Mike Williams, a successful 31-year-old real estate appraiser, left home to go duck hunting on Lake Seminole in Florida on Dec. 16, 2000. His wife Denise said he set out early and promised to be back by noon so they could celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary that evening. When he didn't return home, Denise started calling around looking for him. Six hours later, a massive search was underway.
Law enforcement, friends and family set out to find Williams, says Jennifer Portman, who has covered the story for the >Tallahassee Democrat
>Tallahassee Democratand is a "48 Hours" consultant.
"They found the boat, his truck – that was all there," Portman tells "48 Hours" correspondent Richard Schlesinger.
Williams was nowhere to be found.
The search was called off after 44 days. Williams was listed as "still missing." Some wondered if he'd just run off. Then another explanation was offered: he was snatched by an alligator.
Scott Dungey, one of Williams' best friends, had gone up in a helicopter as part of the search. "And, you know, one of the things that I noticed – there were no less than 15 to 20 very large alligators swimming all around this area."
"People are attacked by alligators," says Portman. "Little dogs are eaten by alligators. But you never hear of someone who's just vanished, eaten by – whole – by an alligator."
Six months after he went missing, a local fisherman found a pair of waders in Lake Seminole. And two days later, Williams' fishing jacket, hunting license and a flashlight were found at the same spot.
Williams' mother, Cheryl Williams, never believed her son was eaten by alligators or died by accident. Her mother's intuition told her that something bad had happened and she was determined not to give up until someone took her seriously. She compiled 27 pages of single-spaced notes and evidence and wrote the governor of Florida every day for nine years. She contacted wildlife experts who told her that alligators do not feed in cold winter months.
"She was absolutely possessed with finding this out, what had happened to Mike," says Patti Ketcham, the wife of Williams' boss and friend, Clay Ketcham. "He didn't just fall out of the boat. This wasn't just a hunting accident."
You've got to really love duck hunting to love Lake Seminole. It's shallow, it's swampy, and it's popular with the local alligators. Mike Williams really did love duck hunting. And people say that's why he came here alone, well before dawn on Dec. 16, 2000.
His wife said the plan was that Mike would be back home in time to celebrate his wedding anniversary.
But 12 hours later, after his wife reported him missing, Lake Seminole would be swarming with rescuers searching for Mike Williams on land, on the water and in the air.
Richard Schlesinger [looking at a map]: Can you show me the area that you guys searched in?
Alton Ranew | Florida Fish and Wildlife Officer: Basically this area, from here to there. About 5 acres.
Alton Ranew and David Arnette were among the first law enforcement officers to get a call about a missing duck hunter.
David Arnette | Florida Fish and Wildlife Officer: What we thought had happened is that he possibly fell out of the boat or capsized.
Richard Schlesinger: Is it unusual for people to fall out of boats while they're huntin' for ducks?
Alton Ranew: It's not unusual. It happens, um, quite often out here, as far as they might hit a stump and throw 'em out.
Early the next morning, there was a break. Mike's boat was found. On board were some decoys and his shotgun, but no sign of Mike himself.
Alton Ranew: We done a grid search … very slow, meticulous grid search, back and forth over the search area.
And what began as a search and rescue soon turned into a search for a body.
Alton Ranew: We stayed with that grid until we covered this whole area.
Cadaver dogs were brought in, while teams scoured the murky bottom of Lake Seminole in a gruesome search for Mike's body that was high intensity and low tech.
Richard Schlesinger [on an airboat, holding a PVC pipe pole]: This is the tool of your trade, right?
Alton Ranew: That was actually one of the poles.
Richard Schlesinger: And all you do is put it in the water and see if you feel anything.
Alton Ranew: If it's a log, it's kind of a thump, kind of a hard thump, if it would've been … a body, you hit it, it's kinda like a pillow.
Richard Schlesinger: Did you feel something ever on the bottom that felt like a body?
Alton Ranew: Never. Never.
Williams vanished one day before his sixth wedding anniversary. He met his wife Denise at North Florida Christian High School. He was a football player; she was a cheerleader. He was president of the student council; she was the secretary.
