On the morning of December 16, 2000, Jerry “Mike” Williams left his home in Tallahassee, Florida, to go duck hunting and never came back. He was missing for 17 years.
Mike grew up in Bradfordville and attended North Florida Christian High School where he met classmates Denise Merrell and Brian Winchester. He married Denise in 1994 and they had a daughter together. Mike was a devoted father and spent as much time with his wife and baby girl outside of work as possible.
Mike truly loved his family. He would do little favors for Denise throughout their marriage, even leaving the office when she would ask him to come pump her gas and then returning to work again. In 1999, the couple bought a one million dollar life insurance policy on Mike through insurance agent, Brian Winchester. Brian and Mike had become best friends after high school and enjoyed duck hunting together.
Brian Winchester, accompanied by his father, headed to the lake with their boat to search in the dark. They eventually came across Mike’s motorized canoe brushed up on the lake’s shore and his abandoned Ford Broncho 75 yards away. All searches were called off after 44 days and he was officially listed as missing.
Over time, a theory started to develop that he may have fallen into the lake by accident or that he had been a victim of an alligator attack and was eaten. The theory was weak, however, as alligators do not generally feed during the winter months due to the colder temperatures. His waders were discovered almost six months after his disappearance with no teeth marks, further undermining any alligator involvement.
For 17 years the case went cold and it seemed like Mike would never be found. But things weren’t quite as they appeared.
Denise Williams collected $1.75 million from her husband’s life insurance policies, one of which was written by Brian just months before Mike’s disappearance. Several years later, in 2005, Brian divorced his wife and married Denise. They had been having an affair for years beforehand.
October 13, 1997, was the day Brian and Denise would later consider their anniversary. That was the day they went on a double-date with their spouses to a Sister Hazel concert. As Mike Williams and Kathy Winchester parked the car, Brian and Denise made out inside the club.
They went to their respective homes that night, but they spent the evening talking and having phone sex. The pair started meeting up when Mike was working or attending out-of-town conferences. They started taking frequent trips together and Brian even secretly tagged along when Denise would go out of town with her husband for a conference. Later, Kathy Winchester, Brian’s ex-wife, would confess that she, Denise, and Brian had a sexual experience with each other on a trip prior to Mike’s disappearance.
A Plot to Kill
Over time, Denise and Brian started discussing how to kill Mike. Their first plan was to stage a robbery at his office late at night. They also discussed taking a boat out in the Gulf of Mexico and tossing both of their spouses overboard, but Brian said he couldn’t kill the mother of his child. He claims when he and Denise began their scheme to get rid of her husband, she insisted she did not want to get a divorce due to her religious beliefs. She also was not interested in sharing custody of their baby girl. That’s when the duo came up with the idea for a “boating accident.”
“If God wants this to happen then it’s going to happen because it was going to be an accident and he could get out of it.”
— Brian Winchester
According to Brian, on the morning of Mike and Denise’s 6th wedding anniversary, he met Mike near the Lake Seminole and asked him to put his waders on. Once they were in the boat together and out in the middle of the lake, Mike stood up and Brian shoved him overboard, hoping he would simply die by drowning from the weight of his waders. He and Denise had previously rationalized that this outcome would technically not be murder. Brian said they had agreed that “if God wants this to happen then it’s going to happen because it was going to be an accident and he could get out of it.”
But Mike didn’t drown. Instead, he grabbed onto a tree stump and tried to remove his heavy waders and hunting jacket, all while begging his best friend for help. When Brian realized drowning was not an option, he pulled out his gun and started circling the boat around the stump where Mike was hanging on for his life. Brian then shot his longtime friend point-blank in the face.
He dragged Mike’s body out of the water, onto the boat and into his own vehicle, driving all the way back home with the body beneath a tarp in the back of his trunk. Later, he buried the body in the mud near Carr Lake, which is located about 58 miles from where he had murdered his friend. Brian then went back to Lake Seminole and joined in the search with his dad, Marcus, all the while knowing where Mike really was.
A Mother’s Love
For the next 17 years, that’s where Mike would remain. No one else knew what had happened to him. Many still believed in the alligator theory. His mother, Cheryl Williams, never believed her son was eaten by alligators and she certainly didn’t believe he had died by accident. She was determined not to give up until someone took her seriously.
She asked a local paper to write up a story of her son 9 months after he went missing. Denice was angry about the article and she cut all ties with Cheryl when she continued to press for an investigation into her son’s death. It was then that Cheryl knew Denise was involved.
Cheryl single-handedly compiled 27 pages of notes and evidence and wrote the governor of Florida multiple times over the following nine years. She spent all of her retirement savings on billboards and full-page ads in the newspaper asking anyone for information. Although her actions were despised by Denise and caused her to lose contact with her granddaughter, Cheryl loved her son enough to continue fighting for justice. She kept the case alive for almost two decades with her tenacity to uncover the truth about the fate of her youngest son.
Their dark secret eventually started to take a toll on Denice and Brian and was weighing heavily on their relationship. They started becoming paranoid, believing they were always being watched. In 2010, police reclassified Mike Williams’ disappearance as a suspicious death. Investigators called Brian in for an interview and that’s when everything slowly started to unravel.
Due to the pressure, the pair separated in 2012 and Denise filed for divorce in 2015. The following year, Brian held Denise at gunpoint in her car and told her that he was planning to kill himself. He did not want to go through with the divorce and had nothing left to live for. His intention was not to kill her. Denise was able to calm him down and when he apologized for his actions, she promised she wouldn’t go to the police.
This was a lie of course. Brian was arrested and charged with kidnapping, domestic assault, and armed burglary. Denise requested protection orders, claiming that she feared for the safety of her and her daughter.
The incident led investigators to focus on a potential connection between Brian and the Mike’s disappearance. In December of 2017, Florida police announced that Williams’ body had been found and it was confirmed that he had in fact been murdered. A team of search dogs uncovered Mike’s remains where Brian had said they would be.
He was buried deep in the mud of Carr Lake. Investigators were able to recover 98% of his bones, all very well preserved, as well as some of the clothing he had been wearing, including his winter gloves and booties.
Mike had been shot in the face and he was still wearing his wedding ring.
Denise was then arrested in May of 2018, charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and accessory after the fact. Later that year she was also charged with insurance fraud for the money she collected after Mike was officially declared dead. In February 2019, she was sentenced to life in prison. Her lawyers maintain that she had no knowledge of the murder and that Brian had acted alone.
Brian was granted immunity for his testimony against Denise.
Cheryl Williams felt that justice had been served. However, Denise had not only taken her son away from her, but also her granddaughter. Mike’s only child, Anslee, was awarded all assets of her late father’s estate and insurance money after her mother signed them over to her in an attempt to avoid prosecution on three counts of insurance fraud.
Anslee was estranged from her grandmother for most of her life. She was only 18 months old when her father went missing. Following the trial, Anslee agreed to let law enforcement turn over her father’s remains to her grandmother.
After so many years, Cheryl was able to give her son a proper burial and finally lay him to rest.