Monday, April 29, 2013

Murder mystery terrifying small Texas town ends with married couple's surprising arrest; bonds total $33 million

KAUFMAN, TX -- For two terrifying months in early 2013 as they witnessed a murderous crime wave targeting top law enforcement officials, residents of Kaufman County kept asking each other, "Why here, of all places?"

There had been only one unsolved murder in the small agricultural county to the best of Sheriff David Byrnes' and everyone else's recollection prior to 2013. Byrnes had held the job for a dozen years so that was saying a lot. Seeing the top prosecutor of the district attorney's office gunned down in the courthouse parking lot on Jan. 31 and the district attorney and his wife slain in their home on Easter weekend  put everyone on guard for their lives.

The most logical scenario seemed to be that the culprits could be members of a white supremacist prison gang known as the Aryan Brotherhood because both District Attorney Scott McLelland and his top prosecutor Mark Hasse had helped bring two leaders of the group to justice in late 2012. The Texas Department of Public Safety had issued a warning afterwards that the group had threatened revenge on a variety of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

The other seemingly most logical explanation was that drug war violence was spreading from Mexico. Drug trafficking was on the rise in all of East Texas -- especially in the Cedar Creek Lake area -- and it certainly seemed possible to some observers.

But whomever the enemy might be, it was obvious that war had been declared on Kaufman County's law enforcement officials. Hasse, 57, McLelland, 62, and his wife, Cynthia, 65, had already perished in unimaginable violence in the conflict, and a reward for information had reached $200,000 after Gov. Rick Perry attended the memorial service for the McLellands.

Although everything about the gruesome murders seemed to point to an organized crime hit, Kaufman County residents were in for the shock of their lives when the mystery finally was solved. It was true that war had been declared, but it turned out to be a war waged by what appeared to be an ordinary married couple -- not a team of of career criminals.

When witnesses reported seeing a masked gunman in black tactical gear kill Hasse with multiple shots and another masked person driving the getaway car, law enforcement officials quickly questioned former Justice of the Peace Eric Williams. Both McLelland and Hasse participated in his successful prosecution about a year earlier for theft of county property that led to the loss of his job, his law license and a two-year probated sentence. Still, few people thought that would drive him to murder, particularly since he he had just been granted the right to appeal the verdict in a new trial.

They questioned Williams again after discovering McLelland and his wife dead on March 30, but Williams had an alibi. As during the first murder, he claimed to have been at home with his wife, Kim Williams, a former nurse who was disabled by crippling arthritis.

There is no certainty the war might have continued with more deaths, but the plot unraveled when a friend of Williams' told law enforcement officials he had rented a storage unit for Williams prior to the murders in Seagoville, about 30 miles away. The resulting search of the storage unit became the "watershed moment" in the investigation, Sheriff Byrnes said.

Inside the storage unit investigators found guns, ammunition, law enforcement uniforms and a car. A search of Williams' house and his in-laws' house revealed computer records allegedly tying him to electronic threats made against the district attorney's office. While he was jailed on charges of making threats and held on $3 million bond, investigators questioned his wife, who relatively quickly revealed all she knew about the murders, according to investigators.

Kim Williams allegedly told the investigators that she drove the getaway car in the Hasse killing, and that she went along for the ride in the McLellands' murders. She allegedly sat in the car while her husband shot McLelland's wife once and  him about 20 times. She also allegedly helped plan the murders.

On April 18, Sheriff Byrnes held a press release, announcing to a much-relieved public that the crime wave was over. Flanked by local, state and federal law enforcement officials, he faced a bevy of cameras and reporters from all over East Texas and Dallas-Fort Worth.

When Byrnes was asked to assess the motive for the killings, the sheriff hesitated for a moment. "I don't know that I can assess the motive," Byrnes said. "It's kind of mind boggling to me that anyone could go out and shoot three innocent people."

Eric Williams, 46, who once was a reserve officer for the sheriff, and his wife, Kim, also 46, now sit in the Kaufman County Detention Center, being held on bonds of $23 million and $10 million each respectively. It is unlikely they will ever enjoy freedom again, and prosecutors are expected to seek the death penalty. A public defender has been appointed to manage Eric Williams' defense, and the appointment of an attorney for his wife is pending. A change of venue hearing for the trial is also anticipated if one should occur, rather than guilty pleas.

Although law enforcement officials say they always had Williams on their "radar" and everyone whispered about him being questioned, it apparently still came as a something of a surprise for most people that the need for revenge could burn so intensely in the hearts and minds of what seemed like an unlikely murderous duo.

Monday, April 1, 2013

LGBT leaders share candid stories about their successes

One of the more interesting aspects of the book “Out & Equal at Work: From Closet to Corner Office” for me turned out to be that I would learn the coming out stories of several people I know professionally.

For instance take Louise Young, whom I’ve known for decades in Dallas through her involvement in LGBT political and community activism since the late 1970s. I’ve interviewed Young and her longtime and only partner Vivienne Armstrong many times over the years, but I really never knew anything much about their personal histories.

It was surprising to learn that Young, who always seemed to have it all together professionally, experienced her own problems with anti-LGBT discrimination early in her career. It had always been her goal to graduate from and teach at East Central State College Campus in Ada, OK, but after a brief stint on the faculty staff the university informed her during a sabbatical in Colorado where she finished her dissertation that she should not return.

The college administration told Young the college enrollment did not support her continued employment, but the real story turned out to be that a student had observed Young and Armstrong, who had been enrolled in the college’s four-year nursing program, in an Oklahoma City gay bar. One might wonder why the student was in the bar, but regardless it ended Young’s career at the college.

Not long afterwards, Armstrong experienced discrimination herself when a former employer refused to allow her to be reinstated for a job because they learned she was in a lesbian relationship with Young. To put it mildly, the love Young and Armstrong felt for each other caused them serious career problems in the mid-1970s, but they stayed together.

At about that point, the couple moved to Dallas, and their experiences prompted them to get involved in the LGBT rights movement.  It was a pivotal moment for them and for Dallas’ LGBT community, which has become a vibrant force in LGBT activism in the nearly 40 years that have now passed.

Young and Armstrong publicly advocated for equal rights for LGBT people and often found themselves the subject of media reporters. This time though, Young’s employer, Texas Instruments, embraced the cause with her. In 1993, Young and another gay employee formed an employee resource group for LGBT people. 

When Raytheon bought out the defense sector of Texas Instruments where Young worked, the company added a nondiscrimination policy covering sexual orientation. In 2002 it added domestic partner benefits.

In 2008, the college that forty years earlier had shunned Young, contacted her and asked to meet with the couple for making a donation to the school. Young related her story to the official, but she decided to “bury the hatchet.” They decided to form the “Louise Young Diversity Lecture Series,” and her first speech was ”Homosexuality: Why Talk About It?”

Young’s story is inspiring, and it is comforting to know that others who went on to achieve so much went through some of the same trials as the rest of us. All of the personal stories in the book come from people  who excelled in their fields and helped make like better for the whole LGBT community.

 As a retired journalist, there is not much I can do to change the direction of my career to greater success, but it makes me realize what I do to today on my blog writing about LGBT issues is useful and can help younger LGBT people. Just spreading the word about this book so younger people can take advantage of what they can learn from the 40 chapters of it is a useful endeavor.

And I’m sure there are ways that other older LGBT people can contribute to the advancement of the LGBT culture. It’s never too late to get involved.