Texas sheriff charged in ‘Live PD’ case related to man’s death
Sheriff Robert Chody was indicted on an evidence tampering charge in destroying reality TV show footage
By Tony Plohetski
AUSTIN, Texas — A Williamson County grand jury has indicted Sheriff Robert Chody on an evidence tampering charge in the destruction of reality TV show footage that showed deputies chasing and using force on a Black man who died last year.
Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick and Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore opened a joint investigation in June, a week after the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV revealed details of Javier Ambler II’s death and reported that “Live PD” had destroyed its footage.
Former Williamson County general counsel Jason Nassour, who was also at the scene of the deadly March 2019 incident, also was indicted on an evidence tampering charge. The charge, a third-degree felony, is punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Chody held a press conference Monday afternoon during which he accused Moore and Dick of a politically motivated prosecution.
“I did not tamper with evidence,” Chody said. “DA Shawn Dick is pushing misleading stories while pursuing false prosecution.”
“We are now at one month from the election and the DA is just now acting in a case that is nearly two years old,” said Chody. Chody’s attorney, Gary Morris, said at the press conference that it was hard to tell what the indictment against Chody meant. “It makes it sound like that Chody picked up the phone and called someone and told them to destroy evidence which is absolutely untrue,” said Morris.
Nassour did not immediately answer requests for comment Monday.
The indictments follow weeks of grand jury investigation that included testimony from deputies and others who were at the scene the night of Ambler’s death. Chody turned himself in at the Williamson County Jail, which he oversees, on Monday. His bail was set at $10,000.
Prosecutors have said they could not disclose what they learned about Chody’s role in the video destruction because of the ongoing case. Indicted officials are allowed to continue to serve under Texas law but can be removed from office if they are convicted.
Ambler, a 40-year-old former postal employee, died after Deputies J.J. Johnson and Zach Camden chased him for 22 minutes in a pursuit that started because Ambler did not dim his headlights.
During the chase, Ambler crashed his car multiple times before it was disabled in a North Austin neighborhood. Deputies used Tasers on Ambler four times as he gasped that he had a heart condition and could not breathe. He died minutes later.
What is known about Ambler’s final moments came mostly from the body camera video of an Austin police officer. “Live PD” crews accompanied both Williamson County deputies and filmed the incident. Prosecutors have said that footage likely offered the clearest perspective of the encounter.
Investigators told the Statesman last spring that they had been working for months to obtain the video and believed Williamson County sheriff’s officials and “Live PD” had stonewalled the investigation by refusing to release it.
Investigators have declined to say how they tried to obtain the footage.
Chody accused Moore and other investigators of conducting an unnecessarily prolonged investigation, saying that if they believed the video was key to the case, they should have aggressively pursued it sooner.
The contract between Williamson County and “Live PD” producers in place at the time of Ambler’s death allowed the show to destroy unaired footage within 30 days unless a court order or other state or federal law required it to be retained.
“Live PD” host Dan Abrams said in television interviews and in a post on his website that sheriff’s officials initially asked producers to preserve the video. Two months after Ambler’s death, Chody told them the investigation was completed. At that point, Abrams said, producers destroyed the video.
In public statements, Chody has never described his knowledge about the video.
For months, his office fought the release of documents and body camera footage in Ambler’s death. He refused to release information to the Statesman in February and only made public investigative reports after the Texas Attorney General’s Office said it could not withhold the records.
The documents showed that an internal Williamson County investigation cleared deputies Johnson and Camden of any wrongdoing in the incident. Austin police and Travis County prosecutors are still investigating the deputies’ use of force. Moore, who leaves office at the end of the year, has said that she will wait for the county’s new district attorney to handle that matter.
The charge against Chody comes 39 days before the Nov. 3 election. The first-term sheriff is being challenged by Democrat Mike Gleason, who is retired after serving 24 years in the Williamson County sheriff’s office.
The indictment also comes amid growing scrutiny of Chody’s leadership. Texas Rangers and the Williamson County district attorney are investigating at least five cases in which Chody’s deputies used force. In addition, the Statesman has reported that the sheriff hired multiple deputies with troubled histories, that leaders in his department allegedly rewarded deputies who used force with gift cards and that deputies engaged in more high-speed pursuits when “Live PD” cameras began rolling on patrols.
©2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas