A seemingly squeaky-clean Christian family band from Tennessee consisting of 12 telegenic kids who gained fame on America’s Got Talent and got their own TLC reality show has quietly imploded with the arrest of the children’s father on a child rape charge in Kentucky.
Toby Willis, 46, the hard-driving patriarch of The Willis Clan who said he expected his kids to achieve “excellence” in all they did, was arrested in tiny Greenville, Kentucky, on Sept. 9, just hours before his family was to perform in concert at the Felix Martin Jr. Hall.
After Willis was taken away from the venue in handcuffs on a fugitive from justice warrant by Greenville police and detectives from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, his family went ahead with the show anyway, a source close to the case said.
The TBI began investigating Willis on Aug. 29 after receiving information that Willis had a sexual encounter about 12 years ago with an underage child, according to a police statement issued after Willis’s arrest. In Tennessee the charge of child rape applies to the sexual assault of children between the ages of 3 and 12.
Nashville’s Newschannel5 reported Wednesday night that Willis had allegedly been charged with raping a family member. It said the family member had been “removed by Willis from her bed and raped.” It also reported that “authorities confirmed Willis was not allowed to go around his biological children or his wife.”
According to the Fox affiliate in Nashville, Brenda Willis issued a statement after her husband’s extradition to Tennessee on Wednesday indicating she and her family are supporting the District Attorney’s office:
“I was shocked and devastated by the revelation of events leading to Toby Willis’ arrest. As these are very trying times for the Willis family, I kindly ask all to respect our family’s privacy. As a mother of twelve, my first priority remains with my children and helping them through this traumatic event.
We are cancelling all appearances for the foreseeable future to focus on the children and their well-being. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. We have, and will continue, to fully cooperate with law enforcement officials and ask that you direct all inquires regarding Toby Willis’ case to the District Attorney’s office who have our complete support.”
Willis was held without bail at the Muhlenberg County Jail awaiting extradition to Tennessee before being extradited to Nashville on Wednesday. He is scheduled for a preliminary hearing in Nashville on Sept. 21. The family is from Chicago but moved outside Nashville years ago to break into country music.
Oddly, police sources say Willis arrived in Greenville separately and before his family did—although they all showed up at the concert hall Friday afternoon to prep for the evening show at about the same time.
TBI investigators, who accused Willis of trying to escape justice by leaving Tennessee for Kentucky, said in a statement Monday that Willis apparently hitchhiked about 115 miles from Shepherdsville, just south of Louisville, to Greenville on or about Sept. 5 and 6. The TBI is seeking information about two people who may have given Willis rides during that period. “No one can figure out why he was hitchhiking,” a police source told The Daily Beast.
Willis’s wife Brenda and their kids are all accomplished musicians, singers, and composers. They play the guitar, flute, fiddle and violin among other instruments and write their own Irish-flavored Christian country songs—which got them on the NBC reality competition show America’s Got Talent in 2014 as well as regular appearances at the Grand Ole Opry. Many of the kids are also nationally ranked Irish dancers, swing dancers, and state wrestling champions. Toby Willis ran the soundboard at the family concerts.
Their show, The Willis Family, ran for two seasons on TLC but was canceled in May. TLC said in a statement that it had thoroughly checked all the Willis family members prior to signing them to the show and were “shocked” at the news of Toby’s arrest.
Like the infamous Duggar family, who had a longer-running show on TLC that was canceled because of a molestation scandal involving their eldest son Josh, all 12 children in the Wills family are homeschooled, and all have names beginning with the letter “J.” The eight girls and four boys range in age from 5 to 24.
“I expect my kids to be the best, but the best involves a lifetime commitment,” Toby Willis said on the TLC show, which featured him often rounding up the kids quite firmly, Captain von Trapp-style, for dancing, wrestling, and music lessons in the family home.
In most photos taken of the family, Brenda Willis and the children are invariably smiling and laughing whereas Toby Willis conspicuously almost never breaks a grin.
“We like to enjoy the full spectrum of life. We do music, dance, art, crafts, writing, as well as horses, wrestling, homemade cooking, swimming in the creek, and snuggling up before our fireplace warming our log cabin,” Brenda Willis wrote on the family website.
Brenda Willis also told People last year that she and her husband raised their kids by “staying true to the Bible.”She also indicated how much control her husband exerted over their family—especially his daughters.“He approves every outfit the girls wear,” his wife Brenda said. “He pretty much buys everything.”
Almost all the Willis social media accounts except one, their official Facebook account, were deleted immediately after Willis’s arrest. The family also shut down their official website and canceled the rest of the shows on their fall tour. They had been scheduled to perform in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 19.
Toby Willis’s family of origin has a well-publicized tragic backstory, details of which came up more than once during the TLC show.
In 1994, Willis’s Baptist preacher father and his mother were driving six of their nine kids on a trip from Chicago to Wisconsin when their van ran over a piece of metal that had fallen from another truck and exploded, killing all the children. The elder Willises escaped the van. Toby Willis and his two other siblings were not in the van at the time.
The accident was big news in Chicago for years, partly because it came out that the driver of the rig responsible for the metal debris had bribed a state worker for his license. The investigation led to charges of large-scale corruption and cover-ups that ended with 75 state employees and then-Gov. George Ryan being sent to jail.
The badly burned Willis grandparents and the three surviving siblings received a $100 million settlement—one of the largest ever awarded in Illinois.
Toby and Brenda Willis, who did not have to work because of the settlement, moved to the Nashville area in 2001 and bought singer Randy Travis’s compound in nearby Ashland City. But on Dec. 26, 2005, the home burned to the ground while the family was away and they lost all their possessions.
Though Brenda Willis said on the show that the family planned to rebuild on the site one day, they decamped to the rather shabby log cabin rental nearby that was seen on the TLC show. Many commenters on Willis clan forums reference the rented log cabin and question why the family never rebuilt on their own land since they presumably had more than enough money.
Even stranger, Brenda Willis wrote on the family website about how their lease was expiring on their rental home this year and they were planning to live in their tour bus from this summer on as they had such a packed touring schedule.
It’s unclear where the family is living right now. Earlier this summer, the eldest child in the family, Jessica, who is 24, abruptly left the band with many fans asking where she was. Her parents briefly referenced her departure in a Facebook Live video this summer but were otherwise vague.
The morning after Toby Willis’s arrest, Jessica’s boyfriend posted a photo of a lamp outside at sunset on Facebook with the words, “Speak truth boldly.”