POLK COUNTY, Fla. – An associate of musician R. Kelly pleaded guilty Monday to setting fire to a car outside the Central Florida home of Kelly’s ex-girlfriend.
Michael Williams, a relative of Kelly’s former publicist, faces a minimum of five years in prison when a judge sentences him in October.
The June 2020 fire was set outside the Polk County home of Azriel Clary, a former girlfriend of Kelly.
Clary, 23, 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 has pleaded not guilty to numerous state and federal charges, including child sexual exploitation, kidnapping and forced labor. If convicted, Kelly faces a potential life prison sentence.
Investigators identified Williams as a potential suspect after records from Google reportedly showed he had looked up Clary’s address on the internet search engine shortly before the arson.
“I drove from my house to Kissimmee, Florida and deliberately set a car on fire in someone’s driveway,” Williams said during a court hearing in New York Monday after pleading guilty to arson.
As part of a plea agreement, federal prosecutors dropped a charge of witness tampering. There was no mention during the court hearing that Williams would be required to cooperate with law enforcement in any other criminal cases.
In June 2020, as Clary was preparing to testify against Kelly in federal court, Clary’s mother, Alice Clary, called 911 call to report the family’s car was on fire.
“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 911 dispatcher. “The car is getting ready to blow up.”
Alice Clary and her husband, Angelo Clary, appeared in the 2019 Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” pleading for their daughter to leave the singer and return home, which she eventually did.
As her mother was on the phone with 911 dispatchers, Azriel Clary also called 911.
“Someone just tried to throw gasoline on my parent’s car,” said Azriel Clary. “I don’t know (if the suspect is still there). I’m inside the house.”
The dispatcher asked Azriel Clary if she knew who was responsible.
“Ma’am, I don’t know who these people are,” Azriel Clary replied.
When an investigator with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office later questioned Azriel Clary about the arson, she speculated the fire may have been related to her involvement in Kelly’s criminal prosecution, although it is unclear from reports whether she mentioned the singer by name.
“(She) would not disclose any details regarding her case, only that the act was possibly done due to her federal case,” the investigator wrote.
Polk County authorities collected several pieces of evidence from the crime scene, including a lighter, a gas can and an extra-large black hoodie with burn marks that had a strong odor of accelerant, according to sheriff’s reports.
Authorities also discovered discolored patches of grass along the perimeter of the house that fire investigators determined was caused by an accelerant, records show.
The state fire marshal and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security later took over the arson investigation.
About two weeks after the fire, Azriel Clary posted video of the fire and photos of the burned car on Instagram. The images have since been removed.
“It was something that was premeditated, but the fact that someone would go to that extreme to harm me is sickening,” Clary wrote on Instagram.
Azriel Clary did not respond immediately respond to an email from News 6 seeking comment about Williams’s guilty plea. Her family has moved out of the home where the fire occurred.
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.
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.
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.
Shortly after Williams was arrested, his attorney expressed concern about law enforcement using Google records to identify potential criminal suspects.
“The problem with these keyword search warrants is that they’re incredibly overbroad,” attorney Todd Spodek told News 6 last fall. “Essentially what they’re saying is, ‘We need evidence of anyone who searched for a particular sequence of words at a set time’.”
Spodek said 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,” Spodek said in October, prior his client entering into the plea agreement.
Spodek did not immediately respond to a request for comment following Williams’s plea.
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.”