Florida woman Denise Williams is to be sentenced on Wednesday for the 2000 murder of her first husband Jerry Michael Williams. The judge is expected to hand down an automatic life sentence. Court is scheduled to begin at 9:00 a.m. ET.
The road here was long and convoluted. To wrap your head around it, you need to start with the disappearance. The victim, who went by Mike, went missing on December 16, 2000 while on a hunting trip to Lake Seminole, which is northwest of Tallahassee. Investigators found no body. Some people believed he was eaten by an alligator. Whatever the case, he was quickly presumed dead. Testimony at trial established that loved ones held a memorial service the following February. Meanwhile, defendant Denise Williams began to raise her and Mike’s daughter alone. Authorities said she collected $1.75 million in life insurance policies on her husband’s life. Incidentally, two of those were co-sold by the Williams’ longtime friend Brian Winchester, and one was about to expire.
Mike’s mother Cheryl didn’t accept the official story on her son’s disappearance, however. She went on a relentless campaign to keep attention on her missing child, writing an overwhelming number of letters to officials and journalists who might help find him.
Denise, for all intents and purposes, moved on. She married Winchester in 2005. This didn’t last. They separated in 2012, and she filed for divorce in 2015. It got ugly. The following year, according to prosecutors, an armed Winchester broke into Williams’ vehicle and kidnapped her at gunpoint. She talked him out of it, and he let her go. Williams went to law enforcement, however, and Winchester was arrested.
What happened later in 2017 led to a startling revelation about Mike’s disappearance.
Winchester reached an immunity agreement with prosecutors in the kidnapping case, in which he admitted to fatally shooting Mike. He claimed he plotted the murder with Denise.
Cut to opening statements on December 11, 2018. Prosecutors said Williams plotted to kill her husband because she didn’t want to divorce. She felt it was shameful to separate that way because of her religious upbringing, they said. So instead she considered murder. Even the defense never said anything bad about Mike. No allegations of abuse. Winchester and the Williamses went back years. They and Kathy Thomas, who would go on to become Winchester’s wife, attended the same high school. They went to the same college. Both couples got married the same year. Both had babies the same year.
According to Winchester’s testimony, he started having problems with his wife Kathy, and he started falling in love with Denise. They began an affair in 1997, he claimed. The relationship continued and resulted in the murder plot, he said. Winchester admitted to luring Mike out to Lake Seminole for was supposed to be an staged accident. Winchester said he pushed Mike off the boat, but instead of drowning, the victim held onto a tree stump, so he pulled out a shotgun, fired at his face, and buried him by Lake Carr, which is north of Tallahassee.
Winchester served as the prosecution’s key witness. He laid out a bewildering tale of infidelity and betrayal. Williams’ defense, however, painted him as a self-serving liar who wanted revenge for Williams divorcing him.
Winchester pleaded no contest in 2017 to the kidnapping case, and received a 20-year sentence. Florida prison records show he is set for release July 30, 2036. Because of the terms of the immunity agreement, this admitted killer will never face charges for Mike’s death, unless prosecutors accuse him of lying in his testimony.
“It was a very, very difficult decision to do the proffer agreement that we ended up doing,” Assistant State Attorney Jon S. Fuchs said in an interview with the Law&Crime Network, shortly after the guilty verdict in December. “It wasn’t one that was taken lightly. The problem was that without doing that proffer agreement, Mike Williams is still a missing person, he’s never recovered, and his family does not have closure, nor the ability to properly bury him.”
[Mugshot via Leon County, Florida]