On January 31, 2013, Erleigh Wiley was sitting in her courtroom in suburban Dallas, Texas, when she looked out the window and saw a terrifying scene.
The judge couldn't immediately make sense of what was happening, but she saw people—civilians, court clerks, local government employees—running in panic. She cracked one of her windows, only for a bailiff to quickly ask that she shut it while he went outside to investigate.
Wiley learned shortly thereafter that Kaufman County chief prosecutor Mark Hasse had been gunned down in the parking lot about 200 yards away.
The county courthouse square had been bustling that day, as it usually was—but the killer(s) apparently managed to walk up to Hasse, shoot him multiple times, and take off before anyone realized what was happening. In the wake of his assassination, the local press suspected the crime was the work of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a brutal prison gang with long tentacles. There had been a federal investigation of the organization based out of Houston's US attorney's office that led to dozens of indictments the previous year, and the Texas Department of Public Safety had just put out a statewide alert warning law enforcement of imminent attacks by the gang. Hasse also had a history of working on organized crime task forces, though he was not involved in the Houston probe.
Texas and national law enforcement went on high alert. But the case went cold until two months later, when the Kaufman County district attorney was murdered: Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, were shot and killed in their home.
This time, police made an arrest within weeks, charging a former justice of the peace named Eric Williams and his wife, Kim, in the slayings. Eric Williams now sits on death row after being convicted of capital murder (Kim Williams pleaded guilty to murder herself, testified against her husband, and was sentenced to 40 years). Turned out the assassin wasn't even remotely affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood; instead, he knew his victims well, having worked with all of them before being prosecuted for theft of county-owned computer monitors.
Erleigh Wiley knew Eric Williams, too, and the assassin included her on his hit list, according to Kim Williams's testimony in court. (He also apparently planned to kill another judge with napalm and a crossbow.) In her new book, A Target on My Back: A Prosecutor's Terrifying Tale of Life on a Hit List, out this month from Skyhorse Publishing, the prosecutor (who remains on the job) recounts her tale in detail. VICE chatted with her by phone to find out what it was like to assume the job of a district attorney who had just been murdered, and those tense initial days looking over her shoulder.
Here's what she had to say.
VICE: I remember first hearing about the prosecutors being murdered in 2013, when I was still in prison. I even wrote a piece about the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas's suspected role in the killings. There was some serious media hype going on—I was part of it—but you stepped right into that as the new district attorney, carrying yourself with courage under fire. How were you able to steel yourself like that?
Erleigh Wiley: Imagine people getting killed that you work with. It's like, We're not going to be afraid—but we didn't know who it was. The unusual thing for me was I'm African American, so the Aryan Brotherhood—it's like: Am I really putting a target on my back [by continuing to pursue this case]? I mean, these guys are going to be really ticked [off]. But I also thought it was a more personal [beef], particularly after [DA] Mike [McLelland] and his wife were killed. You start narrowing them down, the Aryan Brotherhood, and they're not going to mess up their other illegal activities for a vendetta.
I'm not a cop. I'm a lawyer. But what I could do, especially since I was born and raised in this county, was to stand up. People were afraid. People stopped being out and about as much as they normally would. It was like: Something's wrong, and we need to fix it. I wasn't the only person that could have stepped up, but when I stepped up, it's like: She's OK, then maybe we're going to be OK too. The younger prosecutors and support staff were coming to work, and they looked so beat down. I mean, they lost their boss, and they lost one of the most senior prosecutors in the office for doing their job.
How did you get so personally involved so as to become a target, and did you have reservations about revisiting such a harrowing episode in this book given you're still on the job now?
The book was written for me. [Williams] was one of those twisted figures. I don't say crazy, but twisted. I found out from the special prosecutors that he wanted to kill me, too, because as a judge, in his mind, I slighted him.
When did you realize this was one of the more remarkable, brazen attacks on law enforcement in the country in years—not just a local saga?
When they were investigating after Mike and Cynthia were killed, what really put it in perspective about how dangerous things were was that we had Homeland Security in our residence. We were under guard, because they didn't know what was coming next. Even before I was a specific target, everyone that could be a potential target—meaning any elected officials, any judges—could [have been] a target. I had ICE agents, some people had troopers, some people had local police agencies.
My kids were home, and they were in high school. Everything changed and it was like: We've got to get back to normalcy. Thank God they put the suspect in custody. It was this far-reaching web—you've got the Aryan Brotherhood angle, and some people think it was a Mexican cartel, like maybe the border had moved up as far north as Dallas. One of the crazy things is right after Mike and Cynthia's murder, there was an anonymous tip. [It] wasn't a crank—it was somebody that knew. They talked about both crime scenes together in such a way that [police] knew that person knew something about it.
That was Eric Williams, right? How surprised were you when you found out he was the killer?
I was surprised because you don't really think people could go there, but he was a little odd. Lawyers can be narcissistic, but he was one of those people that [liked to think] he was super smart—he thought he knew better. He got kind of bent with me about me correcting him one time, in court. But as a judge, my job is to look out for the taxpayers. He was over-billing, and I called him on it, [and] I could just tell that he didn't take things well when things didn't go his way. You could see it.
[Of course,] there are a lot of people [who] don't take things well but don't want to kill you.
When you were first assigned to take over in Kaufman County, what was your game plan? How did you restore a sense of order in what must have seemed almost a Gotham-esque situation ?
I realized my real goal was [helping] the staff—the office was floundering. People were going through Mark's files and Mike's file; meanwhile, we still have [other] cases. We still have crime. People were working but not [effectively]. We had to get back to a functioning office. It sounds horrible: We have to mourn, but we have to let the bad people know we're coming for [them].
The second thing we had to do is go about the business of continuing to investigate the case and build upon the facts that led us to Williams. We couldn't prosecute this case—it'd been turned over to special prosecutors. But we could support them.
It's hard not to come away from a book like this and, given the generally chaotic and violent nature of the planet right now, fall into a sense of despair. But you don't seem to be haunted by this saga, exactly.
I want people to not be fearful and to understand that when things happen, you can play your part. That's all I did. When we had all these law enforcement officers down here, people were bringing water and food to the officers and working 24/7. I only have a story because three really good people lost their lives. Two of them for doing their jobs and one for loving a man that did his. The takeaway is [just] about the people who are victims of senseless crime.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about Wiley's book, which is out this month, here.
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