The Blotter Presents 146: The Betty Broderick and Lawrencia Bembenek Stories

Plus the end of COPS, Live PD's complicity, and Texas Monthly on Rosa Jimenez.

Early reviews of Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story weren’t great, but my Blotter Presents 146 guest Marcia Chatelain and I liked it a lot. Mind you, we both “grew up with” the Meredith Baxter version…but we also grew up with a lot of debate about unpaid labor in marriages, and where the woman behind the man was left if the man, well, left. What happens when men talking to you like you’re crazy…makes you crazy? And what do you call a property that, once cast with all-stars, almost doesn’t need to be made? All these questions and more in the podcast, but if your question is whether to watch, we recommend it.

We’re less pro on Woman On Trial: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story, but the Lifetime movie starring Tatum O’Neal (and Victor Garber!) does a decent job marshalling a story with a lot of subplots — police corruption, hit men, wig/plumbing forensics (…no, seriously), a prison break, post-carceral exploitation — and “Bambi”’s grubbily tragic tale has a lot to tell us today about challenging law-enforcement institutions.

Show notes below — and do check out this week’s sponsors! — SDB

Listen to 146 now!

It’s end of watch for COPS. Per Deadline, the series will not return for a 33rd season on Paramount Network, its home since 2013 (when it was still Spike). A PN spokesperson told Deadline that “we don’t have any current or future plans for it to return.”

My feeling upon first hearing this was twofold: 1. “…Good.”; and 2. that an “appropriate period” would be observed by the production company before it tried to shop it to a more conservative network system. But that was before another wave of bad press broke over the heir apparent to the “live copaganda” throne, Live PD. (This content is upsetting; please read with care.)

Twitter avatar for @realityblurredAndy Dehnart @realityblurred
A&E's #LivePD filmed the death of a man in police custody—and didn't air it and won't release the footage to prosecutors as part of their investigation. Details in this thread and in this investigative report from the Austin @statesman:…

Tony Plohetski @tplohetski

EXCLUSIVE: 1) Deputies in Williamson County chased a black 40-year-old father in his SUV for 22 minutes for failing to dim his headlights. Crying “save me,” he was dead moments later while TV cameras from a reality show rolled.

Go follow my man Dehnart; he’s done this a long time and if you’re interested in how any unscripted sausage gets made, he’s a regular must-read. I’ll wait. …Right, then: the Statesman ran a story yesterday about the death of Javier Ambler in police custody in Austin last March. Williamson County sheriff’s deputies noticed Ambler hadn’t dimmed his headlights to oncoming traffic; not half an hour later, “the black father of two sons lay dying on a North Austin street after deputies held him down and used Tasers on him four times while a crew from A&E’s reality show ‘Live PD’ filmed.” Ambler, 40, repeatedly told deputies he had congestive heart failure and…couldn’t breathe.

Williamson County “has been under fire for more than a year, largely because of its relationship with” Live PD: “Critics of Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody, a lottery-made millionaire, say he has chosen cable show stardom over public safety. They also worry that the presence of TV cameras leads deputies to forsake prudent policing for dramatic television.” My God but there’s a lot of awful in that first sentence, but it gets worse, as Tony Plohetski’s piece goes on to note that Chody and Live PD producers “have repeatedly stonewalled” their requests for evidence or interviews with the officers in involved.

Then, late yesterday, A&E issued a statement saying that the network’s footage of Ambler’s death “had been destroyed,” making sure to note also that the “incident” didn’t happen during live filming and the footage wasn’t aired later.

A&E’s statement said that Austin investigators had not asked for the video or to interview show producers. “As is the case with all footage taken by Live PD producers, we no longer retained the unaired footage after learning that the investigation had concluded,” the network said in a statement.

Police bodycam footage of Ambler’s last moments does exist and is linked within the articles I refer to above. I watched it; it’s horrifying. Of note, although par for the enraging course, is the sheer number of vehicles on the scene, all of them with the light bars going, and one that still has its siren running — and the lights and sirens spike my heart rate, sitting here at my desk. All of this for a guy with his brights on, who didn’t pull over because he didn’t want this very thing to happen.

So. As of the announcement about COPS, Live PD had been silent on whether it would return with new episodes, and there again, I figured they’d wait a few weeks and then quietly slip back into the weekend primetime slots on A&E with new material. The Ambler case seems to me to make that almost impossible, but then, I have some shame. Not Dan Abrams, though!

The phrasing here, which implies that the show is a public service on the order of a food bank, is off-putting…but the fans really are that intense about it, viz. the snottily obtuse response that greeted my esteemed colleague Kathryn VanArendonk’s tweet last night:

Some agreement; many many flat “no.”s; more than a few Karen “quips.”

Look: I’ve watched both those shows, like I said the other day. My husband and I have a running joke involving an offended “guard turkey” we saw on Live PD once; we also very much enjoyed Campus PD back when it used to air at 2 AM on G4. We can’t undo that, but Live PD isn’t a “service” to anyone but the police departments whose image it happily burnishes for our entertainment, and their positioning themselves as embattled victims is horseshit. They’re accessories. — SDB

The June bonus book-review selection got lost in the shuffle (for good reason), but if you want to read along, Vanity Fair’s Schools for Scandal: The Inside Dramas at 16 of America’s Most Elite Campuses* (*plus Oxford) is up next. It might not seem like a relevant read in these times…but I don’t think reminding ourselves how ivory towers reinforce racial injustice and class disparities is a bad thing at the moment. (Not to mention rape culture. I got peed on by a lacrosse choad during a Take Back The Night March at Princeton, AMA!) To see what else I’m reading/rec what’s on your list, friend me on Goodreads.

“If you love Texas journalism so much, Buntsy, why don’t you just move there?” I’ve thought about it! I really like tacos! …It really is a coincidence that I’ve done so much linking to Texan stories the last couple of days, but Texas Monthly is on the Rushmore of longform crime writing, not just in its archives but with Michael Hall’s June 2020 wrongful-conviction story, “Five Judges, Five Representatives, And The District Attorney Say She Was Wrongly Convicted. So Why Is Rosa Jimenez Dying In Prison?” Jimenez, convicted in 2005 of the death of a child she was babysitting, sits at the intersection of a number of troubling criminal-justice issues, including unreliable forensics; bias, particularly against immigrants; and stereotypes about parenting and childcare-givers:

According to the Innocence Project, most female exonerees were convicted of crimes that turned out not to have been crimes at all. Of these cases, three quarters involved children, leading to emotional trials in which the defendants were prosecuted on shaky evidence and demonized.

Oh, and the vulnerability of carceral populations to the coronavirus, which is not a situation Texas seems to have under control. This is also a tough read, so proceed with care. — SDB

Coming up on Best Evidence: Chris Hansen, the Citizen app, and…not now, Elizabeth Holmes!

What is this thing? This should help. Follow The Blotter @blotterpresents on Twitter and Instagram, and subscribe to The Blotter Presents via the podcast app of your choice. You can also call or text us any time at 919-75-CRIME.