Who's killing Texas prosecutors? Chilling mystery leaves county on edge
POSTED: Monday, April 1, 2013 - 7:05pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 - 11:41am
KAUFMAN COUNTY, Texas (CNN) — Frayed nerves and a palpable tension cloak this quiet Texas county as half a dozen agencies hunt for the killer or killers apparently bent on taking out top criminal justice officials.
Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, were found dead in their house Saturday, two months after an assistant district attorney was gunned down in broad daylight outside the county courthouse.
The killings have residents and prosecutors in Kaufman County, about 50 miles east of Dallas, on edge -- and on guard.
"We are all on heightened alert. There's no question about that," county Judge Bruce Wood told CNN's "Starting Point" on Monday, a few hours before the county courthouse was scheduled to reopen under heavy security.
The district attorney's office, however, will remain closed Monday amid an intensive investigation and lingering questions over what's happening: Are the killings the work of a lone wolf or a gang? Are they retribution? Most troubling, will there be more?
Wood, who is not involved in the investigation and does not handle criminal cases in the county, earlier said he believes there is a "strong connection" between the McLellands' deaths and the slaying of Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse, who was killed January 31.
The two prosecutors "worked on similar cases very closely," he said.
"The folks who work in the courthouse, they've been through a lot," Wood said. "I've been trying to think of the right words to describe what we're going through. It's shock and disbelief."
Investigators at the McLellands' home recovered several shell casings from a .223-caliber rifle, a law enforcement source said Sunday.
Exactly who fired them, and why, remains uncertain.
The Kaufman County Sheriff's Office won't officially say whether the killings are connected.
But some speculate white supremacists targeted by state and federal law enforcement may have played a role.
McLelland, in an interview with The Associated Press after Hasse's death, had raised the possibility that Hasse was killed by a white supremacist gang.
"We put some real dents in the Aryan Brotherhood around here in the past year," McLelland told the news agency.
In November, a federal grand jury in Houston indicted 34 alleged members of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas -- including four of its senior leaders -- on racketeering charges. Multiple agencies investigated the case, including officials from the Kaufman County district attorney's office.
At the time, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lanny A. Breurer called the indictment a "devastating blow" to the organization, which he said used threats and violence, including murder, against "those who violate (its) rules or pose a threat to the enterprise."
Weeks later, the Texas Department of Public Safety issued a statewide warning saying it had "credible information" that members of the Aryan Brotherhood were planning to retaliate.
In the AP interview, McLelland said Hasse had not prosecuted cases against such gangs, but his office handled several.
In the same interview, McLelland told the AP he began carrying a gun after Hasse's death and was answering his door more carefully.
'Shock waves through the community'
Wood said the courthouse will be well-protected when it reopens Monday and said court officials are following law enforcement directions designed to keep them safe both on and off the job. He declined to say what those measures were.
Sheriff David Byrnes was similarly tight-lipped: "We are taking precautions to protect other elected officials in the county."
Attorney Pete Schulte, who has worked in the community, said the killings have left the community in shock.
"The law enforcement community here is very uncomfortable," he said. "It's really sending some shock waves through the community."
McClelland's death came 11 days after the similar shooting death of Colorado prisons chief Tom Clements -- shot to death March 19 after he answered the door at his home.
While authorities have offered no suggestion the crimes are linked, the man suspected of killing Clements was once a member of a white supremacist group, the 211 Crew. That man, Evan Ebel, died in a shootout with sheriff's deputies in northern Texas.
An FBI spokesman said the Denver field office was not involved in Kaufman County case.
A soldier, a psychologist and a DA
McLelland was an Army veteran who later earned a master's degree in psychology and became a psychologist for the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, the district attorney's website said.
He later earned his law degree and practiced as a defense attorney and mental health judge before becoming the county's district attorney in 2010.
McLelland and his wife leave behind two daughters and three sons. One son is a Dallas police officer.
The McLellands were killed almost exactly two months after Hasse was shot to death.
Hasse had feared for his life and carried a gun to work, said a Dallas attorney who described herself as his longtime friend.
Colleen Dunbar said she spoke with Hasse a week before he died. She said the prosecutor told her he had begun carrying a gun in and out of the county courthouse daily.
"He told me he would use a different exit every day because he was fearful for his life," Dunbar told CNN.
She said that Hasse gave no specifics on why he felt threatened -- only that he did.
A lingering promise
McLelland never said he was worried, even after his deputy's death, Wood said.
"But everybody that works in the courthouse has been on edge," Wood said.
Before his death, McLelland called Hasse "a stellar prosecutor" who knew that threats were part of the job.
He vowed after Hasse's slaying to put away the "scum" who killed his deputy.
"I hope that the people that did this are watching, because we're very confident that we're going to find you," McLelland told reporters.
"We're going to pull you out of whatever hole you're in, we're going to bring you back and let the people of Kaufman County prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law."
CNN's Ed Lavandera reported from Kaufman County; Holly Yan reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's AnneClaire Stapleton also contributed to this report.
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By Ed Lavandera and Holly Yan