May-June 2015

Answering the call

Bill Wirskye

Special Prosecutor in Dallas

How special prosecutors in Dallas tried a disgruntled JP for the revenge killings of two Kaufman County prosecutors and an innocent bystander.

On Thursday morning, January 31, 2013, I was in my office in Dallas when my cell phone rang. I saw that the call was from Sue Korioth, the chief appellate lawyer in the Kaufman County Criminal District Attorney’s Office. When I answered the phone, I assumed she was calling about the case I had tried in Kaufman the week before, but I was wrong. “Bill,” she told me, “Mark’s been shot outside the courthouse.” I could tell by her tone of voice that this was not a joke. Mark Hasse was also an assistant DA in Kaufman, and Sue and he were close friends. They both were former Dallas County prosecutors who now prosecuted in Kaufman. As we continued to talk and the shock of the news wore off, my prosecutorial instincts kicked in: “You guys will most likely need a special prosecutor on this case. Let me know if I can help.”

Mark Hasse’s ­murder
On the morning of his murder, at about 8:40 a.m., Mark Hasse parked in his usual spot and began the short walk to the Kaufman County Courthouse where he had a 9 o’clock docket. He was approached by a masked man dressed in black. After a short exchange of words and a scuffle, the masked assailant produced a handgun and fatally shot Mark numerous times before fleeing the scene in a waiting car. Although Mark had a pistol with him, he was unable to use it to defend himself. Law enforcement had little to work with other than a description of the getaway car. The story of Mark’s murder dominated both local and national media.
    The Friday before his murder, while I was waiting on a jury verdict in Kaufman, I’d had a long conversation with Mark. We shared a bond. Like Mark, I was a former Dallas County prosecutor. As the jury deliberated, Mark spoke with me about his family and his plans for retirement. He also told me war stories about prosecuting in Dallas County in the 1980s. He loved prosecuting, and I understood the sentiment. The jury I was waiting on was out on a murder case in which I had been appointed special prosecutor. Even though I enjoyed practicing criminal defense, I still loved prosecuting. Toby Shook, my law partner at the time and also a former Dallas County prosecutor, felt the same way. My conversation with Mark broke up when the bailiff told us that the jury had reached a verdict. As the jury returned to the courtroom, both Mark and his boss, DA Mike McLelland, were present. They both warmly congratulated me on the guilty verdict. As I left the Kaufman courthouse that week, I shook Mark’s hand and told him I’d see him around soon.
    In the days following Mark’s murder, I wondered if his death was related to his work as a prosecutor. Like most attorneys who have been prosecutors, I knew the work could be dangerous. That thought was always there in the back of my mind. I took precautions when I prosecuted in Dallas but the threat never quite seemed real or urgent. Now it did. Prosecutors across the state and around the nation were taking new security precautions. The dangerous nature of prosecutorial work now was at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
    A week later, Sue called again, and Toby and I answered. “Mike has decided that we’re going to need special prosecutors on Mark’s murder. Can you guys do it?” On February 7, 2013, Toby and I were sworn in as Kaufman County district attorneys pro tem charged with investigating and prosecuting the murder of Mark Hasse. A massive local, state, and federal law enforcement effort was underway in Kaufman following Mark’s murder. A command post was set up in an old National Guard armory. Numerous tips came in to the investigation, but the case slowly went cold.
    One person of interest from the outset was Eric Williams. Williams lived in Kaufman with his wife, Kim. Williams was a lawyer and former Kaufman County Justice of the Peace who had been successfully prosecuted for theft by both Mark and Mike in March 2012. After his conviction and probated sentence, Williams’s life fell apart. People in Kaufman saw less and less of him around town.
    Officers interviewed Williams within hours of Mark’s murder, but he denied any involvement. He submitted to a gunshot residue test, which came back negative. Despite the possible motive, there was no evidence linking him to the crime.
    As February and March passed by, life was slowly returning to normal in Kaufman County. Not much was happening within the investigation. The command post was closed and the remaining investigators moved into a conference room at the sheriff’s office. I gave regular updates to Mike, but I had little of substance to report. Tips had stopped coming in, and the phone wasn’t ringing. People began to whisper that Mark’s murder may never be solved.

