Google search records lead to arrest of R. Kelly associate for arson, witness tampering

Lawyer claims internet keyword search warrant is unconstitutional

POLK COUNTY, Fla. – An associate of embattled singer R. Kelly was arrested for allegedly setting fire to a vehicle outside of a Central Florida home after federal authorities identified him through Google search history records, recently unsealed court documents show.

Michael Williams, a relative of Kelly’s former publicist, has pleaded not guilty to charges of arson and witness tampering that stem from the June 11 incident at the Polk County home of Azriel Clary, the musician’s former girlfriend.

Investigators identified Williams as a suspect after obtaining a warrant for information on all Google users who had conducted online searches of the home address around the time to the vehicle fire, court records show.

“Certainly, one of the issues in this case is going to be the constitutionality for the search warrant for his Google search history and how that is used against him,” said Williams’s attorney, Todd Spodek.

[RELATED: R. Kelly’s ex-girlfriend calls 911 after fire set at her Central Florida home]

Clary, 22, has been outspoken on social media with claims that she was sexually and physically abused by the R&B singer, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly.

Kelly faces up to life in prison if convicted of numerous state and federal charges, including child sexual exploitation, kidnapping and forced labor. He has pleaded not guilty.

As Clary was preparing to testify against Kelly in federal court, her mother called 911 report the family’s car had been set on fire by someone wearing a hoodie.

“We heard a big boom. And when my son looked out his window, somebody was running. But they threw something on the car and put it on fire,” Alice Clary told the Polk County 911 dispatcher. “The car is getting ready to blow up.”

Federal authorities later discovered an accelerant, possibly gasoline, had been poured around the perimeter of Clary’s home.

Investigators with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office collected a gasoline can, lighter and burned hoodie from the crime scene but did not immediately identify any suspects.

Four days after the fire, a federal judge authorized a search warrant that was issued to Google for records on people who had searched Clary’s home address.

Among the unspecified number of individuals who searched the address was someone using a phone registered to Williams while signed into his Google account, court records allege.

That phone was used to look up Clary’s address three times in five hours before the arson, authorities claim.

“The problem with these keyword search warrants is that they’re incredibly overbroad,” Spodek told News 6. “Essentially what they’re saying is, ‘We need evidence of anyone who searched for a particular sequence of words at a set time’.”

After identifying Williams as a potential suspect, court records suggest federal agents began looking for additional evidence that might implicate or exonerate him.

Cell phone records later obtained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security indicate Williams’s phone pinged off cellular towers near Clary’s home before returning to Williams’s hometown of Valdosta, Georgia.

An SUV matching one associated with Williams was photographed by Florida Turnpike toll plaza cameras after the arson, records show, although there was no license plate on the vehicle.

While later examining Williams’s Google account, investigators said they found evidence it has been used in April to search “can you drive in Florida without a tag” and, later, YouTube videos about Clary.

Weeks after the arson, Williams’s account was used to search for the term “witness intimidation” and to visit a website titled “How Do Fertilizer Bombs Work?”, federal authorities claim.

Williams’s attorney plans to argue that the warrant initially used to obtain Google search results for Clary’s home address was in violation of his client’s constitutional right against unreasonable searches without probable cause.

“If there’s a problem with how they got their first piece of evidence, it could affect all the later pieces of evidence,” said Spodek. “I’m confident the judges in New York are going to see this particular warrant in Mr. Williams’s case is overly broad, and I really think it’s going to have some positive effects for the criminal case against him.”

In a statement, Google addressed concerns about the use of its records in criminal investigations.

“We vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” said Richard Salgado, Google’s Director of Law Enforcement and Information Security. “We require a warrant and push to narrow the scope of these particular demands when overly broad, including by objecting in court when appropriate. These data demands represent less than 1% of total warrants and a small fraction of the overall legal demands for user data that we currently receive.”

Should the evidence be allowed in Williams’s court case, Spodek believes anyone who uses Google could be swept up in a criminal investigation, including some who might be inclined to lie to investigators about their potentially embarrassing search history.

“You could wind up putting yourself in a very problematic situation merely because you searched for some keywords in the privacy of your own home or on your mobile phone,” he said.

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades. Mike joined News 6 just as Florida officials began counting hanging chads in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. Since then, he has covered some of the biggest news events in Central Florida.