The Short Life and Tragic Death of August Ames
To friends and family, Mercedes “Mer” Grabowski was more than just a porn star
Camarillo Grove Park, nestled in a rustic setting near the base of the Conejo Grade in the Ventura County bedroom community of Camarillo, California, covers 24.5 acres of land. A former stagecoach stop, the park now serves as a gathering place for picnics, corporate and team building events, and school field trips, and provides two hiking trails past oak trees, sage, and volcanic rock formations.
The main road through the park is lined by a canopy of large oak trees, providing much-needed shade to visitors on a hot Southern California day. It is here that Camarillo residents and visitors come to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and surround themselves with the rustic nature the area is known for.
It is also here that on the morning of December 5, 2017, passers-by noticed the body of a young woman hanging from a rope that had been fashioned as a noose from one of the oak trees. Upon discovering the woman, they called the police, and shortly thereafter, the Ventura County Sheriff arrived on the scene and began an investigation to determine the cause of death. After finding a note in the woman’s car parked near the tree, they ruled the death a suicide, and transferred the body to the Ventura County Medical Examiner, where an autopsy would confirm their findings.
That day, the world would learn of the tragic passing of 23-year old August Ames, a beautiful, vivacious adult entertainment industry performer who in a few short years had amassed a large social media following and had, by anyone’s measurement, so much to live for. That made the news of her death even more shocking, and more so when speculation began to swirl about the factors that may have contributed to her suicide, including cyberbullying, abuse, and a dark past, the details of which had yet to reveal themselves.
James Grabowski is an athletic, good-looking 28 year old lumberjack in Hinton, Alberta, a small, blue-collar community 180 miles west of Edmonton. He’s also the father of a three-year-old boy with another baby on the way, and August’s older brother, as well as one of her closest confidants. After listening to him interviewed on an investigative podcast, “The Last Days of August” that deconstructed the final days of his sister’s life, I made contact with him, as I was curious to discuss his loss and the impact it has had on his life.
Prior to listening to the podcast, I’d known about August Ames, a top-billing performer in the industry. Saddened by the passing of someone so young, I was hoping James could shed some light on what would have motivated his sister to actively pursue a career in an industry known to attract such highly questionable personality types and notoriously unsavory characters. James, as the family member closest to August for the better part of her 23 years on this earth, seemed the most qualified to reflect on this. We exchanged a few emails, then coordinated a Skype call, where we saw each other face-to-face for the first time.
“Hey, Scott!” he says in a thick Canadian accent, the “hey” sounding more like “ehhh.” He’s in the backseat of the minivan being driven by his girlfriend and the mother of his young son, Yanik (pronounced “unique”). He feeds the baby, who is seated in a car seat next to him, a bottle of milk as we talk, his free hand holding up his phone in front of him. I ask him about the earliest memories he has of his sister Mercedes, or “Mer”, as she was affectionately called by those closest to her (August Ames was her “stage” name.)
“We were raised in a military family,” he tells me. “My father was in the military and we grew up in a town called Petawawa. It’s a massive military base and we grew up just off the base, in private military quarters. Jon, our older brother, was always kind of like the outcast and Mercedes and I were the ones that hung out together, played things like house and dress-up.” He talks a little more about typical stuff they did as kids, the dynamics of the family with him as the middle child, having a father in the military, what that was like for him. I listen intently, then shift gears to a heavier topic.
I ask him about the claims Mercedes made about being sexually abused as a child that were brought up in an interview she did with Holly Randall, a director, producer and podcast host, and he grows uncomfortable. “That’s something I will never talk about.” He pauses for a moment, then continues. “Mercedes had mentioned something happened to her when she was a child. Nothing ever got brought up to me. I just remember hearing her talk about it on the podcast. There was a conversation when she tried to bring it up to me. And I said, look, ‘Mercedes, there’s nothing I can do or say about any of this stuff and you and I have a great relationship and grandpa and I have a great relationship. And I can’t be a part of this topic because I just, I don’t want to get involved.’”
