One Woman’s Battle for Justice After a Cop’s Reckless Driving Killed Her Partner
One moment destroyed Pam Watts' life and created an activist
Pam Watts has no clear memory of learning that her partner, Jennifer Miller, was dead. "I've got bits and pieces," Watts said, her words slowing, her Texas drawl softening. "But you don't really know whether you have the memory or somebody told you about it. I remember my brother sitting by my bedside" – she pauses – "and I think I remember him telling me. But I do know that at 8:18 that night I texted her. I don't remember doing it but I texted her and said, 'Jen, are you okay?' And I never got an answer."
It was the evening of June 10, 2020, and Watts lay in a Kyle hospital bed with a severe concussion, a badly bruised lung, three broken ribs, cracked knees, and cuts to her face. She had been hit as she drove her Honda Accord that afternoon by a Ford F-250 – a vehicle twice the Accord's weight, outfitted with a heavy steel cattle guard. The truck smashed the passenger door, where Miller sat, at a 90-degree angle, obliterating half of the car. The impact flipped the truck on its side.
The truck's driver was Ryan Hartman, an off-duty San Marcos police sergeant who trained fellow officers in how to handle cases of driving while intoxicated. A 14-year veteran of the department and treasurer of the San Marcos Police Officers' Association, Hartman was part of the city's police leadership. Investigators later determined he had been traveling down a one-lane gravel road at 16 miles over the 30 mph speed limit, and using his phone, before blowing past a pair of stop signs at either side of the intersection of Maple Street and Highway 130, just outside of Lockhart. He slammed into Watts' Honda without ever touching his brakes.
The car was so badly crushed that the first officers on the scene didn't realize there was a person seated on the passenger side. They began working on Watts; she begged them to help her partner. Firefighters arrived and began cutting through the compacted metal. They pulled Watts from the car. Ten minutes later, a rescue helicopter touched down. Firefighters worked for 15 more minutes to get to Miller. By then she was dead. The helicopter carried Watts to the hospital.
Throughout the rescue attempt, Hartman stood to the side, watching with pursed lips. He had climbed out of his truck after the collision and quickly identified himself to Lockhart police as a fellow officer. As they examined the scene, an officer found an open 24-ounce can of Dos Equis in the truck's cup holder. After the helicopter carried Watts away, Hartman was asked for a blood draw, to make certain he wasn't under the influence of alcohol.
By then, of course, Hartman knew Miller was dead. Her body still lay in the Accord, 30 feet away. As a DWI instructor, he also knew his rights. Body-cam footage from the scene shows him considering his options. "I have the right to refuse," he says speculatively to a Lockhart PD officer. "I mean, I want to cooperate but at the same time I caused the death of somebody by me not paying attention. So I'm already going to get a lot of heat …"
"Well, you gotta put yourself in my shoes," the officer replies. "If it were me, you'd be asking the same questions."
Hartman stares away from the officer, into the distance. "Yessir," he says. "Then … no."
Hartman was placed in handcuffs and driven to a local hospital. The officers did not conduct a field sobriety test or a Breathalyzer test. Three hours later, a judge signed the warrant allowing them to take a blood draw. The sample showed no alcohol in Hartman's system. He was released.
Pam Watts' attorney, Justin McMinn, believes that Hartman knew that if he delayed giving the blood sample his body would process whatever alcohol may have been in his system and the test would come out clean. "He's a DWI cop and he's certified to administer all the tests. So he knew very clearly that by refusing it was going to take them probably three or four hours to be able to get a warrant to get his blood," McMinn said. "To me, if you're a cop and you accidentally did leave a Dos Equis in your cup holder, I would be screaming, 'This is a mistake, I didn't drink this, I just accidentally left it here. Please, yes, I will cooperate and give you a sample.' Why wouldn't he? Well, there's only one reason: because he did have alcohol in his system."
