The Killings in Kaufman

Page 5 of 7

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.

The DA normally didn't intervene directly in his prosecutors' cases, but he took an interest in this one. He said he wanted to see Williams behind bars. There was no graver offense, he would say, than violating the public trust. Williams' attorneys saw it differently. They would argue McLelland was pursuing a stale political vendetta. Each side clung to its convictions, its own aggrieved sense of justice. Neither would give ground now.

David Sergi, Eric Williams' attorney, tried to have McLelland kicked off the theft case before the trial even began. "The indictment of Mr. Williams was not the result of a crime having been committed as much as it was an attempt to settle a political grudge," he argued. On the witness stand, he asked McLelland about a letter Williams wrote during McLelland's failed 2006 run for the DA's office. It questioned McLelland's Republican bona fides and hinted obliquely at a troubled work history. "You must ask for a better explanation from Mr. McLelland as to why he no longer works for Child Protective Services," it read. The DA brushed it off.

"Well, I never attributed that to him," he responded in his characteristically blunt manner. "I attributed it to Rick Harrison, who simply found somebody dumb enough to sign it."

Judge Michael Chitty declined to disqualify McLelland. The trial began March 19, 2012. Hasse laid out the evidence in painstaking detail. He told the jury about a pending charge against Williams for allegedly buying $1,700 worth of personal office supplies with money from the county law library. Sergi, meanwhile, claimed portions of the security videotape were missing — portions that might show his client returning the computer monitors. He noted that none of the monitors or office supplies were ever found in his home or his law office.

"The DA will get up here next and paint an evil picture of Eric," Sergi said. "He's not evil. He was trying to save the county money, and he did it the wrong way. He bulldozed his way in. There is only one verdict you can come to: not guilty."

McLelland, for the first time since he took office, decided to make the closing argument himself. "...You have to be able to show everybody else out there that the people of Kaufman County will not tolerate this from their regular citizens or their leadership, elected or not elected," he said. "He took an oath to do just that. He spat on that oath. He took an oath to protect as an officer. He spat on that oath. I take umbrage with both of those."

The jury took less than four hours to find Williams guilty.

McLelland appealed to the judge to send Williams to prison for two years, the maximum sentence allowed. "He took all kinds of different oaths. He didn't honor any of them. He's a man bereft of honor. [The citizens of Kaufman County] see that too. The guy swears he's going to protect me. He steals me blind. They want something done about that. They just need something done to regain their trust because they don't trust the courthouse right now."

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Brantley Hargrove