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Texas prosecutor shootings are investigated amid tight security

Authorities look for links with a white supremacist prison gang. Gov. Rick Perry is asked to quickly appoint a new Kaufman County district attorney.

April 01, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times
  • Kaufman County, Texas, law enforcement officials escort an employee into the courthouse. Security remained tight across the state after a second prosecutor was slain.
Kaufman County, Texas, law enforcement officials escort an employee into… (Tony Gutierrez / Associated…)

KAUFMAN, Texas — The fatal shooting of a north Texas district attorney and his wife, just two months after an assistant district attorney was gunned down near the local courthouse, could have a chilling effect on recruiting future prosecutors, officials said.

"I've always reassured them you really don't have to fear retaliation," Heath Harris, first assistant district attorney in Dallas, said of new recruits. But now, he said, "I definitely think people will think twice about becoming a prosecutor."

In Dallas and across Texas, authorities were beefing up security for courthouses and prosecutors. The district attorney for Harris County, which includes Houston, was being trailed along with his family by a 24-hour security team at the sheriff's suggestion.

PHOTOS: Kaufman County killings

"Until we know exactly what happened in Kaufman County, we'll remain cautious," spokeswoman Sara Marie Kinney said.

Kaufman County Dist. Atty. Michael McLelland, 63, and his wife, Cynthia, 65, were found dead at their home near Forney, about 20 miles east of Dallas, at 6:45 p.m. Saturday by friends who had been trying to reach them, according to a search warrant affidavit.

Kaufman County was still mourning Assistant Dist. Atty. Mark Hasse, 57, who was fatally shot Jan. 31 as he headed to work at the county courthouse.

Hasse was shot on the day he was publicly credited for assisting with the successful prosecution of members of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a white supremacist prison gang.

Federal law enforcement officials said Monday that while "it certainly looks like" the shootings are related, there was no ballistics match.

The first shooting appeared to have been well planned and more professionally executed, and the second was faster and possibly less organized, said the officials, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the investigation.

"They were in a hurry to get out," one official said.

Authorities added that they were looking for links with the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, noting that Kaufman County prosecutors were part of a statewide effort to convict various gang members.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry took the possible connection to organized crime seriously.

"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," Perry told reporters.

"This looks like an attack on the criminal justice system and the rule of law," said Scott Burns, director of the National District Attorneys Assn. "While each story and each murder is tragic, 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."

Just 13 prosecutors have been killed while in office in the past century, Burns said.

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 1980s, 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 with previous decades.

"Revenge is the predominant motive," McGovern said, "followed by efforts to derail a case."

The McLellands were killed less than two weeks after Colorado's prison chief was fatally shot at his front door. Police suspect an ex-convict who fled to north Texas, where he died in a gunfight with law enforcement officers. Colorado officials are investigating whether the cases could be connected.

When Kaufman County sheriff's investigators responded to the McLellands' suburban home Saturday, they found cartridge casings inside near the two bodies, which both had multiple gunshot wounds, according to the affidavit. The spent casings indicate the assailant used an assault-type weapon, federal law enforcement officials said.

McLelland's relatives told investigators they had last spoken with him by phone Friday night, the affidavit said.

Perry has 21 days to appoint a permanent replacement for McLelland.

Local judges said they have asked Perry to expedite the process, and they were already meeting with four candidates Monday, including lawyer Casey Blair, who said he wasn't afraid to take over.

"Someone has to step up," Blair said. "The job has to be done."

The sentiment was shared by other candidates, Kaufman County Judge Bruce Wood said.

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

The Kaufman County district attorney's office was closed Monday, but the courthouse wasn't. Jim Donaldson, an investigator with the district attorney's office, reported to work as usual in cowboy boots, hat and badge. He choked up as he talked about his boss' killing and his determination to come to work.

"It's my job to catch the one who did it," Donaldson said.

Wood called the latest shootings "an attack on the very fabric of our society."

Before his death, McLelland had publicly vowed to pursue Hasse's killer. At a Monday briefing, Wood was more circumspect. "I don't want to say anything that would put anyone in harm's way," he said.

He left the briefing at an annex across the street from the courthouse and walked back to his office escorted by a sheriff's deputy.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard A. Serrano in Washington contributed to this report.

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