New details shed light on what happened in one of five excessive force investigations into the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office. An indictment has ended one of those cases. While the remaining four Texas Ranger investigations continue, the sitting sheriff is also under indictment, charged with evidence tampering, in connection with one of those investigations.
WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) – When a chunk of a cutting disc snapped off Spencer Murphy’s grinder back on April 10, 2019, it sliced his forehead and a gush of blood immediately streamed down his face.
Through the blood, Murphy couldn’t see how deep the wound was or whether the piece of the disc might have lodged in his forehead. He also couldn’t be sure whether the disc, which spins thousands of revolutions per minute, had penetrated his skull.
“I ended up calling 911 for an ambulance because it was a head wound. I didn’t know how bad it was,” Murphy told KXAN.
The 33-year-old admitted he was scared and hurting.
Murphy, his girlfriend and neighbors gathered in his front yard to wait for Williamson County medics. Seconds turned to minutes. Murphy said he could hear fire and EMS units “circling,” but they never pulled into his driveway. After 10 minutes passed, Murphy said he called 911 back to cancel the response and climbed into his own car to drive to the hospital.
As soon as the key slid into the ignition, Murphy heard a Williamson County patrol SUV’s tires crunching gravel in his driveway.
Out stepped Deputy Lorenzo Hernandez.
“As I approached, I kept my hands in view because it’s not well lit and when I told them, hey guys, I’m the one that called, I canceled, don’t worry about it. I’m going to drive myself to the hospital. And I even explained to them that I had a grinder blade break off and hit me in the face, not a big deal,” Murphy said.
Hernandez told Murphy to sit down several times. Murphy declined.
“He demanded I sit again, and I was like, no thank you. I’m good where I’m at. My hands never went below my waist, my demeanor never changed, my attitude never changed, I was never aggressive, never passive aggressive and the next thing I know I was being slammed to the ground forcefully and put in handcuffs,” Murphy said.
“For not sitting down.”
Murphy was holding a balled-up sheet over the gash in his head when he came face-to-face with Hernandez and Deputy Jason Terrell. Murphy said he wasn’t fighting or arguing with the deputies when he said both men grabbed his arm.
“I think I kind of dropped away a little bit — in shock — both deputies grabbed my arm, brought it around back,” Murphy described as he acted out the takedown. “There was no reason to touch me at all.”
Murphy recalls two deputies on top of him putting him into handcuffs. He was face-down in his front yard trying to figure out why he was being manhandled rather than receiving medical treatment.
Murphy didn’t know it at the time, but Williamson County dispatchers classified the nature of his medical call as “stabbing or GSW.” GSW stands for “gunshot wound.” The classification meant rescue teams had to stage away from the scene until law enforcement got there.
Hernandez described Murphy as “non-compliant” and having an “indifferent aggressive demeanor in understanding my instructions,” according to an incident report. Hernandez wrote that he put his hands on Murphy’s shoulders “to escort him to the table to sit” and that Murphy “immediately tensed up into an aggressive defensive position pushing me away.”
That’s when Hernandez wrote that he and Terrell “assisted him (Murphy) to the ground” to cuff him. Hernandez also noted in the report “there was no further aggressive and/or defensive movements” from Murphy.
“I wasn’t aggressive; I wasn’t cussing them out; I wasn’t anything. I walked up to them — ‘Hey gentlemen, hey guys.’ I think I even said, ‘Hey deputies.’ I don’t remember how I approached them. I wasn’t aggressive whatsoever,” Murphy said. “Especially at that level, they were already being aggressive. I wasn’t going to inflame the rage.”
The deputies eventually helped Murphy off the ground and sat him on a nearby picnic table.
Murphy’s girlfriend recorded cell phone video of the aftermath while standing with their neighbors in their front yard. The group was standing there when deputies arrived, but Murphy said neither of the two deputies ever went over to the group to investigate whether a stabbing or a shooting happened.
Murphy believes the deputies realized it was a medical call as soon as they walked up to him.
