Texas-- Investigators trying to solve the murders of a North Texas district attorney, his wife and an assistant prosecutor are zeroing in on a local white supremacist prison gang known for brutal retaliations against its own members, running methamphetamine and other drugs outside prison walls and murder.
But just what role if any the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas played in the deaths of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, who were found shot to death in their home Saturday, and Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse, who was killed outside a courthouse Jan. 31, remains a puzzling unknown.
"Not outside the realm of possibility," said Roberta Clark, community director of the Anti-Defamation League's North Texas/Oklahoma regional office, who has studied the prison gang. "But it's unusual based on past history."
Law enforcement officers on Monday escorted Kaufman County employees to work and beefed up security around the main courthouse. Agents, some carrying semiautomatic weapons, cased government buildings.
"I don't want to walk around in fear every day ... but on the other hand, two months ago, we wouldn't be having this conversation," County Judge Bruce Wood, the county's top administrator, said Monday at a news conference.
The couple's slayings came less than two weeks after a Colorado prison chief was gunned down at his front door, apparently by an ex-convict with ties to another white supremacist prison gang, raising the specter of a white-supremacist connection. The suspect, Evan Spencer Ebel, died in a shootout with Texas deputies two days later after a high-speed chase about 100 miles from Kaufman County.
A law enforcement official told USA TODAY Monday that material on how to assemble explosives was found with Ebel following the fatal shootout with Texas authorities. However, there was no evidence that the suspect had actually acquired any materials or that he intended to use such a device.
Although the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas is regarded as extremely violent, it would be extraordinary for the group to order such killings of high-ranking public officials and risk the resulting investigative scrutiny, said the official, who has knowledge of the matter but is not authorized to comment publicly.
Following the March 19 murder of Colorado prisons chief Tom Clements, Gov. John Hickenlooper authorized the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to begin an inquiry into whether other public officials were being targeted for assassination, the law enforcement official said. The investigation was launched March 22 and is focused on prison gang members and their associates.
The inquiry, which also is drawing assistance from the Texas Rangers, the El Paso County, Colo., Sheriff's Department and the Denver Police Department, was authorized as local officials became concerned that Ebel's attack might have been a prelude to other targeted killings, the official said. No links to the Kaufman County killings have so far been revealed.
Investigators in Hasse's shooting had various theories, including the possibility that the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas was involved in the killing. McLelland himself, in an interview with the Associated Press last month, raised the possibility that Hasse was killed by a white supremacist gang. He said Hasse hadn't personally prosecuted any cases against white supremacists but that his office had handled several, and the gang had a strong presence in the area.
In November, the FBI announced that 34 members of the Aryan Brotherhood, including four senior leaders, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Houston for charges ranging from racketeering to murder, kidnappings, assault and conspiracy to distribute meth and cocaine, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Houston. Ten defendants have been charged with offenses that are eligible for the death penalty, while the remaining 24 defendants face a maximum penalty of life in prison. Kaufman County prosecutors assisted in the multiyear investigation.
"We put some real dents in the Aryan Brotherhood around here in the past year," McLelland told the news organization.
In December, the Texas Department of Public Safety warned in a statewide bulletin that authorities had received "credible information" that the Aryan Brotherhood was "actively planning retaliation against law enforcement officials" who helped secure indictments in Houston against dozens of members, including the gang's leadership.
The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas began in the early 1980s in the Texas prison system, said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who has tracked the gang. Its founders initially asked the Aryan Brotherhood - a larger national group based in California - to begin a Texas charter but were turned down, he said. So they launched their own version.
Since its inception, the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas has been responsible for at least 100 murders and a dozen kidnappings, Potok said. The gang, which numbers around 2,000, has increasingly been active in the streets and not just in prisons, he said. Although one of the most violent of the white supremacist gangs, the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas rarely - if ever - orders assassinations of law enforcement officials, Potok said. Increasingly, however, their presence is being felt outside prison.
"The general public is seeing more of these gangs as these members emerge on the street and start to create mayhem there," Potok said.
The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas operates actively in North Texas, said Clark of the Anti-Defamation League. They're brutal in violent acts toward members who have wronged the group or rival gangs but don't often target law enforcement officials, she said.
"We don't tend to see that approach," Clark said. "There tends to be a tremendous amount of violence toward each other with these groups."