The search continues
While Williams was first believed to have fallen from his boat and been eaten by alligators in a stump-filled cove of the Jackson County lake, investigators today consider him a suspicious missing person.
A decade later, his case, now assigned to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's homicide and violent crimes unit, continues to consume his family and vex law enforcement officials.
FDLE officials say they continue to actively work Williams' case, following new leads and taking a fresh look at old information.
"We aren't going away," said Special Agent in Charge Don Ladner in an interview last week. "Our goal is to find out what happened, and, if we can, to find Mike."
Hard work, not 'ah-ha's'
Two FDLE investigators currently are assigned to the case. But several department agents, who know Williams' story well, are called in when needed to work tips and decipher angles. Other agencies, including Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Jackson County Sheriff's Office, also remain involved.
Recently, an inter-agency team of investigators convened at FDLE headquarters in Tallahassee to discuss the case and renew efforts to solve the mystery. While such cold cases can be frustrating, Ladner said they can be cracked with patience, persistence, thoroughness and tenacity.
"We have solved cases like this as old as 26 years," he said. "The investigators assigned to this case have all those qualities."
Ladner declined to provide details about the ongoing investigation, such as the number of witnesses interviewed or possible new search locations. But he was emphatic that progress is being made. Persons of interest have been identified, but not publicly disclosed.
"We all want the 'ah-ha' moment," Ladner said. "Our job is to investigate this and find out what happened to Mike Williams, wherever that truth may lie."
'Not in that lake'
Based on the alligator theory, Mike Williams' wife petitioned the court six months after he disappeared to have him declared dead. She subsequently received life insurance payments and death benefits. In 2005, Denise Merrell Williams married the couple's longtime friend Brian Winchester. The two have said in e-mails that they continue to mourn Mike's death and have asked that their privacy be respected.
The state Division of Insurance Fraud investigated the matter, but closed its case in 2008 for lack of evidence.
As criminal investigators continue to search for answers, Mike Williams' mother, who pressed law enforcement and in 2004 finally got them to pursue the questionable circumstance of his disappearance, remains hopeful her son is alive.
"I don't know how to explain to anyone what it feels like to not know where your son is for 10 years," said Cheryl Ann Williams, who has taken out advertisements and picketed street corners seeking information about the youngest of her two boys. "I want him to be alive, but I don't know if he is or not."
Investigators have believed for some time what Williams says she knew from the early days of his disappearance: "Michael is not in that lake."
The years of uncertainty have taken a toll on Cheryl Williams, the widow of a Greyhound bus driver who lives in a tidy double-wide trailer on a big lot in northern Leon County and scrimped to send her kids to private school.
Her efforts to find out what happened to Mike have soured relations with her son's former in-laws and she said she has not been permitted to spend time with her now 11-year-old granddaughter. She has written politicians, anonymous donors have paid for billboards and friends have posted fliers, but she has been frustrated by a lack of communication from FDLE officials.
Ladner sympathizes with her, but said investigators can't tell her everything that is happening with the case.
"Our overall goal is to give her closure," he said.
Williams said she is happy that law enforcement officials haven't given up. She goes about her life, taking care of children at her in-home day care, tending to her pets and spending time with her eldest son and his family. But the uncertainty never wanes.
"It's always in my head, 'Where is Michael? What happened to him?' " she said last week. "All I've got on my side is God. I believe everything that is hidden will become known."
Now that 10 years have gone by, Cheryl Williams said some people tell her that she should move on and put Mike out of her mind.
For all her efforts, that is one thing she says she cannot do.
"How do you forget a child?" she said. "How do you forget your child?"