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Prosecutors' killings rattle former cotton town in Texas

by

By Chris Francescani

KAUFMAN, Texas (Reuters) - Twin killings of Texas prosecutors in a quaint town where oak trees and two-story brick buildings line the central square have shocked residents, raised questions whether the shootings could be linked, and fueled speculation about the possible role of a white supremacist jail gang.

"We were a quiet little backwater where you could get on your bicycle and ride into the square and feel safe," said Carolyn Long, 69, recalling her childhood in the 1950s when cotton farmers and ranchers would drive into the town's main square on Saturdays to conduct business out of the backs of their trucks.

"At least it used to be like that," she said of the north Texas town of 11,000.

Already stunned by the killing of local prosecutor Mark Hasse on January 31 on the courthouse steps, the town was sent reeling by the slaying on Saturday of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, in their home.

Shell casings were scattered everywhere around the crime scene, the Dallas Morning News reported, citing one law enforcement official. Authorities have ruled out murder-suicide.

The cases remained unsolved.

Authorities have kept quiet about potential suspects, while people in town speculated it was the work of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a white supremacist jail gang that had recently been under investigation by McLelland's office.

"People are in absolute shock here," said Joe Gibson, 21, the manager at Moon's Fried Chicken Cafeteria.

Kaufman County is generally split between rural towns in the eastern part of the county and more affluent Dallas commuter suburbs in the west, where the McLellands lived. The town of Kaufman lies in the center of the county.

Local, county and state police all overlap in Kaufman, about 30 miles east of Dallas, creating a sense of security that has been shattered.

"We have a strong tradition of law enforcement in this area," said insurance agent Bobby Aga, 68. "The criminal justice system here is something you don't mess with. It's the fabric of our community."

First Assistant District Attorney Brandi Fernandez was named interim district attorney on Monday and will hold the position for 21 days or until Governor Rick Perry appoints a successor. Perry, meanwhile, has raised concern about the public safety.

McLelland had vowed to capture those who killed Hasse, one of his assistants. A former Army veteran who served in the Gulf War and publicly showed little fear of retribution, he was a fixture at the town's Lions Club, where he regularly ate lunch and helped support youth baseball, said Wade Gent, 38, an attorney who knew the couple.

Cynthia McLelland belonged to the Quilt Guild, which met at the "2 Sisters Quilt Shop" on the site of a former drug store built in 1891 in the heart of the town square.

Today, the town's business revolves largely around Falcon Steel, which builds the structures that hold highway signs. It remains a quiet, church-going town where shopkeepers who smoke slip out the back of their stores rather than risk the disapproval of neighbors by lighting up out front.

"There's a church on every corner," said Long, whose family has lived in the area since 1852.

When Hasse was killed, speculation immediately focused on the prison-based gang the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas because that same day the U.S. Justice Department released a statement saying the Kaufman County District Attorney's Office was involved in a racketeering case against the white supremacist group.

In an indictment unsealed in November, the Texas arm of the Aryan Brotherhood was described as a gang responsible for murders, arson, assault and other crimes, and prone to "extreme violence and threats of violence to maintain internal discipline and retaliate against those believed to be cooperating with law enforcement."

The Texas Department of Public Safety identified prison gangs as the second-most significant organized crime threat to the state after Mexican drug cartels.

Gent said there was real concern of further violence in Kaufman.

"If somebody is sending a message," he said, "they're probably not finished."

(Additional reporting by Corrie MacLaggan, Jim Forsyth and Marice Richter; Editing by Daniel Trotta, Paul Thomasch and Leslie Gevirtz)

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