Mike Williams’s best friend, Brian Winchester, was among them. Winchester’s father had called to let him know that everyone was worried, and so they headed to the lake with their boat to help.
For hours, they searched in the dark, until finally, Winchester and his father stumbled upon Mike 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 Mike 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.
Mike Williams’s body wouldn’t be found for 17 years.
Following a dramatic murder trial late last year over Mike Williams’s death, Winchester, who had accepted a plea agreement in exchange for immunity, admitted that he had killed his friend, according to NBC News. He explained how he had shot Mike Williams in the head during that Dec. 16 boating trip — then left Mike Williams’s boat in the water to fool investigators.
He told the court that the victim’s wife helped come up with the plan.
In December, Winchester was called to testify against Denise Williams, who stood accused of conspiring with Winchester to kill her husband so that the two of them could be together — and collect nearly $2 million from insurance policies, according to NBC News.
Denise Williams, who was convicted of first-degree murder, was sentenced Wednesday to life in prison in Mike Williams’s death.
“I don’t like having to ask the judge to put her in jail for the rest of her life, but what she did to Mike, she deserves, and I think God gave us justice,” his mother, Cheryl Williams, said after sentencing, according to CBS affiliate WCTV. “If she’s locked up forever, you can’t say you’re happy. I’m not happy, because I don’t have Michael.”
Mike 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 Williams collected $1.75 million from her husband’s life insurance policies, one of which was written by Brian Winchester, an insurance agent by trade, just months before Mike Williams’s death. Then, after Brian Winchester divorced his wife, Denise Williams and Brian Winchester got married in 2005.
All the while, Mike Williams’s disappearance had remained unsolved.
At trial, jurors had to decide whether Denise Williams was a willing participant, entering a second marriage that grew from a murder, or whether she knew only as much as investigators did, believing her first husband to be lost to alligators.
Her defense attorney, Philip Padovano, maintained in opening statements that Denise Williams had nothing to do with Brian Winchester’s plot to kill her husband. The only person to accuse her of conspiring to kill Mike Williams, Padovano maintained, was Brian Winchester, a confessed killer and convicted kidnapper. Once his marriage to Denise Williams fell apart, Brian Winchester tried to kidnap her in a last-ditch attempt to force her back into his life, a crime for which he is serving 20 years in prison. He was granted immunity in Mike Williams’s death by prosecutors to testify about the murder plot.
Brian Winchester, Padovano told jurors, “has every motive to lie to you.”
“The issue you’re going to have to decide,” he said, “is whether you believe him.”
But after less than a day of deliberations, the jurors made their decision: guilty.
Brian Winchester and Denise Williams’s affair began at a Sister Hazel concert in 1997, according to his 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, South Beach, and Destin, Fla., Brian 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, Brian Winchester said in his testimony that a disturbing thought crossed his mind one day. It was after one of his regular hunting trips with Mike Williams to Carr Lake, north of Tallahassee. Mike Williams, he told the jury, had fallen into a mud hole. The ground seemed to collapse beneath him, almost like quicksand, and soon Mike 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,” Brian Winchester said. “And nobody would have known what happened to him.”
The seed was planted. Brian Winchester claims he and Denise Williams began discussing ways to get rid of Mike Williams after she made it clear she did not want to have a divorce, allegedly because of personal beliefs and because she didn’t want to split custody of their baby daughter. Eventually, Brian Winchester claims, they discussed the “boating accident."
On the morning of the Williamses’ wedding anniversary, Brian Winchester met Mike Williams near the lake, telling him they were going to a “secret special spot,” Brian Winchester testified. Out on the lake, as soon as Mike Williams stood up, Brian Winchester shoved him overboard, hoping he would die by drowning.
But he didn’t.
Mike Williams grabbed onto a tree stump, panicking while trying to strip off his heavy waders and hunting jacket, scrambling again for help from Brian Winchester that would not come. Brian 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.
Brian Winchester then dragged Mike Williams’s body out of the water, onto the boat and into his Chevrolet Suburban, driving all the way back home with Mike 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 Williams, Brian Winchester claims.
In the immediate years after Mike Williams’s disappearance, they still sought to keep their affair a secret, according to Brian Winchester. They both tried dating other people, Brian Winchester and Padovano said, while Brian Winchester’s marriage to Kathy Winchester continued to crumble, resulting in divorce. It was only afterward, in 2005, that Brian Winchester and Denise Williams got married.
But the secret eventually started to weigh on their relationship in later years, Brian Winchester said. They started to get paranoid, believing they were being watched.
For years, because there was no body, Mike Williams’s case was a missing-person investigation. But that changed in 2010. By then, police reclassified Mike 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 Williams’s marriage to Brian Winchester, and her collection of $1.75 million in life insurance. When investigators called in Brian 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,” Brian 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 Brian Winchester and particularly Denise Williams to Mike Williams’s death. That’s why there would be no real movement in the case until 2016, when Brian Winchester and Denise Williams’s relationship snapped apart with another crime.
The couple, estranged by then, were on the brink of divorce. At about 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 5, 2016, Brian Winchester crawled into the trunk of Denise Williams’s SUV and waited for her to get inside. Later that morning, when she opened the door, she found Brian 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 went to the sheriff’s office to file a 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 Williams’s sister, told Denise Williams 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.” (Brian Winchester’s defense attorney at the time, Tim Jansen, maintained that Brian Winchester was not planning to kill Denise Williams on the day of the kidnapping but was suicidal, the Democrat reported.)
Denise Williams said it wasn’t true, maintaining she always believed Mike Williams died on the lake.
But whether she believed it, Brian Winchester was about to shatter that idea when police arrested him for Denise Williams’s kidnapping.
In exchange for his statements and testimony implicating Denise Williams in the killing, prosecutors agreed not to use any of his admissions to charge him with Mike Williams’s murder. He was sentenced to 20 years for the kidnapping in December. And before he could be shipped away, he led police, finally, to Mike Williams’s body.
On the morning of the killing, with Mike Williams covered beneath a tarp in his trunk, Brian Winchester drove to the hunting spot he had long remembered. He stopped at Walmart for a shovel and weights — to hold down Mike Williams’s body, he said — and then he pulled up to the edge of Carr Lake. He looked for the mud holes, knowing this time Mike 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.