Op-ed: How a Renowned Gay Writer Made the FBI's Most Wanted List
Last week was tough for Walter Lee Williams. The renowned gay academic, winner of numerous awards for his anthropological work and books, had been living in and around Cancún, Mexico, since January 2011. Williams, 64, led the idyllic life of a retired academic: writing, publishing, drinking coffee in local cafés like the one in the serene nearby resort town of Playa del Carmen. And like all retired people, Williams had hobbies. His was webcam sex with male minors in Asian countries, traveling to various Asian countries to have sex with children, and sharing child pornography images with friends.
Those hobbies landed Williams on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list last Tuesday. Williams had been indicted 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 was the 500th person to be put on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list since its inception in 1950, and he didn’t spend much time there. Within 24 hours of being named as a notorious serial child predator, Williams was arrested while drinking coffee in Playa del Carmen. He was reportedly turned in by a Mexican citizen who recognized him from the FBI photo in exchange for the $100,000 reward offered for his capture. Williams was taken by Mexican authorities to his home in Cancún and from there transported for extradition to Los Angeles, where he was arraigned Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Carla Woehrle.
At his arraignment, Williams was charged with sexual assault and predation on the two 14-year-old boys from the Philippines with whom he engaged in webcam sex and then flew to the Philippines to have sex with in December 2010. Williams was questioned upon returning to Los Angeles International Airport in January 2011. According to assistant L.A. police chief Michel Moore, two laptop computers and a camera were confiscated by police, who later allegedly found child pornography and evidence that Williams was engaged in sex acts with boys. After learning he was being investigated on suspicion of engaging in sex with children and acquiring and making child pornography, he immediately fled to Mexico.
Williams, who was shackled and still wearing the street clothes in which he had been arrested last week, pleaded not guilty to the charges. He is being held in federal custody until his trial set for Aug. 13. He faces 100 years in prison for the various charges against him. Meanwhile the FBI is seeking more of his victims in the U.S. and Mexico.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said the FBI has not ruled out filing more charges. Williams's computers allegedly contain proof that he had sex with at least eight other boys under the age of 14.
Williams allegedly recorded his sessions with one of the Filipino boys and photographed other young boys in sexual situations. He is accused of sharing those images with at least one other person, Richard Arlington, 71, described as Williams’s "former roommate," with whom Williams lived in Palm Springs prior to fleeing the Los Angeles area. Arlington was found naked and hiding in a storage facility in Cathedral City, Calif., and subsequently arrested. Arlington also remains in jail without bond, charged with possession of child pornography. According to the FBI, Williams wrote to Arlington, in a note dated January 2011, thanking Arlington for suggesting that he go to the Philippines for sex with boys. Williams wrote to Arlington that he and one of the boys "have basically stayed at the hotel and not gone out at all."
Williams and Arlington were both members of a small group called the Buddhist Universal Association of Los Angeles, which, FBI spokeswoman Eimiller said espoused an ideology of "extreme sexual freedoms." Eimiller said that during the investigation Arlington told an informant that even after taking a vow of celibacy, members of the group were still allowed to have sex with young boys, according to the criminal complaint against Arlington filed May 7.
Williams's indictment, arrest, and arraignment prove an ugly end to what appeared to be a stellar career. He was a Fulbright Scholar, and until he fled the U.S. to escape arrest in January 2011, he was a tenured professor at the University of Southern California. Since he was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, USC removed his information from its website, but Williams’s LinkedIn profile states he is a professor of anthropology, history, and gender studies, with a particular interest in transgender studies. An ethnographer, Williams has also traveled throughout the American Southwest to study Native American tribes, notably the Cherokee and Sioux, as well as Asia and South America. Williams describes one of his areas of research and expertise as "sexuality of the South Pacific."
A strong case was built against Williams based on numerous statements, the FBI said. A federal warrant for his arrest was issued earlier this year. The FBI contacted at least 10 alleged victims, who ranged from ages 9 to 17. All the victims were boys in various Asian countries. None were American. The FBI is still investigating to see if Williams has victims in Mexico and has requested that victims in the U.S. come forward as well, as investigators believing that there are victims in the Los Angeles area. Both the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department have described 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's entire career charting native populations was, as the FBI asserts, just a means to stalk and prey upon young boys of color in poverty-stricken areas of the U.S. and other countries.
Williams’s arrest and the story behind it place suspicion not just on him and his own work, but, rightly or wrongly, on that of the people who knew him: university colleagues, members of the academic groups he headed, his publishers, and members of that tiny Buddhist group in L.A.