Richard Schlesinger: How'd they seem together?
Scott Dungey: Great couple.
Scott Dungey met Mike in high school. He and his wife Anessa were among Mike's best friends.
Scott Dungey: If you knew Mike, he's the kind of person that uh, is gonna do anything and everything for you. So Denise, you know, found a gem.
They both graduated from Florida State University. Denise became an accountant for the state; Mike became a real estate appraiser, working for Clay Ketcham.
Clay Ketcham: This kid was straight as an arrow. He really, truly was.
Clay and his wife Patti got to know Mike well.
Clay Ketcham: He was an unbelievable worker. It was not uncommon for him to do 15-hour days. I mean, he would be in there early, work until 1:00 or 2:00 in the mornin' and then be right back. He had incredible energy.
Before long, Mike's career took off. And that's when he married Denise.
Clay Ketcham: He loved his wife. He even would leave the office and go pump her gas.
Richard Schlesinger: I'm sorry, go pump her gas?
Clay Ketcham: Yes. She would call him and say [laughs], "Mike, I need gas." And Mike would run over there, pump her gas and run back. We all said we wanted to be married to Mike [laughs].
Just before Mother's Day in 1999, Denise gave birth to the couple's daughter. And by chance, a local Tallahassee TV station, WCTV, was at the hospital:
DENISE WILLIAMS : We're just totally overwhelmed. She was due Tuesday and she would have made me wait a whole 'nother year for Mother's Day.
MIKE WILLIAMS: It was unbelievable. I have a whole new respect for my wife and women in general and what they go through to bring a, a new child, new life into the world.
Nineteen months after he became a father, Mike was missing. And the longer the search lasted on Lake Seminole, the harder it was on the searchers, who were afraid of what they might find.
One of Mike's oldest friends, Brian Winchester, was out there looking for him from the start. And it was Brian who discovered Mike's empty boat.
Brett Ketcham: Brian decided that we didn't want to be there when Mike's body was pulled up.
Brett Ketcham was with Brian during the search.
Brett Ketcham: So we would get in a car and drive to a gas station and go get a Coke. And it was very emotional trips. I mean, it was, you know, crying. And it was tough.
The search was called off after 44 days. Rescuers could find no trace of Mike Williams. He was listed officially as "still missing" and some people wondered if he had just run off.
David Arnette: Maybe he just abandoned his family or somethin' like that. That -- that was the strongest scenario of everything that we had.
Richard Schlesinger: Do you believe that? I mean, did you think that was possible?
David Arnette: I thought that was a possibility.
Richard Schlesinger: What did you think?
Patti Ketcham: We knew Mike had not run off. I mean, he loved his family and he adored his daughter. Adored her. So Mike did not run off. This was not some elaborate ruse.
Soon there was another explanation offered for why Mike's body could not be found: that he had been snatched by an alligator.
Scott Dungey: Alligators -- they don't eat you right then. And this is morbid to talk about, but they go stuff you somewhere for six months and -- and then come back later.
One of the rescue teams agreed, writing, "the alligators have dismembered and have stored the remains in a location that we would not be able to find."
But there was at least one person who had serious doubts about that theory -- Mike's mother Cheryl.
Patti Ketcham: She pretty early on … believed that there was more to this. And that he was not in Lake Seminole. I think she just thought something -- something's not right here.
A MOTHER'S INTUITION
Six months after Mike Williams disappeared investigators had no new leads and no real hope of finding him. And then, what could be a break bubbled up from the muck of Lake Seminole.
Alton Ranew [on an airboat]: That pole is markin' a spot where the waders had popped up.
A local fisherman found a pair of waders -- waterproof pants with attached boots -- which were believed to have belonged to Williams.
Richard Schlesinger [on an airboat]: Did it makes sense to you that they popped up here? I mean ...you had searched that area, right?
Alton Ranew: We had searched it many times.
Richard Schlesinger Well?
Alton Ranew: Very well.
