MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — The man convicted of abducting and killing Jessica Heeringa more than five years ago will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Judge William Marietti sentenced Jeffrey Willis Monday to life in prison without parole for the murder of Heeringa, who was abducted from the Norton Shores gas station where she worked on April 26, 2013.
Before learning his punishment, Willis cried as he read an eight-page statement in which he insisted he was innocent and claimed police covered up for each other.
“I came here today with intention to finally speak up and set the record straight,” Willis said.
Willis apologized twice to Rebakah Bletsch's family, saying the kiss he blew as he walked out of his sentencing for her murder before hearing from them was "mistakenly construed as a hateful act directed at them."
“My blown kiss that was spitefully garbled by the press as a rebuke to the family was in fact meant as a message to the prosecutor. D.J. Hilson. That message being that I’d figured out the truth and that he could kiss his future goodbye,” Willis said with a shaky voice.
But the Bletsch family said they don't believe that.
"The cameras don't lie. If you watch that video again, he watched my family as he walked past and blew that kiss to us. That wasn't to D.J.; that's just him (Willis) trying to look good," Bletsch's sister, Jessica Josephson said after the sentencing.
Willis wasn't able to walk out this time because his actions spurred a change in state law that requires convicts to remain in the courtroom to hear victim impact statements.
However, none of Heeringa's family spoke at Willis' sentencing. Her mother, holding out hope that she's alive, didn't attend any of the trial. Her relatives say they won't give up on their mission to bring her home.
The Bletsch family could not speak because the sentencing was for the crimes against Heeringa.
"(They were) fake tears and lying," Bletsch's mom, Debra Reamer said of Willis' statement. "He doesn't deserve to speak like that. We couldn't say anything today, but he got to lie to all of us. He's guilty."
>>App users: Watch Willis' statement here.
During his 13-minute speech, Willis claimed his innocence, saying the ballistics expert perjured himself over a misplaced bullet, and his friend, who works for Norton Shores police, told him officers would cover up for each other as part of "the old boys club."
"There's a reason Muskegon County has one of the highest conviction rates in the state," Willis said.
Willis also recounted how Susan Follett testified how she didn't recognize him as the driver in the van, yet said she knew the face of every customer. He also pointed out how Follett and her ex-husband said a light to the back of the gas station was off when the minivan pulled up, yet police testified the light was on when they arrived.
"When someone can't take responsibility and (is) calling us corrupt and saying we 'threw people off the roof,' I've had 28 years of good law enforcement. I don't know how to say it: it's to the point of a joke," said Norton Shores Lt. Michael Kasher, who was smirking during Willis' account. "All the evidence led to him."
Willis said his case was hampered on both sides of the justice system, claiming authorities destroyed key pieces of evidence in the Bletsch case and his attorneys denied him access to important information. He called his defense "inept in laying out his case."
Willis took aim at the community, saying the jury was "disenfranchised," couldn't stay awake long enough to listen to the trial, and took no stock in presuming his innocence. He also called the public "bloodthirsty."
Willis also called Hilson "spineless," pointing out how the prosecutor has never looked him in the eye.
Hilson again refused to look at Willis as he spoke.
"I try to be as diplomatic as I can, but when you don't have any respect for somebody — and I have zero for him — he doesn't deserve any acknowledgement from me," Hilson said after sentencing.
During the proceeding, Hilson thanked law enforcement, the Bletsch family, MJN and her mother for leading him to that moment.
“In my career — and I’ve been doing this almost 19 years — This man is probably one of the most dangerous men I hope to ever encounter. He shows no remorse,” Hilson said after hearing Willis' statement.
"“I think his display throughout these cases and certainly his display this morning goes to show that we have successfully locked up an individual who, had he not been caught and captured, would have continued his killing in this particular community," Hilson said.
"I’m going to sleep very well tonight knowing Mr. Willis will never see the light of day," he added, garnering applause.
It took jurors only about 90 minutes of deliberation last month to find Willis guilty of kidnapping and murdering Heeringa.The kidnapping charge came with an 18 to 40 year sentence, which Willis will serve concurrently with his life sentence.
Authorities didn't have any DNA linking Willis to the 25-year-old mother, in part because her body was never found, but they had a wealth of circumstantial evidence. Over the course of six days, Hilson painstakingly put those 201 pieces of evidence together to convince jurors Willis was guilty. Last week, one of the jurors told 24 Hour News 8 that the case was "like a Lego set that you start to put together" and that ultimately, all the pieces fit.
"We believe that the guilty verdict was right," the juror said.
>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the Jeffrey Willis investigation
Willis, 48, is already serving a life sentence for the June 2014 murder of Bletsch.
Marietti refused to comment on the case, saying he expects to handle other court proceedings against Willis, including a potential appeal in the Heeringa case.
Willis previously told 24 Hour News 8 he'll keep fighting his convictions.
>>App users: Timeline of Willis investigation