From lotto millions to a felony indictment. How reality TV could undo a Texas sheriff.
The first time Robert Chody stood before a phalanx of television cameras was in 2001. He and his wife grinned widely as they received the largest-ever Texas lottery check: $51 million and change.
“We’ve been getting calls from people we normally don’t receive calls from. ... So yeah, I think it is going to change a lot,” Chody, then a rank-and-file Austin police officer, told reporters inquiring about how the newfound wealth would alter the family’s life.
The windfall paved the path for the man who grew up in a Florida trailer park with a single mother to fulfill his boyhood dreams of becoming a law enforcement hero. In recent years, he’s done it with a camera crew at the ready and an adoring audience who loves law enforcement as much as Chody had come to when, at 15, an officer rescued him from the terrifying fists of his mother’s boyfriend.
Since winning the lottery nearly two decades ago, Chody has built a reputation as a conservative lawman with a penchant for social media and a craving for celebrity. He quickly quit his job patrolling weekend revelers on Austin’s rowdy Sixth Street and began cultivating a political career that would lead him to the top law enforcement job in one of Texas’ most notoriously tough-on-crime counties.
As police departments nationwide have begun to re-examine policies that contribute to deadly violence that disproportionately impacts communities of color, Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody stands in stark contrast.
Chody, who became the county’s leading officer in 2017, has doubled down on his agency's long history of heavy-handed policing, using TV cameras and the power of social media to showcase his officers’ work. His brand of law enforcement plays out as the nation confronts difficult questions about the kind of policing communities across America demand.
Under his leadership, Williamson County has hired deputies with troubled pasts and dramatically increased its use of force and high speed chases, both of which disproportionately involved Black civilians. His department's leaders reportedly doled out steakhouse gift cards to deputies considered "badass" enough to use force. And at least five use-of-force incidents are under investigation by the Texas Rangers and local prosecutors.
Much of Chody’s tenure has unfolded before the watchful lenses of the TV reality show “Live PD” camera crews and the show's loyal viewers. After wooing the highly rated program to his suburban Austin county, Chody's star rose among its fans. They lauded his deputies' work and praised a sheriff who was always willing to exchange social media pleasantries with his audience.
But when a violent incident with his deputies turned deadly, taking the life of 40-year-old Black father Javier Ambler II, Chody’s star began to fade. The show that made him a celebrity was canceled after the Austin American-Statesman revealed details of the 2019 death that was captured on “Live PD” video.
Now, the cameras that propelled Chody’s fame could be his undoing.
A grand jury last month indicted Chody on a felony evidence tampering charge for his alleged role in the destruction of footage of the incident. Chody denies breaking any laws and has hired two of Austin’s most prominent attorneys. The charge, he says, is part of a political conspiracy to oust him from office.
His supporters say Chody has done what they elected him to do: preserved a law-and-order culture while bringing a once-stale agency into modern times, using the latest forensic science to help solve cold cases and deploying cell phone apps to alert residents of neighborhood crime. He serves as a symbol of Williamson County’s zero-tolerance for crime, they say.
Chody’s critics, including some of his fellow top Republicans in the county, say he is using public office to slake his thirst for fame.
They argue that his infatuation with the spotlight created a toxic and combustible mix that has promoted violent policing tactics, internal upheaval and a growing stack of lawsuits against the department and the county from aggrieved former employees and abused residents.
As Chody faces re-election next month, he contends not only with a felony indictment, but with fractured relations with local Republican leaders and former allies, several of whom have demanded his resignation. And the specter of additional criminal charges looms as the Travis County district attorney investigates more allegations of evidence tampering in the Ambler case.
“I steadfastly support the good cops, but there is no place in law enforcement for those who discredit and disgrace the badge,” said County Commissioner Cynthia Long, a Republican.
Chody declined to be interviewed for this story.
A personal path to millions
On the day two deputies chased Ambler for a minor traffic violation and deployed lethal Taser strikes while the man pleaded for his life, Chody uploaded a five-minute social media selfie video. He choked back tears inside his police SUV.
He did not mention Ambler, though he’d been on the tragic scene all night. Instead, he excitedly updated viewers on his quest to find the Florida deputy who changed his life nearly 35 years before.
