Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Confession of justice's wife brings Texas DA murders case closer to home

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Authorities suggested white supremacists or Mexican gangs were to blame but wife of fired justice has confessed

Saddened by the senseless loss of life, Eric Williams understood why police urgently wanted to talk to him in the aftermath of the murders of a district attorney and his wife in rural north Texas.

"If I was in their shoes, I would want to talk to me. In the investigators' minds, they want to check with me to do their process of elimination," he told a local television channel after the discovery of the bodies of Mike and Cynthia McLelland at their home in a town east of Dallas on 30 March. They had been shot multiple times. Williams wished the police luck. "I certainly wish them the best in bringing justice to this incredibly egregious act," he said.

The authorities now think they have the culprits. In the early hours of Wednesday, Williams' wife, Kim, was arrested and charged with the murders of the McLellands and another prosecutor, Eric Hasse, in January. According to her arrest warrant, she identified her husband as the shooter. He was already in the Kaufman County jail on a $3m bond, accused of sending an anonymous email containing a "terroristic threat".

Investigators had met Eric Williams in the parking lot of a Denny's restaurant near his home in Kaufman, taken his cellphone and swabbed his hands to test for gun residue. His then-attorney repeatedly maintained that the disgraced former justice of the peace had nothing to do with the killings and was co-operating with police.

But at a brief media conference on Wednesday afternoon, police released an affidavit alleging that Kim Williams had confessed to the murders and had implicated her husband. She was arrested and charged with capital murder, which potentially carries the death penalty. The 46-year-old is being held on a $10m bond.

"Out of respect for the families of the victims, during this time, we are not answering any questions at this briefing until we're able to brief the family on the events of the past several days," Justin Lewis, a Kaufman County sheriff's department spokesman, told reporters.

In the absence of a firm suspect in the days following the deaths of the McLellands, who were both in their 60s, speculation had swirled that a prison gang such as the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas or a Mexican drug cartel might be responsible. The Texas governor, Rick Perry, arrived on the scene to announce a $200,000 reward for key information and used an interview with Fox News to raise the issue of border security.

With no one claiming responsibility and officials apparently struggling for leads, tension was thick in Kaufman County, a large rural area about a half-hour drive south-east of Dallas. The McLellands' memorial (above) and funeral services took place amid an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, with a vast police presence including snipers on the roof of the church that held the memorial.

Now, if the authorities are proved right, the killings may have been prompted by something as simple as a feud between small-town political rivals that spiraled far out of control.

Beneath the dramatic and alarming talk of powerful and brutal international gangs bringing lethal force to a quiet community, there had been isolated hints of resentment towards McLelland's bombastic brand of law enforcement. On 5 April, the day that the McLellands were buried, a Kaufman County man was arrested and charged with making a threat on Facebook. The post allegedly said that another district attorney "will soon perish" and that staff in McLelland's office were not interested in "actual guilt or innocence" and were "reaping what they have sown". It followed the unconnected arrest earlier that week of another local man, who allegedly made threats against a Kaufman County official via a Crimestoppers hotline. Neither was a murder suspect.

McLelland and Hasse prosecuted Eric Williams on charges of stealing three computer monitors from an office building in 2011. In December that year, Williams' lawyer tried unsuccessfully to remove McLelland and his staff from the case, claiming that the district attorney felt personal animosity towards Williams, stemming from an advertisement critical of McLelland that had run in local newspapers in 2006. That year, McLelland unsuccessfully ran for election as district attorney. He won the vote in 2010 and set about building a reputation as a hardliner who would destroy "the good ol' boy network".

During the trial, the prosecutors depicted Williams, above, as a violent, untrustworthy man. He was found guilty by a jury in March 2012, received two years' probation and lost his law license and his job as an elected justice of the peace. He was in the process of appealing the verdict when the McLellands died. Last week, Kim Williams told the Dallas Morning News that the couple have chronic health problems, no longer have health insurance and have been under financial stress.

Hasse, an assistant district attorney, was shot dead one block from the Kaufman County courthouse, on his way to work on 31 January. Standing outside the courthouse in his favorite wide-brimmed black cowboy hat, McLelland told reporters in a press conference that he would find the "scum" responsible.

The murders prompted speculation that the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas may have carried out the crimes in retaliation for the prosecutors' involvement in a racketeering case brought in Houston last year against more than 30 gang members. In response to the killings in Forney, 21 miles from downtown Dallas, police stepped up protection for prosecutors across the state and one attorney withdrew from the racketeering case, apparently over security concerns.

Eric Williams has not been publicly named as a suspect by officials or been charged in connection with the deaths. But the 46-year-old allegedly emailed an anonymous threat to officers a day after the McLellands were found dead. According to the sheriff's office, the email suggested that if certain demands were not met, there would be another attack.

Towards the end of last week, the investigation seemed to be focusing more narrowly on Eric and Kim Williams. One official told the Associated Press that Eric Williams had a storage locker containing at least 20 weapons and that a Ford Crown Victoria car similar to one spotted in the McLellands' neighborhood on the day they died was also found at the facility in Seagoville, 15 miles west of Williams' home.

Today's affidavit states: "Mr Hasse and Mr McLelland both believed that Eric Williams blamed them for his removal from office … both Mr Hasse and Mr McLelland regularly carried handguns after the Eric Williams jury trial because they believed Eric Williams to be a threat to their personal safety." © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Paul Doyle 18 Apr, 2013

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