‘A punch in the gut’: Women accuse Johnson City officials of victim-blaming in serial rapist case

Published 4:45 pm Friday, February 9, 2024

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By Anita Wadhwani

Tennessee Lookout

Accusing Johnson City officials of victim-shaming, a group of women suing the city and multiple police officers over shoddy or corrupt investigations pushed back against public statements suggesting they deserve blame for being victims of an alleged serial rapist.

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“My name is Anya and I am here today because a predator was allowed to take advantage of people in vulnerable situations far longer than should ever have happened,” said one of eight women who gathered in a Knoxville hotel meeting room to speak publicly about the case for the first time.

“I was certainly not at fault. People were scared to report to police because they had heard police were doing nothing, or worse,” she said.

The women, referred to as “Jane Does” in the lawsuit, agreed to be photographed but not identified by their full names at a news conference on Tuesday organized by their attorneys, where they took turns responding to remarks made about the case by Johnson City Manager Cathy Ball.

Ball has said the victims could be, to some degree, “at fault” for their assaults because they “consumed and partook of illegal drugs.”

The women’s lawsuit, first filed last June, centers on allegations that Johnson City police knew of multiple allegations that local businessman Sean Williams drugged then sexually assaulted women — but failed to act, even after police discovered a handwritten list on Williams’ nightstand scrawled with the first names of 23 women, under the word “raped.”

Williams was arrested in North Carolina last April, where he fled to escape illegal weapons charges in Johnson City. After his arrest, local police discovered images and videos on his electronic devices of 52 women, who appeared to be drugged while being sexually assaulted inside Williams’ downtown Johnson City condo. The devices also contained images of two children being assaulted, court records said.

“I am one of the 52 women whom Sean Williams sexually assaulted while taking sexually explicit photos of me,” one of the Jane Does said Tuesday. “My name also appears on the ‘raped’ list, which the Johnson City Police Department recovered Sean Williams apartment…The people in my community who are supposed to protect me and the other women you see here today failed us.”

One woman spoke of being offered only a beer before her assault, but learned afterwards she had unknowingly been slipped benzodiazepines; another spoke of struggling with addiction at the time of her assault. “That should not matter,” one Jane Doe said firmly. “That does not mean it’s all right for them to be raped or that they deserve zero empathy or no accountability.”

“Survivors deserve to be treated with respect,” another Jane Doe said. “For a woman in Cathy Ball’s position of power to say publicly that victims are at fault when we didn’t have the ability to defend ourselves…it was a punch in the gut.”

Vanessa Baeher-Jones, an attorney with California-based Advocates for Survivors of Abuse who is representing the women, called Ball’s statements an effort to “turn the focus of this case away from Sean Williams, a serial rapist, and the Johnson City Police Department’s corruption and instead to publicly shame the survivors of his crimes.”

Ball said Wednesday that city officials are “committed to transparency and want our community members to have access to all the facts.”

“Protecting victims and the community is the top priority of the Johnson City Police Department,” a statement from Ball said. Ball also encouraged victims to report crimes to law enforcement.

Lawyers for the women are now seeking class action status for the lawsuit, to include not only Williams’ victims but all sexual assault victims whose cases were mishandled by Johnson City police. The original lawsuit, first representing nine women who said they were assaulted by Sean Williams, expanded to a tenth plaintiff who said she was assaulted as a teen by another assailant, but Johnson City Police similarly failed to investigate her case.

Attorneys for the women — who also include Brentwood based attorney Heather Moore Collins with HMC Civil Rights Law and San Francisco attorney Elizabeth Kramer — have now alleged a broader corruption scheme involving kickbacks from Williams to police officers and intimidation of witnesses, including a woman who spoke to the FBI in 2022 about being raped by Williams

Months later, she was assaulted and arrested by Johnson City Police officers, who planted a small bag of cocaine in her backpack, court filings allege. The woman was then evicted by Johnson City Housing Authority, an action that the lawsuit alleges was part of an orchestrated campaign by Johnson City Police to retaliate against and intimidate the woman.

A separate lawsuit brought by former Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Kateri Dahl alleges the Johnson City Police Department, either incompetently or corruptly, failed to take a serial rapist off the streets, then ended her contract as police-federal prosecutor liaison as she pursued the case. That case remains ongoing.