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

People (USA) - - CONTENTS - By STEVE HELLING

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.

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