Longform

The Killings in Kaufman

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It made him cocky, she said, and impatient. When he became director of the county law library, Williams resolved to bring the musty, analog institution into the digital age. But the glacial pace of the county information technology department frustrated the avid technophile. He often complained about its director, George York.

That didn't change much when Williams was elected JP of Precinct 1 in November 2010. The systems, he griped, were outdated. His predecessor didn't know how to send an email. "Eric was streamlining processes, doing a lot of good in the county," said Jenny Parks, an attorney and friend. "IT was giving him hell. George York and he did not get along."

There'd been talk of setting up a video conferencing system so Williams and his fellow JPs could conduct hearings without driving from far-flung corners of the 800-square-mile county to the jail in Kaufman. But it was never more than talk.

That might or might not explain what Williams was doing inside the sub-courthouse on a Sunday in May 2011 when the building was empty. Surveillance cameras captured him wandering through its halls, looking out of the front windows, peering into various offices and rifling through them. Within minutes, he was carrying three Dell computer monitors out of the county IT department and into his truck.

"He probably thought, 'I'll get the parts for this magistration system myself.'" Parks said.

But not everyone saw it that way. York, the IT director, looked at the footage and saw theft. He turned the tapes over to the sheriff. Within a week Williams' friend Ernie Zepeda, a sheriff's investigator, showed up at his office with warrants.

"... He said, 'Well, let me see the warrants,'" Zepeda testified. "I said, 'Judge, you don't understand. These warrants are for your arrest.'"

Williams looked stunned. He asked Zepeda if he was joking.

"... I said, 'Judge, I wouldn't joke about this. These are actual warrants issued by Judge Chitty for me to search your office, your vehicle and also for your arrest for burglary of a building.'"

Williams insisted there was a simple explanation for all of it.

"Right now, we're gonna take you to the sheriff's office, and we can talk about that there," Zepeda replied.

One monitor was right there on Williams' desk, one was in the closet, and the last was in the back seat of his pickup. Williams was cuffed, taken to the jail, seated in a small, windowless room, interviewed and processed — a sequence he knew well, only this time, he was on the other side of it. His arrest was front-page news in Kaufman. The legal career, the elected position he'd held for less than five months, the good name he'd made for himself, the health insurance he needed for his wife — all was gone, everything, for what he said was a misunderstanding over three computer monitors. They were worth less than $500.


Mike McLelland believed he had a mandate. The people of Kaufman County voted for him because he vowed to return a sense of moral rectitude to the office of the district attorney. He took a long road to get here. He lost to a hotshot attorney from Dallas named Rick Harrison in 2006. McLelland campaigned hard. He must have driven across every square mile of the county, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the car with wife Cynthia, knocking on doors, shaking hands. If you didn't get a call from him, odds were you got one from his mother.

But his opponent had the endorsements: the sheriff, the district clerk, the defense bar. The race was close, but Harrison won by the slimmest of margins. As McLelland drove through the county, retrieving his campaign signs, it was like he was picking up the broken pieces of a dream.

He was back in 2010, more determined than ever. "He worked the hardest of any candidate I've ever seen," said a friend, Randy Lockhead. The race got ugly. McLelland, Harrison said, was completely unqualified for the job. He hadn't tried a case in years. McLelland sent out mailers with Harrison's mugshot from his second drunken-driving arrest. How could a man uphold laws he violated? McLelland asked.

This time, Kaufman County heard his message, and McLelland won 58 percent of the vote. Mere months after taking office, he could not simply let Eric Williams off with a warning. "This is the sort of thing the people elected me for in the first place," he told the Terrell Tribune roughly two weeks after Williams was indicted. "They were tired of wrongdoing being done in county government and nothing being done about it."

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Brantley Hargrove