Former Denton County Sheriff Benny Parkey Dies Over the July 4th Weekend

Benny Parkey thought he could beat death if he kept moving. He reasoned it was hard to hit a moving target. He wasn’t afraid of death catching him, though. He simply enjoyed the chase. He didn’t plan to linger suffering from stage 4 lung cancer. He’d often say if he grew too weak to go anywhere, he’d just sit out on his back porch and shoot his guns until he took his final breaths.

He carried a gun for most of his life. First, as a lawman for the city of Denton, where he’d garner a reputation as a “bulldog,” and next, as the top dog for the county. As Denton County sheriff, he was known as a fair man with impeccable integrity. He also had a way with words. He’d been known to disarm suspects just by talking with them.

Sitting in his recliner located in a sofa on early Saturday morning, he’d turned his words toward his loved ones who lingered beside him before he he died. He’d been planning another trip with his childhood sweetheart, Candy Harris, with whom he’d recently reconnected, and to attend his son’s wedding next month. But he knew death had finally caught up to him.

“When I walked in the door that morning, after the phone call, his face lit up when he saw me,” Harris says. “We cuddled up, [and] he said he was sorry it was almost over, just not going to make it.”

After a long battle with lung cancer, Parkey was tired. Over the past year or so, he’d been going quite frequently to the doctor to have fluid drained off his lungs. Then he caught pneumonia. Harris says he told his son to go to his safe and grab a flash drive and his father’s wedding ring. “Now that’s yours,” he told his son from the recliner in the sofa where he lingered. Harris says that’s where he died, holding his son’s hand.

He was 63 years old.

“I was sitting beside him, rubbing his hand,” Harris recalls. “He'd pat mine, and then he turned his head to me, opened his eyes with clarity and just looked a few moments. I sensed something different and asked Eric to move to my place. Eric did and Neitha [his fiancee] beside him. I moved to other side of him, and we all began to take turns peacefully telling him our thoughts. A few minutes later he passed.”

Friends and former coworkers took to Parkey’s Facebook page to post comments about how much the former sheriff of Denton County had touched their lives. One former employee wrote, “Benny was a man of principle without hypocrisy, not even a trace. You may not always agree with what he said, but you knew where he stood and he respected dissenting opinions.

“Every person in Denton County is better off because of his life,” he added, “and Denton County will never see another like him.”

A recovering dairy farmer, Parkey was hauling a bag of feed across the pasture when he ran out of breath and dropped to his knees. He wasn’t sure what was wrong. He’d always done his best to stay in shape. He’d been practicing martial arts for decades with his buddy Mike Woodson, who ran the Denton Junior Optimist Judo Club. He was surprised to learn that stage 4 lung cancer had stolen his breath.

He still lived in the same house he once shared with his wife, Deborah, whom he’d spent most of his life loving. Located west of Krum, it is a modest home where they spent many years together. They’d been together for more than 40 years when she died in 2014. She’d been suffering several health problems, including multiple sclerosis, when Parkey learned about his cancer diagnosis in 2012. He’d been seeking a third term as Denton County sheriff, facing a political opponent named after a Texas hero.

He lost the election.

A man on a mission when the Observer met with him in February 2015, Parkey was determined to get his political opponent with the Texas hero’s name out of office. Parkey said he felt his legacy at the Denton County Sheriff’s Office had been blemished by Will Travis, a lawman with a tarnished reputation.

He saw his friend and former sheriff’s employee Tracy Murphree, a former Texas ranger, as the man to honor his legacy, the right sheriff for job. He began attending the political forums, rallies, meetings and polls. He knew many of the lawmen who showed up to watch Murphree and Travis. Parkey had a reputation for being a “straight-shooter,” a lawman of integrity, and he used the last of his strength to help his friend defeat their opponent.

“Benny Parkey was a cops' cop, that's the biggest compliment one cop can give another,” Murphree says. “Benny was a great friend and a dedicated public servant. He will be missed by all that knew him. I will miss my friend immensely.”

He attended Murphree’s election watch party in early March at Fuzzy’s Taco in Denton. He hovered at the edge of the party, conversing with a few people and enjoying Harris’ company. When Travis lost the election, and Murphree won the Republican nomination for county sheriff, Parkey later told the Observer that he now could die a happy man.

Parkey, though, was more than a man bent on revenge. He was also one with a newfound joy for life, determined not to end up wasting away in a hospital bed or cooped up in his house with hospice hovering over him. Shooting guns off his back porch was the last resort, not one he was ready to embrace. He’d reconnected with Harris, whom he pursued with coffee dates. Then they began taking trips together to Austin, San Antonio, South Padre and, Harris says, lots of trips to Holly Lake. Photos of their adventures soon appeared on social media.

“We stayed moving,” Harris says. “We said we went back to our hippie days when we dated. (I was 16, he was 18).”

Parkey didn’t look like a man running from death, or one making the final memories of his life. He looked like a man embracing life. He smiled often in his photos and posted encouraging updates and comments to his friends. He’d found a new purpose and life, and he shared his thankfulness in his final text messages to Harris the night before he died:

Parkey: “I always worry about you. Can’t help myself. I don’t want you to have any concerns. You have had enough. You damned sure don’t need my shit.”

Harris: “You are my shit!”

Parkey: "I know, and I love your for that. Not only have you filled my heart and life with smiles, hugs and happiness. You brought a purpose I didn’t know I could find.”
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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.