Four years ago, Erleigh Wiley was a judge under armed guard. Prosecutor Mark Hasse had been killed as he walked to the Kaufman County Courthouse.
His boss, Kaufman District Attorney Mike McLelland, and his wife Cynthia, had been gunned down in their Forney home.
Terror reigned. No one knew who was next.
Her husband, Aaron Wiley, was convinced from the moment Hasse was killed, that disgraced former Justice of the Peace Eric Williams was the killer.
He thought she may be next. His wife did not want to believe of a former judge, attorney and reserve police officer.
Only after Williams's arrest did she learn that his wife, Kim, told investigators she and a retired judge were on his hit list.
“It was a lesson learned you don't know who might be the one that's coming after you,” says Erleigh Wiley, who was appointed district attorney days after McLelland’s assassination. “I think Eric thought he was beyond the law and that he was smarter than everybody.”
Wiley’s written about a book titled, “A Target on My Back: A Prosecutor’s Terrifying Tale of Life on a Hit List” about that time in her life.
In the book, she writes about the day everything changed. It was Jan. 30, 2013, a routine day. It was the start of the morning. A jury trial was underway in her court, then came the commotion outside. Her court coordinator told her someone had shot Hasse.
By then, she’d been on the bench for 10 years – the first African-American countywide office holder in Kaufman County.
She’d known Hasse, but not well. He was a veteran prosecutor known for his fondness for telling courtroom war stories. She and her court coordinator had seen him the night before. They felt guilty because they’d “ducked” into the women’s bathroom to avoid one of his long stories.
Soon came the frantic call from her husband, then a federal prosecutor. “It’s Eric Williams,” he told her, she writes in her book. “He is crazy mad.”
Erleigh Wiley had gotten crosswise with Williams years ago, finding he'd overbilled the county hundreds of thousands of dollars on CPS cases. He’d gone on to run for justice of the peace, but had been convicted months earlier for stealing county computer equipment. He’d lost his job and his law license.
He had turned down a plea deal that would saved his law license.
Aaron Wiley was convinced he held a grudge against his wife over her earlier run-in. “I really did believe that she was in danger,” he says.
She just could not believe that Williams would go on a killing spree over a theft case.
Like Aaron Wiley, Mike McLelland had also been convinced that Williams was behind the killings. But as the weeks went by, the investigation languished and life began to return to some sort of normalcy. There were rumors that maybe the Aryan Brotherhood or the Mexican drug cartels could have been involved.
On March 30, 2013, she and Aaron were at a dinner party when her court coordinator called her sobbing. She said, “It’s Mike.”
“Mike who?” Wiley responded.
“It’s Mike McLelland. He’s been killed at his home, and they are looking for you and Aaron to make sure you are safe,” the coordinator responded.
His wife, Cynthia, a kindhearted woman who loved to cook and quilt, had also been killed.
Wiley and the other elected county officials in Kaufman were put under armed 24-hour guard. Her two boys, now in college, were still at home.
She recalls the moment in her office when a federal agent glanced at the open blinds to her office. He got up and shut them asking, “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
Aaron remained convinced that she may be next.
“My husband believed that in Eric’s mind, he wouldn’t have any of these problems if a certain nosy, black, female judge in Kaufman County had stayed out of his business,” she writes.
She was starting to come around to the idea that it was probably Williams.
For days, armed federal agents camped out in their home. Their dining room became a command center and staging area.
In the midst of all this, a new DA had to be chosen. Other judges suggested she put in for it. But then-sheriff David Byrnes, a former Texas Ranger, advised her against it. One close friend, having read the stories about the possible involvement of the Aryan Brotherhood, was adamantly against it.
Her husband was for it believing she would have more protection as the District Attorney.
About 10 days after McLelland’s death, she got word from the governor’s office that she had the job. By then, the net was beginning to tighten around Williams. Police had searched his home and found a link to a Crime Stoppers tip that threatened the judges in Kaufman County. The tipster had given details of the murders that had been publicly released.
One day not long after she’d been sworn in, special prosecutor Bill Wirskye came to her office. He told her that in debriefing Kim Williams that prosecutors had learned there was a hit list.
“Eric Williams had a list and your name was on the list,” he said, she writes in the book.
Another former district judge had also been on the list.
“Then you sort of get scared because people were killed,” she says. “That’s when you have to stop yourself from having irrational fears.”
Erleigh Wiley was the last person called to testify at Williams’ trial before a jury sentenced him to death.
Months later, Williams would return for a motion for new trial. She recalls passing him in the hallway. He was shackled and flanked by armed guards.
“In that moment, I locked eyes with Eric Williams,” she writes. “His spirit was not broken. He passed me without a word. He never flinched, wavered or looked away.”
She says she knew in that moment that he felt his work was not done.
“You realize how much grace there was, because there were so many opportunities that bad things could have happened,” says Aaron Wiley.
She says that those who worked in the DA’s office were victims, too.
“They weren’t targeted, but when somebody kills your boss, the symbol of your office, you have become a victim,” she said.
Eric Williams is now on Death Row. Kim Williams, his accomplice, is serving a 40-year sentence.
“Over 50 years, I was born in Kaufman County and I have lived here most of my life,” she ends the book. “A killer came to Kaufman County and hunted people that he thought had wronged him. He is gone now, but my county and I survived.”