The Killings in Kaufman

Two public officials dead and a third behind bars: Politics turn bloody in a small town.

The Killings in Kaufman
Mike Stone/Reuters/Newscom
A police officer salutes at an April 4 memorial service for Kaufman County district attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, in Sunnyvale.

There was a time before 8:38 a.m. on January 31 when the people of Kaufman County would commonly leave their doors unlocked or sleep with windows open on a temperate night. In Kaufman, the county seat, no one had been murdered in years. Folks came here to get away from that sort of thing, away from neighboring Dallas County and its crime. The area had grown, gated developments were rising out of the fields, but this was still a county built upon a sturdy foundation of Christ, cattle and cotton.

Then there is the time after 8:38 on a clear, chilly Thursday morning. If they didn't witness the thing with their own eyes, for all anyone knew it might have been a backfiring old pickup. But the crack split the air again and again, fast and sharp. Word soon spread through the courthouse and the sub-courthouse and all the little shops around the square that Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse, the most accomplished prosecutor Kaufman had ever seen, was riddled with bullets and bleeding out on the cracked asphalt of the county parking lot.

A lawyer performed chest compressions until the paramedics arrived. She told investigators that a man in dark clothing, wearing a hood or mask, walked right up to the prosecutor. Hasse regularly carried a pistol because his business upended lives, and because he believed one man in particular was a threat to his. If he carried a gun that day, though, he didn't get to it in time. There was a brief altercation before the man shot Hasse at close enough range that the medical examiner found minuscule abrasions from unburned gunpowder around the entry wounds. The killer probably used a revolver, and a .38- or .357-caliber cartridge. No spent casings littered the ground.

Jail mugshot of Eric Williams.
Jail mugshot of Eric Williams.

The man stepped into what witnesses described as a gray or light-brown four-door sedan driven by a second person. They pulled away and in moments were gone. Hasse was taken to nearby Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, where he died.

By lunchtime, downtown Kaufman was crawling with federal agents in navy windbreakers and Texas Rangers in felt hats. The thwock of TV news helicopters reverberated through the square.

On the outskirts of town, at the Kaufman County Law Enforcement Center, Hasse's boss, District Attorney Mike McLelland, bellied up to a bank of microphones. Where Hasse was thin and slight, a diminutive man whose presence before a jury only grew during his stem-winding closing arguments, McLelland was the kind of man his friends said you could hear coming across the room. On this day, he wore a black felt hat with a 6-inch brim. You couldn't see his eyes behind the glare on his glasses. The rest of his face was expressionless.

"We lost a really, really good man. He was an excellent friend and a spectacular prosecutor," he said, his voice deep, even, matter-of-fact. "I hope that the people that did this are watching. Because we're confident we're going to find you, pull you out of whatever hole you're in, bring you back and let the people of Kaufman County prosecute you to the full extent of the law."

Some of McLelland's friends watched the newscast that night and wondered why — why provoke the kind of men who killed in the light of day, a stone's throw from the courthouse?

McLelland's son J.R. said that's just how his dad was. McLelland believed in protecting himself. He carried a pistol too, for the same reason Hasse did. But as long as he was on the right side of the law, he'd never cower, and he'd never varnish his words.

"We'll still make the walk. We'll show up for work and send bad guys out of Kaufman County every chance we get," McLelland said.

But days passed, then weeks, with no arrests. Investigators scoured every dash-mounted camera on every law enforcement vehicle in the county for a glimpse of the sedan that witnesses described. They read and reread the files on every case Hasse prosecuted. He'd had a successful career heading the organized crime unit at the Dallas DA's office in the '80s. The list of convicts he'd sent to prison was long and intimidating.

With little information coming from the investigation, the media's focus quickly centered on the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a violent prison gang with a presence in Kaufman County. The group had recently been the subject of a statewide sting in which a number of its officers were indicted for crimes ranging from the sale of methamphetamine to murder. Kaufman County had played a minor role in the joint investigation with the feds. There were other possible connections. More recently, a state prison chief was shot to death when he answered the door of his Monument, Colorado, home. The white supremacist who authorities say carried out the hit died in a shootout with police in Decatur, less than two hours northwest of Kaufman.

