MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — After the jury came back and declared Jeffrey Willis guilty of murdering Jessica Heeringa Wednesday evening, Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson did not stick around to do a victory lap with the media.
He had to get out and coach his son’s baseball game. His team won that game, too.
As he returned to work Thursday, Hilson reflected on the trial. Five years of waiting for justice ended after just 90 minutes of jury deliberation.
“They (the jurors) took their oath, they followed their duty and they followed the law and they came to the appropriate decision,” Hilson said.
Heeringa’s body was never found after she vanished from the Norton Shores gas station where she worked on April 26, 2013. As a result, the case against Willis was almost all circumstantial.
“In my career, I can say for sure that I’ve never had a case where it was all about the building blocks and presenting it in a way that the jury could see the connections we saw as trained investigators and professionals,” Hilson said.
Over the course of the two-week trial, Hilson had to, in essence, prove a negative: that no one other than Willis could have killed Heeringa.
“The trail of bread crumbs, if you will, that circumstantial evidence, was strong enough … ultimately leading the jury down the path that there was only one person that could do this and that was Mr. Willis,” Hilson said.
>>App users: Photos from the trial
Unlike during his previous trial last year, at the end of which he was convicted of murdering Rebekah Bletsch in June 2014, Willis did not take the stand this time.
“It was probably a wise choice,” Hilson said.
With Willis already in prison for life for Bletsch’s murder, many have asked why Hilson tried him again.
“The Bletsch family deserved their day in court, Jessica Heeringa deserved her day in court and in some respects, I like to think the Heeringa family deserved that day in court as well,” Hilson said
He said he won’t make a decision about whether to try Willis in the alleged attempted abduction of a then-16-year-old girl (the incident that broke open the Bletsch and Heeringa cases) until after Willis is sentenced for Heeringa’s murder and after a meeting with the young woman and her parents.
>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the Jeffrey Willis investigation
Conspicuous in their absence from the courtroom throughout the trial was Heeringa’s family. 24 Hour News 8 has reached out to them periodically following Willis’ arrest in the spring of 2016. As recently as Thursday afternoon, they were not interested in speaking.
But they have been active on social media, where they have been nothing short of hostile toward the investigative team and the prosecution. The Facebook page “Find Jessica Heeringa” is administered by her mother Shelly Heeringa and she provided some commentary on witnesses and testimony during the trial last week.
She believes her daughter is still alive and says she will continue to do so unless her daughter’s body is found. Her motto: “No Jes, no justice.”
“As much as we want to hope that Jessica’s still alive, the evidence is painting a picture that she is clearly deceased,” Hilson said.
Beyond simply not believing her daughter is dead, the page has been unkind about Hilson, delivering this assessment: “One thing I did notice is the soulless eyes you see in Willis, I see the same soulless eyes in the prosecuting attorney.”
“I’ve never taken it personally. In some respects, I forgive the Heeringa family for the nasty things they may have said about me or the investigators on this case,” Hilson said, adding that as much as he may understand the mother’s grief, he had a duty to prosecute.
“I felt it necessary to make sure we brought her killer to justice and we did just that,” he added.
That doesn’t mean the search for Heeringa is over.
“I can tell you that even through the course of this trial, investigators were working on leads and still looking for her body,” Hilson said. “This case isn’t over, I will not feel closure until we do find her.”
He said tips keep coming and the investigation continues, which Norton Shore Police Department Lt. Mike Kasher, the lead detective on the Heeringa case, also said after Willis’ conviction.
Hilson said he does not believe Willis has the soul or remorse necessary to help find the body.
When it comes to sentencing on June 12, he believes the judge will command Willis to remain in the courtroom for victim impact statements. Willis left before Bletsch’s family could speak at his last sentencing hearing, prompting a change in state law that will require defendants to listen to those statements.
“He needs to be a man about it, I guess. Accept the consequences and take your lumps and take your medicine and let the victims have their day. And if he wants to be a chicken about it, then he’s a chicken about it,” Hilson said.
The Heeringa family has the legal right to make victim impact statements. There is no way to know whether they will continue their boycott of the trial.
>>App users: Interactive timeline of Willis investigation