LOCKHART, Texas – Bungled investigations by multiple law enforcement agencies allowed a San Marcos police sergeant who hit and killed a woman while driving with an open alcohol container to return to duty without being arrested or disciplined, according to records obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders.
SMPD Sgt. Ryan Hartman, 40, was cited for running a stop sign during a June 2020 crash in Lockhart that killed 56-year-old Jennifer Miller and critically injured her partner, Pam Watts.
The F-250 truck driven by Hartman, registered to his wife and her father, was traveling 46 mph when it ran a stop sign near State Highway 130 and plowed into a Honda Accord driven by Watts around 4:15 p.m. on June 10, 2020. The posted speed limit in that area was 30 mph, records show.
Body-worn camera footage captured by multiple Lockhart Police Department officers shows the truck Hartman was driving on its side near the mangled wreckage of the Accord, which was upright and pushed against the concrete pillar of a highway overpass.
The Accord was so heavily damaged that a responding officer was unable to properly conduct a vehicle inventory on it, records show.
Hartman was able to walk away from the crash, while Watts was airlifted to a hospital in Kyle.
Miller, who Watts described as her life partner, died at the scene.
“They got me out, but they never got Jen out, She died 40 minutes later sitting in that vehicle,” said Watts, during a Zoom interview with KSAT earlier this month. “Jennifer was the most caring individual I’ve ever met in my life. We had a very bright future ahead of us. So many things we wanted to do that we will never get the opportunity to do.”
24-ounce can of Dos Equis beer
Hundreds of pages of records obtained by the Defenders in recent months show how Hartman, a San Marcos police officer since October 2007, was able to return to duty without being issued anything other than a traffic citation for running a stop sign.
Hartman told investigators he was looking at pipeline construction in the area and was distracted by his phone when he crashed into the Accord.
Lockhart police at first indicated Hartman would be allowed to leave from the scene after being treated for minor injuries.
“Sorry this had to happen today. Accidents happen. You’re in the same line of duty that we are,” an officer was recorded on his body-worn camera saying to Hartman as Hartman sat in the front seat of an ambulance.
Officers, however, then detained Hartman after the truck he was driving was flipped back onto its wheels, revealing a double-size 24-ounce can of Dos Equis beer still in a cupholder among the crash debris.
The can still contained several ounces of liquid, which a Lockhart officer recorded himself pouring out near the roadside, the video shows.
“I want to cooperate. But at the same time I’m already — I caused the death of somebody,” Hartman said to an officer after being asked if he would be willing to provide a “blood test.”
Hartman added that he was “going to get a lot of heat” for causing the crash, the video shows.
Hartman was then placed in handcuffs and eventually driven to a nearby hospital to have a specimen of blood drawn, the video shows.
Lockhart police officials have refused to say why Hartman was not ordered to go through a standard field sobriety test or a breath test at the scene.
“We wish that the police that responded would have performed a proper investigation,” said Justin McMinn, an Austin-based attorney who represents Watts in a civil lawsuit.
The suit, filed in Hays County and seeking more than $1 million in damages, names Hartman, his wife and her father as co-defendants.
A law enforcement security company originally named in the suit was dropped from the case after it was determined that Hartman was not working for the entity at the time of the fatal crash.
McMinn said Hartman was “evasive” about the open alcohol in the truck during a deposition recorded virtually in February as part of the suit, which accuses Hartman of negligence.
“You have a defendant who was extremely negligent, that had alcohol in his vehicle, and from her perspective nobody seems to care,” said McMinn, referring to Watts’ decision to pursue a lawsuit against Hartman.
Hartman testified during his deposition that the beer can had likely been in his truck a day or two when the accident happened, since he had been working at a friend’s ranch while quarantining for a possible exposure to COVID-19.
“And, you know, during lunch breaks, I’d have lunch, and I’d have water and sodas and a beer every now and then. I don’t — I don’t have a good answer for you. I don’t know. I wish — I wish I had. Obviously, I can tell, you know, it raises suspicion. It’s illegal, yes,” said Hartman about not removing the can before the crash, according to a written transcript of his deposition.
Hartman said he had not consumed alcohol or drugs the day of the crash but that having the open beer can in the truck “looks bad” and would be an issue for him.
Driving a vehicle with an open alcohol container is a Class C misdemeanor in Texas.
The lawsuit is tentatively scheduled to go to trial in January, but that date could be postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Hartman did not respond to a request for comment left at his residence in Wimberley.
One of his civil attorneys hung up on the Defenders when he was reached for comment on the telephone earlier this month.
Hartman’s 59-page personnel file from SMPD shows no history of any disciplinary action during his 14-year tenure.
Police recommended criminal negligent homicide charge
Hartman’s blood was drawn at a hospital more than three hours after the crash took place, according to court records.
