WilCo Sheriff Chody Finds Himself Under Unwelcome Spotlight
Until now, Williamson County sheriff has largely been best known for his big lottery win, but now he’s under scrutiny in scandal’s wake.
By Tony Cantu , Patch Staff
Aug 12, 2019 3:47 a m CT | Updated Aug 23, 2019 4:36 p m CT
Editor’s note: In a previous version of this article, Patch wrote that Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody said in an interview with KVUE that with regards to comments made by Stephen Deaton about a female A&E producer, Chody said “what was alleged did not occur.” However, after reviewing the unedited version of that interview, it was clear that Chody acknowledged a comment was made but that there was no challenge issued, as was alleged in a complaint filed by a local attorney that said Deaton “challenged” deputies in a meeting to have sex with a female producer. Patch has clarified and corrected our language to accurately reflect what Chody said.
WILLIAMSON COUNTY, TX — It’s been an unwelcome spotlight for Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody the past few days by virtue of news stories on how he’s handled discovery of a subordinate’s offensive social media page.
County residents are well familiar with Chody’s implausible narrative — a 2001 state lottery winner who overnight found himself with a multimillion-dollar windfall he parlayed into robust campaign war chest to secure the job as the county’s top cop. Yet the recent emergence of his commander’s Facebook page — replete with rape jokes and calls for the maiming of black NFL players protesting during the National Anthem — has served to heighten his profile to an audience less familiar with his compelling rags-to-riches story.
So who is Robert Chody? Arguably, he’s best known as the former Austin Police Department officer who won a substantial jackpot 18 years ago with a winning Texas state lottery ticket purchased by his wife. The Lotto Texas ticket matched all six numbers drawn to win one of the biggest jackpots issued by the Texas Lottery Commission to date— an overnight windfall of $85 million. The couple opted to take an immediate lump sum rather than yearly annuities, taking home $51.2 million.
Lottery winnings fuel political aspirations
Flash forward 15 years later, and Chody would turn some of his winnings into political currency in running for sheriff. Given his considerable, lottery-aided campaign war chest, Chody easily vanquished four opponents for the sheriff’s post in securing 58 percent of the vote, as shown in results compiled by Ballotpedia.
The four other contenders in the 2016 race — Randy Elliston, Mike Cowie, William Kelberlau and Tony “L.A.” Trumps — were far outspent by the lottery-laden Chody, who had the luxury of pumping more than half-a-million dollars into his war chest to dwarf expenditures of his rivals — little more than $50,000 apiece — as reflected in campaign reports filed in Williamson County. Most of Chody’s campaign money went to high-dollar consulting firm Murphy Nasica, which boasts on its website that, since its inception, has “. won more campaigns in the regions where we operate than any other firm.”
Chody’s considerable capital proved an insurmountable obstacle for challengers struggling to get their own political messaging out to the electorate. His closest challenger, Elliston, placed a distant second in managing to secure 15 percent of the vote when all the ballots were tallied.
Challengers’ anemic showings at the polls belied impressive professional pedigrees: Elliston formerly was a Texas Department of Public Safety chief; Cowie, a lieutenant in the criminal investigations division of the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office; Bill Kelberlau, a 30-year U.S. Navy intelligence officer retiree; and retired Houston police officer Trumps, who, as the Austin American-Statesman reported, dropped out of the race but still managed to snag 2.18 percent of the vote.
And so, Chody was able to handily win the election in securing the job of top cop of 1,100 square miles of Texas land known as Williamson County of which Georgetown is the county seat. The cities of Cedar Park, Leander and Round Rock also fall under his jurisdiction.
The sheriff’s post wasn’t the first political office Chody was able to secure with help of his winnings. He ran for the March 2008 Republican primary for the Precinct 1 constable seat — ultimately successful in unseating 10-year incumbent Gary Griffin. As noted by the Austin Chronicle, Chody’s lottery winnings figured prominently in his campaign website at the time with a television clip showing him and his wife clutching an oversize check from Texas Lottery officials.
Robert Chody via WilCo Sheriff’s Office.
