COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) _ Megan Williams’ shocking accusations initially strained the imagination: Seven white people beat her with sticks, forced her to eat feces, raped her and taunted her with racial slurs over several days in a West Virginia trailer.
But the suspects eventually confessed to their actions and pleaded guilty. All but one were sent to prison. Now Williams, who is black, is taking it all back. Her lawyer released a statement Wednesday saying she had recanted her story.
Attorney Byron L. Potts told The Charleston Gazette that the 22-year-old Williams “did this in retaliation because she was having a relationship” with one of the defendants.
Williams now lives in Columbus.
Prosecutors, who knew about the relationship even during the case, dismissed Williams’ new claim, and lawyers for the defendants would not discuss their plans. Williams’ supporters were cautious about responding to the statement by a woman whose mother described her during the 2007 case as “slow.”
Brian Abraham, the former Logan County prosecutor who pursued the cases, said authorities realized early in the investigation that they could not rely on statements from Williams, who tended to embellish and exaggerate details. Instead, he said, the seven defendants were convicted on their own statements and physical evidence.
“If she’s going to say that she made it all up, that’s absurd,” Abraham said. “This looks like another attempt to generate more publicity.”
The assaults occurred in September 2007 at a trailer in a rural area of Logan County, about 50 miles from Charleston. In an interview the following month, Williams told The Associated Press she thought she was going to a party and tagged along with a woman she barely knew.
Williams said she was held captive for several days and was tortured, beaten, and forced to eat rat, dog and human feces. She was also raped by a group of white men and women.
A passer-by heard cries from the shed where she was kept, and sheriff’s deputies responding to an anonymous tip found her hours later, limping toward the door, her arms outstretched, saying, “Help me.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who donated $1,000 to Williams’ family as a Christmas gift, and a group called Black Lawyers for Justice had urged prosecutors to pursue hate-crime charges.
The lawyers group organized a march on Williams’ behalf in November 2007. Sharpton addressed a rally in Charleston a month later.
At the time, Abraham said that because Williams had had a relationship with one of the defendants _ Bobby Brewster _ it would be difficult to prove that a hate crime occurred. Even so, one of the defendants, Karen Burton, pleaded guilty to a state hate-crime charge.
In a phone call to the AP on Wednesday, Sharpton said the matter should be handled delicately, citing “psychological issues” with Williams.
“This isn’t cut and dried either way,” he said. “Right is right, but I have no idea if tomorrow her story will change back.”
In a January interview with The Call & Post, a black newspaper in Cleveland, Williams acknowledged she had been mistreated but said her mother made her embellish the story for exposure and financial gain. Williams told the newspaper that she was afraid of her mother, who knew some of the defendants.
Williams’ mother, Carmen Williams, died in June.
Those convicted were Brewster, his mother, Frankie Brewster; Danny Combs; George Messer; Burton; and Burton’s daughter Alisha Burton and son Linnie Burton Jr.
Linnie Burton Jr. was the only defendant not to serve jail time. He was convicted of a misdemeanor battery charge and given a six-month suspended sentence.
Lawyers for the seven did not immediately return phone calls Wednesday or declined to comment. Abraham said none of the seven have appealed.
“This was a very detailed criminal investigation,” he said.
It will be up to the defendants to decide how they will respond to Williams’ statements, said Philip Morrison II, executive director of the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Institute.
Morrison questioned whether Williams’ actions would be sufficient to overturn their confessions, saying, “What are they going to say, ‘I didn’t really mean that?”’
In late August, a woman who claimed to represent Williams arrived at the offices of the AP in Columbus and said new information on the case would be released at a downtown rally Oct. 21. A flier announced that Williams was “coming out with the truth.” There were no signs of a rally Wednesday afternoon.
The AP generally does not identify suspected victims of sexual assault, but Williams and her mother agreed to release her name. Carmen Williams said she wanted people to know what her daughter had endured.
People who supported Williams were guarded Wednesday.
“We did have some concerns about what was being done at the time and how it was carried out by Megan and the family, because of her mental condition,” said the Rev. Audie Murphy, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Logan and Boone counties in West Virginia.
“We feel the legal system will handle it accordingly,” Murphy said. “We didn’t rush to judgment then, and we’re not rushing to judgment now.”
Sharpton said Potts told him Tuesday that Williams wanted to apologize to him for lying.
Sharpton has sent a letter to Logan County prosecutor John Bennett asking him to look into the new claims.
“If Ms. Williams has, in fact, fabricated her story, then I urge your office to vindicate any wrongfully convicted individuals,” Sharpton wrote.
Bennett said Wednesday that he would not be able to investigate the case because he represented one of the seven who were convicted, but Morrison said that would be for a judge to decide.
Matt Leingang reported from Columbus. Associated Press Writer Lawrence Messina in Logan County, W.Va., contributed to this report.
Pictured above are Megan Williams, right, and six of her convicted attackers.