Smiling Assassin: The Kaufman County DA Murders

It’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking of the criminal justice system as a conglomerate being, a monolithic entity, a machine chewing up lives and spitting out justice. We have a visceral reaction to the idea of an impersonal system controlling our lives. Too often, we fail to realize is that just as a machine is made of parts, a system is made of people. Judges, police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, court clerks, jailers, bondsmen, are all just people. They are good people, bad people, parents with grown children and single millennials, they have dogs or maybe cats. You get the point. The system is just made up of people. People like me and people like Mark Hasse.

 

Mark Hasse
Mark Hasse

Mark Hasse dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice. He graduate from SMU Law School in 1981 and went straight to work for the Dallas District Attorney’s Office. Mark made a name for himself by taking on the toughest cases, specializing in organized crime. He left to go into private practice, working as a defense attorney but also moving into the areas of family law and aviation law. That last might seem like an odd fit, but Mark had a commercial pilot’s license. He loved flying and he loved planes. That love almost stole his life when he was critically injured in a 1995 plane crash. He also loved rescuing dogs. You might say Mark was married to the job. At least, there was never a spouse or kids in the picture, but he did have a large, loving family and he had nieces and nephews to spoil.

I doubt that was on his mind when he drove to work on January 31, 2013.

courthouse
Kaufman County Courthouse

 

Criminal law had always held Mark’s heart. In 2010, he went back to work as a prosecutor, this time in Kaufman County. He moved there to work with newly elected District Attorney Mike McLelland as his Chief Felony Prosecutor. Kaufman County sits just east of Dallas. It’s mostly white and rural, and like so many similar places, the scourge of meth had sunk its teeth in deep. In recent years, Kaufman County experienced rapid growth as a bedroom community due to its proximity to Dallas, bringing with it big city problems. The meth trade in Texas is largely controlled by white supremacy gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood and Aryan Circle. With Mark’s experience prosecuting organized crime, he was a natural fit for aggressively pursuing those groups and soon developed a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense guy, the kind of prosecutor the skinheads didn’t want to mess with.

I doubt his reputation was on his mind when he parked behind the Kaufman County Courthouse just after 9:00 am.

He was probably thinking about that day. He was probably thinking about dockets, and witness meetings, and evidence exchanges. He was probably so focused on the minutiae that make up a typical day in the life of a prosecutor that he didn’t notice the man with the gun until he was right there on top of him. According to witnesses Lenda Bush and Kelley Blaine, Mark was walking, briefcase in hand, towards the courthouse when a masked man dressed all in black ran up to him brandishing a gun. The man shoved Mark who reflexively shoved back. The man pressed the gun to his neck. Mark raised both hands and pleaded for his life as the man shot him eight times, then jumped into the passenger side of a waiting car that sped away. Lenda Bush, a former police officer turned lawyer, gave chase to the vehicle. She was so shocked that she had difficulty dialing 911 and trying to follow the car which ultimately got away. There was no license plate on the car. She returned to the scene and gave Mark CPR until the ambulance arrived. He wouldn’t survive the trip to the hospital.

Hasse Crime Scene 2.png
DPS troopers walking past evidence markers on Grove Street, Photo credit: Associated Press, Dallas Morning News, David Woo

It was a hit in broad daylight just feet away from the courthouse.

Shock waves radiated through-out the criminal justice community. I heard about it within hours. My husband saw the murder on the news and called to tell me someone was assassinating District Attorneys. A sheriff’s deputy walked me to my car that day.

Within a week, there was a safety meeting at my office. We were advised to vary our times for arriving and leaving. Some people carried mace or alarm whistles. We walked in groups and had investigators escorting us. Everyone was sure that the ABT ( Aryan Brotherhood Texas) had finally gotten Mark. Who else would commit such a brazen hit? Which of us would be next?

As Mark was laid to rest and his family created a memorial fund for the children of Kaufman County, a massive manhunt was underway. FBI, the Texas Rangers, the Department of Public Safety, and the local sheriff’s department were all called in.

District Attorney Mike McLelland came out to give a press conference. He spoke to reporters with tears in his eyes. “I hope the people who did this are watching, because we are very confident that we are going to find you. We’re going to pull you out of whatever hole you’re in. We’re going to bring you back and let the people of Kaufman County prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”

While everyone else was concerned with investigating the ABT, the local sheriff had another suspect in mind. He immediately went to interview a disgraced former Justice of the Peace, Eric Williams.

In 2012, Mark Hasse had prosecuted Williams for stealing computer equipment after he was caught on surveillance video taking the items. The incident cost Williams his political career and his legal one after his law license was suspended. Williams had been extremely angry and publically blamed Mark Hasse and Mike McLelland of a “political assassination.” He blamed them for ruining his life.

