In January 2019, the Williamson County K9 Unit began a private text thread on their personal cell phones. This included Sgt. Brian Dirner, Mark Bell, Sarah Cole, Charles Duvall, Derrick Johnson. Jeremy Jones, Aaron Skinner, Jeremy Stewart.
Over time, they began to vent their frustration at the demands for photographs from Sheriff Robert Chody, to include a near panic from the sergeant that they failed to get any photos from the funeral of another department’s K9.
They vented their frustration at the demands of LivePD, of being forced to appear for photographs, for being forced to give Chody the best photos of the K9s and keep the mediocre photos to post themselves.
They made remarks they would never have posted in public. But this was their team. The people they trusted, and their personal cell phones.
Sometime in March, Chody inexplicitly learned of the existence of the thread. We still aren’t sure who told him, but only three members were allowed to keep their K9s and were not either demoted or fired, although we are not making any assumptions. (Edit: It has been confirmed by a source close to the administration at the time this occurred that Sarah Cole Pence and husband Kyle Pence were the ones that shared the existence and part of the text thread with the administration. The text thread submitted confirms that Skinner and Stewart were fired before the thread was formally submitted. Attempts to obtain the interviews where Chody claims Stewart and Skinner lied have been thwarted by Chody).
I will focus on more of what happened to the rest of the team later, but at the moment I will inform you about what happened to Aaron Skinner, because of the upcoming retirement recommendation for Axel to be voted on at Commissioner’s Court on Tuesday, September 24th. (Axel was retired to Garretson and we believe him to be living with Garretson’s mom).
Aaron Skinner was K9 Axel’s handlers for about two years. During that time, Chody took the opportunity to use photos of Axel and Aaron’s son together on his Twitter feed. He called Aaron’s son Axel’s “little brother” and “family”. These are just a few of the photos from Chody’s Twitter account.
You can clearly the close bond between the two. We all understand that a K9 is a working animal, but even Chody, the sheriff, understood and encouraged the emotional attachment Aaron Skinner’s son developed with Axel, as Skinner worked for Chody at the Constable’s office for years prior to moving to the SO after Chody was elected Sheriff.
In February of 2019, Aaron’s K9 Axel was recommended to be retired. Aaron Skinner had noticed that he barked at things that weren’t there and his lack of stamina. The vet said it was common for a dog of his age and that his lack of peripheral vision could prove to be a liability. The sheriff refused to retire Axel.
UPDATED MEMO OBTAINED VIA OPEN RECORDS REQUEST DATED 2/21/20
Shortly thereafter the text thread was reported.
Our understanding is that Aaron Skinner and Jeremy Stewart were the only two that were formally interviewed and subsequently fired. We have completed an Open Records Request for the interviews, to which every effort afforded to the WCSO has been taken to prevent that from happening. It is currently in the hands of the Attorney General. Other members report having an informal interview and at least one reports receiving an “Oral Reprimand”. Two of the K9s were removed and given to new handlers because, according to Chody’s Facebook post, they weren’t “remorseful enough”. The sergeant was demoted but retained his K9.
In an April interview with KVUE, Robert Chody accused Aaron Skinner and Jeremy Stewart of lying about the existence of a private text thread on their personal cell phones, along with the rest of the K9 unit. He claims that, had they been truthful, they would have only received an oral reprimand. Both employees disagree with his statement that they lied, and again, Chody has failed to produce the interviews despite several Open Records Requests. He actually blamed TMPA for retaliating against him for these firings by filing a sexual harassment complaint on the part of the deputies that were in the room at the time now resigned Steve Deaton made inappropriate remarks about the LivePD producer.
What’s Happening Right Now
Recently an item was added to the Commissioner’s Court agenda to retire Axel, for the very same reasons he was recommended to be retired in February. Chody would like to sell him to the current handler, who has had him since March, for $1. The agenda item allows the court to bring K9 Axel’s retirement up for discussion. Any member of the court can make a motion to approve the item as proposed or can modify their motion. Court members can also table the motion and not vote in order to have time to get more information.
