Somewhere beneath Lake Seminole, in the spot where tree stumps jutted out of the water like claws, investigators thought they would find Mike Williams.
It was the evening of Dec. 16, 2000, the date of Williams’s wedding anniversary with his high school sweetheart, Denise. He’d told his wife he would return from his duck hunting trip at the lake just in time to leave for their planned getaway down in Apalachicola, Fla. But Williams never came back, leading a search party to descend on the lake to find him.
Williams’s best friend, Brian Winchester, was among them. His father had called to let him know that everyone was worried, and so they headed to the lake together with their boat to help.
For hours, they searched in the dark, until finally, Winchester and his father stumbled upon Williams’s small, motorized canoe brushed up on the lake’s shore. They found his Ford Bronco parked 75 yards away, abandoned. What they weren’t going to find, at least not there and then, was a body.
Eventually, after the search at the bottom of Lake Seminole produced only his hunting license, jacket and waders, investigators thought that perhaps Williams had been eaten by alligators, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.
But Winchester, as it turns out, knew that couldn’t be true. He knew where his friend was buried. They just hadn’t found him yet.
“[My dad] was searching, and I was just lying,” a sobbing Winchester said Tuesday during the dramatic murder trial in Tallahassee over Williams’s death. “I think we were the last ones on the lake. My dad didn’t want to give up."
Eighteen years after Williams’s disappearance, Winchester confessed on the stand Tuesday to fatally shooting Williams in the head during the Dec. 16 boating trip, then leaving Williams’s boat in the water to fool investigators. Winchester, however, is not the one on trial.
He was called by prosecutors to testify against Williams’s wife, Denise — who now stands accused of conspiring with Winchester to kill her husband so that the two of them could be together.
Williams’s death, prosecutors say, was the product of a poisonous love triangle involving two sets of high school sweethearts — Denise and Mike Williams, and Kathy and Brian Winchester — that spiraled from infidelity to murder. Prosecutors say Denise collected $1.75 million from her husband’s life insurance policies, one of which was written by Winchester, an insurance agent by trade, just months before Williams’s death. Then, after Winchester divorced his wife, Denise and Winchester got married in 2005.
All the while, Williams’s disappearance remained unsolved.
In a trial expected to last through the week, the jury will now be left to decide whether Denise was a willing participant, entering a marriage that grew from a murder, or whether she knew only as much as investigators did, believing her husband to be lost to the alligators.
Her defense attorney, Philip Padovano, maintained in opening statements that Denise had nothing to do with Winchester’s plot to kill her husband. The only person to accuse her of conspiring to kill Williams, Padovano maintained, was Winchester: a confessed killer and convicted kidnapper. Once his marriage to Denise fell apart, he kidnapped her in a last-ditch attempt to force her back into his life, a crime for which he is now serving 20 years in prison. He was granted immunity in Williams’s death by prosecutors to testify about the murder plot with impunity.
Winchester, Padovano told the jury, “has every motive to lie to you.”
“The issue you’re going to have to decide," he said, "is whether you believe him.”
Winchester and Denise’s affair began at a Sister Hazel concert in 1997, according to Winchester’s testimony. They kissed inside the venue while their spouses were out parking the car, he told the jury.
From there, the relationship escalated. They went on secret getaways to New York, to South Beach, to Destin, Fla., Winchester said, sneaking in lunch dates during work breaks and visits to each other’s homes when their spouses were away. After years of the affair, Winchester said a disturbing thought crossed his mind one day. It was after one of his regular hunting trips with Williams at Carr Lake, north of Tallahassee. Williams, he told the jury, had fallen into a mud hole. The ground seemed to collapse beneath him, almost like quicksand, and soon Williams was scrambling for help.
“I remember telling Denise about that and how, if I hadn’t been there, if I hadn’t helped him out, he very likely would have disappeared,” Winchester said. “And nobody would have known what happened to him.”
