Mike and Denise Williams were high school sweethearts who met when they were just 15 years old and attending North Florida Christian High School in Tallahassee. Mike, the student council president, a football player, and avid duck hunter, took a shine to his future wife, a cheerleader who received the yearbook title “best dressed.”
The two went on to attend Florida State University together, with Mike majoring in political science and urban planning and taking a job as a property appraiser. The couple made good money and bought a home in an upscale subdivision in East Tallahassee. To the outside world, they seemed to have the perfect marriage, especially after the couple’s daughter, Anslee, was born in 1999.
But that all changed on December 16, 2000.
It was Mike and Denise’s sixth wedding anniversary, and Denise would later tell investigators that her husband woke up early, as he often did, to go duck hunting at Lake Seminole. By noon, however, he had not returned, so Denise called her father.
Shortly after that, Mike’s best friend, Brian Winchester, and Winchester’s father, drove out to the lake to look for Mike. There they found his 1994 Ford Bronco near a boat launch, but found no other signs of Mike.
A search team was sent to the lake, but found only Mike’s hunting license, jacket, and waders, according to The Washington Post. It would be 17 years before Mike’s body would be found.
Before that, however, investigators believed that Mike had drowned following a boating accident and was eaten by alligators, the Tallahassee Democrat reported. Though his body wasn’t found, Mike Williams was declared legally dead, allowing Denise to collect $1.75 million from multiple life insurance policies.
Within five years of Mike’s disappearance, Denise married Brian Winchester, who, it turned out, had sold Mike some of the insurance policies just a few months before he disappeared. The couple also lived in the house Mike and Denise had previously shared.
While most people moved on, Mike’s mother, Cheryl, refused to believe that her son had drowned and conducted her own investigation.
“From the minute he disappeared…I knew the police’s explanation wasn’t true,” Cheryl told the New York Daily News in 2016.
In 2004, she was able to lobby the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to reopen the case, assisting local agencies as they re-investigated. Investigators soon found numerous issues with the original conclusions about Mike’s disappearance and alleged death. For one thing, his boat was found with the engine off with a full gas tank, but if he had fallen off the boat while the engine was still running, it would have continued to run until the gas ran out. It was also odd that Mike had allegedly gone duck hunting by himself that day, when he usually went with friends.
Soon, the alligator theory – that Mike had drowned and his body was eaten by alligators – was debunked. Alligators become dormant in the winter when the temperatures drop and the water is too cold. Even if a gator had acted contrary to its normal behavior, some part of the body would have been left behind, yet nothing was found.
Despite this information, the case was closed again. Years went by, but Cheryl Williams refused to give up on her son. Then, in 2010, when police were made aware of the insurance money associated with Mike’s death, the case was reclassified as “suspicious.”
Things finally started to unravel in 2012, when Denise and Brian Winchester separated. Three years later, in 2015, Denise filed for divorce, which Winchester opposed. Winchester was ordered to comply with the divorce, and was told to submit an appraisal for the couple’s house by August 2016.
Denise later told police that on the day the appraisal was due, she was sitting in her car outside her accounting job at Florida State University when Winchester climbed over the back seat of her car and started yelling at her to drive, producing a gun. She drove to a CVS parking lot, ignoring where Winchester told her to go. He then told her he was going to kill himself, insisting he had nothing to live for if Denise went through with the divorce. She calmed him down and dropped him off at his truck, promising not to go to the police after he apologized. She then headed straight for the police to report the incident.
Winchester was charged with kidnapping, domestic assault, and armed burglary, and Denise obtained protection orders against him. Cheryl expressed hope that the new development would find the answers to what happened to her son 16 years earlier.
“[Winchester’s] not going to let Denise run around alone with all that money,” Cheryl told the Daily news, referring to the life insurance money Denise collected after Mike disappeared. “I’m praying he doesn’t commit suicide, I’m praying he’ll tell us what actually happened.”
And Winchester did tell.
In October 2017, he pleaded no contest to kidnapping Denise and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, NBC News reported. The day after Winchester was sentenced, Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent Mark Perez announced at a press conference that they had found Mike Williams’ body – and that he had been murdered.
It was later reported that Winchester had entered a plea agreement in exchange for immunity for his role in Mike’s death, and he told police that he and Denise planned to murder Mike, collect his life insurance, and “live happily ever after.” Winchester also told police where to find Mike’s body, saying he placed it there after he shot his best friend. He said he and Denise were having an affair for three years before coming up with the plan to murder Mike so that Denise’s image wouldn’t be tarnished by a divorce – and so they could cash in on the life insurance.
During one of three recorded statements Winchester made to investigators, he explained how Denise was the one to set the murder plot in motion.
“I was manipulated in ways I didn’t know at the time,” he said, according to the statements, which were obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat through a public records request.
“I had a good wife, I had a kid and I had Denise on the side. This is messed up thinking, but in my mind, I had it pretty good,” Winchester said. “Denise and Mike, on the other hand, they were at each other’s throats and she had two million reasons for this to happen.”
Winchester added that Mike was suspicious about his wife and unhappy at his job and in his marriage, wanting a major life change that Denise didn’t.
“Denise was getting worried that things were going to blow up,” Winchester said in the recordings.
Denise, who Winchester said was “ultra-concerned about the way she appears to the world,” did not want a divorce to tarnish her image, making murder more appealing.
Winchester said the original plan was for he and his wife, Kathy, to go boating with Mike and Denise, where some kind of “accident” would occur, leaving Winchester and Denise as the only survivors. Winchester said he refused this plan because he didn’t want to kill Kathy, the mother of his child. The next plan was for Winchester and Mike to go hunting but for only Winchester to return alive.
“Denise has this thing where she gets people to do stuff for her and she minimizes her guilt or conscience or whatever in it,” Winchester told investigators. “She wanted it all to be on me and not on her, and she wanted in her mind a scenario where it wasn’t a murder but it was an accident.”
Denise was arrested on May 8, 2018, as she left her job at Florida State University. She was charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and accessory after the fact. Her attorney, Ethan Way, denied the accusations against Denise and insisted Winchester acted on his own.
“Brian Winchester got the sweetheart deal of the century,” Way told the Tallahassee Democrat. “He can say whatever he wants at this point. He has license to make up whatever he wants to make up.”
Denise was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. That conviction was overturned, but her conviction for conspiracy to commit murder was upheld and she was ordered to serve out her full 30-year sentence. Her attorney argued that she was a minor participant in her husband’s death in 2000, but Leon County Circuit Judge Kevin J. Carroll argued otherwise, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.
“I don’t find she was a relatively minor participant in the conspiracy to kill Mike Williams,” Carroll said at the time. “Mrs. Williams could have stopped this on December 16 as she had done before. This case is a tragedy. This case is a waste and it didn’t have to happen.”
Mike’s mother, Cheryl, testified against Denise at the re-sentencing, asking the court not to “show her any mercy.”
“Mike suffered horribly,” Cheryl told the judge. “For the rest of my life, when I try to go to sleep, I see my son clinging to a stump in the freezing water. Please don’t show her any mercy. She didn’t show my son any mercy. She took him away from his daughter, family and friends.”