James continues to search for the right words to convey his feelings on the subject. “At the time, I should have probably handled the situation differently and said, you know, okay, well, look, let’s talk about it. But I’m not good with talking about feelings and emotions and stuff like that. I’m kind of just a ‘sweep it under the rug’ kind of guy. So, you know, maybe I let her down. Maybe she didn’t like to hear that. Or, you know, kids interpret things differently sometimes, you know? So I just never really got into that topic.”
That’s a lot to process, so I give James a minute to collect himself. It’s a shocking revelation, to hear him tell me that his sister, who took her own life only a few years prior, had confided in him about the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her grandfather as a child, and he was, at best, dismissive. It’s a testament to my relationship with him that in less than a year, he’ll completely reverse course on the subject, but we’ll get to that later.
I ask him if anything especially traumatic occurred to him as a child that he can recall. He says no, then tells me about his parent’s divorce, his memory of playing in the forest with his brother and being called into the house by his mother, Hilary, to speak to his father, who was on the phone. “Dad was (deployed) in Bosnia. I remember him telling us that they’re breaking up and we’re not going to be together anymore. And then me and my brother started crying. That bugged me for the longest time.” Recently, James confronted his father about it. “The other week I was like, dad, what happened? And he was like, ‘well, this is what happened, James. I was at war in Bosnia and a well-respected soldier confronted me (and said) rumor has it that the day you flew out, your wife went to some party with a well-known friend of the family, Todd Hunt.’ So my dad called her and said, uh, look, is this true? She said, yeah.”
James recalls a memory he has of something that transpired six months prior to that phone call, when he was 11 years old. “I remember my mother, my father, and friends of the family (including Todd Hunt) all went out to the bar for the night. By the time they got back, all the kids were in bed. It woke me up, but I stayed in my room. I could hear my dad coming up the stairs and I heard him go to bed, but then I heard movement downstairs. So I remember I creeped down downstairs and I peeked around the corner, and there was my mom fooling around with Todd on the couch. I made up some excuse, I’ve got a sore throat, I need a Hall’s or something like that, and went back to bed. And then I just kept that secret to myself.”
It’s obvious from his description of the events that transpired after his father, Steve, received the news about the divorce that James holds a great deal of respect for him. “When all this went down, he got picked up by the military police, and was brought back home to deal with this,” he tells me. “You know, when you’ve got an airborne infantry soldier who is dealing with that, uh, my father is a pretty scary dude. You gotta have the appropriate people there to make sure he stays good. And he handled that situation better than anybody I know, especially for the kind of man he is. I’m super impressed with how he handled that. Within 48 hours, he came home, dealt with this, and he was on the plane back to Bosnia, back to war.
Steve’s priority was keeping all three kids together, so he awarded full custody to Hilary. Around that time, Hilary decided to join the Canadian military as a means to generate an income to support her family. After training, she was dispatched for the first of two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and the kids were left home with their aunt and uncle. When she returned, she opted for a transfer to the Canadian military base in Colorado Springs, and took the kids with her. Again, James reflects on his father’s reaction to the sequence of events. “My father never manipulated any of the kids. And it’s funny cause it was in this conversation I had with him a few weeks ago, you know, he started getting choked up. I started getting choked up and he was like, ‘James, I knew the day would come that you guys would grow up and realize what had happened back then. And I knew it’d be a tough pill to swallow. It’d be many years, but I knew one day, one of you would come to me and say, dad, like, I’m proud of you for not manipulating us.’ And he held his tongue. He was a man about it.” As James gets reflective with me, his rate of speech slows down, his tone grows hushed. “You got three kids yourself, you and your wife get divorced. It takes one hell of a man to be able to say goodbye to his kids and be patient like that.”
I ask him how his parents’ divorce impacted Mercedes. “I know she cried. Mercedes was daddy’s girl. You couldn’t take that away from her. I was always jealous of Mercedes growing up because she was always daddy’s little girl and could do no wrong.”
