A Texas sheriff was arrested on Monday on a charge of tampering with evidence — video from the crew of a police ride-along TV program — in the death of a Black motorist whom deputies had repeatedly shot with a Taser as he appealed that he had heart disease and could not breathe.
The motorist, Javier Ambler, 40, died in late March 2019 shortly after an encounter that was captured on at least two video recordings. The first was from a body camera worn by a Williamson County sheriff's deputy, which surfaced in June . The other recording was made by the reality television show "Live PD," whose crew was accompanying the deputies.
That video has never been seen publicly. Representatives of "Live PD" told The Austin American-Statesman in June that no law enforcement agency had asked for its footage of the death, which was never broadcast. They said that after the Sheriff's Office said it had concluded its internal investigation, the show destroyed that video as a matter of routine.
The sheriff, Robert Chody, and a Williamson County assistant attorney, Jason Nassour, are accused of tampering with, or destroying, recordings from that encounter, officials said on Monday. They were indicted on a third-degree felony charge that carries up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000, officials said.
In the early hours of March 28, 2019, deputies in Williamson County tried to stop Mr. Ambler because the vehicle he was driving did not dim its lights to oncoming traffic, officials said. After deputies tried to pull Mr. Ambler over, he kept driving for more than 20 minutes and crashed his vehicle in downtown Austin, which is in neighboring Travis County. There, deputies used a Taser on Mr. Ambler several times.
"I have congestive heart failure," Mr. Ambler says on the body camera video. "I can't breathe." As he and the deputies struggle, Mr. Ambler says, "Save me." One deputy yells, "Do what we're asking you to do."
Mr. Ambler was transported to Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin and pronounced dead just after 2:30 a.m.
Shawn Dick, the district attorney in Williamson County, said on Monday that the grand jury there heard from 19 witnesses before returning with their decision to indict the sheriff and Mr. Nassour. He declined to share many details of the case, but told reporters, "As you can tell by the indictment, what we're after are video and audio recordings, obviously based out of the television show 'Live PD.'"
Margaret Moore, the district attorney in Travis County, said a grand jury would be empaneled there next month to look into the death of Mr. Ambler as well as possible evidence tampering there, too.
"The first order of business will be the presentation of evidence regarding the tampering case that has now been indicted here in Williamson," she said at a news conference accompanying Mr. Dick.
The video from the TV show "would be wholly material to the investigation" her office is conducting, she said.
Jeff Edwards, a lawyer for Mr. Ambler's family, said that if the charge against the sheriff is true, "such shameful behavior by a law enforcement leader is striking evidence that there needs to be a sweeping, systemic overhaul of our system of policing."
Mr. Chody, who was released on bond on Monday, accused the prosecutors of pursuing him for political reasons and to cover up their own actions in investigating Mr. Ambler's death.
"This was not my first run-in with District Attorney Shawn Dick," Mr. Chody said at a news conference on Monday. He accused Mr. Dick of zealously prosecuting a complaint about one of Mr. Chody's lawn signs that a campaign volunteer had mistakenly planted on the lawn of a nonsupporter.
Mr. Chody said the timing of the charge against him was meant to derail his effort to win re-election in November.
"We didn't choose this timing," Mr. Dick said at his news conference. He said his office was notified of Mr. Ambler's death in May. In June, his office and Ms. Moore's office began a joint investigation, he said.
Mr. Dick dismissed Mr. Chody's accusation that the indictment was timed to influence the election.
"There is no right answer because do you either hold onto this information through an election or do you do it before an election?" he said. "You just can't let that dictate your timetable."
Mr. Chody's lawyer, Gerry Morris, said the video from the reality show was not needed, because other recordings of the encounter exist. There were multiple recordings from cameras on the deputies, in their vehicles, plus a television helicopter that recorded the chase, he said.
"Those videos show completely what happened," Mr. Morris said. "There is nothing that was on those 'Live PD' videos that could in any way alter the outcome of this case."
At his news conference, Mr. Chody declined to say whether his deputies acted appropriately the night they stopped and tased Mr. Ambler, citing the ongoing litigation. But he did say he would remain in his position as he fought the charge.
"There have been other elected officials who have been indicted as well that's still serving," he said.
Joe Turner, a lawyer for Mr. Nassour, told The American-Statesman on Monday that his client "is the most ethical attorney around."
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