Heeringa murder trial focuses on hunt for minivan

Jeffrey Willis Investigation

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Jurors Tuesday heard more about the search for the silver minivan that eventually led investigators to Jeffrey Willis, who is now on trial for the kidnapping and murder of Jessica Heeringa.

The final full day of testimony focused on where Willis could’ve committed the crime and investigators’ dimming hopes of finding Heeringa alive.

TRACKING DOWN THE MINIVAN

A Michigan State Police detective testified surveillance video from businesses near the gas station where Heeringa worked showed a silver minivan heading north on Old Grand Haven Road around 11 p.m. on April 26, 2013: the night of her disappearance. 

Secret Service detective Ryan Heethuis said only one silver van appeared in all of the surveillance videos, based on the time window provided by witnesses. He also said that van was on what would be the most direct route to Willis’ grandfather’s home.

An expert in vehicle design for Chrysler testified he could tell from the surveillance video the minivan they were looking for was a Dodge Caravan manufactured between 2001 and 2007, based on the distance between the back wheel opening and the rear door, black side molding, black door handles and black mirrors. All those elements were only available exclusively for the Dodge Caravan during those model years, he said.

Heethuis described how his agency worked with the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office and Fiat Chrysler to whittle down the pool of 80,000 possible minivans to about 350, based on model year, color, the vehicle’s unique antenna and wheels. Local investigators narrowed the search further based on the suspect’s description.

TRACKING WILLIS’ MOVEMENTS

Police said cellphone records led them to Willis’ grandfather’s home on Bailey Street, where a detective said calls to and from Willis’ flipphone pinged a nearby cell tower at 11:23 p.m. and 11:59 p.m. the night of Heeringa’s disappearance, as well as 12:05 a.m. the morning after.

>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of Willis trial|Day 5 blog

The detective said between 12:05 a.m.to 3:47 p.m. on the day after Heeringa’s disappearance, Willis’ cellphone didn’t ping, which means the device may have been turned off or Willis wasn’t using it at all.

But a receipt from the Taco Bell on Sternberg Road gives a clue as to one Willis whearabout during that period. It’s timestamped 12:34 a.m. on April 27, 2013. Heethuis said there was a Taco Bell closer to Willis’ home by about five miles, but Willis chose this location instead, which also happened to be closer to the gas station where Heeringa worked.

THE POTENTIAL CRIME SCENE

Zachary Sparks with the state police said during searches of the Bailey Street home, detectives found padlocks on three entryways and a collection of bottles for cleaning products containing bleach in the basement.

“It seemed unusual that there was so many cleaning materials gathered in one corner of the room,” Sparks said.  

>>Photos: Jeffrey Willis on trial


He also said he didn’t notice any water damage in the basement that may merit having so many bleach bottles, despite what Willis had told authorities.

Sparks said investigators found padlocks on three entryways on the property.  Public Defender Fred Johnson pointed out spray paint on the wall of the basement, which may explain why the house was locked up.

Sparks said he also found a handwritten list in a trash can inside the garage. 

The list was broken into three sections. The clothing section included “underwear” and “her panties” and “hoodie.” Heeringa’s boyfriend previously testified she preferred to wear hooded sweatshirts, and she likely had one with her the night she disappeared, since she had to stock the cooler at work.

A second section listed camera equipment, a gas can, matches, lube and a crowbar. It also included “video from house if any,” Sparks said.

The third section labeled “kit” included sex toys, needles, zip ties, a hook and rope, according to Sparks.

MSP Lt. Mark Goff, who specializes in handwriting analysis, testified the handwritten list matched Willis’ handwriting, based on samples provided by Willis’ then-wife, as well as items written by Willis under a court order.

DID SHE RUN AWAY?

Lt. Mike Kasher with the Norton Shores Police Department said while Heeringa’s journal talked about running away to have a better life, there was no concrete plan, and she would write “life is good, life is sweet” the next week.

“I think it’s something we all go through in life,” said Kasher, adding it wasn’t a downward slide, but “up days and down days.”

Kasher said in the journal, Heeringa often talked about making a better life for her son, whom she called the best decision she’d ever made and the greatest thing that happened to her.

Kasher also said Heeringa wrote beautiful poetry.

Unfortunately, he said none of her entries pointed to a suspect in her disappearance or murder.

Heeringa’s family hasn’t been in court for the trial. They don’t think there’s enough evidence to prove Willis killed her and are holding out hope that she will come home. Their refrain has been “No Jes, no justice.”

Heethuis said the Secret Service continues to search for any mail, flights or other data that may suggest Heeringa is alive, but have found nothing to this day.

WHAT’S NEXT

Judge William Marietti ended the day partway through Kasher’s testimony, after a juror reported feeling ill.

Marietti told the jury testimony would resume at 10 a.m. Wednesday, and they would quickly roll through the rest of the witnesses before beginning closing arguments Wednesday afternoon. He said he would hand over the case to the jury by the day’s end.

Johnson told 24 Hour News 8 he advised Willis not to testify, like he did during his trial for the murder of Rebekah Bletsch. Willis, however, will get to decide whether he wants to take the stand.

Willis is currently serving a life sentence for Bletsch’s murder. However, Willis told Target 8 earlier this year he didn’t kill her or Heeringa.

>>App users: Interactive timeline of Willis investigation

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