MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Did Jeffrey Wills kidnap and murder Jessica Heeringa five years ago? That’s the question a Muskegon County jury had to answer.
Deliberations in the Heeringa murder trial began late Wednesday afternoon, after jurors finally heard the defense’s theory as to what happened to the 25-year-old mother who disappeared on April 26, 2013.
Public Defender Fred Johnson suggested Heeringa turned out the light behind the gas station when she met with her drug dealer, then turned the light back on after he left. Johnson suggested Heeringa then overdosed in a second vehicle and the person she was with got rid of her body.
Johnson pointed out how the gas station’s only door only opened from the inside, and how witness Susan Follett’s sketch of the suspect didn’t look like Willis, but could be “the heroin guy.”
His other theory was that Heeringa walked out the door, leaving behind the money for her son and everything else because she didn’t want to be found.
“’I need to let him go or I will hold him back. I will make him cry and abuse him just like my mother did me,’” Johnson recounted from Heeringa’s journal.
“Better off without me,” it added.
Johnson said he thinks Willis’ co-worker gave or sold him her gun and her panties, then lied to police out of fear, saying the weapon was stolen.
He also provided a possible answer to another red flag. He pointed out how Willis worked the third shift, which would explain why he was fixing a dog kennel in the early morning hours.
PROBING THE WEAKNESSES
Johnson also pointed out weaknesses in the prosecution’s case, like the lack of Heeringa’s DNA in Willis’ minivan and on the laser sight battery case found outside the gas station.
“He has the DNA from half the people in Muskegon in that van… and yet, not one smidgeon of DNA from Jessica Heeringa. Not one,” said Johnson, pointing out that she should’ve left some blood if she was forcefully hit by the gun as the prosecution suggested.
Johnson also talked about how an expert said it takes 4 to 5 minutes for insulin like the kind found in Willis’ minivan to knock out somebody, and how someone attacked in that way would inevitably “scream their head off.”
“There was never a sound reported by Ms. Follett or her husband,” Johnson said.
Johnson also pointed out how no cellphone records presented during the trial put Willis at the gas station, and how no one else besides one coworker remembered seeing scratches on Willis’ face and arms on his first day back to work after Heeringa’s disappearance.
“What my guess is, the man’s not lying, he’s just got the year messed up,” Johnson said, mentioning all the vigils held on the anniversary of Heeringa’s disappearance.
Johnson didn’t bother making Willis look good, calling him a “lousy criminal” and the murder porn found on his computer and hard drives “disgusting” and “terrible.”
“Is he scary? Yes. Is he creepy? Yes… But that isn’t proof that he was with Miss Heeringa that night. That isn’t proof that Miss Heeringa is dead,” Johnson said.
“What evidence did you get?” Johnson repeatedly asked the jury. “Beyond a reasonable doubt? No I don’t think so. My client is guilty of a lot of things and he is what he is… but it’s not conclusive and you need conclusive.”
Johnson closed his arguments by reciting excerpts from Heeringa’s journal showing her discontent with her boyfriend, their physical fight, her struggle with drugs and how she felt inadequate for her son.
“The thing I love the most, I hurt the most,” Heeringa wrote.
But Hilson said no signs pointed to Heeringa running from her life. He mentioned how a Secret Service agent still checks facial recognition software and scans the world for any activity that could be from Heeringa. So far, he’s found nothing.
PROSECUTOR: WILLIS LIVED OUT HIS FANTASIES
After hearing Johnson’s theories, Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson said investigators looked into the drug angle “and it just wasn’t there.”
He also pointed out three items the defense didn’t question: the expertise of a Chrysler design analyst who matched surveillance video of the van seen in the area where Heeringa disappeared to Willis’ minivan, how there were no other abduction cases in Willis’ “VICS” folder besides the Rebekah Bletsch and Jessica Heeringa cases, and why Willis changed his changed his passwords to J4L27H13 – the initials and date after Heeringa’s 2013 disappearance.
Before that, Hilson addressed the jury for about an hour and a half, recounting most of the 201 pieces of circumstantial evidence he presented during the weeklong trial. That included the rope, leather restraints, black glove, J-hook, chains with handcuffs and a letter of women’s names found in Willis’ minivan that all contained DNA or a fingerprint that matched him.
Hilson also revisited the insulin and syringes found in a toolbox in Willis’ minivan, and how an expert testified that too much insulin could incapacitate a non-diabetic person.
He talked about how Willis had his minivan detailed after Heeringa’s disappearance, and how Willis’ excuse of getting a piece of wood from his grandfather’s house to repair his dog kennel didn’t add up, since his dog kennel was made of mesh wire and plastic.
Hilson reminded jurors about how Willis’ cellphone pinged in the area of his grandfather’s house after Heeringa disappeared, and how the house was padlocked by Willis with empty bleach bottles in the basement when authorities searched it.
Hilson also revisited the evidence outside the gas station: the drop of Heeringa’s blood and the laser sight battery cover and batteries that matched the Walther P22 handgun found in Willis’ minivan.
Hilson said Willis took the day off before Heeringa’s disappearance to “carefully plan” the crime, and that the murder porn found on his computer tower and hard drives was more than a fetish he fulfilled because of a lackluster sex life.
“Quite frankly… the evidence seems to suggest it was more than an outlet, it was an opportunity to learn and live out the fantasies he wanted to live out,” Hilson said.
>>Photos: Willis on trial for Heeringa murder
DEFENSE’S SURPRISE TWIST
Earlier in the day, Willis’ defense team made a surprise move, asking the judge for a directed verdict of “not guilty,” based on the fact that Heeringa’s body hasn’t been found and all the evidence was circumstantial.
However, Judge William Marietti ruled against the motion, pointing out that juries in the past have ruled in cases that only consisted of circumstantial evidence and where there was no body found.
Marietti said perhaps the most damning evidence is the battery cover to a laser sight for a Walther P22 handgun, which is the same model of gun Willis used to kill Rebekah Bletsch.
“That puts him in the bulls-eye of the circumstantial evidence that he was the one behind the gas station… stuffed Miss Heeringa in that van and took off,” Marietti said.
Before that, Willis went against his attorney’s advice and had Johnson ask Lt. Mike Kasher his questions, including whether police could have copied one another’s reports.
Kasher said that’s not policy and appeared to get worked up by the line of questioning.
Kasher previously testified when police confronted Willis about MJN’s attempted abduction, Willis said “If this is about the Heeringa deal, I’ve already been talked to.”
The defense never called any witnesses, only relying on cross-examinations to build doubt.
>>App users:Interactive timeline of Willis investigation