MUSKEGON, Mich. - The trial of Jeffrey Willis for the murder of Jessica Heeringa began with opening statements and witness testimony Tuesday, May 8, 2018.
Family and friends had been waiting for this moment for more than five years. Heeringa went missing on April 26, 2013, from her job at a gas station in Norton Shores. The 25-year-old mother was never seen again and is presumed dead though her body has never been found.
Willis, 48, is charged with open murder and kidnapping in the case.
Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson is expected to call more than 30 witnesses. The trial should last all of this week and stretch into part of next week, too.
Honorable William C. Marietti has made the decision to allow cameras in the court room. Once he is seated, a live feed will be provided in the video above.
Johnson asks Deputy Kanaar if the shell casing in the photo presented is the one he found at the scene, Kanaar says yes.
Johnson and Hilson have no further questions.
Court is adjourned until 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, May 9.
Deputy Robert Kanaar is called to the stand. He has been with the Muskegon County Sheriff's Department for 18 years. Says original call to Automobile Road was reported as a hit and run crash. This was the scene of Bletsch's murder. When Kanaar arrived, Bletsch was still alive but non-responsive. Kanaar says Bletsch's body was moved from the road to the ambulance.
After that, Kanaar says he secured the scene. While securing the scene, he found a spent shell casing and a cellphone case with headphones and sunglasses. These were located on the opposite side of the road as Bletsch. Says belongings were stacked in a neat manner, all in one location.
After Kanaar was informed of the extent of Bletsch's head wounds, the case changed from a hit and run investigation into a homicide investigation.
Deputy Kanaar recalls Bletch was pronounced dead at the scene.
Hilson rebuttals, asks about receipts found in a bedroom of Willis' home. There is a receipt from Exxon Mobile with the cashier noted as "Jessica" from January 2013 around 9 p.m.
Johnson asks a question he missed during his questioning.
Both Johnson and Hilson rest.
Defense attorney Johnson asks Det. Freres if she was ever notified of a laser sight found in the three cases (Heeringa, Bletsch, MJN). She said yes. Johnson clarifies that a case was found, not an actual sight. Freres agrees.
Johnson asks about Det. Freres initials on a document regarding Bletsch's blood, autopsy. Clarifies evidence was not moved, simply entered into a different document.
Johnson asks Hilson to zoom in on photo of MJN's nail. Asks if it's damaged. Det. Freres says yes, the bottom portion is broken.
Hilson asks if Det. Freres participated in the search of the shed on Willis' property. She says yes. Freres talks about the green camera bag. Inside was a printed list of five pages of U.S. serial killers. Two names of note were Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris. Both names had a dash by them. They are nicknamed the "Toolbox Killers." The two men raped, tortured and killed five women in 1979.
Det. Freres talks about voicemail message recorded on micro-cassette.
Hilson asks if Freres ever found an airsoft, fake or toy gun on Willis' property. Det. Freres says no.
Hilson has no further questions.
Muskegon County Sheriff Detective Lisa Freres is called to the stand. She has been with the department 17 years, 8 of those years with the detective bureau. Freres says she has been involved in all three cases -- meaning Heeringa, Bletsch and the attempted kidnapping of MJN.
Hilson starts with Bletsch case on June 29, 2014. Asks Det. Freres what was left of the scene when she arrived. She says Bletsch's body had already been moved by the time she got there. Still on the road was a pink cellphone holder, strap for your arm with earbuds and sunglasses. Also on scene were spent 22-shell casings. The headphones, cellphone case and the casings were all in line with Bletsch's body, according to Freres.
"We never developed a solid suspect in the case," said Freres about Bletsch's murder prior to MJN's attempted kidnapping.
Det. Freres indicates a blueish-purple artificial fingernail was found on the road near the scuff mark's where MJN escaped Willis' van in 2016.
Hilson shows a series of photos showing the area surrounding the scene of MJN's attempted kidnapping. In the photos you can see buildings from the blueberry farm where the surveillance video was taken of Willis' van.
