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Investigators 'working feverishly' as Texas readies for memorial

April 02, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • The scene outside the home of Kaufman County, Texas, Dist. Atty. Mike McLelland near Forney, Texas, where he and his wife were found shot to death.
The scene outside the home of Kaufman County, Texas, Dist. Atty. Mike McLelland… (Tony Gutierrez / Associated…)

KAUFMAN, Texas -- Courthouse staff reported to work flanked by sheriff's deputies days after the local district attorney and his wife were gunned down at home, just two months after another local prosecutor was shot on his way to work.

"We're doing the best we can," County Judge David Lewis said as he climbed out of his car and was escorted into the building by deputies.

"All of the law enforcement people have my confidence," Lewis said as he entered the courthouse about 35 miles east of Dallas.

PHOTOS: Kaufman County killings

Lewis said he planned to attend a Thursday memorial at First Baptist Church in nearby Sunnyvale for Dist. Atty. Mike McLelland, 63, who was found fatally shot over the weekend with his wife Cynthia, 65, at their home in nearby Forney.

The courthouse and other county facilities will close at 11 a.m. on Thursday "in honor and respect of the lives" of the McLellands, county officials said in a Tuesday statement.

The shootings came after Assistant Dist. Atty. Mark Hasse, 57, was fatally shot on his way to the courthouse on Jan. 31.

During a Tuesday morning briefing outside the courthouse, County Judge Bruce Wood said investigators were still searching for suspects in the killings.

"We're working feverishly, national, state and local offices, they're doing all they can to investigate this crime," Wood said.

New interim Kaufman County Dist. Atty. Brandi Fernandez, 42, did not appear at the briefing, and Wood would not say whether she had reported to the courthouse Tuesday.

He described her as "very capable" and a "bright person" who is "seasoned."

"I have full faith in her abilities," Wood said.

Fernandez succeeded McLelland by law as his highest-ranking deputy, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry has 21 days to name a permanent replacement.

Hasse was shot the same day that federal officials credited him for assisting with the prosecution of members of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a white supremacist prison gang. Fernandez has also handled an Aryan Brotherhood case, but Wood declined to comment about whether that led to fears for her safety.

Wood said he had no new details to release about the investigation Tuesday. Kaufman County Sheriff David Byrnes and spokesman Lt. Justin Lewis appeared in front of the courthouse and Lewis announced that no press briefings were planned for the day, rather a statement would be released in the afternoon.

A funeral is planned for Mike McLelland in his hometown of Wortham on Friday, and Kaufman County officials are also planning to hold an honor guard in his memory as they did for Hasse, Wood said.

Some of those who knew McLelland, who had been district attorney for three years, came to the courthouse in disbelief Tuesday.

"He was just hitting his stride, doing tough cases, and to get snuffed out like that when he was just starting to go ... it's a great loss," said Anderson County District Atty. Doug Lowe, who knew both McLelland and Hasse.

Lowe has also handled Aryan Brotherhood cases and said both the prison gang and Mexican cartels "are capable of pulling something like that off, but I'm skeptical."

His county is home to three-maximum security prisons where the Aryan Brotherhood has thrived, but its reach has not generally extended beyond prison walls, Lowe said.

"In recent years they've expanded their activities outside the units. But I don't think they've become that organized. If it was them, I'd think someone would have snitched," he said.

Lowe said he never felt threatened by any of the Aryan Brotherhood defendants he prosecuted, although in one recent case a man strapped a hand grenade to the gas main in Lowe's building, then waited outside with an assault weapon while an associate called in a bomb threat. 

"He was outside with a scope but he chickened out," Lowe said. No one was injured.

Lowe has a small office with a staff of about 14. While district attorneys in Dallas and Houston have adopted security details for themselves and their families in the wake of the Kaufman County attacks, Lowe said he's making do.

"I talked to the sheriff about getting another bailiff," at the local courthouse, he said, and "I have two dogs that bark real loud."

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