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Coming Back Around
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before,” muttered my coworker, Darrin*, with a dismissive eye roll and an exaggerated sigh.
“It’s true!” I insisted. “What goes around comes around!” I provided a number of examples of what I believed were people experiencing hellacious bouts of bad karma because of what they had said or done in the past. Some of the people I mentioned to him were relatives, friends and former colleagues. “It may seem people get away with stuff,” I told my incredulous friend. “But eventually, it comes back around to bite them in the ass and smack them upside the head.”
‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you’ isn’t just some quixotic biblical phrase; it’s a natural factor of our universe; a vital forced that – like natural gas and radio waves – surrounds us silently, yet powerfully. Overused and trite as it may seem, it’s real.
Presently, social and political conservatives across the U.S. are irritated at the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. Even President Donald Trump has dismissed it as a “witch hunt.” But I’m quick to remind my conservative friends and relatives about the concerted attempts by Republicans 20 years ago to impeach Bill Clinton over his assignation with a White House intern. The economy was more robust than it is now, and the unemployment rate was lower. We weren’t involved in any foreign conflicts. The American populace was excited about the upcoming millennium change. But the self-righteous clowns of the GOP who considered Clinton’s off-duty sexual dalliances – even before he got elected – paramount to the country’s global image. They had been upset about his alleged “draft dodging” antics during the Vietnam War. Now, we have a Chief Executive who received multiple draft deferments during the Vietnam era, boasted of fondling women, supposedly frolicked with an adult film “actress”, and mocked a former U.S. prisoner-of-war. The glaring hypocrisy would be funny if it wasn’t so ironic.
But I’ve always been a strong believer in the ‘what goes around comes around’ ideology. I don’t view it as a cute, antiquitous saying; a naïve vision of a complicated and brutal world. It’s very real and somewhat ubiquitous. Someone may escape with questionable behavior for a certain amount of time. But eventually, it really does come back around to haunt the transgressor. Currently, there are no better examples than two criminal matters – one a long-running rampage that redefined law enforcement tactics and forensics; the other a missing person case that garnered little media attention.
On April 24, 2018, law enforcement officials with both the State of California and the U.S. federal government announced that they had made an arrest in one of nation’s oldest cold case criminal sprees: the “Golden State Killer.” From at least 1974 to at least 1986, the burglar / rapist / murderer – known variously as “The Visalia Ransacker”, the “East Area Rapist”, the “Diamond Knot Killer” and (unimaginatively) the “Original Night Stalker” – now has a name: James Joseph DeAngelo. Starting with his suspected origins as a burglar who terrorized the central California farming community of Visalia for nearly two years to his last documented attack in Irvine, California, officials claim DeAngelo committed one of the longest and most brutal series of crimes both California and the nation has ever experienced. The numbers are staggering: at least 50 rapes (including two girls ages 12 and 16) and at least a dozen murders have been attributed to the man who miscellaneous criminal incarnations ultimately gave him the name “Golden State Killer”, a moniker created by the late author Michelle Eileen McNamara for her book “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.”
Criminologists declare that the “Golden State Killer” (GSK) is a perfect example of a criminal whose offenses metamorphose from the seemingly mundane (burglary and ransacking) to brutal (the sexual assaults) to the worst kind of crime (murder). Officials haven’t confirmed it yet, but they strongly believe DeAngelo got his start as “The Visalia Ransacker” (VR). From about April of 1974 to December 1975, the culprit burglarized and ransacked up to 100 homes; often stealing mostly small items, such as photos, costume jewelry and trinkets. In one burglary, he purloined a teenage girl’s bra, but he also nabbed her father’s gun. That same gun may have been used in the only homicide attributed to the VR: the murder of Claude Snelling, a professor at the College of the Sequoias. The local police had set up a variety of covert stakeouts and came very close to apprehending the crook three months later, when he committed another violent act by shooting at a police officer. The bullet glanced off the officer’s flashlight and plowed into his eye. The policeman survived. The VR rampage stopped with that. Six months later the “East Area Rapist” (EAR) began his violent assaults upon the East Side of Sacramento, the state capital.
