AUSTIN, Texas – A Texas sheriff has been indicted on charges of destroying or concealing video in an investigation into the death in custody of a Black man, Javier Ambler, that was filmed by the police reality TV series “Live PD," prosecutors said Monday.
Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody was booked Monday into his jail on a $10,000 bond and released a short time later. The third-degree felony charge is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The indictment comes as prosecutors in Austin separately investigate the use of force in Ambler’s death in March 2019, when the 40-year-old former postal worker was pulled over for allegedly failing to dim his headlights to oncoming traffic. The traffic stop was filmed for the real-time police show “Live PD," which was canceled by the A&E Network in June.
“The Live PD video would be wholly material to the investigation into use of force,” Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said at a news conference.
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.
Ambler died after Williamson County sheriff’s deputies repeatedly used stun guns on him, despite his pleas that he was sick and couldn’t breathe. Chody, a Republican who is running for reelection in November, has faced calls to resign since video of the traffic stop was published by the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV in June.
Court records show Chody is accused of destroying or concealing recordings “with intent to impair their ability as evidence in the investigation” into Ambler's death. Chody said he never tampered with evidence and accused prosecutors of bringing the case to a grand jury to save their political careers and hurt his own chances of keeping his job.
Chody, who said he would not step down while under indictment, said Live PD was never contacted by prosecutors for footage during the initial investigation.
“From the beginning, the Ambler incident has been hampered by prosecutors failing to act, and then attempting to pass off responsibility," Chody told reporters a few hours after his release from jail.
The booking photo posted by the jail shows Chody wearing a suit and a smile, standing in front of the Williamson County Sheriff's Office logo.
Jeff Edwards, an attorney for the Ambler family, released a statement saying the alleged destruction of evidence is behind the “slow pace of justice in this case."
“It seems the Sheriff was more interested in being part of a reality television program and providing entertaining video content than protecting the lives of Black citizens he was sworn to protect," the statement read. “If true, such shameful behavior by a law enforcement leader is striking evidence that there needs to be a sweeping, systematic overhaul of our system of policing."
Police body camera video of Ambler’s death shows the gasping 400-pound (180-kilogram) 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. “Sir, I can’t breathe. ... Please. ... Please.”
Investigators with the Williamson County sheriff’s department of internal affairs determined that the deputies 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.”
Moore said a separate grand jury in Austin will likely begin hearing additional evidence in November.
Ambler’s death was ruled a homicide, according to the report made to the state attorney general’s office, which noted it could have been “justifiable.” An autopsy revealed he died of congestive heart failure and hypertensive cardiovascular disease associated with morbid obesity “in combination with forcible restraint.”
Chody, who is seeking a second term, stayed in law enforcement even after he and his wife won a $51 million Texas Lottery jackpot in 2001.