Escaped inmate facing child sex charges in Tennessee captured in Florida

Nov 22, 2023, 8:07 AM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — An escaped inmate accused of sexually assaulting multiple victims in Tennessee has been captured in Florida after being on the run for over a month, authorities said.

Sean Williams, 52, was arrested without incident Tuesday in Florida’s Pinellas County after being spotted and tracked down b,y a K-9 officer and his partner, the FBI in Knoxville said on social media.

Williams was in federal custody on three counts of production of child sexual abuse material and one count of distribution of cocaine, and is now facing an escape charge, the FBI said.

A former businessman from Johnson City, Tennessee, Williams also is facing state charges including child rape, aggravated sexual battery and especially aggravated sexual exploitation, court records show. In addition, two lawsuits accuse him of drugging and raping multiple victims in the East Tennessee community for years, claiming local police did little to investigate him.

Williams escaped from a transport van Oct. 18 en route from a Kentucky detention facility — where he was being held after a previous escape attempt in Tennessee — to the federal courthouse in Greeneville, Tennessee, according to the FBI. A criminal complaint says deputies found Williams missing and the back window of the vehicle kicked out after arriving at the courthouse.

Williams, who’s originally from Florida, had stolen a car in Greeneville and was later spotted by an officer in Pinellas County who unsuccessfully pursued the vehicle, U.S. Marshal David Jolley told WCYB-TV. Williams was later recognized by a store clerk and, after fleeing from the store, was tracked to a hiding spot under a tarp and arrested, Jolley said.

The manhunt unfolded after police in North Carolina earlier this year said they found evidence of Williams himself apparently documenting dozens of sexual assaults.

According to a state court search warrant, in April a Western Carolina University police officer found Williams in a car while he had an outstanding arrest warrant. Inside the car, the officer found digital storage devices with photos and videos of 52 female victims being sexually assaulted by Williams at his Johnson City apartment while they were in an “obvious state of unconsciousness,” with many of the videos stored in labeled folders, the warrant states.

At least a half-dozen names on the folders were consistent with first names on a list labeled “Raped” that was found in Williams’ apartment during a September 2020 search warrant, the document states. Additionally, more than 5,000 child pornography images were on the devices, the warrant states.

A lawyer representing Williams in the federal case didn’t immediately respond to an email. A court clerk said Williams had not appeared yet to answer the state charges and did not have an attorney of record.

Additionally, at least 10 women have accused Williams in lawsuits of drugging and raping victims for years before his arrest.

Kateri Lynne Dahl, a former special prosecutor in the East Tennessee U.S. attorney’s office, sued the city and Johnson City police officials in June 2022 over how they approached the allegations about Williams. Dahl’s federal lawsuit alleges that she had substantial evidence that Williams had been dealing drugs and was credibly accused of sexually assaulting and raping multiple women, and that Johnson City police refused her plea to investigate further.

When Dahl secured a federal indictment and arrest warrant on a minor federal ammunition charge in 2021, the lawsuit says, local police delayed and botched the arrest, letting Williams flee. Dahl was in a position coordinating between the city and the U.S. attorney’s office. The then-police chief terminated her contract, citing failures to indict in other cases, the lawsuit states.

In response to Dahl’s lawsuit, Johnson City maintained in a statement that non-renewal of Dahl’s contract “was justified and based on failure to perform her contractual obligations.” The city also responded to Dahl’s claims about how the police department handled the allegations against Williams, saying it took five months to get an indictment after the department requested one in 2020.

In an August 2022 court filing, attorneys for the city and its then-police chief contended that the sexual assault allegations were properly investigated, adding the chief and a captain thought indicting Williams on the ammunition offense would be the most feasible option to pursue investigations into other possible allegations.

Additionally, numerous “Jane Doe” plaintiffs filed their own lawsuit in June, claiming Johnson City police received reports alleging Williams had tried to drug and/or sexually assault women in his apartment, but officers treated him as untouchable.

Erick Herrin, an attorney representing the city, the then-police chief and other officers in federal litigation, said local rules bar him from commenting on the lawsuits.

“We are confident the judicial system will bring about a proper resolution in this controversy,” Herrin said via email.

Asked for comment Wednesday, a police department official referred The Associated Press to a statement by the city, which says, “The City is thankful for the capture of Sean Williams so that the tremendous work of the investigating and prosecuting agencies can continue in order to ensure justice is served.”

In the summer of 2022, Johnson City contracted with a company for a third-party audit into how its police handle sexual assault-related investigations. Some of the findings released this July include that police conducted inconsistent, ineffective and incomplete investigations; relied on inadequate record management; had insufficient training and policies, and sometimes showed issues with gender-based stereotypes and bias.

The city has said it took steps to make changes while awaiting the audit’s findings, calling them the beginning of improvements where officials have fallen short. Some of these include using the local district’s new sexual assault investigation protocol; reviewing investigative policies and procedures; creating a “comfortable space” for victim interviews and adding more funding for officer training and a new records management system.


Reynolds reported from Louisville, Kentucky.

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Escaped inmate facing child sex charges in Tennessee captured in Florida