hardly seem the acts of someone guided by cool reasoning.
Investigators kept Williams under surveillance and visited his house. They returned with search warrants Friday for the home and his mother-in-law’s house. Investigators also searched rented storage space in the nearby town of Seagoville, reportedly finding some 20 firearms, including the type used in the killing. They also found a Ford Crown Victoria that had been registered under a false name.
Williams could not have been all that surprised when he was handcuffed this time. As of Sunday evening, he was charged only with making terroristic threats, reportedly via some emails to county officials. He is presently being held on $3 million bail. His lawyer, Sergi, was unavailable for comment but has insisted that his client is innocent.
If Williams is charged with the killings as expected, the evidence against him will again likely include surveillance camera footage, this of the Crown Victoria in the vicinity of the McLelland home around the time of the killings.
The witnesses could very well include the ex-girlfriend who testified at the behest of the now slain prosecutors that she felt sure Williams was capable of shooting her.
If Williams had been arrested back at the time of that alleged threat, he would not likely have been elected justice of the peace in the first place. And his neighbors might not have mistaken him for being just a harmless oddball on a Segway.