The McLelland murders
Mike and Cynthia McLelland lived in a nice home in Kaufman County right outside the city limits of Forney. At about 6:40 a.m. on Saturday, March 30, 2013, about two months after Mark’s murder, someone entered their home and shot down Mike and Cynthia in a blizzard of .223 caliber bullets. The murderer was in and out of the McLelland home in less than two minutes. Friends found the McLellands’ bullet-riddled bodies about 12 hours later, and they summoned Kaufman County Sheriff David Byrnes.
    Late that Saturday evening, my cell phone rang. I answered the call and instantly heard the fear in the voice of the Kaufman police chief. “Bill, the DA and his wife have been found murdered in their home. The sheriff needs you and Toby out there at the crime scene as soon as possible. We don’t know if it’s related to Mark’s murder.”  
    As Toby and I drove to the crime scene, we each struggled to process the news. First Mark had been murdered and now Mike and Cynthia. Our thoughts turned to the safety of the other members of the office. We had no idea whether anyone else had been murdered that day. We both were on our cell phones, frantically talking to prosecutors and investigators from the Kaufman County DA’s office. As we approached the McLelland home and ended our phone calls, an awkward silence fell between us. While parking outside the crime scene tape, we looked at each other and said almost simultaneously, “It must be that JP.”
    Toby and I looked for Sheriff Byrnes. We found him talking with Major Dewayne Dockery of the Texas Rangers. Byrnes looked ashen. “In my 40 years of law enforcement, I’ve never seen anything like this,” he told us. It was virtually unprecedented to have one prosecutor murdered, but now we had two prosecutors from the same office murdered within two months. We all agreed we were dealing with a criminal who had crossed a line that few had ever approached—the murder of two prosecutors and one of their family members.
    As we waited for the crime scene to be processed, we discussed Eric Williams. Sheriff Byrnes had already dispatched his deputies to locate him. Those deputies found Williams and his wife that night as they returned to Kaufman from a Saturday evening drive to the Lake Tawakoni area. Williams again denied involvement. He was now not only a person of interest but he was a common denominator—he was the one and only defendant that Mark and Mike had prosecuted together.
    As dawn broke on Easter Sunday, law enforcement officers from around the area once again flooded into Kaufman County to help solve the three murders. The command post was reopened, and tips and calls once again began to pour in. The Kaufman County Sheriff’s Office, Company B of the Texas Rangers, and the Dallas Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation took the lead. Every member of the Kaufman County DA’s Office was placed under armed guard. By Monday, the Kaufman County courthouse square resembled an armed encampment. All DA employees were being escorted by heavily armed officers. Despite the loss of their boss and colleague, and in the face of threats to their own safety, the prosecutors, investigators, and staff of the Kaufman DA’s Office carried on. They made court appearances and ensured that the criminal justice system in Kaufman County continued to function. On April 10, 2013, Governor Perry appointed Judge Erleigh Wiley to take Mike’s place as District Attorney of Kaufman County. Toby and I marveled at her courage as she stepped up to take the reins in a difficult and dangerous time. The courage and determination of Erleigh and her staff inspired prosecutors everywhere.
    The media also descended on Kaufman County. News stories focused on the potential of the Aryan Brotherhood or the Mexican drug cartels being behind the murders. While officers continued to investigate all potential suspects and follow up on any tip that came in, their attention increasingly focused on Eric Williams. Among the many tips to the command post was an anonymous email threat to murder other Kaufman County public officials unless certain Kaufman judges resigned from office. This tip stood out because it contained very specific facts regarding Mark’s murder, facts that were probably known only to the real murderer. It seemed as if the suspect was taunting the investigation.

