TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It took only 15 minutes inside a Leon County courtroom Wednesday to bring 18 years of mystery surrounding the disappearance of Mike Williams to finality.
His widow, 48-year-old Denise Williams, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for her role in his murder on Dec. 16, 2000. She received an additional 30 years in prison for conspiring to kill him.
Just as she had during her trial in December, Williams sat stone-faced while Mike Williams’ mother asked Leon Circuit Judge James Hankinson to order her locked up for the rest of her life.
“My son’s horrific death demands justice,” Cheryl Williams said in her victim impact statement. Her voice frequently cracked as she recounted her 17-year crusade to learn the truth about her son’s killing. “With today’s sentencing of Denise Merrell Williams Winchester, I believe justice will have been served.”
While Denise Williams was convicted of the murder, Mike Williams’ best friend and her former lover, Brian Winchester, admitted to shooting him in the face on Lake Seminole when their plans to make his death look like a hunting accident went awry. Winchester said the plot evolved so he and Denise Williams could be together without her suffering the shame of a divorce and she could collect nearly $2 million in life insurance.
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Cheryl Williams told the judge and a packed courtroom how her life changed the morning her former daughter-in-law called her to say her son hadn’t come home from a duck hunting trip.
She recounted the 2,600 letters she wrote to the governor asking for Mike’s disappearance to be investigated, how she stood on street corners with a missing person sign only to be cursed by preachers, how she was criticized and called crazy by many, including law enforcement and her former in-laws.
“I am a fighter, not a victim. If I had not done what I did for 17 years, Mike’s disappearance never would have been solved,” she said from her wheelchair with her son Nick Williams at her side. “There is no manual to tell a mother what to do when her child goes missing. I just did what God put on my heart to do.”
Cheryl Williams never believed the theory reinforced by the families of Denise Williams and Winchester that Mike Williams fell from his boat by accident, drowned in the Jackson County lake and was eaten by alligators. Her mother’s instinct was brutally validated in December 2017 when officials announced his murdered body had been found in Leon County, buried in the muck along Carr Lake just 5 miles from the home where he grew up.
Winchester, who is serving a 20-year prison sentence for the armed kidnapping of his then-estranged wife Denise Williams, led them to the spot after receiving immunity from prosecution for Mike Williams’ murder. In his confession, he told investigators he pushed his friend out of the boat to drown him, but he got free of his waders and made it to the surface. Instead of helping him, Winchester fired his shotgun.
“For the rest of my life, when I try to sleep at night I will see my son clinging to a tree stump in Lake Seminole in the dark,” Cheryl Williams choked, “knowing that his best friend is trying to kill him. I hear his voice screaming for help. I wasn’t there to help him. It will haunt me forever.”
She told Hankison no amount of prison time would bring back her son, but called on him to lock up Denise Williams for the rest of her life with no chance of ever being free.
“Not only did Denise steal my son. She stole my granddaughter Anslee, Mike’s only daughter,” she said. “She has already lived 18 years longer than my son. She got to watch Mike’s daughter grow up, Nick and I didn’t. Please don’t allow Denise to ever be around any of her future grandchildren because one generation of Williams’ children growing up around murders is enough.”
Cheryl Williams was the only speaker during the hearing. No one spoke on behalf of Denise Williams, who quietly shook her head in disagreement as Cheryl spoke about her granddaughter.
After the hearing, Assistant State Attorney Jon Fuchs said it was important that Cheryl Williams be allowed to address the court given her tireless efforts.
“She is the one who has driven this since day one,” he said. “We are only here because of her perseverance throughout all of this.”
After leaving the courthouse, Cheryl and Nick Williams went to Roselawn Cemetery where Mike Williams’ remains were buried last year. She’d not yet seen the new headstone, placed there about three weeks ago.
Just like she wanted, it doesn’t simply note the day her son died, it is etched in the stone that on Dec. 16, 2000, he was murdered.
“In 100 years from now when somebody is in the cemetery, it might make them go back and look and wonder what happened to him,” she said. “I just feel really sad that my son, he didn’t get to live his life.”
Follow Karl Etters on Twitter: @KarlEtters