Williams answered the door with his arm in a sling and told Sheriff Byrnes that he’d recently had shoulder surgery. He had an alibi in his wife and, although suspicious, Byrnes had nothing else to tie Williams to the crime.

At the beginning of March, a member of the 211 Crew, a prison gang, shot and killed the director of the Colorado Bureau of Prison. It was a bold crime. He simply knocked on the front door and executed the man when he answered. The killer would die in a hail of bullets on the highway.

Our security measures at work tightened. They were coming for us. Everyone scrambled to hide our home addresses. We had frequent emails on how to keep safe. I know I looked over my shoulder when going to my car every night. There are reports that a Kaufman County judge had taken to wearing a bullet proof vest. McLelland went armed. It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you.

Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia both had degrees in psychology. Cynthia told a friend that both were extremely concerned about Williams. They believed he was the type not to take humiliation well. Williams had been offered a plea to a misdemeanor for the thefts but he refused, confident he could represent himself and win. He was utterly humiliated by the felony conviction, even though he wasn’t sentenced to any jail time. Cynthia and Mark were both sure he was plotting some sort of revenge, even though he smiled to their faces. They had been worried even before the attacks started.

March 30, 2014, Cynthia answered a knock at the door.  She would never have opened the door to Williams, but at seeing the policeman with a  SWAT helmet on, she opened the door. Security had become a daily occurrence. But this was no police officer. Cynthia and Mike were shot repeatedly in extreme overkill. The first officer on the scene testified there was blood everywhere.

Crime scene_ lubbock

Once again media descended on Kaufman County. Williams didn’t shy away from the attention. He rode out on his Segway to give interviews. He told Jack Douglas of CBS-KTVT

“My heart goes out to all the families that have been affected by this tragedy. And especially to the people that work at the court house. I worked there for several years while I was going to law school and so I know that it’s a tight-knit family – that this is devastating to them,”

All of this was said with his trademark smirk. He might not have been smiling if he’d known police were narrowing in on him. They knew he had lied about the shoulder surgery. He’d also made a serious miscalculation.

 

Segway
Photo credit: CBS, KTVT

 

The day after the McLelland’s were murdered, a man sent an email to Crime Stoppers. The message began “Do we have your attention now?” The email went on to say that unless certain judges resigned, the killings would continue. The caller knew specific information about the crimes, including the type of ammunition used.

They had surveillance video of a white Crown Victoria driving through the neighborhood at the time of the crime. What they needed were direct links. They went to see Williams and were surprised when he invited them in. He was arrogant enough to let them see his guns and sights. The information they gained that day allowed them to obtain a search warrant.

They found the title to a white Crown Victoria, guns, and numbers written down by the phone. Those were the ID numbers assigned to the Crime Stoppers emailer. That is how anonymous call-ins work. Computer forensics would show that immediately after his conviction, Williams began stalking Mark Hasse. He was also the mysterious emailer.

Once the dominoes began falling, they didn’t stop. A friend of Eric Williams called in a tip about a storage facility. Williams had asked the friend to rent the facility for him, but didn’t want it in his name. They quickly obtained a search warrant for the storage facility and when them lifted the door to the unit, there was the white Crown Victoria. There was also enough guns, body armor, and crossbows to outfit a swat unit.

 

Storage search
FBI search of Williams’ storage facility, photo credit: Target Justice: 48 hours, CBS

 

 

weapons stockpile
Evidence, including the weapons stockpile, as shown in court, photo credit: Target Justice: 48 hours, CBS

 

Williams was arrested and with him, his accomplice, the woman who had driven him the get-away car when he gunned down Mark Hasse and again for the McLellands,  his wife, Kim Williams.

couple

Kim Williams would be the star witness against her husband. She testified that she was addicted to pain killers and was under her husband’s influence, but that she was a willing participant. “His anger was my anger.” She believed everything he told her.

Although she was testifying without a plea agreement, Kim was hoping for mercy in her sentence. She testified about the planning and execution of the crimes in chilling detail. She told the courtroom that her husband had always talked about killing people who he felt were conspiring against him. When he was going to trial, he warned her that they would tell lies about him. In particular, he told her they would put up a woman named Janice Gray, a former court coordinator he had dated before Kim. Gray might be going to testify that he had threatened to kill her when they broke up, but he assured Kim it was a lie. She says she believed him. He also was extremely angry with Judge Glen Ashworth whom he blamed for leading prosecutors to Janice Gray.

