The Killings in Kaufman

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

His life had been marked by discipline and hard work. He was a rancher's kid and a retired Army major who ran an orderly household. "His life was extremely structured," J.R. said, right down to the way he arranged his closet.

Yet his professional life was characterized by incoherence. He was a clinical psychologist who counseled troubled juveniles. Later, in Dallas' mental health courts, he represented indigent patients facing involuntary commitment to psychiatric wards and hospitals. "He understood them and the problems they had, and he understood the law to the extent he could use it," said Dallas County Mental Illness Court Judge Michael Miller. "But it's hard to defend someone who's threatening to kill themselves."

He yearned to be part of the criminal justice system, and he saw his chance as the district attorney. "I remember him being so anxious to get in there," J.R. said.

"[Mike] wanted it for a long time," said Tonya Ratcliff, a friend and the county tax assessor. "He didn't talk about it as a power play. It was always, 'I want to be where I can do the most good.'"

And once he had it, he didn't clean out the office, didn't fire anyone. He wanted to articulate a vision and give his prosecutors the discretion they needed to carry it out. "Mike's philosophy was: Every victim deserves to have their case prosecuted. If it's a good charge, we'll prosecute it," said Bruce Bryant, McLelland's friend and chief investigator. "He didn't like crime, corruption, and didn't believe we should have to tolerate it."

He wouldn't try cases like his predecessor, and truth be told, McLelland wasn't experienced in criminal law. Most often, he walked around the office, chatting with his prosecutors, always carrying a Texas Longhorns insulated mug rattling with ice and Diet Coke. Hasse, who was hired by his opponent, became McLelland's right hand, his chief felony prosecutor.

Hasse cut his teeth in the Dallas DA's office, prosecuting every kind of felony case you could imagine. A Rowlett woman with a troubled marriage was the sole survivor of a house fire that consumed her husband, a house guest and her two daughters in 1985. Hasse convinced the jury that she doused her husband with gasoline and burned him. "We alleged the accelerant she used was a deadly weapon," said Marcus Busch, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney and former colleague. "And that was the first time that had been done."

Hasse could compose a closing argument in his head and deliver it to a rapt jury without notes, never stumbling. "I've only seen one other lawyer better in the courtroom in my 30-plus years as a Dallas police officer," said Bryant, McLelland's chief investigator. "He was a natural."

That he was in the courtroom at all, though, was a minor miracle. In 1995, Hasse participated in a Freedom Flight to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. He was piloting a single-engine T-6 used to train Air Force pilots during the war. The engine failed, and Hasse made a forced landing in Virginia. On impact, his head struck the glare shield on the instrument panel. "He survived luckily because a neurosurgeon happened to be driving by the airfield and helped stabilize him before he was CareFlited," Busch recalled.

The broken bones healed. He was left with an indentation that creased his temple. The damage to his short-term memory lingered. Hasse had to relearn how to remember. He worked at it, Busch said, and soon was trying cases again in private practice. But the call of the DA's office beckoned, and Hasse couldn't tell Rick Harrison no when he asked him to lead his felony division in Kaufman. He still saw himself as a guardian who fought for the victims who couldn't stand up for themselves. He couldn't say no because he believed there was no greater calling.

In that respect, he and McLelland were an ideal pair. "[Hasse] was the most black and white guy you'd ever see," said Eric Smenner, a defense attorney who occasionally faced off against him in court. "He was going to follow the rules whether it helped him or hurt him."

That didn't mean he wasn't aggressive. "If Mike McLelland was a bulldog, Hasse was a pit bull," said County Judge Bruce Wood.

It was risky, then, for Eric Williams to spurn the deal Hasse and McLelland offered him: plead guilty to a Class A misdemeanor and resign as JP.

"The deal with Eric Williams got out of hand," said a Kaufman attorney who once employed Williams. "He had an opportunity to resolve the situation, but he was the one who chose to go to trial. The DA's office was bending over backward. He could have walked out with a deferred misdemeanor."

But Williams was as stubborn as McLelland and Hasse. He said he hadn't committed any crime, and insisted on a jury trial, where his peers, not a DA who he believed nursed a grudge, would decide his fate. If he wouldn't take their deal, which McLelland and Hasse thought more than generous, they would go after him as hard as the law allowed. McLelland sent letters to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and to the Judge Advocate General's office of the Texas State Guard at Camp Mabry, informing them of Williams' indictment.

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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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