The Killings in Kaufman

Page 4 of 7

Those weren't empty platitudes. McLelland lived by a code. He was a God-fearing man who attended First United Methodist in Terrell. The first Sunday of each month, he taught Bible study, where he usually shared a Diet Coke with Cynthia. They sang in the choir together, and the preacher recalled watching McLelland pluck the sermon from his Bible, appraise it and loudly announce, "Get ready, it's gonna be a long one today." Then he'd file out with the rest of the choir into the chapel, with its creaking wooden pews and the stained-glass windows that softened the midmorning sun. And while the preacher delivered his sermon, an oscillating fan beneath the piano would billow their bright blue robes. When the McLellands stopped singing in the choir, they usually sat with the rest of their Sunday school class on a pew in the back corner.

The laws of men and God were clear to him, and they shaped the way he viewed the world.

"The right thing is gonna be done," said his son J.R. McLelland. "There's right and wrong, and there's the law. No ifs, ands or buts about it, no bullshit."

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.

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Brantley Hargrove