Longform

The Killings in Kaufman

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.

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.