Few clues in Texas prosecutor killings leave public officials apprehensive

Tuesday, April 2, 2013 - 8:00am

As state and federal investigators flood this north Texas county searching for clues in the killing of two prosecutors in two months, the 100,000 people who live here can do little but nervously watch, and hope.

"The residents are, I think, astounded," said Delois Stolusky, who has lived in the county seat of Kaufman for 30 years. "It's just, one and one make two. You can't keep from connecting these. And it's just scary because we have no clue of who did the first shooting. And no clue, of course, yet who did this one. And, so of course our concern is what's going to happen next."

Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, died in a shooting at their home over the weekend. Friends discovered their bodies Saturday, nearly two months to the day after someone killed McLelland's chief felony prosecutor, Mark Hasse, in a daytime shooting outside the county courthouse.

Law enforcement sources say investigators are starting from scratch, with no leads in the McLellands' deaths, CNN affiliate WFAA reported.

Nor do officials have any further ideas on who killed Hasse.

But justice officials across the state are on high alert, unsure if or when another such strike might occur.

"This, I think, is a clear concern to individuals who are in public life, particularly those who deal with some very mean and vicious individuals -- whether they're white supremacy groups or drug cartels that we have," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said.

Some, like Harris County's district attorney in Houston, are now under 24-hour security.

McLelland himself had a sheriff's deputy guarding his house after Hasse's death, but exactly why the deputy stopped patrolling the home is unclear.

CNN affiliate KTVT said the sheriff's department removed the security detail because McLelland thought it was unnecessary and didn't want to waste taxpayer dollars.

But sources told WFAA a deputy was only dispatched to McLelland's home as a temporary assignment. The home was equipped with surveillance cameras, but not the kind that constantly record, the affiliate said.

While suspicions abound over a link between the deaths and a possible tie to white supremacists, such as the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas -- a group decimated by a 2012 investigation that included Kaufman County authorities -- law enforcement officials can't say for sure who is responsible.

Pete Schulte, a friend of McLelland's, was stunned that such attacks against prosecutors took place in Kaufman County -- a largely rural community east of Dallas where practicing law has been a collegial business.

"Everybody knew each other here," Schulte said. "Everybody liked the district attorney's office. There just wasn't a lot of activity out here.

"So the biggest shock out here ... is why, in Kaufman, Texas, are we having an assistant DA get killed and an elected DA? It's really sending some shock waves through the community."

Filling a deep void

In a county with only about a dozen prosecutors, the loss of the district attorney and the chief felony prosecutor have left a profound void.

Brandi Fernandez, McLelland's first assistant district attorney, will lead the office as an interim district attorney, county officials said.

She will keep the role until Gov. Perry appoints a successor.

But whoever becomes Kaufman County's next top prosecutor will have to grapple with the haunting past.

"I wonder if the governor is going to find anyone brave enough to take the job of district attorney," Kaufman city Mayor William Fortner told CNN.

A Texas-size investigation

Law enforcement analysts say they believe those behind the attacks had been monitoring and following the two prosecutors, given the locations of the attacks and the brazenness of killing the men where they were most comfortable.

Hasse was gunned down January 31 while walking from his car to the courthouse in broad daylight.

The McLellands were each shot multiple times in their own home. Their bodies were found Saturday evening by friends who had tried to reach them several times during the day.

A public memorial for the couple will take place Thursday, followed by a funeral a day later.

McLelland talked to relatives on Friday night, a search warrant affidavit said. Investigators have asked a judge for records of mobile phone calls that were relayed through at least one nearby tower, the documents show.

Authorities insist they just don't know who's behind the killings.

But McLelland's office was one of numerous Texas and federal agencies involved in a multi-year investigation that led to the indictment last year of 34 alleged members of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, including four of its senior leaders, on racketeering charges.

At the time, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lanny A. Breuer 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.

The FBI describes the group as a "whites only," prison-based gang operating since at least the 1980s.

While authorities have not said whether they have linked the deaths of Hasse and McLelland, or the involvement of white supremacists, Texas law enforcement agencies did warn shortly after the November 2012 indictment that there was "credible information" that members of the Aryan Brotherhood were planning to retaliate.

Wood said Monday that no physical evidence links the deaths of the prosecutors, though previously he had said he believed there is a "strong connection" between the killings.

In an interview with The Associated Press after Hasse's death, McLelland said his deputy hadn't been involved in the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas investigation. But the district attorney nevertheless raised the possibility the group was behind his death.

"We put some real dents in the Aryan Brotherhood around here in the past year," McLelland told the news agency.

Former skinhead's perspective

Frank Meenik, a former skinhead, said the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas could well be behind the killings.

"The Aryan Brotherhood is trying to relay a message that they are not only going to get you if you're behind the wall, but they're going to get their enemies outside the walls," he told CNN's "Starting Point" Tuesday.

The group could be lashing out over the 2012 indictment, he said.

"The indictment that happened a year ago to this group really hurt the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas," he said. "This isn't an ideology battle here. This is financial."

Colorado slaying

As if the potential links between Hasse and McLelland's shootings weren't enough, speculation has also extended to whether the shootings have any connection to the March 19 death of Colorado prisons chief Tom Clements, who was gunned down after answering the door at his home.

While authorities have offered no suggestion the crimes are linked, Evan Ebel -- the man suspected of killing Clements -- was once a member of a white supremacist group, the 211 Crew. Ebel died in a shootout with sheriff's deputies in northern Texas March 21.

"Looking out the peephole" now

Schulte, a criminal defense attorney who has worked in the county, said other lawyers and public servants are nervous.

"Having that type of environment going on where people who are just doing their jobs (and) getting assassinated -- this is what this is, elected officials getting assassinated -- and that is sending a chill through the (legal) community and the community in general," he said.

He speculated that the killings were "personal."

"If this was a case that somebody was trying to change, they would have been going after witnesses and not the prosecuting attorney," Schulte said.

Michael Burns, McLelland's former law partner, said prosecutors from several counties have exchanged theories about what happened.

"But frankly, none of us know."

"We're used to hearing this sort of thing happening in Colombia or even Mexico. We're not used to hearing about judicial officials targeted in the United States. It's hard to say whether this is a local phenomenon that involves only one issue locally there, or whether this is the beginning of a trend. As a prosecutor, I can just tell you, we can't ignore it," Burns said.

"We're looking out the peephole when the doorbell rings now, where we maybe we weren't before."

CNN's Ed Lavandera reported from Kaufman County; Holly Yan and Matt Smith reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Carol Cratty and Vivian Kuo also contributed to this report.


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