“When you shot Mike Williams at Lake Seminole, was Denise Williams there with you?”
“No, she was in my head with me. We were best friends. ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ We were partners in crime. Were we obsessed with each other? You could say that.”
That was Brian Winchester’s shocking confession in a Tallahassee courtroom this week, admitting to fatally shooting his best friend and lover’s husband, Mike Williams, in the head during a 2000 boating trip before joining the search party to trick investigators.
But Winchester, a 48-year-old former insurance agent already incarcerated for another crime, was not the one on trial.
According to prosecutors, Mike’s high-school sweetheart Denise Williams orchestrated the slaying of her husband in order to secure a massive insurance payout.
And on Friday night, a jury agreed, finding the widow guilty of first-degree murder after eight hours of deliberations. The 48-year-old mother of one now faces life in prison.
The state of Florida alleged that she planned the murder with Winchester—in the midst of a three-year affair with him—to collect on his $1.75-million life insurance policy. That insurance policy was arranged by her lover.
“In the end, the state is going to ask you to end 21 years—three years, plus the 18 years of the sex, lies and deceit—and find her guilty of these particular crimes,” Assistant State Attorney Jon Fuchs told Judge James C. Hankinson and a 12-person jury in an opening statement that noted how the alleged scheme resembles the plot of 1940s film-noir classic Double Indemnity.
Winchester’s courtroom confession added a twist to a dramatic murder trial that also included testimony about an extramarital threesome. Jurors had to decide whether Denise Williams was a willing participant in a murder plot, or if she only knew as much as investigators did and believed her husband had been attacked by alligators after he didn’t come home from a duck-hunting trip.
Her defense team fought against Winchester’s confession by noting that, as her attorney Philip Padovano said at Leon County Circuit court on Wednesday, “There is no tangible evidence or physical evidence tying Denise Williams to this crime.”
Padovano attempted to paint Winchester as a violent, unreliable witness, telling the jury how following Mike Williams’ death, Winchester and Denise Williams married in 2005. In an act of desperation to save their failing marriage, the lawyer said, Winchester kidnapped her at gunpoint in 2016, and is now serving 20 years in prison for that crime. Prosecutors granted him immunity in this trial in exchange for his testimony about the alleged murder plot.
“The issue you’re going to have to decide is whether to believe him,” Padovano said. “All you’re going to have to go on is the word of the man who actually committed the murder.”
On Dec. 16, 2000—the Williams' sixth wedding anniversary—authorities began a 44-day search for his body in Lake Seminole at the Florida-Georgia border.
Police confirmed that a few days prior to the search, he had told his wife he was going duck-hunting with some friends, but planned to be back just in time for their planned trip to Apalachicola, a coastal city on the Florida panhandle.
When he never returned, Denise Williams alerted authorities, who immediately arranged a search party.
Among the searchers was Winchester, who originally told police that his father had called him with the worrisome news, so they headed down to the lake with their boat together to help. His first wife and high-school sweetheart, Kathy Thomas, testified Wednesday that on the day of the murder, Brian Winchester was late for their family Christmas party, but she did not recall any unusual behavior.
“I didn’t suspect anything other than they two were having an affair at the time,” Thomas said.
After hours of futile searching, the party only found Williams’ hunting license, jacket, and lake waders. Investigators concluded he had probably been eaten by alligators.
“[My dad] was searching, and I was just lying,” Winchester admitted through tears on Tuesday, as a reportedly emotionless Williams stared at her ex-husband. “I think we were the last ones on the lake. My dad didn’t want to give up.”
But while investigators were unable to find Williams’ body, Winchester testified that the alleged murder plot did not go as planned.
Fighting back more tears, Winchester explained that he and Denise Williams became romantically involved in 1998, while they were both still married. The two wanted to be together but couldn’t bring themselves to divorce their spouses since both couples had been friends since their high-school days at North Florida Christian.
“Whenever it was just me with Brian and Denise, it was uncomfortable,” Thomas reportedly testified, referring to a Panama City Beach trip she declined to join. “I felt like the third wheel, I felt like I was on a date with the two of them.”