Watts is the daughter of an Air Force sergeant. She is the sister of a law enforcement officer. She was raised to believe in the system and finds it inconceivable that any public servant – or anyone, period – would refuse to provide a blood sample under such circumstances.
"I think the moment that he refused to prove his sobriety at the scene of a fatal accident, San Marcos should have terminated him. The only reason somebody would refuse to prove their sobriety is they got something to hide. If I had killed somebody, my arm would have been out there like this, immediately. That's what you do. That's what an innocent person does."
Justice Will Not Be Done
There is a toughness in Watts you expect to find in rural Texans. She is 67 years old and lives alone on the banks of the San Marcos River, 5 miles upstream of Luling. She has a stocky frame and short gray hair and could seem grandmotherly. But her close-set eyes, tight mouth, and a certain ferocious quality of attention instead give one the impression of a hawk.
"My dad was an alcoholic, he died when he was 43, my mom taught Christian school," Watts said. "And I knew, just in watching their marriage, that that wasn't a path I wanted to go down. I made up my mind very early that I wasn't going to be dependent on anybody to get me what I wanted out of life, and I've had to fight for everything, careerwise. So it's not anything new for me, having to stand up for myself. I've done it my entire life."
Watts spent four days in the hospital after the collision, then returned home. She battled pneumonia and bouts of extreme vertigo that made it impossible to stand. Within a month, she had hired McMinn. Her brother Mike kept her up to date on the investigation the Lockhart Police Department was conducting.
Watts had not yet learned what Hartman said at the scene of the collision: "I caused the death of somebody by me not paying attention" – a phrase that is almost the definition of criminally negligent homicide. But through her brother and attorney she knew Hartman had been speeding, that he had been on his phone, that he had run the stop signs, and that there had been an open container of alcohol in his truck. At first she didn't give much thought to what would happen to the officer. She was sure he would be fired from SMPD, that a Caldwell County grand jury would indict him for criminally negligent homicide, and that he would face a trial.
It wasn't until October, a little less than five months after the collision, that Watts began to realize it wouldn't work that way. Lockhart PD's investigation had recommended that Caldwell County District Attorney Fred Weber charge Hartman with criminally negligent homicide, a felony punishable by six months to two years in prison and a possible $10,000 fine. But Weber recused himself from the case, because he was acquainted with Hartman. He asked a colleague, Bastrop County D.A. Bryan Goertz – familiar to some as the man who has worked to keep Rodney Reed on death row for many years – to handle it.
Through her brother and attorney, Watts made it clear to Goertz that she wanted to speak to the grand jury, or at least offer a victim impact statement. She tried over and over to reach the D.A. "I called in October and I said, 'Is it going to go today?' Because I'm scheduling my life around being a part of this. And Goertz's secretary says, 'No, it's not going today.' Later that afternoon, they called me and said he changed his mind. He took it to the grand jury. I wasn't afforded an opportunity to speak or even to submit a victim's impact statement."
The grand jury's decision was announced on Nov. 1, 2020: Hartman would receive a traffic ticket for running a stop sign, a ticket he later disposed of through a defensive driving course. County officials told Watts that it wasn't their practice to "stack" tickets when a person was accused of multiple offenses. So they never charged Hartman with speeding or having an open container of alcohol in his vehicle.
McMinn doesn't believe that Goertz instructed the grand jury about what criminally negligent homicide is or tried to get an indictment for it. "There's a saying out there that if they want an indictment they can indict a ham sandwich," McMinn said. "So I don't think the guy tried hard, if at all, to get an indictment. I think if he wanted it he would have got it."
Goertz's only public statement on his handling of the evidence supports McMinn's conclusion. "I conducted my own review of the investigation of Mr. Hartmann for violation of Texas's misdemeanor offense of texting while driving and causing a fatality and concluded that no criminal prosecution could be sustained," he told KXAN television's Jala Washington in July of 2021. The D.A. hasn't replied to several messages requesting further comment.
