Tag Archives: Florida

Reading, Travel, and the Inspiration for a New Story

Normally I try to reserve Mondays for book reviews and I’ve read a lot of great ones in recent months! Of course I snatched up The Perfect Couple from one of my favorite authors Elin Hilderbrand when it became available in June. I read it over vacation and it was the perfect escape. I also finally finished Wild by Cheryl Strayed (it had been on my Kindle forever) and checked out the motivational book Girl, Wash Your Face by one of my new favorite motivational speakers/entrepreneurs, Rachel Hollis. I’ll try to get some of these reviews put up in the next few weeks.

But for today, I’ll try to provide an overview of what I’ve been writing about the past several months. I’m working on revising my contemporary young adult manuscript, Under My Skin, and am putting the final tweaks on another manuscript, Between, before I finally start shopping it around to agents! A few months ago I entered a short story I wrote, “The Name You’re Not Supposed to Call Women,” in the 2018 Women’s National Book Association Writing Contest in the Young Adult Category. Imagine my surprise when I received notification that it won an Honorable Mention (fourth place). I am so proud of this story, as I wrote it to help process an experience I went through in my late teens. You can read the final version here.

I had a wonderful family vacation in July on the gorgeous Anna Maria Island off the Gulf Coast of Florida.

I’m still dreaming about that place, and grateful that a visit to the The Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla. inspired yet another short story, “The First and Last Time I Ever Saw a Clown Cry.” I entered it in a flash fiction contest and anxiously await the results. Here is a snippet from it:

I don’t remember exactly when the first hints of smoke hit us, or when Mother and Father realized we were in trouble. Father scanned the crowd until he spotted the grotesque orange and red flames shooting up one wall of the tent. Soon, screams of “FIRE” were reverberating throughout the crowd. The band stopped playing. Throngs of people began thundering up and down the rows of metal bleachers while trying to figure out the quickest exit. I clutched Mother’s arm as she tried to talk to Father over the mayhem. We couldn’t get down the stairs of the bleachers fast enough and were crushed from behind by the people trying to force their way through the crowd.

Tomorrow, I’ll be at WOW! Women on Writing blogging about the importance of seeking out professional development in your career. Be sure to stop by and check it out!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Absurd Alligator Story: An Update on the Disappearance of Mike Williams

When I first heard about the disappearance of Florida resident Mike Williams on “Disappeared” a few years ago, I couldn’t help but hear the alarm bells go off in my head. Nothing in the story felt right with me.

Williams, a 31-year-old real estate appraiser, went missing on Dec. 16, 2000 after his wife told police he had failed to return from an early-morning duck hunting trip on Lake Seminole. It was his wedding anniversary, and he and wife Denise were supposed to have dinner plans that night. His truck was found at the lake, and his fishing boat was found in the water, but there was no sign of Mike. Upon an initial search, authorities believe Williams fell into the water and drowned, and was possibly eaten by an alligator.

Here’s the thing that made me pause. His wife didn’t seem to be sad that he went missing. In fact, even though Mike was her high-school sweetheart, after the birth of their daughter a rift grew between Mike and Denise and Mike’s family. They reported that Denise didn’t seem to be interested in maintaining a relationship with them. Mike tried to keep the peace by taking their toddler to visit his family, often without Denise. After Mike’s boat and truck were found, Denise seemed ready to move on with her life and presume Mike dead. Mike’s best friend Brian Winchester was often by Denise’s side, consoling her and trying to explain to the police his theory about how Mike died.

Mike’s mother Cheryl, however, was not so quick to presume her son was gone. She consulted with experts at Florida State University who theorized alligators would have been hibernating in the cold December weather–they wouldn’t have been out in the waters while Mike was duck hunting. But she was warned by Denise’s family that it was time for Denise “to move on.” In fact, six months after Mike went missing, Denise put together a memorial service for Mike and petitioned the courts to pronounce him legally dead. This usually takes at least five years. She won her case, and received more than $2 million in Mike’s life insurance. But guess who had sold Mike the hefty policy? That’s right. Brian Winchester. He sold it to Mike about six months before the disappearance. Cheryl also never saw her granddaughter again–she was told if she kept looking into Mike’s disappearance that would happen, and Denise followed through on the threat.

In the episode of “Disappeared” that I watched, I found it interesting that Denise and Brian chose not to participate in the episode. They declined to answer any questions from producers. They also got married a few years after Mike’s disappearance, once Brian was divorced from his wife. The mystery of what happened to Mike may have remained unsolved if Denise and Brian’s marriage hadn’t eventually fallen apart. (I mean, what do you expect though? Look at the circumstances that led to their marriage!) They separated in 2012. In 2016, Brian got desperate and held Denise hostage in her car at gunpoint for several hours, trying to talk her into a reconciliation. Upon her release, she pressed charges and Brian was arrested. In October 2017, he was sentenced to 20 years for the kidnapping. The day after he was sentenced, investigators finally found Mike Williams’ body buried in about six feet of mud near a boat landing not far from his mother’s home. He had been murdered. And on his wedding anniversary. It doesn’t get much colder than that.

He had probably never been at Lake Seminole in the first place.

