GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — U.S. Marshal David Jolley has turned many things over in his head since federal detainee and alleged child rapist Sean Williams escaped from a transport van on Oct. 18 — including how Williams kicked out a window and jumped out without deputies noticing.
“I’ve asked that question 1,000 times myself, is how did you not notice that unless you were distracted in some way or intentionally not paying attention,” Jolley told News Channel 11 in an exclusive interview Thursday.
It’s among many the longtime lawman has asked himself as Williams’ time on the lam has stretched beyond two weeks. Among others: whether he had help both in his escape and afterward; whether the transport van was fitted out with all the necessary security apparatus; how he went from tightly restrained to free of handcuffs and leg shackles; and most importantly, where he is now.
“It’s quite amazing, really — there’s been absolutely nothing in this case,” Jolley said when asked whether the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) has even had lukewarm leads into Williams’ whereabouts. “It’s been that cold.”
Jolley provided significant previously unreported details about what investigators know (not much) and what they don’t know (a whole lot) about how Williams actually escaped and where he might be now.
“Assumption would be that probably he’s had some help and we’re certainly investigating all those possibilities to see if he did, who it might be or would have been at the time,” he said. “That part of it continues, it’s very possible that he has had assistance, but I can’t say for certain that he has”.
Two deputies from Laurel County, Ky. were bringing Williams to Greeneville for a federal court appearance when he escaped a little after 8 a.m. that Wednesday. Pre-trial federal detainees are under the control of the USMS, but since the agency doesn’t have its own jails, they’re housed with contracted local law enforcement agencies. Those contracts also cover secure transport of inmates to court appearances and medical appointments.
The Laurel County deputies have said until they arrived they had no idea Williams had removed his handcuffs, leg irons and belly chain and managed to break the back window of the van and jump out. Jolley said USMS is convinced that exit occurred within just a few blocks of the courthouse where Bryce McKenzie, Williams’ lawyer, was set to learn whether a judge would let him withdraw from representing the former downtown Johnson City businessman.
The ‘how’ investigation
While the USMS continues to work any possible angle to develop a warm lead on Williams’ whereabouts — if he’s still alive — the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has taken over the probe into how he escaped.
A bloodied Williams showed up at one Greeneville resident’s house asking to use the phone not long after the escape, but Jolley said no confirmed sightings occurred after that morning. Despite having presumably left Laurel County in handcuffs, leg irons and a “belly chain” that kept those cuffs close to his waist, Williams was completely unshackled.
Exactly how Williams made it from shackles and the back of a locked van to that house after hopping out of a van in the middle of town is “a really good question,” Jolley said.
The van drivers have been questioned and stuck to the narrative that they properly secured Williams prior to leaving the jail.
“We so far don’t have any evidence to show that they intentionally were in collusion with Sean Williams,” Jolley said. “Now whether there was negligence on their part, possibly, but intentional, we don’t have any evidence to show that so far in the investigation. I will say the investigation is still ongoing and the outcome could change.”
The evening Williams had escaped, Laurel County Chief Jailer Jamie Mosley told News Channel 11 “investigation has revealed” that Williams may have used a paper clip to free himself, and that a headrest “was used as an instrument at some point.”
Mosley has refused media inquiries since that point, but Jolley said no firm conclusions have been reached. Unlocking handcuffs “would be even hard to do with a key. If you get your hands in the right position to do so it could be done. It could be done with a different device.”
That leaves open possibilities ranging from Williams managing to use something other than a key, to the devices not really being locked when he got on the van, to someone having given him a key. Jolley said investigators are looking at all of those as possible.
“If they did everything the way they’re supposed to, then they should have been in place properly unless somebody helped him in some way. So far we haven’t uncovered any evidence of that, but not to say it wasn’t there and we may learn something differently as we continue to look into this.”
Even unrestrained, just to reach the window glass Williams would have needed to break through a protective metal screen that’s built into the transport vans — if that screen was there as is required. That’s another question that’s still unanswered, because there was no screen present when marshals began checking the situation, and one hasn’t turned up.
