GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — Federal Judge Clifton Corker has dismissed the felon in possession of ammunition charge that first made former downtown Johnson City business owner Sean Williams a wanted man.
Corker made the ruling during a motions hearing Tuesday in U.S. District Court.
Williams, who was indicted Sept. 12 on federal production of child pornography charges, still faces a host of additional state and federal counts against him. Assistant U.S. Attorney Meghan Gomez pointed to the production charges, particularly as a reason to dismiss the less serious ammo count from 2021.
The three production counts carry sentences of 15 to 30 years, and Gomez said for Williams, 51, that would mean “effectively a life sentence if he’s convicted” at a trial currently scheduled for Jan. 23, 2024, before Federal Judge Ronnie Greer.
Williams still faces one count attached to his initial April 13, 2021 ammo indictment — for allegedly attempting to escape from the Washington County Jail in late July. Corker reset the trial date on that count to Feb. 13, 2024, moving it back from its Nov. 2 date at the request of Williams’ attorney Bryce McKenzie. Williams is now being held in the Laurel County, Ky. Jail in London.
Dismissing one of the less serious cases and moving the trial on the remaining one to a later date allows the court to focus on the more serious charges.
Those arose from the alleged discovery of incriminating digital files, when Western Carolina University (WCU) police arrested Williams off-campus in Cullowhee, N.C. on April 29 and charged him with drug trafficking.
Search warrant affidavits filed by Tennessee First Judicial District Investigator Mike Little in May revealed that Williams allegedly possessed two digital thumb drives with thousands of images and video on them. They allegedly included folders, some of them named, with images or videos showing Williams allegedly sexually assaulting women and, in several cases, children.
“These other charges have real victims and are serious charges, and we want to see a jury trial (on them),” Gomez said.
All of Williams’ cases are also related to a pair of civil lawsuits filed in the same court against the City of Johnson City, its police department and several former and current officers. Williams was indicted by then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Kat Dahl in April 2021 following a Johnson City Police Department (JCPD) investigation.
Police unsuccessfully attempted to serve a warrant for Williams’ arrest on May 5, 2021, and he was at large for nearly two years before his Cullowhee, N.C. arrest.
Dahl, whose contract was not renewed several months after the Williams indictment, sued Johnson City, the JCPD and its now-former chief in June 2022 for retaliatory discharge. Her lawsuit alleges JCPD essentially fired her after she pressed the department to investigate a string of suspected rapes tied to Williams. The city has denied those allegations. A jury trial is scheduled to begin on May 14, 2024, in that case.
A lawsuit on behalf of nine alleged rape victims of Williams against the city, JCPD and several officers was filed in June of this year and has been amended twice since then.
Whether Williams’ pornography production trial or the escape trial will occur in Greeneville remains uncertain. McKenzie had filed a motion to move the ammunition/escape trial to Knoxville or Chattanooga when it was scheduled for Nov. 2. He withdrew the motion — which had claimed that pretrial publicity was making it impossible to find an unbiased jury that could give Williams a fair trial — but said he could request such a change closer to the trial date.
“By February the pretrial publicity surrounding this may be wildly different,” McKenzie said.
Gomez had argued in a Sept. 29 filing that the trial should not be moved unless jury selection, including interviews of prospective jurors, shows an impartial jury can’t be seated.
Gomez also argued against McKenzie’s claim of “non-stop media attention” that is “unfavorable and highly prejudicial” and would lead to “an assumption of guilt” by prospective jurors.
Her filing claimed “most articles are not inflammatory or highly prejudicial” and that many of them “simply describe the status of the investigation or the charges that have been filed in a neutral manner.”
Williams is a defendant in several other cases, including:
- Child rape, sexual battery and child sexual exploitation charges in Washington County, Tenn. stemming from the same alleged incidents as the child pornography charges. No trial date has been set.
- Drug charges from the Cullowhee, N.C. arrest that are now in federal court in the Western District of North Carolina, also with no trial date set.