Almost 11 years since he vanished without a trace, the vexing mystery of what happened to Mike Williams will be shared with a national audience.
At 10 p.m. tonight, the story of the 31-year-old Tallahassee real estate appraiser — first assumed to have been eaten by alligators after drowning in Lake Seminole, but now believed by investigators to be a suspicious missing person — will be featured in an episode of "Disappeared" on the cable channel Investigation Discovery.
The hour-long broadcast will include interviews with Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents working on the cold case, as well as a former investigator and friends and family members of Williams, last said to have been duck hunting alone on the Jackson County lake before dawn on Dec. 16, 2000.
"It's a compelling story with many interesting story points, so that's what drove us to produce his show," said Kate Novich, one of the show's producers.
The national media exposure is welcomed by Williams' mother Cheryl, whose tenacity secured a criminal investigation three years after his disappearance and continues to press for answers to what happened to her son.
"I still have hope that Mike is alive and that someone out there will call and help me," Cheryl Williams said. "We don't know what the smoking gun is, but we hope someone will find it."
The broadcast coincides with the release this month of a self-published book by Carrie Cox, a Kentucky-based psychic and certified forensic psychological profiler, who offered information to federal and state law enforcement agents working Williams' case. (FDLE officials said the agency does not employ psychics in its investigations. At the behest of Cheryl Williams, an agent accompanied Cox to several remote locations, officials said, but no information about the case was shared with her and nothing requiring further evaluation was discovered.)
The book, "Alligator Alibi," details Cox's observations and involvement in the case and brings together copious notes taken over the years by Cheryl Williams. The 364-page book also includes documents, such as letters, early investigation reports and court records. She invites readers to help solve the mystery.
"One of the officers working the case said to me, 'Another set of eyes is always a good thing,' so I thought it might be a good idea to open the information up to as many sets of eyes as possible," said Cox, who was not paid for her work. "I wanted Ms. Williams to feel heard. For too long, she has been told that her son was eaten by alligators and she should just shut up. No mother should ever give up hope finding her child, until all avenues have been exhausted and they have answers."
Former Jackson County Sheriff's Office investigator Derrick Wester said the biggest hurdle in cracking the case is the more than three-year delay between Mike's disappearance and the start of a criminal investigation.
Investigators have identified persons of interest in the case, but lack the evidence to name suspects or bring charges.
"In lieu of a confession or a piece of major physical evidence I can't see how you can convict anybody," said Wester, who will be featured in the broadcast.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers initially handled the search for Williams, a devoted father of a then 2-year-old girl, married to his North Florida Christian High School sweetheart, earning a six-digit salary. Lacking criminal experience or an obvious reason to suspect foul play, Wester said game officers assumed they were dealing with a straightforward drowning. After Williams' body failed to be found following a long, intensive search in the frigid, weed-choked lake, and other inconsistencies emerged, officers became suspicious. By that time, however, the crime scene was trampled and possible evidence had been given away.
"It was a rescue effort. When it comes to murder, rape and robbery, they don't know what to do," said Wester, who doesn't blame the now regretful game officers. "Nobody knew about the stuff that was happening before the murder. Hindsight is 20/20. It just turned out bad."
Game officers have said they wished they knew about Williams' life insurance policies, including one for $1 million written about six months before he disappeared by his close friend, insurance agent Brian Winchester. Six months after Williams was presumed to have drowned — on the day he was to celebrate his sixth wedding anniversary — his wife Denise Merrell Williams petitioned the court to declare him dead and collected at least $1.5 million in death benefits, investigators later learned.
Denise Williams and Winchester married in 2005. The couple have repeatedly declined to comment on the case, stressing they loved Williams and asking that their privacy be respected.
In her petition, Denise Williams asserted the theory her husband fell from his boat and was eaten by alligators. As evidence, she pointed to a pair of waders found by a fisherman floating in the stump-filled search area a week before she filed her request for his presumptive death certificate. The petition said the waders belonged to Williams, but failed to note that game officers who examined the waders said they were in new condition, were free of animal damage and bore no sign of Williams ever having been in them. Investigators now suspect the waders, along with a jacket, hunting license and flashlight discovered the same day, were planted.
The death petition mentioned just one of the two companies with whom Williams had life insurance policies. The state Division of Insurance Fraud investigated the matter in 2008, but closed its case for the same reason that hampers the ongoing criminal investigation: a lack of hard evidence.
Cheryl Williams says the criminal investigation was further delayed by the involvement of FDLE agent Mike Phillips, a family friend of both Mike and Denise Williams. Cheryl Williams said she thought Phillips was investigating the case early on that he told her that her son died in the lake and was eaten by alligators.
In a past interview, Phillips, now an assistant special agent in charge in the agency's computer-crimes division, said he was only trying to help Cheryl Williams as a family friend and had no intention of thwarting an investigation. FDLE officials today back Phillips.
"Mike Phillips was not, and never has been, involved in this case in an official capacity," said agency spokeswoman Heather Smith in a written statement. "(Phillips) began assisting the family in an informal support and advisory role. During this time, Phillips asked if it was possible for FDLE to offer assistance to the agencies already involved in the case... FDLE has never investigated any type of improprieties with respect to his involvement."
In early 2004, FDLE inspector John Stevens met with Cheryl Williams, a longtime day care provider and widow of a Greyhound bus driver, at her north Tallahassee home. The case was then referred to FDLE's Panama City Field Office, which offered the agency's assistance to the Jackson County Sheriff's Office. FDLE has no jurisdiction in missing-person cases and cannot become involved at a citizen's request, agency officials said. After FDLE reached out, the county sheriff's office invited the state agency to help with the investigation.
Stevens, who was assigned to the agency's Office of Executive Investigations and is now retired, said he wrote up a short information report included in the Williams case file, but did not open an internal affairs investigation into Phillips' role. Because the case is open, the file is not available to the public.
Wester, who was assigned to assist with the case once FDLE became involved, thinks Phillips was trying to comfort Williams' mother and had no malicious intent. Still, Wester said Phillips role could have hurt the investigation.
"His actions probably prevented some things that could have been done earlier," Wester said.
Last year, FDLE began a renewed effort to try to find out what happened to Mike Williams.
Since then, officials say the mystery has been reviewed by a cold-case team, new witnesses have been interviewed and new leads have been followed. Because the case is being actively worked, officials said, the agency is limited in the information it can share with the public or family members.
That said, the FDLE officials also welcome the latest round of publicity.
"While we cannot speak to the accuracy or information in the book or on the TV show, in any missing persons case, exposure can help generate tips and information that could be valuable to our investigation," spokeswoman Smith said.
As frustrated as she is about the course of the investigation, Cheryl Williams said she cannot give up searching for the truth. She finally concedes that her son may be dead, but until proven otherwise, she won't stop believing he walked away that day and is alive.
"I'm afraid if I admitted he was dead I wouldn't be able to get out of bed," she said. "That was my son, my baby. His father is dead and there is no one else to speak up for him."