MUSKEGON, MICH. - Questions about what happened to a gas station clerk who vanished from her job in western Michigan have loomed since Jessica Heeringa’s mysterious disappearance more than three years ago.
Some answers came Tuesday when prosecutors announced charges against Jeffrey Willis.
Hours later, he appeared in a Muskegon courtroom, accused of kidnapping and murdering the 25-year-old mother. Her body has never been found.
“In my opinion, we found Jessica’s killer,” Muskegon County Prosecutor DJ Hilson said at a news conference announcing the charges.
Willis’ cousin, Kevin Bluhm, who has admitted he lied to investigators in the case, was charged with accessory after the fact to a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
Attorneys representing Willis, 46, and Bluhm, 47, declined to comment on the case.
Hilson said it appears Heeringa died 24-48 hours after her abduction from the Exxon Mobil gas station on East Sternberg Road in Norton Shores on April 26, 2013.
He declined to say what evidence investigators have tying Willis to Heeringa.
“This individual, Mr. Willis, is a monster,” Hilson said. “What his total motivation was, that’s only for him to say. And ultimately, I think, this was part of who he was as a person.”
Before Tuesday’s announcement, Willis was already facing charges in connection with two cases: a jogger killed in 2014 and a teenager abducted in April. Those cases are pending.
Hilson said he and investigators met with Heeringa’s family Tuesday morning. Her relatives don’t want to talk to the news media right now, he said.
Earlier this year, officials said they were investigating potential links between Willis and the disappearance of Heeringa, and Norton Shores police called him a person of interest in her case.
In May, Willis was charged in the killing of 36-year-old Rebekah Bletsch, who was shot in the head as she jogged two years ago. A break in that case came after a 16-year-old escaped a silver minivan in rural Muskegon County and then identified Willis in a photo lineup as the person who abducted her as she walked home from a party.
“She is a very important piece of this entire puzzle,” Hilson said of the teenager.
Investigators searched Willis’ home in Muskegon Township, a property once owned by his grandfather on Bailey Street in Norton Shores and his van for evidence after his arrest.
They said they discovered a gun, handcuffs, chains, rope, five syringes — including one with liquid, possibly a sedative — photographs of females chained and bound, a mask and rubber gloves inside Willis' 2006 Dodge Grand Caravan.
Police have called grainy surveillance footage of a silver minivan seen in the area when Heeringa disappeared a clue. A witness saw a silver minivan pulling up to the gas station near closing time.
Owners of silver minivans were investigated early on as police tried to determine what happened to Heeringa. Several days after she vanished, Willis’ van was searched and investigators wrote a report like they did with others, officials said.
“There was nothing at that point in time to suggest at all that he was involved in any criminal activity,” Hilson told reporters Tuesday. “And, certainly, as time progressed and, as things happened, we were able to piece more and more together.”
Hilson said leads on where Heeringa's body may be are being pursued.
Both of the men charged Monday were already behind bars on other charges. They wore jail garb as they were arraigned one by one before 60th District Chief Judge Raymond Kostrzewa on Tuesday afternoon.
He denied a bond for Willis, who worked at a furniture manufacturer for nearly two decades, and set bond for Bluhm, a former Michigan Department of Corrections employee, at $250,000 cash.
Willis' next court date on the open murder and kidnapping charges is set for Sept. 28 and Bluhm's next court date is Oct. 12.
Bletsch’s family attended the court hearings as a way to support Heeringa’s family.
“We are forever tied to each other,” said Jessica Josephson, Bletsch’s sister.
Before Bluhm was arraigned, he appeared in court to be sentenced for lying to police during the investigation. Bluhm, who has been in jail for 96 days, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served.
A search warrant said Bluhm told police he saw a woman lying motionless on the floor with her hands and legs restrained inside the home on Bailey and believed the person to be Heeringa. But Bluhm later told police that he had made the story up.
Officials have said a hard drive at Willis' home had a file folder labeled "vics" and they believe "vics" was short for "victims."
A subfolder was labeled "RSB," the initials of Rebekah Sue Bletsch, and another folder was labeled "JLH," the initials of Jessica Lynn Heeringa, according to information previously revealed in court and documents.
Officials said today that evidence into Heeringa's disappearance will come out in court and pledged to continue the investigation.
“The investigation will not be complete until we have a conviction and until we bring Jessica home to her family,” Norton Shores Police Chief Jon Gale said. “Once again, today is just one step toward justice.”
Detroit Free Press