Once settled in Colorado, James and his older brother Jon started acting out and getting into all kinds of trouble. Their mother, Hilary, had begun a relationship with (and eventually married) Mitchell Rivera, a contractor for the United States military who spent the majority of his time deployed overseas. James recalls a time when his mother and new husband were out of town and he and Jon were left responsible for their little sister. “I said, Jon, let’s throw a party. So we locked Mercedes in my mom and our stepdad’s room and we had half the high school show up to her house, kegs, smoking drugs. Tables were broken, shoes in the house, windows broken. And we didn’t know that Mercedes had a phone. So what she did is she called my mom’s cell phone and told him what was going on. At this point, the house was destroyed. Every room of the house was packed. And then all of a sudden the garage door starts opening, and then I see my mom’s truck and I’m like, run. So we made a run for it. I got caught. Jon made a run for it, but came back. And then, he took all the heat for it.”
The final straw came shortly after the party when Jon stole Hilary’s truck in the middle of the night and took James with him to see two sisters on the other side of town. They got caught by the girls’ father, and Hilary sent Jon to live with his uncle (her brother) in Vancouver. But Jon’s absence did nothing to curb James’ behavior. A few months later, James, now 14, was arrested for reckless driving and drinking. Hilary decided she’d had enough, and sent him to live with his father, where he was reunited with Jon, who had proved too much for Hilary’s brother to handle in Vancouver and had also been sent to live with his father. Eventually Mercedes would also be sent back to Canada to live with her father, she and James would both attend Oromocto High School in New Brunswick (Hilary would eventually relocate there as well.)
I ask James about his relationship with Hilary. He tenses up. “We’ve never had a good relationship. She was out of my life for six years. I let her back in and it’s just off and on all the time. You know, I feel like she is the root cause for everything that has happened in our life, from cheating and being unfaithful to kicking the kids out one by one.” I wonder how Hilary might respond to that accusation — fortunately for me, James gives me permission to contact her, which I do.
I connect with Hilary (Rivera, her married name), like I did with James, over video chat. In her early 50’s, her pronounced jawline and cheekbones accentuate her face, and though her hair is short and has some grey highlights, she shares many of the same features that made her daughter famous, namely, the big, expressive eyes (Mercedes’ were brown, Hilary’s are green.) She wears stylish, thick rimmed glasses and smokes a cigarette as we talk. I ask her about James. “He used to have respect for me,” she laments, “and that went away when I got involved with a younger man. That was a horrible situation. I wish I could wipe that from everyone’s memory, but I can’t.”
I ask her to tell me more, and she describes taking the kids to eat at a PF Chang’s restaurant shortly after moving to Colorado and flirting with a “very debonair and very attractive” waiter, who gave her his phone number. She called him, and soon they were involved romantically, and she allowed him to move into the family home she was renting, a “well-maintained, beautiful rancher in a lovely subdivision in Northern Colorado Springs.”
After living there for a time, one day Hilary came home from work to find the young waiter still in bed with empty vodka bottles in the bedroom and she kicked him out. I asked her why she would get involved with him in the first place and let him move in with her so quickly. She takes a deep breath. “I think I was in such a state of mind that I wasn’t able to see how the children were reacting to this,” she says. “But I know (James) lost his respect for me years before that, when he witnessed me having sex with my husband’s best friend,” she continues, referring to the incident where James caught her having sex in the living room with family Todd Hunt. I ask her about it, and she iterates essentially what James had already told me, her voice trembling with regret: “James sees this and witnesses this, and I absolutely stopped. Freaked out. I was like, oh, my God, I have traumatized my child. (After seeing something like that), you can’t go back home. You can’t unring that bell.”