Sporting the 10-gallon cowboy hat that seems all but a prerequisite in such political law enforcement races around these parts, Chody presented a “warm-and-fuzzy” portrait as a religious family man, generous donor and an officer with a penchant for working with kids, the Chronicle reported. The tactics paid off, with Chody securing 57 percent in the March Republican primary with Griffin and setting him up to win the primary election without Democratic opposition, as the Austin American-Statesman reported.
Unwanted spotlight dissipates post-lottery
The stroke of luck in winning the lottery proved especially fortuitous for Chody. When he won the money, the Austin Chronicle reported, he was the principal defendant in a police brutality lawsuit filed on behalf of a black, epileptic teen in East Austin. The lottery money doubtless came in handy when the suit was quietly settled out of court, as the Chronicle suggested.
Here’s how the newspaper described the particulars of the lawsuit: “According to court documents, Chody stood accused of beating a much smaller 15-year-old black teenager in East Austin, smashing the youth’s face on the hood of a patrol car, putting him in a ‘full nelson’ (a forceful, immobilizing wrestling hold that places pressure on the neck), triggering a seizure in the terrified youth and bruising his ribs – and finally arresting, without apparent probable cause, Marcus Dewayne Frank, then an exemplary student at Johnston High School.”
Fourteen years later, Chody would organize a “Police Lives Matter” rally in response to the murder of Harris County Deputy Darren Goforth, allegedly gunned down by Shannon Miles at a gas station, as CBS Austin and others reported at the time. Miles ultimately was found to be mentally incompetent.
The settling of that lawsuit effectively put Chody out of an unwelcome spotlight in which he had found himself since early 2001 when the litigation was filed. Today, Chody finds himself under the unwelcome glare of another controversy — this time indirectly of his own making.
Glare of unwanted spotlight returns
In a recent report, the Southern Poverty Law Center exposed the Facebook page of one of his commanders that contained offensive material that’s prompted many county residents to call for his firing. In the since-deleted page, Commander Stephen Deaton took the time to position Barbie and Elf in the Shelf dolls in compromising positions to air his views on a variety of hot-button issues.
https://t.co/QucofLEd9S for more information on everything that’s going on at the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office. Updated frequently. https://t.co/qKFEw6rD5j
— Buddy Falcon (@buddy_falcon) August 8, 2019
The posts are at turns misogynistic — making light of sexual assault and abuse of women — and graphic in their depictions of violence:
- One post positions dolls to depict a black football player being dismembered at the knees by an elf with a chainsaw against an American flag backdrop. There’s a pool of blood under the chainsaw blades, with a caption presumably written by Deaton that reads: “And here’s the start … Our Patriotic elf grew angrier all season. He finally snapped and decided to show the NFL how he goes about taking knees for not standing during our national anthem.”
- Another November 2018 post shows an elf with a ransom note while a captive Barbie lies behind him wrapped in tape. The caption reads: “Our elf is searching for just the right words to convince Ted he wasn’t fooling around and to pay the ransom. While he didn’t mind burying another body, it was time to get paid.”
- There’s an image of a Barbie doll surrounded by three prancing elf dolls seemingly in celebration. The caption: “After partying hard with the elves last night, Barbie woke up confused. She couldn’t understand why the elfs [sic] were so busy laughing at her and she was really wondering what smelled so bad #rustytrombonenext.” A quick Google search yields the meaning behind the chosen hashtag. A so-called “rusty trombone” is a purported act in which a man stands with his knees and back slightly torqued with feet spread shoulder width apart to expose his anus for a partner to perform anilungus.
- Another post on Deaton’s page shows an elf doll of dark complexion holding the hair of a Barbie doll lying on the ground made to look as if being in the throes of vomiting. “Sticking to etiquette, our elf holds the hair of his date to the party while she pukes,” the caption reads. “Silently though, he wonders whether the roofie slipped her earlier will still be effective.” The term “roofie” is a slang term for the date rape drug flunitrazepam or any drug designed to cause drowsiness or disorientation for the person unwittingly ingesting it.
Commander Stephen Deaton via Williamson County Sheriff’s Office homepage.