With the help of “Live PD” fans, Chody explained, he had found the name of the officer who saved his mother from an abusive boyfriend at the family’s trailer outside Orlando in 1985. That moment, he said, inspired him to become an officer.
“I want him to know the impact he had on me,” Chody said, his voice cracking. “And I want him to know that because it’s a big deal to me.”
Chody’s father had killed himself when Chody was 8, leaving his mother to raise four children in the Orlando suburbs.
Seven years later, Deputy Paul Peterson walked briefly into his life.
On that day, Chody said his mother’s boyfriend began beating her and his twin brother, so he ran down the street to call for help.
“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,” he said.
Retired from Lake County, Florida, deputy Peterson said he hardly remembered the family he helped that day.
Peterson, 65, now lives in Tennessee. He said a former colleague told him last spring that a teenager he once helped was now a famous Texas sheriff.
“You don’t realize how you change someone’s life when you are just doing your job,” Peterson said recently.
When Peterson and Chody met in person at a Knoxville Cheddar’s restaurant on Aug. 2, 2019, the sheriff shared the moment with his 35,000 Facebook followers in a video.
With a future in law enforcement in sight, Chody served four years in the U.S. Army after graduating high school. He then moved to North Texas to work as a corrections officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He joined the Austin Police Department in 1996.
By then, he and Beverly Chody had started a family that would eventually include four children.
The family saw their fortunes change in March 2001.
Three hours before the Texas lottery drawing, Beverly Chody bought $5 in Quick Pick tickets at a Shopper’s Mart. That evening, the couple, both 30, sat on their bed in disbelief when they realized they had the matching numbers to win the $85 million jackpot – $34 million of which was withheld for taxes.
The Chodys have lived below their means in a $1.4 million, 5,000-square foot house backing up to a golf course in southern Williamson County.
In a February 2018 interview with KVUE-TV in Austin, Chody downplayed his wealth, insisting the most important thing in his life is family. On social media, he often shares photos of his children’s activities, calling himself a “dance dad” attending his daughter’s recitals and proudly announcing that his son completed Marine boot camp.
“If I lived in a trailer to this day, with my wife and my children, I would be content with that,” he said in the KVUE interview.
From officer to politician
Chody’s policing career took a violent turn early on. As a young officer in the Austin Police Department, Chody was on the other side of a life-altering encounter that would mark his budding career and forever scar a 15-year-old Black high school standout.
In August 1998, he was dispatched to a call about a disturbance between a man and a woman. When he arrived on the scene, Chody said he believed Marcus DeWayne Frank was the suspect.
But Frank had not been involved in the disturbance. He was calmly walking down the street and disobeyed Chody’s command to “come here.” Chody smashed the teenager’s head on the hood of his patrol car and put him in a “full nelson,” a wrestling position that places pressure on the neck. The force caused Frank to convulse, his family argued in a lawsuit. Chody continued holding the teen down as he seized, because he thought Frank could be “faking.”
The case was eventually settled for $30,000 – paid by Austin taxpayers.
Now 37, Frank is an insurance customer service representative and lives in Phoenix. He battled depression in high school and through much of his 20s before working through the trauma from that encounter, he said.
Frank hadn’t thought about Chody for years until he learned that he entered politics.
“I forgive him, but do I forget?” Frank asked. “Absolutely not. Do I think he is a good person? No, I do not. Do I think he should be sheriff? Pardon my French, but hell to the no.”
The remainder of Chody’s Austin police tenure was unremarkable, and his supervisors would later praise his work.
“He not only understands the department’s use of force policy but he adheres to it,” Chody’s sergeant wrote in a 1999 evaluation.
When Chody won the lottery in 2001, he said he had no plans to leave the Austin police force. But he resigned about a month after the lawsuit with Frank settled.
For the next six years, Chody served as a volunteer deputy constable in Williamson County’s Precinct 2. He also volunteered as a law enforcement officer in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Amid political strife in Williamson County in 2007, Chody seized on his first political opportunity. He ran for constable in Precinct 1 against an incumbent who was embroiled in a legal battle with commissioners over how he deployed officers.
