By Chris Francescani
KAUFMAN, Texas (Reuters) - Brandi Fernandez slipped into the Kaufman County Courthouse in her first full day as interim district attorney on Tuesday, taking over a job that authorities believe got her predecessor and one of her colleagues killed.
Praised as a smart, tough litigator and a fierce advocate for child victims of crime, Fernandez declined to address reporters and remained under close protection inside the courthouse throughout the day. A police cruiser was parked outside her single-family home surrounded by trees on Monday and Tuesday.
Atop her agenda was investigating the targeted killings of former District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife on Saturday and Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse on January 31.
As first assistant district attorney under McLelland, Fernandez, 42, was named to the interim job on Monday, after having worked in the office for nearly a decade.
Just before stepping into the job, Fernandez exuded calm, a colleague said.
"She's not the kind to appear rattled or look that way even if she is," said attorney Scott Gray, 35, a former Sherman County prosecutor whose wife was once Fernandez's trial partner. "She's very calm and collected. Don't think I've ever heard her raise her voice or seem disheveled."
Authorities believe the McLellands' killer intended to send a message. Mike and Cynthia McLelland each suffered multiple gunshot wounds at their home, and sheriff's deputies found cartridge casings next to their bodies, according to an affidavit reviewed by Reuters on Tuesday.
The McLelland killings came just two months after McLelland vowed to capture the killer of Hasse, who was shot dead near the town square.
The twin homicides have rocked mostly rural Kaufman County on the eastern outskirts of Dallas, and several law enforcement officials have called them a direct attack on the criminal justice system.
ARYAN BROTHERHOOD SPECULATION
Authorities have yet to identify any suspects while people in Kaufman speculate it was the work of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a white supremacist prison gang that had been the target of 34 indictments stemming from a task force that included Kaufman County prosecutors.
The racketeering charges accused the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas of exerting control over prison populations and neighborhoods through intimidation and violence and involvement in three murders, multiple attempted murders, kidnappings, assaults, and conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and cocaine.
A Houston-based federal prosecutor was withdrawing from his role in the multiagency task force that brought the racketeering case against the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of Texas said on Tuesday.
The spokeswoman would not elaborate on Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Hileman's reasoning for withdrawing, saying only that the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of Texas would continue to prosecute the case.
CRIMES AGAINST CHILDREN
Fernandez, who received her law degree from Texas Tech University in 1996, will hold the interim job 21 days unless Republican Governor Rick Perry appoints a replacement to fill out the rest of McLelland's term before then.
It was unknown whether Fernandez, who registered as a Republican in Kaufman County in 2005, was under consideration for the more formal appointment that would last until coming up for election in 2014.
"If you're a victim of a criminal act, and it involves a child, the last person you want to talk to is Ms. Fernandez. She's a real strong opponent of crimes against children," Gray said.
"She's tried murder cases, drug cases, pretty much anything you can think of, but what's near and dear to her heart is prosecuting crimes against children," Gray said.
Criminal defense attorney Eric Smenner, who has known Fernandez eight years and defended cases she prosecuted, said she was always well-prepared at trial.
"I've tried a lot of cases in 16 years and of all the prosecutors in Kaufman she is among the top, an excellent prosecutor," Smenner said.
Bobby Aga, 68, an insurance agent and longtime Kaufman resident who observed Fernandez while serving on a grand jury, called her sharp and insightful. "She really knows how to get to the core of a thing."
(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Eric Walsh)