Chody enjoyed the post depicting mutilation of a black football player, hitting the “like” button below the posting. County Judge Bill Gravell liked it too. In a previous email to Patch, Chody expressed regret for having hit “like” on the image showing a facsimile of an NFL player’s bloodied and disembodied legs, but said his reaction was rooted in support for standing during the anthem rather than endorsement of violence: “I will say I do not condone the posts and the one ‘like’ from me was related to standing for the U.S flag, and only that,” he wrote in an email. “As a veteran, I am very passionate about the issue of standing for our U.S. flag and completely overlooked the obvious. That was a mistake on my part.”
Gravell also expressed contrition when approached for comment from local media outlets.
Deaton’s use of elf dolls is in stark contrast to Chody’s. Having ushered in Williamson County as a social media presence — a development he lists among his accomplishments since becoming sheriff — Chody uses elf dolls in a decidedly wholesome manner, employing them around the holidays in keeping with the spirit of the Christmas season.
Our elves are celebrating #NationalCookieDay! What’s your favorite kind of cookie? pic.twitter.com/DKdkov1Zed
— Williamson County Sheriff Chody (@SheriffChody) December 4, 2018
“Our elves are celebrating #NationalCookieDay!” Chody’s post last December read. “What’s your favorite kind of cookie?”
In another post, “Williamson County Sheriff “swears in” new reserve deputy Elves for the Christmas season,” Said Chody: “These special deputies are ordered on Christmas Eve to report to the Sheriff the whereabouts of Santa so the kids know when Santa is close to Wilco.”
Williamson County Sheriff swears in new reserve deputy Elves for the Christmas season. Sheriff Chody was quoted as saying “These special deputies are ordered on Christmas Eve to report to the Sheriff the whereabouts of Santa so the kids know when Santa is close to Wilco.” pic.twitter.com/U5ba5eeuh5
— Williamson County Sheriff Chody (@SheriffChody) December 20, 2017
The holiday outreach efforts secured positive press for Chody: “Though we can’t be sure when Santa Claus will show up in Williamson County, we can say that the sheriff is doing exceptional work keeping citizens informed, safe and stylish before the new year,” gushed the Austin American-Statesman in reporting on the special elves.
Residents’ outrage grows as word of Deaton’s page spreads
Behind the scenes, though, elves aren’t that family-friendly.
Residents objecting to the content of Deaton’s page directed their ire and concern during the Aug. 6 meeting of the Williamson County Commissioners Court. The outrage is directed not just at Deaton, but at Chody for not disciplining his commander.
“Deaton received a verbal reprimand, which is exactly what I was limited to with the other employees and their K9 digital text thread,” Chody wrote in a written answer to various questions. “I cannot retroactively go back and punish Deaton for what ever new policy is approved by legal to address these issues.”
Actually, Deaton received a mere “oral counseling” — far short of formal disciplinary action — with the option of “could be terminated” marked out of the disciplinary form as consideration.
Gary Richter, a 40-year resident of Georgetown, ticked off a number of the disturbing images but said he was most disturbed by the images of violence depicted against black NFL football players.
“This had a visceral effect on me; it made my stomach hurt,” Richter said. He noted there were several layers from which to be disturbed by Deaton’s posts, chiefly the mindset that would create such imagery.
“This person had to imagine this in the first place, and then had to go to the trouble to purchase the supplies, and take the time to pose these images, take the pictures and post them online. I don’t think such a person should be in law enforcement at all, and certainly not in a position of leadership as this person is.”
Susan Wukasch, a 36-year resident of Williamson County, was similarly disturbed. She appealed to many of the commissioners’ expressed Christian beliefs in condemning the posts.
“What the public has learned about the character of these two men in the posting and responding to vile images of torture, racism, gang rape and degradation of people Commander Deaton apparently feels are less valuable than he is has many of us appalled, frightening and sick,” Wukasch told commissioners in a conservative county where politicians make a point to note their religious affiliations and activities for political gain.
And yet, it’s not the first time Chody has let his commander off easy. Deaton previously nothing more than a tongue-lashing after inquiring of his deputies if any of them had had sex with a female producer of the A&E show “Live PD” that features the law enforcement exploits of the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office that constitutes its programming.