James and I shift gears a bit and start talking about Mercedes during her high school years. “She got into a lot of trouble actually,” he tells me. “Once she went to babysit at this guy’s house and after, she was waiting for the homeowner to drive her home and she stepped into the garage, and he came out and said, ‘hey, if you get naked, I’ll give you a line of coke.’ And she agreed to it.” Though he wasn’t there to intervene on her behalf during that incident, James often played the role of protector to his young sister. He tells me about a time Mercedes went out with a guy in the Canadian military who got forceful with her at his apartment. “She came home and told me about it,” he says. “My dad had like this Billy club thing, like a security guard club. I found it, and we kicked in (this guy’s) door and beat him with it.”
Now that they were both living together with their father, I ask James about Mercedes’ relationship with him at that point of her life. “My father had remarried, and (his new wife) had two daughters. So Mercedes went from being daddy’s little girl to dad treating everyone as equal. Okay. So dad now has a new wife and two other daughters. So dad treats them all as equal. So I feel like that’s where Mercedes got jealous and started to act out because she no longer felt like daddy’s little girl.”
I connect with one of Mercedes’ friends from her time in Colorado, Sasha Parrell, who stayed in touch with Mercedes over Facebook and Instagram when she moved back to Canada for high school. “She had a lot of friends, she seemed to me to be really popular. She did cheerleading and seemed like a normal high school kid.” Sasha, a year younger than Mercedes and admittedly more conservative, looked up to her older friend and says she “glorified” her lifestyle, but didn’t see Mercedes’ behavior as anything more than just a teenager “living her life and doing what you’re supposed to do.”
James says, during high school, Mercedes always had a boyfriend. “She liked the jocks, then she had phases where it would be like the druggies or the gangsters. She experienced drugs, she partied, skipped class.” He had a falling out with her around this time, because, as he says, he would intervene in her relationships with guys that were his age or older. “She didn’t like me because I was a protective older brother.”
Hilary arrived back in Canada after her second tour of duty in Afghanistan in poor shape mentally. Almost immediately, she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital to be treated for PTSD. While at the hospital, she met and began a relationship with a 19-year old man, also a patient. After being released, she asked James to travel to the hospital in Fredericton, some 20 minutes from the base he was at the time stationed at, to pick up her new friend. James agreed to it, but when he got to the hospital, he couldn’t find him. Hilary told him to drive around to the back of the building where he found the 19-year old waiting. James laughs about the absurdity of the situation. “I was like, what the F**k is going on right now?” When he dropped the man off at his mom’s house (where James would sometimes stay when he was on a break from the military) he confronted her about it. “I’m in my uniform, and I just helped you steal a guy from the psych ward who ran away. How does this look? And she’s like, ‘Oh, it’s fine. It’s fine’”.
Shortly thereafter, the young man, now living with Hilary, also started a relationship with Mercedes.
After finishing high school, Mercedes found herself working at a local Subway restaurant, contemplating her future. Now 19 years old and fully developed sexually she started to view her body, and what she could do with it, as an asset. With encouragement from Hilary (James says she “encouraged Mercedes to get what she wanted out of life, as easy as she could”), she got in touch with porn super-agent Chris Cane of Foxxx Modeling, who she’d found through the website SexyJobs.com. I talk with Chris from his office in the San Fernando Valley. “She sent me some pictures, saying that she’d like to get in the industry. She sent her ID to verify that she was of age, and she was so pretty, I said, you know, I can start getting your work whenever you, like, how soon you want to come down? And she said that she’d have enough money in about two weeks. And that was pretty much it, it wasn’t like it was a long process or anything. I would say the first time I talked to her, by the time she landed, it was probably within three weeks.”
Upon arrival in Los Angeles, Chris had an industry driver escort her back to his “model house” in the West Hills neighborhood, just south of Chatsworth, regarded by many as the porn capital of the world for all the porn-related businesses and video shoots done in homes and studios in the area. There, she met other performers who were living at the house rent-free. Each model had her own room, and together, they’d go to the beach, go shopping at the mall and experience LA by hanging out in Hollywood and “doing tourist type stuff”. No doubt those early experiences had a profound effect on Mercedes — Los Angeles was about as far away from Nova Scotia as one could get.
