AFFAIRS, INSURANCE FRAUD, KIDNAPPING, AND MURDER: THE DEATH OF JERRY MICHAEL WILLIAMS
December 16, 2020
Jerry Michael Williams was the model student: a member of the Key Club, a football player, and even the president of student council. After high school, Mike–as he was known by friends–went to Florida State University where he majored in political science and urban planning. He also gained his first job and even went on to marry Denise Merrell, his high school sweetheart. His life only seemed to get better when his daughter was born in 1999, and he maintained his love for duck hunting while still completing the role of a loving husband and father.
Mike told Denise he was supposed to be back from duck hunting from Lake Seminole by noon on Dec. 16, 2000, but that never happened. Denise began looking for him in the area until a search team was formed. During that time, they found the truck and boat he used that day, and six months later, his fishing jacket, hunting license, flashlight, and waders were discovered all in the same area. Mike must’ve simply been in some sort of hunting accident causing him to drown before he was devoured by alligators, leading to the assumption that he was officially dead: case closed.
“People are attacked by alligators. Little dogs are eaten by alligators,” said Jennifer Porter, a reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat. “But you never hear of someone who’s just vanished, eaten by — whole — by an alligator.”
Cheryl Williams had the same thought when someone suggested this theory about her son’s disappearance. Every day for nine years, Cheryl wrote to the Florida governor and created 27 pages of single-spaced notes as to why the theory wasn’t likely and how the evidence lines up with something more sinister at play. Discovering the full story, of course, was painful.
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.”
— Jennifer Portman
It’s odd to think someone like Mike would end up murdered, which is why the alligator theory was so plausible. “If you knew Mike,” said Scott Dungey, a friend of the Williams’, “he’s the kind of person that is gonna do anything and everything for you. So Denise, you know, found a gem.”
Despite this thought, Cheryl’s efforts finally caught the eye of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who launched a multi-agency investigation, despite Denise’s insistence that an investigation wasn’t necessary. However, investigators noticed “inconsistencies” as Cheryl presented her case, one of which was Mike’s insurance policies. There were three policies, but one of them amounted up to one million dollars almost right before he disappeared. This amount made authorities wonder where he would be able to obtain such a policy.
“Brian Winchester sold him the million-dollar life insurance policy,” said Portman, “about six months before he went missing.”
Winchester was a friend of Mike, but that didn’t stop the spotlight of suspicion shining on him, especially after divorcing his wife to date Denise only a few years after her husband’s death. This happened after the two were already thought of having an affair while still married.
While it probably seemed clear on what happened, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement hit a dead end, prompting Cheryl to create signs to march with down the streets of Florida. She even had billboards put up that ask for tips on Mike’s death to be reported.
Meanwhile, more years passed, Winchester and Denise married, which meant they couldn’t testify each other in the case due to Florida law. However, that marriage began to fail with Winchester seeking help for being a “sex addict,” though he insisted divorce wasn’t the answer. Instead, Winchester waited for Denise to drive to work and put a gun to her head. Denise managed to coax Winchester, though this behavior reopened the case once again.
Law enforcement saw this as a chance to use Denise’s anger and fear to tell them more about Mike’s death, though her strong will refused to let her say anything bad against Winchester. They instead asked her where she thought Mike may have been buried, catching her by surprise. She hinted she knew, though it also lead no where.
In court for the kidnapping and attempted murder of Denise, Winchester was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Investigators looking into Mike’s death found is a lost cause with him going to prison, but that wasn’t true due to Mike’s body being found.
Police’s suspicions were confirmed that Denise and Winchester planned and murdered Mike because Winchester confessed to it hours before his kidnapping sentence.
“I went and met Mike at a gas station,” said Winchester before breaking into tears. “I followed him to the lake… 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. And he was in a panic, obviously. I was in a panic. I didn’t know what to do, and I ended up shooting him.”
Mike’s remains confirmed he was shot, and Winchester confirmed the rumors of him and Denise having an affair, which dated back to 1997. She refused to divorce Mike because of joint custody over their daughter, so she decided having Winchester sell him life insurance murder him was the only way out.
“We would end up together,” reminisced Winchester. “We would live happily ever after, oh, and as a side note, we’ve got all this money to enjoy a wonderful life together.”