At the beginning of this month, I was shocked to come across a news article that Denise had been arrested for conspiring to have Mike murdered. This was the first I had heard about the divorce, the charges against Brian, and the discovery of Mike’s body.  In a way I can’t help feel like it’s karma that finally caught up with Denise Williams. It makes me sick to think about the three childhood friends (they had all gone to high school together–and Brian and Denise may have even known each other since preschool) and the plot to kill a man who seemed like a hard worker, dutiful husband and doting father. When he signed that insurance policy he thought he was probably just doing the right thing and having a plan for his wife and daughter in case anything ever happened to him. I’m glad the truth finally surfaced, although it won’t surprise me one bit if it comes out that Denise told Brian she or her daughter were being abused. And Brian decided to be the hero. I can only hope his conscience led him to tell investigators where Mike’s body was, and not just the temptation of a plea deal.

I hope the Williams family can finally find some peace now.

 

 

True Crime Wednesday: What Happened to Zachary Bernhardt?

Zachary Bernhardt was 8 years old when he disappeared on Sept. 11, 2000. One can only hope that he is alive and well today at the age of 25 years, possibly with no memory of who he is. But there are many that believe he met with foul play years ago.

The story is an odd one, and you pretty much only have the word of one person about what happened that night, and that’s Zachary’s mother, Leah. A single mom who often had trouble making ends meet, she told investigators she had insomnia that night and decided to take a swim in the apartment complex’s swimming pool between 3 and 4 a.m., leaving Zachary alone with the door unlocked.  When she returned, she immediately took a shower and then checked on Zachary, only to discover he wasn’t in his bed. She called police around 4:47 a.m. The phone call was odd, based on the recording played on the episode of “Disappeared” I watched. She sounded distraught, told 911 that is was “her fault” he was gone, and that he was a very well-behaved boy.

 

Right away, investigators had a few problems with her story. For starters, who goes swimming at 3 a.m. fully clothed, without even putting on a bathing suit? And why leave the door to your apartment unlocked when you know your 8-year-old son is in there sleeping? A few neighbors also stated that they noticed Leah’s car had left around the time she went swimming and returned later in the early hours of the morning before she made the call.

Leah and Zachary had a history of moving around a lot, and were reported to have been facing eviction at the time he went missing. Despite a massive search, no evidence of what happened to Zachary was ever found.

Investigators thought there might be a break in the case in 2001 when a nearby resident, Kevin Jalbert, told an acquaintance he was looking for a child to abduct and that he had abducted and killed many children before. When police questioned him about Zachary, he pointed at the wrong apartment and his description of the boy’s pajamas conflicted with information from Leah. He had a history of lying to people in order to get attention, though, which made him less than credible.  There was no physical evidence to tie Jalbert to Zachary’s disappearance, but he is serving 40 years in prison now on child pornography charges.

Another odd thing? On New Year’s Eve 2001, a 5-year-old boy was abducted from the same apartment complex and found alive in a dumpster ten hours later. He told police a white man with stringy hair had taken him. Despite thorough investigation, the police couldn’t find a connection between Zachary’s case and the New Year’s Eve abduction.

At some point, although Leah’s family members are still spearheading the search for Zachary, Leah herself stopped cooperating with the investigation, moved to Hawaii, got married, and changed her name. She appears to no longer be looking for her son that disappeared all those years ago.

True Crime Wednesday: Jennifer Kesse

When most people think of Orlando, Fla., they envision theme park resorts, Mickey Mouse, water parks, and a place where people go to seek thrills and adventure. For 24-year-old Jennifer Kesse, Orlando provided a place for her to start off a career as a financial analyst. That’s where she was headed on Jan. 24, 2006, when she disappeared. When she didn’t show up for work, her employer called her family because it was so unlike her normal behavior. When police and family members searched her condo, they could tell she had showered and gotten ready for work per usual, but there was no sign of her car.

Two days later the car was found in a nearby condominium complex. Video surveillance captured the grainy image of a person exiting her car and walking away on foot shortly after parking (the car was left in the lot on the day Jennifer disappeared). Unfortunately, most of the footage of this person was obscured by a tall, black, wrought-iron fence.

At the time of her disappearance, Jennifer’s condominium complex was undergoing a massive renovation, and from what it sounds like, many of the workers on the project were illegal immigrants who didn’t speak a lot of English when questioned. Some theorize the person captured on the surveillance image could have been a painter or other contractor based on the white, non-descript clothing. Jennifer had told friends and family members that she felt uncomfortable having so many workers in the complex where she lived alone, especially when they made comments as she walked by.

In subsequent interviews, Jennifer’s father Drew shared that he feared she had been kidnapped and kept in one of the unoccupied condo units while community members searched for her. No one interviewed remembered seeing her in the parking lot that morning, leaving her family to think something happened to Jennifer before she even made it out of the breezeway outside her condo.

Elementary-school teacher and Tampa-area resident Shaun Gurd has helped the case receive a resurgence of interest the past year with the podcast, “Unconcluded.” Gurd produces episodes of the podcast along with is friend Scott Jamison. (It seems pretty popular with at least 300,000 downloads so far!) I haven’t listened to any episodes yet but hope to in the next week to see if I can learn any other details.

Have you listened to the “Unconcluded” podcast? If not, what are your theories on what happened to Jennifer Kesse?