NORTON SHORES, Mich. (WOOD) — The woman who provided police with their biggest clue in the Jessica Heeringa disappearance — the description that led to the sketch of a possible suspect — has a close relationship with a person later identified as a person of interest in the case, Target 8 has learned.
They are brother and sister — and the brother, his family said, had recently dated Heeringa.
Their father told Target 8 that detectives harassed his son, who is not being named due to his connection to the investigation, early on in the investigation.
“They just kept calling him in, calling him in,” said the father, who is not being named by Target 8. “At one time, I guess, he was the No. 1 suspect.”
The brother, according to his father, had recently rented an apartment, hoping Heeringa would move in with him.
“And she didn’t move in,” the father said.
It’s another twist in a case that has led to a dozen persons of interest but no solid leads, no sign of what really happened to Heeringa on April 26. 2013.
Inside woodtv.com: Timeline chronicling Jessica Heeringa’s disappearance
The 25-year-old woman disappeared while working alone at night at the Exxon gas station on East Sternberg Road in Norton Shores. At the station, she left behind her purse, car, money, cigarettes — and a few drops of blood outside.
Police believe she was abducted, most likely by somebody she was familiar with.
At home, she left behind her son, Zevyn, who has since turned four and lives with his father.
The family of the key witness, who is not being named due to her connection to the investigation, said police quickly focused on the witness’ 40-year-old brother because of his relationship with Heeringa.
They said detectives searched a hunting cabin on their property, just a few blocks from the Exxon station, searched their son’s cellphone, and searched the family’s silver minivan.
“He told them, ‘Quit harassing me. If you’re going to charge me, charge me. If you keep harassing me, you talk to my lawyer from now on,’” the father said. “They said, ‘Well, that’s what we wanted to hear,’ and they never bothered him again.”
His family said he has an alibi — that he was fishing when Heeringa disappeared. They said police confirmed that through phone records.
His parents said they were up north with their silver minivan on a gambling trip — and that police checked surveillance video at the casino to confirm it.
The family’s van, the father said, is similar to the van his daughter and her husband described leaving the Exxon station about the time of Heeringa’s disappearance.
“We happened to be driving the same color, same type of van that was used that night, but we were up north,” the father said.
Norton Shores police refused to confirm the family connection, or discuss that part of the investigation.
“What I can tell you is that we did have one former boyfriend of Jessica’s that we did investigate within the first day, and did talk to several times in the following weeks,” Norton Shores Police Chief Daniel Shaw said. “And he’s no longer considered, if you will, the focus of our investigation.”
But Shaw told Target 8 that detectives haven’t cleared anyone, and the former boyfriend is just one of a dozen persons of interest they’ve identified. Most of those persons of interest, he said, were known to Heeringa.
Also among them: the gas station owner, and Heeringa’s fiancé, Dakotah Quail-Dyer, who is the father of their young son. However, Shaw said both have cooperated and neither is the focus of the investigation.
“We can’t clear anyone at this point, until we find her and solve this case,” Shaw said. “We have to leave our options open for anyone to be involved.”
Quail-Dyer said he expected police to look at him.
“I’m always going to be kind of the center of attention, it’s just the nature of the beast,” Quail-Dyer said.
“But I cooperate with everything they ask, I jump through every hoop.”
Quail-Dyer said he was aware of Heeringa’s relationship with the former boyfriend.
“The police are doing their job, and that’s all I can really say about that,” he said.
The man identified as Heeringa’s former boyfriend didn’t respond to Target 8’s repeated requests for interviews. Neither did his sister — the woman who provided the descriptions.
Her father said she cries whenever she talks about the disappearance.
“This has tore her up,” he said. “I wish she wouldn’t have witnessed it, you know.”
Police said the woman and her husband were riding motorcycles about 11 p.m. on April 26 — about the time Heeringa disappeared.
The husband told Target 8 they were out on a late-night ride.
“It was a beautiful night,” he said.
That was when they spotted a suspicious van in the nearby mini-mall parking lot, he said.
“We seen this van in the parking lot turn around with its lights off, and then we turned around to check it out to see what was going on,” he told Target 8.
By the time they turned around, the van was directly behind the gas station, so they drove into the mini-mall parking lot to take a closer look, he said.
“We see a van sitting there and the hatch pops open, the light comes on, and then the van door closes like something’s caught in it and he lifted it back up and shut it again,” the husband said.
They never saw Heeringa, never saw a struggle. Then, the van drove past them, which is when his wife got a good look at the driver.
He said they followed the van in the parking lot to Grand Haven Road, where it turned north.
“All we had to do was look down at the plate number and neither one of us did,” he said. “We’ve been kicking ourselves in the butt over that.”
He said he’s heard those who say they should have checked on Heeringa.
“I don’t know. We didn’t really know what was going on. They could have been doing anything in there, you know,” he said. “I’ve never seen anyone get kidnapped before, and that was the furthest thing from my mind.”
He said he and his wife drove home and didn’t know anything was wrong until the gas station owner called to say Heeringa was gone.
The husband said he’s a long-time friend of his wife’s brother — the man identified as a person of interest. He said the brother had dated Heeringa only for a short time, a few months before the disappearance, and wanted to move in with her.
“He got the apartment and she ditched him,” he said.
He said police considered that a possible motive.
“I told (detectives) it wasn’t him because I’ve known him a long time, but they didn’t want to believe that, so they just kept going after him and after him,” he said.