The FBI said Williams was "leading a life of ease" on the run in Mexico — much like filmmaker Roman Polanski, who fled the U.S. in 1979 after being convicted of child rape. "[Williams] was writing and publishing under his own name, not even hiding," said Bill Lewis, assistant director of the FBI in L.A. "He posed an immediate threat to children because of his means and access."
Williams’s most recent book was published in February by LGBTQ publisher Lethe Press, more than two years after he fled the U.S.. Were all Williams’s friends, colleagues, and publishers, his university, and the organizations he led or was an officer of completely unaware of his criminal status? Or were some aware that he was on the lam and helping to facilitate that? Most people don’t become expatriates overnight. It is clear from LAPD reports that Arlington knew where Williams was.
The FBI believes Williams has always used his anthropological work as a cover for luring children into sex. But to most in the U.S., Williams was an esteemed gay academic who had published several ethnographic studies.
Williams authored a dozen books and was the founding editor of the International Gay and Lesbian Review. Yet there may have been signs — Williams's most recent book, Spirit of the Pacific, was a novel in which the protagonist is a young boy of color. The cover illustration depicts two naked, dark-skinned Asian boys in an idyllic tidal pool, surrounded by foliage.
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."
In the opening pages, Williams describes Eddie’s attraction to his slave master and his slave master’s physique.
It’s difficult to look at the cover on Spirit of the Pacific and not imagine the two Filipino boys with whom Williams is accused of having webcam and other sex and whom he allegedly photographed in what the FBI called a "sexually explicit" manner — part of the child pornography found on Williams’s laptop and allegedly shared with Arlington.
Lethe publisher Steve Berman did not respond to questions about whether he knew Williams had fled the country while being investigated for child sex charges and making and distributing child pornography. Berman did, however, tell me that "Lethe feels it is the responsible action to pull Walter’s books from distribution until legal issues become clear."
After Williams went on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, Berman had posted on Facebook, "I just want to go on record stating that [Williams's writing partner] 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."
On Friday Berman told me he didn’t have anything else to say about Williams and declined to respond about whether he knew that Williams was a fugitive at the time he published his most recent book. Attempts to reach Johnson for comment were unsuccessful.
As of Monday, Williams’s books from Lethe were still available on Barnes & Noble in both print and electronic formats. The print editions of his book were available on Amazon only through private sellers.
What’s difficult to imagine is how Williams explained his sudden move to Mexico — leaving his job at USC literally overnight, right before the start of the spring semester — and what he told friends and colleagues.
USC issued this statement recently: "Walter Lee Williams is a former professor of anthropology, history and gender studies at USC. He left the university in February 2011. USC is fully cooperating with the FBI investigation. The FBI has informed us that at this time there is no evidence that any of his alleged illegal activities were associated with the university or took place on campus."
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 cofounder 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.
Williams’s 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 by Beacon Press in 1992. His website lists other achievements and awards as well as research.
Yet over the two decades since The Spirit and the Flesh was published, the FBI alleges that Williams used his research as a cover to travel to countries where child prostitution is common. This is all the more alarming since many of his credentials have been called into question.
Noted lesbian journalist Karen Ocamb — who had met Williams and found him "creepy" — wrote in Frontiers last Tuesday that Williams had been a suspected pedophile for decades, quoting several unnamed sources in the L.A. gay community as well as noted LGBT activist Harry Hay. According to Ocamb’s sources, Williams was alleged to have had sex with many of his subjects while working on his various books and studies. He was considered an "unethical" "liar" who "ruined reputations."
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’s 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. Forty percent of Thailand's 2.8 million sex workers are children. Of the tourists who visit Thailand, 70% are Western men who have traveled there to have sex with prostitutes, especially minors.
Williams was able to have webcam sex sessions with the two boys he went several thousand miles to see. Prostitution is illegal yet largely ignored in Thailand, but in the Philippines, it is prosecuted harshly. Williams was taking quite a risk.
"I analyzed the computers and the camera that belong to Williams and found child pornography," special agent Jeff Yesensky said in a video posted to the FBI’s website. "He preys on the most vulnerable children."
Another disturbing aspect of the Williams case is that many people who knew and worked with Williams seemed to have known he was a serial pedophile predator, but, as with the epidemic priest sex scandal, felt unable to speak out about it.
As the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to release its groundbreaking rulings on marriage, Williams’s arrest (compounded by Arlington’s) puts the old false equivalency of gay men and pedophiles together again in the news — a connection Williams’s forced with his involvement in gay research and archiving, work now tainted by his alleged crimes.
More will be revealed at Williams’s status hearing next month. Meanwhile, the gay community has another fight on its hands — severing all ties with Williams and those connected to his alleged crimes.
VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH is an award-winning journalist, editor, and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards as well as the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written extensively on prostitution and sex trafficking. Follow her @VABVOX.