Then, two days after that, Mike's fishing jacket and his hunting license were found at the same spot, along with a flashlight.
But Williams was still missing. His wife Denise was raising their 2-year-old daughter, alone.
Clay Ketcham: Denise was a doting mother. … the pride and joy of her life.
But Scott Dungey says now that Denise was a single mom, money was getting tight.
Scott Dungey: I was helping her with some of the items that needed to be sold and to generate some cash until the insurance money came.
And there was a lot of insurance money involved. Williams had three policies worth more than $1.75 million.
Patti Ketcham: Mike wanted to make sure his family was taken care of because Mike hunted and fished and did some pretty high risk activity … And Clay really encouraged him to load up.
With her expenses reportedly mounting, Denise went after the insurance money quickly.
Jennifer Portman: While the search, itself, is still going on, while he is still actively missing, they're still actively searching for him -- she is going and filing a claim against his life insurance.
Jennifer Portman has covered this case for the Tallahassee Democrat and is a "48 Hours" consultant.
Jennifer Portman: She was really ready to accept the fact that he was missing and presumed dead very early on.
But the State of Florida was not. According to Florida law, since there was no proof Williams had died, he would not be declared dead for five years. Denise did not want to wait that long to collect on Mike's life insurance.
Richard Schlesinger: And how much time did it take in this case?
Jennifer Portman: It took six months. It was very fast-- abnormally fast.
That's because Denise's attorney argued to a judge that the waders, the vest and the hunting license were proof enough that Williams was dead. The judge agreed and issued a death certificate. Cause of death: "Accidental drowning while duck hunting on Lake Seminole -- body has not yet been recovered."
Jennifer Portman: Based on that and that alone was what got him declared dead.
Richard Schlesinger: A pair of waders and a fishing license and some other stuff.
Jennifer Portman: Yep. Yep. Yeah. Exactly.
The case of the missing hunter seemed closed and was soon forgotten by almost everyone. But not by Mike's mother Cheryl Williams.
Richard Schlesinger: Did she believe that her son drowned in Lake Seminole?
Jennifer Portman: She never, ever believed that her son was in the lake.
Richard Schlesinger: Not from day one?
Jennifer Portman: Not from day one.
Richard Schlesinger: What did she think had happened to him?"
Jennifer Portman: She didn't know. All she knew … was that her son was not in that lake. She just knew it, knew it like a mom knows something just deep inside of her. And she was absolutely committed to finding out what happened to him.
Cheryl caught the attention of the local news:
CHERYL WILLIAMS [WCTV-TV REPORT]: It's never out of my head. "Where is this child?" … He may be dead, but he's not in that lake. And if somebody did hurt my child, I want 'em found and I want 'em punished.
Patti Ketcham: I was still, "This is so sad that Cheryl can't accept the fact that Mike in all likelihood, has drowned" … But, this is her child. She's gonna hold out that hope.
Jennifer Portman: Cheryl … started keeping notes of everything, copious notes of all of the … you know, strange things that were going on.
She eventually filled 27 single-spaced pages with lots of unanswered questions like, what made the waders float after 6 ½ months under water? Her notes ended with a plea to anyone who would listen: "Please help me find my son."
Jennifer Portman: She was basically … just trying to compile all of the evidence that she could find and trying to get it in front of someone who would listen to her.
Richard Schlesinger: Well did Denise help her?
Jennifer Portman: Oh no. Denise completely cut her off.
Clay Ketcham: Denise was adamant, no investigation.
Richard Schlesinger: She threatened to withhold Cheryl's granddaughter from her?
Clay Ketcham: Correct … She said, "If you continue to press for this investigation, you will never see your granddaughter again."
Richard Schlesinger: So what did she do?"
Patti Ketcham: She took the energy she would've spent lovin' on that child and tried to find her daddy.
Cheryl pressed on and started poking holes in the official version of what happened to her son.
For years after Mike Williams disappeared there was a theory that the reason his body was never found was that he had been eaten by alligators. It turns out, there's a problem with that theory.
