Review of Evil at Lake Seminole: The Shocking True Story Surrounding the Disappearance of Mike Williams by Stephen Epstein Rating *****
A man goes missing while on a duck hunting trip in the Florida panhandle. That mystery propels this narrative in the opening pages. Unlike most missing person mysteries, however, the reader learns early on that Mike Williams’s disappearance was no accident. The author provides ample clues pointing to murder. It also becomes evident early on who was involved in the murder. The real mystery here is what happened and will those responsible be held accountable. The answers to those questions are what keeps you turning the pages.
The early clues point to a boating accident. Searchers find Mike’s boat floating in the water. Eventually, they find his truck nearby in a spot where he would have launched the boat. But Mike Williams is nowhere to be found. Police quickly conclude that it was an accident and do nothing further. Things might have stayed that way if not for the persistence of Mike’s mother, Cheryl Williams. Mike’s wife, Denise, on the other hand, was quick to accept the accident scenario. She took steps within weeks to have Mike pronounced legally dead so she could collect on almost two million dollars in life insurance. She would eventually marry Mike’s best friend, Brian Winchester.
One-third of the way in you know who the primary suspects are and the motive. But you still don’t know what happened to Mike. Mike’s mother hounds the police until they finally agree to open an investigation. It’s been three years and Mike’s body still hasn’t been recovered. A hypothetical involving alligators doesn’t hold up. Once Denise and Brian are married, investigators are further stymied by the privilege that allows a married person not to testify against a spouse. The investigation stalls. Brian and Denise are free to live their lives. They buy a 650,000 dollar home.
That rosy picture doesn’t last. How could it? Mike’s mom is relentless in her pursuit of the truth. Brian and Denise both have character flaws that bubble to the surface. They divorce. Things start to spiral out of control for Brian. Knowing that he no longer has the protection that his marital status once provided, Brian does something foolish. He uses a gun in a failed attempt to get Denise to reconsider the divorce. That action causes Denise to go to the police. Brian is arrested and facing a lengthy prison sentence. Prosecutors decide to give Brian an immunity deal in return for his assistance in solving Mike’s disappearance. Knowing what we know now, the prosecutors gave away too much.
The author had the good fortune of having almost everything he needed to tell this story by way of trial transcripts, depositions, and newspaper articles. It’s all their in the court records. Still, it took the mind of a skillful writer to weave the whole mess into a compelling narrative.
In writing a review like this, I try not to give away too much. But I have a theory about what could have transpired that the author didn’t purse. If you plan to read this book, and I encourage you to do so, you might want to skip this next part.
My theory is that when Brian pushed Mike into the water, Mike had no clue of Brian’s ill-intent. Mike almost certainly had his back turned to Brian. It was dark. For all he knew, falling into the water was an accident. He was yelling for Brian to help him. Brian circled his friend. Brian used the shotgun to extend to Mike so he could grab onto it. Had Brian pulled Mike into the boat, I think Mike would have been grateful that his friend was there to save him. But Brian couldn’t know this. When Mike reached for the gun, Brian made a fateful decision that would ruin many lives.
One last note. The author, Steven Epstein, started this book in August of 2019. The fact that I was able to read it just one year later is an amazing feat for both the author and publisher. Kudos for crafting a top-notch true crime story in record time.