MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — It took eight days of testimony but only about 90 minutes of deliberations for a jury to find Jeffrey Willis guilty of murdering Rebekah Bletsch.
Willis was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder and felony firearm in connection to Bletsch’s June 29, 2014 shooting death. The 36-year-old mother was found with three gunshot wounds to her head on a rural road she was jogging near her Dalton Township home. It wasn’t until nearly two years later that Willis, 47, was charged with her murder.
Bletsch’s family members cheered as a stoic Willis quickly left the courtroom.
“He’s going to wake up every day in a place that he’ll be reminded about what he’s done, so I have nothing to say to him,” said Bletsch’s relative, Tim Donkin.
“The jury, obviously the evidence was well presented, and they came to a good conclusion rather fast,” said Bletsch’s father, Nick Winberg, his voice quavering with emotion. “We’re pleased that now we can heal up somewhat and move on. It’s going to be difficult, but we don’t have this situation with an ugly kind of a trial that we have to sit through.”
He said he wasn’t surprised by the verdict.
“It couldn’t be anything but that,” Winberg said. “This is what we needed to hear. Many of us had knew it. I don’t think he fooled (the jury). There was so much evidence there. It was just like, yeah, well, finally here’s the day that it’s official that he really is guilty.”
“It’ll help close a chapter,” Donkin said of the verdict. “A lot of people talk about closure, but it’s just a chapter. No more wondering who did it, will he be convicted or not, so it allows that part of it to be in the past and now go forward with trying to live a life with somebody missing.”
Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 18. The first-degree murder conviction carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In closing arguments, both the prosecution and defense agreed: Willis is not an exemplary person.
“I know my client is not likable. And I know he’s scary to some of you…. But I’m asking you to double clutch,” defense attorney Fred Johnson said in closing arguments, calling Willis a third-shift loner who was a “gold mine” for the prosecution to target.
“I’ve never seen pure evil, but the defendant to me is pure evil. Not only does he have the willingness to lie, but he has no problem killing people. (It) doesn’t even phase him,” Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson said, after spending 90 minutes outlining all the evidence against Willis.
Willis appeared to be tearing up during the closing arguments. Donkin said he also saw Willis rocking.
“His demeanor was absolutely different today. What I saw, my opinion, I don’t know that you can fact that,” said Donkin.
>>Photos: Final day of Jeffrey Willis murder trial
In closing arguments, the defense worked to underline any element of doubt and point the finger at Willis’ cousin, Kevin Bluhm.
Earlier, the defense presented transcripts of a police interview in which Bluhm told investigators he reset his phone a day after Willis was arrested for Bletsch’s murder to delete pornography sites and “no more than 10” photos of Bletsch.
“We believe that Kevin Bluhm is your murderer. Kevin Bluhm knew Mrs. Bletsch, Kevin Bluhm stalked her on Facebook… Kevin Bluhm destroyed evidence,” Johnson said in closing arguments Thursday afternoon.
But in the final round of testimony Thursday, Bluhm’s wife and daughter accounted for his whereabouts the day Bletsch died.
Hilson also said there was no evidence connecting Bluhm to Bletsch’s murder.
“Mr. Bluhm didn’t commit this crime… the evidence doesn’t even come close to supporting it,” Hilson says.
That evidence is what Hilson focused on during his closing argument- bringing up the “VICS” file containing information about Bletsch’s murder and Heeringa’s disappearance, the thousands of abduct-rape-kill pornographic videos on his hard drive, and the toolbox and lockbox containing sex toys, syringes, insulin, gloves and a list of women’s names, found in Willis’ silver minivan.
When Willis took the stand in his own defense Wednesday, he proclaimed his innocence:
“I did not kill Ms. Bletsch. I wasn’t even there – I was home,” he testified.
>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the Jeffrey Willis investigation
Hilson called Willis’ testimony a “convenience defense.” He said Willis was “armed and ready to weasel his way out of it.” But HIlson said the evidence didn’t add up in Willis’ favor.
Apparently, the jury agreed.
JUROR: ‘I HOPE HE GETS HELP’
Two of the 12 jurors who reached the decision said there wasn’t much dissent during deliberations, as evidenced by their quick decision. It was easy, they said, to settle on first-degree and felony firearm convictions rather than second-degree murder.
“The families are always in our mind,” said one of the jurors, who asked to be identified only as Rita. “But we can’t go on our feelings or what we’re worried about the family or what’s going to happen. We have to pay attention to what the evidence is and base our decision on that.”
Rita said the most damning evidence “was basically all of it.”
“We really discussed out every single possibility,” another juror said.
“All the evidence,” Rita added. “If anybody had a question or there was something that we weren’t 100 percent sure on. There was some talk about the different things, the weapons.”
The two jurors said it’s a relief to have the trial and weighty decision over. They also said they feel like they’ve taken a dangerous man off the streets.
“I totally believe that we’ve stopped someone from continuing to do something that’s dangerous for our society,” Rita said.
“I hope he gets help,” she added, speaking about Willis. “I hope that whatever it is that drove him to be the way that he is or whatever made him do this in his mind, that somebody helps him at least figure out what is going on so that he doesn’t have to deal with whatever demons it is that he’s dealing with.”
As for Bletsch’s family, Rita said she hopes they can have closure now.
“It’s never going to be easy,” she said. “They lost a daughter, a mother, sister, so she’s never going to come back. I just hope that now that this part of it’s over that they can find some closure and move on with their lives.”
Blestch’s husband was in court for the first time Thursday as the verdict came down. Donkin believes the guilty verdict clears his nephew’s name.
“In most cases where a spouse murdered, they look at the husband or wife, depending on which, and that is normal, but we all shouldn’t rush to judgement that it is right away,” Donkin said. “And I think (Bletsch’s husband’s) name has been cleared. And I think that should be out there for all to hear because he was under suspicion quite heavily for quite a while and while it’s understandable that police have to look there, it’s so much such a relief now to know that his name is 100 percent, absolutely, it’s clear.”
WILLIS’ OTHER CASES
Jurors in the Bletsch murder trial reviewed more than 160 pieces of evidence in the case, which also included items connected to the disappearance of Jessica Heeringa and the alleged abduction attempt of a teen girl known only as MJN.
In April 2016, MJN reported she had escaped a man who tried to kidnap her as she walked along the road in Fruitland Township. Surveillance video from a nearby blueberry farm led investigators to Willis and his silver minivan. They arrested him and searched his minivan in May 2016, they recovered a gun that ballistics testing found was the one used to kill Bletsch.
Online records show no further court dates have been set in Heeringa’s or MJN’s cases.
>>App users: Interactive timeline of Willis investigation