In an April 17 interview with KVUE — the same television station that aired a glowing profile of the millionaire sheriff — Chody acknowledged that Deaton made comments asking if deputies had had sex with the producer. A law enforcement source subsequently provided Patch with tapes that corroborated remarks Deaton made about the female producer”
“We called in over 17 people, I believe it was, that were said to be present at this place where the allegation occurred, and overwhelmingly the investigation concludes and shows that what was alleged did not occur,” Chody told an interviewer, addressing the issue of whether Deaton issued a direct challenge to his deputies toward pursuing an intimate relationship with the producer.
A WilCo law enforcement watchdog going by the Twitter handle “Buddy Falcon,” provided Patch with a mashup of officers being interviewed by the police internal affairs department independently corroborating the account. The video mashup of internal affairs shows interviews being conducted by Chief Deputy Tim Ryle rather than an internal affairs investigator as is typically the custom.
(Warning: In some of the IA interviews, strong language is used to describe the words allegedly used by Deaton in speaking of the A&E producer.)
In correspondence with Patch, the source using the pseudonym Buddy Falcon is self-described as a Williamson County Sheriff’s Office employee. The source told Patch the videotaped interviews of officers confirming Deaton’s challenge for his officers to bed the A&E producer were obtained as part of a formal state open records request.
The tape of Deaton being interviewed as part of the investigation was conspicuously absent from the requested set of materials, the source told Patch.
The full unedited videos are now public on my Youtube channel. You can see how uncomfortable the people being interviewed are. Bad IA practice: having the 2nd in command conduct a 6 questions interview. Did you see how many glanced at the camera? They were afraid for their jobs. https://t.co/nH2GivGQrY
— Buddy Falcon (@buddy_falcon) August 11, 2019
“We are also going to request Deaton’s interview and the interview they left out, who is someone they are trying to put in office at the Williamson County Deputies Association,” the source added. “No reason given for why his testimony was not included.”
Discipline proportionality, favoritism questions arise
Last week, Chody said he was unable to implement discipline more severe than verbal warning for Deaton over the Facebook scandal given vague policy guidelines as it relates to employees’ use of social media. Moreover, he expressed concern his discipline might run counter to the tactics of freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution, he added.
But the slap on the wrist for Deaton, coupled with contrasting methods of discipline used in other cases, has raised questions of favoritism and proportionality at the sheriff’s office. Some wonder if Deaton received special treatment as a handpicked officer to join Chody’s force from his old APD stint — a force for which Deaton himself once worked.
Patch reached out to the Austin Police Department to confirm Deaton had worked there, receiving a response from a public information officer: “Stephen Deaton was hired as an APD cadet on August 6, 1990. He was commissioned on Feb. 1, 1991, and left the department on December 4, 2016.” The circumstances behind Deaton’s departure from the Austin police force remain unclear.
At least one of those interviewed in the internal affairs investigation into Deaton’s comments about the “Live PD” officer suggested having being intimidated to prevent his testimony after a thinly veiled reminder of the strong Deaton-Chody bond. Chastened, the officer explains to the interviewer that he feared for his job while profusely apologizing for not immediately having reported the incident to his superiors.
Then there’s the handling of another incident that led to the firing of two officers. At around the same time Deaton was being reprimanded, the SPLC reported, Chody fired two other officers for text messages on their private cell phones perceived as disparaging to the chain of command. Assigned to the K9 unit, the two officers were admittedly venting about superiors and the machinations of the WilCo sheriff’s office, according to the report.
A complaint affidavit reviewed by the SPLC related to one of the since-fired deputies lays out that it had been “. alleged that on or before March 12, 2019, Deputy Aaron Skinner, sent electronic messages to other employees criticizing The Williams County Sheriff’s Office” before a determination was made the communication was in violation of the department’s policy regarding “restrictions on behavior,” according to the report.
The K9 officers who weren’t fired in the dragnet centered on disparaging texts got an “oral reprimand,” which is an official disciplinary action of which Deaton was somehow spared for his own actions. Deaton — whose graphic posts served to re-traumatize at least one sexual abuse victim who spoke to the SPLC by eroding trust in the department’s commitment to serve and protect as a result — received a mere oral counseling that doesn’t register as formal discipline.
