MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — If Jeffrey Willis is everything police say he is, he’s a serial killer — or was well on his way to being one.
Willis is accused of kidnapping and killing 25-year-old Jessica Heeringa in 2013, murdering 36-year-old Rebekah Bletsch in 2014 and kidnapping that 16-year-old in April.
But Target 8 found there’s much more to the 46-year-old accused killer than what is revealed in court documents.
“It had to be a Jekyll and Hyde,” said a close friend since high school. “There’s a breaking point somewhere, but where, I don’t know.”
“It’s hard to understand that your close friend, someone that you hung around with and liked being around, had this double life,” said the former schoolmate at Fruitport High School, who worked with Willis and remained his friend.
He’s a father, a grandfather and a good friend whose social circle included an officer. Willis was considered a trusted co-worker. He was a man never in trouble with the law. A guy who took his grandpa to breakfast every Sunday morning. Even a Salvation Army bell ringer.
But it’s not like Willis didn’t show glimpses of a dark side along the way, like during a first date in high school.
“It was a scary ride home, but he did take me home,” said Willis’ former date.
“That’s what’s scary about this is that there are people out there that can live two different lives.”
Or, years later, the vile comments he allegedly made at work about women’s private parts.
“Looking back now I can say yeah, he did do some things that were, well, inappropriate,” his long-time friend said.
Or in 1999, when Willis was fired from his custodian job at Edgewood Elementary school in Fruitport for looking at pornography on a school computer.
Or in 2007, when Willis secretly videotaped a woman while following her out of the Sam’s Club parking lot in Fruitport Township, leading to a police report that went nowhere.
Until his arrest in May, nobody had put it all together.
“That’s what’s scary about this is that there are people out there that can live two different lives,” Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson said.
Especially, Hilson said, when the dark side is so dark — darker than anything he’s seen in his career.
“To me, that says that he’s very cold and calculating because that does take some thought, it does take some effort, it does take really just some strategy to pull that off, so you’re not just doing that on a whim, you’re not doing that on the fly,” Hilson said.
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The headline in the 1988 Fruitport High School yearbook, on top of the track team’s page bearing Willis’ photo seemed almost prophetic: “Catch me if you can.”
As a senior, Jeffrey Willis was a sprinter – and a good one.
“He was just that all-around what you would consider good American kid.”
“He was a little skinny kid that was pretty fast,” said his high school friend, who was also on the team.
Willis was so well thought of that his quote was chosen to grace the track team’s yearbook page:
“Track’s a good sport because it teaches you respect for others,” Willis stated.
Willis grew up in Fruitport. He was one of five boys raised by middle-class parents.
A woman who graduated with him from Fruitport High School remembers play dates when they were little — and she recalls a boy who grew into a handsome jock.
“He was just that all-around what you would consider good American kid,” she said.
“He was very popular with the grades ahead, the grades below and he was very popular in our class,” she added.
Willis was also very self-assured, recalled another woman who met him at a high school track meet. She was 15; he was 17.
“He was forward. He thought highly of himself, that he was charismatic,” she said. “It wasn’t that he kind of was, it was that he thought that of himself, that he was smart, that he was a lot of things that girls should want.”
One night, she said, they ended up on a parked vehicle on a two-track in Fruitport.
“It was a scary ride home, but he did take me home.”
“It went further than I wanted, and when I decided that was the point to stop, he did get quite angry,” she recollected. “He felt he was maybe owed more.”
She said she recently told her Willis encounter to detectives, who had tracked her down.
She said it was a scary ride that’s likely more frightening years later, knowing Willis may be a serial killer.
The long-time friend who ran track with Willis said he remembers Willis’s pornography collection, which he began accumulating not long after high school.
“Back when he was single, single guys have that stuff. They do. And he had boxes and boxes of it.”
He said Willis watched it on his computer, alone, and that it was “kind of over the top.”
But, he said, he saw nothing like the necrophilia police said they recently found on Willis’s home computer.
“I can’t even imagine that,” he said. “That’s just sick.”
Willis friend thought he had tossed his porn collection when he got married 13 years ago.
By that time, Willis had a daughter with another woman. That woman later died in a car crash. His daughter is now 26 and has her own child – his grandchild.’
“He was able to hide it from her very, very well.”
“He loved his wife immensely,” the friend said. “I can’t see where he lost that. I don’t know. As far as I know, as much as he used to talk about (his wife), he loved her.”
The prosecutor said Willis kept his dark side so secret that even his wife – now ex-wife – didn’t know.
“He was able to hide it from her very, very well,” Hilson said.
The prosecutor said Willis also kept it from his close friend, Shawn Stefanich, a Fruitport High School classmate who is an officer on the Norton Shores Police Department. It’s the same department investigating Heeringa’s disappearance.
It was Stefanich who Willis called from jail immediately after his arrest in May.
“Listen, I’ve been arrested,” Willis said in the tape-recorded call.
Willis’s immediate family declined to talk to Target 8, including a sister-in-law who is listed as a prosecution witness.
The friends and classmates who spoke with Target 8 didn’t want to be identified.
“There’s a backlash,” said his close friend. “People still don’t talk to me. People look at me, as I’m the person that’s friends with that monster.”
Willis friend worked with him more than 15 years at Herman Miller in Spring Lake Township, on the overnight shift.
“As far as I know, everybody liked him,” he said. “He could talk to anybody and you’d never know the monster walking on the other side of the curtain.”
Willis would do anything to help a friend, his friend said.