“I got a group of five people over to my left, toward his two o’clock, there are two deputies on the scene, their 100% focus was on me. If there was a GSW I’m going to be checking the people behind me in case someone’s got a gun. I’m not going to be there demanding some guy to sit down. I’m going to be over there talking to them to try to keeping an eye on them,” Murphy said.
Sheriff knew within minutes
Williamson County dispatch records show Murphy’s call to 911 hit the county’s phone bank at 9:15 p.m. Deputy Hernandez was first to receive the dispatch and got to the scene first — exactly 10 minutes later.
The computer-aided dispatch log shows the last unit left Murphy’s home at 9:51 p.m.
But, before the last unit left, Murphy had already messaged Sheriff Robert Chody on Facebook. The two were already connected as friends on the social media platform, so Chody got the message right away.
“TWO OF YOUR DEPUTIES JUST ASSAULTED ME FOR CALLING EMS,” Murphy wrote in all caps. The message was sent at 9:46 p.m., according to the timestamp. “Who and what happened?” the sheriff responded.
Murphy had already decided to file a formal complaint against Hernandez while he lay on the ground with his face against his driveway. When Murphy was sitting on the picnic table, he asked Hernandez for a case number.
“Then he said, ‘Why, do you want to file a complaint?’ I said ‘Yes, yes I do,’ and he goes, ‘My lieutenant’s here,’ Murphy said. “I was sitting on a picnic table at this time. His lieutenant came over, hovering over me trying to be intimidating and scare me off. ‘I’m his supervisor,’ and I was like ‘No, I’ll just file it later.’”
“They seemed pretty intimidating over it. It actually scared me.”
Sheriff Chody responded only once more that night through Facebook messages, asking Murphy to “Tell me when, where and time.”
Murphy continued messaging Chody in the days following the incident asking to meet with the sheriff to tell him what happened. Murphy never got a response.
On April 15, 2019, Murphy filed a formal complaint with the sheriff’s office. Within two days, the sheriff’s office had opened and closed its internal investigation. The report showed both Hernandez and Terrell were “exonerated.” The investigation found the deputies’ actions “were appropriate” for the nature of the call dispatchers entered into the system.
“It’s apparent there was some miscommunications that caused dispatch to incorrectly classify the call,” Detective Ben Lanier wrote in his final report. “Dep. Hernandez and IPO Terrell only responded in the manner they did because of the mis-classification of the incident by the call taker.”
After being denied access to watch the body camera video, Murphy took to social media in August 2019 to tell the public about what happened to him the night Chody’s deputies responded to his home. Murphy wrote that the sheriff’s office and the Texas Attorney General’s Office had denied access to the body camera videos from the April 10 call.
The sheriff’s office refused to release the video, asking the attorney general to grant a ruling to keep the video from Murphy and the public. “The sheriff’s office states it does not possess the technological capability to redact information from video files,” Assistant Attorney General Gerald Arismendez wrote in a letter to the sheriff’s office.
“Thus, we agree the sheriff’s office must withhold the submitted video recordings,” Arismendez wrote in the ruling letter.
The exception the sheriff’s office used to keep the video from Murphy was that it had no way to delete sections of audio or images in the video that might have contained personal information such as license plates, dates of birth or drivers license numbers.
Murphy believes any medical or personal information captured in the body camera recording was his own, “As far as I know. Or, my girlfriend, they had her ID, but we both filed the open records request together and they said there’s other information. The only thing I can think of was my neighbor’s license plate was in it.”
The sheriff’s office wouldn’t even allow him to watch the video, according to Murphy.
“I just want the video so I can analyze it and see if from their point of view if there’s something I did wrong, I want to know and I didn’t want to make a big deal about it — I even told them I will come view it in your office and we can talk about it. They refused,” Murphy told KXAN.
“Spencer, where are we at on your case,” Chody asked in an August 9, 2019 Facebook message. Murphy told Chody he’d lost “faith” in law enforcement over the incident and the sheriff’s office denying him access to watch the body camera video. “And am looking over my shoulder afraid of retaliation,” Murphy wrote in a message to the sheriff.
“You will be receiving a call from my rank. They are watching video now,” Chody wrote to Murphy in a follow up message. Murphy said the call came from Commander Steve Deaton. Deaton, who Murphy said had watched the video, assured Murphy that Hernandez would be removed as a field training officer based on what he saw in the body camera recording, according to Murphy.
