KAUFMAN COUNTY, Texas –– With the county still reeling from the recent murders of two of its most senior prosecutors, Kaufman authorities have assigned a 24-hour security detail to its interim district attorney, her fellow prosecutors and all elected officials.
They’ve also ordered armed guards to escort anyone with business inside the courthouse to and from the building.
The media and the public has been moved away from the political center of this 105,000-population county –– the same location where Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse was gunned down eight weeks ago in broad daylight.
“We are being close with information,” said Judge David Lewis. “We don’t want to do anything to trouble the investigation.”
On Saturday night, a family friend discovered the bodies of District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia, who had been shot to death inside their Forney home.
Gov. Rick Perry will appoint a successor to finish McLelland’s term in office. But for the next 21 days, Brandi Fernandez, now the most senior member of the D.A.’s Office, will serve in the interim.
Now Kaufman’s top prosecutor, Fernandez may be a target. And she’s keeping a low profile. Sources inside the office says Fernandez is helping a young staff grieve and move forward –– everyone is fearful after the murder of two prosecutors in two months.
“Our office is frightened and scared of what’s going on,” said a staffer inside the district attorney’s office who asked for anonymity.
Fernandez has tried cases for the past 10 years, including last year’s high-profile conviction of James Patrick Crawford, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Crawford, 36, was found guilty on six felony charges in August of last year, the Kaufman Herald reported.
He was sentenced to two life sentences for aggravated kidnapping, aggravated assault, directing gang activities, possessing a controlled substance with intent to deliver and engaging in organized criminal activity, the newspaper reported.
Kaufman investigators have been searching for evidence connecting the prison-based Aryan Brotherhood of Texas to the high-profile killings. Hours after Hasse was shot to death, the Department of Justice issued a release thanking 22 different agencies for helping in an investigation that led to the convictions of two high-ranking members of the gang.
Authorities have not announced any evidence pinning the group to the murders. However, the pressure from the case is affecting other public officials in different corners of the state –– a federal attorney in Houston is reportedly stepping away from a case trying the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas because he fears for his safety.
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins and his family have been granted a security detail. District Attorney’s Offices in Denton, Tarrant and Collin counties also report bolstering security around officials and buildings, although none have specified what measures are being taken.
Fernandez, 42, will be surrounded by security all hours of the day. Attorneys who have faced her in court describe her as tough, soft-spoken and often underestimated. Public records show she holds a law degree from Texas Tech University and is married with children.
“She definitely knows what she’s doing,” said Wade Gent, a Kaufman-based attorney who has squared off against Fernandez in court. “For the most part, she’s by the book, no nonsense and will do the job. I have no doubt she is capable of handling the pressure; Brandi is very experienced, very dedicated.”
Fernandez’ quiet demeanor is a stark contrast to her predecessor’s bravado. After Hasse was killed, McLelland publicly decried those responsible as “scum” and promised to “pull you out of whatever hole you’re in” and “bring you back and let the people of Kaufman County prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”
For now, Fernandez is taking a different approach, laying low with her new, exposed role.