Prosecutor in Jessica Heeringa case: ‘No ball dropped’

Muskegon County

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Six years before the disappearance of Jessica Heeringa, Jeffrey Willis‘ name popped up on a police complaint, alleging he had videotaped a woman walking in a parking lot.

The question now is, should that have led police to Willis sooner?

Willis is now charged with murder and kidnapping and is a person of interest in Heeringa’s 2013 disappearance.

“I wouldn’t say it was a ball that was dropped,” Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson told 24 Hour News 8. “Absolutely not.

“You had multiple agencies following up on tons of tips and doing the best they could. There was no ball dropped there.”

A search warrant obtained Monday by 24 Hour News 8 described the 2007 incident.

A Muskegon-area woman told police she was walking through the Sam’s Club parking lot on Sherman Boulevard on Oct. 5, 2007, when she noticed a man videotaping her from his tan car.

She told police the car followed her as she drove away, but that she made a quick stop and got his license plate.

The woman told 24 Hour News 8 she immediately called police from her car, but that the man followed her a little longer before driving away. She said police warned her to keep an eye out for him.

Records show the license plate came back to Jeffrey Willis.

That police report was taken by Fruitport Police, which didn’t arrest Willis and didn’t issue him a ticket.

“Whether not he’d been on anybody’s radar, he was a person sitting in a parking lot, videotaping people,” Hilson said. “Again, right or wrong, it’s not illegal.”

Six years later, the disappearance of Jessica Heeringa from a Norton Shores gas station led police to search for a silver mini-van — based on a description and grainy surveillance photographs — without a license plate.

Prosecutors said Willis’s van was among more than 100 checked out by police — based on tips — shortly after the disappearance.

The license plate on his silver van was the same plate he had on the tan car back in 2007 during that videotaping incident.

But police and prosecutors investigating Heeringa’s disappearance won’t say if they knew early on about the videotaping incident in neighboring Fruitport.

Or, whether it was something they pieced together only after Willis became a suspect in the kidnapping of a 16-year-old girl on April 16.

Or, if it would have mattered either way.

“What they did with that during the Heeringa investigation, I can’t commnent on because that’s still an active investigation,” Hilson said.

After Willis’s arrest two months ago for the kidnapping, they searched his van, finding sex toys, handcuffs, syringes and two Sony camcorders.

“You look at the totality of circumstances and the information we have now, we could kind of connect the dots, but back then that was one of hundreds of tips and vans, people they were looking at,” Hilson said.

“There were lots of dots.”

Fruitport Police Chief Brian Michelli said he was aware of the 2007 incident but refused to comment, referring questions to prosecutors and Norton Shores police.

Norton Shores Police Chief Jon Gale didn’t return messages left by 24 Hour News 8.

Inside woodtv.com:Full coverage: The Jeffrey Willis investigation  

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