Javier Ambler was driving home from a friendly poker game in the early hours of March 28, 2019, when a Williamson County sheriff’s deputy noticed that he failed to dim the headlights of his SUV to oncoming traffic.
Twenty-eight minutes later, the black father of two sons lay dying on a north Austin street after deputies held him down and used Tasers on him four times while a crew from A&E’s reality show “Live PD” filmed.
Ambler, a 40-year-old former postal worker, repeatedly pleaded for mercy, telling deputies he had congestive heart failure and couldn’t breathe. He cried, “Save me,” before deputies deployed a final shock.
His death never made headlines.
Now, after months of questioning and requests for information from the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV, police have recently released documents and video that shed light on that fatal night at a time when the nation confronts decades of injustice against minorities by law enforcement. The Austin American-Statesman is part of the USA TODAY Network.
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Protests have roiled the country since the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, a black man pinned under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer for nearly nine minutes as he lost consciousness and never regained it.
Communities throughout central Texas have called for police reforms and transparency amid the racial unrest and the recent death of Michael Ramos, an unarmed black Hispanic man killed by Austin police. The details of Ambler’s deadly encounter with Williamson County deputies, which came to light only because of ongoing media pressure, bring intensified focus on the need for accountability among law enforcement agencies.
Ambler’s death also renews scrutiny on a suburban agency that has been under fire for more than a year, largely because of its relationship with the reality TV show.
Critics of Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody, a lottery-made millionaire, say he has chosen cable show stardom over public safety. They also worry that the presence of TV cameras leads deputies to forsake prudent policing for dramatic television.
The deputies’ decisions to chase and repeatedly use their Tasers on a man who simply failed to dim his lights prompts questions about the agency’s practice of pursuing drivers for minor crimes.
“It is of very serious concern to any of us who are in law enforcement that the decision to engage in that chase was driven by more of a need to provide entertainment than to keep Williamson County citizens safe,” said Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore.
Some 15 months after Ambler’s death, Moore’s civil rights division is still investigating the incident. After questioning from an American-Statesman reporter, she said her office plans to present the case to a grand jury.
Investigators say Chody and “Live PD” producers have repeatedly stonewalled their efforts to obtain evidence or interviews with the officers involved.
Chody said Monday that because of the ongoing criminal investigation into what happened, he is unable to comment on Ambler’s death.
Ambler’s parents still have few answers about their son’s death. Until last week, they knew only that he died in police custody. Reporters informed them he was chased after a minor traffic violation.
“He’s dead. How?” Ambler’s mother, Maritza, sobbed in a recent interview. “I can’t have any closure because I need to know.”
She said she has been plagued by nightmares that her son met the same tragic fate as Floyd.
“I woke up, and I wasn't able to see,” Maritza Ambler said. “But he came to me and he wanted to tell me. He wanted to show me what happened to him."
What happened that night
As Deputy J.J. Johnson, who is regularly featured on “Live PD,” patrolled the quiet suburban roads just north of Austin last March, a film crew rode along with him.
When Ambler passed with his brights on at 1:23 a.m., the deputy turned his car around and flipped on the flashing lights.
Ambler didn’t stop. Johnson gave chase.
For the next 22 minutes, the two vehicles sped across highways and onto neighborhood streets. As he drove, Johnson narrated for the TV crew, telling them what he thought was going on in Ambler’s mind.
As they crossed into Travis County, Austin officers were instructed not to get involved in the pursuit because they are allowed only to chase dangerous criminals.
Ambler smashed his Honda Pilot into stationary objects four times before crashing a final time near East St. Johns and Bethune avenues, just east of Interstate 35 north of downtown Austin at 1:45 a.m.
Johnson, who had no backup at the time, drew his gun and ordered Ambler to get out of his car, raise his hands and get on the ground. Ambler, a 400-pound former football player, got out and showed his hands. Johnson, who is black and about half Ambler’s size, holstered his gun and pulled out his Taser.
“Get down!” Johnson repeated several times.
When Ambler appeared to turn toward his car door, Johnson used his Taser, according to an internal investigative report the Statesman obtained under the Texas Public Information Act. Ambler fell on one knee, rolled onto his back and stomach and acted as though he was trying to stand.
“You’ll get it again,” Johnson shouted.
Backup Deputy Zachary Camden, who is white and was also accompanied by a “Live PD” crew, arrived and shoved his Taser into Ambler’s upper back “in a drive-stun motion.”
As the struggle continued, deputies used a Taser on Ambler a third time, though the report said it was unclear which man deployed his weapon.
