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Denise Williams Found Guilty Of Conspiracy, 1st Degree Murder & Accessory In Mike Williams' Death

Cheryl Williams, mother of Mike Williams, gets emotional as a jury returns guilty verdicts her former daughter-in-law, Denise Williams, in his 2000 death, and disappearance.

It took a 12 member jury about eight hours of deliberations to return guilty verdicts on all three charges Denise Williams faced in the death of her first husband, Mike Williams, 18 years ago. Mike Williams disappeared the day of the couple's wedding anniversary and was initially presumed to have drowned and been eaten by alligators during a solo hunting trip at Lake Seminole.

It was a lie Denise Williams and Mike's best friend, Brian Winchester, would carry with them for the next 16 years. Six months after Mike Williams disappeared, Denise Williams was granted a presumptive death certificate, a move an estate attorney told the jury was rare. Such a declaration usually takes five years. She also recieved $1.75 million in life insurance money, including a million-dollar policy written by Winchester only months prior.

Five years after Mike Williams' death, Denise Williams and Winchester got married. But their marriage began to dissolve around 2012, and in 2016 Winchester kidnapped her at gunpoint.

In October 2017, he struck a plea deal with state prosecutors. In exchange for immunity from prosecution for the murder and a 20-year prison sentence for kidnapping,  Winchester confessed he'd pushed Mike Williams out of the boat,  then shot him in the head once he surfaced and didn't drown. Winchester claimed he and Denise planned the murder so they could be together, and he led state investigators to Mike's body.

In December 2017, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced they'd found Mike Williams, and that the murder was now a homicide. 

During trial, friends and acquaintences told the jury they suspected Denise and Brian were having an affair which allegedly began three years prior to the murder at a Sister Hazel concert at the old Floyd's music store on West Tennessee Street. Kathy Thomas, Winchester's ex-wife, says she shared the same suspicion but didn't have definitive proof. She noted when the group was together, she often felt, "like a third wheel."

Between January and February of 2018, Thomas recorded several phone calls between herself and Denise Williams. In one, she directly accuses Denise of planning to kill Mike Williams, a charge Denise  did not deny. At a different point in the calls, Thomas suggests that Mike Williams suspected Denise was cheating on him. 

"I just know he [Mike Williams] would have said, ‘why didn’t you ever tell me?' That’s how he is, he is good and honest. He’s not like us," Thomas said. 

The defense attorney for Denise Williams claimed Winchester was lying, and that he implicated her for revenge. They also claimed there was no hard proof Denise committed or knew about the crime.

During his testimony, Brian Winchester says he tried to tell Denise how he killed Mike Williams, but she did not want to hear it.

"She told me she assumed that when his body was never found that what we’d planned did not happen. And that it never made sense to her that I was able to get to the shoreline but he didn’t. But that it was okay, that we were forgiven, and we were like David and Bathsheba and God was going to forgive us.”

He also says the two discussed killing his then-wife, Kathy Thomas, but that he refused because he didn't want to kill the mother of his child. Denise Williams and Mike Williams also shared a child. 

A case management hearing has been set for December 18th where a sentencing date will possibly be determined. 

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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