Florida woman gets life sentence in husband's death that was initially blamed on alligators

Denise Williams' lover killed her husband in December 2000. Police at first thought he had been eaten by alligators.
Image: Denise Williams listens to opening statements made by prosecutors during her trial
Denise Williams during her murder trial in Tallahassee, Florida, on Dec. 11.Alicia Devine / AP file

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By Alex Johnson

A Florida woman was sentenced to life without parole on Wednesday for her role the murder of her first husband by her lover 18 years ago, a death that police initially blamed on alligators.

The woman, Denise Williams, was convicted last month in state circuit court in Tallahassee of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and being an accessory after the fact of a first-degree murder. The accessory charge was later dropped under a state law that says a defendant can't be an accessory to a crime for which he or she has been convicted.

Prosecutors said Williams planned the killing of her husband, Michael Williams, along with Brian Winchester, who later admitted shooting the man.

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Michael Williams was reported missing in December 2000 after he went duck hunting on Lake Seminole with Winchester. Investigators theorized that he had been eaten by alligators.

Denise Williams reported her husband as missing and later sought to have him declared dead so she and Winchester — whom she later married and divorced — could collect on three insurance policies worth about $1.75 million, prosecutors said.

Michael Williams remained missing for almost 17 years, until his body was discovered in October 2017 buried in mud near a lake north of the state capital of Tallahassee. He had been killed by a shotgun blast.

Brian Winchester testified at the murder trial of his ex-wife, Denise Williams, in Tallahassee, Florida, on Dec. 11.Alicia Devine / Tallahassee Democrat via AP file

In the meantime, Winchester and Denise Williams had married. But Williams filed for divorce in 2015, and in August 2016, she accused Winchester of kidnapping her while she was driving to work at Florida State University. Winchester was arrested, and in October 2017, he pleaded no contest to kidnapping and was sentenced to 20 years.

The next day, prosecutors sprang a surprise — Michael Williams' body had been recovered. It later emerged that Winchester had struck a plea agreement in exchange for immunity in connection with Michael Williams' death.

At Denise Williams' trial in December, Winchester testified that he shot Michael Williams and tried to make it look like an accident. He told jurors that Denise Williams was part of the plot from the beginning in 2000 and that he had kidnapped her in 2016 because he was afraid she would spill the beans.

The jury deliberated less than a day before convicting Denise Williams.

At sentencing on Wednesday, Michael Williams' mother, Cheryl Williams, who led a yearslong campaign to find her son, told Circuit Judge James Hankinson: "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. And today, I think God gave us justice."