KAUFMAN, Texas — The fatal shooting of a North Texas district attorney and his wife Saturday, just two months after an assistant district attorney was shot to death near the local courthouse, could make it hard to recruit 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 increasing security for courthouses and prosecutors. The district attorney for Harris County, which includes Houston, and his family were being trailed by a 24-hour security team at the suggestion of the sheriff.
“Until we know exactly what happened in Kaufman County, we’ll remain cautious,” spokeswoman Sara Marie Kinney said.
Kaufman County District Attorney Michael McClelland, 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 District Attorney. Mark Hasse, 57, who was shot as he headed to work at the county courthouse Jan. 31.
“This looks like an attack on the criminal justice system and the rule of law,” said Scott Burns, director of the National District Attorneys Association. “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 in the line of duty in the past century, Burns said.
Glenn McGovern, a senior investigator at the Santa Clara County, Calif., district attorney’s office, 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 to previous decades.
“Revenge is the predominant motive,” McGovern said of attempted attacks, “followed by efforts to derail a case.”
The McLellands’ deaths came less than two weeks after Colorado’s prison chief was shot to death at his front door, allegedly by an ex-convict who fled to North Texas where he died in a gunfight with law enforcement. Colorado officials are investigating whether the cases could be connected.
When Kaufman County dheriff’s investigators went to the McLellands’ suburban brick home Saturday, they found cartridge casings inside near the two bodies, which both had multiple gunshot wounds, according to the affidavit. The 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.
Hasse was shot the same 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 between the murders.
The first shooting appears to have been well planned and more professionally executed, while the second was faster and possibly less organized said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the investigation.
Authorities said that they are 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 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 local 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’s 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,” he said, “that would put anyone in harm’s way.”
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.