Mineral Wells Index, Mineral Wells, TX

April 5, 2013

Local DA friends with slain DA


Mineral Wells Index

— By LIBBY CLUETT



Many grieved, at Thursday’s public memorial service, the loss of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia.

Both were found shot to death Saturday in their home near Forney, about 20 miles east of Dallas.

Mourners extend throughout the state and include Palo Pinto County District Attorney Mike Burns, who will attend the funeral and burial of his longtime friends, which takes place today in Wortham, Texas.

“On Saturday, when I got the news that [McLelland] had been murdered and Cynthia had been murdered, I was just totally devastated,” Burns said. He said McLelland was a longtime friend and former law partner. “And, three or four days later, I still haven't gotten the sick feeling out of my stomach. I've lost a dear friend, and they broke the mold when they made him. I'll never have a friend like him again. I think it's tragic, and it's a tragic commentary on our society today, too.”

Burns not only had two criminal trials to prosecute this week, but was contacted early in the week by the national press for comment on the shooting of McLelland.

“Surprisingly, I did an interview with CNN [Monday],” he said. “I have messages sitting on my desk right now from Fox News, in New York, and a TV show called 'Justice' in New York.”

“Mike and I have been friends for about 23 years. We met in the very beginning of law school,” he recalled. “Then we had a mock-trial team and he and I were partners and actually won the competition.

“When we graduated, we rented an apartment together to study for the bar exam. So, in the months of December, January and February, we would study all day and go to a bar prep course in the evenings,” he added. “[McLelland] was dating Cynthia at the time – his wife. She's a gourmet cook, so she would bring us lunch and bring us dinners while we were studying.”

Burns said they decided if they were both “lucky enough to pass the bar” they would practice law together. He said he convinced McLelland to move to Corpus Christi, were he lived at the time, and they had two other law school classmates move there to join them.

He called McLelland “a no-nonsense kind of guy. He was a major in the Army reserve – the active reserve. He was a straight-forward guy who would tell you exactly what was on his mind. And the thing we kidded about the most was that Mike had no identifiable vices – and we all did. But he was blunt, straight forward, and he was [also] very good in social situations. And what made him so endearing is you knew exactly where you stood with Mike.

“Cynthia was the perfect complement to that, because she was the opposite. She was solid gold, and she had a heart as big as Texas.

And they eventually got married when we were in Corpus Christi,” he added.

Burns said after three years McLelland wanted to return to the Dallas area. He added that his friend also had a master's degree in psychology and had worked in the mental health field.

“So he wanted to come back up and practice law with a focus on mental health,” he said. “He was actually appointed a special judge in mental health cases and mental hearings; he was an associate judge.

“And, when the opportunity came before him to run for district attorney in Kaufman County, back in 2010, he did. He ran against the incumbent and … won. So, he had been in office since January 2011.”

In the interim, between his election in the fall of 2010 and taking office the following January, Burns said McLelland came to Palo Pinto County to visit with him, attend court here, and “he wanted to get an idea of how the DA's office ran.”

“We spent a lot of time together during that time,” Burns noted.

When McLelland started working as Kaufman County DA, Burns said they talked occasionally over the phone. Then, on Jan. 31, McLelland's assistant district attorney, Mark Hasse, was gunned down as he arrived for work near the Kaufman County Courthouse. Burns said he called McLelland that night and his friend was angry.

Burns said McLelland told him at Hasse's memorial service, “I don't care how long it takes, I'm going to find the people or person responsible for this.”

The thoughts and feelings of district attorneys have been varied this week, according to Burns.

“It kind of runs the gamut,” he said, adding that at least one colleague said he was afraid to answer his door.

“The general feeling among my peers is not one of panic, but it's one of quiet reflection and a heightened awareness that this doesn't just happen in Columbia and Mexico anymore,” Burns said. He added that he and his peers ask, “'Is this a new era?' I hope not.”

“Maybe it's just an issue that's localized in Kaufman County. Maybe it involved one case, and one person has a 'mad-on' at the DA's office and decided to work up the … chain, or maybe it's something bigger than that; we don't know.

“The one thing it resulted in, in the last few days, is all of us taking a look at security, taking a look at the environment in which we work; because, just like the governor said, we are responsible for locking up some of the meanest, most vicious people in the state,” he said of district attorneys statewide.

While he said there has been sometimes a sense of complacency, this will change in the future. His office recently installed a push-button entry door for security purposes, which he said, “Has made people feel a little bit safer.”

“You can never protect against things like this, because if somebody has it out to kill you, they're the ones who are going to pick the time and the place and opportunity. And they're going to pick that time and place and opportunity where you're least aware,” Burns explained.

“And unless we strap guns on us in our pajamas, walking around our house, we'll never be ready for that. So, we're just a little bit more aware right now.”

Burns said he isn't privy to the investigation, but added, “It appears credible that somebody came to the door and he answered the door.

He was shot multiple times with an assault weapon of some sort – a 0.223 caliber, which is generally an AR-15 … there may be some other kind of gun that shoots those. I don't know what happened.”

As of Thursday afternoon, nobody had been arrested in the weekend slayings of the McLellands, or in  Hasse's killing.

Gov. Rick Perry urged anyone with information about who killed the McLellands and assistant prosecutor Mark Hasse to contact the authorities. The reward for tips leading to convictions doubled Thursday to $200,000.

"We will not let this cower us. Texas is a law-and-order state and we will track down and punish those who have committed this crime," Perry said at a news conference where he was joined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, sheriff's officials and other law enforcement.

The governor said it was "very premature" to speculate on whether a particular group is responsible. No suspects have been publicly named, but speculation has swirled around a white-supremacist prison gang known as the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, which had been targeted by a task force that included McLelland's office.

"The public, at the end of the day, will play the most important part in this," Perry said.

Dallas FBI Special Agent in Charge Diego Rodriguez said federal law officers also are seeking information.

"At this time we're looking at everything available, every single avenue. We're not leaving any stone unturned," he said.



The Associated Press contributed to this article.