The arrest of Eric and Kim Williams
On April 11, 2013, Kaufman County Chief Deputy Rodney Evans and Major Dockery conducted a consensual interview with Eric Williams. During the interview, Williams made several suspicious statements. Investigators also determined that Williams had conducted Internet searches on Mark and Mike. Based on this information, a search warrant was obtained for the Williams house. On Friday, April 12, investigators executed the search warrant. The media quickly caught wind of the search, and it was carried live on local and national TV. The search revealed that Eric Williams was the source of the anonymous email threat, and he was arrested for the terroristic threat. Investigators felt Williams was involved in the murders, but there was not enough evidence to charge him—yet.
    The day after the search warrant was executed, a friend of Eric Williams who had seen the search on TV called in to report the location of a storage unit in Seagoville, Texas. The friend had rented the unit for Williams. Another search warrant was obtained, and the search of the storage unit revealed numerous weapons and the car used in Mike’s murder. Investigators now knew they had their man.
    Several days later, during a consensual interview with the FBI, Kim Williams broke down and reluctantly admitted to investigators that her husband was the murderer and that she was the getaway-car driver in both crimes. She also insisted that no one else was involved in the murders. She confirmed what investigators suspected—that Mark and Mike were killed because they prosecuted Eric Williams in March 2012. Based on her statement and the evidence collected so far, both Eric and Kim Williams were charged with capital murder in the deaths of Mark Hasse and Mike and Cynthia McLelland. The regional public defender for capital cases was appointed to represent Eric Williams. Two Dallas criminal defense lawyers, Paul Johnson and Lalon Peale, were appointed to represent Kim Williams.
    Investigators focused on collecting additional evidence and corroborating Kim’s statement. They were able to locate the car used in Mark’s murder; it had been towed from the Seagoville storage unit in the days following the murder. They became increasingly convinced that no other suspects were involved in the murders. The case against Eric and Kim Williams was growing stronger with each passing day.

Grand jury
In early May 2013, Toby and I began presenting the case to a Kaufman County grand jury. We also began to draft the indictments. Although we were confident in our case, we wanted to ensure that we had two “clean indictments” (not jeopardy-barred) to proceed on if something unexpected happened in the first trial—like a rogue juror. This case was just too important. We would try Eric Williams twice if necessary.
    On June 27, 2013, the grand jury returned indictments against Eric and Kim Williams for three charges of capital murder apiece. The indictments were identical against each defendant and alleged capital murder of Mark Hasse in the course of committing retaliation; capital murders of Mike and Cynthia McLelland in the course of burglary and as a multiple murder; and capital murder alleging the murder of Mark and Mike during different criminal transactions but pursuant to the same scheme and course of conduct.
    Judge Michael Chitty of the 422nd District Court of Kaufman recused himself from the cases because he had presided over Eric Williams’s first trial and would likely be a witness. Judge Mike Snipes of Dallas County Criminal District Court No. 7 was appointed to preside. Judge Snipes required us very early on to designate the indictment on which we would proceed. At the time, we had more evidence in the McLelland case so we chose to proceed on that indictment. We still had the Hasse capital murder indictment in our hip pocket in case something went wrong. In a surprise to no one, in late July 2013, we filed notice of the State’s intention to seek the death penalty.

Kim Williams
Two pieces of the puzzle that remained missing were the murder weapons. Despite the best efforts of investigators, neither weapon could be located. Although our case was strong, as prosecutors, we still wanted to have the murder weapons. In her interview with the FBI, Kim Williams acknowledged that she and her husband had traveled to Lake Tawakoni the night of the McLelland murders. We wanted to follow up on this with her, so Toby and I entered into discussions with her lawyers. We made it very clear that we were not offering her a deal but that we would take her truthful cooperation into account once we had tried her husband. In August 2013, her lawyers allowed her to lead law enforcement to a bridge over Lake Tawakoni from which Kim said her husband had thrown something into the lake the night of the McLelland murders. The DPS Dive Team immediately started searching the area. In March 2014, after numerous dives, the dive team recovered two pistols, a black mesh mask, and a mangled cell phone from the bottom of Lake Tawakoni. Ballistic testing soon told us that we had found the revolver used to kill Mark Hasse.
    Kim Williams also told us that Eric Williams was not finished killing. She said her husband had a mental “hit list” of future intended victims. The next two names were Judge Erleigh Wiley and former Kaufman County District Court Judge Glen Ashworth. Significantly, she gave us details about the planned murder of Judge Wiley that we were able to corroborate with physical evidence.
    Our hope was to try the guilt-innocence case without calling Kim Williams as a witness. As with any co-defendant, you can never be sure what a jury might think of them. We knew we might have to call her at punishment as she might be the only way to get the “hit list” of other intended victims in front of the jury.

