Disgruntled, disbarred former judge exacts brutal revenge on Texas prosecutors
05/03/2018 5:12 pm PDT
In Texas, the people who put criminals in prison -- prosecutors, district attorneys, even judges -- were living in fear, wondering if they would be the next target of a mystery gunman.
It's Thursday morning outside the county courthouse in Kaufman, Texas. A man is screaming for his life in the parking lot. Then shots are fired.
Five shots ring out in broad daylight. Attorney Jenny Parks was heading into the courthouse. She saw friend and colleague Mark Hasse, Kaufman County's Assistant District Attorney, lying shot on the ground.
"Everybody in the Dallas legal community knew Mark Hasse. He had a big reputation," said Collin County District Attorney Bill Wirskye. "He was a very prolific trial lawyer and had been a very successful prosecutor in Dallas for many years."
Hasse was barely clinging to life, his body riddled with five bullets. He was rushed to a hospital, but it was too late. Mark Hasse died.
And Hasse's boss tells the killer to watch out, he's coming for him.
The Kaufman County sheriff says this was no random shooting. Hasse was targeted. But by whom?
"When a prosecutor is murdered, you have no shortage of suspects," said Wirskye. "Every person that's been put away by that prosecutor or been prosecuted becomes suspect number one."
There were 25 years' worth of suspects, including violent murderers and drug dealers. And now with many of them out of jail, investigators wonder if one of them could be looking to settle a score.
"He respected the fact that some of the people that he tried during the years were serious criminals," said Kaufman County Criminal District Attorney Erleigh Norville Wiley. "And knew that there were people he had prosecuted that might want to come after him. He carried a gun."
And Mark Hasse was armed when he was shot to death. Tragically, his gun was under his buttoned-up jacket. He didn't have time to pull it out when he was ambushed.
"You never think that a prosecutor leaving his car or walking into the office is going to be gunned down," said Wiley.
After firing the fatal shots, the shooter and his getaway driver raced from the scene. But this happened in broad daylight, and there were witnesses. The getaway car is described as an older-model brown or silver sedan missing a license plate. Unfortunately no one got a good look at the two suspects. They tell cops the driver was too far away and the gunman was wearing a hood.
Because Hasse was a close friend of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland, special prosecutors are brought in from the next county to oversee the investigation.
Bill Wirskye is one of the special prosecutors assigned to the case. While investigators track down possible suspects, there's breaking news about another member of law enforcement being gunned down in Colorado.
"There was a prison warden in Colorado that had been murdered at his home by a white supremacist and that person fled down to Texas," said Wirskye.
Could these two shootings be connected?
Just a little more than 100 miles from Kaufman County, a deputy with his dashboard-camera rolling corners the suspect in the Colorado murder: Evan Ebel, a recent parolee and white supremacist is sitting behind the wheel of the black Cadillac. He's got a pistol on his lap, lying in wait with his finger on the trigger, as the deputy approaches the car. Montague County Sheriff's Deputy James Boyd is shot three times. Though gravely wounded, he will survive.
As for Ebel, he races off, leading deputies on a wild high-speed chase that comes to a crashing end when his car smashes into a semi-truck. Ebel was still alive inside the mangled mass of metal, and exchanging gunfire before deputies finally take him out.
Did Evan Ebel also gun down Mark Hasse, or is there another killer on the loose?
Evan Ebel wasn't even in the state of Texas when Mark Hasse was killed.
The case runs cold for weeks.
"Everybody took it very seriously and changed their security habits, very scared at different points during this case," said Collin County District Attorney Bill Wirskye.
It was a shared sentiment reaching the very top. Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland even went gun shopping for his office to make sure that all of his employees were armed and ready, just in case. A gun owner and enthusiast, McLelland was thought of as a tough guy who could take care of himself, according to his son J.R.
"He kinda felt himself as pretty invincible. He had a weapon on him at all times. He taught us how to use a gun," said J.R. McLelland. "He never locked his doors. He was tall and carried a big gun."
And he kept several other guns all over the home he shared with his wife Cynthia.
"Two by the chair, two on the bar, two on the entertainment center. One on each side of the bed. They were everywhere," said J.R.
Tragically, that wasn't enough to protect the popular district attorney or his wife. They were ambushed in the predawn hours at their own home.
"About two months after Mark was murdered, Mike McLelland, the D.A. of Kaufman County, and his wife Cynthia were found murdered in their home in Kaufman County," said Bill Wirskye.
The shocking murders came on the Saturday before Easter. Sheriff's deputies respond now on high alert.
