"My gut feeling is Mike did not die in Lake Seminole. I would say this is a suspicious missing person."
-Ronnie Austin, a former investigator with the Second Circuit State Attorney's Office
It was the 16th of December 2000. A Saturday. Thirty one year old Jerry Michael Mike Williams went on a duck hunting trip to Lake Seminole in Jackson County, Florida, United States. Mike lived in Jackson County with his wife Denise Williams. They were high school sweethearts and went on to marry and had a baby daughter. She was now eighteen months old and they had recently discussed plans to have another baby. Mike worked as a real estate appraiser and when he had some time off, he liked spending it on the boat.
That Saturday, Mike told Denise that he would be home in time for their vacation. They had planned to go to Apalachicola in Florida to celebrate their sixth Wedding anniversary. So when Denise didn't hear from him by noon, she called a few friends to ask them to help look for him. Denise said that Mike was duck hunting alone that day. A number of people helped search for Mike down at the lake. Mike's best friend, Brian Winchester, received a call from his father who told him that Mike was missing. He went out to the lake with his father with their boat to search for Mike. The search took place over the course of a few hours and the light was gone. But in the dark they managed to find Mike's small, motorized canoe on the lake’s shore. A few yards from the lake, around 75 yards, they found Mike's Ford Bronco. It looked as if it had been parked there but there was no sign of Mike anywhere.
Mike, Denise and their daughter
The search continued in the days, weeks and months that followed and Mike's hunting license, jacket and waders were eventually found at the bottom of Lake Seminole. As there was no sign of Mike at all, police initially believed he may have drowned and as such, they believed that his body would float to the surface a few days later. But that didn't happen. As that particular lake had a number of alligators, they thought that there was a strong possibility that he may have been eaten by alligators. As there was no body, the case was classified as a missing person investigation and remained that way until 2010.
Six months after Mike went missing, Denise asked Leon Circuit Judge John Crusoe to declare Mike dead. He granted her application and declared him dead. Denise told friends and family that she believed he was dead.
Mike's mother Cheryl Williams did not believe her son was in the lake. She believed he was alive and she fought for the investigation to be reopened and looked at again. She took matters into her own hands and uncovered different leads, tracked them down and even cross checked their stories. She conducted her own investigation into her son’s disappearance. Cheryl’s persistence paid off.
In 2010, police reclassified Mike's disappearance as a suspicious death and the case was looked at again by a team of cold case investigators. The reason the investigation was reviewed was mainly based on Cheryl’s investigation and some pieces of information that had been uncovered since Mike’s disappearance. Police learned that Denise received $1.75 million in life insurance after Mike’s disappearance. But more concerning than that was the fact that in 2005, Denise married Mike’s best friend Brian Winchester.
When the cold case team looked at the details of the initial investigation, there were a number of things that troubled them. When Mike’s boat was recovered, its engine was off yet the gas tank was full. The manufacturer claimed that if the engine was on when Mike fell out of the boat, which is what police believed happened, it should have remained on until the fuel was exhausted. The fact that the engine was off but the tank was full indicated that the engine was turned off.
Investigators also discovered that the very fact Mike was going to the lake alone that day was unusual. He normally never hunted alone. Furthermore, his truck was parked in an area that would have required him to drag his boat through mud which didn’t make sense as there was a concrete boat ramp close by.
Mike’s waders, hunting jacket and flashlight were found after Mike was reported missing at the bottom of the lake between some torn weeds and alligator excrement but the cold case investigators, looking at the case with a new perspective, believed that they may have been planted there so that it would add weight to the theory that Mike drowned and his body was eaten by alligators. Their theory was boosted by reptile experts who told them that North Florida alligators don't feed in the winter due to the colder temperatures and wouldn't consume a full-grown man without leaving a trace.
But despite suspicion that Mike’s disappearance may be more sinister than was previously believed, there was no physical evidence or DNA linking anyone to Mike's disappearance. It wasn't until 2016 when everything fell into place for the police in terms of the details of the investigation.
Denise and Brian had separated and Denise filed for divorce. She no longer wanted to be with him. But one incident in particular brought everything to a head.
On the 5th of August 2016, at 2.30am, Brian hid in the trunk of Denise’s SUV. When she opened it, she saw Brian had a gun. He only calmed down when Denise promised to stay with him. Denise went straight to the police to file a kidnapping report.
When Brian was arrested and questioned in relation to the kidnapping report Denise filed, he was asked a number of details in relation to Mike’s disappearance. He confessed that the day Mike was reported missing, the 16th of December, he was with him on the lake and he knew exactly what happened to him. He shot him. Prosecutors offered a plea deal to Brian. They believed Denise was involved in Mike's death and knew that there would be little chance of a conviction without Brian's testimony against her due to lack of evidence.
Brian accepted the plea agreement in exchange for immunity in relation to Mike's murder on the basis that he would testify at Denise's Trial. As a result of the deal, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison but that sentence was for the kidnapping charge. He led police to where Mike’s body was. His body was found where Brian said it would be. It was along the shores of Carr Lake in Leon County and he had been shot in the head.
Denise Williams was charged with conspiracy to commit murder, first-degree murder and being an accessory after the fact.
It was the Prosecution's case that Mike was shot and killed on the lake on the 16th of December 2000. But, while it was their case that Brian was the person who actually shot Mike, they told the Jury that the shooting was the result of a plan concocted by both Brian and Denise. It was the Prosecution's case that Brian and Denise were having an affair at the time and wanted Mike dead so that they could be together and collect almost $2 million in life insurance money.
The Court heard that Denise and Mike were high school sweethearts and were friends with another couple, also high school sweethearts, Kathy and Brian Winchester. Despite Denise and Brian being married to different people, they began an affair and it was the Prosecution's case that that affair resulted in Mike's murder.
