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Officials suggest link between Texas prosecutors' slaying and racist prison gang

Kaufman County, Rexas, District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, were found shot to death in their home Saturday, just two months after the county's assistant DA, Mark Hasse, was gunned down outside the courthouse. NBC's Gabe Gutierrez reports.

Texas officials theorized Monday that the slayings of a Texas prosecutor and his wife over the weekend and the shooting death of a prosecutor in the same county in January may have been the work of a white supremacist group chillingly called the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas.

Ten alleged members of the gang could face the death penalty if they're convicted of charges — including murder — in a federal racketeering indictment unsealed in November. Texas law enforcement agencies warned shortly after the indictment was opened that there was "credible information" that members were planning to "retaliate."


And the multi-year investigation of the gang had in fact reached into Kaufman County, where District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, were shot to death Saturday inside their home, almost exactly two months after Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse was gunned down in a parking lot.

While Kaufman County Sheriff David Byrnes stressed to reporters Sunday that "there is nothing to indicate" that the two shootings were related, County Judge Bruce Wood — the chief administrator in Kaufman County, akin to chairman of a county commission — told NBC 5 of Dallas on Monday: "This was not just a random act. It seems to me there has to be some connection."

And U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, on Monday said he also believed both shootings could be the work of the Aryan Brotherhood.

"It seems that a scenario may be developing that the district attorney's office was investigating this gang or another gang and they wanted to prevent that investigation, and therefore they resort to violence," Poe told CNN.

Publicly available FBI files describe the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, or ABT, as a whites-only, men-only organization with thousands of members operating both inside and outside state and federal prisons throughout Texas. The gang was formed in the early 1980s and modeled itself after a California prison gang of the same name, the FBI says.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center discusses possible links between a Texas white supremacist group and the deaths of two prosecutors there.

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, told MSNBC that ABT was a well-oiled criminal machine and that he wouldn't be surprised if it was behind the killings.

"Like most of these race-based prison gangs, they are fundamentally a criminal enterprise," Potok said. "They are certainly white supremacists, but when push comes to shove, that is quickly set aside in the interests of the criminal enterprise."

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Almost from the day Hasse was killed, speculation swirled around the county that his death might have been retribution for the racketeering indictments charging 34 alleged ABT members, including four alleged leaders, with multiple murders, kidnappings, assaults and drug operations.

The original Aryan Brotherhood was formed in the notorious maximum-security prison in San Quentin, Calif., in 1964 — as a response to the integration of the prison, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Starting as a race-based protective organization, the AB grew to one of the country's largest prison gangs, with some 15,000 members. Many of the groups operations on the "outside" are direted by leaders who are still incarcerated.

Still unclear is why the gang, or its Texas branch, would target just Kaufman County, which was only one of 24 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies involved in the sprawling investigation. But whether it was involved or not, it's clear that the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas is a nasty bunch.

Members — who identify themselves with tattoos incorporating Nazi-era symbols, often the swastika or the SS lighting bolts — are required to report to outside leaders when they are released from prison, FBI case files record.

The indictment lists alleged crimes — including murder, arson, assault and drug distribution — dating as far back as 1993. Some of the alleged murder victims were ABT members who were killed to enforce discipline, it charges.

"ABT uses extreme violence and threats of violence to maintain internal discipline and retaliate against those believed to be cooperating with law enforcement," Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny Breuer said when the indictment was unsealed Nov. 9. 

"Through violence and intimidation, ABT allegedly exerts control over prison populations and neighborhoods and instills fear in those who come in contact with its members," he said.

The operation, as described by the government, is closely similar to that of the 211 Crew, a white-supremacist prison gang in Colorado to which Evan Spencer Ebel was believed to have belonged. Ebel is suspected of having shot and killed Colorado Prisons Director Tom Clements on March 19 before he drove to Texas and died in a shootout with police in Decatur two days later.

Authorities have said they were making "routine inquiries" into whether Ebel may have been involved in the death of Hasse, perhaps through some affiliation between the gangs, but no link between Ebel and ABT has been publicly reported. When the McLellands were killed Saturday, Ebel had been dead nine days.