"I got in the car and we went to the crime scene, but the entire way there we're trying to locate other members of the Kaufman D.A.'s Office because at that point, we didn't know how many prosecutors had been killed," said Wirskye.
Special Prosecutor Bill Wirskye, brought in to investigate Mark Hasse's murder, quickly gets word that the other Kaufman prosecutors are accounted for and safe -- at least for now.
"It was completely unprecedented to have two prosecutors from the same office murdered," said Wirskye. "It was an unprecedented assault on the criminal justice system. Because only prosecutors and their families are being targeted and murdered."
Kaufman County Sheriff's homicide detectives record the gruesome crime scene. It's a bloodbath inside the home. McLelland's body is found by the front door and his wife is found nearly naked and lifeless on the living room floor. Both were shot multiple times with an assault-style weapon.
Cops collect evidence at the scene, but have very little to go on except for a few neighbors who report seeing a white Crown Victoria car in the McLelland neighborhood before and after the shooting.
"There was a concerted war on prosecutors," said Wirskye.
The sheriff's department gives prosecutors and their families round-the-clock armed protection. Then a bizarre break in the case nobody saw coming.
Just 24 hours after Mike McLelland and his wife were gunned down, an anonymous tip comes into the Kaufman Sheriff's Crime Stoppers Hotline. And this tip isn't coming from just any caller -- it's the killer himself.
And then in a chilling email exchange with officers through the Crime Stoppers website, this same person threatens to commit more murders unless a Kaufman judge resigns. The terrorizing tipster writes, "You have until Friday at 4 p.m."
"We were unable to successfully trace that IP address back to the killer," said Bill Wirskye. "It turns out had used the TOR network through the 'Dark Web' to access the website, and he was in a sense taunting us online."
But detectives believe they might already know the man behind the twisted emails.
"After Mark was murdered and then after Mike and Cynthia was murdered, he became the one and only common denominator," said Wirskye. "Mark and Mike only tried one case together, and that was the case where they prosecuted Eric Williams."
Eric Williams was the most unlikely of suspects. It wasn't just his friendly babyface that made him a surprising person of interest. The married 46-year-old was a former National Guardsman and one-time member of the Kaufman County Chamber of Commerce. And that's not all.
"He was the justice of the peace in town," said author Kathryn Casey.
The man cops suspect just murdered three people was also a Kaufman County judge, a rising star in the legal community.
"He had gone from being the main CPS attorney in Kaufman to winning the J.P.'s position, and it came with power," said Casey. "He had a bright future."
That all changes when courthouse surveillance video surfaces starring the high-ranking and highly respected justice of the peace.
"On surveillance video, Eric was seen walking out of the IT department carrying Dell computer monitors," said Casey. "He removed three of them on a Sunday afternoon when the building was closed. He was arrested on theft charges."
Felony theft charges.
"Mark Hasse prosecuted this case and Mike McLelland was second chair," said Casey.
Eric Williams pleaded not guilty. He was offered a plea deal, reducing the charges from a felony to a misdemeanor.
"He refused it. He thought he could talk his way through it," said Casey. "I think he felt justified because, you know, he was trying to put that video surveillance system in at the courthouse to be able to do magistrations, and he was taking the monitors for that, or that was his defense."
The jury doesn't buy that defense the jury doesn't buy. Williams is found guilty and gets two years' probation.
But since Williams has been convicted of a felony, he automatically loses his justice of the peace position and his law license. In essence, he loses everything, and detectives believe that is his motive for the murders.
"I think it was just revenge," said Bill Wirskye. "It was that simple. He wanted to take the lives of the two prosecutors that had prosecuted him. I believe in his mind, he wanted to take the lives of the people that had taken his life."
"He had decided that he was entitled to this revenge, and everybody else was just collateral damage," said Kathryn Casey.
But not everyone is convinced of Williams' guilt.
"I thought he was a thoughtful considerate, kind, caring person," said attorney Jenny Parks.
Attorney Jenny Parks worked with Eric Williams over the years and thought highly of the justice of the peace.
"There were several people that thought Eric was innocent, I wasn't the only one in this county, there were several attorneys that didn't want to believe it," said Parks.
But there were plenty of people who believed Williams was capable of murder.
"Animosity that built up during the trial. The theft case had been so personal and that kind of an incubator of that little courthouse in that little town, that so much hate had built up," said Casey.
But there's just one problem concerning Eric Williams as the prime suspect: there's not a stitch of evidence tying him to the triple murder. And Williams is refusing to talk to investigators.
