Athens Review, Athens, Texas

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July 22, 2013

Suspect in DA killings: Life took 'drastic turn'

KAUFMAN — Less than two weeks after he was convicted of stealing three computer monitors from the Texas county he served as justice of the peace, Eric Williams offered a blunt assessment of his predicament. He saw himself as a victim of a terrible misunderstanding. And he believed he'd never recover from it.

"My life has taken a drastic turn," Williams told a probation officer who interviewed him for a presentence investigation report recently obtained by The Associated Press.

A year later, the document is among the windows into what authorities believe is the motive for the slayings of Kaufman County's district attorney, the DA's wife and an assistant prosecutor.

Williams and his wife, Kim, were indicted June 27 on capital murder charges stemming from the killings, which focused national attention on this town about 30 miles southeast of Dallas earlier this year.

The couple has refused to speak to media since their arrests in April, but documents and interviews with those who knew Williams paint a picture of a low-level public servant and lawyer whose anger and frustration grew as his career crumbled before him.

Prosecutors vehemently argued and succeeded in convicting Williams of the computer monitor thefts and stripping him of his JP post, law license and state law enforcement certification. Although he received probation instead of jail time, Williams called the matter "a tragic misunderstanding that has taken my livelihood and reputation" and would amount to a "life-long sentence."

"To achieve what I have accomplished takes years of education, hard work and commitment," he said in the presentence report.

Authorities believe the fallout from his conviction prompted him to seek revenge against those who prosecuted the case. District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia were killed in their home in March, two months after Assistant DA Mark Hasse was shot to death in a parking lot near the county courthouse. The Williams' court-appointed attorneys have declined to comment on the case.

Alan Brantley, a former FBI profiler, said the thoughts expressed by Williams could be a clue to someone whose life was based almost entirely on his position in the community and lacked the ability to cope with losing it.

"For some people, you're either with them or against them, and they just don't have that flexibility," said Brantley, who isn't involved in the case.

In Kaufman, Williams was seen as something of an eccentric with an affinity for guns. Records show he served in the Army, the Army Reserve and the Texas National Guard, attaining the rank of second lieutenant and earning the designation of expert marksman with pistol bar. He also held a series of positions with law enforcement agencies through the years, most of them in an unpaid, reserve capacity.

Steve Hulme, a lawyer who lives in Kaufman, remembers Williams' car loaded with weaponry when the two traveled together to see a party involved a case in which they were opposing counsel.

"I was shocked to see all that stuff — guns, a bullet proof vest," Hulme said.

Jim Lyons, the former police chief in Springtown, said he knew Williams growing up through Boy Scouts. When Williams sought to join the Springtown force on a voluntary basis in the early 1990s, Lyons agreed to hire him. But Lyons said he ultimately was forced to fire Williams for tapping into the department computer without authorization and then failing to own up to it.

"He lied to me," Lyons said. "And that's a big thing. The way I came up in police work, if you lie to the chief, you're gone."

Lyons said Williams later offered to provide him with an expensive police radio if he agreed to keep the circumstances of the dismissal quiet. Lyons said he refused the offer.

Williams grew up in Azle northwest of Fort Worth and graduated from TCU with a degree in criminal justice. According to his profile page on an alumni website, his student activities included Army ROTC and membership in Phi Beta Kappa. However, local and national Phi Beta Kappa representatives say they have no record of Williams ever belonging to the academic honor society.

After graduating from Texas Wesleyan Law School, Williams began practicing law in Kaufman, where he was already known in the town's legal circles because of his work as a court coordinator for a district judge.

Williams was elected JP — a job that requires dealing with minor civil and criminal matters — in 2010 and earned an annual salary of $53,000 and $6,500 in benefits. He sought the post after a good portion of his income from his family law practice dried up due to a change in Kaufman County policy dealing with court appointments.

Records show he received nearly $611,000 in county funds for handling court-appointed child abuse or neglect cases over a six-year period ending in 2010. But that income stream dropped precipitously — from nearly $173,000 in fiscal year 2007 to $16,000 in 2010 — after Erleigh Norville Wiley, then a county judge, instituted a rotation system to dole out cases more equitably.

Wiley, who was named to replace McLelland as DA, said in a recent interview that Williams was upset by her decision but eventually agreed to be part of the rotation.

"When it came to our attention all the money he was making, even though we were told he was doing a great job, we thought somebody should look into it," Wiley said.

At the sentencing phase of Williams' theft case, his wife characterized him as "a loving man." That contradicted the image presented in testimony offered by McLelland and Hasse indicating he made death threats against a former girlfriend and a local attorney.

Kim Williams gave a much different portrayal of her husband after the DA killings this year. Court documents state she confessed to being present when Williams shot the McLellands and Hasse. She has since filed for divorce, calling their marriage "insupportable because of discord or conflict of personalities."

In 2009, Williams joined the Texas State Guard, a volunteer militia-type group that assists in time of disaster. Many of his friends are guard members, and authorities believe they helped him cover his tracks in the alleged murder plot, although they did so unwittingly.

One guardsman is cited in court documents as agreeing to rent a storage locker where investigators found ammunition and other evidence they believe link Williams to the killings.

John Sickel, an attorney and guardsman who helped with Williams' appeal of his theft conviction, said members of the group share a bond "just like there would be in the Army," but they would never break the law.

"We're not a bunch of hillbillies out there with our AK47s doing this, doing that," he said.

Sickel said he couldn't comment on the circumstances surrounding the murder charges, but he believes Williams had a legitimate reason to feel frustration over the theft case.

"This is a guy who had his life destroyed with a prosecution that was somewhat over the top, in my opinion," Sickel said.

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