The Last Posse

We don’t hang horse thieves anymore, which is lucky for the men who took Marisa McNamara’s sorrel mare. But as the band of old-time Texas lawmen who hunted them down will proudly tell you, frontier justice is alive and well.

IT SEEMED INCONCEIVABLE THAT SOME some damned fool would steal Parnell McNamara’s daughter’s horse, in broad daylight no less. Though there were about fifteen horses in the McNamara family stable in Bosqueville, west of Waco, the thieves targeted the two horses penned behind the family rodeo arena, just across FM 1637. One was Marisa McNamara’s beloved sorrel mare, Penny, and the other a registered quarter horse named Mr. Deck Note, owned by a close friend, Tonia Smith. Horse-trading is a primary occupation in the rural areas of Central Texas, and the sight of men loading horses into trailers in the middle of the day didn’t attract attention. It was a cool and clever operation, its very ordinariness providing ideal cover. In any other place, at any other time, it might have been the perfect crime.

What the crooks didn’t know on that June 1996 afternoon was that Parnell McNamara, 51, is a deputy U.S. marshal with a reputation for inordinate stubbornness. Parnell is a throwback to a time when a select few made it their mission to track down—simply because it was the right thing to do—elusive bad guys. Like serial killer Kenneth McDuff, whom Parnell and his 50-year-old brother, Mike, also an ornery deputy U.S. marshal, had trailed and help corral. On the day of the horse theft, Parnell was on his way to Seagoville to deliver a load of Bandidos motorcycle gangsters to the federal prison when his 19-year-old daughter called him on his mobile phone with the terrible news.

A tall, leathery man with a dust-colored mustache and the steely gray eyes of a wolf, Parnell took the information in his usual stoic manner. “I’ve got a load of crooks right now, honey,” he told his daughter, “but I’ll be there as soon as I can.” The note of desperation and the sense of loss in Marisa’s voice must have touched a raw, primal nerve in the lawman: Stealing a horse was one of the most personal of violations, not altogether different from kidnapping a child. One does not trespass on such hallowed ground. Less than 24 hours earlier, Parnell had been helping his daughter practice her barrel racing in that very arena, as they did almost every night after work. No girl ever loved a pet more than Marisa loved that mare. Now the horse was gone, and the chances of recovering her were slim.

Once his prisoners were delivered, Parnell wheeled the prison van around and sped toward Waco. Though the crime was the jurisdiction of Waco city police, he wasn’t about to wait for justice to take its customary course—down a dead-end street, likely as not. Within a few hours he and Mike had rolled resolutely into action, printing and distributing posters with a photograph of Mr. Deck Note—unlike the plain-colored Penny, Mr. Deck Note had an easily identifiable white spot on his rump—and offering a $2,000 reward. Crime Stoppers offered an additional $1,000 and videotaped a reenactment of the crime that was shown on the local news.

Finally, they 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. Though outsiders might have thought it legal overkill, the posse was the sort of reaction folks in Waco have come to expect from the McNamaras and their friends. “How long has it been since the U.S. marshals, the U.S. attorney, the Secret Service, and the Texas Rangers galloped across the prairie in pursuit of horse thieves?” Johnston mused from his office on the banks of the Brazos River in Waco, his face flushed with pride. “Probably, you have to go back to the James Gang.”

THE MCNAMARAS AND THEIR AD HOC POSSE are the spiritual descendants of an unforgiving school of frontier lawmen who recognized the fundamental, unbreakable bond between man and horse. A horse was among the necessities of life in the nineteenth century. “If a thief stole your horse and left you afoot halfway between Waco and Austin, it was a death sentence,” says the posse’s commander, Eddie Foreman, a field inspector for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) and Texas Ranger. A good horse was likely to be a man’s closest companion and the last creature he would abandon in a crisis. The law of the frontier paid tribute to this bond, brooking no excuse and advocating every possible effort to bring horse rustlers to justice.

Until the present century, hanging was the legally prescribed punishment, though sometimes not the most convenient one. In 1874 an outraged mob broke into the Bell County jail in Belton and shot to pieces nine suspected horse thieves. (Stealing cattle was also a hanging offense but with some variations in style. Cattle thieves caught in the act were almost always hanged on the spot, since herding the outlaws along with the pilfered cattle back to town was universally viewed as inexpedient.) Quasi-legal posses flourished in the nineteenth century. One particularly effective group was Colorado’s Uplift Society, so called because of its motto: “It is essential to forgive all horse thieves, and they can best be forgiven after they are hanged.”

Many of the folks I spoke to at the J&J Trading Post in Bosqueville tended to agree with this traditional philosophy. Five other horse stealings had been reported in the previous nine months, along with some missing saddles and tack. A stolen horse had been tied to a tree and shot. Anger and frustration ran deep in the communities of Bosqueville and China Spring. Stolen horses are difficult to recover—in only one of the five cases had any been found—and the thieves harder still to prosecute. Reddish-brown horses like Marisa’s sorrel, for example, all look the same to most jurors. Most owners don’t bother branding horses, and without a brand or some other identifying mark (such as a lip tattoo), proof of ownership is subjective. Some breeder’s associations

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