Hilson asks Det. Freres if she was involved in the process of narrowing down the make/model/VIN of the van involved in the crime. She says yes.
She says she was also involved in the search at Willis' home.
Hilson and Det. Freres discuss the eBay purchase of the safe found inside Willis' van. eBay and PayPal were subpoenaed for information regarding the purchase. This lead Det. Freres to Willis' bank statements.
Hilson, "falls on the sword," and notes he put the wrong photo in the slideshow, but that it is the correct camera bag.
Johnson asks Det. Peterson if he ever came across a gun sight that would fit on a 22 on the property, or any gun sight caps. Peterson says no to both questions.
Johnson argues the photographed camera bag looks blue or black and does not have striping across the top, like the bag in evidence.
Det. Peterson gets the bag out, and says the photograph is in fact not the same bag that he is holding in his hand.
Johnson next asks about the image of the orange capped syringes. Some bags are sealed, others are open. Johnson asks if any syringes are missing from the open bag. Det. Peterson says he does not know.
Bullets were found in a safe during the second search, Det. Peterson says when asked if any bullets were found on the property.
Johnson asks if any blood was found during any of the searches, Det. Peterson answers, "Not that I recall."
Johnson asks Det. Peterson what his role was after the searches. He says he handled the evidence, anything brought to his department, he would have handled at some point. He also says he doesn't believe he handled any of the evidence from the Heeringa scene at the gas station.
After some back and forth about a list of evidence from the Heeringa scene, Johnson rests.
Det. Peterson also searched the shed on Willis' property. Inside, a green canvas camera bag was found. There were camera accessories, a folding knife and a micro-cassette tape inside the bag, according to Peterson. Another detective found these items, Peterson photographed them.
Prosecutor Hilson shows an up-close image of a Ziploc bag between joists.
Inside the bag was one pair of women's underwear wrapped in tinfoil, according to Peterson.
During a second search of the home, Det. Peterson describes an opening in the wall, a cold air return, where another external hard drive was found attached to a stud in the wall. The cold air return had to be opened to find it.
A photograph of a closet is shown. A red and orange shirt is pointed out by Hilson. Det. Peterson says most of the clothing is male.
Hilson asks if Det. Peterson found an airsoft, fake or toy gun was found anywhere on Willis' property. Peterson says no.
Nothing further from Hilson for Det. Peterson.
Detective Chad Peterson called to the stand next by Hilson. He works for the Muskegon County Sheriff's Department. He has been with them for 18 years. Peterson's main task is to handle the evidence that comes through the sheriff's office.
Det. Peterson took photos of Willis' home and evidence in May 2016.
When he and his team were there, no one was home. An unloaded handgun was found inside a dresser drawer. An external hard drive was found in another dresser drawer.
Also at the home was a computer tower, SD card and thumb drive.
In the room next to the master bedroom, referred to as the "pink room" by Det. Peterson, orange capped syringes were located inside a bag.
Defense attorney Johnson asks Det. Sgt. Flowers about the quantity of insulin in the syringe, vial. Flowers does not know a quantity, nor does the FBI report detail the amount.
Det. Sgt. Flowers says the vehicle was unlocked when he got on scene. Also says the toolbox was opened with bolt cutters. Johnson asked if anyone asked for a key or if Willis was in custody at the time.
Flowers says he assumed Willis was in custody but cannot say for sure.
Nothing further from Johnson. No rebuttal from Hilson.
FBI lab report read by Flowers lists syringe information. Results were human insulin.
Hilson asks if any airsoft, fake or toy guns were found during the investigation. Det. Sgt. Flowers replies, "No."
Nothing further from Hilson.
Another black, locked box was found inside the van, underneath the seat. Inside the box was an automatic pistol. It was loaded with the same ammunition found in the other black box and on the road where MJN jumped out of Willis' van.