Lab results released in early July 2020, a month after the crash, show that no alcohol was detected in Hartman’s blood.
Later that same month, the criminal district attorney for Caldwell County, where the crash took place, recused himself from the case.
The DA previously had a working relationship with Hartman while serving as an assistant district attorney for Hays County, records show. San Marcos is the county seat of Hays County.
Lockhart police officials in August 2020 filed the case as a criminal negligent homicide, a state jail felony.
Hartman, however, was no-billed by a Caldwell County grand jury on Nov. 1, court records show.
The case was presented by the Bastrop County District Attorney.
“He was supposed to have been the attorney for me and Jennifer. He was supposed to have protected the public,” said Watts, who also expressed frustration with the secretive nature of grand jury proceedings in Texas.
Reached for comment, Lockhart Police Department Chief Ernest Pedraza defended his agency’s decision via email to only cite Hartman for running a stop sign:
“The Lockhart Police department conducted a thorough investigation and recommended the charge of Criminal Negligent Homicide. Some of the elements to prove the offense were running stop sign, speeding, distracted driving (phone), and possible open container in vehicle. We forwarded the case to the District Attorney’s office and the case was presented to the Grand Jury. The Grand Jury No Billed Mr. Hartman. Historically the Lockhart Police department avoids stacking traffic violations. In other words, we usually cite for the most serious offense, which in this case was Criminal Negligent Homicide. We do not go back and stack traffic violations because the defendant was no billed. For example, when officers arrest a person for DWI and the Grand Jury no bills the person, LPD does not go back and cite for open container. Running the stop sign is a class c violation, as would be open container.”
The no-bill paved the way for Hartman to be returned to duty from administrative leave.
180 ≠ 144
Watts said San Marcos Police Chief Stan Standridge called her Nov. 19 and informed her that Hartman would be returning to duty since the grand jury chose not to indict him.
Watts told the Defenders she took the call while waiting in the parking lot of her neurologist, where she was getting tested for a traumatic brain injury suffered in the crash. Her other injuries included three impacted discs in her back, neck pain, two broken knees, a torn knee ligament, 25 stitches in her face and seven stitches in her elbow that later turned into a staph infection.
Standridge confirmed in emails to other San Marcos city officials that he informed Watts that Hartman would be returned to duty prior to doing so.
Those same records, however, show that Standridge worked with other city officials to present a different story to the public.
After San Marcos Director of Public Safety Chase Stapp, himself the department’s former police chief, wrote a statement in June that Hartman was not indicted for any crime that would lead to him being terminated, Standridge responded that 180 days lapsed while the department waited for the criminal case to be investigated and go to a grand jury.
The Local Government Code only allows departments to discipline officers within 180 days of discovering an alleged rules violation.
Hartman testified during his deposition that one of the first calls he made was to his supervisor with SMPD, which would have started the 180-day clock on June 10, 2020.
Since court records show Hartman was no-billed by a grand jury Nov. 1, that means only 144 days transpired between the day of the crash and the case being closed.
Additionally, there was nothing stopping SMPD from carrying out an internal investigation of Hartman while Lockhart PD conducted its criminal investigation of him.
Standridge acknowledged this fact in an email sent to other San Marcos city officials in May.
“Please note -- if this were to happen again, wherein a criminal complaint is alleged against an officer for off-duty behavior, I would not require the Department to wait to internally investigate and possibly sustain misconduct allegations. We need to avoid that in future events and run both (criminal and internal investigations) concurrently. It is sometimes easier and cleaner to rely on the CJ system, but it is often too slow,” said Standridge, who again falsely claimed 180 days had lapsed, preventing him from issuing discipline to Hartman.
Standridge was hired as chief of SMPD in October, months after the crash but well within the 180-day window in which to investigate and discipline Hartman.
Standridge refused to comment earlier this month, citing the ongoing lawsuit, even though neither he or the city of San Marcos is listed as a defendant in it.
Email records also confirm that the mayor and city council of San Marcos were not formally briefed about Hartman’s fatal crash until April, 10 months after the wreck happened and long after Hartman had returned to arresting people for alcohol-related offenses.
City leaders, including former Director of Communications Kristy Stark, consistently followed and analyzed media coverage of Hartman’s wreck and how damaging it could be to the city’s reputation, according to emails obtained by the Defenders.
Stark, who has since left San Marcos to become an assistant city manager for the city of Boerne, was not made available for an interview by her new employer.
Earlier this summer she commented that a statement from a non-profit advocacy group naming her and labeling the Hartman incident a “cover-up” was “not a positive way to start” her new position, the emails show.
Stark also remarked to other city leaders in late April that she appreciated a reporter from a San Marcos newspaper for doing “a good job of not roasting the SMPD up to this point,” the emails show.