Crime

City Addresses Fatal Car Collision Caused By Off-Duty SMPD Officer; Life-Partner Of Woman Killed Says Case Is A ‘Long Way From Over’

Above, Pamela Watts speaks during a protest in July where she, and supporters, continued to seek justice for Jennifer Miller. Daily Record photo by Nick Castillo

The City of San Marcos acknowledged that it could have taken a different disciplinary approach after an off-duty SMPD officer caused a fatal crash, following criticism for not taking disciplinary action. 

San Marcos Police Department Sgt. Ryan Hartman, who was off-duty at the time of the collision, crashed into Pamela Watts and Jennifer Miller’s car on June 10, 2020 in Lockhart. Miller died on scene and Watts — Miller’s life-partner — was transported by helicopter to Ascension Seton Hays Hospital in Kyle to be treated for severe bodily and brain injuries.

Hartman was charged with negligent homicide but a grand jury in Bastrop County no-billed him, leaving Watts with only a civil suit as the recourse. Hartman was, however, cited for failing to stop at a stop sign.

Hartman was placed on administrative leave following the fatal crash. Civil service departments have 180 days to take disciplinary action against an employee charged with misconduct related only to internal policy violations. According to a statement SMPD released Friday afternoon, the department chose to tie its internal investigation to the outcome of the  grand jury trial. On Nov. 17, 2020, SMPD received unofficial word through the Lockhart Police Department that he’d been no-billed. On Nov. 20, 2020, Chief Stan Standridge informed Watts and Miller’s mother that Hartman would be returned to duty. Hartman returned to SMPD on Dec. 1, 2020. The police department received official notice of the no bill from the Bastrop District Attorney on Dec. 7, 2020 — 180 days after the fatal collision. 

“The department has been criticized for not taking disciplinary action against Mr. Hartman before the grand jury rendered its decision. The department acknowledges that this could have happened had they taken a different approach, but not to the level of termination,” the City of San Marcos said in a statement. “Additionally, the very recent demands that Mr. Hartman be terminated now are opposed by the Texas Local Government Code which prohibits discipline action taken more than 180 days after the event.  

“Moving forward Chief Standridge has clarified that, should future circumstances arise involving employees of the San Marcos Police Department, he is committed to immediately beginning concurrent internal investigations that will run parallel with criminal investigations as was the practice in his former agency,” the city added. 

Following Friday’s statement, Watts said she’s livid at the city’s response to the collision that killed her life-partner. 

“I think it’s absolutely embarrassing for them and ridiculous,” Watts told the Daily Record. “They continue to talk about employment law and they continue to leave out so many facts, and then they say they’re clearing up misinformation.” 

In its statement, the city said Hartman ran one stop sign. But Watts refuted the city’s claim that only one stop sign existed at the location of the crash. She claimed that there were stop signs on each side of Hartman’s truck. 

Additionally, the city stated that cell phone tower data showed that Hartman wasn’t texting while driving, the investigating officers didn’t report signs of intoxication despite the presence of a 24-ounce open-container of Dos Equis, and that he was only driving 16 mph over the speed limit compared to the previously reported 20 mph over the posted limit. 

Watts said Hartman was driving without regard for the public. 

“He was traveling at a ridiculous rate of speed on a pothole-filled road that was a one-lane gravel road with no regard for the public,” Watts said. “And they’re sitting here talking about waiting for the outcome of a grand jury. They should have cared that their police officer refused to cooperate with a neighboring police department, refused to prove his sobriety, drank as much water as he could on that hot day. He knows what DWI protocols are.”

According to a police report, Lockhart Police Department Officer Daniel Williams said he thought it was odd Hartman didn’t subject himself to a blood test at the scene: “I did have concerns that if Ryan wanted to be cooperative as he said he wanted to be, this was an odd response to my request, if in fact Ryan had not consumed any alcoholic beverages prior to the crash.” 

Jordan Buckley, Mano Amiga communications director, who has been vocal in support of Watts’ effort for justice, said the city has made the effort to protect Hartman at all costs. 

“If they actually cared about victims, the city would have conducted an internal investigation and — by merely reviewing bodycam footage of Hartman admitting at the fatal scene, ‘I caused the death of somebody by me not paying attention’ — affected discipline,” Buckley said. “But, instead, they sought to protect a killer cop at all costs, including their legitimacy and common ethics, and Friday’s pathetically dishonest apologism indicates that key members of city leadership need to urgently resign in shame.”

Following Friday’s statement, Watts said she’s going to discuss taking possible legal action against the City of San Marcos and the San Marcos Police Department. 

“I’m still waiting on somebody to take some semblance of responsibility and this is the best they can come up with,” Watts said. “This is an embarrassment. I’m going to now check into and talk with lawyers in regard to taking position against the City of San Marcos, in particular the San Marcos Police Department over this matter.” 

Watts stated that this case is a “long way from over,” saying that it is bigger than Miller. 

“I can’t believe that this is the way our criminal justice system operates,” Watts said. “They cannot be protecting cops when they go out and do something and kill somebody and there’s a mountain of evidence that should have been looked at. The (District Attorney) himself said he presented it as distracted driving. And I’m sure that means he just told the grand jury the element of him talking on the phone and running a stop sign … I want this case picked apart and I want a new grand jury, period.

“I’m not going to stop until I get accountability for Jennifer’s death.” 

The City of San Marcos said it would not offer further comment regarding the matter. 

Written by Nick Castillo

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