The Untold Truth Of The Willis Family

Toby Willis, patriarch of TLC's reality show The Willis Family, was arrested in September 2016 and charged with raping a child, calling into question the entire persona of this seemingly wholesome TV family.

The reality series, which debuted in May 2015, focused on the personal and professional lives of the expansive Willis brood, particularly its musical and dancing talents. The Willis clan—parents Toby and Brenda and a dozen kids—rose to fame as a family band on America's Got Talent. They played gigs at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. and rubbed elbows with country greats such as Josh Turner.

But in 2016, their reality show was cancelled after just two seasons. According to TMZ, the network axed the series in May 2016 and was "shocked to hear the news" of Toby's arrest. TLC reportedly conducted extensive background checks on the family prior to approving the show and uncovered no signs of trouble.

What else don't we know about The Willis Family? Let's unearth the truth beneath all that delightful song and dance.

The family has a tragic history

In 1994, Toby's parents and six of his siblings were on their way to a birthday party when they were involved in a fiery automobile crash. Five children were killed immediately; the sixth succumbed to his injuries the next day in the hospital. Toby's parents were also injured. Toby and his remaining two siblings were not in the vehicle with the rest of the family at the time of the accident.

The tragedy was especially heartbreaking because it could have been avoided. According to the Chicago Tribune, the crash was caused when the Willis' minivan struck a piece of debris in the road. That debris reportedly originated from a truck operated by a driver involved in a statewide licenses-for-bribes scandal involving the then-governor George Ryan. That trucker, among many others, was reportedly operating his vehicle without legal licensing.

Toby's father, Scott Willis, who was driving the minivan when it hit the debris, told WGN, "The depth of pain is indescribable." Ryan, who spent more than five years in prison on racketeering, conspiracy, and fraud charges, "acknowledged the Willis family's 'unimaginable pain and loss' when he petitioned for clemency in 2008," reported the Chicago Tribune. The Willis family received a $100 million dollar settlement, one of the highest wrongful-death awards in Illinois history.

Toby and Brenda eventually moved to the Nashville area and purchased country star Randy Travis' home in nearby Ashland City, Tenn. The day after Christmas in 2005, while the Willis family was away, their dream home burned to the ground. Toby told the Chicago Tribune he did not know what caused the blaze. When asked to reflect on his family's tribulations, he said, "We were raised on the Good Book, which says God's method of operation is to make you stronger through hardship."

The Willis family is similar to another TLC brood

Like their former TLC network contemporaries, the Duggars of 19 Kids and Counting, the Willis family also has a penchant for "J" names. The Willis children, by descending age order, are Jessica, Jeremiah, Jennifer, Jeanette, Jackson, Jedidiah, Jasmine, Juliette, Jamie, Joy-Anna, Jaeger, and Jada, and, as of 2016, they ranged in age from 24 down to just 5 years old. Joy-Anna, Jedidiah, Jeremiah, and Jackson actually share a first name with four of the Duggar children. Unlike the Duggars, the middle names of the male children in the family are all the same: Scott, in honor of their grandfather who survived the aforementioned car crash.

Brenda says she's done having children. She told USA Today that during a home birth with one of her younger sons, her uterus ruptured. She was hospitalized and delivered the baby via Cesarean section, but as a result, the following pregnancy was difficult. "My husband said he didn't want 13 kids and no mother," Brenda explained. "I'm done. That was a scary time, that last year, but we made it through."

Following in the footsteps of their parents, some of the Willis children also want large families. At age 21, Jennifer told FOX411 that she wants a lot of children. "Growing up with so many siblings and a bunch of cousins, we just totally love family and kids. My dad goes, 'If all 12 of you had 12 kids that's 144 kids. You kids could have an orchestra, a football team!'"

Like the Duggars, Brenda and Toby say their faith plays a large role in their parenting methodology. "We try to just kind of stay true to what the Bible says and live that in a very loving, non-judgmental way, without pushing that on anyone else." Brenda told People.

Unfortunately, the Duggars have also endured controversy and sex scandals that shocked audiences of their long-running reality show and cast a shadow on the network's image.

