The Strange Case of Walter Lee Williams: Renowned Gay Writer on FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List Captured
On Tuesday, June 18 the FBI added Walter Lee Williams, 64, to its Ten Most Wanted List. Williams was being sought for sexual exploitation of children, travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct, engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places and criminal forfeiture, according to a Department of Justice statement.
Williams story is lurid and difficult to fathom. A renowned gay academic, writer and archivist, Williams was a Fulbright Scholar with a substantial and impressive resume. Now he’s in custody, facing up to 100 years in prison. Video of Williams being taken, in handcuffs, through LAX airport in Los Angeles shows a gray-haired man, bent over at the waist, trying to avert his face from photographers. It’s a very different look from a photo taken two years ago in the Philippines showing a tanned and relaxed Williams reclining on a boat with some young men.
Less than 24 hours after Williams had been added to the FBI list, he was arrested in Playa del Carmen, a pretty little resort town in eastern Mexico, while drinking coffee near a local café. Williams was caught unaware, according to police. He was taken back to his house in Cancun, and from there to the police station. Late Wednesday, June 19, he was deported back to the U.S. where he will be arraigned in Los Angeles.
A Los Angeles police department spokesperson said Williams was turned in by a Mexican citizen who recognized him from the FBI photo. A $100,000 reward was offered for his capture.
The sordid criminal tale began in January 2011, when Williams fled the U.S. for Mexico. Williams had returned only a week earlier from a trip to the Philippines where the FBI says he had gone to meet two 14-year-old boys for sex.
According to LAPD Assistant Chief Michel Moore, the LAPD had been alerted that Williams was trolling for minor boys on the Internet to have sex with in 2010. Moore said a student of Williams’ had contacted police after a series of conversations online. The student is not a minor. But at that time, Moore said, there was “insufficient evidence for a warrant,” so even though the police were suspicious, they could only watch Williams.
Williams made that relatively easy. In January 2011 he went to the Philippines, allegedly to have sex with two boys, both 14, with whom he was already engaging in Internet webcam sex.
The trip to the Philippines provided the turning point. The FBI was waiting for Williams. They confiscated his laptop computer which allegedly had photos of minors in sexual situations as well as “evidence of sex crimes with boys overseas.”
Williams was questioned by the FBI and after learning he was being investigated on suspicion of engaging in sex with children and acquiring and making child pornography, he fled across the border to Mexico immediately after being questioned.
According to the FBI, a strong case was built against Williams based on numerous statements. Williams was indicted and a federal warrant for his arrest was issued earlier this year. The FBI contacted at least ten alleged victims who ranged in age from nine to 17. All the victims were boys in different Asian countries. None were American. The FBI is still investigating to see if Williams has victims in Mexico, and have requested that victims in the U.S. come forward as well, believing that there are victims in the Los Angeles area. Both the FBI and the LAPD have made statements describing Williams as a serial predator.
The FBI describes the hunt for Williams as “piecing together the pieces of a puzzle.” But part of the puzzle is the nagging question of whether Williams entire career charting different native groups was, as the FBI asserts, just a means to prey on young boys of color in poverty-stricken areas of the U.S. and other countries.
Williams’ story is a tale of two identities: respected professor and indicted serial pedophile.
Until he fled the U.S. to escape indictment, Williams was a tenured professor at the University of Southern California (USC). His LinkedIn profile states he is a professor of Anthropology, History and Gender Studies. He also taught Transgender Studies. An ethnographer, Williams’ resume lists traveling throughout the American Southwest to study Native American tribes, notably the Cherokee and Sioux, as well as travel in Asia and South America. Williams describes one of his areas of research as “sexuality of the South Pacific.”
Williams is the founding editor of the International Gay and Lesbian Review, “the first academic journal to be published entirely on the Internet”(gaybookreviews.info), as well as a dozen books. His most recent book, Spirit of the Pacific, was published in February by Lethe Press. The novel’s cover copy reads, in part:
This is the story of Eddie Freeman, an African American slave from South Carolina, who escaped slavery in 1860… Eddie was attracted to his own sex, and in 21st century nomenclature would be called gay. But in his day he was just a young man trying to find love and give affection….This is a story about learning to transcend the polarities of slave and free, sacred and profane, love and hate, human and animal.
Lethe publisher Steve Berman told me that “Lethe feels it is the responsible action to pull Walter’s books from distribution until legal issues become clear.”
Another Lethe publication by Williams, a well-received novel of historical fiction, Two Spirits: The Story of Life with the Navajo, was published in 2005.
Berman had posted on Facebook immediately after Williams went on the most wanted list:
I just want to go on record stating that Toby Johnson and I are aware of the situation with Walter L. Williams. I made sure to contact the FBI this morning [June 18] and have had a couple conversations with agents. Lethe has stopped distributing the print editions of Williams’ books and will be doing the same with electronic versions (which takes a bit longer as there are more venues). Obviously, we were very much surprised to hear about the situation.
Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.
What’s difficult to imagine is how Williams explained his sudden move to Mexico—leaving his job at USC literally overnight, right before the beginning of the spring semester—and what he told friends and colleagues.
Williams’ bio in Spirit of the Pacific states that Williams founded ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, which is “the world’s largest collection of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender materials.” The bio also states that Williams is the co-founder and chair of the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History for the American Historical Association and that he is an officer of the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists.
How did Williams explain he would be handling these roles from Mexico—forever?
Williams’ academic treatise, The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture, published in 1988, won the Gay Book of the Year Award from the American Library Association, The Ruth Benedict Award from the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists, and the Award for Outstanding Scholarship from the World Congress for Sexology. The book was widely reviewed and a revised edition was released from Beacon Press in 1992.
Yet over the two decades since that work was published, Williams is alleged to have used his research as a cover to travel to countries where child prostitution is common.
The FBI’s initial report alleges that Williams used his research as an excuse for traveling throughout Southeast Asia—notably Thailand and the Philippines where he would lure young boys with money and gifts. The FBI stated, “Williams has an extensive history of travel throughout the Southeast Asia region, specifically the Philippines.” The FBI also stated that Williams had lived for extended periods in Indonesia, Polynesia, and Thailand. Williams’ academic bio notes that he taught English as a second language in these countries and has a blog called Easy English Learning.
According to the United Nations, UNICEF and HumanTrafficking.org, a human rights group, Thailand is the world’s sexual tourism center. There are 2.8 million sex workers in Thailand, 40 percent of whom are children. Of the tourists who visit Thailand, 70 percent are Western men who have traveled there to have sex with prostitutes, especially minors. In February, ABC News “Nightline” team investigated Americans in the Philippines engaged in sex trafficking of minors.
Williams was allegedly able to have Internet webcam sex sessions with the two boys he went several thousand miles to see. But while prostitution is largely ignored in Thailand—where it is a thriving business, even though it’s illegal—in the Philippines, prostitution is illegal and prosecuted harshly. If these allegations are true, Williams was taking quite a risk, going to the Philippines for child prostitutes.
As the Williams case unfolds, more is likely to be revealed about his supposed involvement with other boys as well as what others knew about his activities. In the meantime, because of Williams’ background as a respected academic who was openly gay and involved in myriad LGBT organizations as well as teaching Gender Studies, a major story in the news might be conflating gay and pedophile—a conflation the LGBTQ community has tried for decades to refute.
[Photo: William Lee Williams via FBI]