Why Wasn't The Shooter Charged In This Twisted, 17-Year-Old Murder Mystery?

Seventeen years after the fact, authorities found out that Mike Williams was shot in the head by his friend, Brian Winchester — who never faced murder charges.

By Erik Hawkins
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Injustice With Nancy Grace Bonus: Nancy Grace Says Mike Williams' Case Cut Her' To The Core'

Mike Williams, of Tallahassee, Florida, went duck hunting on Lake Seminole one December morning in 2000, and never returned. After a search that authorities at the time described as “massive and intense,” everyone gave up hope but Williams’ mother, Cheryl.

Refusing to believe the prevailing theory — that Mike drowned, and his body was likely eaten by alligators — Cheryl lobbied the Florida Department of Law Enforcement aggressively for years to reopen the case; in 2009, she started entreating Gov. Rick Scott once a day by letter to appoint a special prosecutor, according to the Tallahassee Democrat, which has reported extensively on the story.

It was the injustice of Mike Williams’ murder, and the subsequently abandoned investigation, that grabbed the attention of television’s most trusted legal analyst, Nancy Grace. However, in 2017, when charges were finally filed relating to Williams’ death, the man who murdered him was not charged.

Sometimes, “justice doesn’t feel like justice,” Grace says on the latest episode of “Injustice With Nancy Grace,” after taking a deep dive into the 17-year story of Williams’ brutal death, and his mother’s tireless quest for answers.

As told by Grace and friends, family and investigators on the episode, a number of facts surrounding Mike’s disappearance didn’t sit well with people close to him. His wife of six years, Denise (née Merrell), accepted that Mike was dead soon after authorities gave up the search; in June, 2001, she petitioned a circuit court judge to declare her husband legally dead, according to the Democrat. The death declaration allowed Denise to collect on $2 million in life insurance policies.

Meanwhile, Mike’s mother was perplexed.

“Cheryl couldn't understand why the people who were supposed to love Mike the most were not equally concerned with finding him,” Grace said on the show.

Further arousing suspicion, Denise began openly dating Brian Winchester, an old friend of Mike’s, shortly after his disappearance. Winchester had, months before, helped the couple take out one of the life insurance policies she soon began to collect on.

In 2005, the two married.

“We have a widow married to the guy who wrote the million-dollar insurance policy,” Grace said on the show. “We call that a clue.”

The couple went about their daily life, ignoring the suspicions of Cheryl and others that were close to Mike, until their marriage took a dark turn. As told by a prosecutor from the State Attorney’s office on “Injustice,” Winchester began using drugs and having sex with prostitutes; he and Denise separated in November 2012, and she filed for divorce in 2015. However, things were about to go from bad to worse.

In August 2016, Winchester snuck into the back of Denise’s car and held her at gunpoint , according to the Tallahassee Democrat. Winchester pleaded with his estranged wife to halt the divorce proceedings, all while pressing a semi-automatic pistol into her ribs.

“He had completely lost it, and he kept saying, ‘I’ve lost everything. I have nothing to live for,’” Denise told police in a videotaped interview after the kidnapping featured on the episode.

Denise managed to talk Winchester down, and promised him not to tell anyone about the incident, but went to the sheriff’s office immediately afterward, the Democrat reported.

Detectives took the opportunity to prod Denise a bit on her former husband’s still unsolved disappearance, but she didn’t take the bait. “I’m not comfortable talking about that right now,” she said.

And so, after arresting Winchester for the kidnapping, detectives leaned hard on him about what happened with Mike. Winchester quickly folded, revealing that his affair with Denise began in 1997, and taking detectives through the sequence of events that ended with him shooting Mike in the head while he struggled in the waters of Lake Seminole — all at the urging of Denise, who was afraid of losing her daughter if she went through divorce proceedings with Mike, according to Winchester.

“How cold-blooded is that?” Grace commented on the episode.

Police would eventually, with Winchester’s help, recover Mike’s remains, and file charges. However, Winchester was only charged with kidnapping and aggravated assault — in exchange for his testimony against Denise, he was given immunity from the murder prosecution.

Denise was found guilty of first-degree murder for plotting the murder of her husband, and sentenced to life in February 2019.

On the show, Mike Williams’ mother, Cheryl, can be seen on video after Denise’s guilty verdict was read.

“Justice is what I wanted for Mike,” she said. “That's what I've been fighting for for 17 years.”

To hear Winchester tell, in police audio, the whole shocking story of how he murdered Mike Williams, at Denise Williams’ behest, watch Episode 2 of “Injustice With Nancy Grace,” which aired on Saturday, July 20 on Oxygen.

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