Mike Williams went missing nearly 18 years ago while on a hunting trip at Lake Seminole near the Florida-Georgia border. He went with his close friend Brian Winchester as he had many times before. This trip was different. It was the day of his wedding anniversary and Williams had told his wife Denise he’d return later in the day. He never did return.
Local law enforcement began searching for the missing Williams. Brian Winchester and Winchester’s dad joined the search. They found a canoe and some of Williams’ hunting equipment but no body. Throughout the years, police believed Williams died in the lake and was eaten by alligators. Only Brian Winchester knew the truth. Unbeknownst to Mike Williams, Winchester had been carrying on an affair with his wife Denise Williams and on the day of their wedding anniversary, Winchester shot Williams in the face, killing him. Eighteen years later, a murder trial in a Tallahassee court room would decide the outcome.
Except the killer wasn’t on trial for murder. Williams former wife Denise was facing conspiracy to commit murder, first-degree murder and accessory after the fact for masterminding and concealing a wicked plot to free her from the marriage and collect nearly $2 million in life insurance money. Winchester married Denise in 2005 but the relationship soon unraveled over concern about the murder. As Denise was preparing to divorce Winchester, he kidnapped his estranged wife in order to force her to stay with him. Denise talked him down and then went to the police. Winchester was arrested and that’s when the murder plot was revealed. Winchester was convicted on the kidnapping charge and is serving 20 years in prison. As police re-opened the Williams murder investigation, Winchester confessed to the killing and led police to the body. But there was a twist. Winchester told police that Denise conspired with him to kill her former husband so she and Winchester could be together.
This past week, jurors heard all about the murder plot and Denise’s role in it. Prosecutors recounted how Denise was a cold, manipulative killer who convinced Winchester to kill his best friend. The jury bought it. Yesterday, Denise Williams was convicted on all three criminal counts and now faces life in prison.
During the trial, the defense attempted to argue that the prosecution had no physical evidence linking Denise to the murder. They made the argument that their whole case rested on the word of a confessed killer and a convicted kidnapper. The jury believed the prosecution.
This case is fascinating for many reasons, not the least of which is that the confessed killer was never charged with murder. Instead, he made a plea deal with the state for immunity from prosecution so he would testify against Denise Williams. The prosecution took a huge risk in not charging the actual killer and won. Defense Attorney Ethan Way spoke to reporter after the verdict and said,“They’re (the jury) probably wondering, as any reasonable person might wonder, why is Brian Winchester getting a free pass on murder? He shot his best friend in the face at 3 feet with a 12-gauge shotgun. Denise Williams didn’t do that. Denise Williams didn’t put him up to that.”
In exchange for his confession and the whereabouts of Mike Williams’ body, the state granted Winchester immunity for any statement he made about the murder. In court, he detailed the plot to do away with his best friend so he and Denise Williams, with whom he’d been having an affair for three years, could be together.
Murder trials all have plenty of twists and turns but this one is unique. It was a cold case murder trial in which the actual murderer isn’t on trial. But the jury decided and Denise Williams will spend the rest of her life in prison.