The massive, multi-agency investigation had generated approximately 25 terabytes of data, most of it digital media evidence. Knowing that discovery and trial preparation would be too big of an undertaking for two solo practitioners, we called the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office. They answered our call for help and generously offered us personnel and resources. ACDA Miles Brissette joined our team to spearhead the discovery process; Criminal Investigator Danny Nutt came aboard to locate punishment evidence; Mark Porter, a certified video analyst, began the painstaking task of analyzing hours of video for trial; and Rona Wedderien began to prepare outstanding trial exhibits.
    We made an early decision to turn over copies of everything in our possession. In addition, so as not to be accused of hiding any potential Brady material in an avalanche of discovery, we provided the defense a spreadsheet with more than 370 names of potential persons of interest. Only through the efforts of the Tarrant County DA’s Office was this Herculean task completed.
    We also called on the Garland DPS Crime Lab to help us comply with Article 38.43 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. This statute requires DNA testing of all biological material collected during the investigation of a capital murder where the State seeks the death penalty, unless the defense agrees otherwise. When the defense did not appear agreeable, we made the decision to be proactive and test everything we had in our possession, regardless of its potential evidentiary value. The Garland DPS Crime Lab tested hundreds of items of evidence (swabs, cigarette butts, etc.) in only 90 days. Their hard work allowed us to proceed to trial in a timely manner.

Change of venue
The Williams defense team filed a motion to change venue in late October 2013. We promptly filed a response stating that a fair trial could be had in Kaufman County, which we deeply believed. However, we decided to avoid any potential appellate issue by agreeing to a change of venue. We were surprised and happy when the defense suggested Rockwall County. In January 2014, Judge Snipes entered an agreed order moving the case to Rockwall. Once again, we called for help, and this time Rockwall County Criminal District Attorney Kenda Culpepper answered. Kenda pledged personnel and logistical support and introduced us to Rockwall County Sheriff Harold Eavenson, who handled a high-profile defendant and a high-profile trial with gracious efficiency. In addition, Kenda personally fielded numerous media inquiries, donated plenty of working space, and made us feel at home. To add even more local knowledge, Rockwall First Assistant Damita Sangermano volunteered to join our growing team.
    As jury selection approached, Toby and I began to call on current or former prosecutors to add to the trial team. Each person answered our call for help without hesitation. We swore in Assistant United States Attorney Jerri Sims and Dallas criminal defense lawyer Tom D’Amore. Both Jerri and Tom were former Dallas County prosecutors who each had tried numerous high-profile death penalty cases. We also asked John Rolater, Chief Appellate Attorney for the Collin County DA’s Office, to assist us. DA Greg Willis graciously donated to the effort. Lisa Smith, Deputy Chief Appellate Attorney for the Dallas County DA’s Office, also joined the team. I also want to mention Erleigh Wiley, Sue Korioth, and the entire Kaufman County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, who helped us in ways too numerous to mention and served as a constant source of inspiration. We know that only through the combined efforts of our extended prosecutorial family could we ever succeed in a trial of this size and importance.

Voir dire
On March 28, 2014, 3,000 potential jurors were summoned on a special capital venire. Each potential juror filled out a lengthy questionnaire. Each member of the prosecutorial team spent his or her summer reading questionnaires. Individual voir dire began in late September. Toby, Tom, and Jerri spent a total of 31 courtroom days in Rockwall selecting the jury. By the second week of November, we finally had 12 jurors in the box and two alternates.

Two important pretrial battles went in the State’s favor. Judge Snipes ruled in our favor that the facts of Mark’s murder would be admissible, if we chose to offer them, during the State’s case in chief on Mike and Cynthia’s murder. Although we were confident about the correctness of the judge’s ruling, it gave us the choice of holding back the facts of Mark’s murder until we decided to put it on—either during guilt or during punishment. Because we felt so strongly about our guilt evidence in the McLelland murders, we decided to hold off on putting on the Hasse murder until punishment.
    Judge Snipes also ruled that the testimony of Garland DPS Firearm Examiner James Jeffress would be admissible. The defense challenged his testimony generally under Daubert and specifically regarding his comparison of the spent shell casings from the McLelland crime scene to a live .223 round found in the Seagoville storage unit. Jeffress opined that based on tool marks, the same weapon had ejected both the spent casings and the live round. It was an excellent piece of forensic work. Even though we never recovered the McLelland murder weapon, we could now show a jury that the murder weapon had ejected a live round found at the storage unit. It was a damning piece of circumstantial evidence.