The upshot: Deaton’s own transgressions weren’t viewed as “restrictions on behavior” like the K9 officers’ text messages critical of the chain of command. By Chody’s own telling, Deaton’s offensive posts represented Constitutionally protected free speech, preventing him from meting out any sort of discipline as a result.
‘Locker room’ talk out in the open at WilCo Sheriff’s Office
For all the shock at Deaton’s posts, some measure of “locker room” talk at the WilCo Sheriff’s Office hides in plain sight, often advanced by Chody himself. Fond of making videos on his YouTube channel in making the department more accessible to the public, the sheriff posted one early last year in which he exchanges jokes with Williamson County Attorney Dee Hobbs.
In one 16-minute video titled “Bad Jokes of WilCo Sheriff vs. County Attorney,” Chody and Hobbs read randomly selected “jokes” to see who might succumb to laughter first. The material, Chody explained, was selected by staff members, while noting it’s the first time either man had seen it.
“What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 80?” Chody begins. “Your honor, or in your case: Mommy.” Here’s another: “What do you get when you cross a blonde and a lawyer?” Chody asks. The answer: “I don’t know, there are some things even a blonde won’t do.” There’s plenty of attorney-bashing jokes too: “Do you know how to save a drowning lawyer?” Chody asked Hobbs. “Take your foot off his head.”
While the jokes are more just plain awful and grown-worthy — by their tellers’ own admission — than egregiously offensive, the cozy relationships Chody has developed with other key WilCo officials has raised questions related to the professionalism of the office.
That would be County Attorney Dee Hobbs, who refused to take the criminal charges against Chody that were presented by an employee of the SO, for using the P Card to purchase parts for his POV. Employee was then fired. pic.twitter.com/iVXrXkGyvq
— Buddy Falcon (@buddy_falcon) August 9, 2019
Love of spotlight sometimes backfires
Chody’s videos and prolific Twitter output reflect the sheriff’s seeming love of the spotlight — a penchant seen as early as 2001 when he and wife won the lottery and choosing to be publicly identified for their sudden riches even as most big Texas Lottery winners choose the option of remaining anonymous to safeguard their privacy.
Similarly, Chody relishes the national exposure resulting from his department’s “Live PD” appearances, expressing the broadcast’s importance as a recruiting tool. Chody often tweets about WilCo’s representation on “Live PD,” and even stages watch parties during the broadcast. Such tweeting has helped him gain more than 38,000 followers on Twitter. Lt. Grayson Kennedy, the SPLC further notes, has garnered more than 27,000 fans by virtue of being one of the most frequently featured officers on the reality show.
After the incident with Deaton and the show’s producer that earned him a verbal reprimand, commissioners court members seemed swayed by Chody’s arguments positing the show as an important police recruiting tool, voting 3-2 to continue a contract with Big Fish Entertainment to continue filming the county deputies as they go about their job patrolling the streets. This approval came amid reservations the show might cast the county as crime-ridden even as statistics say otherwise. Others voiced concern related to risks and liability for the county.
Such concerns were manifested shortly after the approval for the “Live PD” contract renewal. WilCo commissioners in July learned of allegations of excessive force against Chody’s deputies during a traffic stop that served as entertainment fodder on the show. The man arrested is pinned to the ground, Tasered and punched, all the while as the suspect repeatedly expresses an inability to breathe, as reported by the Austin American-Statesman.
The arrested man’s attorney said his client suffered serious injuries for the benefit of providing dramatic footage for “Live PD.” Moreover, his lawyer told the newspaper, his roughed-up client had to be examined by multiple medical specialists while in custody. In an interview with Fox 7, Chody dismissed accusations his deputies were playing to the “Live PD” camera for the sake of securing the most dramatic footage: “Liability is liability no matter what, no matter whether there’s a camera present or not,” he said.
