Interim DA appointed in Kaufman County after slayings

Posted Monday, Apr. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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KAUFMAN -- An interim prosecutor has been chosen to fill in after the slaying of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland.

Brandi Fernandez will lead the district attorney's office for the next 21 days. She had been the first assistant DA under McLelland.

McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, were found dead in their home near Forney on Saturday night.

State law requires that the DA's first assistant will conduct the affairs of the office until Gov. Rick Perry appoints a permanent successor.

Kaufman County Judge Bruce Wood said earlier that he would ask Perry to appoint an interim district attorney.

Wood said investigators haven't found any physical evidence linking McLelland's death with the Jan. 31 fatal shooting of Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse, who was gunned down walking to work.

Still, Wood said he believes that the two shootings have to be related.

"There has to be a connection, in my way of thinking," Wood said.

After Hasse's death, McLelland vowed to find the killer, and if he feared for his own safety, he didn't talk about it.

"Not to me," Kaufman County Sheriff David Byrnes said Sunday when asked if McLelland indicated that he might be a target after Hasse was shot in a parking lot near the courthouse.

Security has been heightened at the Kaufman County Courthouse and the district attorney's office is closed, officials said.

McLelland said that he carried a gun everywhere he went and that he was extra careful when answering the door at home.

"The people in my line of work are going to have to get better at it," he said when asked two weeks ago about the danger, "because they're going to need it more in the future."

Two months to the day after Hasse was killed, McLelland, 63, and his wife, Cynthia, 65, were found shot to death Saturday at their home in the 9300 block of Blarney Stone Way in an unincorporated area of Kaufman County near Forney.

At a news conference Sunday, Byrnes said additional officers from various local law enforcement agencies would be on hand Monday to provide extra security at the courthouse.

Byrnes declined to speculate on a motive for the killings or to connect them to Hasse's killing.

"We have nothing indicating that for sure," Byrnes said. "We are not going into any details because it's an ongoing investigation."

The sheriff said he wouldn't discuss security measures and declined to say whether a deputy had been assigned to protect McLelland after Hasse was killed. Hasse's killer is still at large.

Byrnes said authorities have considered that other Kaufman County officials might be targeted.

"Certainly, we're considering that, obviously," he said.

Byrnes said investigators are conducting a crime-scene investigation at the McLellands' house in the Shamrock addition near Forney.

He said the death of two of the county's prosecutors is taking its toll.

"It's pretty obvious it's unnerving," Byrnes said.

Deputies were called to the McLellands' home about 6 p.m. Saturday by a law enforcement friend who went to check on them, according to WFAA/Channel 8 news in Dallas.

Investigators told reporters the front door was open and the couple was found shot with what is believed to be an assault rifle.

The sheriff did not say whether the McLellands had security cameras at their home.

The Kaufman County Sheriff's Department is leading the investigation with assistance from the Texas Rangers and the FBI.

"Law enforcement officials are working to ensure the continued safety of the public as well as to ensure the safety of our county and judicial employees," Byrnes said.

Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies arrived in Kaufman late Saturday to assist in the investigation.

The agencies include Kaufman County constable offices, police departments from Forney, Terrell and Kaufman, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the U.S. Marshals Service and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In an Associated Press interview shortly after the slaying in Colorado of prison director Tom Clements, McLelland raised the possibility that Hasse was gunned down by a white supremacist gang.

McLelland, elected DA in 2010, said his office had prosecuted several cases against racist gangs, who have a strong presence around Kaufman County, a mostly rural area dotted with subdivisions, with a population of about 104,000.

"We put some real dents in the Aryan Brotherhood around here in the past year," he said.

McLelland told the Star-Telegram last week that FBI offices in Dallas and Denver were looking for similarities between Hasse's shooting and the slaying of Clements, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Clements was shot to death March 19 as he answered the front door of his home in Monument, Colo.

That shooting has been linked to Evan Spencer Ebel, 28, a Colorado parolee described as a member of a white supremacist prison gang. Ebel is also a suspect in the shooting of Nathan Leon, a Denver pizza deliveryman.

On March 21, Ebel was driving a black Cadillac south on U.S. 287 near Bowie when Montague County Sheriff's Deputy James Boyd pulled him over.

Ebel shot Boyd three times, hitting him twice in the chest and grazing his head. Boyd was wearing a bulletproof vest and survived the shooting. Montague County is less than 100 miles from Kaufman County.

Ebel fled and a high-speed chase ensued south on 287 toward Wise County. Troopers, sheriffs' deputies and Decatur police joined the pursuit, which reached speeds of 100 mph. Ebel fired numerous shots at the pursuing officers.

In Decatur, Ebel left 287 and ended up on U.S. 380, where his car was struck by a rock hauler.

He got out of the car and was shot by deputies. He was pronounced dead at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth.

McLelland told the Star-Telegram that he didn't believe Ebel was connected to Hasse's slaying.

Authorities said Hasse was killed when one or two gunmen got out of a gray or silver car, opened fire and sped away.

Witnesses told police that the assailant or assailants were wearing black clothing and tactical vests. Police said there were conflicting accounts on whether the assailants wore pullover masks or hoodies.

McLelland said his staff had taken precautionary measures after Hasse's slaying.

Other officials across North Texas are beefing up security after the killings.

"Prior to this, prosecutors were told to be vigilant about their surroundings," said Melody McDonald, a spokeswoman with the Tarrant County district attorney's office. McDonald declined to provide further details Sunday.

In December, the Texas Department of Public Safety had issued a statewide bulletin warning that authorities had received “credible information” that the Aryan Brotherhood was “actively planning retaliation against law enforcement officials” who helped secure indictments in Houston against dozens of members, including the gang’s leadership, The Dallas Morning News reported.

“High ranking members … are involved in issuing orders to inflict ‘mass casualties or death’ to law enforcement officials who were involved in cases where Aryan Brotherhood of Texas are facing life sentences or the death penalty,” the bulletin stated.

Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson said he accepted the Harris County sheriff's offer to provide 24-hour security for him and his family after learning about the McLelland killings, mostly out of concern for his family's safety.

Anderson said he will also take precautions at his Houston office, the largest in Texas with more than 270 prosecutors.

"I think district attorneys across Texas are still in a state of shock," Anderson said Sunday.

The U.S. Honor Flag organization will coordinate the McLellands' funerals to allow law enforcement agencies to focus on the investigation. Funeral arrangements are pending.

The group is a nonprofit organization dedicated to memorializing people who made the ultimate sacrifice for their family, community and country.

Officials have established a tip line at 877-847-7522 for anyone with information about the killings. Callers may remain anonymous. People can also provide tips online at www.kaufmancountycrimestoppers.org.

Staff writer Bill Hanna contributed to this report, which includes information from The Associated Press and the Star-Telegram archives.

Domingo Ramirez,

817-390-7763

Twitter:

@mingoramirezjr

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