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Family of U.S. man who died after Border Patrol arrest says government has been tight lipped for a year

Emmett Croy has spent a year trying to get answers about the evening of February 4, 2020, when his stepson James Paul Markowitz died in Border Patrol custody. His family wonders if the overdose death could have been prevented. 

Croy said his questions have gone unanswered. In fact, he said the agency hasn't communicated with his family at all in the year since the 32-year-old's death. An attorney hired by Croy said he has also received no responses to requests for information about the case.

"They've never reached out. We've never talked to anybody from the government," Croy told CBS News. "I don't know any more than I knew a year ago."

Markowitz was arrested on February 4, 2020, after agents for U.S. Customs and Border Protection pulled over his car near the agency's station in Brackettville, Texas. He was alone in his car and surrendered immediately but the agency said in a press release the next day that the 32-year-old was "a suspect in an alien smuggling incident." In a separate release that day, the agency described an intense pursuit after another car, with six people inside, sped away from the scene. That car eventually drove off the road and all six occupants — five of whom were immigrants who had entered the country without authorization — fled on foot.

Though CBP later acknowledged that Markowitz's arrest was part of the same incident, the agency has never explained why it believed he was associated with the packed car that fled. 

Croy, who is a retired Border Patrol agent, wants to know if there was proof that Markowitz was actually working with the people in the other car.

"Unless he's got aliens in there, he hasn't committed a crime. The only way they can connect him to a crime is if they catch the other vehicle and they link it to him. And that would be the only way they would have a crime against him," Croy said.

The agency did not reply to questions sent by CBS News. 

James Paul Markowitz
James Paul Markowitz CBS News

In a March 2020 letter to the Department of Homeland Security, then-Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro and Immigration Task Force Chairwoman Linda Sánchez demanded information about Markowitz's death and wrote they were "troubled twenty-eight days after the death of James Paul Markowitz without any further details or relevant information to his case."

The agency replied on September 21, writing that it could not answer their questions because the death was being investigated internally by CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility as well as a sheriff in a nearby county. CBP has not provided an update since.

Meanwhile, Croy said Markowitz's mother still visits his grave frequently, though "the crying isn't like it was up until a month ago." And Markowitz's girlfriend has given birth to his daughter.

"When that baby is older, it's going to be a tough day, you know, to work through that question, 'How did my dad die?' That's not going to be an easy one," Croy said.

While Markowitz didn't have undocumented immigrants in his car before his 3:30 p.m. arrest, he did have small amounts of methamphetamine and cocaine. An autopsy obtained by CBS News shows at some point before or during his arrest, Markowitz swallowed "a baggie containing one or both substances."

It was a mistake that would prove deadly. The medical examiner determined that he died from an overdose.

In a notification to Congress that CBP was required to file following the in-custody death, the agency wrote that "at around 6:00 p.m., during processing at the Brackettville Station, the man began exhibiting signs of distress."

The agency said in its notification that it called for an ambulance, which arrived 40 minutes later. A local sheriff later reviewed records at CBS News' request and learned that the ambulance wasn't actually called for until 6:26 p.m. Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe said Markowitz was described as "sweaty" and "fidgety" on the call. The ambulance was dispatched minutes later.

After CBS News' reported the Kinney County dispatch records timeline on March 5, 2020, CBP sent a new breakdown that said Markowitz first showed signs of distress at 6:05 pm and was immediately examined by a Border Patrol agent certified as an emergency medical technician. At 6:11 p.m., the agent took Markowitz outside for fresh air, but then decided Markowitz needed medical care. CBP said by 6:26 it was apparent that "more advanced care was required."

Croy said that wait is at the heart of Markowitz's family's questions. When did Markowitz first tell agents that he was in danger?

"When did he actually tell them, you know, how long before that? Did he tell them and did they believe him? It could easily be an incident where he told him and they didn't believe him, and they waited until he actually started exhibiting signs. But the problem is we'll never know because we don't get any answers from the government," Croy said.

Croy said even his own former colleagues haven't been able, or willing, to help him learn more.

"It's CYA (cover your a**). I call people and say, 'Can you tell me what you hear?' And it's like, 'That's above my pay grade, dude.' They're not going to say anything," Croy said.

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