MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — In a move that surprised many, Jeffrey Willis took the stand Wednesday to defend himself as he stands trial for the murder of Rebekah Bletsch.
“I imagine that you’ve been waiting a long time to tell your story,” defense attorney Fred Johnson said.
“I have,” Willis answered.
Willis looked directly at the jury while he answered hours of questions.
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The first issue the defense tackled was the Carl Walther P22 handgun Willis had that police said was the murder weapon. Willis’ former co-worker previously testified the gun was stolen from her home, along with two pairs of her underwear. However, Willis said Wednesday he bought the gun from her and the underwear was given to him.
Willis said the gun’s serial number was already scratched off the weapon when he received it, contrary to what his former co-worker said in her testimony.
The prosecution pointed out that Willis had registered another gun he owned, but did not register the Walther P22.
“From what I understand, you didn’t have to register after 2013,” Willis said.
“So you think you didn’t have to register that handgun, and that’s your excuse for not registering that handgun, because you didn’t think you had to?” Prosecutor D.J. Hilson said.
“No, I didn’t think I had to,” Willis answered.
Willis testified that his cousin Kevin Bluhm knew he kept the gun and asked to borrow the Walther P22 before Bletsch was killed. Willis said Bluhm gave it back to him in July of that year.
He also said the softball gloves found in his van that contained Bletsch’s DNA were Bluhm’s.
THE “VICS” FOLDER
Willis was also questioned about the “VICS” folder found on his computer. Willis said he created it after a co-worker named Bubba told him about Bletsch’s shooting.
“Well, I don’t trust the police. They are human, they make mistakes just like everybody else,” Willis said.
Willis said when investigators started questioning him, he started to put anything in his defense in the folder for police.
“I was not concerned that I was a suspect. I was making sure that I had covered the bases I guess, whatever, with Officer Hare,” Willis said. “I wanted to make sure they had the stuff they needed.”
Among the files Willis had stored was a subfolder that contained a home phone record for June 29, 2014, the day Bletsch was murdered.
“You did that shortly after Rebekah was killed, right?” asked Hilson.
“No, it would have been whenever I got the phone record,” Willis said.
“Well, it was in 2014,” Hilson said.
“Yeah,” Willis answered.
“So in 2014, you’re squirreling away this phone record for a murder you didn’t commit?” Hilson asked.
“Yes, yes,” Willis eventually said.
Willis said he called his friend, a Norton Shores officer, just after 6 p.m. from his home the day Bletsch died, but the friend didn’t pick up. owever, prosecutors pointed out the record only shows the time the call was placed, not who made it.
Willis said from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. the day Bletsch was killed, he was home cutting his grass when his wife was home.
Willis said he learned about Bletsch’s murder from a co-worker.
“I did not kill Ms. Bletsch. I wasn’t even there — I was home,” Willis said.
“There is nobody else that can verify that but you,” countered Hilson.
“Well, my wife. She was home,” Willis said.
“What I’m saying is, if your wife has no recollection of that, it’s you,” Hilson said.
Earlier in the day, jurors heard from Muskegon County detective Lisa Freres, who testified about Bluhm’s whereabouts the day Bletsch was killed.
Freres testified Bluhm went to an open house then his child’s soccer tournament which he stayed for in its entirety.
When he did leave, Freres said Bluhm met his family at the Walgreens parking lot where he helped fix a relative’s vehicle issue. Freres said they all then left the Walgreens parking lot at 6 p.m. “at the very soonest,” which would put Bluhm at the murder scene at 6:40 p.m. if he traveled there directly.
However, Freres said she could not obtain surveillance video of Bluhm at the Walgreens, as it was two years later and the video no longer existed.
When questioned about how the toolbox containing sex toys ended up in his van, Willis said it was “kind of a fun story.”
He said he put the sex toys in the toolbox because he wanted to keep them from his grandson after the boy found something. Willis said there was no room in the shed because of materials for project his wife was working.
“That’s how it ended (up) in the van,” Willis said.
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Willis testified the toolbox came from his grandfather’s estate sale and he purchased the safe found under his seat.
Willis testified he put the injection diagram in one of the lock boxes. Willis said he probably touched the ball gag that had his DNA on it and may have put the handcuffs on “just to see what they were like.”
He said the kit with the insulin and needles under his seat was an emergency kit because his wife and niece were diabetic and his wife was “notorious” for taking showers and forgetting to put her insulin pump on.
“They were all medicine, except for the gun,” Willis said of the contents of the box under his seat.
As for the Viagara? Willis said he was giving it to a friend.
SERIAL KILLERS LIST
Willis also had an explanation for the list of serial killers found in a camera bag in his shed.
“When Ms. Heeringa went missing, the rumors were flying around and there was somebody that I worked with that I worked with that thought it was maybe a serial killer or something like that,” Willis said.
“We printed up that list, he wanted to go over it or something like that — but that’s what we printed it up for,” he added.
WHAT WILLIS DIDN’T DENY
Hilson pointed out that the defense avoided questioning Willis on another piece of evidence: a list of items found in the trash at his grandfather’s home that a writing expert said he wrote.
Willis said he wrote the list, which contained items like handcuffs, zip ties, a restraint board and a bag of rubber gloves.
“I wrote everything on there, including the clothes part on top,” Willis said.
Willis also didn’t deny that the external hard drives that contained thousands of graphic pornography videos was his.
