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Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Lawsuit: Former Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody, others staged SWAT raid for 'Live PD'

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Author: Jody Barr
This post originally appeared on KXAN Austin

Lawsuit: Former Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody, others staged SWAT raid for 'Live PD'

AUSTIN (KXAN) — If Williamson County Sheriff’s deputies wanted Asher Watsky, they could have easily gotten him. The sheriff’s courthouse security team checked Watsky for weapons when he walked through the front doors of the courthouse and made his way to Judge Donna King’s courtroom.

Deputies had a warrant for Watsky at the time. Watsky was just feet away from the sheriff’s jail door on May 2, 2019 when he showed up with his attorney for a court hearing at the district courthouse in Georgetown.

This is Asher Watsky's booking photograph from May 2, 2019 when he was arrested by the Williamson County Sheriff's SWAT team on an aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charge. (Williamson County Jail)
This is Asher Watsky’s booking photograph from May 2, 2019 when he was arrested by the Williamson County Sheriff’s SWAT team on an aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charge. (Williamson County Jail)
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Despite the outstanding warrant, dated April 17, 2019, Watsky left the courthouse that day as freely as he arrived.

Hours later, the Williamson County Sheriff’s SWAT team was bearing down on Watsky’s Cedar Park home. The team, in a coordinated militarized effort, lined up outside the home and detonated a flash bang grenade, then broke down the front and back doors of Watsky’s father’s home.  

At least one ‘Live PD’ camera crew was along for the ride recording for the now-canceled A&E reality show. The broadcast showed SWAT’s arrival, which included a camera operator riding along on an armored vehicle with former Williamson County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Mark Luera.

“He (Asher Watsky) strangled his roommate, or attempted to strangle, with a full-sized shovel,” Luera told Live PD as he rode toward Watsky’s home on the national broadcast. “Obviously he’s got a background of violence,” which led to the sheriff’s office decision to use SWAT to arrest Watsky this way Luera claimed, while holding onto the back of the SWAT truck ahead of the May 2, 2019 raid.

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The warrant was a no-knock warrant, the type that didn’t require the sheriff’s office to ask to be let inside, according to the federal lawsuit.

Gary Watsky, who’s listed as the plaintiff in the lawsuit, was inside when the SWAT strike happened and found himself on the business end of WCSO’s SWAT team’s assault rifles. The episode sent Watsky into a panic attack and humiliated him in front of his neighbors, the lawsuit contends.

One neighbor told Watsky at the scene his son’s arrest was being broadcast on Live PD. That’s when Watsky noticed the camera crews following the deputies around on his property. “Big Fish had no permission to trespass or film on the Plaintiff’s property,” the lawsuit stated.

A Facebook post on the Williamson County Sheriff's Office account shows former Sheriff Robert Chody promoting former Deputy Mark Luera to Detective on March 14, 2019. (Source: Williamson County Sheriff's Office)
A Facebook post on the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office account shows former Sheriff Robert Chody promoting former Deputy Mark Luera to Detective on March 14, 2019. (Source: Williamson County Sheriff’s Office)

Luera and a pack of 10 deputies “ransacked” Watsky’s home, including the attic, according to the lawsuit. The deputies did not have a search warrant to go through the home, the lawsuit asserted.

The raid was unnecessary and “staged,” according to Watsky’s federal lawsuit, and caused more than $ 5,000 in damage to the Watsky home.

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The lawsuit lists then-Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody as a defendant. The suit also lists former WCSO Commander Steve Deaton and former Lt. Mark Luera as defendants.

The lawsuit does not identify nearly a dozen other deputies by name, listing them as “unknown” in the court filing. Watsky’s attorneys wrote they filed a public information request with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office for records showing who all participated in the 2019 raid, but were denied access to the public records on March 17, 2021.

Watsky’s attorneys accused current WSCO Sheriff Mike Gleason of violating the Texas Public Information Act by not turning the records over.

