Florida woman Denise Williams is on trial for the 2000 death of her husband, which she is accused of orchestrating with his best friend, Brian Winchester

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Mike and Denise Williams wedding photo.Credit: Courtesy Cheryl Williams
Credit: Courtesy Cheryl Williams

Jerry Michael “Mike” Williams packed up his boat on Dec. 16, 2000, to go duck-hunting on Florida’s Lake Seminole. He planned to spend a few hours out on the water and then return home for a weekend anniversary trip with his wife, Denise Williams.

But Mike, then 31, never made it back — beginning a 17-year mystery that was only recently solved, authorities say.

When he first disappeared, his father-in-law searched for him and found his abandoned boat. His vehicle was still on the shore. But there was no sign of Mike. Police speculated that he had fallen into the water and was eaten by alligators.

But now authorities have a different theory about what happened: Denise allegedly conspired to murder her husband along with his best friend, Brian Winchester.

Their suspected motive? A secret romance and lots of money.

Denise and Winchester, who married in 2005, had Mike declared dead after he vanished and collected on three life insurance policies worth more than $1.75 million.

An affair that may have led to murder eventually itself turned violent, leading to revelations about Mike’s fate, according to prosecutors. Denise and Winchester split in 2016 and, in 2017, he pleaded guilty to kidnapping his ex-wife at gunpoint.

He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. A day later, authorities announced that they had found Mike’s remains.

Winchester confessed to shooting Mike in the head and burying him in a remote area. He also claimed that he and Denise conspired together in the murder so that they could be together.

Denise, now 48, is being tried for first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and accessory after the fact. Her trial opened this week, with Winchester as a key witness for the prosecution. She has pleaded not guilty.

News: Mike Williams Murder
Denise Williams (center)
| Credit: Joe Rondone/Democrat/USA Today

In court on Tuesday, Assistant State Attorney Jon Fuchs reportedly told the jurors that the case was all about “sex, lies and deceit.” He said that although Denise did not pull the trigger, she was as culpable in his death as Winchester and, crucially, ensured that Mike went on that fateful hunting trip in 2000.

Fuchs’ opening statement as well as court testimony further laid out a series of emotional and sexual entanglements between the Williams and the Winchesters, who had known each other since attending school as children.

Winchester’s wife at the time of the slaying, Kathy Thomas, remained friends with Denise for years — even after Denise and Winchester wed following his divorce from Thomas, Fuchs said. Thomas later turned informant for the police.

Denise’s defense, however, insists that the state has no case and is relying on the word of an admitted criminal with good reason to lie.

“There’s no tangible evidence or physical evidence to connect Denise Williams to this crime,” attorney Philip Padovano told jurors, according to the Associated Press. “No confession, no admission, nothing.”

Padovano added that for the jury to convict, they would “have to rely on the word of a murderer and a convicted felon.”

News: Mike Williams Murder
The area where Mike Williams’ remains were found in Florida
| Credit: Ryan Dailey/Democrat/USA Today

On Wednesday, Winchester took the stand and tearfully described the plan to kill Mike. He told jurors that he had originally intended to drown Mike but panicked as a struggle ensued. He said that he pulled out his gun and shot his former friend.

“When I shot him, it was dark and there was a bright flash,” Winchester testified, before claiming that he was pressured by Denise to kill her husband. “I had to make it happen,” he said. “I had no choice.”

The trial is expected to continue for about two weeks. The state rested its case early Thursday, after Thomas testified, the Tallahassee Democrat reports.

It is unclear whether Denise will take the stand in her defense.