Within two years the EAR had attacked more than 20 women and girls when he increased the tension in the city and surrounding communities by brutalizing female / male couples. His viciousness knew no bounds. At least 2 of his female victims were pregnant; others were menstruating; in one incident, he molested a 7-year-old girl while her mother and older sister were tied up in the same room; and, in one of his earliest attacks, he tied up and raped an Air Force nurse, as her 3year-old son slept next to her. At the end of 1979, the EAR graduated from tying up couples and raping the woman to finishing his act by murdering them.
His methods were the same. He’d sneak into a dwelling in the earliest morning hours, tie up his victims (face-down with their arms twisted behind them), blindfold them, place dishes atop the man’s back – a sort of impromptu alarm system and a trait criminologists claim they’ve never seen anywhere else – sexually abuse the female and ransack the house. He always wore gloves and a mask and spoke through clenched teeth, as if he was trying to disguise his voice. He usually declared he was only there to steal food and money. Then he’d vanish into the night. The dishes on the back trick was perversely innovative and would ultimately tie a few of the VR burglaries to some of the EAR assaults and ultimately to the murders; thus giving him the all-encompassing name of “Golden State Killer.”
A number of residents near crime scenes received anonymous phone calls before the assaults. Others reported finding fence gates opened or knocked down; doors that had pry marks on them; window screens removed; unfamiliar footprints around the house; and trampled flower beds. Some people actually saw prowlers in their neighborhoods. Many dog-owners claim their animals alerted them to something amiss in or around the house. The dogs would bark and growl incessantly at windows and doors inside a home, or people could hear the dogs making a fuss in the back yard. One teenage girl in the small coastal town of Goleta says her dog barked relentlessly at the patio door. She was alarmed to find it unlocked, but even more horrified to see a masked man standing outside with a knife. He bolted from the scene.
At the time, my parents and I owned a German shepherd who resided mostly in the back yard. His uniquely vociferous bark could be heard from far away. One neighbor told us she knew when someone was near our house because of that dog’s bark. In the 1990s, a coworker said she and her son couldn’t figure out why his pitbull was making such a racket in the back yard one night. He kept telling the dog to be quiet. Then, he awoke the next day to find his car had been burglarized.
People need to pay attention to their animals. Like crying babies, a barking dog or a moaning cat is trying to tell you there’s something wrong. There are unknown numbers of people in the GSK strike zones whose frustrated animals scared the assailant away. In other words, the victim count could have been much higher had it not been for a family pet.
While all assaults are brutal – sexual or otherwise – and all home invasions are frightening (even if the residents aren’t present), the GSK added psychological torture to his crimes. He’d often call his victims after the attack. Millennials may find this hard to imagine now, but in a time before caller ID and call-return – when computers were the size of refrigerators and no one got ticketed for driving without a seat belt – you’d actually have to pick up a ringing phone to find out who was on the other end. If you were lucky, you had an answering machine, which some people used more as a call-screening device. One victim claimed a man called her former work place in 1982 – four years after his attack – and left a message with a former colleague; verbiage on the note provided certain details only the victim and the assailant would know. A 1977 victim claims she received a call at home in April of 2001 – after a news article had come out announcing DNA profile matches linked the GSK cases together – and spoke in the same voice that she clearly recalled from nearly a quarter-century earlier. “Do you remember when we played?” was all he said.
One thing that made the GSK’s crime spree so successful is that he most likely stalked his victims. It’s not uncommon for criminals to “case” a house before burglarizing it. But the GSK appeared to engage in covert surveillance of just about everyone in a given neighborhood to find his perfect target. His first known victim, a 23-year-old woman, claims she got the eerie feeling that someone was watching her, weeks before the assault at her father’s home in June of 1976.
All crime victims suffer immense psychological trauma related directly to the attack. Surviving GSK victims are certainly no different. The aforementioned Air Force nurse said, for weeks afterward, she didn’t even want her own husband touching her and grew worried that her son would grow into such a monster as the EAR.
Crime victims aren’t the only ones who suffer; their families are victimized as well. The men in the lives of the EAR victims felt angry and powerless, like most normally would, that this could happen to them. Most men would fight back, even if it meant dying, to escape such a criminal. Yet, with the lives of their loved ones at risk, only a few men in the GSK cases dared to act – and most lost their lives in the process.
