MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Relatives of accused kidnapper and killer Jeffrey Willis say they want to ask him one question: Did he take Jessica Heeringa?

“I’d just ask him, you know, if you know where Jessica is, if you could just please let us know and bring her home,” said Terrie Umlor, a cousin through marriage who has known Willis for 40 years and used to babysit him.

Her husband, Gary Umlor, is Willis’s first cousin, shared grandparents with him, grew up in the house next to Grandma and Grandpa Willis — the house recently searched by police.

Gary Umlor said he also used to babysit Willis, then later saw him at family reunions and Sunday dinners after church.

“Something must have just triggered him,” Gary Umlor said. “That’s all I can say. Somebody just don’t go kill people. There’s something deeper.”

Willis, 46, is accused of kidnapping a 16-year-old girl as she walked along a country road in April.

When police arrested him last month, they said they found handcuffs, rope, liquid-filled syringes and more in a secret compartment in his van. They also found a .22-caliber handgun.

Ballistics tests connected that gun to evidence left at the scene of Rebekah Bletsch’s killing in Dalton Township, three miles from the Umlors’ home.

>>Inside Timeline: The investigation into Jeffrey Willis

“That wasn’t Jeff,” Terrie Umlor said. “That’s not the Jeff we knew when he grew up.”

Willis is the second of five boys. They say they never saw him get in trouble. He has no criminal record.

“He was a good kid, I think,” Gary said.

He said Willis — who is married with an adult daughter — was the one who took his grandfather to breakfast in his final years.

“After his mother died, he took care of grandpa,” he said. “He wouldd go over there and help him.”

The last time they saw him was in 2011, at their grandfather’s funeral. Willis walked up and shook his hand.

“He was the only one that did that,” he said.

They said they never gave him any thought after Jessica Heeringa disappeared from a Norton Shores gas station three years ago. Police now are identifying him as a person of interest.

“I had no clue whatsoever because the sketch that was actually made, to me, that did not even look like Jeff,” Terrie said.

The next thing they knew, Willis was charged with kidnapping, then murder.

“His mother would not allow this,” Terrie said. “I could just see her now. She’s probably just turning in her grave because that’s not the boy she brought up. That is not Jeff.

“I’d like to go down there and just see him. If I could have eye-to-eye contact with Jeffrey and just hold his hand, I honestly think that he would talk.”


Also Wednesday, the Muskegon County Prosecutor’s Office said that while Willis was friends with Norton Shores Police Officer Shawn Stefanich and Stefanich has been interviewed as part of the investigation, there is no indication of any wrongdoing on Stefanich’s part.

Authorities said they were interviewing many people who know Willis — his wife, friends, co-workers and acquaintances — too see if they have any useful background information and had not found any wrongdoing by any of them.

“Implying any wrongdoing is reckless and irresponsible,” Chief Assistant Prosecutor Tim Maat wrote in a release.


Inside coverage of the Jeffrey Willis investigation