There is currently a petition for them to sell him to Aaron Skinner instead. We plead with the Commissioners to do the right thing. Sell Axel to Aaron Skinner and reunite him with Aaron Skinner’s son. (Edit: This item was removed from the agenda and Axel was retired to Garretson without discussion) .
If you would like to sign the petition to show your support, do so here.
In light of the recent agenda item, Aaron Skinner has decided that it is time for his side of the story is heard. The following in Aaron Skinner’s recently released statement:
My name is Aaron Skinner and I am writing this synopsis to explain to those who may not know all the facts surrounding my termination and the dismantling of the K9 unit. I am not doing this out of revenge or spite, only so those out there reading pages like Buddy Falcon can have the full story from my recollection of events. These are my words, not intended to cause harm, but intended to express the timeline surrounding these events. It has been over six months, now so some of my recollection may be fuzzy, but the facts are still intact. I am not on Twitter under any handle except for business purposes (despite being accused). I worked for Chody at Williamson County Precinct 1 Constables Office. I actually assisted in his campaign for sheriff and voted for him. When he took over as Sheriff in January of 2017, I was brought over to be in the training unit where at that time my heart was. I had been in law enforcement around ten years previously at Austin Police Department before I left to pursue business opportunities. Prior to that I served honorably in the Marine Corps for six years. Once he took over as sheriff, he made many departmental changes. I was assigned to the newly formed STAR, Sheriff’s Tactical and Response Team, which was essentially a new name for the SWAT team and then I was offered a K9 position that introduced me to K9 Axel. Axel at that time had worked with one previous handler that I was told that wanted to go a different route in his law enforcement career. The K9 unit at that time was well known for one of the best around with deputies who had years of law enforcement experience and K9 experience. We were often called upon to help train other K9 teams. Several of the dogs were retired due to age and their handlers moved out of K9, and one handler left the department. New handlers were hired. Shortly after this Sheriff Chody started requesting K9 pictures every day for him to post. The pictures were frequently not good enough and eventually and we all were getting very stressed wondering if our jobs were in jeopardy because we weren’t sending enough pictures or the right pictures. He would tell us to send the better photos to him and to post the mediocre pictures from our Twitter account. Sometime around the end of February, I took Axel to our county veterinarian. Axel had sustained a torn pad on his foot, which was the initial reason for this visit. Prior to this, I was on a track for a subject with Axel and he was barking randomly at things that weren’t there. I had previously reported his eyesight issues several times before this, and I felt from working him the last two years that this was not normal behavior by Axel. I reported the results from the veterinarian visit to my sergeant, who confirmed the visit with a veterinarian and was told verbally that Axel should be retired due to eyesight. The sergeant wrote a memo reporting this to the upper chain of command. Chody appeared to doubt my opinion as well as disregard that of the veterinarian and Axel was not recommended for retirement. During my two years with Axel, son, my family and I had become very attached to him. Our K9s go basically everywhere with us. Many of our dogs travel with us, live and sleep with us. As many of you have pets, I had had many pets in my life. I still was not prepared for the demand of a working dog or the bond that we could create. During this time, Chody would use our unit and these pictures to gain twitter followers as he often said himself “people love the dogs”. This placed our very new K9 unit under extreme stress and instead of being worried about job-related things, such as training and safety for these new handlers; we were stressed about sending pictures. This stress upset a lot of us and we vented on a private text thread on our personal phones. I want it to be known that we were issued county phones for county business; this text thread was on private phone. The K9 text thread at that point became a way to vent for me as well as others in the team as we were being pressured to send photos frequently. We vented before but after he refused to retire Axel, I spoke my mind more freely about Chody and the chain of command, as did almost every other K9 deputy in this thread. I would then learn around early March while I was on family leave for my wife’s grandmother’s funeral that my county email would be suspended and K9 SGT was placed on admin leave. I then learned they terminated Jeremy Stewart, another handler. I had no idea why or what all this was about. While on bereavement leave for a funeral, I would