Free to Kill

Kenneth McDuff is one of the most sadistic, vicious murderers Texas has ever produced. Why did the state parole board put him back on the streets?

Twenty-one years after he should have died in the electric chair for the savage murder of three teenagers, Kenneth McDuff was back on the streets, as cocky and mean and dangerous as ever. In the small Central Texas community of Rosebud, where McDuff grew up, people pumped shells into shotguns and shoved heavy pieces of furniture in front of double- and triple-locked doors. “This is a walking town,” said John Killgore, the editor of the Rosebud News, “but these days you see very few people on the streets. McDuff’s return has scared the hell out of this town.” At Festival Days in the Falls County seat of Marlin, word spread like wildfire that McDuff had sworn to show up and kill one person for every day he spent in prison. Tommy Sammon, who had humiliated McDuff in a playground fight in the eighth grade, worried about his teenage children. A man who had once prevented McDuff from crushing the throat of a young woman with a broomstick—a dress rehearsal for what McDuff would do to a teenage girl in southern Tarrant County some months later—pushed the button on his telephone answering machine and was greeted with the sound of three gunshots. No question about it: Kenneth McDuff was back in town.

It was October 11, 1989. Falls County sheriff Larry Pamplin telephoned his longtime friend deputy U.S. marshal Parnell McNamara in Waco and told him, “You’re not going to believe what happened, Parnell. They’ve paroled Kenneth McDuff.” There was a brittle silence as McNamara processed this totally illogical piece of information, then McNamara laconically inquired, “Have they gone crazy?” There didn’t seem to be any other explanation. McDuff wasn’t just another killer who had fallen through a crack in the system; he was the most violent, sadistic, remorseless criminal either of these veteran law-men had ever come across. Their association with McDuff went back more than a quarter of a century, because their fathers, the late deputy U.S. marshal T. P. McNamara and the late Falls County sheriff Brady Pamplin, had seen McDuff’s savagery up close. Brady Pamplin was the lawman who had arrested McDuff in 1966 for the three murders—literally shooting McDuff’s car to pieces as he tried to escape. People had always wondered why Brady Pamplin didn’t kill McDuff when he had the chance; no telling how many lives that would have saved. Larry Pamplin and Parnell McNamara and his brother, Mike—who is also a deputy marshal in Waco—were teenagers at the time, about the same age as McDuff, and the incident had made a permanent impression on them. Parnell McNamara remembered how Brady Pamplin’s voice broke as he described the killings to Parnell’s father: “T.P., he put a broomstick across the throat of that poor little girl up in Tarrant County and broke her neck just like you’d kill a possum.” Brady Pamplin was as tough and as able as any lawman who ever lived, a legendary figure who had been a Texas Ranger before World War II and had served as sheriff of Falls County for nearly thirty years, a man who had stood toe to toe with the worst that society could spit up, but his voice quivered and his hands shook when he talked about Kenneth McDuff.

What really burned in the guts of the lawmen was how the system had failed so utterly, how at every juncture McDuff had thumbed his nose at authority and sent it reeling. Brady Pamplin and other Central Texas lawmen had been handling McDuff since he was a teenager, had seen flashes of his sadistic nature and his complete contempt for the rules of society. They finally put him away on a series of burglary charges in 1965, or so they thought. McDuff was assessed penalties totaling 52 years, but because he was only eighteen, the sentences were assessed concurrently instead of consecutively. McDuff made trusty in three months and was back on the street in less than ten, the smirk on his face suggesting that the time had been well spent. Eight months after he was paroled, McDuff went on one of his periodic rampages and killed the three teenagers. A jury gave him death, but after a 1972 Supreme Court decision effectively overturned all the death sentences in the United States, McDuff’s sentence was commuted to life. In 1976, ten years after the murders, McDuff had served enough time to be eligible for parole, though the parole board was certainly under no obligation to grant it—and hardly anyone supposed that it ever would.

But McDuff had time on his side. He applied for parole, and when the board turned him down, he kept on applying until he succeeded—and now law enforcement officers say that as many as nine women may be dead as a result. This spring the entire nation learned what the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles couldn’t figure out: Kenneth McDuff is an unrepentant, habitual killer. He was featured on America’s Most Wanted and became the object of a nationwide manhunt. In Texas the story of his twisted career was front-page news, especially along the Interstate 35 corridor, where he had stalked his victims. By the time he was reapprehended, Kenneth McDuff had come to personalize the violent crime wave that swept Texas in the past year—a crime wave abetted by a cynical parole policy whose aim has been to empty the prisons rather than safeguard the streets.

To gain parole from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice—as the superboard that controls paroles, pardons, and the prison system is now called—an inmate needs two votes from a three-person parole board team. In 1979 and again in 1980, McDuff got one of the two votes he needed, falling short by what must have seemed to him just a matter of bad luck. When he came up for parole the following year, McDuff tried to jigger the odds by offering a $10,000 bribe to a member of the parole board. He was subsequently tried and

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week