TAMPA — Some of personal trainer James Elbert Williams' female clients thought he was creepy.
The women told authorities Williams gave them unwanted massages or held them too close as they worked out. He invited some to his home, the women said, and suggested to one that she date him, bragging that he was rich and went to church.
"I was shaking my head, like 'No way, uh-uh,' " one woman told the St. Petersburg Times earlier this year.
Williams, 40, dodged a possible life sentence on Wednesday after he pleaded no contest to four sexual battery charges involving three of his female clients in a plea agreement with prosecutors. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe sentenced him to five years in prison followed by 20 years on probation.
Williams will be labeled a sex offender and is barred from working as a personal trainer during probation.
Williams also must pay restitution to clients who were defrauded because they paid for training sessions that never took place. The total restitution is yet to be determined.
None of the victims attended the hearing, but Hillsborough State Attorney's Office spokesman Mark Cox said they agreed to the plea deal.
"I think they're relieved that the case was resolved," Cox said.
Under sentencing guidelines, Williams faced a possible 30 years to life in prison if convicted at a trial that was scheduled to open next month, defense attorney Michael Kenny said.
The case had several weaknesses, including no physical evidence of an assault, according to Kenny. In addition, two witnesses who were present during one alleged sexual battery testified at a previous hearing they had seen nothing unusual, he said.
Williams was arrested July 1 after a woman accused him of inappropriate behavior during a training session at Club Tone.
He told her she'd be lifting weights, the woman told the St. Petersburg Times in July. But as he held her waist to watch her form, he pulled her way too close, she said.
She was uncomfortable and confused. He called her dirty for suggesting he was aroused, she recalled.
The woman, who is not being identified by the Times because of the nature of the incident, said the trainer then fondled her as she worked out on a mat.
First, she said, he massaged her thigh, then worked up her leg. She said she was shocked when he sexually assaulted her through her capri workout pants with his fingers.
She immediately got up. "Believe it or not, he said I had a dirty mind," she said.
Eventually, 30 other women came forward, though most complaints did not lead to charges.
Williams was initially charged with one count of sexual battery. After others stepped forward, authorities sought to arrest him on a second charge. But Williams eluded arrest, fleeing to his hometown of Little Rock, Ark.
After that arrest, Williams was released on $25,000 bail. When U.S. marshals appeared at his father's Arkansas home with yet a third arrest warrant, Williams fled barefoot into the woods.
He was captured after a few hours.
Reach William R. Levesque at email@example.com.