An Austin police officer arrived on the scene as the deputies struggled to put handcuffs on Ambler. Body camera video from that officer captured the final minutes of Ambler’s life.
Deputies yell at Ambler to lay on his stomach and put his hands behind his back. One presses a Taser into his upper back.
“I have congestive heart failure,” Ambler says. “I have congestive heart failure. I can’t breathe.”
As the deputies scream orders, Ambler, between gasps, tells them he’s trying to follow their commands. Another four times he tells the deputies he can’t breathe.
“I am not resisting,” Ambler cries. “Sir, I can’t breathe. … Please. … Please.”
The deputies, who are on top of Ambler, continue yelling at him to put his arms behind his back.
“Save me,” Ambler cries.
“Do what we’re asking you to do!” a deputy yells.
“I can’t,” Ambler says, the last words the video captures from him just before one of the deputies deploys his Taser a fourth and final time at 1:47 a.m.
Ambler’s hands go limp, and the deputies place handcuffs around his wrists.
Moments later, they realized he was unconscious and his pulse had stopped.
Deputies performed CPR for four minutes until medics arrived.
Medics and doctors at Dell Seton Medical Center worked for 50 minutes to keep Ambler alive. He was pronounced dead at 2:37 a.m.
By sunrise, a swarm of officers, including Chody, were at the scene. Chody posted on Twitter at 5:12 a.m.: “At the conclusion of a vehicle pursuit involving WCSO and APD, (an) in custody death occurred. Both agencies are conducting a parallel investigation. This is an active investigation, therefore, no other information is available at this time.”
A death-in-custody report filed with the Texas attorney general’s office — a procedure required anytime a person dies in police custody — said Ambler did not attempt to, nor did he assault deputies, and he did not verbally threaten others nor attempt to get control of any officers’ weapons.
The most serious charge he would have faced was evading arrest, a low-level felony with a maximum of 10 years in prison, the report said.
Protocols that Chody put in place Feb. 28, 2020, say a car chase is justified only when a deputy believes a person has committed a crime “for which there is an immediate need for apprehension.” The department’s pursuit policy from last year was not immediately available.
Williamson County Sheriff’s Department internal affairs investigators concluded in a report that deputies did nothing wrong and had not violated the agency’s pursuit or use-of-force policies.
There is no indication in the report that the deputies faced any action against them or were forced to take time off because of the incident.
Ambler’s death was ruled a homicide, according to the report made to the state attorney general’s office, which noted that the homicide could have been “justifiable.” An autopsy showed Ambler died of congestive heart failure and hypertensive cardiovascular disease associated with morbid obesity “in combination with forcible restraint.”
‘I just lost it’
Ambler, the oldest of two children and son of a retired Army veteran and hospital scheduling clerk, grew up on military installations before the family settled outside Fort Hood, Texas, in 1991.
He had a strict upbringing, and his parents said he appreciated authority.
"Just be respectful,” Javier Ambler Sr. said he taught his son. “ ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ And just be professional. Be respectful."
The elder Ambler said he never had extensive conversations with his son — he called him his “foxhole buddy” — about what to do if he was stopped by police. In more recent years, his mother said, she often warned her son about interactions with law enforcement.
"I would mention it to him, just to remind him, he is a minority,” Maritza Ambler said. “You have that against you, your color."
Javier Ambler was a defensive end at Ellison High School in Killeen and got a football scholarship to Blinn College before enrolling at Prairie View A&M University.
After leaving college, his parents said, he worked for UPS and then was recruited to join the United States Postal Service as a rural route carrier. After the Postal Service began downsizing a couple of years ago, Ambler, who was living in Pflugerville, got a job working with two property management companies in Austin, making sure apartments were ready for new tenants.
He also enjoyed cooking and would prepare and sell Latin dishes or fried chicken and macaroni and cheese at various venues in the Austin area.
"He had friends, black, white, no matter — all different nationalities, all kinds of race, because that is the kind of person he was,” his mother said.
He spent as much time as he could with his sons, a 15-year-old who now lives in Killeen with Ambler’s parents and a 4-year-old living with his mother in the Austin area. The Amblers said their son coached his older son's community football league and took his sons to University of Texas football games.
The morning after his death, police arrived at Ambler’s parents’ home in Killeen. The officers were brief, saying only that their son had died in police custody.
"I said, ‘How am I going to tell his mom,’” Javier Ambler said. “I broke down. I fell. How am I going to tell his mom?"
Maritza Ambler said she was at her desk at the hospital when she got a call instructing her to rush home.
Police cars were parked outside when she arrived, and a couple of officers rushed her inside as neighbors watched from their front porches.