The seed was planted. Winchester claims he and Denise began discussing ways to get rid of Williams after Denise made it clear she did not want to have a divorce, allegedly due to personal beliefs and because she didn’t want split custody of their baby daughter. Eventually, Winchester claims, they discussed the “boating accident."
On the morning of Denise and Williams’s wedding anniversary, Winchester met Williams near the lake, telling him they were going to a “secret special spot," Winchester testified. Out on the lake, as soon as Williams stood up, Winchester shoved him overboard, hoping he would die by drowning.
But he didn’t.
Williams grabbed onto a tree stump, panicking while trying to strip off his heavy waders and hunting jacket, scrambling again for help from Winchester that would not come. Winchester, realizing drowning was not going to work, pulled out his gun and circled the stump. Once close enough, he said, he shot his longtime friend in the face.
Winchester then dragged his body out of the water, onto the boat and into his Chevrolet Suburban, driving all the way back home with Williams’s body beneath a tarp in the trunk. For the next 17 years, no one else knew what he’d done with the corpse — except Denise, Winchester claims.
In the immediate years after Williams’s disappearance, they still sought to keep their affair a secret, according to Winchester. They both tried dating other people, Winchester and Padovano said, while Winchester’s marriage to Kathy continued to crumble, resulting in divorce. It was only afterward, in 2005, that Winchester and Denise got married.
But the secret eventually started to weigh on their relationship in later years, Winchester said. They started to get paranoid, believing they were being watched.
For years, because there was no body, Williams’s case was a missing-person investigation. But that changed in 2010. By then, police reclassified Williams’s disappearance as a suspicious death, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was investigating again. The developments that piqued their interest? Police had learned about Denise’s marriage to Winchester, and her collection of $1.75 million in life insurance. When investigators called in Winchester for an interview, he said, it was all downhill from there.
“It became quite clear to me from that interview that they were suspicious of what happened,” Winchester said, “and not only that, they were suspicious of me and Denise.”
Still, as defense attorney Padovano emphasized, there was no physical evidence, such as DNA or fingerprints, connecting Winchester and particularly Denise to Williams’s death. That’s why there would be no real movement in the case until 2016, when Winchester and Denise’s relationship snapped apart with another crime.
The couple, estranged by then, were on the brink of divorce, but not if Winchester could help it. At about 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 5, 2016, Winchester crawled into the trunk of Denise’s SUV and waited for her to get inside. Later that morning, when she opened the door, she found Winchester with a gun and screamed. She was able to calm him down, Padovano said, by promising that she would stay with him — and that she wouldn’t tell the police anything.
Instead, she later went to the sheriff’s office to file the kidnapping report. And that’s when everything unraveled: Investigators appeared to believe they had figured out the whole backstory of their marriage.
“He killed Mike,” a Tallahassee police officer, who happened to be married to Denise’s sister, told Denise during an interview about her kidnapping, the Tallahassee Democrat reported, “and I’m pretty sure the reason he was going to kill you today was he was afraid you were going to say something.” (Winchester’s defense attorney at the time, Tim Jansen, maintained that Winchester was not planning to kill Denise on the day of the kidnapping but was suicidal, the Democrat reported.)
Denise said it wasn’t true, maintaining she always believed Williams died on the lake.
But whether she believed it or not, Winchester was about to shatter that idea when police arrested him for Denise’s kidnapping.
In exchange for his statements and testimony implicating Denise in the killing, prosecutors agreed not to use any of his admissions to charge him with Williams’s murder. He was sentenced to 20 years for the kidnapping last December. And before he could be shipped away, he led police, finally, to Williams’s body.
On the morning of the killing, with Williams covered beneath a tarp in his trunk, Winchester drove to the hunting spot he had long remembered. He stopped at Walmart for a shovel and weights — to hold Williams’s body down, he said — and then he pulled up to the edge of Carr Lake. He looked for the mud holes, knowing this time Williams would not make it out.
“There they found Mike, exactly where Brian said he would be,” prosecutor Jon Fuchs said, “shot in the head, just like Brian said.”
He was still wearing a wedding ring.
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