Mercedes wasted no time. “She landed on a Sunday. All the people in the industry have to get STD tested, so she got STD tested the very next day, and she started working right away, probably by Tuesday or Wednesday she had scenes,” Chris tells me. Together, they came up with the stage name “August Ames”, and the transformation from Canadian Army-brat to glamorous porn star was underway.
August stayed with Chris for about two and a half months, and he began to feel somewhat protective of her. “When I went to go visit my family for the holidays, I wanted her to stay somewhere else. She went to stay with a guy named Rod, and (told me) that if it all worked out, she was gonna get married to him.” Get married to someone she’d just met? “It’s a business, nothing else,” Chris tells me, inferring that August needed to be married in order to stay and work, as a Canadian citizen, in the United States.
“And I talked to Rod and I said, ‘Rod, you need to understand August. August goes out all the time. And he said, ‘oh, I know, I know.’ And then I get a call when I’m visiting my family in Nashville, and it’s August all upset, saying that Rod got up in her face and threatened her because she’d been gone for three days and didn’t come back to the house and he was acting like a jealous boyfriend. And she goes, ‘I think I’m gonna have Kevin pick me up and I’m gonna stay at Kevin’s house.’” That would be Kevin Moore, who would eventually become August’s husband.
By 2014, August was living in a rented house with Kevin in Moorpark, a suburb 22 miles northwest of Chatsworth by way of the 118 Freeway, far enough for Mercedes to be isolated from the action down in the valley. Chris describes the changes in her lifestyle: “When she first went with Kevin, she would come over every week. But as time faded, as time went on, it was less and less to where I would just see her once a month.” Still, August stayed busy with work, filming dozens of scenes, even landing on the list of nominees for “Best New Starlet” at the 32nd AVN Awards held in January, 2015 at the Hard Rock Hotel in Paradise, Nevada.
I ask Chris about August’s relationship with Kevin. “She used to tell me that he would make her feel guilty about going out with her girlfriends, or when we would go out to lunch, you know, she would say, ‘I gotta hurry up. I gotta get back to the house.’ They were just very two different people. He’s very much a recluse and an introverted guy and she’s the exact opposite of that.”
By 2017, August Ames had become a top billing performer, nominated at the AVN Awards for Female Performer of the Year in 2016 and 2017, and, posthumously, in 2018. But personally, things were beginning to spiral out of control. That summer, she was admitted to the hospital after an attempt on her own life by ingesting an overdose of antidepressant medication. She recovered, was released to Kevin and quickly got back to work, but Chris says that around August of that year, “she started withdrawing. She started to cancel scenes that she was booked for. Directors would call me up and say, ‘Hey, is she going to show up? Or should I have a backup in case she doesn’t?’ And I always told them to have backup because at that point in time, I could tell that there were issues.
Chris says that in November, she told him that her and Kevin were having problems and that her depression was spiraling out of control. “She could not get a fix on what was causing her to be this way,” he says. “We cut back on her scenes to help. She still wanted to work but just cut back.” That month, he booked a scene for her with Markus Dupree, a performer known for being aggressive in his work. August did the scene but it took a heavy toll on her, and she told as much to her friend Emma Hix, another top billing porn star in the industry. She said nothing about it to Chris until later that month. “I asked her why she didn’t stop,” he tells me. “I said, you’re a huge star. All you gotta do is say stop. She never really was clear with me why she didn’t stop. She goes, ‘I felt just like a deer in the headlights and I just wanted to get the scene over with.’” Chris speculates her not asking to stop the scene might have had something to do with her being involved romantically with the director, but admits that is all that it is — speculation.
