TALLAHASSEE — Denise Merrell Williams was planning to spend Tuesday evening celebrating her daughter’s 19th birthday.
Instead, six law enforcement officers descended on her office at Florida State University, locked her in handcuffs and hauled her off to jail on charges she murdered her husband and the girl’s father, Mike Williams.
More than 17 years after he went missing, the past caught up with Denise. She met it with dry-eyed, stone-faced silence.
Minutes before her arrest at about 4 p.m., a Leon County grand jury indicted the 48-year-old on charges of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and accessory after the fact.
It was the biggest bombshell yet in the disappearance of Williams, the affable 31-year-old real estate appraiser who never returned after supposedly going duck hunting alone the morning of Dec. 16, 2000.
Five months ago, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement revealed the first major breakthrough in the vexing cold case — the discovery of Mike Williams’ murdered body. Physical evidence, so long always elusive, changed everything.
“Oh, my gosh,” said Clay Ketcham, Mike’s boss and a close friend. “I never thought this day would get here. It’s horrible. But it’s a feeling of coming to resolution.”
For more than 17 years Denise Williams stuck by the story that her high school sweetheart was the victim of a tragic boating accident. She was the grieving widow, who asked after he disappeared without a trace that her privacy be respected. She was the wronged daughter-in-law who dismissed Mike’s mom, Cheryl Williams, for never buying theories he fell from the boat and was eaten by alligators.
And she was the efficient administrator of her husband’s estate. In just six months, absent a body and without any notice to his family, she convinced a county judge to declare him dead. She collected more than $2 million in life insurance and later married his best friend, Brian Winchester, who sold Mike one of the policies six months before he went missing.
Former Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Detective Derrick Wester, one of the first to investigate the case, will never forget interviewing Denise Williams.
“She’s the coldest person I’ve ever been around,” he said Tuesday. “I hope they’ve got a good case and she gets what she deserves.”