A Florida woman has been convicted of helping to mastermind the murder of her husband in 2000 after police initially speculated he’d been eatedn by alligators.
A jury found Denise Williams guilty of three counts, including first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The verdict came after jurors heard testimony that the 48-year-old woman conspired to kill her husband, Jerry Michael “Mike” Williams — with help from his best friend, Brian Winchester.
According to testimony, Mike Williams packed up his boat on Dec. 16, 2000, to go duck-hunting on Florida’s Lake Seminole. The 31-year-old father had planned to spend a few hours out on the water and then return home for a weekend anniversary trip with his wife.
But he 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 been eaten by alligators.
But authorities pieced together what they believed had what happened: Denise 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.
Winchester was a key witness for the prosecution during the five-day trial, and in return for his testimony, he got immunity from prosecution in Mike’s death.
Last 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.”
Assistant State Attorney Jon Fuchs told 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, she ensured that Mike went on that fateful hunting trip in 2000.
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.
RELATED: Was a Florida Man Eaten by Alligators After a Boating Accident — or Did it Just Look that Way?
Denise’s defense, however, insisted 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.”
But the jurors seemed to believe Winchester. After deliberating for eight hours, they returned with a guilty verdict.
According to the Associated Press, Mike Williams’s friends and family wept in the courtroom after the verdict.
“I am just happy we were able to do our job as a team and bring justice to Mike and his family,” Prosecutor Jon Fuchs told reporters after the verdict.
Defense attorney Ethan Way told reporters after the trial that his client Denise Williams was “stunned” by the verdict.
“It’s terrible, it’s the wrong verdict on the facts,” he told reporters, according to the Associated Press. “But I think you have to respect what the jury does. Obviously I don’t believe she’s guilty of any of the three counts, I don’t think anyone on the defense team does.”
Williams faces life in prison. She will be formally sentenced early next year. Her attorneys have vowed to appeal the verdict.
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