Williams had a hit list. His first target was intended to be Judge Ashworth. According to Kim Williams, her husband has started making napalm and storing it in pickle jars. He also bought a crossbow. These items were among those recovered from the storage facility. The plan was to go to Ashworth’s house following the Super Bowl. Ashworth lived just down the street, so it would be easy to go in and shoot him with the crossbow. Williams was then going to gore out his stomach and fill it with the napalm.

But Williams switched gears abruptly. He decided to kill Hasse first. He wanted to make a statement and gun Mark Hasse down outside the courthouse in view of everyone. Kim testified they were both very excited that morning. Williams dressed all in black with a ghoul mask.

She detailed the crimes, describing all the while how excited and happy Williams was. He was living his fantasy. He had decided to impersonate a police officer when they went to the McLellands’ and modeled the outfit for her like he was walking a runway. She sat outside as it sounded like the shooting went on forever. When he ran back out to the car, he told her he had to shoot Cynthia and additional time because she was moaning. He couldn’t leave a living witness, so he shot her in the top of the head. They celebrated that night with steaks on the grill and Williams made ready for the next people on his list, Judge Ashworth and County Court at Law Judge Erleigh Wiley, another person Williams believed had wronged him.

Rather than get involved in arguing whether Williams was justified in being angry about his prosecution, the special prosecutors tried him on the case involving the most innocent victim, Cynthia McLelland. Her only crime was being married to Mike. She was a beloved mother, grandmother, and a respected psychiatric nurse.

McLelland

The jury only took an hour and forty minutes to convict Williams of killing Cynthia. He was sentenced to death. Kim Williams later pled guilty and was sentenced to 40 years.

Perhaps the only thing more shocking to those of us who make up “the system” than the murder of  own was the identity of the murderer. He was also one of our own.  It’s true in investigating murders that the killer is usually someone the victim knows. It’s always the spouse, the roommate, the ex-boyfriend. We fear the stranger when we should instead be looking closer to the smiling assassin next to us.

 

Eric-Williams-112014
Photo credit: Dallas Morning news

 

Source Notes: I relied on the following sources. I highly recommend the CBS 48 hours and the Kaufman Herald which were my two primary sources.

http://www.kaufmanherald.com/hot_news/article_6bdeebda-8600-11e4-96dd-9725c54eff63.html
https://www.cbsnews.com/news/target-justice-48-hours-probes-texas-prosecutor-killings-hasse-mclelland/

While researching this case, I discovered true crime author Katherine Casey has book about these murders coming out in March. I’m excited to read it.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaufman_County_murders
Kaufman County Murder Trial: Day 3 Updates
http://www.ktre.com/story/27520981/day-one-of-kaufman-da-murder-trial-concludes
https://www.cbsnews.com/news/woman-to-plead-guilty-in-connection-with-2013-kaufman-murders/
Kim Williams Testifies In Kaufman Trial
http://www.kaufmanherald.com/hot_news/article_6bdeebda-8600-11e4-96dd-9725c54eff63.html
http://www.kaufmanherald.com/around_town/article_9e2e02b0-bfdc-11e7-8f38-c30f7ae031ce.html
https://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/Closing-Arguments-Set-in-Ex-Officials-Capital-Murder-Trial-285933291.html
https://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/Eric-Williams-Sister-Speaks-out-About-Kim-Williams-Murder-Sentence-287065121.html

 

 

 

One Angry Man: The Tarrant County Courthouse Shooting

courthouse lighting

It doesn’t look like a crime scene. The old Tarrant County Courthouse stands guard over the Trinity River, marking the visual divide between historic old North Main, home to some of the best Tex-Mex you’ll ever eat, and South Main Street’s maze of government buildings that cozy up to Sundance Square with its newer, chic eateries and shopping. Built in 1895, the pink granite Grande Dame of the downtown scene was designed to resemble the Capitol Building in Austin with rotundas and a large dome. As newer courthouses were built to house criminal, civil and family courts, the plan was to demolish the old building and connect North and South Main. Fortunately, the old building was saved that fate. The clock tower on the dome still marks the hours. Now days, courts have all moved into the newer buildings, with the exception of one Justice of the Peace court. Instead the building houses the county clerk’s office, land records, and a county law library. But in 1992, it was still home to the 2nd Court of Appeals.

Chris Marshall, 41 was Chief of the Appellate Section of the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office and he was there on July 1, 1992 to present a case later that morning. With Chris was a young appellate attorney, Steve Conder, 27.