"We were trying to get an interview with him, however his lawyers at the time prevented that," said Wirskye.
Then detectives catch a break.
"We have evidence from video cameras in the neighborhood that show the white Crown Victoria, a typical police car, going into the neighborhood right before the murders and leaving the neighborhood right after the murders," said Wirskye.
It's the same car neighbors reported seeing on the morning the McLellands were gunned down. And even though the video is too grainy to make out the driver or passengers inside the vehicle:
"We knew then and there we had our man, and had the right person," said Wirskye.
But there is no record of Eric Williams owning that type of vehicle. And you'll remember that the getaway car used in Mark Hasse's murder was described as a brown or silver sedan. But those seemingly contradicting facts don't dissuade investigators.
"They thought that he had things stashed somewhere, but they just didn't know where it was," said Kathryn Casey.
Then in a strange turn of events, detectives actually receive word from Williams.
"Twelve days after the murders, he fired his lawyers and he actually wanted to talk with us in the investigation," said Wirskye.
Right away, two Texas Rangers head out to Williams' home. They make an audio recording of the conversation.
Eric Williams wasn't talking to police, but he was talking to the press.
"First I want to say that my deepest condolences go out to the McLelland family and all of the people at the courthouse. Most of which I know. I've cooperated with law enforcement. I certainly wish them the best in bringing justice for this just incredibly egregious act," said Eric Williams.
Then, in a bizarre turn of events, Williams fires his attorneys and says he'll talk to investigators.
"He thought he was smarter than his lawyers, and it's the age-old adage, you know, 'A lawyer that represents himself has a fool for a client,'" said Collin County District Attorney Bill Wirskye.
"At that point the Texas Ranger and somebody from high up in the sheriff's department went over and knocked on Eric's door," said author Kathryn Casey.
And to their surprise, Eric Williams invites them inside. The investigators recorded the conversation. They enter with caution. After all, they consider Williams to be a cold-blooded killer with a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas against Kaufman County law enforcement.
"Do you still have any ammo or anything?"
"The only ammo I would have would be for that .44."
When Williams was found guilty of stealing those computer monitors, he became a convicted felon. He wasn't allowed to have firearms. During the recorded conversation Williams tells authorities he's sold all of his 16 guns, except one. But when investigators move into the next room, they discover parts of guns everywhere.
"Hey Eric, I'm just curious, if you're selling all your guns, why are you saving your spotting sights and stuff?"
"I haven't gotten through everything yet I guess."
Then they find something else.
"Eric, what is that?"
"I think a Taser or something."
It's not a Taser. It's a heatseeker, a tool with a built-in laser used to detect heat sources. It's normally used for hunting game at night, but investigators think Eric Williams planned to use it to hunt humans -- or he already did.
District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife were gunned down before dawn. Investigators have seen enough.
"They had enough evidence to get a search warrant, and that was the first big break," said Kathryn Casey.
The very next day Kaufman County investigators return and they bring backup: the FBI. And they go through every square inch of Williams' home. Inside a filing cabinet investigators discover the title to a white Crown Victoria vehicle in Eric Williams' name, the same type of car spotted in the McLellands neighborhood around the time of the murders. It had been purchased just weeks before. And that's not all.
"The 'smoking gun' was he already had actually logged on to a Crime Stoppers site and claimed credit for the murders, and obviously he did this anonymously, but when we conducted a search of his house, he had written down the password for the log-in to Crime Stoppers," said Bill Wirskye.
Each tipster gets a unique password, and when cops crosscheck that code, it links directly back to those taunting emails from the killer.
"So we knew instantly that Eric Williams was the person that had been taunting us through the Crime Stoppers tip line," said Wirskye.
Agents arrest Eric Williams for making deadly threats, but there's still not enough evidence to charge him with the murders.
And while they found the title to that mysterious white Crown Vic, they still can't locate the car.
"Investigators knew they were looking for the car. They thought that he had things stashed somewhere, and one of the places they thought of was a storage unit, but they just didn't know where it was," said Casey.
And in this small town, feds searching the home of the former justice of the peace becomes the lead story all over the news. That prompts one viewer to call police. He's a friend of Eric Williams.
"After he saw media coverage, I think the friend knew by that point that we were on to Eric Williams and the friend thought he'd better tell us what he knew," said Bill Wirskye.
Williams' friend tells police about a secret storage unit that he rented in his name for the former justice of the peace. Kaufman officials get a second search warrant and race to the address of the storage unit.
