NORTON SHORES, Mich. (WOOD) — At 1:10 a.m. on April 28, 2013, two days after Jessica Heeringa disappeared from her job at a Norton Shores gas station, phone towers picked up her killer’s cellphone.
Jeffrey Willis was on the move, his phone headed north on US-31 from Norton Shores and then east on M-46.
It’s been 10 years since the young mother disappeared, her body never found. Now, for the first time, the lead detective is revealing where he thinks Willis, now a convicted serial killer, buried her.
Retired Norton Shores Police Department Lt. Michael Kasher said he believes she’s buried in the Manistee National Forest near the Lake-Mason county line, northwest of Baldwin, about a 90-minute drive from Norton Shores.
He believes Willis, now 53, was headed there from his deceased grandfather’s home that morning with Heeringa’s body in his silver minivan.
“I think he went out into some area that he is well familiar with and he buried Jessica out there somewhere,” Kasher said of the site.
Phone records show Willis likely returned to the same area in the months after Heeringa’s disappearance: once in June and once in August, both times about 3 a.m., Kasher said. Both days, Kasher said, Willis called in sick from his job at Herman Miller in Spring Lake.
“Why is he out there? He’s a hunter and he’s an avid snowmobiler,” Kasher said. “It wasn’t hunting season and we weren’t having snow in June and August. I believe somewhere along the line he was either visiting or burying her even better.”
Starting in 2017, some four years later, after Willis’s arrest and a review of his phone records, police swarmed the Manistee National Forest in Lake County’s Sauble Township. They used cadaver dogs, helicopters and infrared cameras. They conducted at least half a dozen searches in that area that were never made public, Kasher said.
“I’m telling you, out there when we were walking the terrain and using the dogs, the terrain is … wooded, the ground is uneven, you could be walking and within 15 feet from you, something could be buried. It’s that tough,” Kasher said. “I always say, the only one that really could tell us, when it comes down to it, is going to be Jeffrey Willis.”
DENIALS FROM PRISON
Heeringa, the 25-year-old mother of a 3-year-old boy, disappeared while working alone the night of April 26, 2013, at the Exxon gas station on East Sternberg Road.
Willis continues to deny any involvement at all in Heeringa’s case, in the 2014 murder of Rebekah Bletsch and in the 2016 attempted kidnapping of a 16-year-old girl who managed to escape.
At the same time, Heeringa’s family continues to question everything the police are saying. They don’t believe Willis is the killer. They wonder if she could still be alive.
In a phone interview from Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, where he’s serving two life sentences without parole, Willis admitted he had stopped at that Exxon station before, even earlier that day.
“I seen her. I’d gone into that store one time with a guy I worked with,” Willis said. “The guy I worked with, I rode to work with him. He stopped there at the gas station because he said there was a hot girl there.
“I was there that night, too. But I didn’t know who she was. I never met her.”
Kasher, the first detective at the scene the night of the disappearance, almost immediately suspected the worst, and that was long before he focused on Willis.
“We see all of her stuff there, including her cigarettes and her lighter, which was nicely stacked, and it looked like she was pulling out the drawer to start counting,” Kasher said. “There’s a lot of money there, all the change, everything. Everything was in place like she was cleaning up.”
Their fears grew with the discovery out back: the cover to a laser site of a gun, batteries to the laser site and a smudged drop or two of Heeringa’s blood.
“You’re starting to go, OK, she’s not here, place is left open, it’s not a robbery, there was no struggle inside. Did it happen out here? You start seeing a little bit of blood. We’ve got a cover to a laser site. So the red flags start adding up,” Kasher said.
Eyewitnesses riding by on motorcycles told police they saw a suspicious silver minivan behind the station that night.
TIP NO. 257
Heeringa’s family held vigils next to the gas station, passed out flyers, made public pleas for help.
Just days after the disappearance, a tip came in.
“I think it was tip 257,” Kasher said.
