The Sheriff Who Taught Jeff Bridges How to Be a Texas Lawman

Parnell McNamara inspired the Oscar-nominated role in Hell or High Water, and his real-life exploits hunting down “weird sickos” could be their own movie.

Courtesy Charlotte McNamara

“When someone sees a Texas lawman, the first thing you notice is the hat,” Sheriff Parnell McNamara told Jeff Bridges over the phone.

McNamara, a Waco native, owns more than 50 cowboy hats—some Stetsons, some bespoke, some worn, some new.

“You don’t want to look like Howdy Doody or Billy Crystal in City Slickers,” he informed Bridges. “A hat is very important.”

The two were having one of many phone calls in preparation for Bridges’s Oscar-nominated role in Hell or High Water as a Texas Ranger named Marcus Hamilton. The character was inspired by McNamara, whose cousin Taylor Sheridan wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay. (The film was also nominated for Best Picture.)

McNamara, 70, was a U.S. marshal for more than 30 years and now serves as the sheriff of McLennan County. He looks exactly how you’d imagine: leather gun holster for his .45-caliber pistol, creased jeans, boots, a perfectly trimmed mustache, and of course, a cowboy hat.

At the sheriff’s advice, Bridges carried a .45-caliber automatic, grew a mustache, and drove a Dodge pickup truck for the movie. It’s exactly the same model as McNamara’s, only it’s silver instead of black. And the sheriff’s unwieldy rack of long guns is missing in the film.

“The cool thing about him is that he wanted to learn everything he could about that lawman character,” McNamara told me last week. “He wanted to get everything right, from the hat to the guns to the shirt to the boots.”

The two read lines from pivotal moments in the film, and McNamara provided notes on how to carry a gun once you’re retired.

“Undo your shirt and stick it inside,” McNamara recalls telling Bridges, explaining how carrying a firearm in a boot would make it hard to reach in an emergency. “If you have to get it out quick—watch the end of the movie, you can tell where his gun is.”

"He was so helpful," Bridges told a local TV reporter, of McNamara. "He was the first guy I called up, and ya know, showed him pictures of my uniform and said, ya know, 'is it lookin' right?'”

“He’s the kind of fella that you’d like to sit around a campfire with,” the sheriff says now, of Bridges. “I was just overwhelmed to get to know him, and I told him: he’s the best of the best.”

Their chats must have worked: Bridges was nominated for an Academy Award (and a Golden Globe) for his role in Hell or High Water; McNamara was at one point mistaken for Bridges at the movie premiere.

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In total, the film was nominated for three Golden Globes and four Oscars.

The film is a Western heist thriller about two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who rob banks in an effort to raise enough cash to save their family’s land. Pursuing them is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, looking for one last big bust before he’s forced to retire.

“Maybe one of these bank robbers is gonna want a gunfight and I can dodge my retirement in a blaze of glory,” says Hamilton, in the film.

The dialogue mirrors real-life idioms McNamara would use, as well as the light-hearted banter (often unabashedly un-PC) he employs with the men in his department.

“He wouldn't know God if he crawled up his pant leg and bit him on the pecker,” Hamilton says at one point, of a TV evangelist.

“This is what they call white man's intuition,” he says later. His partner Alberto responds: “Sometimes a blind pig finds a truffle.”

One of the funnier quotes in the movie—with a small-town waitress—involves an encounter Sheridan says he actually experienced in West Texas.

“Ain't nobody ever ordered nothing but a T-Bone steak and baked potato. Except one time, this asshole from New York ordered a trout, back in 1987,” she said. “We ain't got no goddamned trout.”

While a crime reporter in Waco, I interviewed McNamara countless times from his butter yellow office, sitting on the worn-in brown leather chairs, surrounded by his extensive firearm collection, an antique detonator, a full-scale weapons safe, and portraits of family members on horseback.

A wall-mounted television plays Fox News all day long.

Every item on McNamara’s desk and on his person, down to his boots, echoes his passionate sense of tradition, conservatism, and pride. He even lives in the home his great-grandfather built in the 1880’s after his family emigrated from Ireland. On a table in his office waiting room sits a photo of himself on horseback at the age of nine.

McNamara comes from a long line of McLennan County lawmen. His brother, Mike McNamara, served beside him in the marshals. His father, T.P. McNamara, was a deputy U.S. marshal for 36 years, and his grandfather, Emmitt Parnell McNamara, was a U.S. marshal and a former McLennan County sheriff’s deputy.

And when Mike McNamara died in September 2015, Jeff Bridges called Parnell personally to offer his condolences.

“That shows what kind of guy he is,” McNamara said. “He is just a real gentleman.”

But truly no story about the sheriff can be told without mentioning infamous “broomstick murderer” Kenneth McDuff, who killed his first victim with a 3-foot-long broomstick.

Parnell’s father, T.P. McNamara, encountered the McDuff case during his law enforcement career in the 1960s, a full 30 years before Parnell would help catch him for committing a second rash of murders after he was released on parole.

McDuff is blamed by authorities for killing at least 14 women, but McNamara contends that it could be as many as 20.

