BROOKLYN (CN) — Saying she wanted to send the “strongest possible message” as a deterrent, a federal judge went above guidelines in sentencing an associate of R. Kelly on Wednesday who set fire to an SUV in a bid to discourage one of Kelly's victims from testifying about the singer's illicit sex ring.
Michael Williams, 38, pleaded guilty to arson in April, admitting that he set the rental car ablaze in front of a Florida home where the victim was staying. Inside were six people, including two young children, prosecutors said.
“Witness intimidation like this strikes at the heart of our justice system,” said U.S. District Judge Ann M. Donnelly, who also presided over the trial against Kelly, which ultimately saw the R&B singer convicted on all counts stemming from a decades-long trafficking enterprise involving minor girls and boys.
Williams accelerated the fire with gasoline, ultimately melting the rear lights on another car parked in the driveway. If the family hadn’t woken up, Donnelly told Williams, the house itself may have gone up in flames.
“The terror that those people must have felt, hearing an explosion in the middle of the night — it’s hard to imagine what that must have been like,” the judge said.
In Williams’ search history, federal agents found that he Googled how fertilizer and diesel fuel bombs work, where to buy a custom machine gun, and laws related to federal witness intimidation.
Donnelly called that evidence “a clear signal that you were prepared to continue” with efforts to stop victim testimony.
Despite his internet search results showing that he had looked up the victim’s address multiple times, Williams told the court he didn’t know that she was in the house at the time, and that the government was “completely incorrect” about his motive.
“I do feel remorse about that,” Williams said. “I’m sorry because I was not aware that she was in the house.”
Before Judge Donnelly cut him off and suggested he speak to his attorney, Williams offered another factor contributing to his actions: “I was high. I was on coke.”
“I’m going to tell the truth, regardless of what it is,” Williams said as Donnelly insisted he check in with his lawyer.
Williams’ attorney, Todd Spodek, pointed to his client’s difficult childhood and health issues — he is asthmatic and has contracted Covid-19 twice while incarcerated, as well as tuberculosis — while asking for the mandatory minimum sentence of five years.
Spodek said Williams took responsibility for his actions, and pointed to letters from Williams’ wife, step daughter and father, who described a man committed to helping those close to him.
“When Mr. Williams has your back, he has your back no matter what,” Spodek said. “Ultimately that’s what happened here: He had his family’s back.”
When Williams drove 200 miles in the middle of the night to light up the vehicle in a Florida driveway, Spodek said, he did so to help his cousin, Kash Jones, Kelly’s former publicist.
It was Jones who threatened to release nude photos of another victim of Kelly’s, who testified during trial as Faith, if she continued speaking publicly, including in the Lifetime docu-series “Surviving R. Kelly.”
At a meeting in a Manhattan Applebees with Faith and her moth, Jones displayed a file that included the photos. Williams stood nearby in the restaurant, Faith told prosecutors, and he had a gun.
Spodek, who declined to comment on the sentencing, pushed back on that account being used against his client: “It could have been a phone,” he said.
Donnelly pointed out that both Faith and her mother had testified about the weapon under oath.
Williams was one of three men indicted in August 2020 for intimidating potential victim witnesses, including those who ultimately testified at trial using pseudonyms or first names.
Donnell Russell was charged in the Eastern District of New York with threatening to release nude photos of Faith. He is also charged in the Southern District of New York with threatening to shoot up the “Surviving R. Kelly” premiere in Manhattan in 2018.
Richard Arline pleaded guilty to offering hush money to a woman who was already cooperating with the government and secretly recording the phone calls. He has not yet been sentenced.
The eight-year sentence that Donnelly gave Williams on Wednesday is three years above the sentencing guidelines. Earlier at the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez read a statement from the Jane Doe victim who was inside the house during the fire.
“It is very unfortunate to see a man lose his freedom, however, the crime that was committed was not only vicious but disturbing,” Melendez read.
“My mental state deteriorated tremendously due to fear, invasion of privacy, and trauma among many other things. Because of your actions, I live in fear and have had to relocate my entire life. In that home were not only adults but animals and children under the age of 10. My family is traumatized and has been in distress due to this unlawful act. I hope this life-changing event gives you time to reflect on your actions.”
Breon Peace, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said his office will bring “all of its resources to bear” against those who try to silence victims and interfere with justice.
“Intimidating witnesses and threatening the safety of crime victims undermine the very fabric of our judicial system and will never be tolerated,” Peace said in a statement.
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