Hilson presents the Walther 22 to Flowers. He opens the evidence box and displays the unloaded weapon to the jury. This was the weapon found underneath the seat.
Det. Sgt. Flowers explains the process of finding latent prints on evidence. Says he tested all the items in the van for prints. He was able to make two identifications. One right thumb print was ID'd from the paper. One right middle finger print was pulled from the inside of the box -- both ID'd as Jeffrey Willis.
Det. Sgt. Flowers opens the toolbox while wearing gloves. Inside, according to Flowers, there are a set of handcuffs attached to a chain, another chain, a rope, batteries, J-hook, leather strap with red ball attached (commonly called a ball gag), two photographs of nude women and a man in his underwear, gloves, 22-long rifle ammunition, a single Mizuno leather glove, pair of Reebok leather gloves, metal bar with leather restraints, purple sexual toy, tube of lubricating jelly, handwritten and typed letter with names and addresses on them, the diagram of injection sites, one handcuff key and one random key.
Detective Sergeant Thomas Flowers called to the stand by prosecutor Hilson.
Flowers has been with Michigan State Police for 22 years. His specialty is latent fingerprints. He is also part of the Mobile Crime Lab.
Det. Sgt. Flowers was part of the team asked to search the vehicle involved in a child abduction case (Willis' van).
Two video cameras were recovered from the van. Hilson presents them as evidence.
Hilson then shows image of black toolbox that was found in the van's storage compartment. The toolbox had a padlock on it.
Inside the box, there was a diagram of a woman's body, front and back, with injection sites noted.
Hilson presents the toolbox.
Johnson asks Det. Schultz what task forces he was on at the time. He says two, the kidnapping and the Heeringa investigation. A Dodge Caravan was also the vehicle of interest in that case.
Johnson has no further questions.
Hilson follows asking Det. Schultz if the two rounds found were the same brand. He says yes.
Court resumes with Johnson questioning Det. Schultz. He asks if Schultz knew how far apart the two bullets were found. Schultz does not know. Schultz deduced the second bullet was likely under Blackmer's cruiser during his initial visit.
Det. Schultz estimates he surveyed 300 yards in each direction from the scuff marks.
Johnson next asks about the evidence process, how things are preserved -- specifically ammunition. Det. Schultz says the day he picked up the round, it was beginning to rain so that's how it would have been placed in the evidence bag (not dried off).
3 p.m. SHORT BREAK
"I believe it was the 17th of May ... 2016," Schultz said of the date Willis was brought in for questioning.
When asked about what he did on April 16, at first he said he didn't do anything, Schultz said. Then hes said he maybe slept in and played with the dogs. He told Schultz he didn't leave the house that day.
Schultz then asked him the last time he had his oil changed, he said maybe two months. Schultz asked if he got it done that day and Willis said maybe he did but then he went right back home.
"Didn't really get a straight answer on where he was," Schultz said.
Schultz said he asked him about any weapons he may have. Willis said he didn't have any in his van, real or airsoft.
HIlson ends his questioning by asking Schultz to identify the man in court today that he interviewed in May 2016. Schultz identifies Willis.
Hilson shows second video, of north drive, during the same time frame.
Det. Schultz says he saw both videos for the first time after April 16.
Jeffrey Wills' vehicle was one of the 11 vehicles of interest based on the VIN and the features on the van -- including the rare, center antenna. There was also a rust area on the rear of the van that stuck out in the investigation.
Vehicle lineup was created and presented to MJN. After she identified Willis as the suspect, Schutlz' team began surveilling him.
He was then stopped and brought in for questioning.
Det. Schultz discusses the security footage found on a nearby blueberry farm. The two cameras surveilled Weber Road.
Hilson plays footage for the court. He shows the south driveway footage, facing Weber Road, first. A silver van is seen driving by, northbound on Weber, around 9:18 a.m., April 16, 2016.
Approximately four minutes later, the van drives by again, this time traveling south.