It led them to Willis but a quick police interview and a check of his recently vacuumed silver minivan provided no answers.
Despite more than 2,000 tips, dozens of searches, leads on potential suspects and a task force that at one point grew to 45 officers, the investigation sputtered, Kasher said.
They focused for a time on Dakotah Quail-Dyer, Heeringa’s live-in boyfriend and the father of her 3-year-old son. But he had an alibi and nothing to gain from her death, Kasher said.
“He was always on board,” Kasher said. “Every time I called him, every time I needed him, every time we had something, he was there.”
Quail-Dyer declined to be interviewed for this report, saying he was trying to move on with life. He’s married now and said he often visits the son he shared with Heeringa. Their son is now 13 and being raised by Heeringa’s sister.
Then in April 2016, three years to the month after Heeringa disappeared, a break: A 16-year-old girl escaped a man who had picked her up along the road. She said he had a gun and pointed it at her as she jumped from his van and ran. It was a silver minivan.
That led detectives back to Willis and to what the state Court of Appeals later called “untainted evidence” that Willis kidnapped and killed Heeringa.
It also led to even stronger evidence that he had shot and killed Rebekah Bletsch in 2014 while she was out jogging near her home north of Muskegon.
Among the evidence: A stolen gun with a broken laser and what police described as a rape kit, including sex toys and restraints. Ballistics tied the gun to Bletsch’s murder and police found her DNA on a sex toy and glove in Willis’s silver minivan.
And there was the evidence on his computer: Files labeled “VICS,” short for victims, with subfolders bearing the initials for Bletsch and Heeringa. The JLH file held a photo of Heeringa.
“He had some really dark videos, pornographic, all the same type of things,” Kasher said. “They were abduction, rape, torture, murder, and he had 10, 12,000 videos on his computer.”
Also among the evidence tying him to Jessica Lynn Heeringa: his computer password made up of her initials and the date police believed he killed her: J4L27H13.
Kasher said he has a theory about what happened to Heeringa. He said he believes Willis parked behind the gas station and knocked on the back door.
“She opens up the door, thinking she knows who it is. He gets her to come out and he hits her (with a stolen gun),” Kasher said. “Is it plausible that he hit her hard, whether in the head or in the face area with that gun, and that (the laser site) exploded and then she drops down, he picks her up, throws her in the van as our motorcycle people are driving by and he’s closing the back hatch of the van? That’s how I think it happened.”
Then, he believes, Willis drove her to the home of his deceased grandfather on Bailey Street in Norton Shores, where he killed her.
Willis’s cousin, Kevin Bluhm, then a state prison guard, later told investigators Willis invited him to the home on Bailey the day after Heeringa’s abduction.
In the basement, Bluhm told them, he saw a woman with an obvious head wound, lying face down with her hands tied. Bluhm said Willis was standing next to the unclothed body and told him he had tortured her.
Bluhm said he helped Willis wrap her up “like a taco” and place her wrapped body on a plastic sheet in the back of Willis’ van.
Bluhm told investigators he then helped carry Heeringa’s body to a hole that had already been dug near an old set of railroad tracks at S. Sheridan Road and E. Laketon Avenue, not far from Willis’ home. Investigators searched that area but never found Heeringa’s body.
Bluhm later recanted but was convicted of being an accessory after the fact in Heeringa’s murder. A judge sentenced him to 476 days time served and five years on probation.
Kasher said he believes Bluhm was telling the truth.
“I know he was not part of the abduction,” Kasher said. “I know that Jeffrey Willis acted alone in the abduction but I think the next night or evening, we’re talking the 27th, Saturday evening into the night, around 10, that Kevin Bluhm went over there and saw what he saw.”
Target 8 was not able to reach Bluhm for comment.
THE H STANDS FOR?
Kasher describes Willis as an “evil predator.”
