TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The conviction of a woman who helped mastermind the killing of her husband nearly two decades can be traced to one person who never gave up.
Jurors on Friday convicted Denise Williams of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder for her role in the case. The 48-year-old Williams was found guilty after testimony by a key witness in the case, the man who shot her husband Mike Williams on a cold December morning on a large lake west of Tallahassee.
Mike Williams' mother, Cheryl Williams, spent 17 years searching for truth and justice in the disappearance of her son.
Mike Williams left early on the morning of Dec. 16, 2000, to go hunting, and initially some speculated he had fallen from his boat and that his body had been devoured by alligators. His disappearance triggered a massive search by authorities.
"Fish and Game told me to my face, 'Ms. Williams, I don’t like to tell a mother that her son got eaten by alligators,'" Cheryl Williams said.
It was a week later when she visited the lake herself on Christmas Day.
"All of a sudden, a voice comes in my head, 'Mike is not in Lake Seminole. He did not drown,'" Cheryl Williams said.
Nine months later, Cheryl Williams got the local paper to write about the disappearance. She said Denise Williams was livid.
"She might as well have waved a red flag in front of a bull," Cheryl Williams said. "I knew that she knew where he was or what happened to him."
What followed was a relentless campaign. Cheryl Williams put up billboards, paid for a full-page ad in the newspaper and wrote thousands of letters to the governor. The campaign came at the cost of her retirement.
"It did. I don’t have any savings," Cheryl Williams said.
The effort also cost Cheryl Williams visitation with her granddaughter, who turned 19 the day her mother was arrested.
"She was all we had left of Mike," Cheryl Williams said.
In the end, Cheryl Williams said God told her not to quit.
"It took 18 years, but the people got punished," Cheryl Williams said.
Prosecutors contended Denise Williams plotted the killing in a scheme seeking a $1.75 million life insurance payout.
Brian Winchester testified he had an affair with Denise Williams and shot her husband in December 2000. He eventually married Denise Williams in December 2005, but the relationship soured and they divorced in 2016. Winchester, a financial planner and insurance agent, had been described as Mike Williams' best friend and sold him a $1 million insurance policy months before he disappeared.
The case broke open after Winchester kidnapped his ex-wife at gunpoint in 2016. He eventually made a deal with prosecutors where he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for that crime. But Winchester ultimately led authorities to the remains of Mike Williams and agreed to testify against Denise Williams.
On Tuesday, a judge set a Feb. 6 sentencing date for Denise Williams. She is guaranteed a life sentence for her murder conviction. She also faces life for conspiracy to murder and being an accessory after the fact.
Attorneys for Denise Williams maintained Winchester lied to get revenge.