Cheryl contacted Matthew Aresco, an alligator expert. Florida has a few of them. In his response, he explained that alligators do not feed in the cold winter months.
MATT ARESCO [WCTV-TV REPORT]: Cold weather, um, causes water temperatures to drop so alligators don't feed in the winter time.
What's more, Aresco said that when alligators kill there is always forensic evidence left behind. And he said attributing Mike's disappearance to an alligator attack "may be a convenient explanation for the authorities"… but was "virtually impossible."
Jennifer Portman: We're in north Florida. There are a lot of alligators. I will give you that. But … It is winter. Alligators do not eat human beings without leaving a trace in the middle of December when it's cold. It just doesn't happen.
EVIDENCE OF A CRIME?
Jennifer Portman | Tallahassee Democrat reporter: If not for Cheryl Williams, there's no way that we would know where Mike Williams was or anything that ever happened to him. …She was the driving force.
Cheryl Williams knew -- because an expert told her -- that her son was not eaten by an alligator. But she did not know much else about how he vanished.
Jennifer Portman: One of the things that has been so difficult about this case is that there was an absolute lack of physical evidence. You didn't have a body. …You didn't have any of these things that maybe could point you towards something.
But Cheryl had something: those 27 pages of detailed notes. In 2004, four years after Mike disappeared, Cheryl's campaign finally caught the attention of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement [FDLE]. Investigators met with her and then launched a multi-agency investigation.
Richard Schlesinger: When did you first begin thinking this was a crime?
Derrick Wester: Probably the first night we talked to Miss Cheryl.
At the time, Derrick Wester was with the Jackson County Sheriff's Office. He was part of the investigation.
Derrick Wester: She had everything from before he disappeared to when she was sittin' there. She had it all broke down. …And then as she's relayin' this story, all these inconsistencies start adding up.
Richard Schlesinger: Do you remember what some of those inconsistencies were?
Derrick Wester: The insurance…
It was Mike's three life insurance policies that caught their attention – particularly, the last one he bought not long before he disappeared worth $1 million.
Richard Schlesinger How did Mike Williams end up with that million-dollar life insurance policy? Who sold it to him?
Jennifer Portman: Brian Winchester sold him the million-dollar life insurance policy … about six months before he went missing.
Brian Winchester was an insurance agent.
Scott Dungey | Friend of Mike Williams: Y'know, his father had -- a successful insurance company in town, so he had written my life insurance.
Brian Winchester had been Mike's best friend since high school, where, like Mike, he met his future wife, Kathy Aldredge. And from then on, the two couples were inseparable.
Scott Dungey: They did literally everything together. They went out to dinner together, they bought houses at the same time.
Annessa Dungey | Friend of Mike Williams: They got married at the same time, pretty much had babies at the same time.
Scott Dungey: They were very close.
Richard Schlesinger: Brian Winchester was in the insurance business.
Jennifer Portman: He was.
Richard Schlesinger: So it's not that odd that he would sell his friend an insurance policy. Is it?
Jennifer Portman: No. It's not. I mean, just the timing of it, in retrospect, looks a little weird.
That wasn't the only thing that started to look weird. Those waders that popped up in Lake Seminole surfaced just as Denise Williams needed proof that her husband was dead in order to get the insurance money.
Richard Schlesinger: How many days before the court hearing these waders popped up?
Jennifer Portman: Less than a month. I mean, it was really close.
They had supposedly been submerged in the lake for six months.
Alton Ranew | Florida Fish and Wildlife Officer: These waders was -- in very good shape. They were also not slimy.
Richard Schlesinger: And what did that mean?
Alton Ranew: That they had not been in the water very long.
And there was something about that flashlight they also found: it still worked.
Scott Dungey: I went to turn it on thinking there's no way it's gonna turn on, and lo and behold, it worked [laughs]. And so I was like, "Man, I need to get me one of these."
Richard Schlesinger: So you looked at that stuff and you thought to yourself what?
Derrick Wester: Planted.