The family of Jerry Michael (“Mike”) Williams certainly felt they were being victimized as well – not just by the absence of their loved one, but by a police department that seemed uninterested in discovering what happened to him. Just weeks after DeAngelo was arrested at his home, police on the opposite side of the country – in Tallahassee, Florida – announced they’d made an arrest in Williams’ murder. His widow, Denise Williams (nee Denise Merrell, nee Denise Winchester), had claimed that Mike got up early on the morning of Saturday, December 16, 2000 to visit nearby Lake Seminole for a brief duck-hunting excursion. No one ever saw him again.
Denise said she initially thought Mike may have decided to visit either his recently-widowed mother, Cheryl, or his older brother, Nick, before coming home and that time got away from him. When he didn’t return by evening to join her in celebrating their sixth wedding anniversary, she allegedly became concerned and began calling people. When no one could explain Mike’s whereabouts, Denise eventually called police to report him missing.
In contrast to later high-profile missing persons cases (e.g. Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway), local law enforcement told Denise to wait. Adults, after all, have a right to disappear, if they want. And, as an adult male, Mike Williams definitely could vanish of his own accord, without a need (legally) to explain himself to anyone. It didn’t seem to matter that the young couple had an 18-month-old daughter; there were no signs of embezzlement at his work place and no information about a mistress; that Mike had no criminal records; that the couple hadn’t reported any strange phone calls or previous threats to their safety; and that Denise refused to let police search their home.
Ten days after Mike’s disappearance, wildlife officials – searching the lake once again – came upon a camouflage hat, similar to the one Mike had and would have worn. The hat hadn’t been there 9 days earlier, when authorities had scoured the lake. But they’d only searched the lake once before they discovered the hat. The item seemed relatively new and didn’t appear to have been in the water for nearly two weeks. DNA tests came back negative for any connection to Mike, but if he had worn it, the hat would have been in the water for several days; so any trace evidence would have been lost to the elements. Then, in June of 2001, authorities made another shocking find in the lake: a pair of waders that hunters often wear when going into the water. As with the hat, however, no evidence that Mike had worn them could be found.
Nonetheless, wildlife officials pointed out that 80 people had previously drowned in Lake Seminole, and the body of each one had been recovered. Cheryl and Nick Williams hired private investigators to search for Mike. Although they couldn’t find any new evidence or witnesses, they did produce an outlandish theory: somehow Mike must have fallen out of his boat, they hypothesized, drowned as he became entangled in weeds and other lake detritus, and was then eaten by one or more alligators, with other aquatic wildlife – such as turtles and catfish – consuming what was left.
Alligators have been known to attack humans, so initially some thought it was a remote possibility. But reptilian experts informed police that alligators don’t feed during cold weather. They enter a near-dormant state, as they remain submerged in water and try to keep their body temperature warm. In December of 2000, temperatures in the waters of Lake Seminole had dropped to 46°F (8°C), and the lake iced out to as much as 20 feet (6.1 m) from shore. Even when large reptiles, including alligators and crocodiles, have attacked and tried to consume a human, there’s almost always some part of the body left behind. Mike stood 5’10” (1.7 m) and weighed about 170 lbs. (77 kg). If no part of the body remains, then some chewed up piece of clothing or footwear is usually left behind. No sign of Mike could be found.
Moreover, the areas around the lake weren’t secured by police. Many people suspected the hat and waders were deliberately placed in the lake waters after Mike disappeared and – along with the hungry alligator theory – was a ruse to mislead investigators. After the waders were found, though, police seemed to stop looking for Mike.
The discovery of the hat and waders allowed for officials to declare Mike legally dead – and ultimately for his widow to collect his life insurance. Much to the astonishment of family and friends, Denise had vigorously pursued the declaration, and the insurance company finally relented – but only if a public memorial service was held. And that’s just what happened in early 2002.
Even after investigators reopened the case in 2004, nothing came of it. Cheryl claims she received threats to her personal safety, as she insisted authorities continue investigating Mike’s disappearance.
Aside from the hat, waders and hungry alligator theory, investigators made note of some other odd details:
- The boat launch where Mike’s Ford Bronco was found, which he would presumably have used to put his boat in the lake, was an undeveloped patch of mud. Yet nearby were finished concrete launches that he was known to use in the past.
