A grand jury on Monday indicted a Texas sheriff on a felony evidence-tampering charge in connection to the death of a black man in police custody that was caught on video early last year.
Williamson County records show Sheriff Robert Chody is facing the third-degree charge that is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. He was booked into his jail Monday on a $10,000 bond.
A booking photo released by the jail that the sheriff oversees shows a grinning Chody dressed in a suit-and-tie, posing in front of the Williamson County Sheriff’s emblem affixed to a wall.
Scroll down for video
Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody (pictured left in his booking photo) was arrested on Monday and charged with third-degree evidence tampering in the death of Javier Ambler (right) during his arrest that was filmed by A&E’s Live PD
Body camera footage released in June showed Ambler telling deputies ‘I can’t breathe’ and that he has congestive heart failure as they deploy Tasers on him four times
Although the incident occurred in March 2019, footage was not released until this summer to The Statesman and KVUE – stoking accusations of stonewalling from Live PD producers and authorities
Jason Nassour, general counsel for the county, has also been indicted on the same charge as Chody.
Chody is accused of illegally destroying raw video and audio recordings made by the canceled A&E Network’s real-time police TV show Live PD at the time of Javier Ambler’ arrest in March 2019. Footage showing the man’s death was never aired.
According to court documents, Chody destroyed the recordings ‘with the intent to impair their availability as evidence in the investigation.’
The sheriff’s arrest comes three months after county prosecutors announced an investigation ‘involving possible tampering with evidence’ in the Ambler case.
The 40-year-old father-of-two died after Williamson County sheriff’s deputies repeatedly used stun guns on him, despite his pleas that he was sick.
Body camera footage of the arrest showed the man gasping, ‘I can’t breathe.’
Travis County prosecutors are separately investigating the use of force in Ambler’s death.
Williamson County deputies JJ Johnson and Zach Camden attempted to pull Ambler over on March 28, 2019, near downtown Austin because he failed to dim his headlights to oncoming traffic as he drove home from a poker game, according to a report first published by the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV.
The deputies chased Ambler for 22 minutes into downtown Austin while being filmed for Live PD – a feature of the arrest that prosecutors said was particularly troubling.
Deputies performed CPR on Ambler (pictured) until medical personnel arrived later and took over. He died at hour later
Johnson even narrated the pursuit for the camera crew, according to The Statesman.
After Ambler crashed his vehicle, Johnson drew his gun and demanded that the driver come out.
Ambler complied and showed his hands. Johnson, who is black, holstered his gun, pulled out his Taser and told Ambler to get down several times.
According to an internal investigative report, Ambler turned toward his vehicle and Johnson deployed the Taser causing Ambler to drop to one knee, roll onto his back and stomach. It appeared that he was trying to stand.
A white Williamson County sheriff’s deputy arrived with a Live PD crew and shoved his Taser into Ambler’s back. A struggle ensued, and one of the deputies — it is unclear which — used a Taser on Ambler a third time, the report said.
An Austin police officer arrived on the scene as the deputies struggled to handcuff Ambler and it was his camera that recorded Ambler’s final pleas for help.
Police body camera video of Ambler’s death shows the gasping 400-pound man telling the deputies that he wants to comply with their demands but that he can’t because he has congestive heart failure.
‘I am not resisting,’ Ambler cries in the body camera video. ‘Sir, I can’t breathe. … Please… Please.’
An autopsy revealed that Ambler died in a homicide with congestive heart failure and hypertensive cardiovascular disease linked with morbid obesity ‘in combination with forcible restraint’
The postal worker wept ‘save me’ seconds before a fourth and final Taser shock was released.
‘Do what we’re asking you to do!’ a deputy shouts.
‘I can’t,’ Ambler says. Those were his last words.
Ambler’s body goes limp and deputies place him in handcuffs. It’s only moments later that they realize Ambler is unresponsive and has no pulse. Deputies performed CPR until medics arrive. The driver was pronounced dead less than an hour later.
An autopsy revealed that he died by homicide. It was congestive heart failure and hypertensive cardiovascular disease linked with morbid obesity ‘in combination with forcible restraint.’
A death-in-custody report filed with the Texas attorney general’s office said Ambler was not violent with deputies, did not attempt to escape, threaten them or try to obtain their weapons at any point during the incident.
Investigators with the Williamson County sheriff’s department of internal affairs determined that deputies Johnson and Camden didn’t violate pursuit or use-of-force policies. Their report doesn’t indicate whether the deputies were disciplined or forced to take leave.
A&E has said its video never aired because of a policy against showing a death, and it did not keep the footage after it was informed that the initial investigation had closed.
A&E said neither the network nor the show’s producers ‘were asked for the footage or an interview by investigators from law enforcement or the District Attorney’s office.’
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said in June that the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office ‘stonewalled’ the county’s investigation into Ambler’s death for a year, reported KXAN.
The sheriff’s office denied acting to impede the investigation, saying that Moore and Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick should have obtained the Live PD video sooner if they believed it was important.
Williamson County commissioners initially ended its contract with Live PD in 2019 after concerns were raised, but Chody signed his own agreement with producers to allow the show to continue filming his department in March 2020.
The commissioners issued a ‘cease and desist’ order in response. Chody refused to comply and he was sued by the county in May.
‘Sheriff Chody can perform the core duties of sheriff without the live TV show,’ the lawsuit read, according to The Statesman.
‘But he doesn’t want to. Instead, Sheriff Chody seeks social media and TV exposure like a moth to a light bulb – and he’s flown out of his job description to get back on TV.’
A&E Network pulled the plug on Live PD amid widespread protests against police brutality.
Following Ambler’s death in custody, Chody signed an agreement with Live PD producers to allow the show to continue filming his department in March 2020
Williamson County Commissioner Terry Cook in June called for Chody, a first-term sheriff running for re-election on November 3, to resign.
‘The continued killing of black citizens in our country under the hands of law enforcement has reached epidemic proportions, and it is horrific,’ Cook said in a statement. ‘Like the pandemic we’ve been facing, it has come to roost in Williamson County.’
She said that in Chody’s less than four years as sheriff: multiple lawsuits have been filed against his office; he has taken no action against a lieutenant who posted stories online glorifying rape and the maiming of a black football player; the county has started investigating the $10million sheriff’s office training center for unethical practices including the use of racial and sexual epithets and falsified records.