At the entrance to the Kaufman County Courthouse stands a statue of a Confederate soldier, a memorial to those killed fighting for the South during the Civil War. Close by, tied to the trees that surround the court building in Kaufman’s modest town square, is a more contemporary tribute: green ribbons, in memory of District Attorney Mike McLelland, his wife Cynthia, and his colleague, prosecutor Mark Hasse. All three were shot dead recently – killings that have shaken not only the town, but the whole state of Texas.
The police reports column in the weekly Kaufman Herald newspaper tends to record trifling offences such as “dog at large”, “loud music” or “possession of a controlled substance – less than one gram”.
So in the weeks after the murders, many locals were convinced the victims had fallen foul of sinister outside forces: Mexican drug cartels, or a white supremacist gang. Last week, however, the authorities revealed the unsettling truth – that the alleged killers came from very close to home.
On the morning of 31 January, 57-year-old Mark Hasse, Kaufman’s assistant District Attorney, left his car in the car park one block from his workplace. As he walked towards the courthouse, witnesses watched in horror as a man in a black hooded sweatshirt accosted Hasse, pulled out a pistol and shot him several times.
Jose Ibarra, 18, works at the car body shop beside the car park. He was at school that day, he said, “and when I got to the shop later everything had gone crazy. This is a safe community, but that made me feel less safe, because now I know anything can happen – even in Kaufman.”
Following Hasse’s murder, security was tightened around the courthouse. Cynthia McLelland admitted to local reporters that she feared for her husband’s safety. But Mike McLelland would not be intimidated. “I’m not going to let [the killers] make me change the way I do business,” the DA was quoted as saying. “I must assume that would be part of their motivation, and that ain’t happening.”
McLelland, who was 63, and his wife, 65, were pillars of the community. Cynthia belonged to a local quilting guild, which meets at the 2 Sisters Quilt Shoppe across the street from the court building. The couple regularly ate lunch together at the Especially For You tea room on the far side of the square. “They were very sweet people,” said Lori McWha, 46, the tea room’s proprietor. “What happened to them was heart-breaking.”
Shortly before 7pm on 30 March, unable to contact them by phone, concerned friends went to the McLellands’ detached red-brick home on Blarney Stone Way, a quiet residential road a few miles from Kaufman. They found Cynthia’s body just inside the front door. Her husband had been killed further back in the house. He was still wearing his pyjamas. Public suspicion soon fell on the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT), a notorious white supremacist gang. Both Hasse and McLelland had been involved in bringing a major federal indictment against members of the ABT in November 2012. Experts said the killings were uncharacteristic of the gang, which rarely targets justice officials. But the residents of Kaufman, reluctant to point fingers at their fellow citizens, spread the theory eagerly.
And yet, at least one person had already suggested an alternative suspect. Soon after Hasse was pronounced dead at Kaufman’s Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, Mike McLelland had been overheard saying a single name: “Eric Williams”.
When McLelland first ran for the post of District Attorney in 2006, he found his candidacy opposed by Eric Williams, a fellow Kaufman Republican, who publicly questioned his character and suitability. McLelland lost that election, and there had been bad blood between the men ever since. Four years later, both were voted into office: McLelland as District Attorney, Williams as a Justice of the Peace.
In 2011, however, McLelland’s office accused Williams of the theft of three county-owned computer monitors. Williams claimed he’d borrowed the monitors in the course of judicial business, and that the charges stemmed from a misunderstanding. In court, his defence attorney claimed the case was “an attempt to settle a political grudge.” But Hasse, prosecuting, described the supposed thefts as “evil”, while McLelland said Williams was “bereft of honour”. Jenny Parks, a local bankruptcy lawyer who worked with Williams, later told the Dallas Morning News, “The whole thing was a witch hunt, and anyone in the legal community here knows that.”
Williams, who is now 46, was convicted in April 2012 and sentenced to two years’ probation. He lost his job and his law licence, and with them his health benefits. His wife Kim, also 46, testified at his trial that she suffered from a selection of debilitating conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis and chronic fatigue syndrome, which frequently kept her bedridden. Eric was her primary carer, and also looked after a cancer-stricken father-in-law, and a mother-in-law who had suffered a stroke. Deprived of his livelihood and his reputation, he is believed to have harboured a grudge.
Mike McLelland may have suspected Williams of Hasse’s murder, but he was unable to gather sufficient evidence before his own death.
On 12 April, however, police arrested Williams on charges of making a “terroristic threat”. An email sent anonymously to Kaufman County officials the day after the McLelland killings, warning of further attacks, had originated at his computer. During the arrest, police found guns matching the murder weapons at the Williams home, as well as a balaclava, military boots and night-vision goggles.
Williams was proficient with firearms, and had served as the weapons safety officer in a battalion of the Texas State Guard. It was one of his fellow guardsmen who admitted he’d recently rented a storage unit in Seagoville, 20 miles from Kaufman, on Williams’ behalf.
Investigators searched the unit the day after Williams’ arrest and found a cache of weapons. The unit also housed a white 2004 Ford Crown Victoria, which matched a vehicle seen on security footage in the McLellands’ neighbourhood around the time of their murder.
With Williams refusing to speak to investigators, his sickly wife Kim was taken into custody at the Kaufman County Jail last Wednesday, where she made a chilling confession: her husband had indeed shot Mark Hasse and the McLellands – and she had driven with him to both murders.
The couple were charged with capital murder; both could face the death penalty.
“It’s hard to believe you would kill one person, let alone three, because you lost your job,” said McWha. “It’s frustrating and saddening that someone who was living in our community could do something like that.”
The case is already so notorious in Texas that no county judiciary in the state can plausibly claim ignorance of its details – which means, remarkably, that the Williams’ murder trial may very well take place in Kaufman, at the same courthouse where their feud with the victims first began.