'Mastermind' in husband's 2000 killing gets life in prison

Florida woman convicted of planning husband's murder

By Mike Vasilinda - Tallahassee Bureau Chief, Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A Florida woman convicted of helping mastermind the killing of her husband nearly two decades ago has been sentenced to life in prison.

A circuit judge sentenced Denise Williams on Wednesday, also giving her 30 years for conspiracy.

Williams was convicted last December of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder for her role in a case that recalled the plot of the Hollywood classic "Double Indemnity."

Williams conspired with her husband's best friend -- who was also her lover -- to murder her husband on their sixth wedding anniversary in December 2000. Prosecutors argued that she plotted the killing in a scheme to get a $1.75 million life insurance payout.

Brian Winchester, the best friend, testified he had an affair with Williams and shot her husband in December 2000. Winchester helped authorities find Mike Williams' buried body in 2017.

Attorneys for Denise Williams maintained Winchester lied to get revenge. 

Denise Williams' conviction can be traced to one person who never gave up: Mike Williams' mother.

“I don’t like having to ask a judge to put her in jail for the rest of her life. But what she did to Mike -- she deserves (that punishment)" Cheryl Williams said after the sentencing. "Today, I think God gave us justice. Everything I did, God told me to do.”

The case had gone cold and police believed Denise Williams' duck hunting husband had been eaten by alligators. But Cheryl Williams held signs and paid for billboards to convince police to investigate her son's death.

“She can never get out on parole. That's justice, and that’s what I wanted. That's what I’ve been fighting for," Cheryl Williams said.

She said God sent her a message as she stood on the bank of the lake on Christmas 2000 that her son was not in the lake where he was supposed to have died.

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.

Photograph of Mike Williams

Brian Winchester eventually married Denise Williams in December 2005, but the relationship soured and they divorced in 2016. Winchester, a financial planner and insurance agent, 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.

Because of her efforts, Cheryl Williams is now being asked to help find other missing victims across the country.

Copyright 2018 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.