Duck Deal Gone Bad

Crime writer drawn to story of a murder at Lake Seminole
Photo courtesy of Steve Epstein

Denise Williams had an uncanny ability to cause others to do whatever she wanted, even if that meant killing a best friend.

That’s the assessment of trial lawyer and author Steve Epstein, whose second book, Evil at Lake Seminole, was released in June. The nonfiction work details events leading up to the disappearance of Mike Williams, examines subsequent investigations and concludes with the first-degree murder conviction and sentencing of Denise Williams, Mike’s wife at the time of his death.

Investigators concluded that Mike Williams, an FSU graduate and property appraiser, drowned on Dec. 16, 2000, at Lake Seminole while duck hunting and, when no body was found, theorized that alligators had eaten it.

Mike’s mom, Cheryl Williams, never bought that theory. For years, she doggedly petitioned for a criminal investigation into the matter, writing countless letters to the Governor’s Office, taking to sidewalks with placards, ignoring ostracism and running ads in the Tallahassee Democrat. At last, circumstances lined up for her.

Triggerman Brian Winchester, Denise Williams’s lover and later her husband, was charged with kidnapping Denise as their marriage was failing. As part of a deal with prosecutors, he divulged that he had buried Mike Williams’s body at a boat landing at Carr Lake in North Tallahassee. For her role in the killing, Denise Williams was convicted almost 18 years to the day after her one-time husband died.

In August 2019, Epstein listened to a podcast about the case and knew immediately that he had to write about it.

“It is a story unlike anything I had ever heard,” he said. “The number of years that went by before the case was closed, Cheryl Williams and her resilience — and the alligator aspect makes it that much more intriguing.

“It’s like a Shakespearean tragedy. You have this truly angelic, salt-of-the-earth human being in Mike Williams who unwittingly surrounded himself with evil. He tried to please everyone, and that may have been his downfall.”

To be sure, his marriage to Denise and Winchester’s obedience to her proved fateful.

“Mike was Brian’s best friend at the time he killed him,” Epstein said. “By all accounts, those two were inseparable as buddies. But Mike was in the way, and Denise wouldn’t do the other thing that would have made it possible for her and Brian to be together, which was to get divorced. Brian wanted to be with her more than he wanted to continue his friendship with Mike.”

And, so, when Winchester bungled an attempt to drown Williams, he killed him with a shotgun blast to the face.

“Cheryl is a woman unlike any I will ever meet again,” Epstein said. “The scent of a trail and the trial and conviction would not have been possible without her. I believe and Cheryl believes that I was meant to hear that podcast — that it was destiny and did not happen by accident.”

Epstein said law enforcement officials made “colossal mistakes” when the case was fresh.

“Probably, sheriff’s offices all across Florida and the FDLE have learned the lesson from this case that you have to include the possibility of foul play in any disappearance because, as this case proves, when you least expect it, foul play is involved,” Epstein said. “Had they been able to talk to people and secure things like Brian’s truck, they would have instantly learned that Mike’s blood was in the vehicle.”

Epstein’s telling of the case is so detailed as to cause a reader to assume that he was present during the recovery effort and at Denise Williams’s trial. His legal insights add to the swiftly paced narrative, which was praised by bestselling crime author Rebecca Morris as “unputdownable.”

On the day that Mike Williams was murdered, he and Denise were scheduled to depart Tallahassee for the Gibson Inn in Apalachicola where he intended that they celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary.

Winchester, who was granted immunity from prosecution in the murder case through his plea deal, told investigators in a statement obtained prior to trial that Denise Williams had played an active part in making her husband’s murder possible. That is, she gave Mike “extra permission” to go duck hunting, and assured him that he would not be in trouble for doing so just hours before they planned to leave town.

However, notes Epstein, those actions by Denise never figured in testimony at trial. Winchester was not asked what specifically the defendant had done to further the commission of the murder.

“The lack of any trial testimony on that point,” Epstein writes,  “provided the defense team a golden opportunity to contend during closing arguments — and, if necessary, on appeal — that no evidence had been offered which could establish Denise’s guilt for being a principal actor in Mike’s murder.”

In such a way, Epstein suggests that the story may not yet be over. In an interview, he did not rule out the possibility that the conviction of Denise Williams may be overturned.

About the Author
Steve Epstein practices law in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was inspired to write Evil at Lake Seminole after hearing a podcast about the murder of Tallahassee property appraiser Mike Williams and the trial of Denise Williams, his wife at the time of the killing. Epstein concluded after meeting Mike Williams’ mother that he was destined to hear the podcast.

Categories: Books