receive multiple texts from Chief Tim Ryle asking when I was returning. I thought this might be related to something social media or maybe someone did something on social media to cause this termination and our suspensions. At this time, we had k9 Axel traveling with us that was as stated earlier, a common occurrence anywhere we went, because of the unique demands and bonds with a K9. I got tired of receiving a text from Chief Ryle asking about my return, so my family and I packed up and drove back to Austin two days ahead of schedule so I could go meet with Ryle at his request. Ryle asked me to bring my dog with me so we drove straight to the sheriff’s office when we got into town. I was met at the front entrance of the sheriff’s office while my family and Axel stayed in the car. I would later find out after I was terminated that my sergeant, who was on disciplinary action, would be ordered to take Axel from our car while I was inside being terminated. Axel was in the back seat of our vehicle with my son when this occurred. It is true that my son cried and held Axel as he was forcefully pulled from his arms. I would like it known that I place no blame on my sergeant for this as he was following orders. My “internal affairs” interview consisted of several questions by Chief Tim Ryle (not internal affairs sergeant as was normal procedure) asking me about social media policy. I was strictly being questioned about social media. I was never asked specifically about the text thread. I asked several times what am I being accused of exactly as my complaint affidavit did not specify what was being accused of. I absolutely did not lie during my interview about the existence of a text thread. The questions, as I understood, were all related to social media. The only paperwork I received stated I was under investigation for sending electronic messages degrading the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, not that I lied about anything. I was then terminated. Two days after my termination, my attorney would receive notification that Chief Ryle amended the paperwork to state that I lied despite never given the chance or asked specifically about the text thread. At the time of my interview, Tim Ryle already had the K9 PRIVATE PHONE text thread given to him by another K9 handler, most likely in fear for their job. The addition of lying on my termination paperwork allowed them to designate my discharge as dishonorable on my F5. I appealed the F5 and we were told that the county would not contest the appeal, which speaks volumes as to their conviction as to whether or not the dishonorable discharge was valid. However, on the day of the appeal hearing, Williamson County unexpectedly sent an assistant county attorney to my F5 hearing. He was there NOT to contest my F5 Appeal or my termination but was sent to ask me one question on the stand and under oath. The question was “Are you Buddy Falcon”? My question as a Williamson County business owner and taxpayer is, are we now paying our County attorneys to drive 45 minutes to ask about Twitter handles? My answer was “No”. For those of you who are wondering, I am neither Buddy Falcon, nor any other twitter handle except for a business handle and I don’t even manage that account. My F5 was appealed and change to an honorable discharge by the judge.
I want to thank all of you recently for the support in light of the news of Axel’s retirement. He is being recommended for retirement for the same reasons the vet presented six months ago. When I saw people supporting his return to my family, I asked my son if he would like Axel back and without hesitation he said, “Yes!” While I informed him that this might not happen, we appreciate all your support and thank you for taking the time to read this. I understand dogs are county property and it is up to the commissioners to approve his retirement. I would hope the commissioners would do the right thing in this situation. I want to make known I do not hate Axel’s current handler or any other deputy at that agency. I have let go of everything that my family went through and I have forgiven those who sought to persecute others and me in that unit. I am by no means the only victim of this current agency One other handler was fired, our sergeant was demoted, and three other dogs removed from their families and handlers. Drago, Bolo, Axel, and Max were all removed from their handlers and families over a private text thread. I made some mistakes in language on a private text thread and for that I apologize to those who were offended. I personally never made homophobic slurs or made fun of mentally challenged kids as Chody stated to the media, I assume he was upset because I criticized his command and their decisions. I have the entire text thread just like many do. The reason I haven’t made an attempt to get it out is to protect those who are still in that unit, despite a few of them not making the same judgment call. Make no mistake about it; this was my private phone and how many of you reading this wants your boss to read your private text messages? Respectfully, Aaron Skinner