“If I needed a trailer, he had an extra trailer. If I needed some kind of tool I didn’t have, (he’d say) ‘Come on over, get ’em, take ’em,’” he explained.
“He could talk to anybody and you’d never know the monster walking on the other side of the curtain.”
Willis had a variety of jobs at Herman Miller, most recently driving a forklift and picking up leftover plastics and wood pallets for recycling, the friend said.
Willis’ friend said they played cribbage during breaks, played X-box after work and shot target practice together.
“I’d trust my wife around him,” he said. “I’d trust my kids around him. Like my wife said, anytime during the night, if he’d have stopped over, she’d have said, ‘Yeah, come in, Jeff, no problem.'”
But he also recalled some of Willis’s crude comments to women at work – comments that often crossed the line. Like when Willis allegedly talked to a recent female hire about her private parts in language the friend was reluctant to repeat.
“He’d do the majority of it one-on-one, where nobody else is around,” he said. So it was Willis’ word against her account.
“He just kind of laughed about it and left,” the friend said.
He wasn’t surprised when another co-worker said Willis asked for her panties in testimony during a recent court hearing.
The friend said he wonders if Willis’s weight, nearly doubling as he worked at Herman Miller, somehow played a role in how he treated women, or how Willis believed women were treating him.
“A lot of it could have been his weight. Jeff got considerably big. He was close to 300 pounds,” the friend added.
The friend said outside of work, Willis was closest with his cousin Kevin Bluhm, a prison sergeant at West Shoreline Correctional Facility in Muskegon.
“They’ve been tight since childhood,” he said. “They were close. They were close all through all of this.”
Bluhm is charged with being an accessory after the fact in Heeringa’s murder, after he told police he saw her, obviously dead, in the basement of Willis’s dead grandfather’s home days after her disappearance.
Bluhm also told police he helped bury Heeringa along old railroad tracks — a story he later recanted.
“The only person that I know that knows anything about Jeff, and if there’s any secrets left with Jeff, is Kevin. Those two are tighter than Siamese twins.”
The long-time friend is not sure when, but in recent years, Willis became obsessed with Magic: The Gathering.
It’s a fantasy game similar to Dungeons and Dragons, played one-on-one with cards.
“You’ve got cards and you’re flipping over and this one challenges that one, this one challenges that one, this one can beat that one because it has different powers. It’s like chess, but in cards,” the friend explained.
The night Heeringa was abducted, police say Willis was playing in a Magic: The Gathering tournament at The Pointes Shopping Center, right behind the gas station where she worked.
But police discovered this only recently.
“I’m not into that, I never was,” the prosecutor told Target 8. “I know nothing about the game. I suspect as this moves along I’m going to become an expert in what it is and what it meant.”
The prosecutor wants to know what, if anything, Magic: The Gathering says about Willis.
“There’s a niche out there where people enjoy living in a world of fantasy as opposed to reality and whether this was all part of his psyche and personality, that’s for a doctor or expert to tell me,” Hilson said.
The long-time friend said he last talked with Willis at work three hours before his arrest in May.
Willis was then suddenly accused of kidnapping a 16-year-old girl who’d gotten lost while walking home in Fruitland Township. She told police she jumped from his moving van when he aimed a gun at her. It was her escape and detailed account that eventually led to Willis’ arrest.
At first, Willis’ friend believed it was a misunderstanding.
“Maybe he was trying to give her a ride, she overreacted, jumped out because he turned one wrong way, and it got blown up,” the friend tried to rationalize.
Then his friend learned about what police found in Willis’s silver minivan: handcuffs, syringes, rope, a chain, a metal hook, sex toys, and a video camera.
And he learned about the necrophilia videos, the video of real-life kidnappings and murders investigators said they found on Willis’ computers, along with a list of serial killers.
“So, I can understand now a lot of stuff,” the friend said. “You start getting into stuff like that, something’s going on up in your head.”
The search of Willis’s home also revealed he’d been stalking women for years — keeping photographs, addresses, dates of birth — though none of those women ended up dead.
Now, Willis is charged with murdering Bletsch, a married mother of two who was shot three times while jogging near her home in 2014.
And last month, Willis was charged with kidnapping and killing Heeringa, a single mother, whose body has not been found since she disappeared in 2013.
“You see it on TV, and you think, ‘Man how can somebody not see that?'” the friend said. “I’m that person. I just didn’t see it.”
The families of Willis’ alleged victims aren’t the only ones who are furious.
“I’m angry big-time. I’m angry that he crossed that line. I’m angry that he did this to these women, these families, these parents, these siblings,” the friend said.
But he also tears up at the loss of friendship.
“I pound myself in the head trying to figure this out. Where was the snapping point?”
“I miss him immensely, miss being around him. I apologize for this,” he said, hesitating to gather himself. “He was my friend. His journey has taken him someplace where he shouldn’t be, and now he’s got to pay. He’s got to stand up, be a man and take it.”
He said he has many questions for Willis.
“Being that we were friends for so long, I’d kind of like to know where the breaking point was. I don’t know. I’d never seen it. I pound myself in the head trying to figure this out. Where was the snapping point?”
And, like everybody else, he wants to know where Heeringa is, though he expects his friend will play it out, much like a game of Magic: The Gathering.
“He won’t reveal anything until he’s ready to reveal it,” he said. “That’s like with Jessica. If he moved her body, that’s his trump card. He’s not going to reveal that until he’s ready to reveal that.”
“If it’s enough, Jeff will play that card. Until then, he’ll go to his grave with it. I’m sorry to say that to the families, I really am. I hope like hell he mans up. But I don’t see it,” he added.