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Tennessee officers accused of shielding a man committing sex crimes. Police deny extortion


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal lawsuit claims police officers took thousands of dollars from a businessman in their Tennessee city in exchange for obstructing efforts to investigate allegations that he was sexually assaulting multiple women for years. The police department has denied any wrongdoing.

The extortion claim involving several Johnson City Police officers appears in court filings from a federal lawsuit accusing building contractor Sean Williams — who is now in custody on state and federal criminal charges — of drugging and raping women in the East Tennessee community from 2018 to 2021 while police did little to investigate him.

There was “either an implied or explicit agreement” that the officers would shield Williams, “permitting him to continue his criminal activities of abuse and trafficking with impunity,” say lawyers for nine women, listed as Jane Does 1-9, who are suing the city.

These plaintiffs raised the extortion claims months ago, but their May 14 filing makes the claims more explicit by alleging that banking documents back the assertions. The same lawyers also revealed, in April, that they have provided hundreds of pages of information for a federal public corruption investigation of the police department.

Williams awaits trial on state charges including child rape, aggravated sexual battery and especially aggravated sexual exploitation, and federal charges including three counts of production of child sexual abuse material and one count of distribution of cocaine. He's also charged with escape, after authorities said he kicked the window out of a federal transport van and was caught in Florida more than a month later.

The law firm representing Williams did not immediately respond to a request for comment emailed by The Associated Press.

Erick Herrin, an attorney for the city and multiple officers who were sued, said all the defendants deny the allegations, but court rules limit what else he can say. In a statement, the city said it would welcome an investigation.

“There has been no evidence presented to support allegations of corruption by the Johnson City Police Department, and we welcome any investigation that could dispel such claims,” the city said.

The May 14 filing claims Williams' business partner, referred to as Female 4, opened shell companies disguised as subcontractors and transferred thousands of dollars from Williams' business, Glass and Concrete Contracting LLC. The money was laundered so she could take “owner draws” to pay $2,000 a week to some Johnson City Police officers, who had also seized cash from Williams' safe, the document alleges.

The plaintiffs point to bank records, saying that for instance, during a two-week period in June 2022, Female 4 withdrew nearly $30,000 in cash from the company's account. They say the woman appears to have withdrawn no more than $10,000 per day, “likely in an effort to evade mandatory suspicious activity.”

In a filing in March, the plaintiffs said Williams himself described the extortion in a message from jail in September 2023. They say he used a contraband cellphone to send the messages to a coconspirator who then posted them on Facebook. One mentioned weekly payments of $2,000 to officers using fraudulent 1099 tax documents and “forged owner draws.”

In a court filing in response, Female 4's attorney said her communications with Williams have been infrequent since their personal relationship ended in 2017. The filing says the Facebook post was made by “someone using the name of Sean Williams" and says she has no relevant knowledge about the allegations and doesn't have any relevant documents.

The attorney for Female 4 did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

The local district attorney, who is prosecuting Tennessee's charges against Williams, declined to comment on the extortion accusations, citing an ongoing investigation, and didn't specify whether or not they're looking into extortion claims.

The lawsuits say Williams' crimes continued even after Jane Doe 1 survived a fall from the window of his fifth story apartment in September 2020. Officers investigating the fall found ample evidence of sexual assaults in his apartment, including a list of names labeled “Raped.” Even when that woman went public, Williams' identity was protected as “Robert Voe.”

Kateri Lynne Dahl, a former special prosecutor in the East Tennessee U.S. attorney’s office, was brought in as a liaison with city authorities. She also filed a federal lawsuit against the city. She says she gathered substantial evidence that Williams had been dealing drugs and was credibly accused of sexually assaulting and raping multiple women, but the police refused to investigate further, and botched her effort to arrest him on an April 2021 federal felon-possessing-ammunition charge, letting him flee.

The city rebutted Dahl's claims in a statement that pointed to prosecutorial delays.

Williams wasn't arrested until April 2023, when a campus police officer in North Carolina found him asleep in his car and learned of the federal warrant. An affidavit says a search of the car found — along with drugs and about $100,000 in cash — digital storage devices with more than 5,000 images of child sexual abuse as well as photos and videos of 52 female victims being sexually assaulted by Williams at his Johnson City apartment while they were in an “obvious state of unconsciousness.”

Many of the videos were stored in labeled folders, and at least a half-dozen names on the folders were consistent with first names on the “Raped” list found in his apartment two and a half years earlier, the affidavit states.

Meanwhile, public outcry over the police response to complaints from a growing number of women prompted the city in the summer of 2022 to order an outside investigation into how officers handled sexual assault investigations. And in November 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a federal sex trafficking investigation.

Findings from the city's third-party audit, released in 2023, include that police conducted inconsistent, ineffective and incomplete investigations; relied on inadequate record management; had insufficient training and policies, and sometimes showed issues with gender-based stereotypes and bias.

The city said it began improving the department's performance while awaiting the audit’s findings, including following the district attorney’s new sexual assault investigation protocol; reviewing investigative policies and procedures; creating a “comfortable space” for victim interviews and increasing funding for officer training and a new records management system.