“It was either removed or not there, one or the other, and we’re not totally sure which so we’re trying to determine if that van might have had a missing screen on it,” Jolley said, acknowledging that is “absolutely” something investigators want to learn.
He said a missing screen would have been out of character for Laurel County, which he said has been a model agency as far as USMS is concerned.
The agencies that contract with USMS are held to stringent requirements for both building security and transport security including what Jolley called “an intensive inspection process.”
Laurel County built a new jail several years ago and currently houses an average of more than 350 federal detainees according to state reports — a move that Mosley has touted for its ability to save taxpayers money in the poor county.
He said USMS stresses the importance of taking all the proper precautions, and marshals regularly check the vans to make sure they’re properly outfitted and security measures are in working order.
“They do a very good job of housing inmates, run an excellent facility,” Jolley said. “So they’ve typically been one of the more secure. Obviously Williams exposed a weak spot on transport.”
They’d also been warned about Williams given his previous escape attempt. But Jolley said with the Marshals Service generally tight on staff, the level didn’t rise to the point of adding an actual marshal to accompany the transport.
“We attached extra paperwork in his classifications that he is a high threat risk of escape and for them to be extra cautious in the transports, so whether they took that as seriously as they should have, I don’t know. We’re looking into all of that.”
Escapes very rare, weeks without capture even rarer
Jolley has been marshal for the Eastern District for more than five years. He was also marshal for Tennessee’s western district following a 20-year career with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI). He said escapes by pre-trial detainees are rare.
During his East Tennessee tenure, two inmates who had “federal detainers” escaped from local jails, but both were already serving state sentences. Both were also captured fairly quickly and authorities had good leads prior to those captures.
Not so for Williams, despite the high-profile nature of his case (he’s the centerpiece of two federal civil lawsuits against the City of Johnson City and the Johnson City Police Department).
“We’ve had absolutely hundreds and hundreds of tips called in from the public, and since it’s gotten national attention some of the tips have been in faraway places,” Jolley said.
Deputy marshals check out each one, pulling video footage in the case of convenience store sightings, and interviewing people. All have proven to be incorrect identifications, and “even those have slowed down tremendously in the last three or four days really.”
Jolley is determined to see Williams behind bars again, provided he’s alive. He said 15 days is a pretty long time for someone to evade capture, but “I’ve seen prison escape cases that lasted numerous years before the person was finally captured. So it’s hard to really say on some of these.”
Jolley didn’t share any information that suggested the USMS has a solid clue where Williams is.
“He was a businessman of reasonable intelligence. So I’m sure he has put that intelligence to the best use possible to help himself during this situation.”
While Williams appeared to have been “winging it on his own” immediately after his escape, Jolley implied that theories lean toward him having met up with someone he knew at some point.
“We’ve asked the question numerous times of whether it’s possible that he had some assistance.”
That said, he’s seen cases in which an escapee wasn’t sighted “for a few days, and then they still turned up hiding in someone’s barn or something, so we’ve got to keep all possibilities open.”
A ‘quick memory?’
Jolley was well familiar with Williams’ case due to the lawsuits and the recent revelation that he may have kept video or photographic evidence of himself sexually assaulting more than 50 women in his Johnson City apartment.
“If it’s the routine meth conspiracy or something like that I might not necessarily remember all their names, but Sean Williams, yes. Definitely was aware of him from the publicity that case had gotten here locally prior to even coming to federal court.”
The escape drew significant national media coverage. Jolley said he’s bothered when he considers the alleged victims who may never get a sense of closure otherwise.
“It’s a terrible feeling,” Jolley said.
“Sean Williams was a sexual predator from everything that I’m told about the guy. So that’s a concern that you have this kind of guy back out on the streets, and you have this number of victims out there, who I know are extremely concerned right now.”
He hopes he’ll be able to deliver some good news on the case soon.
“I would like for Sean Williams to be a quick memory and get him into custody, so we can move on with the criminal justice process.”
A total reward of $7,500 is offered for information leading directly to Williams’ arrest. Information can be called in to the USMS at 877-926-8332 or usmarshals.gov/tips.