Athens Review, Athens, Texas

In the News

May 13, 2013

People in Kaufman work to recover after 3 slayings


KAUFMAN, Texas (AP) — The road into Kaufman slithers past a barbecue shack with a chicken head on top, coiling around a sleepy town square marked by old brick facades and the venerable county courthouse.

It's a quiet little community known for ranches and rural living, but in the last few months, all that has changed: The assassinations of two prosecutors and the district attorney's wife have shaken this town's peaceful existence, tainting its image and scarring its psyche with fear, then shock and disbelief.

"We're not even at the point of PTSD," said former Kaufman Mayor Paula Bacon. "We're still in it. I woke up last night at 3, terrified, and I haven't been back to sleep yet — because I heard noises."

How does a community recover from the stigma of such tragedy? Is it enough to let time patch up the wounds?

The Dallas Morning News ( ) reports in Kaufman County, local leaders are planning a pair of events that could start the process.

On Thursday, which communities nationwide have begun to denote as Law Enforcement Appreciation Day, Kaufman County will honor its own; a week later will come a luncheon to acknowledge its employees' work over the last few difficult months.

"The challenge for Kaufman and the region is not to let these events define them for a long time," said Lisa LeMaster of The LeMaster Group, a Dallas firm that deals with perception management. "You don't always want the stories to say, 'Kaufman, comma, where two prosecutors were gunned down, comma.'"

Consider the commas these Texas names still bring to mind: Jasper, where James Byrd Jr. was chained to a pickup and dragged to his death in 1998. Mexia, the town where three black teens detained for marijuana possession drowned in officers' custody 30 years ago.

There's Waco — or "Whacko," as some began calling it after the clash between federal agents and David Koresh's Branch Davidians in 1993. And Dallas itself, which has fought for years to dispel the "City of Hate" label applied after the Kennedy assassination.

Around the country, acts of violence and abuse, tragedy and natural disaster have similarly marred other communities: Laramie. Newtown. Aurora. Boston. Oklahoma City. Columbine. New Orleans. Memphis. Penn State. West.

For much of the nation, Kaufman is now linked with two shocking crimes. How could this happen in a town where church spires reach into vast blue sky, where earnest municipal flags tout both progress and tradition, where nothing moves faster than 35 miles an hour?

"They had this horrible tragedy," said urban psychologist Harold Takooshian of Fordham University. The town's reputation has been sullied, a phenomenon described as "labeling theory."

"Whether it's right or wrong," he said, "it sticks until it's removed. What are they going to do about it?"

The Kaufman murders were high-profile: On the morning of Jan. 31, Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse was gunned down in a parking lot near the local courthouse. Two months later, Cynthia and Mark McLelland, the swaggering district attorney who had been investigating the case, were ambushed in their home.

Tensions were high. National media swirled. And though former justice of the peace Eric Williams and wife Kim have been charged with capital murder, the town remains on edge with unwanted attention and hovering cameras.

"I think people are just ready to return to the routine we were comfortable with before all this occurred," said Kaufman County Judge Bruce Wood. "Most people here enjoy the certainty that every day brings, and that was destroyed."

The violence will be on people's minds until the cases move through the justice system, he said.

But the effects can endure. Laramie, Wyo., is still struggling to overcome the 1998 murder of gay student Matthew Shepard, whose death became a rallying point for hate-crime legislation.

A place "can end up feeling deeply stigmatized when something like this happens," said University of Wyoming professor Beth Loffreda, whose book, Losing Matt Shepard, examined the effects of the case. "Especially if they're not known for anything else. It's like the crime fills a vacuum, so to speak."

Professor Howard Stein of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center said the public often projects a sense of "badness" onto a place, as if the evil is contagious and can be pushed, genie-like, back into the bottle.

Stein, who studied the aftermath of the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, said grief is necessary for recovery. "The trouble is, grief is painful, and for the most part, people flee from it."

That's what happened in Laramie, Loffreda said. As a result, "counter-narratives" developed, stories about what "really" happened that blamed the victim.

"For people, that's a way to cleanse themselves of that sense of stigma, to push away that sense of being judged," she said. "If you were to come to Laramie and ask 10 people what happened, six or seven would say it wasn't a hate crime; it was a drug deal gone bad."

The crime, she said, "did reflect on us, whether we wanted it to or not." While she commends the university for its efforts to promote dialogue and honor Shepard's memory, she said those efforts didn't much extend beyond the campus.

"We didn't grapple with it," Loffreda said. "We just repressed it. So we're not past it; this is still a town with problems."

Such associations can even hurt a town's economy, said Baylor University professor Mia Moody-Ramirez, who has studied the phenomenon in Jasper: People may elect not to move there, and residents may decide to leave.

"In Jasper, the economy was already bad, and businesses were already leaving," she said. "But with the dragging, it just became worse. . You can spend years or decades trying to overcome that negativity."

National media coverage promoted stereotypes, said Billy Rowles, who was Jasper's sheriff when Byrd was killed. "Me, especially," he said, "you know, being an old, pot-bellied, beer-drinkin' East Texas bigoted sheriff. Most of that was all true, but we weren't bigoted. Not the people in our community."

In Jasper, part of the recovery strategy was to be as open as possible. After the murder, Rowles reached out to local ministers to share all the information authorities had, to neutralize gossip's corrosive power.

"Rumors in the community will just eat you up," Rowles said. "We wanted to let everyone know straight from the horse's mouth what we had. We were in trouble. The crime was horrendous. God knows what the ramifications of it could have been to our little ol' community.

"These people told their congregations and next thing you know everyone in Jasper knew just about 99.9 percent of what was going on. There wasn't no rumors being spread."

Residents, too, went on the offensive, telling people Jasper was a great place to live. And Byrd's family handled the situation with grace.

While controversy over last year's ousting of a black police chief showed the town still has a ways to go, the swell of resident pride helped to repair Jasper's tarnished image.

Of all the restorative events planned in Kaufman County, the most powerful gesture could come at Kaufman's annual July 4 parade, where leaders hope to enlist the families of Mark Hasse and Mike and Cynthia McLelland as grand marshals.

"People are tired of the emotional drama," said Wood, the county judge. "But when you look at what we're experiencing as individuals, it's small in comparison to what these families have suffered over the last three months."

Several weeks ago, a prayer walk around the courthouse, arranged by local pastors, was another recent step in that direction.

"Healing occurs when you reach out in love to other people who are hurting," said senior pastor Ben Shinn of Kaufman's First United Methodist Church. "I do think that time will heal the wounds of the community."

That sense of ordinariness, the ability to pick up a rod and head to the lake without a care just because the fish are biting today, is all people want.

"We have to move on and grow," said Robert Eldridge, project manager at the Kaufman Neighborhood Development Organization. "It just happened, and we're dealing with it, and hopefully it'll be over. When it happens in a little town like this, it's a scary thing.


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