“I said, ‘What happened?’ And I just lost it,” she said.
“Dads should not have to bury their sons,” Javier Ambler said.
Because the chase ended in Austin, the Austin Police Department Special Investigations Unit is investigating with Moore’s Civil Rights Unit.
The Statesman began looking into the case in February after investigators said they were troubled about what they were learning and frustrated that they felt stymied by Williamson County’s failure to cooperate.
But it is unclear how aggressively investigators acted with the information they did have, including what steps they took to obtain video from “Live PD” and how quickly they took them. Moore said she is troubled that the show so far has produced no video.
Reporters submitted requests Feb. 27 to the Williamson County sheriff’s office for records relating to the internal investigation into Ambler’s death. The agency refused to release any materials.
On May 18, the Texas attorney general’s office ordered Chody’s office to release some documents, and the department made public a three-page internal investigative report and the statement of a deputy who arrived at the scene at the conclusion of the chase.
In the past 10 days, reporters submitted a request under the Texas Public Information Act to the Austin Police Department for videos in the case and appealed to Moore and police Chief Brian Manley to release them.
In a highly unusual step, they did so Saturday night, making public body camera footage from an Austin police officer who arrived at the scene as the encounter was happening.
Moore said she will take the case to a grand jury that she will convene to also hear the case of Ramos, who was unarmed when he was shot and killed April 24 by an Austin police officer.
Moore said that because of the coronavirus pandemic, grand juries have been unable to meet for months and that state court administrators have said they may not do so again until August. Moore said she will seek permission this week to convene the grand jury before August.
Reality show at center of case
Investigators say they are disturbed about what happened to Ambler and how the Williamson sheriff’s officials have responded to his death.
They are troubled that deputies went to such extraordinary lengths to capture Ambler for a minor offense. They also have grave concerns about the consequences of having “Live PD” camera crews at the scene.
“Live PD” did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
In the past three years, more than half of the nearly 100 pursuits initiated by Williamson County deputies were for traffic violations, according to department records.
Chody said Monday that he does not believe the department’s current, more restrictive, pursuit policy was in place during the chase that led to Ambler’s death.
He said in his more than three years in office, he has tried to move past what he said was a tradition of “chase until the wheels fall off” and encourage deputies to end chases. He said he has also bolstered oversight of pursuits.
Law enforcement agencies nationally have scaled back on high-speed pursuits. The International Association of Chiefs of Police recommends chases only when “the suspect, if allowed to flee, would present a danger to human life or cause serious injury.”
None of the reports so far made public about the incident indicate there would have been any reason to believe Ambler was a dangerous criminal.
Ambler had been convicted previously in Texas for two minor crimes, once in 2001 for misdemeanor marijuana possession and in 2004 for driving with an invalid license.
Yale University psychology professor John Dovidio said it is neither uncommon nor unreasonable for a person of color who encounters police to run from them, even if they have not committed a crime, because of America’s long history of violence between minorities and law enforcement officers.
“Blacks tend to see police as occupiers, as oppressors, as people who have mistreated them in the past,” Dovidio said. “This is not just being paranoid; there’s enough historical evidence to make that credible.”
The case also adds fuel to a year-long fight between Chody and Williamson County commissioners about his department’s participation in “Live PD.” Chody has said the show offers viewers a first-hand experience of policing, has raised the profile of his agency and is a valuable recruiting tool.
But Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick has said he’s concerned that “Live PD” refuses to provide prosecutors with video footage it collects while on patrol with deputies.
“It is getting very difficult for my prosecutors to uphold their statutory and Constitutional obligations to disclose evidence when prosecuting sheriff's department cases," Dick said.
Days after Dick raised those concerns in 2019, Williamson County commissioners ended a contract with the show.
In March of this year, however, filming resumed when Chody signed his own agreement with producers, prompting commissioners to issue a “cease and desist” order to the sheriff’s office.
Chody refused to comply, and in May, the county sued 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."
In the year since their son’s death, Ambler’s father says he has struggled with depression and anxiety.
His mother has had to retire, too distracted to perform the job she loved at a Bell County hospital. She wears a locket infused with some of her son’s ashes and has devoted a wall in their home to memories of him. On holidays, the Amblers keep a place setting at the family table with a picture of their son, who always delivered blessings.
Until March 2019, the Amblers lived a quiet and unassuming life. Now, they say they are on a quest for answers. And for justice for their son.
They are also begging law enforcement to take a critical look at itself. Without reform, they fear for the safety of the next generation of minorities, especially their grandsons, Ambler’s father said.
“This has got to stop.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas police chase ends in death. "I can't breathe," the man cries.