‘It was unbelievable,’ Mike marvelled. ‘I have a whole new respect for my wife.’
The devoted husband and dad would do anything for them – even leaving work just to put petrol in Denise’s car.
Such a catch, his friends joked that they wanted to be married to Mike.
Then, on December 16, 2000, Mike, 31, set off to go hunting, promising to be back by midday as he and Denise had plans to celebrate their sixth anniversary.But Mike never came home.
Denise alerted the police, family and friends and they all formed a search party to scour the swampy, alligator-infested lake he’d headed to.
Although they found Mike’s truck, and his boat tangled among some reeds, there was no sign of Mike.
Left to raise their 19-month-old daughter alone, and with bills mounting up, desperate Denise tried to claim Mike’s life insurance.
He’d taken out three policies, including one for more than $1 million, which he’d purchased a few months earlier from his best friend since high school, insurance broker Brian Winchester.
Under Florida law, people need to be missing for five years before they can be declared deceased, so the claims were denied.
After 44 days, the search was called off. Police speculated Mike had likely fallen out of his boat and been taken by an alligator.
But Mike’s mother Cheryl wasn’t buying it. She was convinced Mike had met with foul play – and Denise had something to do with it.
Six months later, Mike’s waders, waterproof pants, hunting licence and jacket were found in the lake.
A judge ruled that Mike had died as a result of accidental drowning and Mike’s insurance, totalling almost $2 million, was released to Denise.
Cheryl was incensed and began keeping a record of the discrepancies surrounding her son’s disappearance.
She even consulted with alligator experts who confirmed that not only is it unheard of for an alligator to devour a grown man without leaving any evidence, but Mike disappeared during the winter and alligators don’t feed in cold water.
Then there were Mike’s waders, which were found in pristine condition.
They showed no sign of an alligator attack, no evidence of a body having decayed inside them, and there was no slimy coating as you’d expect after being submerged in a swamp for six months.
‘He may be dead, but he’s not in that lake,’ insisted Cheryl.
Years passed and as Cheryl continued to campaign for an investigation into Mike’s disappearance,
Denise grew angry, insisting she back off or she’d forbid her from seeing her granddaughter.
Finally, in 2004, the 27 pages of evidence that Cheryl had collated attracted the attention of officers.
They discovered Denise and Brian were now married – and enjoying the proceeds of the life insurance policy Brian had sold Mike before he disappeared.
Investigators were suspicious, but Brian had an alibi, claiming he was over 90km away, asleep in bed.
What Brian didn’t know was that the police already had a reliable witness who placed him at the lake on the morning Mike vanished.
Investigators knew Denise and Brian were hiding something, but the law protected married couples from being forced to testify against one another and they remained tight-lipped. So it meant one would have to turn on the other…
Then, in 2012, Denise and Brian separated.
Four years later, desperate to get Denise back, Brian abducted her at gunpoint.
Denise escaped and Brian was charged with assault and kidnapping.
Facing life in prison, Brian made a deal before his sentencing. He’d reveal the secret to Mike’s disappearance – and in exchange would be exempt from related charges.
Brian was sentenced to 20 years for kidnapping, and next day police announced Mike had been murdered.
Brian had confessed he and Denise were having an affair while Mike was alive.
‘She would not get divorced and so she basically said there’s only one solution,’ he told police. ‘We would end up together, we would live happily ever after, oh, and as a side note, we’ve got all this money to enjoy a wonderful life together.’ He added, ‘I committed this horrible crime to be with her.’
Brian had followed Mike to the lake and pretended to join his best mate on the trip.
‘I pushed him into the water,’ Mike confessed. ‘I ended up shooting him.’
Eighteen years after Mike had been murdered, police recovered his remains from where Brian had buried him and Cheryl was finally able to lay her beloved son to rest.
In December last year, Denise was found guilty of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first degree murder, and being an accessory after the fact.
‘Denise likes the sound of being a widow much more than being a divorcee,’ said prosecutor John Fuchs.
Due to be sentenced, Denise is now potentially facing life in prison.
Despite pulling the trigger, Brian’s deal means that he can’t be charged with murder and will be eligible for release in 2033.
Read more in this week's issue of that's life, on sale now.
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