Johnson City Police Department faces federal suits over handling of Sean Williams assaults
As Williams, accused of more than 50 sexual assaults, remains a fugitive, two lawsuits allege police ignored claims from victims and cast doubt on a statements by a former U.S. attorney
A garage in downtown Johnson City owned by Sean Williams, suspected in dozens of sexual assaults, was vandalized, captured in a photo that has been introduced in a federal lawsuit against the city.
As the manhunt for an East Tennessee businessman suspected in more than 50 sexual assaults enters its third week, two separate legal battles seeking to hold the Johnson City Police Department accountable for failing his victims are gaining steam in federal court.
Sean Williams, 51, escaped by kicking the back window of a law enforcement transport vehicle taking him to a court appearance on child sex abuse charges in Greeneville, Tenn. on Oct. 18, court records say.
A multi-agency search effort has thus far received multiple tips but “none have been fruitful so far,” David Jolley, U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Tennessee, said Tuesday. Within the past few days, electronic billboards seeking tips have gone up along roadways from Florida to Maryland.
Jolley said the investigation into how Williams escaped custody also continues, focusing on whether there was negligence on the part of officers transporting him to court and whether accomplices were involved.
“Your natural assumption is he may have had assistance in getting out of the area, but I’ve thought that before and been wrong,” Jolley said. “We may not fully answer that question until we catch him.”
While Williams has been on the run, a former federal prosecutor who filed suit last year accusing Johnson City officials and its police chief of protecting a serial rapist is now seeking a court’s permission for her attorneys be able to speak publicly about the case.
Local court rules prevent parties in a lawsuit from talking publicly, but an attorney for former Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Kateri Dahl cited remarks made by Johnson City leaders in press conferences and interviews that appear to cast doubt on the truth and accuracy of Dahl’s claims, potentially hurting her chances to a fair trial in a case that is drawing increasing public attention.
And in a separate legal battle originally brought by nine alleged victims of sexual assaults perpetrated by Williams, lawyers for Johnson City are fighting efforts by the women’s lawyers to seek class action status for all sexual assault victims whose claims went un-investigated or ignored by Johnson City Police.
In seeking class action status for their lawsuit, the nine women — who were recently joined by a tenth plaintiff who claims police mishandled her report of sexual assault when she was 17 —alleged that Johnson City police engaged in “conduct (that) was part of a pattern and practice of discriminatory conduct towards female victims of sexual violence.”
“Pattern and practice” allegations against police departments can also bring Department of Justice investigation, such as the current investigation into Memphis police following the death of Tyre Nichols after a traffic stop. It’s unknown whether the DOJ has initiated their own investigation into Johnson City. Aryele Bradford, a DOJ spokesperson, declined comment on Tuesday.
Both Hugh Eastwood, Dahl’s attorney, and Vanessa Baehr-Jones, an attorney representing the victims in their separate suit, declined comment Tuesday, citing local court rules.
Williams’ escape, the subsequent manhunt and the flurry of recent legal filings in federal court have all taken place over a span of two weeks, but the events surrounding Williams — a Johnson City business owner who operated a concrete and glass finishing and restoration business — have convulsed the Northeast Tennessee town for more than a year, beginning with Dahl’s unusual lawsuit.
Dahl was a former special assistant U.S. attorney who served as a liaison between the police department and the federal prosecutor’s office. In the midst of pursuing allegations against Williams, her contract was not renewed due to performance issues, according to city officials.
Williams first came to Dahl’s attention after a woman survived a five-story fall from the man’s condo 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 Williams’ nightstand scrawled with the first names of 23 women, under the word “raped.” Williams was never charged in the woman’s fall.
Dahl alleged that was stymied in her pursuit of the case, even as she quietly made contact with ten women who claimed to be Williams’ victims; most described a pattern: they remembered voluntarily going to his downtown condo then waking up to find they’d been sexually assaulted, as if they had been drugged.
Dahl was able to bring illegal ammunition charges against Williams after a search of his condo, but Williams fled before he was taken into custody. Dahl alleged Johnson City police’s actions served to alert Williams to impending charges, allowing him to flee.
Williams fled Johnson City two years ago. He was discovered last April by Western Carolina University campus police during a routine patrol. Williams was asleep in his car, along with 12 ounces of cocaine, 14 ounces of methamphetamine, about $100,000 cash and multiple electronic devices and digital storage devices, including two thumb drives.
It was on those electronic devices that thousands of dowloaded images of child pornography were discovered. There were images of 52 women in “obvious states of unconsciousness” being sexually assaulted by Williams in his Johnson City condo, according to an investigator’s affidavit. There were also images of Williams sexually assaulting two children — one under the age of 2.
Williams remained in custody on multiple federal and state charges related to child sexual abuse and ammunition charges. He was being held in a Kentucky jail after an attempted escape from a Washington County detention center. It was while being transported to a Greenville federal courthouse by Laurel County, Kentucky officers that Williams escaped.
City officials have come under increasing scrutiny for their oversight of the police force since Dahl’s lawsuit was first filed.
Statements by JCPD investigators and Department leadership to women reporting sexual assault frequently reflect assumptions that women reporting non-stranger sexual assault are lying, and that such assaults are less severe and traumatic to victims than other serious crimes.
– A report from Daigle Law Group, hired as an outside investigator
Local advocates have taken to the streets and city government meetings demanding reform in the police department’s handling of sexual assault cases.
Johnson City Police Department’s top three officials — including its chief — simultaneously took early retirement.
And an outside consultant hired by the city issued a blistering report finding the Johnson City Police Department failed to collect evidence, interview suspects and witnesses and make arrests in the numerous reports of sexual assault reported to them over a four-year period. (The review included all sexual assaults, not those specifically alleged to have been committed by Williams.)
“Statements by JCPD investigators and Department leadership to women reporting sexual assault frequently reflect assumptions that women reporting non-stranger sexual assault are lying, and that such assaults are less severe and traumatic to victims than other serious crimes,” the report, conducted by the Daigle Law Group, said. “These investigative shortcomings seem to stem from misconceptions and stereotypes about women and victims of sexual assault,” it concluded.
On Tuesday, Cathy Ball, Johnson City’s City Manager, praised the U.S. Marshal’s office and other agencies for working to apprehend Williams.
“The news of Williams’ escape was extremely disappointing not only because it disrupts the tremendous work of these agencies to ensure justice is served but also out of concern for any victims who were undoubtedly traumatized by the turn of events,” she said. “Victims of crime remain our top priority, and we are working diligently to ensure the best service for them.”
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Clarification: Kateri Dahl’s contract was not renewed as she pursued allegations against Williams. An earlier version of this story said she was fired.
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