Tony Plohetski, Austin American Statesman
Published 12:54 p.m. ET Sept. 28, 2020 | Updated 1:20 p.m. ET Sept. 28, 2020
A Texas grand jury has indicted Williamson County 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 Ambler’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, was also indicted on a felony evidence tampering charge.
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 bond 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 for air, screaming 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 who arrived at the scene. “Live PD” crews had 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 this 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. “Live PD” was cancelled days after the Statesman reported the Ambler footage had been destroyed amid ongoing nationwide protests over police violence involving people of color.
Investigators have declined to say how they tried to obtain the footage from “Live PD.”
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 web site 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 DA are investigating at least five use of force cases involving Chody’s deputies. 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.
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