JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The revelations about video evidence showing downtown Johnson City businessman Sean Williams allegedly raping 52 different women in his apartment, left a local advocate “angry with the police who failed our community so many times.”
Ben Putland was among numerous Johnson Citians who protested outside City Hall and in City Commission meetings following News Channel 11’s reporting of former federal prosecutor Kat Dahl’s lawsuit against the city and Johnson City Police Department (JCPD) last summer. Dahl’s dissatisfaction with JCPD’s handling of sexual assault allegations against Williams, whom her suit deemed a “serial rapist,” was at the center of the still pending suit.
Putland said Tuesday’s new details also left him “angry with the city for what appears to me to be kicking the can down the road on something that should have been handled years ago.”
JCPD investigators possessed computers and other digital storage devices owned by Williams starting in September 2020. Despite at least three rape accusations against him in close proximity to that date, a recent search warrant affidavit says those pieces of evidence still had “not been tampered with, viewed, downloaded, or otherwise examined.”
That contrasts with an examination of devices that Western Carolina University (WCU) police conducted after they arrested Williams — by then a federal fugitive — after allegedly finding a large amount of drugs and cash in his car April 29 of this year.
In the 169 gigabytes of stored data on Williams’ devices seized in North Carolina, WCU Chief Steven Lillard found video and/or photographic evidence of sexual assaults. Some of it turned out to allegedly show Williams raping at least two of those mid-2020 accusers in his downtown apartment.
Within days, WCU had contacted Tennessee’s First Judicial District. By May 31, First District Criminal Investigator Mike Little had reviewed the evidence in Cullowhee, N.C. and had enough information to submit his lengthy search warrant affidavit to Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice.
But at least one person working with the JCPD during that 2020 period was interested in what was on Williams’ devices. Federal prosecutor Kat Dahl, who worked with the JCPD from 2019-2021, alleges she wanted investigators to do more than they were when she became involved with the investigation into Mikayla Evans’ Sept. 19, 2020 fall from Williams’ fifth-floor apartment window.
According to Dahl’s June 2022 federal civil suit against the city and JCPD, she was asked Nov. 13, 2020, to work on a federal ammunition charge based on ammo found in Williams’ apartment when JCPD executed a Sept. 19 search warrant.
Dahl’s suit claims she quickly learned about rape allegations against Williams and began requesting documents and other material from JCPD to broaden the investigation beyond the ammo case. Among the requests was some of the very same material that hadn’t been reviewed as of late May 2023.
“(I)n early November 2020, Dahl began seeking a federal search warrant for (Williams’) computer and phone SIM card, but Johnson City officers did not provide needed documentation until mid-January 2021,” a paragraph in the suit reads. “By that point, the evidence for the probable cause affidavit was too old and stale to meet federal requirements for obtaining a search warrant.”
Case files from Investigator Toma Sparks, who handled the Evans investigation, confirm that on Jan. 12, 2021 at 11:50 p.m., “I sent the search warrant for Apple Computer and SD card’s (sic) to Kat Dahl.”
Eight days later, Sparks wrote, “The investigation into this case didn’t reveal any criminal activity.”
A trail of rape allegations
In his recent affidavit conclusion, Little asserted that “Williams has participated in the various sexual based offenses for an ongoing and sustained time period.” Because of this, he wrote, “the likelihood of additional images being stored on other digital devices belonging to Williams … (is) highly likely, if not probable.”
Now all the devices JCPD seized are in the hands of Little and an FBI investigator. Little’s affidavit states that of the 28,713 data files he reviewed in North Carolina between May 26-29, he “identified in excess of 8,000 files depicting sexually based criminal offenses.”
In addition to the two 2020 alleged victims, the files show another woman who filed a November 2019 complaint with JCPD allegedly being assaulted by Williams, lending credence to Little’s claim of a “sustained time period” of assaults.
The 2019 complainant and the two 2020 complainants, who now allegedly appear in video/pictorial evidence, were “being sexually assaulted while in apparent states of unconsciousness,” Little wrote.
Investigators have now filed successful search warrant affidavits to collect DNA and other physical evidence from Williams for two of those cases, citing probable cause for evidence of rape.
The first was the 2019 case, in which a woman told police she had gone to Williams’ apartment after consuming a number of drinks at a restaurant. She said she shared a beer with Williams and that he then took her to his bedroom “and she started feeling extremely lethargic.”
After waking up around 10:30 the next morning, she wasn’t sure if Williams had had sex with her, but she knew she hadn’t consented. Because she was feeling odd, she went to an urgent care clinic to get tested for drugs. The screen showed “benzos” despite the woman saying she doesn’t use any drugs.
