DEADLY LOVE TRIANGLE?
Police thought Mike Williams died in a tragic accident. But his wife married his best friend—and their volatile relationship revealed a deadly secret
When Mike Williams disappeared on a duck-hunting trip in December 2000, police thought the Florida man had fallen into the lake and been eaten by alligators. But when his wife married his best friend and their relationship fractured, police found out they had a homicide case on their hands
An avid outdoorsman, Jerry Michael “Mike” Williams never missed an opportunity to go duck hunting. So on the morning of Dec. 16, 2000—even though he was headed out of town for a weekend anniversary getaway with his wife, Denise, later that day—he packed up his gear and drove out to Florida’s Lake Seminole to spend a few hours on his boat. His friends expected him to come back with a couple of ducks and maybe some fun anecdotes. “He could tell a great story,” says his friend Kevin Harrison. “He always had these adventures. He had the best luck of any hunter I’ve ever seen.”
But Mike didn’t return at all. And when his abandoned boat was found—but there was no sign of the 31-year-old father—many speculated that he’d somehow fallen into the murky waters and been eaten by alligators. Six months later Denise had Mike declared dead, collecting on more than $2 million in life insurance and moving on with her life, marrying Mike’s best friend, Brian Winchester, in 2005.
The case, considered an accident, was closed in the minds of all except for Mike’s brokenhearted mother, Cheryl, who insisted that something more sinister had happened. Now, 17 years later, authorities agree: In May police arrested Denise Williams, 49, in connection with Mike’s murder, charging that she and Winchester, 49, had plotted to kill Mike and make it look like an accident. The next day they revealed that Mike’s body had been found, dead of a gunshot wound. “Cheryl Williams was right for 17 years that it was not a disappearance, that Mike Williams was not eaten by an alligator, that he was in fact murdered,” Assistant State Attorney Jon Fuchs said in a June court hearing. Denise, who has pleaded not guilty, remains in jail pending her trial next month. And Winchester—who is serving a 20-year sentence for kidnapping Denise during their divorce in 2016—has been granted immunity for Mike’s murder and will testify against his former wife.
It’s all part of a tangled murder plot that was years in the making, police say. By all outward appearances, high school sweethearts Mike and Denise Williams had seemed to live a charmed life. The couple lived in an upscale home outside Tallahassee with their 18-month-old daughter Anslee and were talking about having a second child. “I thought they were really happy,” says family friend Donna Downey. “I didn’t see a single problem in their marriage.” But authorities say there was a big problem: Denise and Winchester had begun a secret affair in October 1997, more than two years before Mike’s death.
Their deadly secret began to unravel when Denise filed for divorce from Winchester in 2015. After fights over finances and her claims that he was emotionally abusive, Winchester kidnapped Denise at gunpoint and was arrested. Once in custody, he confessed to having killed Mike and dumped his body in a remote location but told police it was Denise who had hatched the plot. “Denise basically made it clear that she would never get divorced, primarily because of appearances,” he told cops. “She is ultraconcerned about the way she appears.”
While those closest to Mike anxiously await justice, the shocking killing of the father and friend is still haunting. “It’s just so sad,” says Harrison. “He was 30 years old when he died. She got to go free for nearly 20 years. But she couldn’t keep it going forever. Her sins have finally found her out.”
‘THEY SEEMED LIKE THE PERFECT COUPLE. THEY LOVED EACH OTHER’ —FRIEND DONNA DOWNEY
YOUNG LOVE “Mike cherished Denise,” says friend Clay Ketcham of the high school sweethearts. “He put her on a pedestal.” STRONG DETERMINATION Mike’s mother, Cheryl (above), refused to believe her son’s death was an accident. For years she organized events to keep his case alive. “She mounted a one-woman campaign to find out what had happened,” says Ketcham.
For more on this case, watch the People Magazine Investigates episode “Mystery in the Swamp,” premiering Monday, Dec. 3, at 10 p.m. ET on Investigation Discovery.