The political establishment tilted toward Chody, who won handily.
Chody’s former chief deputy, Robert Woodring, said he and others believed Chody viewed the constable position as a stepping stone to a larger political role.
“He makes a very good first impression, but as time goes by, those layers start to peel off and you start to see who this person really is,” said Woodring, who now works for the Blanco County (Texas) Sheriff’s Office. “If you can make him feel good about himself, you are going to do good. If you can kiss his butt, you are going to do great and, if you can stroke his ego, you are going to do awesome.”
Chody has said that in his first year on the job as constable he realized he wanted to be sheriff and began working toward that goal.
A colorful and controversial history
Against a national backdrop of protests and calls for systemic changes to reduce police brutality and improve treatment of communities of color, Chody’s approach hearkens to Williamson County’s notorious past.
One of its most controversial officials was Sheriff Jim Boutwell, an aviator and reserve deputy who famously buzzed the University of Texas Tower from a small airplane in 1966 as sniper Charles Whitman fired upon people on the ground.
A gunfire exchange with Boutwell distracted Whitman enough that police were able to reach the top of the tower and subdue the shooter.
Thirteen years later, Boutwell became the black-coffee-swilling, unfiltered-cigarette-smoking Williamson County sheriff, a position he held for 15 years until 1993. With his ever-present white Stetson and handcuff tie clip, he set the county’s aggressive crime-fighting tone.
In 1983, Boutwell led a task force to obtain murder confessions from alleged serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Boutwell said Lucas confessed to some 360 murders as national news outlets clamored to cover the sordid tales, many of which eventually turned out to be as untrue as they were grotesque. Investigative reporting later revealed he couldn’t have committed many of the crimes he took credit for. Lucas’ death sentence was commuted to life in prison, where he died in 2001.
Boutwell also led the botched investigation that resulted in Michael Morton’s wrongful conviction for the murder of his wife in 1986. The man who actually bludgeoned Christine Morton to death went on to murder at least one other woman, while Michael Morton spent 25 years wrongfully incarcerated.
The county’s population swelled by some 450% from 1980 to 2010, booming along with Austin, in adjacent Travis County to the south. New, more progressive residents have diluted the deeply conservative voting bloc that has kept war-on-crime leaders in office.
Williamson County elected its first Democrat in nearly a quarter-century in 2016. Two years later, voters elected two Democratic justices of the peace.
“Williamson County is the magnet of still-affordable homes for every Democrat that is being flushed out of Travis County,” County Commissioner Terry Cook, a Democrat, said. “The confluence is what is making the change.”
Chody’s term as sheriff
Chody spent almost a half-million dollars of his own money — an amount that experts say is unusually large for a local sheriff’s race — and won his race for sheriff in 2016 in a landslide. He promised to crack down on drug offenses and petty property crimes.
“There is no crime too small. The law must be upheld,” Chody said in a campaign ad.
His opponent, Randy Elliston, a former Texas Department of Public Safety chief, received just 15% of the votes, and spent $8,565 on his campaign.
After winning the sheriff’s badge, Chody immediately went to work wooing a TV show to highlight his agency.
He first sought to capitalize on public interest in cable shows highlighting unsolved mysteries. He created a new squad to focus on high-profile cold cases, including the so-called “Orange Socks” murder that Henry Lee Lucas had claimed credit for. They also investigated the 2002 disappearance of Rachel Cooke, a college student who vanished after going for a run.
“He cares about this community,” said Janet Cooke, Rachel’s mother. “He lets us know that he gives a darn and that he’s working it. ”
When deals failed to materialize with production companies filming cold case shows, Chody turned his attention to “Live PD.”
In a January 2018 public pitch to county commissioners, he said the program would showcase Williamson County as a national model for professional law enforcement.
“How much more transparent can we get than being willing to be on live TV?” Chody asked.
After tepid approval from commissioners, Chody spent the first few months of “Live PD” in a honeymoon period with the show and community.
He hosted viewing parties around the county, serving popcorn and introducing residents to the sheriff’s department stars. Chody’s social media following skyrocketed, with fans tweeting and commenting on his Facebook posts from across the nation.