A three judge panel was on the bench: Clyde Ashworth, John Hill, and David Farris. Dan Hollified, a criminal defense attorney stood at the podium, arguing a case before the panel.  Outside, on a window behind the judge’s bench, Tim McGinty, 41, a contract painter was perched on a hanging ladder.

John Edwards, 32, a civil trial attorney, entered the staircase around 10:00 am that morning. He was due in the court for a later case.

About that same time, Toby Goodman, a lawyer and state representative left the appellate courtroom. He went down the stairs and into the hallway.

Also present in the court room was another lawyer named George Lott who  sat in a conservative blue suit with his briefcase at his feet. At the time, Lott was no longer a practicing attorney, although no one in the room realized it. There were several who thought he looked familiar, but that’s the way it is in the legal community. You see the same faces over and over, some friends, many nodding acquaintances. The legal community in Tarrant County is relatively small for a county of more than a million people. The pool of litigators is even smaller, but cordial.

courthouse interior

Lott had been at the courthouse just the day before and the only person surprised to see him was the attorney who had represented Lott’s wife in their divorce, Douglas Wright.
As divorces went, Lott’s was exceptionally messy and difficult. Lott’s wife was also an attorney and was fearful of him. His anger and disdain for her, for the entire proceeding bled over into an enmity for her attorney. Wright’s father had been a judge and Lott made derogatory comments about him during the custody trial until Wright objected and Lott was ordered by judge Mary Ellen Hicks to refrain from discussing Wright’s father in front of the jury.

Lott represented himself. He had to because all three of his prior attorneys had resigned, unable to work with him. The jury awarded custody of the child to his mother. Lott was convinced of wrongdoing and collusion on the part of the judge, Wright and his ex-wife. More likely the jury was alarmed by his obvious anger and instability. In typical narcissist fashion, Lott blamed everyone else for this. The problem couldn’t be with him. Clearly, the judge was against him. There was a conspiracy and everyone was in on it. He was robbed of his “right” to his son.

Money wasn’t an object for Lott. He had inherited half a million dollars from his grandparents. He only practiced law from 1981 to 1988 where he voluntarily quit his practice and moved from Fort Worth to an Arlington apartment complex near I-20. It’s unclear what he did with his time. He owned a boat and was seen fishing or just walking around. He listed his occupation as “computer programmer” but does not seem to have been working for anyone.

Lott’s ex-wife moved to Illinois with their son. Lott traveled back and forth to visit the child until new allegations surfaced. The son, whose name I’ve chosen not to use here although it is in public documents, made an outcry of sexual abuse. The allegations– which included sodomizing the child with objects–were investigated. In another trial, Lott lost his visitation rights due to the abuse. An Illinois grand jury indicted him for Aggravated Sexual Assault of a child. That criminal trial was set for July 20 1992.

The week before the Tarrant County attack, Lott sent a threatening letter to prosecutors in Illinois and called the court clerk to complain that evidence was being withheld in his case. He called Bob Ray Sanders, a radio host at KLIF-AM and spoke for about 4 minutes. He rambled on about the courts and how they were all against him and how you couldn’t get justice in Tarrant County. He said “they cost me my life.”

He was a stranger to his neighbors. One neighbor, when interviewed about Lott said, “I’ve seen this guy hundreds of times, and he’s never said a word… He was really, really a strange guy. He was like a zombie. No one around here will have any buddy-buddy stories about him.”

courthouse lit

It was after the clock tower chimed 10:00 on July 1, 1992,  when Lott got to his feet and removed his Glock 17 9mm from his briefcase and began shooting. Judge Farris dove under the judges bench. Judges Ashworth and Hill were both shot. Ashworth was seriously wounded.

Dan Hollifield fell to the floor and crawled away. Later he said it was “just astounding to look around a see a man standing with his arm out, holding a gun.”

Chris Marshall was fatally wounded with several shots to the chest and Conder was injured. Lott emptied his gun, then he calmly reloaded and continued shooting.

McGinty, the contractor had just climbed down from his ladder perch for a break when bullets zinged through the window right where he had been. If he hadn’t grown thirsty on that hot July day, he would likely have been a sixth victim.

All over the courthouse, the shots echoed. One survivor later remarked that it sounded like fireworks going off inside the building. Next door to the Court of Appeals, Judge Weaver hid in his office restroom. A briefing clerk hid in his closet. Bookkeepers locked their doors. Some hid under desks.

Courthouse inside

Lott calmly finished shooting. Was he satisfied he had done enough damage to make his point? He went down the stairs where he encountered John Edwards, an attorney  for the prestigious firm Haynes and Boones where he specialized in corporate litigation. John had a wife and daughters.

