But the tape was never given to investigators. Instead, it was destroyed, “Live PD” producers said, under instructions from the deputies’ boss: Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody (R).
On Sept. 28, with just over one month before he is up for reelection, Chody has been indicted by a grand jury of evidence tampering — a felony — as demonstrators across Central Texas have demanded justice and answers following Ambler’s death.
But Chody, who could face between two and 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000, is pointing fingers at Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore (D), who has overseen a months-long probe into Ambler’s death. He claims she and her counterpart in Williamson County, Shawn Dick (R), delayed their investigation as part of a politically motivated plot to prosecute him on charges he did not commit.
“I did not tamper with evidence,” Chody said at a news conference Monday. “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.”
The indictment marks the latest blow against Chody, a millionaire lottery winner who was once accused of beating a Black teenager as an Austin police officer and more recently faced complaints that his agency gave gift cards to deputies who used force.
Since his election as Williamson County sheriff in 2016, much of the criticism against the leader has focused on his contracts with “Live PD,” a highly viewed but polarizing cable show that has since been canceled. His critics have argued Chody has cast aside public safety in exchange for a starring role on the TV show, which they claim encouraged deputies to dangerously amp up the drama while on patrol.
But he has argued the A&E show, which featured ride-alongs with police officers across the country, gave viewers a better understanding of police while helping his department with recruitment and visibility.
This time, however, his involvement in “Live PD” has led to criminal charges.
Ambler, a former postal worker, was driving home from a poker game in the suburbs north of Austin early in the morning on March 28, 2019, when two Williamson County deputies tried to pull him over for failing to dim his headlights, the Austin American-Statesman reported.
When Ambler failed to stop, they chased him for about 20 minutes before his car crashed. As a “Live PD” crew filmed, the two deputies — J.J. Johnson and Zach Camden — handcuffed and restrained him and used a Taser on him at least three times.
Ambler screamed he had a heart condition and could not breathe. Johnson and Camden tried to revive him, but he died minutes later.
An internal probe in Williamson County cleared the deputies of any wrongdoing. But a separate investigation in neighboring Travis County went on for more than a year, with investigators in Moore’s office telling the newspaper they had long been pushing to get their hands on the unaired “Live PD” footage from that night.
Prosecutors said they initially believed the sheriff’s office, which claimed the TV show had refused to release the tape. But days after the American-Statesman published a report on the body-cam footage in June, the reality show’s producers told a very different story.
According to the contract between Williamson County and “Live PD,” the show could destroy any unaired footage unless court order or other legal request said otherwise. In general, the show did not broadcast any tape involving death.
Dan Abrams, the show’s host, said on his Law & Crime website that Chody initially asked the show’s lawyers to keep the video. But two months after Ambler’s death, the sheriff told them the investigation was completed, and producers went ahead and tossed the footage. (Prosecutors said they cannot disclose exactly what role Chody played in the destruction of the video.)
By this point, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis had sparked massive unrest and put the police killings of Black people front and center in national protests. That outpouring, which prompted A&E to cancel “Live PD” in June, also turned Ambler’s death into a rallying cry for Texas protesters.
With the body-cam footage now public, demonstrators and local politicians in Central Texas called for Chody to resign and demanded the deputies involved in Ambler’s death be fired.
A grand jury in Williamson County indicted the sheriff and Jason Nassour, the jurisdiction’s former general counsel, after hearing testimony from nearly 20 people who were on the scene that night.
But at a news conference, Chody said prosecutors had stretched the case out and improperly shifted the blame onto him.
“The Travis County district attorney dropped the ball on the investigation, and when the video surfaced during her campaign, she had to find someone to blame for her own mistakes,” he said.
Hours later, Chody turned himself in at the Williamson County Jail he oversees, KVUE reported, though he was released on bond later on Monday evening.
He remains in office — indicted officials can continue serving under Texas law — but his legal trouble may only be beginning. Moore told the American-Statesman that in early November, a separate grand jury in Travis County will hear evidence for another investigation into what happened on the night Ambler died.