"Once the door was raised, we found a veritable treasure trove of evidence, including the white Crown Victoria," said Wirskye.
"The storage locker I've heard referred to as 'Eric's Little House of Horrors.' It was packed with ammunition, different types of guns," said Kathryn Casey.
More than 70 guns are recovered, from handguns to assault rifles, and everything in between.
"It was amazing what they found inside," said Casey. "They found napalm. They found jars of napalm. They found a crossbow with arrows, they found what looked like a Molotov cocktail that they think that he might have pulling together to burn up the car when he was done with it."
But what about that other getaway car used during the murder of prosecutor Mark Hasse? It was described as a brown or silver sedan. Well, turns out investigators find receipts that show Eric recently purchased a silver Mercury Sable.
"He thought it was nondescript and no one would notice it," said Casey.
And it had also been at the storage unit, but broke down in the parking lot, where it was towed away.
"We had a mountain of evidence," said Bill Wirskye.
And that mountain is about to come crashing down on Eric Williams. He's arrested for capital murder in the shooting deaths of Assistant D.A. Mark Hasse, District Attorney Mike McLelland, and his wife Cynthia.
But it turns out this former judge hellbent on revenge wasn't killing alone. He had some help.
"When Kim Williams came out of the holdover to testify against her husband, you could have heard a pin drop in the courtroom, and she very quickly gave the jurors a glimpse into their murderous life and the planning, the meticulous planning that went on behind these murders, and how they were carried out," said Collin County District Attorney Bill Wirskye.
The lethal lovebirds were both charged with capital murder.
"She was a full participant in these murders and although she didn't actually pull the trigger, she was there every step of the way," said Wirskye. "She helped. She was there with logistical support. She was there with moral support."
Kim Williams cut a plea deal with prosecutors for a 40-year prison sentence. Then on the witness stand, she hammers nail after nail into her husband's coffin, describing in detail what Williams wore when he assassinated Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse, testifying to her husband's rage toward the district attorney and assistant D.A. after being convicted of stealing $600 worth of computer parts. Kim told the jury that was Eric's motivation for the murders.
"They embarked on this joint trial of vengeance and murder," said Wirskye
Kim Williams admitted in open court she drove the getaway car for Eric Williams when he gunned down assistant D.A. Mark Hasse.
"You knew what was going to happen."
"Yes I did."
"Why did you agree to drive to the murder of Mark Hasse?"
"I was so drugged up and I so believed in Eric and everything that he told me. His anger was my anger."
She testified he was almost giddy that murderous morning.
But the former justice of the peace wasn't done killing.
Kim also confessed she was behind the wheel of that white Crown Victoria when her husband ambushed Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia, slaughtering them in their own home in pre-dawn hours.
"They celebrated by eating steaks after the murders to celebrate the deaths of the McLellands," said Bill Wirskye.
Even after killing McLelland and Hasse, Kim testified her husband still had a thirst for blood, claiming he actually made a hit list.
"After the McLellands were killed, were there more on the hit list?"
"Who is that?"
Erleigh Wiley is the new Kaufman County District Attorney who took over after Mike McLelland was murdered. Why did Eric Williams want her dead? Turns out Erleigh Wiley was a judge and caught Williams, overbilling the county when he was a court-appointed attorney. That was years before Williams was busted for stealing computer parts.
Williams was reprimanded, and that apparently was enough to put a target on the new D.A.'s back.
"And who else?"
Judge Glen Ashworth was considered a longtime friend of Eric Williams. But the former justice of the peace believed Judge Ashworth is the one who leaked information that led to his conviction for stealing computer equipment. And Kim testifies her husband had something extra terrifying in mind for him that involved that crossbow and napalm.
"How did he tell you he was going to kill Judge Ashworth?"
"He was going to wait until after Super Bowl and he was gonna wait for him and shoot him with the crossbow and then bore his stomach out and put the napalm in it."
Remember, this is the same man who once tried to offer comfort to the victims.
It doesn't take long for the jury to reach a verdict. Eric Lyle Williams is found guilty of capital murder. Williams was sentenced to death by lethal injection.
The son of former D.A. Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia, J.R. McLelland says he'll be the one eating steak that night.
Prosecutors believe they stopped what they call a cold and calculated killing machine just in the nick of time.
"I don't think the killings would have stopped unless we stopped Eric Williams," said Bill Wirskye.
One day after she was indicted, Kim Williams filed for divorce. She said she believed her husband had a plan to kill her and himself when he was done killing all the people on his hit list.
Eric Williams appealed his conviction. That appeal was denied.