Four friends met at school and, after graduation, they became two couples and remained just as close.
Mike and Denise Williams and Brian and Kathy Winchester lived in Tallahassee, Florida.
By 2000, Mike, 31, and Denise, 30, had become parents.
Their daughter was 18 months old and she was Mike’s pride and joy.
Mike was an estate agent and loved to fish and go hunting.
They were potentially high-risk activities, so his friend Brian, who worked in insurance, helped him with his last three insurance policies, which would result in a pay-out of around $1.75 million for his family if anything happened to him.
Mike might have been a prankster who loved to make people laugh, but when it came to looking after his family, there were no jokes.
Six months later it was Mike and Denise’s sixth wedding anniversary.
Mike decided to go duck hunting in the early hours of 16 December 2000 and planned to return by noon, so they could celebrate together that night.
When he didn’t come back from the swampy Lake Seminole, Denise reported him missing.
By the evening there was a huge search underway.
Volunteers found Mike’s parked truck.
Brian even found his empty boat with his shotgun still in it – but there was no sign of Mike.
As time passed, the murky waters were scoured for a body.
The search team had to be careful as the area was known for huge alligators that stalked the shores.
But after 44 days, the search was called off.
Mike was listed as ‘missing’ and it was concluded that Mike’s boat might have capsized and when his body couldn’t be found, it was suggested he’d been eaten by alligators.
Denise was left raising her daughter alone and insisted money was tight.
Within weeks of Mike’s disappearance, and before the search was called off, she applied for the $1.75 million – but the insurance companies wouldn’t pay out because Mike had not been declared dead.
In what seemed to many people as remarkable timing, there was a breakthrough in the case.
Six months after his disappearance, a local fisherman found Mike’s waders in Lake Seminole.
Then his fishing jacket, hunting licence and torch were found.
It was strange, as the area had been searched before and the waders, which showed no signs of an alligator attack, didn’t look like they’d been submerged for months.
Also, the torch still worked.
Yet the discovery was enough for a judge to declare that Mike had died from a hunting accident – and Denise received her money.
Mike’s mum Cheryl didn’t believe her son had been eaten by alligators, or that he had died in a hunting accident.
She suspected he’d been murdered.
Wildlife experts told her that alligators don’t feed in the cold winter months.
If they do hunt, they tend to stash the kill and eat it later – and certainly wouldn’t eat a whole body, because their metabolism slows down when it’s cold.
Also, Mike was an expert hunter and it seemed unlikely he’d fall into the murky waters.
But there was no evidence of foul play, so all Cheryl could do was try to keep Mike’s disappearance in the spotlight.
She made missing posters and tirelessly wrote to the local governor every day for almost a decade.
In the meantime, Brian and wife Kathy divorced, and tongues started to wag when he began dating Denise – the wife of his missing best friend.
In 2005, the pair married.
Investigators always remained suspicious of Denise and Brian.
As well as the speed in which Denise applied for Mike’s insurance money, she was always strangely matter-of-fact about her husband’s alleged accident.
Brian said he’d been in bed 60 miles away when Mike went hunting, but a witness put him nearby.
Brian had been the one to sort Mike’s biggest insurance policy just six months before his disappearance.
They questioned Brian’s now ex-wife Kathy and she told them she was certain Brian and Denise had been having an affair for years before Mike disappeared.
But there was no solid evidence, and the truth seemed unlikely to ever surface.
Then, in 2012, Denise and Brian divorced.
Brian tried to win back Denise, but after seven years, it was clear it was over.
In 2016, Denise got into her car with no idea Brian was hiding in the back with a gun.
He threatened to kill them both, but Denise managed to talk him into letting he go and went to the police.
Brian was arrested and charged with kidnapping and aggravated assault.
With both being questioned, investigators realised there was an opportunity to use the couple’s rift to try to make them turn on each other.
But Denise said she’d never have married him if she’d thought he’d murdered her husband.
They focused on Brian, who was clearly panicking about something.
Over a year later, in 2017, Brian pleaded guilty to kidnapping and assaulting Denise.
She was there for the sentencing.
‘He will finish what he’s started no matter what age he is when he’s released,’ she told the court.
‘I am asking you to sentence him to life in prison for the crimes he has committed – it comes down to my life or his, and I’m asking you please, choose mine.’
Brian received 20 years in prison.
‘Never ever did I have any intentions of harming Denise, nor would I,’ he said.
‘Nonetheless I do know that she was hurt by my actions and again I am truly sorry.’
But as he was led away, Denise wasn’t aware of the huge break in Mike’s case.
The big twist
The next day there was a press conference to announce police now knew Mike had been murdered because they’d found his body.
Before his sentencing, Brian had confessed to killing his best friend in return for a deal to escape murder charges.
‘I met Mike at a gas station. I followed him to the lake,’ he was recorded telling them.
‘We launched the boat. It was just like a hunting trip was supposed to be – I got him to stand up and I pushed him into the water.'
'He was in a panic, obviously. I was in a panic… I didn’t know what to do and I ended up shooting him.’ Brian had shot him point blank in the head.
As part of the deal, Brian told them where Mike was buried.
Brian had driven his body to remote marshland and dug a grave for his friend.
Investigators found Mike’s skeletal remains, with his wedding ring still on his finger.
His shattered skull illustrated the sickening force of the blast.
Brian said the murder had been Denise’s idea because she wanted to be a widow, not a divorcee, plus there was the life insurance.
‘She would not get divorced, so she basically said there’s only one solution,’ Brian explained.
‘We’d end up together, we’d live happily ever after, oh, and as a side note, we’ve got all this money to enjoy a wonderful life together.’
They had acted that day in December because they felt time was running out.
Mike confided in Brian that his wife had stopped having sex with him and he was growing suspicious of her movements.
One of the life insurance policies was also close to running out – it was a cold, heartless plan.
In May 2018, almost 18 years since Mike had been killed, Denise was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and accessory after the fact.
In the December, Denise went to trial.
She denied everything, but Brian had plenty to say.
‘We wanted to be together and we weren’t going to let anything stop that,’ he testified.
‘We had an agreement that she’d never say anything about me and I’d never say anything about her, because we felt as long as neither one of us talked, nobody would ever find out.’
As he revealed all the gory details, Denise didn’t flinch or even shed a tear.
Brian said he’d planned on drowning him by pushing him into the lake, but he’d panicked when Mike struggled in the water.
‘He started to yell and I didn’t know how to get out of that situation.'
'I had my gun, so I loaded it and I just made one or two circles around and I ended up circling closer towards him, and as I passed by, I shot him,’ he said.
The defence said Brian was obsessed with Denise – and she wasn’t even there that day.
They said he was lying to get revenge.
Denise and her lawyers were so confident she’d be cleared, they didn’t want the jury to consider any lesser charges – a big risk.
It didn’t pay off – the jury found Denise, 49, guilty of all charges.
The sentencing was in February this year.
Mike’s mum Cheryl made an emotional statement as she begged for Denise to be locked away for life.
‘She’s already lived 18 years longer than my son,’ she told the judge.
‘When I try to sleep at night, I will see my son clinging to a tree stump in Lake Seminole in the dark, knowing his best friend is trying to kill him.'
'I hear his voice screaming for help – I wasn’t there to help him, it will haunt me forever.’
Denise was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Brian will be eligible for parole in 2033 when he’ll be 63 years old.
They had killed to be together, but the moment they decided to part, their secret was exposed.
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