A Williamson County grand jury is considering evidence-tampering charges against Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody, a crew from the now-defunct reality show “Live PD” and others in the destruction of video of the March 2019 death of Javier Ambler II, the American-Statesman has learned.
The panel for weeks has been hearing testimony from officials and sheriff’s office employees who were at the scene the night Ambler, a Black 40-year-old father of two, died after being restrained and shocked with a stun gun. Multiple deputies of all ranks confirmed to the Statesman that they were called to testify, but they declined to provide details to the Statesman because of grand jury secrecy.
Additionally, the director of a state police organization said several deputies have recently sought legal advice about how to respond to subpoenas to testify.
“Their concerns were that if they go in there and tell the truth that they are going to be fired, which is a horrible position to be in,” said Kevin Lawrence, head of the Texas Municipal Police Association, which has battled Chody in recent months over employment matters. “We tell them to tell the truth. It is just like any other situation where you are a witness: You tell the God’s honest truth and let the chips fall where they may. If you get fired, we will fight that battle.”
Chody, a millionaire who won the Texas lottery in 2001, has hired prominent Austin defense attorney Gerry Morris to represent him. Morris declined to comment.
The investigation could lead to criminal charges, including felony evidence tampering, against anyone involved. It is unclear when the grand jury may make a decision.
Should the grand jury decide to indict, the case likely would proceed to a trial in which prosecutors must show an intent to destroy evidence needed for an ongoing investigation.
In most circumstances, the crime is a third-degree felony punishable by up to two years behind bars. Companies found guilty could be fined up to $10,000.
“It’s one thing to destroy something that may have evidentiary value, but it’s the intent to make sure it can’t be used as evidence — that’s the key,” said Robert Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.
The grand jury investigation was launched after the Statesman and KVUE-TV in June reported the details of Ambler’s death more than a year earlier. The reporting revealed not only that Ambler had begged for his life as deputies repeatedly stunned him, but that key video evidence was destroyed by “Live PD.”
The highly rated cable show was canceled two days after the reports — the same day producers said the footage no longer existed. The grand jury might also consider that “Live PD” did not for months provide the footage, although the show contends it was never asked.
In addition to new testimony, the grand jury is likely to review an array of information already made public. That includes a log of Chody’s phone calls the night of Ambler’s death and statements from the county’s general counsel, who erroneously told media outlets that “Live PD” had not filmed the incident.
Statements by Jason Nassour, the county general counsel, were disproved after officials released body camera footage showing “Live PD” crews filming Ambler’s final moments.
Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick said in a statement Wednesday that “we continue to pursue justice in the matter of the death of Javier Ambler … as we look into the possible tampering with evidence by personnel from Williamson County agencies who have had contact or communications with the show.”
Dick would not comment further “due to the nature of grand jury investigations.”
The night Ambler died, deputies tried to pull him over for failure to dim his headlights. Deputy J.J. Johnson, who had a “Live PD” crew in his car, chased him for 22 minutes into Austin as Ambler crashed his car four times. After the pursuit ended, Johnson and Deputy Zach Camden used their Tasers on Ambler, who told them multiple times that he had congestive heart failure and could not breathe.
Ambler was on the ground, pinned and handcuffed when deputies realized he had become unconscious and began CPR. He died an hour later at the hospital.
On the night of Ambler’s death, Chody raced from Williamson County to the scene in North Austin.
According to a call log obtained under the Texas Public Information Act, Chody made 17 phone calls beginning at 2:06 a.m. His first call came 19 minutes after Johnson and Camden delivered their final Taser shock to Ambler and started CPR on him.
Chody first dialed County Judge Bill Gravell, and he called him four more times before 6:30 a.m. The call log did not list other numbers that Chody dialed.
Gravell did not return calls seeking comment.
In interviews in mid-June with the Statesman and the Williamson County Sun, Nassour told the publications that he was on the scene that night and met with film crews and that no footage of the incident ever existed.
“I asked if they had any video of the chase or the events that took place after the chase,” Nassour told the Sun. “They stated they had no footage as their batteries died a couple of hours earlier.”
Nassour later acknowledged that he was mistaken. Last month, county commissioners eliminated his position with the county attorney’s office, saying he had advocated for Chody in adversarial legal matters against commissioners.
Austin attorney Joe Turner, who represents Nassour, declined to comment.
Investigators from both Williamson and Travis counties said they tried unsuccessfully for months to obtain the “Live PD” footage. Both agencies are investigating the case because the incident began in Williamson County and ended in neighboring Travis County. They claim Chody stonewalled them, a point the sheriff has disputed.
Investigators were unaware until after the Statesman’s reporting in June that the television show had destroyed the footage last year, about three months after the deadly encounter.
Amid a firestorm of criticism, the show’s host Dan Abrams wrote on his website June 11 that the show had a policy of keeping video for “a few weeks” unless it received a court order to preserve it longer.
The footage was destroyed in June 2019, Abrams said, “when the Williamson County sheriff informed ‘Live PD’ attorneys that their investigation was complete using body cam footage that they had.”
The sheriff’s internal investigation of the incident cleared the officers involved of any wrongdoing in Ambler’s death.
News of the video’s destruction reignited frustration among prosecutors from both counties. Although they have body camera and dash camera footage of the incident, they believed professionally shot images could offer the clearest perspective and provide crucial information about whether deputies’ use of force was justified.
Shortly afterward, district attorneys from both counties announced they would jointly investigate Ambler’s death.
Williamson County would look into the destruction of the “Live PD” video, and Travis County would examine the deputies’ use of force. Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, who was recently defeated in the county’s Democratic runoff, later said that she would allow the next district attorney, who takes office in January, to handle the case.
State law allows for both individuals and companies, such as Big Fish Entertainment, the production company that made “Live PD,” to be charged with evidence tampering.
The charge is most commonly applied when suspects hide weapons, swallow drugs or erase computer files to thwart an investigation.
Under Texas law, an indicted public official may continue to serve until proven guilty of a felony. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was indicted five years ago on felony securities fraud charges and narrowly won re-election in 2018.
Chody, a Republican who is completing his first term, is on the ballot in the November general election and has a Democratic opponent, Mike Gleason, a retired sheriff’s office commander who spent 24 years in the agency.
Kim Ambler, Javier Ambler II’s sister, said she hopes the grand jury will help her family begin to see justice in her brother’s death.
“His life was taken and for them to destroy the video, that seems more like a cover-up to me,” she said. “They should be held responsible.”
Statesman reporter Katie Hall contributed to this article.