McLelland didn't believe any of it. He said he knew who killed Hasse, knew it in his bones. He just couldn't prove it yet.

The knowledge would not save him. On the Saturday before Easter, he and his wife, Cynthia, were gunned down, the floor of their new Forney home strewn with spent shell casings. Cynthia lay near the front door. McLelland fell in a hallway leading to the back of the house. The home security system logged an event at 6:40 in the morning. That made sense, because McLelland was still in his pajamas.

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15 comments
sirak63
sirak63

I see a movie in the works.   When the Governor selected selected the new DA I knew it wasn't the Aryan Brotherhood. I am not sure why they didn't ask for a change of venue in the original theft case, as  Williams had argued cases in Judge Chitty's court.  The next question remains where will it go from here? Mid May is supposed to be the theft appeal case- but Williams's lawyer has resigned.  There is enough for criminal intent beyond a reasonable doubt  coupled with the confession. I hope they find a suitable venue for the trial as it would be the only thing that would hold back a true conviction.

garlandsucks
garlandsucks

a whose dick is bigger contest gone horribly awry...and the citizens of Kaufman, like myself, werent scared at all.  I did think it was funny that the prayer circles disappeared about the same time the TV news cameras did.

sophee
sophee

I am so relieved that Kaufman County located their three monitors. I hope it was all worth it.

ibivi56
ibivi56

It is quite unbelievable that one man destroyed another man over petty theft.  A terrible human tragedy.   

garlandsucks
garlandsucks

@sophee ---- a justice system that is about as unjust as it gets. 

mcdallas
mcdallas

@sophee I see a lot of smug and dumb comments on DO articles.  Congratulations, yours takes the prize.  I hope it was all worth it - sheesh!

Nose2Much
Nose2Much

@ibivi56 And can you believe that one man killed three people over his own wrong-doing?  Does it really make it all right to murder because Williams felt his crime wasn't that big of a deal?

retrogal
retrogal

Well, look ,everyone is entitled to their opinion especially since the public was so egregiously misled by the media initially.

ibivi56
ibivi56

@Nose2Much @ibivi56 The accused murderer was utterly destroyed by his prosecution and it appears to have unhinged him.  Was there no other way to resolve the issue of things being removed from the offices? 

mcdallas
mcdallas

@retrogal I'm not saying sophee can't have an opinion.  I would hope everyone has an opinion.  I was just pointing how how utterly smug and dumb the opinion is.  

Yours, not so much.

ozonelarryb
ozonelarryb

You are correct. The way that was handled was way over the top vindictiveness. Small town politics. Give it a few months, someone will talk.

And think of it this way, if such shenanigans like 3 monitors missing had happened in Dallas county, what would have happened? Nada. In fact it took years to put together a case on crooked JPs here.

Lady Justice is not blind, she at least can read zip codes.

retrogal
retrogal

Yes I understand your impatience but I don't really have a firm opinion about this huge mess.Obviously some of the "facts" have been mere media speculation playing on the public's fears for heightened sensationalistic effect. (which is unfortunate).

mcdallas
mcdallas

@retrogal You don't honestly want answers to each of the 8 questions you just presented, do you?  Really?  Why?  When? Written? Succinct? Honest? All at once?


See what I did there?

retrogal
retrogal

The coverage of this matter has really been toxic with hyperbole.  At first we were given a  misleading fictional (delusional?) media account of lone small town prosecutors bravely taking a stand against right wing supremicist Aryan brotherhood mobsters and prison gang killers, ...or was it Mexican Drug Cartels?  This  unnecessarily over blown story line  was in part re- enforced by the  now deceased DA himself.  Who was seeking the limelight here?  Why? Egos? What? The deceased DA was a psychologist and was not aware of the deleterious effects of personal destruction?  Was he really elected to"protect the public from this sort of corruption"?  Such as a JP who had no prior adverse record and who was not a political supporter "taking" unused monitors from a county ware house to his own county office?  Oh yes, one was in his truck....This matter could have been resolved in another way, I agree,especially since there is the taint of political "pay-back" which runs through the real truthful version of events preceeding the murders.  Texas small town "justice" is an oxymoron.

 
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