Out on East Broad Street, past the radiator shop and antique barns, sits Helz Firearms. Resting two blocks from downtown Forney (population 15,000), the squat, dusty store’s wood walls are lined with guns and stuffed critters, and its dirt parking lot is stuffed with pickup trucks.
On Friday, Mike McLelland walked into the shop determined to do one thing: shoot the bull. The Kaufman County, Texas District Attorney stopped by Helz three to four times a week, ogling antique guns, chatting with the owners. He liked the lever-actions and single-shots, showing just a passing interest in newer weapons.
On that day, owner O’Neil Kidwell asked McLelland about the killing of one of the district attorney’s assistants, Mark Hasse, two months earlier. On Jan. 31, McLelland had stood on the steps of the Kaufman Countycourthouse, topped with a black cowboy hat, and promised to find the men who shot Hasse in a nearby parking lot. He spoke to the murderers as if they were watching the press conference, threatening to find them, pull them out of whatever hole they were in, and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.
Kidwell says that since the gruesome murder, McLelland had taken to carrying a .38 snub-nose for protection. “We had been pushing him to wear a vest, but he never would; he felt like he was too big for one,” Kidwell said Tuesday. “Of course, he wouldn’t have been wearing one when this all happened.”
What all happened took place less than 24 hours after Kidwell spoke to the district attorney in the gun shop. On Saturday, an intruder burst into McLelland’s house on the outskirts of the town, and shot dead both McLelland, 63, and his wife, Cynthia, 65. Shell casings were found throughout the home. It was almost exactly two months after Hasse was murdered.
Since the late 1960s, 13 prosecutors have been killed in the United States, according to the National District Attorneys Association; two of those have been in the past 60 days, in a county with 106,000 residents. Kaufman County is tucked between Dallas County’s 2.4 million residents and Van Zandt County, which holds 53,000 folks. It’s a uniquely southwest-American swirl: tract homes, old farms, young longhorns, trailers, and the occasional stripmall. The population of the largest city in the 800-square-mile county doesn’t top 17,000. At one point after the McLelland killings, television satellitetrucks equaled police vehicles in Kaufman’s small downtown square. On Tuesday the Kaufman County Sheriffs Office moved the trucks to off-site locations.
Since Hasse’s death on Jan. 31, investigators have been tight-lipped with information, and short on leads. After the McLelland murders, that information slowed to a trickle. One target of investigation in the two shootings is the Aryan Brotherhood — a ironic coincidence in a county named after Texas’ first Jewish congressman, David Spangler Kaufman — due to Hasse and other officials’ assistance in cracking down the prison gang.
That lack of information has had varying effects on the county’s residents. Four men sat Tuesday morning at Chandler’s Barber Shop in Forney, where police and fire patches tacked to the walls.
“I don’t think a lot of people in Forney are too concerned about it,” said one.
“We’re just trying to figure out who’s next,” said another. “It’s gotta be a judge. There’s somebody out there holding a real hard grudge.”
When asked for their names, they balked. Didn’t “want the Brotherhood coming after them,” one said. He went only by Tom.
Trinity Valley Community College nursing student Brittney Milligan took a concealed handgun course a month after the Hasse murder. The school sits four blocks from the courthouse, and was sent into lockdown immediately following the Hasse murder, its students unaware of the circumstances. After a message about the gun class was posted on Facebook, five of her fellow nursing students signed up. The shootings were all the students talked about Monday and Tuesday. Milligan’s husband has been calling prospective firearms classes since the McLelland murders; he finally found an opening in a neighboring county.
“To me you can never be too careful,” she said outside Porky’s BBQ. “I have a three-year-old son and, excuse my language, but I’ll be damned if someone hurts him.”
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At Helz Firearms, sales climbed 20% after the Hasse killing, and are expected to do the same again. Most of the buyers are first-time users, mostly female. They’re looking for shotguns — “For the ladies, the shotgun is point and pow.” — and pistols.
Two roses now sit on the McLellands’ mailbox, framed by yellow tape, the same yellow tape that hangs off the Chevy still parked in the driveway. A wreath of white roses and popping Texas bluebonnets stands under the American flag outside the courthouse, and another of red flowers was loaded Tuesday into a van outside a Brookshire’s grocery store. County offices will close early on Thursday, so employees can attend a memorial service for Mike and Cynthia McLelland.
In the window of Helz Firearms, a message, painted in white letters: “Mike McLelland you will be greatly missed.”