Questions raised over timing of allegations so close to an election
By Kate Northrop
WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Tx. — A lottery winner famous for his role as Sheriff on the now-canceled A&E television show "Live PD" was indicted and arrested for allegedly tampering with video footage that captured crucial moments of the death of a suspect in police custody.
Before Robert Chody paved his way to success as Sheriff of Williamson County and star of his very own law enforcement reality television show, he stood with his wife before cameras in 2001 as the Texas Lottery awarded them a check for $51 million, the lump-sum cash value of the $85 million Lotto Texas jackpot. It was the largest-ever check handed to a lottery player in the state at the time.
In March 2001, he bought $5 in Quick Pick tickets at a Shopper's Mart just three hours before the fateful Texas Lottery drawing. They were not expecting to win the swelling $85 million jackpot that evening.
Today, they live in a $1.4 million, 5,000-square foot house right next to a golf course in Williamson County. In an interview back in February 2018, he steered away from the topic of his wealth and emphasized that his main priority in life is family. On social media, he portrayed himself as a "dance dad" who loves going to his daughter's recitals and cheered his son on for completing Marine boot camp.
"If I lived in a trailer to this day, with my wife and children, I would be content with that," he stated in the interview.
At the time he struck it big, Chody was a police officer in Austin. He came from a humble upbringing having been raised by a single mother alongside three other siblings in a trailer park located in Orlando, Florida. His father committed suicide when he was eight years old.
At the age of 15, Chody ran into the street and called for help when his mother's boyfriend began attacking her and one of his siblings. An officer arrived at the scene and rescued him and his family from danger. Ever since that day, he dreamed of becoming a law enforcement hero, which is exactly what he became in the eyes of millions of viewers on his reality television series "Live PD."
"I've told the story 100 times, and some of it I am finding out is not completely accurate, but I will tell you what is accurate, and that is the sense of security I had," Chody said.
Unsurprisingly, the big win garnered Chody and his family a lot of attention, but he swore that the newfound wealth would not alter his family's life and values.
"We've been getting calls from people we normally don't receive calls from," he said nearly two decades ago. "So yeah, I think it is going to change a lot."
Life certainly took an upturn for Chody, who worked his way from weekend patrol in Austin into the Sheriff's office in Williamson County, the top law enforcement position in the county. "Live PD" took off with local viewers, and he quickly amassed a loyal social media following.
The television show, which showcases footage of his officers handling crime, became the focal point for an investigation regarding the death of 40-year-old Javier Ambler II, a former postal employee, while in police custody. Moments leading up to his death were captured on the show in 2019, and the show was swiftly cancelled.
In January 2018, Chody had previously pitched the show to county commissioners as a way of putting Williamson County in the limelight as a national model for law enforcement. Ironically, it backfired.
"How much more transparent can we get than being willing to be on live TV?" Chody argued in favor of the show.
In March 2019, police attempted to pull Ambler over for failing to dim his headlights for oncoming traffic. Ambler fled and crashed his car multiple times in a chase that lasted 22 minutes. At around 1:30 am, his car was disabled in a North Austin neighborhood, and afterwards Deputies tasered him four times. During the altercation, he told officers that he had a heart condition and that he could not breathe. Four minutes later, he died.
While some details about Ambler's final moments were captured on body camera footage from an Austin police officer, "Live PD" camera crews were with Deputies when they filmed the incident. According to prosecutors, that footage likely provided the clearest picture of the incident.
However, investigators were never able to get their hands on the video recordings — it was destroyed by producers.
There are mismatching stories about when and why the video evidence was discarded. Prosecutors said that they were trying to obtain the footage for months, but Williamson County sheriff's officials and those working on the "Live PD" show had stalled the investigation by refusing to release it. Despite this, there was a contract in place at the time of Ambler's death between Williamson County and "Live PD" producers that allowed any unaired footage to be destroyed within 30 days unless it were otherwise required to remain intact by a court order or law.
On the other hand, Chody had said that investigators were originally slow to make any legal moves, only suddenly taking interest in the case around election time. According to him, the Travis County District Attorney had not taken any action for 19 months. He believes the motivation to prosecute him for tampering with video evidence is politically motivated since his name is currently in the ring for the upcoming re-election for County Sheriff.
"From the beginning, the Javier Ambler incident has been hampered by prosecutors failing to act and then attempting to pass off responsibility for their inactions," Chody stated. "In fact, it was only after the bodycam video of the Ambler incident was released to the public that the Travis County DA began to move on this case."
Chody was charged with felony evidence tampering and for allegedly aiding in the wrongful destruction of footage depicting the details of Ambler's death. He was indicted last month by a Williamson County grand jury following the testimonies of 19 witnesses, but he denies covering up any evidence or breaking any laws.
"I did not tamper with evidence," Chody stated. "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."
He was arrested and bailed out on Mon., Sept. 28, 2020 for $10,000 after he turned himself in to Williamson County Jail.
Chody's first official court date is set for Nov. 30, 2020. A Travis County grand jury will begin hearing evidence after Jan. 1, 2021.
"To say that this footage does or doesn't exist — we have no idea," Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick said. "Only the Sheriff's office and 'Live PD' truly know whether it exists."
As the case is still ongoing, prosecutors said they were unable to disclose their findings on Chody's involvement in the destruction of the footage.
Sheriffs cannot be fired, rather they are elected by county voters but can be removed from office if they are convicted. While his wealth, no doubt boosted by his lottery winnings, will fuel his campaign and pay for his legal defense, right now his fate ultimately rests in the hands of voters. It will be interested to see how they interpret this investigation as well as the timing of it.