Det. Schultz says it is the same vehicle. He says still images were taken from the video the try to identify the driver, the license plate and the make/model of the van.
While working with experts, Det. Schultz, was able to narrow down the VIN #'s. From there, the Secret Service was able to narrow the search from more than 1,000 to "around 10," Schultz said.
Detective Matt Schultz called to the stand next by Hilson. Det. Schultz works for the Muskegon County Sheriff's Department. He has worked there for the last 14 years, a detective for the last four.
Det. Schultz was called to the scene of the attempted kidnapping by Deputy Blackmer. He was assigned as the lead investigator.
At the scene, Det. Schultz measured the scuff marks from MJN's exit from the vehicle and worked with experts to determine the speed of the vehicle. Schultz also found another 22-round in the road at a later visit.
Hilson follows up with Deputy Blackmer, refers to the same document Johnson presented -- a transcript from the preliminary hearing. Blackmer reads his former statement, "It isn't tarnished or anything of that nature, it is still shiny," about the bullet.
Defense attorney Johnson asks Deputy Blackmer to clarify on whether the bullet was shiny and new or like it had been run over. Blackmer explains, based on the phrasing from Hilson, that the bullet can still be shiny and new and also like it had been run over.
Johnson asks Blackmer to review a document. Johnson proceeds, saying he has no firearms and doesn't have much knowledge on the subject. He then refers to the image of the bullet and says it looks a little, "chewed." Blackmer agrees, saying it looks like it was probably run over.
"So you don't know how long it was in the road?" Johnson asked.
"No, sir," Blackmer replied.
Johnson presents a police report to Blackmer. Says it is a list of materials recovered from the scene, but Blackmer says it's a report from a different officer.
Johnson has no further questions.
Hilson calls Deputy Jeff Blackmer to the stand. He has been with the Muskegon County Sheriff's Department for 12 years. He was the officer dispatched to Schmitt's home on April 16.
Deputy Blackmer described MJN as shaking, almost hyperventilating, bleeding when he arrived. Says MJN did not appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Hilson again shows photos of MJN's injuries. Blackmer says they are consistent with what he saw at Schmitt's home.
Deputy Blackmer says MJN was able to give him an account of what happened and where. After she was taken to the hospital, he went to the area she described and found MJN's shoes.
Blackmer describes the area in the photo of MJN'S shoes where it appears she jumped out of the van.
While photographing the scene, Deputy Blackmer found a 22-round (ammunition) on the road. Hilson produces that round as evidence. Blackmer says the round has been damaged, presumably run over by a vehicle.
"When I picked it up, it looked shiny, new" he said when asked if the round looked like it had been there for a while.
No further questions for Hilson.
After listening to the 911 call in full, Hilson asks if that's how Schmitt remembers it. She says yes. Hilson has no further questions.
Defense attorney Johnson asks Schmitt what direction it is to the supermarket. She answers. Johnson has no further questions.
Court resumes after lunch break. Prosecutor Hilson calls Dawn Schmitt to the stand. She is the woman who MJN ran to for help.
Schmitt says MJN was hysterical when she arrived at her home. She was frantic, asking her to call 911 saying, "He's got a gun!" Schmitt says MJN was trying to hide inside the home. MJN didn't have shoes on, her hair was a mess.
Schmitt noticed MJN's injuries on her back and arm. Said there was blood on her wall where MJN rubbed against.
Though unable to calm her down, Schmitt says she was able to get MJN to sit down.
Schmitt says she called 911. Prosecutor Hilson plays the audio from the call.
(portions of the 911 call, not the full transcript)
"There as a girl who came up in my yard and said there was a guy... Iet her in. She said there was a guy with a gun. She is hysterical right now and I'm shaking," Schmitt told the dispatcher.
"Can I talk to her?" the dispatcher asked.
"Yes, here she is," Schmitt said.
"I had to jump out of the car.... two minutes ago," MJN said.
"He was chubby, had a beard and a mustache," MJN described the suspect to the dispatcher.
