true crime

Inside an Extremely Bizarre, Extremely Florida Murder Case

Denise Williams, Brian Winchester.
Denise Williams, Brian Winchester. Photo: AP Images

It’s a tale as old as time: Man meets woman. Man and woman fall in love and get married. Man is then believed to have been eaten by alligators. Years later, woman is accused of arranging man’s murder because she was having an affair with his best friend.

Nearly two decades after Mike Williams died, his high-school sweetheart, Denise Williams, is standing trial for his murder. Brian Winchester, Williams’s best friend, has testified that Denise had him kill her husband. Here’s what to know about this particularly strange, tangled Florida case.

Mike Williams disappeared back in 2000.
Per the Washington Post, Williams went out duck hunting at Lake Seminole the morning of December 16, 2000, which also happened to be his and Denise’s sixth wedding anniversary. When he didn’t return back in time for a trip they were planning to take together, a search party combed the lake. Over the next few weeks, they found his boat, jacket, waders, and hunting license, but no body — hence the investigators’ gator theory.

He was initially declared dead by accidental drowning.
As documented in an extensive timeline of the case in the Tallahassee Democrat, in June 2001, a judge had declared Williams dead by accidental drowning. Denise then collected $1.75 million in life insurance money, from an insurance policy that was written by Brian Winchester, Williams’s best friend (much more on him soon). Williams’s mother, Cheryl Ann Williams, refused to believe that her son had simply drowned and continued to petition police until the Florida Department of Law Enforcement opened a missing-person investigation in 2004. Over the next decade there would be extensive public attention and investigative reporting on the case — with scrutiny targeted toward Denise’s insurance payout — and Williams’s disappearance was eventually reclassified as a suspicious death.

Brian Winchester and Denise Williams were involved with each other.
Winchester divorced his wife and in 2005, he and Denise got married. But they were having an affair for years beforehand. Here’s the Post’s account of how they first got together:

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.

Winchester would eventually go on to kidnap Denise.
The pair separated in 2012, and Denise filed for divorce in 2015. In 2016, Winchester held Denise in her car at gunpoint, leading Denise to file a kidnapping report with police. In 2017, Brian was sentenced to 20 years in prison for kidnapping — with that whole incident leading investigators to focus on their relationship, and their potential connection to Williams’s murder.

Williams’s body was discovered in 2017.
Florida police announced that Williams’s body was discovered in December 2017, and that he had definitely been murdered. Denise was then arrested in May of this year, and charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and accessory after the fact. In August, she was also charged with insurance fraud for the $1.75 million she collected after his death.

Winchester confessed to Williams’s murder on the stand.
Winchester told the jury that Denise hadn’t wanted to get divorced from her husband, citing a desire not to share custody of their young daughter. He claims that they plotted Williams’s death, and wanted to make it look like a “boating accident.” So Winchester says that the day of their duck hunting trip in 2000, he pushed his best friend overboard. When that didn’t work, he says that he shot him in the face. He then buried Williams’s corpse in the mud near Carr Lake.

Denise’s lawyers maintain that she had no knowledge of the murder plot, and that Winchester had acted alone. (Winchester was granted immunity in Williams’s murder for testifying against Denise.) If convicted, she faces life in prison.

Update, February 7, 2019: Denise Williams was sentenced to life in prison for her husband’s murder.
In December, a jury found Denise guilty of all three charges, including conspiracy to commit murder, first-degree murder, and accessory after the fact. On Wednesday, she received a mandatory life sentence for the murder as well as an additional 30 years for the conspiracy charge. There is no possibility for parole. Winchester received full immunity for testifying against her and will be released after serving his 20-year sentence for kidnapping.

Inside an Extremely Bizarre, Extremely Florida Murder Case