Chody tightly choreographed his posts and those of deputies.
“Do your account, but I don’t want your leftover pics and videos,” Chody wrote in a group text to deputies in January 2019. “Share the love. I am running out of pics.”
As Chody’s TV stardom grew, trouble was brewing behind the cameras.
Chody was called on to address a complaint that one of his top commanders challenged deputies to try to have sex with a “Live PD” producer. Months later, that same commander’s social media posts were made public in which he appeared to joke about issues such as rape. The deputy, who later resigned, received only a verbal reprimand from Chody.
As camera crews took to Williamson County’s streets, deputies engaged in more high speed pursuits and used force more often, data obtained by the American-Statesman shows. More than one in five of the pursuits and force incidents involved Black individuals, though they represent less than one in 10 Williamson County residents.
In addition to Ambler’s death, other high-profile force incidents drew controversy. Another filmed violent arrest resulted in severe injuries. Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick, a Republican, pressed the sheriff repeatedly about obtaining raw “Live PD” footage, which the prosecutor said could be crucial in criminal prosecutions.
As Dick’s concerns became public, commissioners increasingly questioned the impact of the show on county policing. Last summer, they canceled the county’s contract with “Live PD.”
The decision enraged Chody.
He drafted his own contract with “Live PD” to bring the show back. The commissioners sued Chody to stop him.
“Sheriff Chody can perform the core duties of sheriff without the live TV show,” the lawsuit said. “But he doesn’t want to. Instead, Sheriff Chody seeks social media and TV exposure like a moth to a light bulb – and he’s flown out of his job description to get back on TV."
During Chody’s administration, the county has received what commissioners say is a record number of lawsuits and other complaints from former deputies, including claims of retaliation against whistleblowers, and use of force cases.
“We are having a tough time with our insurance company because of liability created at the (sheriff’s office),” county commissioner Russ Boles, a Republican, said at a Sept. 15 meeting. “It is creating quite a financial burden on the county.”
Thirteen days later, another major problem emerged for Chody’s administration. He was indicted on evidence tampering charges, alleging that he helped to destroy “Live PD” footage of Ambler’s death.
To defend himself from what he called a political conspiracy to push him out of office, Chody turned to the cameras that have become ubiquitous in his law enforcement career.
In a wide-ranging news conference, Chody said he was innocent and compared himself to the wrongly convicted Morton, painting himself as the county’s latest victim of wrongful prosecution.
“Unfortunately, Shawn Dick continues the sad tradition in Williamson County of indicting people for crimes they did not commit,” Chody said. “I find it shocking and disgusting that our district attorney is using his office for his political agenda."
Williamson County voters will decide next month whether Chody will continue to serve as their top cop. Texas law allows indicted elected officials to continue in public office. And unlike Texas police chiefs, sheriff’s cannot be fired. They answer only to their constituents.
In his most recent campaign finance report, Chody spent $300,353 on his campaign, while raising just $5,515. His Democrat opponent, Mike Gleason, raised $19,980 and spent $16,593.
Kim Jones, Ambler’s sister, said that Chody’s wealth may fill his campaign coffers and pay for his legal defense, but it won’t save him from voters who are ready for a change in the county’s law enforcement.
“You can have all the money in the world, but if you are not a good person, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “It doesn’t change who you are.”
- Austin area police chase ends in death as ‘Live PD’ cameras roll
- ‘Live PD’ says video of in-custody death of Javier Ambler has been destroyed
- ‘Live PD’ reality show shutting down after police protests, Javier Ambler death
- ‘Live PD’ captures second violent arrest, drawing scrutiny of deputies in Javier Ambler case
- They could’ve arrested him at the courthouse. Instead, deputies waited till the cameras were rolling and busted down his door.
- Officers rewarded for use of force with steakhouse gift cards, former Williamson deputies say
- Despite troubled pasts, sheriff cast them as ‘Live PD’ stars
- Did Williamson County deputies chase more cars for TV fodder?
- Her neighbors called for help. When deputies came, they attacked the abuse victim
- Grand jury weighs evidence in ‘Live PD’ Javier Ambler video destruction
- Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody indicted in Javier Ambler case