“On April 1, 2021, the current, Sheriff Mike Gleason, has acted in conformity with Sheriff Chody’s long-standing policy of obstructing justice by refusing to timely provide and properly answer a request for material evidence about the May 2, 2021 Watsky incident, including those involved, their identities, training, supervision, discipline records, body camera audio and video, and communications about the removal of the capias, as required by statute, i.e., the Texas Public Information Act,” the lawsuit stated.  

The moment Mike Gleason heard his race had been called in his favor Nov. 3, 2020 (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
The moment Mike Gleason received the news he’d defeated incumbent Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody on Nov. 3, 2020. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Gleason told KXAN Watsky’s allegation about the records request is false.

The WCSO received an open records request from Watsky’s legal team on March 18 requesting records “from all over the place,” Gleason told KXAN. On April 1 the WCSO sent Watsky’s attorneys a response asking for clarification, which is allowable under the Texas Public Information Act. A requestor has 60 days to clarify a request or its deemed withdrawn, according to the state’s open records law.

“We never got a response,” Gleason said. The sheriff told KXAN his office has not denied Watsky’s request for information and continues to wait for clarification from Watsky’s legal team on the records sought.

A message and calls to Watsky’s legal team have not yet been returned.

Watsky’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit that former Sheriff Chody helped prevent Asher Watsky’s arrest at the courthouse earlier in the day of the May 2, 2019 raid. Chody did so by hiding the outstanding warrant from the judge, according to the lawsuit.

Had the warrant been active when Watsky appeared in court, the judge would have been alerted to its existence and ordered that Watsky be arrested in the courtroom. The plaintiff’s attorneys claim, “…upon information and belief, subject to discovery, Commander Deaton “carried out that order to remove an outstanding capias (or to render it inactive) from the judicial system’s computer, otherwise the computer system would have timely alerted Judge (Donna) King about the alleged outstanding capias.”

“And, if necessary, any arrest of Asher Watsky could have peaceably taken place at that time, in a safe environment and with low risk of harm or injury, however, that procedure would have been contrary to Sheriff Chody’s policy of reckless indifference and custom to orchestrate Big Fish “Live PD” events to justify escalating encounters for drama and entertainment purposes,” the federal lawsuit stated.

The prosecutor’s office also wasn’t aware of an outstanding warrant against Asher Watsky during the May 2019 hearing, according to Watsky’s attorneys.

As claimed in separate lawsuits against Chody and his former department, Watsky’s lawsuit asserted Chody “incited, encouraged and rewarded,” civil rights violations and use of excessive force against people who encountered his deputies.

The lawsuits claim WCSO created a reward system unofficially known as the “WilCo Bada–” which allowed deputies appearances on Live PD and provided gift cards to them.

“These violations of the oath of office occurred because the Sheriff and his deputies, always acting under the color of state law, were further encouraged by Sheriff Chody’s policies and customs to commit crimes when they saw themselves as actors for entertainment on this television series. Various deputies basked in the limelight of the accolades that come with the fame and status of aspiring celebrities, which in turn provided further motivation to create and sustain the false narratives necessary to maintain the high level of theatre-tv-drama for ratings for Big Fish and its advertisers,” Watsky’s attorneys wrote in the federal lawsuit.

“This policy also threatened the lives and security of all Williamson County citizens, particularly for entertainment value,” Watsky’s attorneys wrote in the filing.

The lawsuit claims Chody’s deputies were inadequately trained and the sheriff’s office did not properly discipline deputies for violations against citizens.

Chody did not respond to a request from KXAN seeking comment for this report. KXAN contacted Chody’s criminal attorney, Gerry Morris. Morris is not representing Chody in the civil lawsuits but said, “No we don’t,” when asked if he or Chody had any comment on the allegations in the latest filing.

“I saw all the grand jury testimony, and I don’t know where these allegations are coming from, but they’re absolutely wrong,” Morris said when contacted at his law office Friday afternoon.

Court records do not show attorneys for Luera or Deaton, and attempts to reach both men on social media were unsuccessful. Williamson County declined comment through its spokeswoman.  

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Lawsuit: Former Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody, others staged SWAT raid for 'Live PD'
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