Whatever the case, the aftermath of that scene catapulted August into a downward trajectory that would culminate in her death a short while later. She called James the last week of November. “She sounded very depressed, very unhappy,” he tells me. “I said, ‘I think you should come home for Christmas, we’ll go snowboarding, we’ll have a good time’ and that lifted her spirits. She was talking about it out loud, and I could hear Kevin in the background getting frustrated with her, so she said ‘I have to go’ and hung up. Later that evening she sent me the flight itinerary for December 21, and told me how excited she was.”
That would be the last time James would speak with her.
Chris had booked her for an upcoming scene with Jaxton Wheeler, a performer known in the industry to do both gay and straight scenes, and she decided to cancel the shoot. She then took to Twitter, which by all accounts had become something of an obsession to her, and shared the news of her decision to withdraw from the scene with her fans. From a public relations standpoint, that decision backfired, as August almost immediately became the center of a social media shaming campaign, perpetrated by “social justice warriors”, trolls, and even her own peers, including Wheeler, who suggested she retract her statement or “take a cyanide pill”.
On the morning of December 5, her body would be found hanging from one of the oak trees in Camarillo Grove Park, her death ruled a suicide by the Ventura County Medical Examiner after a note was found in her car nearby. James spoke with Kevin that day, he remembers Kevin talking “like he was reading from a script, telling us everything that happened.” James suggested Kevin call his dad, Steve, and he did, after which Steve and James compared notes, both feeling like Kevin had something to hide.
The news hit Hilary especially hard. I ask her if she thinks there is any possibility that Mercedes fell victim to foul play. “I know James is convinced that she wouldn’t have done it because she was planning to leave Kevin, and was planning to fly back to Canada to visit him. And, you know, his theory is that this gives Kevin plenty of motivation to do it. Maybe he couldn’t handle that. Maybe he said,’ no, you’re not. You’re not leaving me. And if I can’t have you, no one can have you.’ You know, maybe that’s what happened. It’s just hard to know for sure.” Hilary becomes visibly emotional. “Either way, she’s gone. But it is important to try to get questions to those answers because it’s terrible to lose a loved one, but I think it’s almost worse to not know exactly why or what happened.”
I find myself asking that same question, enough so that I reach out to the Ventura County Medical Examiner to request copies of her autopsy, toxicology and investigation reports, all of which they supply to me. I send them to James and we review them together. The reports are, for the most part, conclusive, and really leave no stone unturned. Despite Kevin’s unusual alibi that he “drove around all night trying to find her” before checking into a hotel, it is clear from the investigative report that Mercedes had the physical means to climb up the tree, wrap the rope around a long branch, and let herself drop from a noose. James agrees, though he questions whether or not she really meant to go “all the way” that night.
Chris, Mercedes’ agent, also agrees with the report. “I’ve known a lot of girls that have committed suicide and it’s always the same. They come from completely dysfunctional, messed up families, people that should never have kids having kids and screwing them up.” Still, he can’t help but wonder about the toxicity of her marriage to Kevin and the role that might have played in her fateful decision. “Before she committed suicide she had come to me telling me she was going to ask Kevin for a divorce. After Thanksgiving I talked to her and I said, ‘what’d Kevin say?’ And she said, ‘he wants to go to family therapy.’ And she was a little bummed and I just tried to cheer her up and say, ‘well, you know, worst case scenario is, uh, you know, you go to family therapy for three months. If it doesn’t work out, you ask for a divorce again.’ And she was bummed, but she said, ‘yeah, I know that’s probably what will happen.’ Now, what if Kevin had said yes to the divorce, would she still have been so depressed about her life that she would’ve committed suicide?” Chris makes it clear where he stands on Kevin’s involvement in her death. “Kevin didn’t murder her, but if you know Kevin and you knew August, they should’ve never been married.”
Those closest to her, including Hilary, James, and childhood friends who stayed close to her later in life, prefer to remember her not as “August Ames” but as “Mer”, the “fun-loving, quirky, snorts-when-she-laughs kind of girl,” says Sasha, her close friend from her Colorado years.