McNamara can list off the names and details of every victim who was killed by McDuff, and he still becomes emotional discussing it.

The killer, who has been described as “one of the most sadistic, vicious murderers Texas has ever produced,” was executed by lethal injection in 1998.

Despite the nuance in the film, McNamara’s take on crime-fighting is stubbornly black and white. He has an extreme sense of right and wrong, best exemplified by a folder he keeps in his office labeled “weird sickos,” full of information about suspected child predators, pimps, and prostitutes.

His language often reflects that view—even before conviction—and he has no qualms about calling inmates or suspects “scumbags,” or “cockroaches.”

“I describe some of these people as cold-blooded killers and sick perverts, especially the ones that prey on our children,” McNamara told me in November 2015. “But I really don’t know what else to call them.”

The film's pace matches a lot of the feel of law enforcement work in Texas, especially in McLennan County. Reviews endlessly describe the movie as simultaneously relaxed and urgent, set at both a waltz and a run.

“That’s the way a lot of cases are—you have highlights and ups and downs,” McNamara said.

But, much like Hamilton, McNamara was forced to retire from the U.S. Marshals at the mandatory age of 57.

Ten years later, he’d had enough of retirement and won election as county sheriff in 2012.

McNamara’s start was blemished by a lawsuit alleging retaliation against nine current and former deputies. The deputies said they were punished by McNamara’s new regime for publicly supporting his opponent in the primary election. Those accusers received more than $2 million from McLennan County over the case. (According to Tommy Witherspoon, of the Waco Tribune-Herald, County Judge Scott Felton said the settlement was more about financial risk than about who was right or wrong in the case.)

McNamara still becomes visibly emotional about particularly tragic or seemingly unjust cases. When 48-year-old Crawford woman Laura Patschke was killed in her own bed with a shotgun, McNamara was extremely affected by walking through the crime scene.

James Ray Brossett, Patschke’s ex, allegedly broke into her home, shot her while she slept, and then shot her teenage son in the arm while he and his brother ran from him. Patschke’s 13-year-old old daughter hid under her bed until deputies arrived.

“This was a very brutal, senseless, cowardly act,” McNamara told me in July 2015.

His emotional response to that vicious crime compelled him to spearhead the manhunt, arrest the suspect 98 miles from the crime scene, and personally drive the man all the way back to the McLennan County Jail. All in less than 24 hours. (Brossett has since been indicted on capital murder charges.)

“This was a very sweet, beautiful person who was gunned down in cold blood in her own home,” he said then, his voice breaking. “She was in bed asleep with her handsome sons and 13-year-old daughter in the house.”

“It just shook me up,” he says now, about walking through the home, which was covered in blood and bullet casings.

In 1998, Texas Monthly ran a cover story featuring McNamara, then a U.S. marshal, entitled “The Last Posse,” about how the lawman was so incensed when a thief nabbed his daughter’s horse that he formed a posse to catch the suspects himself.

“Me and Parnell, we don’t just have horses, we love ’em,” said a cowboy who for a while lived in McNamara’s stables and honest-to-God goes by the name Lonesome Dave Snyder.

The suspects who lifted Marisa’s beloved sorrel (named Penny) were eventually caught, in a historic case that marked the first time a stolen horse has led to a conviction in modern federal court. (Unfortunately, the case wasn’t cracked before the poor Penny was slaughtered.)

The men in McNamara’s assembled team, wrote Gary Cartwright, “fell back on a century of Texas law enforcement tradition, recruiting an old-fashioned posse among close friends. The posse included Secret Service agent Robert Blossman, assistant U.S. attorney Bill Johnston, and Special Ranger Eddie Foreman.”

Cartwright called McNamara and his posse “the spiritual descendants of an unforgiving school of frontier lawmen who recognized the fundamental, unbreakable bond between man and horse.”

(It’s also worth noting that McNamara has now made Bridges “part of his posse” by giving him an honorary sheriff’s deputy laminated “badge” with his face on it.)

“I grew up in a small town in Texas, and all those towns were so vibrant,” Sheridan, McNamara’s cousin, said. “And all the people that remained—they’re really really tough people.”

Sheridan grew up in nearby Cranfills Gap, and he often saw McNamara and his brother, Mike, as role models.

“I thought I’d do something like that: go out during the day hunting bad guys and come home at night to the ranch,” he told Texas Monthly.

Instead, Sheridan became an actor and then a screenwriter, nabbing the role of Deputy Chief David Hale in Sons of Anarchy before writing 2015’s Sicario.

“I wrote the movie thinking about [Parnell], who got forced into early retirement when he should’ve still been working,” Sheridan said. “The day before he was forced to turn in his badge he was kicking down some guy’s door and arresting him with a warrant, but because of a number, he was mandated to retire. That combination of things seemed to me really fascinating to explore” in the movie.

“It seemed wrong to devote your life for that purpose and have it taken from you,” McNamara told me last week. “I had to leave my badges and my credentials in my office, and I didn’t have a cotton-pickin’ thing in my billfold except a driver’s license and a Sam’s card.”

“Taylor was a little guy when my brother and I were U.S. marshals,” he said. “I guess we made an impression on him.”