"Yes, I had been walking for five hours," she said.
"We do have an officer on the way, I just want to ask you some questions," the dispatcher said.
"He chased me, he was chasing me ... to this house," she said.
"He wouldn't let me out so I jumped out as soon as I saw him reach for the gun," MJN said.
"The officer is right around the corner, OK? How old was he?" the dispatcher asked.
"He looked like he was about in his 40's," she said.
"Are you talking to the officer?" the dispatcher asked.
"No, he's pulling in right now," she said.
BREAK FOR LUNCH UNTIL 1:30 P.M.
Johnson has no further questions. Hilson has a follow up for witness, asks if MJN would agree that it is easier to see a photograph than describe a drawing.
Says she didn't hesitate at all when she saw Willis' photo that he was the man who did this to her.
Hilson has no further questions.
Johnson rebuttals, asks if MJN saw a real gun or an airsoft gun that night. She said it looked like an airsoft gun to her.
Hilson rebuttals, asks if she jumped out of the car because of an airsoft gun. MJN says no.
Johnson asks if she saw Willis roll up the window and lock the doors after she got in the van, she says no. When she asked him to roll the window back down, he did. MJN also says when she asked Willis to stop, he slowed down.
She tells Johnson she saw drawings of Willis that day. Johnson presents drawings. She says she never saw one of them but could have seen the other.
When asked if she notices a difference between the drawing and photo of Willis presented, Hilson objects. Hilson says there is three years between the photo and drawing and the question is misleading.
Johnson asks how long after MJN saw the drawing did she see the photograph. She responds, "not long," maybe days, but she doesn't remember for sure.
Prosecutor moves forward to aforementioned photo lineup. MJN says she recognizes the lineup Hilson hands her. Says it matches the lineup from the investigation.
She identifies Jeffrey Willis as the man who tried to kidnap her.
No further questions from Hilson.
Johnson approaches the witness. Recaps that she used marijuana and alcohol at the party. She estimates there were around 50 people there. MJN says her and her friend tried to wake their friend for a ride home. He was locked inside a car and they were unable to wake him up.
Johnson asks is she asked anyone at the party for a phone. She said no. She says she thought she was only 5-10 minutes away from home by way of walking.
She says she walked for "a few hours" before she ran into Willis. Reiterates she was sober by this time. Johnson asks when the last time she slept was before running into Willis. MJN says the night before.
Says by the time she was leaving the party, the two other people there were sleeping, so she decided to walk home alone.
While running, she turned around and looked at him. MJN says he was standing behind his van pointing the gun at her. She continued running, yelling, "Don't shoot me." She says she doesn't remember whether or not she had shoes on at this point or if she was injured. She ran to the nearest house, a stranger's house. There was a woman outside. MJN told her someone was after her and the woman let her inside her house and called 911.
Eventually, police arrive. She talked to the detective about what happened.
Prosecutor shows image of "netted basket" in Willis' van. She says she remembers seeing it that day. Hilson then shows image of her injuries after jumping out of the van. Her forearm, backside and shoulder are scraped badly. Photos taken at hospital.
Next photo shows a fingernail on the side of the road. MJN says it is her pinky nail. Another shows her shoes on the side of the road.
Prosecutor Hilson calls first witness to the stand, the teenager who allegedly escaped Willis' van the morning of April 16, 2016. The witness will not be named by 13 On Your Side, only referred to as MJN.
MJN admits to using marijuana and alcohol the night of April 15, describes what she was wearing. Says her finger nails were purple and white. She says she was at the party all night, for several hours. She asked to go home with a friend but they no longer had access to transportation. That's when MJN started walking toward home. Says she was not familiar with the area but knew a friend lived close by. She left the party alone when the sun was coming up. Admits to being drunk and high at the party, but says she was sober by the time she started to walk home.
MJN says she saw a man on a bike, she asked him if there was a gas station nearby. He told her she was going the wrong way, said she walk walking toward the lake. She asked to use his phone and it died while she was dialing.
