Slain DA's family dismisses spokesman

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by JONATHAN BETZ / WFAA

WFAA

Posted on April 10, 2013 at 8:07 AM

KAUFMAN — On Monday, officers proudly raised the U.S. Honor Flag outside Kaufman County’s courthouse. It flew as a tribute to the county’s fallen district attorney and his wife.

But the flag flew for barely a day before Chris Heisler, founder of The Honor Network, announced the flag was coming down; his mission complete.

Heisler, who arrived in Kaufman vowing to help, was now leaving and unavailable due to an illness.

"Our role in Kaufman County with honoring Mike and Cynthia have been completed," he wrote in a statement issued Tuesday morning.

The sudden move caps days of controversy that found Heisler, 42, the source of growing tension in a town rattled by several high-profile murders.

He leaves with the family he claimed to serve deeply upset by his actions.

"I feel like he took liberties with speaking for us in matters that don't reflect who we are, and don't reflect what we believe," said Christina Foreman. Her mother, Cynthia McLelland, 65, was found shot to death in her Forney home on March 30 along with husband Mike McLelland, 63, who was Kaufman County's district attorney.

After initially letting Heisler serve as her spokesman, Foreman said she became troubled by some of his statements and decided on Tuesday to part ways with him.

"I think he misconstrued a lot of things," Foreman told WFAA. "We were misrepresented, and so that's where my connection with him ended."

Heisler arrived in Kaufman along with a swarm of media shortly after the murder of the McLellands. The killings — just two months after the slaying of McLelland's deputy, Mark Hasse — horrified the nation.

Heisler had gone to Kaufman County after Hasse's killing. He returned, he said, to properly honor the McLellands.

Heisler's charity organizes tributes to fallen officers. He started the U.S. Honor Flag in 2008 after serving four years in the Army, including a year in Iraq, according to the military.

His non-profit organization largely revolves around an American flag he received after the September 11 terrorist attacks that, he says, has flown for 1,000 officers and soldiers.

"This flag represents what this country stands for," Heisler declared last week at a memorial service for the McLellands that he helped organize. "This flag is here, and will continue to fly for those who make the ultimate sacrifice."

Heisler also began serving as a spokesman for some members of the McLelland family. As his profile grew, so did concern among some members of the family's circle.

"I think he saw an opportunity and took it," Foreman said.

Concern peaked on Saturday, when Heisler held a news conference outside his Keller home to announce that the McLelland family was critical of the murder investigation.

"The family has asked me to come in as their spokesperson until this is complete," Heisler said at the start of the news conference.

He continued by expressing overall dissatisfaction with issues ranging from the amount of the reward to law enforcement.

"The response time getting things done here... I don’t think the family has been happy with," he said as television news cameras rolled. "There was an issue of concern that Kaufman may not be prepared to handle this level of investigation. The family wants federal law enforcement to take the lead."

The revelation grabbed headlines... and infuriated law enforcement.

The Kaufman County Sheriff's Office responded by releasing a two-page statement — longer than any other it has released regarding this investigation — calling Heisler’s comments "both inaccurate and unauthorized."

Heisler started backtracking and tried to clarify his comments, but the more he spoke, the angrier the McLelland family became.

"A lot of his statements weren't authorized by us," Foreman said.

She said Heisler over-stepped his bounds and began sharing intimate details about the killings that he overhead from family members — some of it inaccurate.

"Those details don't need to be out there," Foreman said. "He was taking liberties that were not his to take, and saying things he shouldn’t say."

Leah Phillips, a close friend of the McLellands, felt Heisler was taking advantage of the family.

"These red flags started going up on Monday," Phillips told WFAA. "I felt like he thought he could promote himself and his cause. He just saw an opportunity, and this was huge."

Heisler strongly denies the accusation he was simply promoting his charity. He says he only received $2 in online donations, and gave the money to the reward fund.

"I have absolutely no benefit of doing this on my own," he told News 8 on Monday as concern first started to surface. "Like I have for families all over the nation, I’m happy to help."

Heisler did not respond to a request for an on-camera comment on Tuesday. His written statement said he will now focus on his treatment for Crohn's disease.

He will continue to honor fallen heroes, he insists, and will next be taking the Honor Flag to Arkansas, where a deputy died during training.

"Our primary focus is to honor fallen heroes," Heisler's statement said. "This will remain so going forward."

McLelland’s family notes they have no issue with Heisler's charity; they believe he means well, and is truly honoring those who served.

"His cause is a wonderful cause," Phillips said, "but he just took too many liberties with this family."

E-mail jbetz@wfaa.com

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