Murphy messaged Chody, telling the sheriff he was “satisfied” with Deaton’s decision to remove Hernandez as a training officer. Murphy said he later found out Hernandez was still working as a training officer despite the sheriff’s office telling him the opposite.
That’s when Murphy said he decided to make his complaint public, asking for someone to hold the sheriff’s office accountable for what happened to him.
Hernandez was not removed from the sheriff’s Field Training Program until Oct. 24, 2019, according to an internal email sent from the sheriff’s administrative offices to the county’s public information staff.
The sheriff’s Chief Deputy Tim Ryle confirmed that in an email to KXAN in August where Ryle wrote that Hernandez wasn’t removed from the Field Training Program until October 2019 after he responded to a domestic violence call and ended up taking the victim in that case to the ground.
“I also want to mention I am in process of removing the post at this time. I forgot it was election time,” Murphy wrote to Chody in that August 2019 Facebook message thread. “No problem. Glad it worked out,” Chody responded.
But the sheriff wasn’t done.
“On a separate note, I noticed you are a like on a page that is very critical and hate towards not just me but members of our organization. I can’t have someone who likes a page like that as a personal facebook friend. Im giving you the headsup before I do it,” Chody wrote in the message.
Chody clarified the page as “the buddy falcon page.”
Murphy said he didn’t know he was connected to the page and told KXAN he was “shocked” Chody even dug into that when he was going to the sheriff for help.
Chody declined the opportunity to interview concerning the Murphy investigation. “Since this case is pending litigation we cannot comment at this time,” WCSO spokeswoman Patricia Gutierrez wrote in an email to KXAN. Hernandez was also copied on the email but did not respond.
Deputy Terrell was also contacted for an interview on his sheriff’s department email account, but never responded.
Last month, Murphy was summoned to the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office for his first interview with the Texas Rangers as part of the investigation into what happened on April 10, 2019.
Five excessive force investigations
Between March and September of 2019, five Williamson County Sheriff’s Office use-of-force cases occurred that would later be investigated by the Texas Rangers. Within a year, the Rangers closed one of those investigations into former Deputy Christopher Pisa.
On Oct. 15, a Williamson County grand jury handed up two indictments against Pisa, charging him with official oppression and assault causing bodily injury to a woman he pulled over in an April 2019 traffic stop.
Pisa stands accused of getting into an argument with the woman he pulled over — an argument that turned physical. The indictment alleged that Pisa pulled the woman’s hair and pushed or threw her “with his hands or by placing his knee on the complainant’s arm.”
Pisa’s attorney Robert McCabe wrote in a press release following the indictment that two supervisors in the sheriff’s office “reviewed and approved” Pisa’s use of force, finding that his force “fell within departmental policy.”
Ryle later “re-reviewed” the arrest and “informed Pisa he needed to voluntarily resign,” which McCabe said Pisa did. The sheriff’s office allowed the former deputy to resign “in good standing,” McCabe wrote, a status which would allow Pisa to be employed as a peace officer again.
In the three other force cases — Javier Ambler, Ramsey Mitchell and Spencer Murphy — the sheriff’s internal affairs office also determined deputies involved in those cases did not violate policies.
The only time we could find evidence of the sheriff’s office disciplining a deputy in any of the five cases happened in October 2019 after Deputy Lorenzo Hernandez responded to a domestic violence call on Sept. 21, 2019.
In that call, body camera video obtained by KXAN through a source shows the female victim standing in her doorway, not allowing Hernandez inside to search her home. The video shows Hernandez grab the woman and she ends up on the ground in handcuffs.
The sheriff’s internal affairs office sustained an allegation against Hernandez following the Sept. 21, 2019, incident. He was suspended, taken out of the Field Training program, retrained on de-escalation practices and put on a performance improvement plan, according to Ryle.
That disciplinary action happened in October 2019.
Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick, who referred the cases to the Texas Rangers for investigation, confirmed investigative work on each of the remaining four excessive force investigations has not been completed as of the posting of this report.