- A storm the night after Mike was reported missing had easterly winds that should have blown the abandoned, unmoored boat across the lake to the Georgia side. But it was found closer to the Florida side.
- When the boat was recovered, its engine was off, yet the gas tank was full. According to the manufacturer, if it had been on when Mike allegedly fell out, the engine should have stayed on, causing the boat to run in circles until its fuel was exhausted.
- Friends who’d gone hunting and/or fishing with Mike told investigators that Mike never did so alone. His concern for personal safety was paramount, which is one reason why he kept his firearms at work. They added that no one they knew wore waders while piloting a boat because they’re cumbersome, and maneuvering a vessel would be nearly impossible while clad in them.
“My gut feeling is Mike did not die in Lake Seminole,” Ronnie Austin, a former Florida state attorney, said in 2006. He had just left the state’s attorney’s office for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and added that his belief was shared by all the investigators at that point. “I would say this is a suspicious missing person.”
Despite police doubts, Mike Williams obviously wasn’t ranked among the valuable people (generally meaning White females) for whom police must search. I personally didn’t hear about this case until 2011, when I saw a report about it on the true-crime series “Disappeared.” And I can literally count on one hand the number of times the disappearance of an adult male made national headlines.
But there are even stranger facts involving both Denise and someone else in Mike’s life: his best friend, Brian Winchester. Family and friends noticed the two seemed to grow close in the months after Mike’s disappearance, with Brian spending a great deal of time visiting Denise. Family and friends thought it curious that Brian, an insurance agent, had sold the Williams insurance policies totaling some $1 million. They found it downright bizarre that Brian had asked investigators how much time needed to pass before someone is declared legally dead. Finally, everyone realized that Denise and Brian had committed the ultimate betrayal: they had an affair. Even more shocking, 6 years after Mike vanished, Denise and Brian got married, and Brian moved into the same house where Mike had lived. The union inspired more dubious thoughts about the couple, and they became ostracized in their own neighborhood. In announcing Denise’s arrest, police claim that Denise and Brian Winchester went further with that betrayal: they murdered Mike solely so they could be together and collect on the life insurance.
These events would normally send up the proverbial cavalcade of “red flags,” but police apparently thought nothing of it in the immediate aftermath of Mike’s evanescence. While the disappearances of the above-mentioned Peterson and Holloway launched worldwide searches and garnered global media coverage, Mike Williams’ family was forced to engage in their own inquiries, which ultimately metamorphosed into a lengthy letter-writing campaign to then-Florida Governor Charlie Crist.
In October of 2007, Nick Williams found a photograph of a .22 caliber Ruger pistol (and its serial number) that their late father had once owned. Mike inherited the firearm from his father, and after Mike was declared legally dead, it was one of the few items belonging to him that Denise had NOT returned to her former in-laws. In 2008, Florida insurance investigators began looking into the Williams case from a financial angle. They discovered that Denise had collected only the policies sold to her and Mike by Brian. But fraud investigators closed their case shortly afterwards, citing a lack of evidence as a barrier to proceeding further. They did concede, however, that they felt there was more evidence and that the entire situation was suspicious. By then, however, rumors of a grand jury looking into Mike’s disappearance began circulating. Police remained silent on the matter, but I can only imagine that – along with the previous insurance fraud instigation – Denise and Brian became nervous. If there’s no honor among thieves, there’s even less among murderers.
How exactly the FDLE deduced that Mike Williams had been murdered (as most family and friends already believed) and didn’t just abandon his family (as Denise and Brian repeatedly and publicly stated) has not been revealed yet. But I feel the confirmation source is none other than Winchester himself.