Richard Schlesinger: It was planted?
Derrick Wester: Uh-huh [affirms].
No one could say for sure who planted it but, as time passed, Denise Williams and Brian Winchester started attracting attention and some suspicion, because years after Mike disappeared, Winchester divorced his wife Kathy. He began dating Denise. And then he married her.
Patti Ketcham | Friend of Mike Williams: We went to the wedding.
Richard Schlesinger: Was she a suspect in your mind at that point?
Patti Ketcham: I think in mine, I was -- yes. …The minister at some point said, "I've counseled with this couple and … they have no secrets I don't know." And Clay and I both went -- [nudges her husband].
Clay Ketcham | Friend and employee of Mike Williams: We kind of nudged each other like, "Well, there might be this one little secret you don't know.
Patti Ketcham: Just a few.
Jennifer Portman: All these things start becoming, like, clear that -- now, we've got the insurance. Now, we've got the waders. …We've got the alligator theory being busted by the experts. So as they're building their case, you know, they talk to people. They start getting somewhere.
One of the first people investigators talked to was Denise Williams.
Derrick Wester: There's no emotion. There's no softenin' up. There -- there's nothin'. I mean, she's just matter-of-fact and cold.
But Brian Winchester had much more to say. He offered detectives an alibi for the morning Mike Williams went missing. He said he was 60 miles away from the lake -- in bed.
Derrick Wester: Brian tells us that - he was goin' huntin' with his father-in-law and overslept.
Richard Schlesinger: You know for a fact that Brian was not telling you the truth then?
Derrick Wester: Uh-huh (affirms).
Winchester could not have known it, but detectives already had a witness who said he saw Brian that morning at Lake Seminole.
Derrick Wester: I know the -- the man personally. I mean, I've known -- I've known him all my life. And -- I composed the lineup. And I took it to him. … Joel says, "Well, he wasn't smilin' like that, but that's him." And he pointed to Brian Winchester.
Richard Schlesinger: And he had seen that same man, he said, when?
Derrick Wester: That morning.
There was one more thing Winchester didn't know: police were talking to his ex-wife. And she told them Denise and Brian might have been having an affair for years before Mike disappeared.
Derrick Wester: There was definitely a suspicion that him and her were havin' an affair well before that December.
Richard Schlesinger: So that Brian and Denise were having an affair.
Derrick Wester: Yes.
Richard Schlesinger: While Denise was still married to Mike?
Derrick Wester: Yes.
The plot was sure thickening, but investigators still weren't sure what the full story was. After two years, the FDLE hit a wall. But Cheryl Williams, who had been fighting since the day her son disappeared, was not giving up.
CHERYL WILLIAMS [WCTV-TV REPORT]: And it's horrible not knowing what happened to him.
Jennifer Portman: She was very, very, very frustrated with FDLE and felt that they were not doing their job. They weren't trying.
Patti Ketcham: So she picketed [laughs]. You know, she-- she would have signs made and walk up and down in front of the church.
Scott Dungey: Every year, she would have -- billboards put up around town.
Patti Ketchum: It showed a picture of Mike and missing and if you have any -- information, who's to contact.
Richard Schlesinger: And she went after the governor?
Jennifer Portman: She wrote the governor a letter every day for nine years.
Richard Schlesinger: And you mean, literally, she writes to the governor every single day?
Jennifer Portman: Literally.
In fact, the governor received 1472 letters -- that we know of
Richard Schlesinger: Well, what did people make of that behavior?
Scott Dungey: You know, candidly, I thought it was crazy.
Richard Schlesinger: Crazy?
Scott Dungey: Right. And I'm ashamed to say that.
If people thought she was crazy, Cheryl didn't seem to care.
Clay Ketcham: Her suspicion was always with Brian and Denise. More so with Denise.
Jennifer Portman: The two people who were considered most likely suspects were together. And unless one of them turned on the other, you were never gonna find out what happened here.
Richard Schlesinger: Did you think this case would get broken?
Derrick Wester: Not until I found out that they were havin' -- marital problems. ...They turned on each other like rats in a sack.