The brood is multi-talented

The Willis children have a lot of talent. The girls are proficient in the accordion, fiddle, guitar, piano, mandolin, whistler, and dobro, as well as being accomplished singers, songwriters, and dancers.

Brenda, the family matriarch, not only home schools all of her children—yes, all of them—but makes time for her own hobbies, which include leather tooling and photography. If there's a lady in television who surely seems to juggle it all, Brenda would be Mother Partridge meets Carol Brady meets Superwoman.

The Willis guys play guitar, percussion, bass, and whistle, and some dance. Many of the boys are involved in wrestling and other sports. The family has their own in-home gym, and use it to weight train, wrestle, and perfect their gymnastic skills. According to USA Today, the children are "internationally ranked Irish dancers and singers, national swing dance champions, and state wrestling champions."

Papa Toby attended Northwestern University in Chicago on a wrestling scholarship and graduated with a degree in computer programming. He worked as a systems analyst before the family hit it big. Afterward, he contributed to the Willis brand as the band's producer and sound technician.

"Creativity is something that we value around here. And creativity is something that can't be scheduled," Toby told USA Today. "It's amazing how creative your kids get when it's time for them to do the dishes," he joked, adding that if the kids "write a great song, I don't care if they make their bed that day. It's like, 'Hey, you write a song and I'll have one of your brothers or sisters make your bed.'"

The rape investigation dates back years

According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations (TBI), the investigation into Toby Willis began in August 2016, but the resulting rape charge stems from an alleged encounter with a minor that occurred more than 12 years ago, when Toby was 36 years old. According to WVLT TV, the alleged victim was a female family member who was "raped when she was between the ages of 9 and 12."

The Daily Beast reported in September 2016 that Toby's eldest daughter, Jessica, who was 24 at the time of the report, left the band abruptly in the summer of 2016.

WKRN reported that Toby fled to Kentucky, hitchhiking about 115 miles, in an attempt to evade law enforcement, but was found, taken into custody, and remanded to Tennessee.

Toby's wife released a statement on the case

Brenda released a statement about her husband's arrest on Sept. 14, 2016: "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," she said, via the statement. "We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause." She concluded, "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 [has] our complete support."

A source for People said the Willis family is "truly hurting" and in the process of "trying to figure out how to carry on with their lives." Though Brenda's statement said the family would be canceling appearances, the group did perform at a previously scheduled show following Toby's arrest. "They were able to perform without missing a beat, and their energy on stage was magical," the insider said, adding, "These kids and Brenda are absolutely amazing, and I hope that the truth comes out to allow them to continue with their passion of music and performing on stage."

Toby pleaded guilty to four counts of child rape

On July 11, 2017, Toby pleaded guilty to four counts of child rape. For two of the counts, he received 25-year sentences. For the other two, he received 40-year sentences, which he was ordered to serve concurrently, and at 100 percent, according to The Tennessean, meaning there's no chance Willis will see the outside of a prison until he's 86 years old.

As previously mentioned, the victim in the case is believed to be a member of the Willis family, whose members have been so jolted by the crime that they've basically retreated from public life.

Brenda released a statement on behalf of her family after the sentencing was handed down. It reads: "The Willis family would like to thank their family, friends, and fans for the outpouring of love and support during this most difficult year. Additionally, the Willis family would like to thank the members of law enforcement for their detailed and comprehensive investigation of this matter. Finally, the family would like to thank the District Attorney's office for their diligence and sensitivity in the handling of this case. The family has remained fully cooperative throughout the investigation. Although the criminal case has concluded with Toby Willis receiving 40 years for the crimes he committed, the impact on the victims will remain much longer. The family is appreciative and grateful that people have respected their need for privacy during this time and asks for continued respect as they seek to move forward."

The Willis clan is disappearing from the web

TLC has apparently severed its ties with the family. The content of the Willis family website has also been wiped clean. At the time of this writing, the family's YouTube page was active. However, the family has apparently been diligent in maintaining its privacy because most of their social media accounts have been deleted, along with the family's official Facebook account.

According to the Daily Beast, daughter Jessica's boyfriend shared a Facebook update on the day Toby was arrested. The post reportedly featured a picture of a lamp outside at sunset and was captioned, "Speak truth boldly."