Uploaded to YouTube, the episode shows the arrested man unresponsive as he lay supine on the street after five deputies take him down. A pool of blood can be seen emanating from the suspect’s head after he was repeatedly punched — several times by one officer rushing to the scene after the man already was being held down by four of his peers. According to the Statesman, the man’s injuries included a broken nose, fractured eye socket, two broken teeth, a severe concussion and a torn shoulder ligament. In a letter to county commissioners, the Statesman reported, the man later apologized for having tried to evade arrest but questioned the need for such force.
In terms of production values, the confrontation had the desired effect. On June 14, “Live PD” fans feasted on the Williamson County deputies’ take-down in an episode tantalizingly titled “Wilco Deputies Fight Off Druggie:
Chody cuts off Patch from fielding questions
While enjoying the spotlight when cast on his deputies’ and his own work, Chody sometimes bristles when asked about less-than-positive things it helps bring to light. In a previous statement, he blamed the Deaton Facebook scandal less on the offending images than on a disgruntled few who have fanned the flames of controversy.
“It has been very hard for my family, my department, my friends and myself to sit back and watch as the agenda of a few disgruntled people plays out in the media specifically attacking me and my County judge,” he wrote, the last a reference to Gravell (who, remember, also hit the “like” button on Deaton’s page).
And yet, he often enthusiastically goes after critics himself when aggrieved. After his department became the punch line of a joke for cardboard cutouts of cops he had his deputies strategically place throughout the county as deterrent against speeding, Chody struck back.
The humor quality of the edgy joke mocking cardboard officer facsimiles (dubbed “FlatWolf”) on “Late Night with Seth Myers” was debatable: “A Texas sheriff has placed cardboard cutouts of officers holding radar guns on the side of several roads to deter speeding. And even one of those managed to shoot a black guy.”
Well, the #FlatWolf even got mentioned in a @SNLUpdate skit. Too bad they took the opportunity to use a proactive approach to serve the community and vilify police officers. @sethmeyers @FBCSO @nbcsnl #IKnowItsAJoke #NotAmused pic.twitter.com/ye2cRqeNLl
— Williamson County Sheriff Chody (@SheriffChody) February 7, 2019
Chody was not pleased: “Well, the #FlatWolf even got mentioned in a @SNLUpdate skit,” Chody wrote on Twitter, albeit confusing the television show with another. “Too bad they took the opportunity to use a proactive approach to serve the community and vilify police officers.”
But when roles are reversed and it’s Chody who’s questioned, he sometimes bites back. Patch had hoped to interview him about the various controversies swirling around the sheriff’s office, but he ultimately declined to answer further questions —referring future requests to his public information officer (PIO).
“PIOs are a common source throughout the country for large agencies,” he wrote in a text responding to questions from Patch. “Communicate through Patty [PIO Patricia Gutierrez] at this point.” And, despite a call from Patch for comment having been the first time the cell phone had been called for any matter, Chody added: “You have my cell as a matter of my willingness. You abuse it you lose it.”
Noted counselor Craig D. Lounsbrough once wrote: “Too often the spotlight that highlights our successes burns out quickly, while the spotlight that scrutinizes our failures is a long-life bulb.” It’s unclear what the light will expose in final analysis, but for now focus on the WilCo Sheriff’s Office has gotten that much brighter.
WilCo Sheriff Chody Finds Himself Under Unwelcome Spotlight – Cedar Park-Leander, TX – Until now, Williamson County sheriff has largely been best known for his big lottery win, but now he's under scrutiny in scandal's wake.
From lotto millions to a felony indictment. How reality TV could undo a Texas sheriff.
Since winning millions in 2001, Robert Chody built a reputation as a conservative lawman with a penchant for social media and a craving for celebrity.
Since winning millions in 2001, Robert Chody built a reputation as a conservative lawman with a penchant for social media and a craving for celebrity.
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.
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.
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.
Police body cam footage
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.”
Today is #NationalTwinDay. The Sheriff and his twin in the 70’s.
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.
If I lived in a trailer to this day, with my wife and my children, I would be content with that.
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.
At the Wilco LivePD watch party with Salinas pd live pd personality Officer Mike Muskett and bride Rachel. With Sheriff.
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.”
Since winning millions in 2001, Robert Chody built a reputation as a conservative lawman with a penchant for social media and a craving for celebrity.