Julie Level, an elections office employee heard John begging for his life and yelling for help. Without speaking, Lott executed John there in the stairwell.  He ran down the hall, past Toby Goodman, the attorney who had just finished his court business.

Lott exited the building, got in his van and drove around for a bit. Meanwhile, police swarmed the building. A massive manhunt was underway involving local police, the sheriff’s department, the FBI with helicopters and every means available, but it was unnecessary. Lott wanted to be known for his actions. He was making a statement.

At 4:15 pm, Lott walked into the lobby of WFAA,-TV in Dallas. He signed in with his own name and asked to speak with Tracy Rowlett. For years, Rowlett had been the face of the channel eight evening news.  There was always something warm, but professional about Rowlett that made him extremely popular.

Rowlett and an assignments manager interviewed Lott on camera for around thirty minutes. Lott calmly explained what he had done. In his mind, the Second Court of Appeals was wrong to deny him a new trial on his custody case.

“It’s a horrible, horrible thing I did today,” Lott said. “I have sinned and am certainly wrong, but someone needs to look into what happened to me…I basically went in the courtroom and sat for a while and then got up and shot apparently five people…I was shooting at the court, essentially, but other people got in the way or did things. You have to do a horrible, horrible thing to catch people’s attention.”

Lott was a classic narcissist. This was all about him. People just “got in the way.” It didn’t matter that he was destroying lives. Little girls would grow up without their father. Survivors would forever feel vulnerable. Lott had a point to make and that was all that mattered.

“He feels terribly wronged by the justice system,” Jim Owens a prosecutor from Illinois told the Dallas Observer. ”What happened today didn’t surprise any of us. In fact, I think it could have just as easily happened here.”

Lott explained to Rowlett that he had a  gun behind his back and more ammo in his sock. He calmly gave those items to Rowlett and surrendered to Dallas police.

Lot arrest

Tarrant County had 32 walk-through metal detectors, but they were all in storage. Spurred by courthouse violence that had occurred around the nation, the County Commissioners purchased the items, but never installed them because none of the courts specifically asked for them. One judge claimed she had been told that the personnel necessary to operate those detectors would be too expensive. There were armed bailiffs in the building, but not specifically in each courtroom. The bailiff closest to the attack never responded.

Courtrooms are safer now. You can’t get in without a thorough screening. Each courtroom has multiple armed bailiffs. There are panic buttons strategically placed around each courtroom. Court house staff regularly goes through “active shooter” training. None of those address the elephant in the room: how much damage can be done by one angry man with a gun.

George Lott represented himself at trial. He was quickly convicted and sentenced to death. He refused to appeal his sentence and was put to death eighteen months later in what remains the speediest execution in modern Texas history.

Lott book in

Mass killings aren’t new.

In 1966, Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother with a knife, then he went to the University of Texas and climbed the tower with a rifle. His rampage ended with sixteen dead and thirty-one injured.

Going back even farther, in 1949 Howard Unruh went through Camden, New Jersey in what would come to be known as the “Walk of Death.” Unruh walked through his neighborhood shooting everyone he saw. He murdered thirteen people that day including two children. His youngest victim was just two-years old.

Unruh is the first known mass gun crime in U.S. history, but before Unruh, there was Andrew Kehoe. Kehoe was a treasurer on the school board in Bath, Michigan. He was angry over taxes so May 18th, 1927, Kehoe rigged his farm and out-buildings to explode with his wife inside. He also rigged the school house. He parked outside and detonated the building killing most within, including the children. He then climbed back into his truck and blew up himself killing another six people who were in the blast radius. He killed 45 people and injured another 58.

Although the mass killings aren’t new, they seem to be occurring with greater frequency and with alarmingly large numbers. Gun violence has actually become rarer, but deadlier. While individual gun crimes are growing fewer, mass murder is on the rise.

Gun control sounds like a sensible solution, except how and where do you draw the lines and how do you put back the genie into the bottle? I grew up in rural Texas in a house where guns were a fact of life. My father was in law enforcement and always had guns. My husband and eldest son own guns. Everyone where I live hunts or has guns for protection. Coyotes are a real concern. A neighbor’s game camera recently showed a mountain lion.

Guns are everywhere. I’ve seen estimates ranging between three and four hundred million guns which are privately owned in America. How can we ban something that is everywhere? Every drug case I handle with large amounts of drugs? There are guns in those cars and most of the guns are stolen or already illegal. The bad guys will have guns. The Texas church shooter shouldn’t have been allowed to have a gun. He was already banned but all it took was someone not following through with paperwork and there he was, one angry man with a gun.

I don’t have an answer, but I join the voices of those frustrated by the violence.

Something has to change.