MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Five years after Jessica Heeringa vanished from a Norton Shores gas station, Jeffrey Willis has been convicted of killing her.
After only about an hour and a half of deliberation Wednesday, a Muskegon County jury found Willis guilty of first-degree murder and kidnapping.
Wills, who was in good spirits throughout most of the trial, listened with no expression on his face as the verdict was read. His head dropped only briefly after the bailiff finished announcing it.
Sentencing is scheduled for June 12. First-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Willis is already serving a life sentence for the June 2014 murder of Rebekah Blestch. He has denied murdering either woman.
‘WE’RE STILL MISSING JESSICA HEERINGA’
Norton Shores Police Department Lt. Mike Kasher, the lead detective on the Heeringa case, said he was surprised by how quickly jurors reached a decision, but said they must have found that the evidence against Willis was “overwhelming and there was no other decision to be made.”
“I think there’s a lot of emotion because there was a lot of work put in to this. We were extremely happy,” Kasher told 24 Hour News 8. “I think the prosecutor put on a great case, did everything right, and it’s something we felt that we knew all along, or at least since May of 2016, that Jeffrey Willis was involved, did do the abduction of Jessica Heeringa and committed the murder.”
He said he and other investigators felt vindicated by the verdict, but still feel “half empty” because Heeringa’s remains have still not been found.
“And right now, we’re still in the process of looking for her,” he said.
“Unfortunately, I think Jeffrey Willis is the only one that knows where Jessica Heeringa is at this point,” he added. “But when tips come in, we’re still going to check. It’s not boxed away and shelved away and we’re all done. Like I said, we’re still missing Jessica Heeringa. And I think it’s only fair to her, fair to her family, fair to her son and everybody around that she’s brought home.”
Notably absent from the trial was Heeringa’s family. They say there’s not enough evidence to show Willis killed her, still believe she’s alive and still hope she will come home.
“No Jes, no justice,” they posted on a Facebook page.
Kasher said he understands Heeringa’s family’s feelings.
“Jessica’s not here, so you’re always holding out with more hope that she’s alive,” he said. “The family still doesn’t believe that she’s dead, which I get. That’s their daughter, that’s their granddaughter, that’s their sister, and at this point, I respect that.”
Willis’ attorney, Public Defender Fred Johnson, said Willis asked if he could appeal the conviction, to which Johnson replied that he could and will. Willis is already appealing his conviction in the Bletsch case.
Johnson said he had never dealt with a case that relied on so much circumstantial evidence.
“I’ve never had a case like this. I don’t think there’s been many cases like this,” he said. “It was the quantity. I’ve dealt with circumstantial evidence before, but it was just the sheer quantity of it. It just kept coming and coming and coming and ultimately the jurors were convinced.”
He said Willis didn’t take the stand — as he did during the trial for Bletsch’s murder — because the defense team didn’t want to repeat an ineffective strategy.
He said jurors seemed to be weighing the case up to the end.
“I think we were in it right up to the end,” he said. “I think they waited this time to the closing, and in fact, a couple of questions they asked were about some of the arguments we made in closing, so they were still listening at that point.”
He said he didn’t think prosecutors would pursue a third trial for Willis’ alleged attempted abduction of a teen girl in the spring of 2016 because Willis is already facing two life sentences, but that Prosecutor D.J. Hilson would have to make that decision.
>>App users: Interactive timeline of Willis investigation
THE CASE AGAINST JEFFREY WILLIS
There was no DNA evidence linking Willis directly to Heeringa, whose body was never found after she disappeared from the gas station where she worked on the night of April 26, 2013. So over the course of six days of testimony, the prosecution laid out 201 pieces of circumstantial evidence against Willis.
Willis owns a silver minivan like the one seen at the gas station around the time Heeringa disappeared, he was in the area that night and his blond-streaked hair matched a suspect description provided by a witness. One piece of evidence that seemed to emerge as crucial was that the laser site battery cover found at the gas station would fit the handgun recovered from his minivan.
The prosecution also framed Willis as a fledgling serial killer, presenting the details of Bletsch’s murder, of which Willis was convicted last year. On Willis’ electronic devices, investigators found an electronic file called “VICS,” apparently short for “victims.” Inside were two subfolders labeled in code: one with Bletsch’s initials and the date of her death and the other with Heeringa’s initials and the date of her disappearance. Those subfolders contained photos of the women.
The young woman involved in the alleged attempted kidnapping of 2016 also testified. It was her report of a man in a silver minivan pointing a gun at her that led to Willis’ arrest.
Backing up the prosecution’s narrative was the disturbing evidence found in Willis’ minivan and on his property: the gun used to kill Bletsch (the same one the laser site would fit); sex toys and restraints; insulin, syringes and a diagram showing injection points; a list of serial killers; a list of items to go in what prosecutors have called a rape kit; and thousands of murder porn videos.
Throughout the trial, Johnson, the defense attorney, worked to convince the jury that there wasn’t enough hard evidence to convict Willis of Heeringa’s murder. The defense also suggested Heeringa may have overdosed with somebody who disposed of her body, or may have simply run away.
>>App users: Photos from the trial