“He thinks he’s smart, but he’s not,” Kasher said. “He thinks he can out-talk himself. We saw that when he got on the stand and he really made himself look worse. I think he’s just an evil person.”
Willlis describes himself differently.
“Jeffrey Willis would describe Jeffrey Willis as a wrongly convicted, decent man who has been wrongfully convicted based on lies told by the prosecutor and the ballistics expert,” Willis said. “Jeffrey Willis is an easy-going guy, very likeable, some call me arrogant, but very intelligent person.”
He has an explanation for the circumstantial evidence against him, including the incriminating password on his computer: J4L27H13. It had nothing to do with Heeringa’s initials or the date that police believe he killed her, he said. The J, he told Target 8, was for his first name, 4 represented how many brothers he has, L is for the names of his father and grandfather, both Lawrences.
“The 27 was the age that … my dad was when I was born and my grandpa was when my dad was born, and 27’s my favorite number. Well, three is my favorite number and 27 is three times three. So, 27’s a big number for me.”
As for the H, “Oh, s—. Let’s see. There was J4, Jeff, four brothers. F—, I don’t remember,” he said.
As for the porn on his computer?
“I’m not going to explain it,” he said. “It’s porn, that’s all it was.
“They didn’t have a lot. They said they had tens of thousands of it, that’s bulls—. There might have been a hundred on there.”
“They found one video in there that was called The Jogger, which would have matched what they said happened in the Jessica, the Rebekah Bletsch case,” he said. “One video. None of the rest of them did.”
He blames crooked cops and ballistics experts for concocting evidence. And Bletsch’s DNA? That, he said, is a mistake by an incompetent state police lab scientist.
He does admit, as he did on the witness stand, that he picked up the 16-year-old girl who accused him of kidnapping and whose escape led to his undoing. All a misunderstanding, he said.
“She seen a silver van and she thought, she felt like I was a little creepy and when I turned to look at her, she got all, her little drug-induced whatever kicked in and she jumped out. That would explain why she was frantic, because she really thought I was trying to do something to her. I wasn’t. I had a phone for her. She freaked out and jumped out of my van while the f—ing thing was driving down the road. Crazy. I’m tellin’ ya,” Willis said.
When asked why he wouldn’t help Heeringa’s family by telling them what he did with her body, he responded: “I’m not even going to answer that.”
“I told you already, you already know the answer to that,” he said. “I knew that’s what this phone call was for. I told everybody here, I says, ‘If he says that at the beginning, I’m going to hang up on him.’ So I’m not going to answer that. If you have anything else to ask, you know. Anything but that.”
He ended the phone call.
NO JESSICA, NO JUSTICE
Heeringa’s family declined to be interviewed for this story. Her mom still maintains the “Help Find Jessica Heeringa” Facebook page.
“No Jessica, No Justice,” it reads.
In a text exchange with Target 8, Heeringa’s sister, Samantha Heeringa, wrote:
“I don’t think Jeffrey Willis is guilty of killing Jes. She is still out there. I wish someone would report that she is no longer being looked for whether she is alive or dead. My mom and myself think she needs to be looked for and the case reopened and looked into.”
Kasher said he understands why the Heeringa family continues to hold out hope.
“If they want to hold onto that and that’s what gets them through the day and that what gets them up, they keep checking and maybe hope, OK. God bless them,” he said. “But I can tell you right how that Jeffrey Willis is the person who did this act as well as Rebekah Bletsch and he’s convicted for it.”
Kasher is now second in command at Hope College’s campus safety office. He said he had two goals in Heeringa’s case: Catch the killer and find her.
“And half of it was completed, a major half, but the other half isn’t,” he said. “So there’s a void. There’s a big void.”
He said he loses sleep over it.
“Oh yeah. I don’t go around telling everybody about it because it’s 10 years and in 10 years, things fade off,” he said. “You’re onto the next news, it’s not the only murder that ever happened, it’s not the only incident that’s ever happened, but for me, yeah, I think about it every day.”