When Watts learned of the grand jury's decision, she again tried to reach Goertz. He called her back and the two spoke for the first and last time. "And I'll never forget what he said, and I quote: 'It's the hardest case to win and the most overturned on appeal. Your avenue is civil court' – as if money could fix this or had anything to do with it! Civil court is about me and my injuries. It has nothing to do with the loss of Jennifer Miller."
Almost three weeks after the grand jury's decision, on Nov. 19, Watts got a call from San Marcos' police chief, Stan Standridge. Standridge, newly hired by the city, told Watts he'd just learned about her case. He explained that civil service rules stipulate that when an officer is accused of misconduct the department has 180 days to investigate. If the officer isn't disciplined within that 180-day window, he returns to duty. Standridge implied that there was not enough time remaining to complete an investigation of Hartman before December 7, when the 180 days would elapse. Hartman was getting his job back.
Watts now realized that the world was not as she had believed it to be. But she also knew her next move. "On the day that Standridge called I was literally sitting in my neurologist's parking lot, as they were getting ready to test my brain to see where the damage was. And I told him I wasn't in a physical situation, or a mental one, to fight at that point – but he was making a huge mistake. Because I wasn't going to let it sit. I would be coming after him, because that is wrong. You'll be hearing from me. I put him on notice."
An Activist Is Born
Jennifer Miller was 56 at the time of her death. She was a gentle person with a big, natural smile, shy and kind. "She was my life partner, the sweetest person on Earth, an angel," Watts said. "If I had to name anybody close to an angel on Earth, it would have been her."
Before Miller came into her life, Watts had been on her own. She hadn't been romantically involved in many years and had only been in love once before. She and Miller met for dinner in October of 2019, after a matchmaking campaign by a mutual friend. Miller soon moved into Watts' home on the river. In the end, they had eight months and seven days together.
A perfect date for the couple was going to the park and feeding the ducks. They kept deer corn in the trunk of their car and would throw that out, too. Miller adored animals. "She ran the chocolate store at the outlet mall and she wasn't going to come home till she found every one of those stray cats out back of there," Watts said. "She would have to feed them all. And here I am, 'Would you just please make sure the security guard walks you to your vehicle?' Because she'd stay past dark."
After the grand jury no-billed Hartman, Watts still needed months more to heal her body and brain. Finally, in the spring of 2021, she felt strong enough to begin her next chapter. It would be simple to get justice for Miller, she believed – all she would have to do was tell the story. She went to a copy store and had a pair of 3-by-5-foot banners made, with large black and red letters on white backgrounds. One addressed Goertz; the other went after Hartman, concluding, "BLUE PROTECTS BLUE."
Watts sent pictures of the banners to Chief Standridge, then hit the street, posting up at different spots around town. Jordan Buckley remembers seeing her for the first time near the San Marcos Outlet Mall. "It was April of 2021 and she was on the side of the access road, standing next to her truck with a banner," Buckley said. "I was like, whoa! I stopped and circled back and got out and introduced myself. She was just full of righteous ire. And I tried to tell her what we might be able to help with, as far as amplifying her story through the media."
Buckley was a 39-year-old community organizer who had co-founded the social justice group Mano Amiga in 2017 to advocate for undocumented immigrants. By the time he met Watts, the group was the leading progressive voice in San Marcos and Lockhart, winning a string of victories for indigent defense, police accountability, and criminal justice reform. Mano Amiga were experts at drawing media attention through press releases and public protests.
Watts, however, was not a fan of protests. She disdained politics and was suspicious of activists. "I heard the word 'activist' and I didn't know what his agenda was," she said. "And my attitude was, this is personal. I'm an army of one. I want to do this for Jen, by myself."
Watts and Buckley kept talking though and soon she agreed to let Mano Amiga organize a rally marking the one-year anniversary of Miller's death. The group saturated Central Texas media outlets with press releases and brought 70 demonstrators to the San Marcos City Council offices on June 10, 2021.
