GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — The hunt for federal escapee Sean Williams — who’s accused of multiple sex crimes in Johnson City — is among the U.S Marshals Service and FBI’s most important cases nationwide right now.
“This is a top priority case for the United States Marshal Service and the FBI,” U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Tennessee David Jolley told News Channel 11 on Tuesday, day 27 in the search for Williams, who escaped from a transport van on his way to a federal court hearing on Oct. 18.
“Nationally, this is a conversation that I have every day at the highest levels, of this particular case.”
Jolley said the priority is based on what he called the heinousness of Williams’s alleged crimes. In addition to federal counts of child pornography production and state counts of child rape and sexual assault, Williams is suspected of having committed more than 50 rapes and sexual assaults of women in his Johnson City apartment over a number of years.
Those acts are allegedly recorded in digital files found on Williams when he was arrested on April 29 in Cullowhee, N.C.
“You’re talking about a guy here who has … been accused of sexually assaulting a large number of women. He’s well known to take advantage of not just women, but just people around him. He’s known to have a very manipulative personality that uses people, manipulates people and he’s not a nice guy.”
“In our opinion, when somebody has been accused of this many heinous crimes, they are a person who needs to be off the streets for the safety of the public … as soon as possible,” Jolley said.
But the search for Williams remains cold.
Marshals and the FBI are discussing expanded use of electronic billboards and other methods to get Williams’ face out, not just in the Southeast but across the nation. Jolley said they’re also glad the case has drawn national attention, as it did on NewsNation’s Banfield show last week.
Jolley said in addition to Williams’ face and name showing up in front of more people and increasing the likelihood of a tipster hitting on something, marshals and FBI agents are working the investigative end.
“We have been getting a good number of tips from various parts of the country as a result of the Banfield show,” said Jolley, who appeared on the show Nov. 7. He added that “billboards along the major thoroughfares have also generated a good number of tips.”
No tips have proven more credible than any others that rolled in starting on the afternoon of Oct. 18 — several hours after Williams jumped from a van driven by Laurel County, Ky. jail authorities, who were holding him for the marshals.
Williams is believed to have jumped out right in town, just a few blocks from the courthouse.
Jolley said the public will know, at some point, the answer to a question that’s been on everyone’s mind: how did Williams escape what is almost always a foolproof process?
“Even the lady that cuts my hair asked that question the other day,” Jolley said. “Everybody’s heard about this, and the first question they ask is, basically, how could that have happened, how could the officers have not seen this guy escaping from the van? So it’s certainly a question everybody wants to know the answer to.”
For now, the question of whether the escape was the result of negligence and faulty equipment, something more nefarious, or a combination of the two remains unanswered.
“We may not know all of the answers to that question until we have Sean Williams in custody, and whether he’s cooperative once we’ve captured him,” Jolley said.
Even if that day doesn’t come, the public will eventually learn the results of that investigation. If anyone else was involved, they could face a variety of charges.
“There will be some information released about whether it was just sort of a lot of negligence, a lot of things that just happened in the wrong way on a bad day, or whether there was actual collusion to assist Sean Williams,” Jolley said.
In the meantime, the hunt for Williams is priority one. Jolley said when escapees are captured after fairly long periods at large, the deep dive investigations taking place behind the scenes produce the answer somewhat more often than random public tips.
“Things that we can’t talk about too much to potentially compromise the investigation, but those are the things that are the big focus right now … who possibly out there might be helping Sean Williams if he has somebody helping him, who would that be and locating them.”
Jolley said both prongs are critical to success.
“Sometimes it’s just an inadvertent freak sighting,” he said, mentioning a recent unrelated successful tip in Knoxville from a trash collector who saw a wanted man pulling clothes from a Goodwill box and had heard about a fugitive.
“We went out and the guy was actually still on foot. We found him shortly after that.”
Williams has proven difficult to apprehend before, including the nearly two years he spent on the lam after a May 5, 2021 effort to serve a warrant on him in Johnson City proved unsuccessful.
“I think everyone, particularly his victims out there, the public, everybody would like to see Sean Williams face the charges that he is accused of,” Jolley said.
While some people, including some victims, might be “quite happy if Sean Williams was not found alive,” he said the goal is always to get a wanted fugitive back into custody alive.
“I would think it would be in everybody’s best interest for Sean Williams to be captured alive, and that he face up to all of these crimes that he is charged with.”
A total reward of $7,500 is offered for information leading directly to Williams’ arrest. Information can be called in to 911, the USMS at 877-926-8332 or usmarshals.gov/tips.