Justin Lee Williams watched his reflection against a dim screen in the Alachua County Jail.
Dressed in a crinkled jumpsuit and equipped with a pen and paper, his blue eyes scanned the monitor as he picked up a one-way phone.
“Why did you do it?” he heard through the hard plastic.
His pen raced to paper and Williams lifted a sheet up to the camera, his plump fingers gripping the edges. Five words became clear, shaking in his fleshy grasp:
“To prove that I can.”
Williams was arrested and taken to the Alachua County Jail in 2015, where he proceeded to impersonate an officer and fake faxes in an attempt to escape. About three years later, he used his hacking skills againto help another inmate escape from the jail.
Now, he’s 29, in the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, Tennessee, where he’s expected to serve time until November 2028.
One year later, this is the story of the man who outsmarted the system “just to prove” he could.
Williams got his first computer when he was 11 years old as a gift from his grandmother, Wanda Bonner, who raised him. Bartending six days a week, Bonner scraped up enough extra cash to buy her grandson a worn computer that didn’t work. Williams found himself tinkering with the machine. Nine months later, he brought the computer to life and learned a new skill along the way –– hacking.
It started out small. In the early 2000s, while the Internet and online shopping were still new, he would hack Walmart’s website to steal computers and video game consoles. He would then sell the coveted treasures to help his grandmother pay her bills.
In January 2014, four years after he last visited his grandmother, she died. He left two messages on her online obituary. The first read in all caps, “I LOVE YOU MAMA.”
His last post to the website was the following: “My grandmother/mother left this world and escaped the pain of several debilitating illnesses on 1/7/14. While she's truly missed, it's understood that she's in a better place.”
The next year, Williams was trying to find his own escape.
He was partying in Miami with his sidekick Shawn Freeland. They sped down Interstate 75 on their way back to Tennessee. Soon their blasting music was overpowered by blaring sirens.
Williams, who had an active out-of-state warrant from Sumner County, Tennessee, was arrested after he failed to appear on the original charge of “theft of property $10,000 to $60,000.”
At the Alachua County Jail, Williams made a phone call to a man he called “Edgar”. He discussed his potential jail time for the arrest, “along with all of the checks I have been writing.” During the conversation, Williams slipped up and called the crackling voice on the other end “Shawn.” The man was confirmed to be Freeland by authorities, according to a report from the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.
On October 1, 2015, Williams called Freeland again and shared his personal login for a website used to buy credit card information with bitcoins.
Later that day, Williams used Freeland to conduct a three-way phone call to the Sumner County Sheriff’s Department in Tennessee, where the warrant for his arrest was issued. According to the jail, if a three-way call is detected it will be immediately disconnected – Williams’ call wasn’t.
Over the phone, Williams began his elaborate lie. He identified himself as James Woodland, an ACSO employee, and inquired about the status of his own warrant. Williams told the employee that Sumner County needed to lift the warrant.
Williams and Freeland laughed about how easy it was to trick the Sumner County employee about his identity.
“Believe it or not, I have actually talked them into lifting warrants before,” Williams told Freeland.
The men continued plotting over the phone. In another three-way call, Williams, posing again as James Woodland, told Sumner County they have two days to pick him up.
He conspired with Freeland to ensure his escape. They planned to create a fraudulent fax from the Sumner County Sheriff’s Office calling for his release. When an Alachua jail booking clerk became suspicious of the fax, Williams’ plot was foiled.
On August 27, 2018, Williams began his next challenge. He used another inmate’s personal access number to make a call to a woman Williams referred to as “Boo-boo” and explained his plans.
He told her that Macajiah Valenzuela was an inmate at the Alachua County Jail charged with attempted second degree homicide and had a bond set at $850,000. Valenzuela promised Williams he would pay him $10,000 cash if he could use his skills to pay his bond.
In another three-way call Williams called Sam Wesley Bail Bonds, posing as Valenzuela. He told the bondsman he had over a million dollars in his bank account and was willing to pay the full amount of his bond.
Following this call, he then called a woman identified as Amy O’Connell and instructed her to pose as a banker. With Williams’ guidance, O’Connell fooled the Sam Wesley Bail Bonds representative and Valenzuela was released that same day.
Williams was put into solitary confinement on October 8, 2018. When asked why, he wrote “escape,” surrounded by quotation marks. In his mind, the escape didn’t count; he never got out.
Williams squints at the window looking for the outside world, but instead finds a frosted glass only letting in muted light.
On Christmas, he wakes up and sings holiday carols to himself. His tenor voice escapes thin lips and finds no audience within the four flat walls of his cell. He recalls a past life where he held second chair in his high school choir and for a moment, remembers what it felt like to be applauded.
On January 7, the fifth anniversary of his grandmother’s death, Williams withdrew his prior plea of not guilty and pleaded guilty/nolo contendere to the charges of trafficking stolen/counterfeit credit, use or possession of another person’s ID, false impersonation of an officer, scheme to defraud, unlawful possession of another person’s ID, petit theft and use or possession of another person’s ID.
His plea was accepted.
Williams was sentenced to imprisonment for two years consecutive to his active sentences in Tennessee. The order also stated that the “defendant may be required to continue assisting state investigators.”
Williams is scheduled to appear before a board of probation and parole hearing officer or a board member in August 2022 for parole consideration.
Sitting alone in the Alachua County Jail, through a broken phone and pixelated screen, Williams shared his hopes for when he’s no longer behind bars.
He missed listening to music and inquired about his favorite singers Taylor Swift and Sam Smith, wondering if they had any new hits on the radio. He asked to hear their new music through the phone.
When asked what he hopes to do once he is freed, he held a piece of paper to the monitor and pointed to the swollen words, “start a family”.