Brian was the main witness for the Prosecution. He told the Court that his affair with Denise began at a Sister Hazel concert in 1997. He testified that when Kathy and Mike were outside the venue parking the car, he was inside the venue with Denise and they kissed. That was the beginning of an affair that continued for a number of years. They went on vacation a number of times together, met for lunch when they were at work and went to each other's homes when there was nobody else home.
Brian testified that the idea to kill Mike came to him one day when he was out on a hunting trip with him. Mike fell into a mud hole and Brian helped him to get out. He told Denise about it and said that if he wasn't there to help, Brian would not have made it out as the ground had collapsed beneath him and began to pull his body down like quicksand. And if Brian had not witnessed it or helped him, nobody would have known what happened to Mike.
Mike and Denise Williams
According to Brian, that conversation was the beginning of a number of conversations that he had with Denise about different ways they could get rid of Mike. Brian testified that Denise did not want a divorce due to personal beliefs and did not want to share custody of her daughter with Mike. He testified that they thought of different ways to kill Mike and in a way that would allow them to collect the insurance money.
Brian told the Court that they spoke about Mike being involved in a possible boating accident. The week prior to the actual murder, Denise got cold feet and didn’t want to go through with it. But a week later, on the 16th of December, Brian told the Court that she encouraged Mike to go hunting that day. Brian testified that that day, he met Mike near the lake and told him he had a special spot where they could go to. When they were out on the lake and when Mike stood up, Brian pushed him overboard. The plan was for Brian to push Mike off the boat and Mike would drown. But Mike didn't drown. He managed to grab hold of a tree stump. He stripped off his own heavy waders and hunting jacket to try to save himself and asked Brian to help. Brian went to the stump, took out his gun and shot Mike in the face. He shot him at 3 feet with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Brian removed Mike's body from the lake and put his body in his car and drove back home with Mike's body beneath a tarp. He left Mike's boat on the lake so that police would think there had been an accident on the lake.
That same morning, the 16th of December, Brian drove to a hunting spot he knew well at the edge of Carr Lake, with Mike’s body still under the tarp, and stopped at Walmart on the way. He purchased a shovel and weights. When he got to Carr Lake, he found a mud hole where he hid Mike’s body. He used the weights to hold down Mike’s body.
Brian and Denise kept their affair a secret after Mike was reported missing. They dated other people to try to avoid detection. But shortly afterwards, Brian and Kathy divorced. In 2005, he married Denise.
Brian testified that they were paranoid after they got married and believed they were being watched. When he was called in for questioning when Mike’s case was reopened, it was the beginning of the end:
“It became quite clear to me from that interview that they were suspicious of what happened and not only that, they were suspicious of me and Denise.”
The Court heard that Denise collected $1.75 million from Mike's life insurance policies. One of the policies had been written by Brian himself in his capacity as an insurance agent. The Jury was shown a document that showed Denise filed an insurance claim just 19 days after her husband went missing.
The Jury also heard recorded calls between Kathy and Denise where Kathy accused her of being involved in Mike’s murder. Denise changed the conversation but the Prosecution told the Jury to pay attention to the fact that she did not deny it:
“It’s not what she said, it’s what she doesn’t say.”
The Prosecution asked the Jury to use their common sense when making their decision on her guilt or innocence.
Brian Winchester testifying at Denise’s Trial
It was the Defense's case that Denise had nothing to do with Brian's plan to kill Mike and it was Brian and Brian alone who both made the decision to kill and killed Mike. Denise's lawyer, Philip Padovano, told the Jury that the only person to accuse Denise of conspiring to kill Mike was Brian. He reminded the Jury that he was a confessed killer and a convicted kidnapper and “has every motive to lie to you.”
Philip told the Jury that the issue they would have to decide is whether or not they believed Brian.
They did. After less than a day of deliberations, they found Denise guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, first-degree murder and being an accessory after the fact.
Denise was sentenced to life in prison.
Denise appealed her conviction and an appeals court reversed her conviction on the first degree murder charge. While under Florida Law, defendants can be charged with a crime even though they were "not actually or constructively present at the commission of such offense," they overturned that part of the verdict on the basis that the state failed to produce "competent" and "substantial" evidence to prove that Denise was a "principal" to murder under state law:
"Her only ostensibly culpable conduct (e.g., consideration of ways to kill Mike, development of an alibi, agreeing to encourage Mike to go hunting with Brian) did not constitute commanding or impelling Brian to commit the murder or the assisting or encouraging of Brian at the time he actually was committing the offense."
Essentially, the Court ruled that the state failed to prove that Denise helped Brian commit the crime. They believed her involvement in the discussions prior to the murder and the fact she urged Mike to go hunting the day he was killed was not enough to meet the high bar required to prove she was a principal and as much to blame as Brian was:
"Because Denise did not do or say anything to 'aid' or 'abet' Brian in the murder of Mike, as those terms originally were understood to mean; and she did not 'counsel,' 'hire,' or 'procure' Mike’s murder beforehand (i.e., she did not get the ball rolling); we reverse her conviction as a principal to first-degree murder."
Her conviction on another charge, the conviction for conspiracy to commit murder, was upheld which meant that the sentence for that portion of the crime would remain intact and Denise would have to serve the 30 year prison sentence.
Mike’s mother Cheryl was distraught when she heard the news:
“I am sick, I am literally ill. It’s like nobody is responsible for Mike’s murder.”
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"When someone just disappears for no reason, it's shocking, it's devastating. I just feel like my life stopped that day and I've just been in a tailspin ever since."
- Adam Vaughan, Janine's brother
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