Johnson City roiled over allegations police botched sexual assault investigations

By: - May 22, 2023 6:01 am
(Photo: Johnson City Police Facebook)

(Photo: Johnson City Police Facebook)

For more than a year, allegations that local police protected a well-known businessman accused in multiple sexual assaults — or incompetently bungled their investigation into allegations against him — have gripped Johnson City.

Local advocates have taken to the streets demanding reform in the police department’s handling of sexual assault cases.

City officials have hired an outside consultant to determine whether the department’s actions “were inconsistent with acceptable practice of law enforcement.” Not long after the consultant was hired, Johnson City Police Department’s top three officials — including its chief — simultaneously took early retirement.

A California law firm has stepped in to represent victims; the firm’s partner said new victims continue to come forward. 

And an unusual federal lawsuit brought against the city, its former police chief and unnamed members of the police department by a former special assistant U.S. prosecutor-turned-whistleblower — which first drew public attention to the allegations — has continued to keep them in the spotlight. 

In her lawsuit, former Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Kateri Dahl alleges the Johnson City Police Department, either incompetently or corruptly, failed to take a serial rapist off the streets, then fired her from her contract job as a police-federal prosecutor liaison as she pursued the case.

Dahl claims the case first came to her attention after a woman survived a five-story fall from the man’s apartment after a night out in downtown Johnson City. Police conducting an investigation into the woman’s allegations she had been drugged, then pushed, found a handwritten list on the man’s nightstand scrawled with the first names of 23 women, under the word “raped.”

The man at the center of the allegations — Johnson City business real estate and business owner Sean Williams — is facing no sexual assault charges, nor charges related to the woman’s fall from his condo. He fled Johnson City two years ago, evading illegal ammunition charges that Dahl pursued against him as part of her ultimately-thwarted sexual assault investigation. 

Earlier this month, Williams was arrested on unrelated drug charges in North Carolina. Williams remains in custody, and an attorney for Williams could not be reached last week.

‘Survivors have lived for years in fear’

Vanessa Baehr-Jones, an attorney representing victims with Oakland, Calif.-based Advocates for Survivors of Abuse, said her organization is determined to pursue any justice available to victims.

Johnson City Police sued by former Special Assistant U.S. Attorney

“I represent the survivors of Sean Williams, who were forcefully sexually assaulted,” Baehr-Jones said last week.  “Survivors have lived for years in fear and his arrest is the start of securing justice and safety, and holding him accountable. But it is just the first step. My sense is there are other victims out there.”

It is unclear whether the alleged victims will find justice from local or state law enforcement, though civil action is a possibility.

Johnson City police referred all questions to City Manager Cathy Ball. Ball, who ordered the third-party review of the police, said through a spokesperson last week that no officer has been disciplined for their handling of reports of sexual abuse to police.

“No disciplinary action was warranted,” the spokesperson said. 

She noted the outside consultant’s review of the police department’s handling of sexual assault cases would be available in two to three weeks.

“We have worked internally to identify areas of improvement as well. We know we must pour resources into our department to ensure its success,” Ball’s spokesperson said. “We have an excellent police department that is serving our community well.” 

Ball meanwhile asked District Attorney Ken Baldwin to request a TBI investigation into the police department’s conduct. Baldwin declined, and a TBI spokesperson said last week they are not conducting any review of the department. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office in eastern Tennessee, which could also refer the department for an outside investigation, on Friday declined to answer any questions.

‘In my 20 years on the force, I’ve only encountered one real rape’

Johnson City top cop admits officers were aware of sexual assault claims against businessman

Dahl was hired as a special prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Greeneville in September 2019, tasked with helping the Johnson City Police build federal cases against drug traffickers and violent felons. It was a contract position requiring her to report to then police chief Karl Turner.

A year after Dahl was hired, she learned that a woman had fallen from the window of Williams’ downtown fifth-floor condominium. Police quickly ruled out foul play, calling the fall a “medical” incident.

But as part of their investigation, police searched Williams’ condominium, finding the “raped” list and ammunition. Williams had already been named in two prior police reports as a suspect in sexual assaults. The allegations in those reports came from women who said they suspected they had been drugged then raped at Williams’ home.

Meeting resistance, or disinterest from police, Dahl pursued the case, even though sexual assault crimes did not fall squarely in the contract she had with the city. She was met with opposition from the police chief, the lawsuit said.

“Chief Turner cast doubt on the handwritten ‘raped’ list recovered from (Williams) condo, stating that the victims ‘are not for sure in that regard, regardless of what he wrote in the notebook, ‘” the lawsuit stated. “He further stated, ‘Even the list, I don’t know if that’s girls he’s raped or girls he’s had consensual sex with and calls it whatever he calls it. All I know is there’s a piece of paper with some first names on it.’”

Another police officer “cast doubt on the credibility” of another woman who reported Williams had raped her. Another alleged rape victim was deemed “uncooperative” with police, the lawsuit stated. When contacted by Dahl, that victim was forthcoming, telling the special prosecutor she had been drugged, raped then fled Williams condominium in distress to find two police officers in the lobby of the building.

“In extreme distress, screaming and shoeless,” the woman said officers drove her home but did nothing to investigate.

Ex-police chief denies wrongdoing

Dahl continued to hear from more victims — the lawsuit alleges she encountered 10 — who described a similar pattern: Williams would meet young women in downtown bars, invite them to his condo, where they would pass out and later awaken to find Williams had sexually assaulted him, the lawsuit said. The women told Dahl they suspected they had been drugged.

Ben Putland, a local police reform advocate who also works in the restaurant industry, said Williams’ was well known regular in the downtown bar scene where he works. He said since allegations emerged against Williams he has been “collecting stories” from women in the area to take to city officials, pressing for greater police accountability.

Dahl claims the department ignored or downplayed repeated allegations of rape, mocked the complaining women, and tipped the alleged suspect off to a pending federal indictment, allowing him to escape arrest.

“In my 20 years on the force, I’ve only encountered one real rape,” one officer told Dahl. Another officer made disparaging comments about the way one of the alleged victims was dressed.

Hugh Eastwood, Dahl’s St. Louis-based attorney, declined to comment on the case, citing local court rules barring public statements.

In a legal response to the lawsuit, Johnson City’s police chief admitted his agency knew Williams was suspected of plying women with drugs and sexually assaulting them but never sought to question him about rape allegations. Turner, the chief, instead defended his handling of the allegations.

“Each complaint of sexual assault or rape was properly investigated,” the response said.

Dahl, however, was frustrated at police inaction, the lawsuit said. She instead brought federal charges based on illegally owned ammunition found in Williams’ condo after the woman’s fall. In April 2021, police showed up to Williams’ condo to serve him with the ammo charges. Williams refused to answer the door, and WJHL-TV reported Williams made multiple calls to the police department as officers stood outside his door.

Johnson City police officers gave up on serving Williams, left the condo and Williams fled the city, remaining at large until his arrest in North Carolina on cocaine and methamphetamine charges earlier this month.

Dahl’s contract with Johnson City was abruptly terminated two months after Williams fled Johnson City.

She has since filed formal complaints against the Johnson City Police Department with the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General and the agency’s Public Integrity Section, according to the lawsuit, which said that so far neither has taken any action.

Andrew Bakaj, who represents Dahl in her whistleblower filings, said the arrest of Williams “may be the beginning of a long process to hold him accountable for what he’s done.”

Williams was remanded to federal custody on May 9 to face the outstanding illegal ammunition charges. A trial in the case is scheduled for September 12 in Greeneville, Tenn.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.