Thomas was recruited as an informant in the case and told authorities that she had a three-way sexual experience with Denise and Winchester before Mike Williams’ death.
Prosecutors said that during the 2001 Panama City trip, lurid photos were taken of the trio as they partied and went to a strip club. Winchester testified that the images were taken after Mike’s death.
“They are photographs of Denise with my first wife, Kathy, of a sexual nature,” he told the courtroom.
According to Winchester, Denise didn’t want to leave Mike “because she didn’t want split custody of their baby daughter,” and they came up with what he called the “boating accident” plan: Williams would drown after being pushed out of a duck-hunting boat, his full-suit waders filling with water and dragging him to the lake’s bottom.
Instead, Winchester explained in court, Williams held on to a nearby tree stump, and began yelling for help. Winchester said he then circled around his friend, who was struggling to get out of his heavy hunting gear, several times before shooting him from three feet away with a 12-gauge shotgun.
“I didn’t know how to get out of that situation, so I loaded my gun and made one or two circles around and I got closer to him and he was in the water and as I passed by I shot him in the head,” Winchester said, handcuffed on the stand, wearing a blue prison uniform.
The former insurance agent explained how he then “put the top half of [William’s body] into a dog crate” to contain the bleeding and called Denise to tell her that the plan changed but did not explain the details.
“It was OK, we were forgiven," he explained, before evoking a biblical murderous couple, “we were like David and Bathsheba because God was going to forgive us.”
He added: “We promised each other neither one of us would ever say anything. Because we knew the only way they’d get anything is if one of us talked.”
For years, because there was no body, the Williams case remained a missing-persons investigation, police confirmed to The Daily Beast. But after pressure from Williams’ mother, Cheryl Williams, the case was reopened in 2004 by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
In court on Wednesday, Cheryl testified about the first time Denise confronted her “about trying to get her to stop looking for Mike,” describing how Denise “was yelling” at her, and threatening that she “will not get to see Mike's daughter again” if she kept digging.
Ultimately the case was reopened because of a little-known fact about alligator eating habits.
“We learned, in fact, alligators do not eat during the winter months because the water is too cold,” a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “We immediately suspected foul play.”
Six years later, police reclassified Williams’ disappearance as a suspicious death, and authorities learned about Denise’s new marriage to Winchester, and her windfall of $1.75 million from her late husband’s life-insurance policy.
“It became quite clear to me from that interview that they were suspicious of what happened,” Winchester said, describing his initial talks with investigators in 2010. “And not only that, they were suspicious of me and Denise.”
Last year, one day after Winchester pleaded no-contest to kidnapping his now ex-wife, authorities announced that Mike Williams’ remains were found at the end of a dead-end Florida street.
Police connected an unidentified body they had found two months earlier to “new information” they received from none other than Brian Winchester, who told authorities of his connection to the cold case in exchange for immunity.
In court, medical examiner Dr. Lisa Flanagan testified that Mike's body had skull fractures and birdshot pellets within his skull. She ruled the cause of death to be a gunshot to the head.
But Denise Williams’ defense team maintained that all evidence is purely circumstantial.
“He will be able to testify as he pleases about this without any fear that the state will be able to use that testimony against him,” Padovano told jurors on Tuesday. “Mr. Winchester has a motive to lie to you. He has a motive to make up this accusation against Mrs. Williams.
He added: “He didn’t mention anything about her alleged participation in this murder until he realized he was facing a life sentence in this kidnapping and after he realized Mrs. Williams was going to go into court and ask for a life sentence.”
“Brian Winchester got the sweetheart deal of the century,” Denise’s other lawyer, Ethan Way, told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “He can say whatever he wants at this point and it doesn’t affect him.”
Authorities arrested Williams at her fifth-floor office at Florida State University on May 8, the day of her daughter Anslee’s 19th birthday. She pleaded not guilty and was held without bail. In August, Williams, who did not testify at her trial, was also charged with insurance fraud for the $1.75 million she collected in 2001, after a judge had declared her ex-husband dead by accidental drowning.
After the verdict was announced, Mike Williams mother expressed relief to prosecutors, telling them, “We got justice for Mike.”