KAUFMAN, Texas – At Texas Country Smokehouse and Home Cooking, just across from the county courthouse, there’s someone missing.
Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland used to come here several days a week for lunch, drawn by the short walk, the barbeque and the atmosphere.
”He's going to be sorely missed,” said Lesa Metcalf, a regular at the barbecue joint. “He was in the Army for 23 years – and that shows some commitment.”
When locals learned about the murder of McLelland, 63, and his wife Cynthia, 65, over the weekend, many couldn’t believe it.
It was bad enough when Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse, 57, was gunned down not far from here two months ago. But the Easter weekend killing of the McLellands has been overwhelming.
“When I heard Saturday night, it made me sick,” Metcalf said. “And I'm still in shock."
‘Why Kaufman county?’
About 20 miles southeast of Dallas, Kaufman County is more rural landscape than suburb.
Its biggest city is Terrell, with a population of 16,000. The county is named after David Spangler Kaufman, a politician who was the first Jewish Texan to serve in Congress.
Interstate 20 – a popular drug-trafficking route – runs through the area. Methamphetamine is common, but homicides are rare.
Authorities have been exploring the possibility that drug cartels could have been involved in the district attorney’s murder, but so far that theory has not been conclusive.
There also was speculation that a white supremacist group was involved. The Texas Department of Public Safety released a statewide bulletin late last year warning that Aryan Brotherhood of Texas was planning retaliation against law enforcement officials after a series of indictments in Houston.
The Kaufman County DA’s office was one of many involved in that investigation, but did not play a huge role.
“They were involved in the peripheral,” said Pete Schulte, a former prosecutor who is now an attorney in Dallas. “The question is going to come down to, ‘Why Kaufman county?’ It's such a small county.”
Looking at old cases
So as part of the wide-ranging probe, investigators are also examining local cases the DA’s office prosecuted.
Among those questioned was Eric Williams, a former justice of the peace who lost his job last year when he was convicted of taking three computer monitors from a county building. The case was prosecuted by Hasse.
Williams, who is appealing that conviction, told NBC affiliate KPRC investigators contacted him on Saturday night – hours after the murders – asked to meet at a local restaurant. He said no investigator has suggested that he is a “person of interest,” and he is voluntarily cooperating with the investigation because he believes all scenarios should be considered in a high-profile murder.
"They did a gun residue test," Williams said. "I gave them my cell phone so they could get all the info they wanted."
Williams denied making any threats – and said he holds no grudges, expressing shock at the killings.
"My heart-felt condolences go out to both the McLelland family and the Hasse family,” he said.
A federal official familiar with the investigation said others who might have a grudge against the victims are also under scrutiny.
The murders of Hasse and McLelland have been difficult to connect because they were so different, sources said. Hasse was killed with a revolver. McLelland was shot repeatedly with an assault weapon.
Investigators are analyzing the .233-caliber shell casings found at the scene. According to a search warrant affidavit released Monday, they are also subpoenaing cell phone records.
Local officials have said very little publicly.
“I'm optimistic,” said Bruce Wood, the county judge. “There are literally hundreds of people working on this case.”
Armed guards escort county workers every morning as they arrive at the courthouse.
“I'm trying to keep my staff reassured that we're going to keep going and keep doing the best we can,” said David Lewis, a county employee.