GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — Sean Williams has already beaten the averages during 17 days on the run following his escape from a federal transport van Oct. 18 — but the odds are that the accused child rapist will be back in custody someday.
That’s the assessment of Bryce Peterson, a research scientist for the think tank CNA and an expert on prisoner escapes.
“The more headway you have, the longer you can be out of custody, the easier it is for you to stay out of custody,” Peterson said.
Peterson reviewed News Channel 11’s coverage of the escape and its aftermath, as well as some of the exhaustive coverage of Williams’ case. He said the “how” of Williams’ escape from the custody of two Laurel County, Ky. deputies raised numerous questions in his mind. He also offered some potential scenarios of what has happened since the escape and what could lie ahead.
“The vast majority are recaptured eventually,” said Peterson who has researched escapes since completing his doctoral dissertation on the topic nearly a decade ago.
“Most of those happen pretty quickly, within a few hours, within a day, over 80% usually within a few days. So the fact that he’s eluded recapture for so long is not normal.”
Williams’s headway started with him allegedly remaining undetected by two Laurel County, Ky. detention officers after he kicked out a window and jumped from a transport van several blocks from the U.S. District Courthouse in Greeneville. The early morning escape also included Williams somehow extricating himself from handcuffs that were supposed to be locked to a belly chain and from leg irons.
“The American Correctional Association and some others have described what they think are best practices for transporting prisoners,” Peterson said. He said the two-officer to two-prisoner ratio (the other prisoner didn’t escape) was appropriate — but other details left him scratching his head.
“Some of the other best practices that are described in literature are being vigilant the whole time, so it’s hard to imagine if you were being vigilant the whole time, you wouldn’t hear a window getting kicked out and you wouldn’t see it. That’s, I think, the one part of the story that stands out to me the most that I have a hard time understanding.”
Peterson said the fact that Williams somehow got out of his restraints also points to a likely lack of proper protocol being followed. He said checking restraints very carefully and conducting searches “of both the vehicle and the individuals” before and after transport is essential.
“I know there’s some allusions to possibly a paperclip being used, other devices, I don’t know what’s fact or not. But if that’s true, that should have been something that was found if they had done a very thorough search of the vehicle and of this individual person.
“I’m sure they will do their own internal investigation and uncover what the gaps in security were. It seems to me like there was probably something that happened where there was a breakdown somewhere of a policy or practice or some sort of security breakdown that led to this happening.”
Planned, or opportunistic?
While it’s fairly likely Williams has had some help by now, Peterson said the research shows some sort of grand scheme was less likely.
“This case seems like maybe there was some planning that happened, but it’s really hard to tell,” Peterson said.
“The vast majority of times, escapes are opportunistic. There’s rarely times where there’s these really deep plans. It’s simply someone who’s motivated to escape, as this individual obviously was and has been for a long time. He’s demonstrated that through his behavior over the years.”
Williams eluded law enforcement for nearly two years after a May 2021 attempt to serve a warrant on him, then allegedly attempted to escape from the Washington County Jail, where he was being held for federal authorities, in July.
Having been out of sight with absolutely no clues as to his whereabouts since the first day makes Peterson think Williams did get some help at some point.
“For someone to stay out of custody this long, they either have to be very resourceful, have a number of resources themselves, or they have to have some sort of help on the outside. It’s just impossible for someone to stay out of custody this long without one of those two things happening because you have to find clothing, food, somewhere to live, somewhere to stay.”
The United States Marshals Service and its partners are likely to be investigating based on those norms.
“They’ll be looking at known places, family members, friends somewhere where he could be hiding out long term, and they’ll maybe set up perimeters in those areas. It’s more difficult now because they don’t know where he is, but there’s still lots of ways that they can go after him and hopefully successfully recover him.”
Recapture doesn’t always happen quickly, but it almost always happens
Peterson said he “would have expected at this point for (Williams) to already be recaptured.”
He said about 96% of transport escapees are recaptured, but again, it’s usually very quick.
“The fact that he’s already been out for so long suggests that he could be out for a long time, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if he were captured tomorrow.”
That’s particularly true given the seriousness of Williams’ charges, which already could bring an effective life sentence even without more that are possibly pending.
“When there’s someone like Sean Williams who has been out for long and who’s facing very serious charges, there’s a pretty big manhunt for him, it is highly unlikely that they stay out forever, or even for a long time.
“But again, the fact that he’s already been out for two weeks is a concern.”
U.S. Marshal David Jolley certainly hopes that for Williams, in the immortal words of Led Zeppelin, ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come.’ Peterson thinks he’ll have the satisfaction of that being the case.
“I think at some point he will likely be recaptured. It just might be a long time down the road.”