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Slayings of Texas prosecutors called unprecedented

April 01, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Matt Pearce
  • Kaufman County, Texas, law enforcement officials escort an employee inside the county courthouse. Security was increased after a second prosecutor was shot and killed.
Kaufman County, Texas, law enforcement officials escort an employee inside… (Tony Gutierrez / Associated…)

KAUFMAN, Texas -- Texas officials moved quickly to replace a district attorney in this Dallas-area county after he was killed in an attack that experts said was unprecedented in modern U.S. history.

First Assistant Dist. Atty. Brandi Fernandez has assumed the role of the county's lead prosecutor after her boss, Mike McLelland, was found shot dead with his wife, Cynthia, in their home near Forney on Saturday night. Two months earlier, a colleague, Mark Hasse, was shot and killed in a parking lot outside the Kaufman County courthouse.

It marked the first recorded instance in the past century that two prosecutors had been killed in the line of duty in the same jurisdiction, experts said. The slayings left local and state officials rattled.

“I suggest everyone should be careful about what goes on, whether they’re public officials or otherwise,” Republican Gov. Rick Perry told reporters Monday. “This 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 whether they’re the drug cartels that we have.”

The prosecutor's office remained closed Monday, and Perry was expected to appoint a replacement district attorney within 21 days, or else local judges would pick a replacement. One candidate included local attorney Casey Blair.

"Someone has to step up," Blair, who practices in Forney, told the Los Angeles Times as he stood in the Kaufman County courthouse. "The job has to be done."

Blair's sentiment was shared by other candidates, said County Judge Bruce Wood, who was among the officials to receive a protective escort Monday.

"We've had nobody have concerns about taking the job because of safety," Wood said.

Hasse and McLelland became the 12th and 13th prosecutors killed in the line of duty over the past century, according to National District Attorneys Assn. executive director Scott Burns. "This looks like a attack on the criminal justice system and the rule of law in Kaufman County, Texas,” Burns said.

Burns added that "it is a very rare thing for a prosecutor to be murdered in the line of duty -- very rare. And it is unprecedented for two in the same county to be murdered in a two-month period. It is simply unheard of."

Glenn McGovern, a senior investigator at the Santa Clara County district attorney's office in California, said multiple killings of officials in one jurisdiction is the kind of thing that would happen in Italy or Colombia in the '80s, or in Mexico today -- not in Texas. McGovern is working on a book about targeted attacks on law enforcement officials.

McGovern said there had been 15 targeted attacks in the United States on attorneys, judges and police in the first few years of the 2010s -- a number that had risen compared to previous decades. Since 1950, California led the nation with 13 out of the country's 73 attempts on officials' lives.

"Revenge is the predominant motive," McGovern said of such attacks, and seeking to derail a case is the second most common motive.

Before Hasse and McLelland were slain, many of the 11 prosecutors who were killed in the line of duty died as the result of individual attacks from aggrieved defendants. Kentucky attorney Fred Capps died in a 2000 shootout in his home with a man set to go on trial that day for child molestation; Massachusetts Assistant Atty. Gen. Paul R. McLaughlin was fatally shot the night before he was to prosecute a gang leader in 1995.

Since the deaths of Hasse and the McLellands, speculation has swirled around the possible involvement of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a violent prison gang said to have members in Kaufman County. The gang was targeted in a series of federal indictments in November.

In December the Texas Department of Public Safety reportedly issued an alert -- the existence of which it has publicly declined to confirm or deny -- warning of possible retaliation on law enforcement by the gang. A month later, Hasse was shot and killed in the Kaufman County courthouse parking lot.

“Frankly, it is hard to believe any organization -- up to and including the Mafia -- would take on a leading prosecutor like this," said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "I can’t think of another case like this. ... If this is the gangs, they are throwing down the glove in a way we haven’t seen before."

Potok added, "If in fact it’s the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas behind these three killings in Texas, I think there’s going to be a war."

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Hennessy-Fiske reported from Forney, Texas, and Pearce from Los Angeles.

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