In 2012, Denise and Brian separated and divorced 3 years later – allegedly due to Brian’s sex addiction. In August of 2016, matters between them reached a violent crescendo, when Brian broke into Denise’s car. She had seen him and confronted him; whereupon they got into a heated argument. Brian managed to grab Denise’s cell phone and then produced a gun. That compelled her to get into the car. But, instead of driving home, she drove to a drug store. Brian threatened to kill himself. Denise apparently was able to calm him down and drove him to a park near her work where he’d left his truck. He then pulled a large tan-colored sheet, a large plastic sheet, a spray bottle of bleach and a tool from Denise’s car. Despite her insistence that she wouldn’t contact police, that’s exactly what she did. She drove to a nearby police station and recounted what had happened. Brian was arrested and convicted of kidnapping and other crimes. In December 2017, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Cheryl and Nick Williams openly declared they hoped Brian’s incarceration would prompt him to reveal what he knows about Mike’s disappearance. That certainly may have happened. But, just after Brian’s sentencing, police announced they’d recovered Mike’s remains two months earlier. He’d been interred in a spot more than 50 miles (80 km) from Lake Seminole.
According to some sources, however, the break didn’t come necessarily from someone with knowledge of or involvement in the crime. It came from law enforcement officials who had been searching the area where Mike’s body was found, as they scoured the area for the body of a drug informant who vanished nearby in 2008. Understand the irony of this: police were literally moving Heaven and Earth to find the remains of a drug addict-turned-police-informant when they accidentally uncovered Mike Williams’ corpse.
At a press conference earlier this year, John Pugh, an attorney with the State of Florida said, “In cases I have prosecuted, I often tell victims and the families of victims that the wheels of justice sometimes turn slowly, but they do turn.”
For Mike’s family and friends, there’s little comfort in the discovery of his body.
“People say I should be happy, but I’m not,” Cheryl Williams said. “I honestly wasn’t looking for a body. I was looking for Mike to come home.”
Cheryl and Nick Williams still can’t hug Mike, and his daughter will never get to know her father. As of this writing, it remains unknown how Mike was murdered and hastily buried and who all was involved. Was it really just Denise and Brian? Or, as some have speculated, did Denise’s father also play a role? This case is intriguing on so many levels and would probably be laughably implausible if it wasn’t true.
When Joseph DeAngelo made his first appearance in court, he sat in a wheelchair – as if he was too old and feeble to stand on his own – but was shackled. No one felt sympathy for him. He had been seen riding his motorcycle recently and was prone to verbal outbursts against his neighbors. He had served 4 years in the U.S. Navy and had been a police officer in the California cities of Exeter and Auburn at the time of the EAR rampage. He was fired from Auburn in 1979, after he was caught stealing a hammer and dog repellant from a drugstore.
Officials now believe he may be responsible for yet another murder (the 13th one) in the mid-1970s. A number of miscellaneous assaults and attempted assaults occurred around the time of the EAR rampage. Investigators wonder if DeAngelo could be responsible for some, if not all, of them. Some unsolved homicides and disappearances are attached to known serial criminals; thus leaving open the question of just how many victims there really are. The “Golden State Killer” meticulously planned his attacks, by stalking his targets and studying the neighborhoods where they lived. He was careful not to show his face or leave fingerprints. And he always managed to escape, even from areas where police had set up perimeters and had helicopters searching overhead. But, despite his intricate preparations, he unknowingly betrayed himself with something even he couldn’t have foreseen: DNA. As one female official addressed the court, DeAngelo glared at her; his viciously misogynistic personality overshadowing his 72-year-old form, and everyone got a glimpse of the true monster lurking beneath the wrinkled face.
For Denise Merrell and Brian Winchester, months of secret assignations and fastidious plotting collapsed under the weight of the instability of their own relationship. Mike Williams lost his life, but his widow and best friend will lose their own lives – without actually dying. Mike’s daughter now knows the truth of her father’s disappearance; the man didn’t abandon her and her mother. Her mother murdered him – another brutally cold act of betrayal. Essentially, she’s now an orphan. Denise got at least $1 million in insurance proceeds, but where is that money now and what good will it do? As ill-gotten gains, the money is basically useless, and the insurance company may sue to get it back.
In both the “Golden State Killer” and Mike Williams cases, the perpetrators ultimately lost. They will have nothing left but anger and bitterness over…what? Themselves? They can blame no one else – not really. All that time, all that energy, all that money – and it came around to haunt them.
Additional reading: “Case Files of the East Area Rapist / Golden State Killer” by Kat Winters and Keith Komos, © 2017, Cold Case Writer.
Filed under Essays