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UPDATE: Federal Prosecutor Withdraws From Aryan Brotherhood Case [Audio]

KERA reporter Bill Zeeble

Update, Tuesday, 8:05 p.m.: Citing security concerns, a federal prosecutor in Houston has decided to remove himself from a large racketeering case involving the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas prison gang.

Attorneys involved in the case say they received an email from assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Hileman telling them that he would no longer be involved in the case, a decision some described as unusual and disconcerting.

 Ali R. Fazel, an attorney representing one of the 34 defendants, told KERA that Hileman did not give specific reasons for leaving the case.  

“We want the system to work. I think everybody in this system believes in this system, and we can’t have circumstances where prosecutors are afraid for their lives and we can’t have circumstances where defense lawyers are afraid for their lives.”

Angela Dodge, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Houston, told The Dallas Morning News, that the case is pending in the Southern District of Texas and would continue to be handled by the U.S. Attorney's Office and Department of Justice's Criminal Division.

The weekend shootings of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, and the murder of county prosecutor Mike Hasse have cast a spotlight on the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. The DA's office was involved in the multi-agency task force that investigated alleged members of the prison gang, but law enforcement officials have not said there is a direct link between the murders and the gang.

Update, Tuesday, 3:30 p.m.: The Kaufman County Courthouse and other county buildings will close Thursday at 11 a.m., a couple of hours before a public memorialfor slain Kaufman County DA Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia.

The county offices, with the exception of emergency services, will remain closed the remainder of the day in order to “honor and respect the lives” of the McLellands, according to a statement from the county judge’s office. The courthouse and other facilities will reopen on Friday.

Update, Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.: Parishioners from River of Life church in Kemp have formed a prayer group outside of the Kaufman County Courthouse. Kemp Mayor Donald Kile, who is a member of the church, told The Dallas Morning News, that the group would meet daily at 7 p.m. until the person responsible for the murders of District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia is found. The Kaufman County Courthouse and other county buildings will close Thursday at 11 a.m., a couple of hours before a public memorial for slain Kaufman County DA Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia.

Update, Monday, 4:55 p.m.: First Assistant District Attorney Brandi Fernandez has been named interim DA in Kaufman County. Fernandez will fill the position for 21 days or until Governor Rick Perry appoints a successor, according to a statement released this afternoon by the DA's office.

“During this time frame, the office will continue moving forward to serve the community while working through these tragic events which have affected the lives and families of this office,” the statement read. “Our hearts and prayers go out to the family of Mike and Cynthia McLelland. They will be deeply missed.”

Update, 3:11 p.m.: Matt Orwig, a former U.S. Attorney in the East Texas district that covers Kaufman County, calls the murders of Kaufman DA Mike McLelland and his wife a reminder of how dangerous it can be to be a prosecutor.

Orwig says it’s not wise to jump to any conclusion about involvement of the Aryan Brotherhood in McLelland’s murder and that of his first assistant prosecutor, Mark Hasse, two months earlier.

“Certainly because of the circumstances they are a possible target, and certainly of interest, I’m sure, to investigators,” Orwig told KERA. “It is a very organized and very violent organization that operates both inside and outside the walls of prisons.”

The former federal prosecutor says Aryan Brotherhood members have been convicted in Texas of drug distribution, murder, kidnapping, arson and extortion – among other things. He calls it a very active criminal enterprise.

“You know many organizations such as this are domestic terrorist organizations and really thrive on causing fear and concern among law enforcement and among citizens in general,” Orwig said.

Update, 1:40 p.m.: KERA's BJ Austin reports that the Dallas County district attorney’s office is also ramping up security after the Kaufman County district attorney and his wife over the weekend.

“I can tell you that I myself have prosecuted gang cases. I’ve prosecuted the worst of the worst.  And I’ve never feared, I’ve never feared any retaliation – not to this extent,” said Heath Harris, first assistant district attorney in Dallas.

“What happened in Kaufman County is not only a Texas tragedy, it has national consequences because all prosecutors are now going to have to question what we do.  You’re talking about a man who devoted his life to trying to protect the citizens of Kaufman County and they not only killed him, they killed his wife. And that’s unspeakable.” 

Harris said his boss, Dallas DA Craig Watkins, has always had extra security because of threats he’s received since being elected the first black district attorney in Texas.  Harris said those measures will be increased and additional security for prosecutors will be put in place.

“County Judge Clay Jenkins and Sheriff [Lupe] Valdez have expressed their support in making sure that not only Mr. Watkins is safe, but the prosecutors in this office are safe,” Harris said at a news conference. “There will be changes here in the courthouse, not only as far as the courthouse itself, but as far as where people park.”

Harris says those security measures are expected to extend to personal security details if necessary.  He says prosecutors are also encouraged to have concealed handgun licenses and carry a weapon for their protection if they want.  He says stepped up security is urgent.

Update, 12:30 p.m.: KERA's Bill Zeeble spoke about the Kaufman County shootings with public radio's The Takeaway this morning on KERA 90.1 FM.

Our Original Post Continues: Security remains high and residents are on alert in Kaufman County afterthis weekend's shootingsof District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife.

KERA reporter Lauren Silverman says courthouse employees -- some escorted into the building by armed officials -- have been instructed not to talk to the media. In fact, there are more reporters on the scene than anyone else. "It's very quiet," she says.

The Kaufman DA's office is closed today. The Dallas Morning News reportsthat County Judge Bruce Wood would not reveal any details about the investigation but he did say it was important a new DA be appointed soon. State law requires that the governor make the new appointment.

Law enforcement officials have been reluctant to say whether there is a direct link between white supremacist groups, the deaths of McLelland and his wife and the murder of prosecutor Mark Hasse in January. But authorities saythey are lookingat all possible connections, including the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas prison gang. The New York Times on Sundaypublished a timelineof the recent killings.

Check back with us throughout the day; we'll be updating this post as the story develops.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.