The trial
The trial of Eric Williams began on Monday, December 1, 2014, in the packed auxiliary courtroom of the Rockwall County Courthouse. I confined my opening to the facts of the McLelland murder only. My nervous energy began to dissipate as I noticed the defendant becoming increasingly and visibly agitated and angry. Relying on what I had learned at TDCAA Baby Prosecutors School in 1994, once I got that visible reaction from the defendant, I stood next to him to focus the jury’s attention on his reactions.
    The trial moved fast due to little cross-examination from the defense. They no doubt felt constrained in their ability to defend knowing that we had the option of opening up the facts of the Hasse murder during our case in chief, but we never felt the need. Similarly, although we had Kim Williams prepped and ready to testify, we made a judgment call before we rested that we did not need her for guilt. Our team put on 28 witnesses in three days. The defense rested behind us, and we argued on Thursday morning.
    Toby opened argument by laying out in calm detail our airtight circumstantial case. The defense strategy then became clear when lead defense attorney Matthew Seymour argued that our case was circumstantial only, and we didn’t have any “biometric evidence” to put Williams at the crime scene. I did not think the jury was buying his argument, but I have been wrong before.
    As I stood up to close the guilt arguments, I felt an odd unease. Was it because I was arguing a case where I personally knew the victims? Was it because I was standing up in court asking for justice when the victim had died for doing the very same thing I was doing? I had never argued a case that was so personal, and I had never felt so uneasy in an argument. When I sat down, I was glad it was over. Fortunately, the jury had little problem returning a guilty verdict. As one reporter said, “The only person in the courtroom surprised by the guilty verdict was the defendant.” Our team felt a temporary sense of satisfaction. We now had a three-day weekend to prepare for punishment.
     We opened the punishment phase with the jury hearing the facts of the Hasse murder. We also brought the jury an ex-girlfriend of Williams whom he had attempted to abduct at gunpoint in 1995. The jury also heard about Williams making a bizarre and violent threat to a local lawyer. We were intent on showing that these murders were not isolated events; rather they were the natural culmination of the violent and psychopathic life of the defendant.
    When we rested, the defense called numerous witnesses who attempted to portray the defendant as a brilliant lawyer who had been “wronged” or “over-prosecuted” by Mark and Mike in his first trial. They employed the time-honored defense of “blame the victim.” It angered us, but we knew the jury would soon hear from Kim Williams. They would get a glimpse behind the mask of a psychopathic killer.
    Our rebuttal case opened with Kim Williams shuffling to the witness stand in leg irons. The courtroom was eerily silent as she coldly and dispassionately laid out the facts of the three murders. Quiet sobs from family members in the audience were audible behind us as she described Cynthia McLelland’s murder as “collateral damage”—an eyewitness who could not be left alive. She also told the jury about her husband’s “hit list.” The jury found out that the murders would have continued but for the Williamses’ arrest. Just as important to me, Kim Williams described the facts surrounding the original theft trial. She left no doubt that her husband was guilty of that crime and that Mark and Mike were good prosecutors just doing their jobs when they convicted Eric Williams in March 2012. This was one fact I wanted everyone to know.
    Punishment arguments ended on Wednesday afternoon, December 17. The jury deliberated the special issues for three hours before asking Judge Snipes to go to their hotel. Our team spent a long and sleepless night second-guessing ourselves. We were hardly back in court Thursday morning before the jury signaled that they had reached a verdict. We felt no joy when the jury sentenced Eric Williams to death—only relief and sadness. As everyone exchanged hugs with family members and each other, I was simply glad it was over.
    On December 30, 2014, in a Kaufman County courtroom, Kim Williams pled guilty to her role in the murders and received a sentence of 40 years. During victim impact statements, several of the victims’ family members acknowledged her help in prosecuting her husband and thanked her. Civic leaders gave interviews to the media expressing their hope that life in Kaufman County could now return to normal.

Final thought
Everyone who works or has worked at a prosecutor’s office understands and appreciates the important and sometimes dangerous work prosecutors do. Mark and Mike were on the front lines every day, answering the call by representing the State of Texas. When they went down in the line of duty, many others unhesitatingly and unselfishly answered the call to seek justice for them and Cynthia. The investigation into their deaths and the resulting prosecution was a true team effort. State, local, and federal law enforcement, along with current and former prosecutors, investigators, and staff all answered the call.