On the day of the rally, as Watts got out of her car, Chief Standridge approached and asked if he could explain why Hartman was still on the force. With TV cameras rolling, Watts and the chief faced off, standing 3 feet apart. "So I come along in mid-November," Standridge began, seeming to want to absolve himself of responsibility for Hartman. "I didn't know anything about this. I get here, I start employment, I learn about this. In a civil service agency, the agency head – in this case the chief of police – has 180 days to administer any type of discipline. By law, you cannot discipline an officer for anything –"
Watts interrupted him: "I don't care what your problem is. Y'all should have started that process a lot earlier than you did."
From that point, Watts was in control of the conversation. She condemned the officials who should have held Hartman accountable. She described his reckless driving, his refusal to prove his sobriety. She came back to Goertz, her voice elevated and cutting: "This should have at the very least gone to a damn jury. He kept that from happening. He halted a criminal negligent homicide investigation. He did not present it as that. He presented it as distracted driving." She jabbed her finger at Standridge. "If it had been your wife or your child, would you be happy?"
"No," the chief said under his breath, shaking his head.
Afterward, Watts, confident and relaxed, gave a 15-minute speech to supporters holding pictures of Miller and signs reading "HARTMAN MUST GO." She repeated the story of Hartman's driving and his return to SMPD. At the end, she addressed Miller. "I will show you how much I love you," she said, glancing up. "Jen, are you looking?" She lowered her eyes and continued: "There's nothing I wouldn't do. I don't intend to stop. I don't intend to get off my soapbox. Something is wrong in this country and it's time for all good men and women to stand up."
With the success of the rally, journalists in Austin and San Antonio began covering Watts' case. Mano Amiga helped place follow-up stories in these larger markets through the fall, hammering Hartman.
But unbeknownst to them, the officer's career was on the rocks. One month after the rally, Hartman served a seven-day suspension after Standridge concluded that he had unnecessarily tased a 23-year-old suspect, Al Leyva, who had been on his knees, hands raised, following officers' orders. In October, SMPD began an investigation into Hartman's seeming inability to hand in overdue paperwork for cases, including a homicide, an officer-involved shooting, and a fatal crash. He was also months behind on officer evaluations.
Hartman's excuse for his late paperwork – that he was having mental health issues related to the collision with Watts – didn't work. On January 18 of this year, Standridge fired him for insubordination and dereliction of duty.
San Marcos City Council Member Maxfield Baker believes that Standridge used the tools at his disposal to get rid of Hartman. "I'm fairly confident that the chief took the steps to deal with a bad officer that were allowable by law, because the Pam Watts stuff didn't stick," Baker said. "It looks like he did some extra digging to prove what we all knew and had heard about this officer."
Hartman appealed his firing this spring, and many expected him to get his job back. But the arbitrator sided with the city; on June 23, Hartman was permanently suspended from the San Marcos Police Department.
At first, Watts was relieved. She has always set just two goals in her quest for justice: that Hartman stand trial for criminally negligent homicide – regardless of what verdict is reached – and that he never again serve as a law enforcement officer. It seemed she had achieved one of the goals. But then Buckley learned through a public information request that Standridge had given Hartman a general, rather than dishonorable, discharge – that distinction allows him to seek a position in law enforcement outside of San Marcos.
There's little doubt how Standridge feels about Hartman. Since the firing, he's referred to him as a "cancer" and described his conduct as "criminal." In response to questions from Mano Amiga in July, he said he gave Hartman a general discharge in the hope that he would not appeal his firing. But Watts sees the episode as another instance of San Marcos officials protecting an officer who they've always known was in the wrong. "It's inexcusable," she said. "Standridge acknowledged that Hartman's actions in the crash were criminal. Then Hartman got caught tasering a kid who was on his knees, with his hands in the air. He knew he had a bad police officer on his hands. And you still give someone whose actions you deem criminal a general discharge?"
