Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau walks on the stage during a microphone check. Photo by Scott Ball.
Susan Pamerleau was elected Bexar County sheriff in 2012 and served four years. She's now a U.S. marshal.

“Do you want to hear me do it?” U.S. Marshal Susan Pamerleau recalled the suicidal man on the other end of the phone asking her in 1978.

“I very quietly hung up the phone and he put a bullet in his head,” Pamerleau said.

The man was her husband of seven years.

“If I had been standing in front of him, he would have put a bullet in my head, and then one in his,” Pamerleau said while recounting years of abuse that started quickly after they married when she was 24.

“And there go I but by the grace of God,” said Pamerleau, now 72.  “I thank God every day that I’m alive, and I make out of every day everything I can.”

That she has. After retiring from the Air Force as a major general, the trailblazing Pamerleau became the first woman elected sheriff of Bexar County and then the first woman sworn in as a U.S. marshal in the Western District of Texas. And many of the events that got her where she is now were completely out of her hands, she said.

Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau. Photo by Scott Ball.
Susan Pamerleau said she approached the sheriff’s job from a leadership and management perspective, rather than from a law enforcement perspective. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Pamerleau said she would have never imagined this trajectory for her life. She was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and grew up in Oklahoma City; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Casper, Wyoming. In 1964, Pamerleau entered college on a voice and music scholarship because she had sang and played piano growing up. Her father was a pastor, and she had no exposure to career paths such as law or business, she said.

“After one semester I thought, ‘Oh, this is more difficult than I thought it was,’ so I changed my major,” she said.

She studied for three years at a small church-affiliated college called Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma, and finished her senior year at the University of Wyoming in Laramie with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

Pamerleau just attended her 50th anniversary class reunion in October, where she was honored as a distinguished graduate. She said her visit to Wyoming was very humbling.

“It was an amazing experience to be honored in that way by the university that I love and care about,” Pamerleau said.

After a long career with the U.S. Air Force and retiring as a two-star general in 2000, she served as a senior vice president for financial services group USAA.

Pamerleau said the series of events that got her where she is now was completely fortuitous. After all, she joined the Air Force only after a recruiter stopped by the sorority she was pledging at Wyoming.

“Had I never gone to the University of Wyoming, I probably never would have gone to the Air Force,” Pamerleau said. “Because who knows if the Air Force would have come to Enid, Oklahoma?”

Pamerleau also never planned to stay for long in the Air Force, she said. When she first joined, her plan was to work for a few years, see the world, get married and have children. Her marriage, to a man 14 years her senior, quickly became abusive, she said, but she endured it for seven years before deciding to ask for a divorce.

In 1978, she called her husband to tell him that she was leaving. He threatened to commit suicide if she didn’t return, but she said she knew he was only thinking of keeping her under his control. That’s when she chose to hang up the phone.

Her second career in law enforcement stemmed from a desire to bring her management skills to bear in public service. In 2010, Pamerleau ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Democratic County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson before being elected the first female Bexar County sheriff in 2012.

Pamerleau said she approached the sheriff’s job as one that required leadership and management of a large budget.

“It was not about being the first [woman],” she said. “It was really about redefining the role of what the Bexar County sheriff does.”

In the first few weeks after she was sworn in as a U.S. marshal, Pamerleau visited the eight divisions in her jurisdiction:  San Antonio, El Paso, Del Rio, Alpine, Pecos, Midland-Odessa, Waco, and Austin.

The Western District of Texas comprises 68 counties, with more than 6 million people living in the district.

“That’s part of the job — getting out and seeing folks and seeing what’s going on there,” she said. “Making sure they know that people care about what they’re doing.”

Pamerleau said she prioritizes hands-on leadership.

Philanthropist Harvey Najim greets then-Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau during an an announcement in 2016. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“The job of someone in a leadership position is to take care of your people,” she said. “Because if you don’t take care of them, they’re not going to take care of the mission. And if people don’t feel like you have their best interests in mind, then they’re not going to give their best.”

She also sees a lot of similarities in the responsibilities of U.S. Marshals and the county sheriff. As sheriff, Pamerleau said she oversaw law enforcement, court security, and running the county jail, while U.S. marshals are an arm of law enforcement, protect the judicial system, and transport prisoners.

“It’s federal law enforcement, and you might say a marshal is like a federal sheriff,” she said.

Though she was the first woman elected to the position, Pamerleau served only one term as Bexar County sheriff. In 2016, while running for re-election and surviving a union vote of no confidence from the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County, her challengers criticized her performance and slammed her over four suicides in the County jail in a four-week span that summer. 

Pamerleau eventually lost her bid for a second term to her Democratic challenger and current sheriff, Javier Salazar. But she’s made her peace with that.

“God had a bigger plan,” she said.

Pamerleau will celebrate her final ceremonial swearing-in as marshal Jan. 23 at the federal courthouse in San Antonio.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.