“I guess that was my outlet. I don’t know any other way to put it, it’s kind of embarrassing,” Willis said.
“Your outlet, if I understand correctly is thousands upon thousands of abduction, torture, rape, kill videos. That’s your outlet,” Hilson told Willis during the cross-examination.
“My outlet was porn,” Willis answered.
Willis said he never watched “The Jogger” video, but he admitted he took a secret video of his co-worker and her lover, as well as video focusing on the groin area of females as they swam.
THE JESSICA HEERINGA CONNECTION
When the questions turned to Jessica Heeringa, Willis said he had visited the gas station where she worked but didn’t know her well.
“I’d seen her, I would recognize her, I’d seen her before,” Willis said.
Willis was ready to explain his whereabouts that night. He told the jury he was involved in a “Magic: The Gathering” game at a sports card shop the night Heeringa disappeared. Willis said he went to Mr. Quick to get his wife some food, stopped at a friend’s house to get some of the cards he needed and bought some mints from the gas station where Heeringa worked before arriving at the tournament around 5 p.m.
Willis testified he was not involved in Heeringa’s disappearance. He said the van captured on surveillance video the night of her disappearance was not his.
Willis was testifying about his encounter with the teen he’s accused of trying to abduct when his words raised a red flag.
“At first I thought I should stop, but she wasn’t quite where I needed, she was on the other side of the road, so I turned down Webber,” Willis said.
Willis said he was heading to Duck Lake State Park to take his dogs for a run when he saw the teen girl heading west on River Road. He said he turned around on Webber Road and swung into the blueberry farm to “clear some junk” away in case she needed a ride.
“She just looked distraught,” he said.
Willis said his windows were down when he pulled up and asked if she need a ride home. He said she was “real jittery” and he thought she was “on drugs or something.”
Willis said when MJN’s hair began blowing, he rolled the passenger window up and the locks engaged. He said he slowed down to let the teen out and reached down to get his cellphone. That’s when he said she jumped out of the van.
Willis said he stopped the van and got out, that’s when the teen ran down the road yelling, “Don’t shoot.”
Willis then explained why he drove away: “I was afraid I guess. I didn’t want to get arrested,” Willis said. “I didn’t want nothing to do with it. She was acting funny… I didn’t want to be there. So I left.”
Willis said he heard media reports of the incident involving MJN, but agreed he didn’t do anything.
But he stopped short of saying he lied to investigators about his whereabouts during the incident.
“I knew that I was there. And I wanted to know what they (investigators) had thought or what she had said,” Willis said.
“I was being evasive,” he added.
“OK. You’re evasive, I’m lying. We’ll leave it at that,” said Hilson.
BLUHM’S POLICE INTERVIEW
The defense ended its case by reciting excerpts of the police interview with Bluhm.
Throughout the trial, the defense has been tailoring its case to blame Bluhm for Bletsch’s murder.
In the excerpts, the investigator pointed out Bluhm reset his phone the day after Willis was charged with Bletsch’s murder and that Bluhm had said he handled the gun used in her shooting.
The investigator pointed out that Bluhm had first told them Willis handed him the gun to clean it, but he later said Willis wanted him to get rid of it.
“He’s trying to set me up and I said no. I handed it back. He killed those people,” Bluhm said.
“You’re a State of Michigan employee working for the Michigan Department of Corrections, you’d be the last person he’d go to, you know what I’m saying?” the investigator said.
Bluhm told investigators he reset his phone to get rid of “regular porn,” later adding it was also to erase “no more than 10” photos of Bletsch he saved after her death.
Bluhm said he knew Bletsch because their children played soccer together. He said she was a beautiful lady, but only a friend. He said he knew she lived on Automobile Road because of their conversations.
WILLIS’ TESTIMONY: DID IT HELP OR HURT?
24 Hour News 8’s Brady Gillum, who has worked as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney, said it’s unlikely that Willis taking the stand was some sort of last-ditch, desperate move on the part of the defense.
“A jury, they’ve been instructed from the very beginning in this case that the defendant, or Mr. Willis in this case, he doesn’t have to testify in his own defense and they can’t hold it against him. So when a defendant decides to testify, there’s almost this psychological effect where the jury kind of leans in and they really want to hear what the defendant has to say,” Gillum explained. “In my experience as a prosecutor and a defense attorney, after talking to juries after either an acquittal or a guilty verdict, they always say, ‘Man, we wish we could’ve heard from the defendant, even though we’re not supposed to hold it against him, we wish we could’ve heard.’ So I don’t think it was a Hail Mary. I think it was a smart move.”
Willis seemed generally calm on the stand. His voice didn’t waver. He didn’t seem to stumble over answers. He was obviously prepared.
“The decision might have been last-minute, but the preparation certainly wasn’t,” Gillum said of putting Willis on the stand. “You go over testimony with your client for a long time and you spend hours preparing your client to testify. Not only do you present questions to him that he (the defense attorney) will ask on direct examination, but you will pretend that you are the prosecutor cross-examining him. So I’m sure he was very well prepared for this.”
Still, there are risks when a defendant takes the stand.
“The obvious risks are that it opens him up to cross-examination and also it presents, possibly, facts that were not admissible. If he says something, he could open the door to new evidence that the defense fought to keep out,” Gillum noted.
Only time will tell if Willis’ testimony helped or hurt his case. The jury is expected to deliberate as soon as Thursday, after the prosecution calls its rebuttal witnesses.