MUSKEGON, MICH. - A man jailed in western Michigan has been charged with the murder and kidnapping of a gas station clerk who vanished from her job more than three years ago.
Jeffrey Willis, 46, faces charges of open murder and kidnapping in connection with the disappearance of 25-year-old Jessica Heeringa.
“In my opinion, we found Jessica’s killer,” Muskegon County Prosecutor DJ Hilson said at a news conference Tuesday announcing the charges.
Willis’ cousin, Kevin Bluhm, 47, was also charged with accessory after the fact to a felony, which is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Their attorneys declined to comment on the cases when reached by the Free Press.
The men wore jail garb as they were arraigned one by one before 60th District Chief Judge Raymond Kostrzewa Tuesday afternoon.
He denied a bond for Willis, who already faces charges in connection with a woman's death in 2014 and a teenager abducted in April. Bond for Bluhm was set at $250,000 cash.
During a news conference Tuesday morning, prosecutors did not reveal 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. Ultimately, I think, this was part of who he was as a person.”
Hilson said it appears Heeringa probably died 24-48 hours after her abduction from the Exxon Mobil gas station on East Sternberg Road in Norton Shores on April 26, 2013.
Heeringa’s body has not been recovered, but Hilson said “we are actively pursuing any and all leads on where Jessica may be laying to rest right now.”
Hilson said he and investigators met with Heeringa’s family Tuesday morning and said they have endured agony and anguish over the past three years. Her relatives, Hilson said, don’t want to talk to the news media.
He was flanked by officials with his office, Michigan State Police, Norton Shores police, the Muskegon County Sheriff's Office and the U.S. Secret Service.
Earlier this year, Norton Shores police called Willis a person of interest in Heeringa’s case.
In May, he 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 teenager escaped a silver minivan in rural Muskegon County then identified Willis in a photo lineup.
Willis was arrested in the case connected with the teen on May 17, and investigators searched his home, a property once owned by his grandfather on Bailey Street in Norton Shores and his van for evidence.
Investigators 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 in the case. A witness saw a silver minivan pulling up to the gas station near closing time.
Bluhm, who has been in jail for 96 days, pleaded guilty for lying to police for statements he made during the investigation into Heeringa's disappearance. He was sentenced this afternoon to time served.
A court document revealed Bluhm said he saw a female 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 whole story up.
“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.”
(2016 © Detroit Free Press)