3 killings left Kaufman County in ‘a state of shock’

12/18/2013 9:10 PM

12/19/2013 8:13 AM

This is the first of 13 stories about the top local news events in 2013.

In the weeks after the Jan. 31 slaying of prosecutor Mark Hasse, who was gunned down while walking to work, fear permeated Kaufman County.

Speculation ran rampant about who might be responsible for the brazen killing. Every culprit from the Aryan Brotherhood to Mexican drug cartels had been thrown out as a possibility.

But from the moment Hasse was killed, Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland was unwavering in his belief that former Justice of the Peace Eric Williams was the gunman.

“The sheriff and I walked into the hospital after Mark had been shot, and he told us he thought it was Eric,” Kaufman County Judge Bruce Wood said last week. “He shared that within just a few moments of Mark being assassinated.”

Williams had been convicted in 2012 and sentenced to probation for stealing three county-owned computer monitors — a case prosecuted by McLelland and Hasse. Williams, a graduate of TCU and Texas Wesleyan Law School, was also stripped of his JP position and lost his law license and state law enforcement certificate.

Williams called the case “a tragic misunderstanding that has taken my livelihood and reputation.”

Authorities say the conviction led Williams to seek revenge on the prosecutors.

He was questioned in Hasse’s death but not arrested. Still, McLelland remained steadfast in his belief that Williams was behind the killing.

“He never changed his opinion, but he would be the first to say that there was just no evidence that could tie Eric Williams to Mark Hasse. And there wasn’t,” Wood said.

The district attorney also knew that he might become a target of the same gunman. He boasted to friends that he could take care of himself.

But on March 30, the day before Easter, McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, were found shot to death in their home outside Forney.

Town was in a ‘state of shock’

As satellite TV trucks surrounded the small county square in Kaufman, residents felt besieged and wondered who could be next, said the Rev. David Petrash, pastor of Our Merciful Saviour Episcopal Church in Kaufman.

“Everybody was afraid they might be targeted,” Petrash said. “It put the whole town into a state of shock.”

Eric Williams quickly became a target of investigators in the McLelland slayings, and he and his wife, Kim, were arrested in April. They were indicted June 27 on capital murder charges.

Kim Williams filed for divorce that same day.

Petrash, who lived six houses down from the Williamses, described Eric Williams as “eccentric.” Petrash said he often saw Eric Williams ride his Segway to work or stroll through the neighborhood shirtless during the hottest part of a summer day while reading his tablet.

“He was very strange, no question about that,” Petrash said.

But nothing suggested he would harm anyone.

“It was quite a shock that somebody who lived nearby could be suspected of being so coldblooded and murder people like that,” Petrash said. “It’s more than I can comprehend.”

Relief in the community

The case against the Williamses gained momentum after authorities traced a threatening email to Eric Williams’ computer and searched a storage facility, where they found weapons and a car similar to one seen around the McLellands’ neighborhood.

After Kim Williams was taken into custody, she “described in detail her role with that of her husband, Eric Williams, whom she reported to have shot to death Mark Hasse on January 31, 2013, and Michael and Cynthia McLelland on March 30, 2013,” according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

Kim Williams told authorities that she drove the getaway car when Hasse was shot and was a passenger when Eric Williams drove to the McLelland home March 30.

“Basically, this was a collaborative effort between Eric Williams and his wife,” Kaufman County Sheriff David Byrnes said in April.

Before the arrests, a community prayer walk around the courthouse square had helped calm the nerves of residents in Kaufman, Petrash said.

“There was quite a sense of relief when the alleged persons were arrested,” Petrash said.

For members of the First United Methodist Church of Terrell, where the McLellands worshipped, coping with the deaths has been difficult.

Funeral services weren’t held at the Terrell church, so many parishioners didn’t have a chance to say goodbye until the annual summer picnic.

“I had to deal with a situation that took everything I had,” said the Rev. Keith Head, who retired from the Terrell church this summer. “I never dealt with a double homicide in 39 years of ministry. It was also exacerbated that it happened on the Saturday morning before Easter. That just added a lot more fuel to the grief to it all.

“But it also gave us the hope of Easter, that God’s love will always have the last word. It was just a powerful experience all of the way around.”

‘We’ve lost our innocence’

The Kaufman County district attorney’s office also had to deal with loss after the slayings of Hasse and the McLellands.

Erleigh Norville Wiley, a Kaufman County court-at-law judge and former Dallas prosecutor, was sworn in as district attorney shortly after the arrests of Eric and Kim Williams.

Wiley said the office of 30 full-time employees was in “post-traumatic shock” after the killings.

“On day-to-day activities, everything has gone back to normal,” Wiley said. “But you can get pulled back real quickly. As a prosecutor, you get threats all of the time, but now we pay more attention and say, ‘Wait, was that really a threat?’ In that sense, we’ve lost our innocence. We know what can happen now.”

Wiley won’t be prosecuting the Williams cases.

Dallas attorneys Toby Shook and Bill Wirskye were named special prosecutors, and they have said they will seek the death penalty against Eric Williams. No decision has been made on whether to seek the death penalty against Kim Williams.

Judge Michael Snipes of Dallas County Criminal Court No. 7, who was appointed to hear the case, is expected to schedule Eric Williams’ trial sometime in 2014.

Eric Williams’ defense team is composed of attorneys Matthew David Seymour and John E. Wright of the Lubbock-based Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases. Kaufman County had just entered into an agreement with the group in 2012, a move that will save the county thousands of dollars in attorney fees.

Kim Williams is represented by Dallas attorney Paul Johnson.

Eric Williams’ attorneys have asked for a change of venue, but Snipes has not ruled on that motion.

‘We see a lot of horrible things’

Whenever the trial takes place, it will likely stir up the same feelings for Kaufman County residents.

“I think there’s a sense that we don’t live in a secure little town like we thought we did before,” Wood said.

The uneasy feelings came rushing back in October when an eight-hour shooting spree in the Kaufman County city of Terrell left five people dead. Charles Everett Brownlow Jr., who was charged with capital murder and evading arrest, is accused of killing a store clerk, his mother, his aunt and a couple he knew.

“It’s really kind of a part of the society we live in,” Wood said. “We see a lot of horrible things. We had that man over in Terrell that killed his mother and his aunt. That’s in our county, too.

“The man accused of those killings is in our jail just like Eric and Kim Williams. I wish I had the ability to express the feelings of our community over these tragedies, but I just can’t. I can’t put it into words.”

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