The decision reminds Watts of Standridge's explanation for returning Hartman to the force – that he had no choice because the 180-day period to investigate the collision had elapsed. Since offering this excuse, it's become clear that SMPD still had almost three weeks remaining to conduct an investigation. And because Lockhart PD already had a completed investigation sitting on their desk, all the chief would have had to do was ask that department for a copy and review it. Watts believes that Standridge was discouraged from doing so, that he received marching orders from higher-ups to make the case go away.
As the story of Hartman's conduct circulated through the city last summer, San Marcos officials avoided discussing whether they had conducted their own investigation. On June 30, 2021, the City Attorney's Office told McMinn via email, "Yes, there was an internal investigation, but the information is protected under civil service laws." Two months later, under pressure from city council members, Mano Amiga, and media outlets, the city released a memo stating vaguely that they had "tied" their investigation to the one in Lockhart – in other words, that they did not investigate Hartman's conduct at all but merely waited for the results from the grand jury. San Marcos Director of Public Safety Chase Stapp, who oversees Standridge and SMPD, has refused to answer follow-up questions.
Meanwhile, Watts has continued trying, and failing, to get Hartman indicted in Lockhart for criminally negligent homicide. She learned last year that it isn't too late for a grand jury to review the evidence – grand juries in Texas can revisit cases and bring charges against suspects at any time before the statute of limitations runs out. So she took out a half-page ad telling her story in the Lockhart Post-Register in March and, with members of Mano Amiga at her side, started standing before the Caldwell County Courthouse on the second Wednesday of the month, trying to personally reach the members of the grand jury as they entered. Nothing has come of the effort.
She also recently traveled to Bastrop to try to speak with D.A. Goertz. He responded by sending a message to McMinn threatening to issue her a warning for trespass if she showed up again. Watts has repeatedly contacted Caldwell County District Judge Chris Schneider, calling his office and appearing in person to ask for a new grand jury. Schneider has never met with her or returned a call. So Watts has added him to the list of officials whom she believes have shielded Hartman from accountability. These include the executive officers at SMPD, Stapp, Weber, and Goertz.
"The more this goes on the thicker it gets as to who all the players are that at this point are involved in collusion, in my opinion," Watts said. "Schneider hasn't lifted a finger to impanel a new grand jury because he doesn't want to adjudicate a cop. Standridge lied at the one-year anniversary memorial, when he said the 180-day clock for discipline had run out. The assistant city attorney lied in a letter to my attorney, saying there was an investigation. No one has done anything on the right side of justice. And this good ole boys' network thinks I'm going somewhere? I'm not going anywhere, except maybe my next step is to the Department of Justice. Maybe that is the next step."
Watts' crusade to get Hartman indicted has an expiration date. The statute of limitations for criminally negligent homicide is five years, so there are less than three years left. Watts claims that if she hasn't achieved justice for Miller by then that she will leave her activism behind. But for those who have been on the receiving end of one of her soapbox speeches, it's hard to imagine this woman relaxing on the banks of the San Marcos for the rest of her days. She is now a powerful ally of Mano Amiga, a woman entering her late 60s strategizing with social justice activists a third of her age.
"I'm embarrassed to say that before all this I had my – I won't say my head in the sand – but I lived within my own bubble and didn't pay much attention to the outside world," Watts said. "I'm one of those people that will avoid drama and confrontation if I can. And Jen felt exactly the same way. Neither one of us were particularly political.
"But on June 10, 2020, I joined the real world and I'm just blown away by how corrupt our society is. And even more embarrassed by the fact that I didn't know. I've learned a whole lot more in the past two years than I ever wanted to know. But once you do, I feel compelled and indeed called to bring all of this to light. So I'm going to continue asking questions until I get an answer, until I get justice. I've got five years since the collision to get a new grand jury brought to bear. So I know what I'm going to do for the next three years."