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.

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