A BREAK IN THE CASE
CHERYL WILLIAMS [WCTV-TV REPORT]: Until God tells me in my heart that that child is dead, I cannot give up looking for him.
As the years dragged on, it looked like the mystery of what happened to Mike Williams might never be solved.
Jennifer Portman: I mean, I would joke around the newsroom that, you know, they'd have to drag me out of the old lady reporter nursing home when they finally found Mike Williams. …I never thought that ... we would ever know anything about what happened to him.
If Brian and Denise knew anything about Mike's disappearance, they weren't talking and no one could make them. By Florida law, as long as they stayed married, neither could be forced to testify against the other.
Jennifer Portman: With Brian and Denise being married ... how were you ever gonna get the truth because one is not gonna turn on the other."
But behind the scenes, Denise and Brian's marriage was disintegrating. In 2012, after seven years, they decided to separate.
Jennifer Portman: He is, you know ... self-describes as being a sex addict. …He's trying to please her by going to therapy, by getting counseling ... it's like he's jumping through all these hoops trying to do all these things to get her back, and she's not kind of accepting them.
Richard Schlesinger: Did he seem under stress? Did he seem like a different guy back then?
Annessa Dungey: He did to me.
Scott Dungey: He aged quickly.
Annessa Dungey: He did. He was also very adamant that he ... absolutely did not want to be divorced, that he was miserable without her.
After four more years of trying to patch things up, Brian snapped.
Jennifer Portman: One morning, Denise gets in her car ... she's driving to work. And she senses something in the back. And Brian Winchester has hidden in the back of her car and is coming over the seat and has got a gun.
Richard Schlesinger: He's got a gun?
Jennifer Portman: He's got a gun ... He had a gun. He had a tarp … the idea was that … he was gonna kill her. …He is … completely unhinged.
Richard Schlesinger: But she managed to talk him down?
Jennifer Portman: She manages to talk him down.
Denise reported her kidnapping to the Leon County Sheriff's Office:
IN THE INTERROGATION ROOM:
DENISE WILLIAMS: He's screaming and I'm just like shaking. And he's telling me to stop crying that people are going to notice.
DENISE WILLIAMS: I was like, "are you planning on, y'know ending both of our lives today?" "Well, mine. I'm planning on mine." And then he would say "I want to kill my – " he must have said a million times "I want to kill myself."
Brian Winchester was soon arrested and charged with the kidnapping and aggravated assault of his wife.
IN THE INTERROGATION ROOM:
DENISE WILLIAMS: I was just kind of agreeing with whatever he was saying. And I was like, "I know that you love me…"
Police quickly realized that the rift in Denise and Brian's marriage presented an opportunity.
Jennifer Portman: Word travels fast in law enforcement circles … And they recognized it for what it was. This was a huge break in the Mike Williams case.
A tag team of detectives arrived to see what they could get out of Denise -- to see if she would now flip on her estranged husband and talk about his involvement in Mike William's disappearance.
Tallahassee Detective David McCranie tried:
DET. DAVID MCCRANIE: I know Denise, he did it and you know exactly what I'm talking about … and he was gonna do it again.
DET. DAVID MCCRANIE: He wasn't gonna kill himself Denise, he was gonna kill you so that you couldn't talk about him later. That is the truth.
McCranie turned up the heat:
DET. DAVID MCCRANIE: Fifteen years ago he walked in and told that you he had done something. Didn't he?
DENISE WILLIAMS: No.
DET. DAVID MCCRANIE: Denise.
DENISE WILLIAMS: No.
DET. DAVID MCCRANIE: You have got … he is -- this is not going away. OK? He's going to kill you.
But Denise did not budge. So Special Agent Mike Devaney came in. He'd been working the Williams case for years:
SPECIAL AGENT MIKE DEVANEY: Do you think he's responsible for Mike's disappearance?
DENISE WILLIAMS: I do not and I never have, I would have never married him if I thought that … I mean in my mind and in my heart, no.
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