MJN turned around and starting walking back in the direction she came from.
At this point she says it was bright out when a silver van drove up to her. She identifies Willis as the driver. She says the passenger side was closest to her. Willis rolled down the window and asked her if she needed a lift. MJN says she asked to use his phone. He told her she could use his phone if she got in the van. No one else was in the van. She got in.
After she go in, he rolled up the window and locked the doors. She asked again to use the phone and he told her it was dead. She says she saw the phone on the passenger seat before she got inside but was never handed the phone to use.
She asked to be let out. Says Willis only stared at her. She says she asked him to stop and he didn't. Then he pulled out a gun from under the seat. That's when MJN unlocked the door, jumped out and started running.
After a brief recess, Judge Marietti and the jury return to the courtroom. Defense attorney Fred Johnson begins opening statement.
Johnson begins by saying he will not take as much time as Hilson. Says he thinks when this case is over, the jurors won't know any more about Heeringa's disappearance than they do right now.
Johnson tells jurors they will hear from Jessica directly, in the form of a journal she kept. He also references drug use and infidelity by Jessica.
Says jurors will hear days of testimony about Bletsch, attempted kidnapping victim -- but what you won't hear is that anyone every saw Willis alone with Heeringa.
"I believe you will have information that will paint [Willis] as an ugly person, but you will not have evidence that he kidnapped or killed Jessica Heeringa."
10 MINUTE BREAK
Hilson wraps up his opening statement. "Even without a body in this case, the evidence will show that Jessica died at the hands of [Jeffrey Willis]," said Hilson.
Prosecutor Hilson continues to go through all the witnesses he intends to call to testify, giving a brief summary of what each will discuss -- including Jessica Heeringa's then-fiance and the father of her child, multiple detectives and sergeants, Willis' coworkers and now ex-wife and patrons of the gas station Jessica was abducted from.
Hilson continues going through his witness list. He talks about how a detective discovered two security cameras at a nearby blueberry farm. The same van the teenage girl described can be seen passing through around the time of the attempted kidnapping. Officials were able to narrow down their search of the van to 31 vehicles in the area. One of those vans belonged to the defendant, Jeffrey Willis. After that, the girl was given a photo lineup of the van owners. The girl picked out the defendants' photo as the suspected kidnapper.
After Willis' arrest, a search warrant was executed at his home, shed and vehicle. There, detectives found evidence that will be presented throughout the trial -- including a cassette, women's underwear and a printed off list of known serial killers. In his van, detectives found what Hilson described as a, "mini-rape kit."
Prosecutor Hilson explains in great detail the connection between the handgun found on Willis' property to the attempted kidnapping and Bletsch murder.
Hilson begins opening statement by talking about the commitment the jury has made to follow the instructions the judge provided. He asks the jury to keep an open mind throughout the course of the case. Hilson describes the opening statement as a roadmap for the case.
Hilson goes "back in time" to April 26, 2013, and revisits the last time Heeringa was seen. The case went unsolved for approximately three years. Then, one event changed everything.
The April 16, 2016, attempted kidnapping of a teenage girl was that event. Hilson explains what happened that morning in detail to the jury -- an explanation that will come from the unnamed girl when she takes the witness stand. In addition, the jury will hear the 911 call made from the neighbor's house that the girl ran to after escaping the suspect's van. Both the neighbor and the girl talked to the dispatcher.
Jeffrey Willis enters the courtroom and is seated with defense attorney Fred Johnson. Judge Marietti enters, then jury. The jury is sworn in and the judge explains the procedure of the trial and gives instructions. "You decide the facts," Judge Marietti said, in part.
Family and friends begin to arrive in Judge Marietti's court room. In addition to Heeringa's family, Rebekah Bletsh's family is also here offering support. Willis was sentenced to life in prison for Bletsch's murder back in December.
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the 13 ON YOUR SIDE app now.