The woman then had a sexual assault kit completed at Johnson City Medical Center (JCMC) and that was sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI). It came back in late March 2021, but there is no record of further investigation by JCPD.
According to the affidavit for Williams’ DNA sample — filed June 1, 2023 by JCPD’s Sparks — the North Carolina data includes a folder with the alleged victim’s name on it. The woman, identified as the alleged victim, “appears to be unconscious, and a male can be seen completing sexual acts on her.”
Sparks’ request adds that tattoos on the man’s arm and hand “are consistent with the tattoos that Sean Williams has.”
Barely a year after that incident, and two months after the Evans investigation began, another woman reported an alleged sexual assault by Williams at his apartment. In between, at least two other women had also reported alleged sexual assaults.
The woman who placed the Nov. 24, 2020 report told JCPD she’d been an overnight guest at Williams’ apartment and woke up at 8:30 that morning to discover Williams was allegedly in the act of sexually assaulting her.
After managing to escape, she drove to the Johnson City FBI office, where agents told her to report to JCPD. She made a report and underwent a sexual assault examination at JCMC. As in the case a year earlier, JCPD sent a sexual assault kit to TBI. When it came back on July 14, 2021 it “indicated that a male DNA profile” had been discovered on the submitted material.
The details on the November 2020 incident are contained in another search warrant affidavit, this one filed in July by Little, in which Little asserts probable cause that Williams is in possession of evidence (DNA) of rape.
Like Sparks’ affidavit, Little points to video or photographic evidence from North Carolina files. Little found a folder with the victim’s and another woman’s name on it. Inside the folder, Little found “numerous photographs of two female subjects who are in an obvious state of unconsciousness being sexually assaulted by Sean Williams.”
Little writes that he is able to positively identify the woman who made the police report in November 2020, and that he found two additional folders with photographs of her being allegedly sexually assaulted by Williams.
Advocate says group will pursue new pressure fronts
Ben Putland said the advocacy group had found some cause for satisfaction over the past 12 months or so. Among their early demands was the firing of then-JCPD Chief Karl Turner (Turner retired in February).
In the months that followed, Putland became the de facto leader of a group with whom City Manager Cathy Ball met several times. Wednesday, he said the group had felt relatively satisfied with the city’s decision to get an outside audit of JCPD’s handling of rape cases and Ball’s other actions to try and begin creating change at JCPD.
The information about multiple rape complaints that came out Tuesday, along with Dahl’s suit and other facts that have come to light so far left Putland wanting action taken on the past if it’s warranted — regardless of the good steps Johnson City has taken in the past year.
“It’s hard for us to imagine that there isn’t a fair number of people who knew what was going on for a long time and were either intentionally or accidentally or negligently failing to do their job,” he said.
While he said the latest information is frustrating, it has given the unnamed citizens’ group, which was initially called “Terminate Turner,” another front to work on. He said they had planned to keep tabs on the progress of changes Johnson City promised in the wake of the outside audit, but that those now seem a bit hollow.
“We are going to do some work with the community, ask some questions, see where everyone’s at, but soon we’ll be resupplying a list of demands to the city and they’ll be far less compromising,” Putland said.
Putland said he wants the City Commission to put out what he called “a non-waffling statement.” He said he believes the commission’s approach to the Dahl-Williams case has been “to be a little passive and non-committal.”
“There’s no version in which they should not make a hardline stance about this and say ‘we’re going to do something and here is what … we’re going to try to do now or very soon,'” he said.
Putland also said if outside agencies’ involvement is warranted, it should occur. He said it sounds to him as if First Judicial District Attorney General Steve Finney “is taking it very seriously.
“That’s good. We hope he continues to do that. He’s been doing that, so we have faith he will.”
As for the audit by lawyer Eric Daigle, which Putland called “scathing,” he said it is “very administrative.” Corrections recommended relate to budgets, expanding staff, better record-keeping and the like.
Putland said his group “sees no purpose” in those measures “if all of those tools are not going to be used to prevent or find justice for sexual crimes.”
While the advocacy group has followed city protocols regarding limits to public speaking time at meetings and remaining polite in protests, “that will not be the case going forward if a hard-line stance is not taken.
“You can be certain that direct action will be taken, you can be certain that commission meetings dealing with their zoning and their beer board licenses if 52-plus (alleged) sexual assaults are not dealt with hastily.”
News Channel 11 sent a list of questions concerning the information in this story to the City of Johnson City Wednesday morning, and city spokesperson Keisha Shoun provided the following answer:
“These questions pertain either to active investigations or pending litigation. Their answers will be brought to light through one or both of those processes.”