The Killings in Kaufman

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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.

Kaufman had never seen the like of it. Was this Mexico or Colombia? The county was on edge, besieged. In a town where folks once left their doors unlocked, county officials now wore body armor. State troopers and sheriff's deputies guarded them day and night. In churches all over the county, parishioners filled the chapels from dawn to dusk, praying to God to watch over their officials.

The focus on the Aryan Brotherhood intensified. Experts speculated about drug cartel involvement. The mystery of the assassinations drew national attention to a county few outside of North Texas had ever heard of. Network news satellite trucks crowded the courthouse square to follow the unbelievable story. Lawmen were being gunned down in broad daylight, on small-town streets, in the safety of their own homes.

In the coming weeks, however, its residents would be stunned by the plot uncovered by investigators. They weren't under attack by shadowy brotherhoods or cartels. Charges would fall on one of their own, a man the tight-knit legal community knew well. But for all this story's twists and turns, the truth is, what happened in Kaufman could have happened almost nowhere else. In this law-and-order county, its DA lived and died by the laws of God and men, and the thing he wouldn't tolerate was the violation of the public trust by those charged with keeping it. It didn't matter how insignificant the offense. An example would be made.

The murder cases that now stain Kaufman County began with two men who had dedicated their lives to the law. And neither would back down.

Becoming justice of the peace was the first step toward greater elected office for Eric Williams. He had his eye on the county court at law, and after that who knew? He was well-liked and respected in Kaufman legal circles. His background looked sterling: a member of Mensa; an honorably discharged Army lieutenant; a captain and weapons instructor in the Texas State Guard; a Kaufman County sheriff's reserve officer; and a licensed peace officer since the '80s.

He'd lived and breathed the law his whole life. He came up as a lawyer in this town, first as the coordinator for Judge Glen Ashworth of the 86th District Court, then with a thriving private practice. He made good impressions on people who mattered. Sandra Featherston, then the district clerk, saw him every day when he was a court coordinator and liked his respectful manner. "He was great to work with," she said, "always friendly and courteous."

He was a little quiet, maybe shy, until you got him going on guns or the law. Then he came alive. His wits were matched in equal measure by his eccentricity, at least by Kaufman standards. His next-door neighbor Richard Mohundro said he often heard the whir of Williams' Segway on Saturdays as he steered for his law office on the courthouse square, dressed in full combat fatigues. Occasionally, Williams and his wife, Kim, rode through the neighborhood together, he on the Segway, she on an adult-size tricycle. They played video games and often went to the gun range for target practice with a few of the many guns he owned — assault rifles and pistols of all kinds, including a powerful Desert Eagle. Kim was a sweetheart, Mohundro said, but sickly. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren's syndrome — an autoimmune disorder that hinders tear and saliva production — and chronic fatigue. "She'd come out some days and say she didn't hardly feel like getting out of bed," Mohundro said.

She was a technician at the local hospital before her failing health forced her to quit. Williams himself was a diabetic and wore an insulin pump.

Over the years, his illness wore him down along with his wife's. Williams' career, on the other hand, was only burning brighter. He struck out on his own, started a law practice, handled nearly all of the county's child welfare cases as the guardian ad litem appointed by the court to represent children's interests. "When I first met him, he was what I'd call the golden boy," said attorney Tina M. Hall, a former friend and colleague. Williams wasn't the most experienced lawyer in town by any stretch, but he was treated like an encyclopedia for family law by attorneys with thorny legal conundrums. He looked at the law like a puzzle to be solved. When seemingly no law or precedent offered guidance for some of the "crazy stuff" they encountered in Child Protective Services cases, "Eric would find something in the statutes to solve the problem," Hall said.

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Brantley Hargrove