JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Western Carolina University (WCU) police found devices with images and video of more than 50 rapes allegedly committed by Sean Williams in Johnson City after arresting him in late April, a search warrant affidavit filed in Jonesborough, Tenn. states.
That warrant sought access to additional phones and computers that the Johnson City Police Department (JCPD) has held since seizing them in September 2020 during an investigation into a woman’s near-fatal fall from Williams’ fifth-floor downtown Johnson City apartment.
Two other warrants filed in June and July sought Williams’ DNA and other physical evidence, citing probable cause that he committed two specific rapes — both allegedly recorded in video or images — in November 2019 and November 2020.
Video or photo evidence was on the North Carolina devices that showed sexual assaults not just on those two women, but on three others who filed sexual assault complaints with JCPD between June and November 2020, according to the affidavit.
That may have been the tip of the iceberg.
“Within these files, your affiant has identified approximately 52 female victims which are depicted in digital images or videos being sexually assaulted by Williams,” Tennessee First Judicial District Criminal Investigator Mike Little wrote in his May 31 request for a search warrant.
“These assaults all appear to occur while the female victims were in an obvious state of unconsciousness and are identifiable as having occurred at Williams’s apartment at 200 E. Main Street in Johnson City…,” the narrative continues.
Little’s affidavit supporting a search warrant requested access to four phones, four computers and three memory cards of Williams’s that the JCPD seized around Sept. 23, 2020.
Two additional affidavits requested permission to collect DNA and other physical information from Williams, who has been jailed since April 29, for possible use in two specific rape prosecutions.
Little’s affidavit also argued probable cause that Williams allegedly sexually assaulted at least two children at his apartment.
Two separate federal civil lawsuits claim the 51-year-old Williams — who is currently jailed and facing federal charges — was a “serial rapist” whose victims encountered a JCPD that was negligent at best and corrupt at worst when it came to the downtown business owner.
Little’s initial affidavit also asserts “that Williams has participated in the various sexual based offenses for an ongoing and sustained time period.” Because of this, it calls “the likelihood of additional images being stored on other digital devices belonging to Williams … highly likely, if not probable.”
To date, Williams has not been charged with any sexual assaults.
The affidavit suggests there is probable cause the devices in Johnson City show evidence of aggravated rape, aggravated rape of a child, sexual exploitation of a minor and unlawful photography in violation of privacy.
Those computers, phones and memory cards, Little wrote, have been in the JCPD’s possession since September 2020. That’s when JCPD executed its own search warrant as it investigated Mikayla Evans’s near-fatal fall from Williams’s fifth-floor apartment window on Spring Street downtown.
The North Carolina files are alleged to include at least two series of digital images showing Williams sexually abusing an infant boy less than a year old and a girl less than eight years old.
That incident and JCPD’s handling of it precipitated an ongoing string of events that included the April 2021 federal indictment of Williams for being a felon in possession of ammunition. The ammunition was discovered in Williams’s safe during the Evans investigation.
Chance encounter in a parking lot
While allegations of Williams’s sexual predation first surfaced publicly in former U.S. Attorney Kat Dahl’s June 2022 federal lawsuit, it appears to have taken a part-time campus police officer’s chance encounter with Williams on the banks of the Tuckasegee River in Cullowhee, N.C. to blow the case open.
None of the multiple reports by women to JCPD had yielded a charge. Dahl, who pressed JCPD to more assertively investigate those allegations, eventually settled for the ammunition possession warrant.
Officers attempted to serve the federal warrant on Williams at his home on May 5, 2021 but were unsuccessful. He ended up a fugitive for nearly two years before WCU officer Charles Gooden arrested him during a routine patrol of a riverside parking area and boat ramp Western owns near its campus.
While News Channel 11 reported on WCU’s discovery of 12 ounces of cocaine and 14 ounces of methamphetamine, police also seized about $100,000 cash and “multiple electronic devices and digital storage devices.” Those included two thumb drives taped together “and fashioned so that the USB ends were opposing and both drives could be used.”
As they investigated suspected drug trafficking due to the large amounts of drugs and cash Williams had on him, the investigators obtained a search warrant for the devices.
Once North Carolina police found evidence of apparent Johnson City sexual assaults and child pornography, they alerted Tennessee authorities. Little and FBI Special Agent Paul Durant traveled to North Carolina, where WCU Police Chief Steven Lillard reviewed some of the discovered images and files with Little and Durant.
One of the thumb drives allegedly contained more than 5,000 downloaded images of child pornography. Because of its relevance to what Little called “ongoing JCPD investigations,” the material on the thumb drives was downloaded by Lillard for review by Little and JCPD Investigator Toma Sparks. Sparks led the investigation after Evans fell, which ultimately concluded no foul play.
What comes next
The alleged video and photographic evidence could have material consequences beyond just the potential prosecution of Sean Williams.
Williams faces an early November federal trial on the felon in possession of ammunition charge and a second federal charge of attempted escape after he allegedly tried to escape from the Washington County jail in July. Those could bring a total of 15 years in federal prison, combined.
At the state level, aggravated rape is punishable by 15 to 60 years in prison. Aggravated rape of a child is punishable by life in prison without the possibility of parole. Sexual exploitation of a minor can carry a two to 12-year prison sentence, and a person can be charged for each individual image.
The affidavits and any follow-up from the search warrant, including potential charges, also may provide fodder for the several civil actions being pursued against Johnson City and its police department.
One of those is Dahl’s suit, which claims she unsuccessfully urged then-Chief Karl Turner and the JCPD to investigate Williams for rape and sexual assault and that she “became concerned that Johnson City was intentionally refusing or recklessly failing to investigate or seize (Williams)…” Dahl claims JCPD ended her contract with the department in retaliation for her insistence that Williams be more thoroughly investigated.
Another is a federal whistleblower action that’s being spearheaded by the non-profit Whistleblower Aid. Whistleblower Aid sought alleged victims to reach out to its attorneys and other staff in the immediate aftermath of Dahl’s June 23, 2020 federal suit filing. The group could aid in at least two official complaints Dahl has filed with federal authorities, including the Department of Justice.
A third is a federal civil suit filed on behalf of nine alleged sexual assault victims of Williams. It was filed June 21, 2023 and launches with a stark claim: “For years, Sean Williams drugged and raped women in Johnson City, Tennessee, and for years, officers of the (JCPD) let him get away with it.”
News Channel 11 reached out to First Judicial District Attorney General Steve Finney’s office Tuesday to ask whether the DA is pursuing efforts to indict Williams and what the timeline for that might be.
Finney responded that due to the investigation being “very active” and “diligently investigated” by his office, his office chose not to comment now.