Chief: Jessica Heeringa ‘not a cold case’

Jessica Heeringa and photos from the crime scene, release nearly a year after she was abducted. (April 24, 2014)

NORTON SHORES, Mich. (WOOD) — Nearly a year after she is believed to have been abducted, the Norton Shores police chief maintains hope that investigators will bring Jessica Heeringa home. Thursday, the Norton Shores Police Department released new information about their investigation, including a detailed timeline of the night Heeringa vanished.

Heeringa, 25, was working alone at the Exxon Mobile gas station on Sternberg Road in Norton Shores when she went missing around 11 p.m. on April 26, 2013.

“I never thought I’d be here a year later discussing this case,” Norton Shores Police Chief Daniel Shaw said Thursday.

Despite numerous tips, police said they have not received or discovered the necessary information leading them to Jessica or her abductor. The only leads so far are surveillance photos of a silver minivan and a sketch of the man behind the wheel.

Shaw said those remain the strongest leads in the case. In fact, he said, “They’re our only leads in this case.”

“The driver of that van hasn’t come forward to identify themselves and we cannot figure out who was driving the van and why they were at the store at that time,” Shaw said.

Thursday, police released a detailed timeline and crime scene photos based on the investigation. Chief Shaw told 24 Hour News 8 they released the photos to show there was no struggle on the inside. With that information, police believe Heeringa’s abductor was someone she knew or she was going out to help somebody that was in need.

“We withheld some of the information before because we thought it may be pertinent to the case and also affect the trial in the future,” Shaw said. “At this time, we felt like it would be important to release that information to the public because there have been a lot of questions as to why a person saw a van and didn’t then question or see if Jessica was okay.”

One of the key witnesses in the investigation was the Exxon gas station manager, who was riding motorcycles with her husband on Sternberg Road and saw a silver minivan slowly pull into the gas station and turn off its highlights, according to a press release from Norton Shores police.

The manager suspected Heeringa may be in the process of stealing from Exxon, so she continued to watch with her husband.

According to police, the manager’s husband stated that he was positive the van was a silver Chrysler Town & Country, as it was the same type a relative owned.

Neither the manager nor her husband obtained the license plate, as they had no reason to believe a crime had occurred.

The investigation into Heeringa’s disappearance has involved a large investigative task force, made up of 15 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and 14 separate specialized units.

A total of 33 search warrants and a minimum of 20 consensual searches have been executed. The searches were primarily conducted to recover cellular, telephone, computer, and social media data; however, there were several searches of residential property for other physical evidence. The investigation included a minimum of twelve ground searches and two underwater searches.

In all, investigators have devoted over 12,000 staff hours while conducting approximately 1,300 follow-up investigations based on tips and information received.

Shaw said officers often get questions about the status of the case.

“I know it does bother some of our people,” Shaw said. “The comment that’s been made is, ‘Every time someone asks me a question like that, I feel like a failure because we haven’t solved this case yet.’ It’s just a constant reminder that we are failing in their mind.”

But the case is still a top priority for the department.

“This is not a cold case,” Shaw said.

And despite the fact that police haven’t found Heeringa or the person who abducted her, Shaw said they “know a lot more than we did a year ago.”

Heeringa’s family, meanwhile, is frustrated that the investigation seems to have stalled.

“It’s neverending. You’re on a roller coaster ride. You think, ‘Well, it might be a good tip. We might get some place.’ But then no news,” Heeringa’s grandmother Diane Homrich said.

Shaw said he hopes the one-year anniversary of the abduction will cause someone who knows something to call police and give them the tip they need to crack the case.

“I’m hoping that tomorrow or later tonight, I can call you to tell you that we have a suspect in custody. That’s what our hope is. And that we found Jessica and we have her home,” Shaw said.

Norton Shores police Thursday released the following expanded timeline based on their investigation to date:

April 26, 2013:

Crime scene photo showing the back door of the gas station where it appears Jessica was preparing to empty the trash. (Courtesy Norton Shores PD)
(Crime scene photo showing the back door of the gas station where it appears Jessica was preparing to empty the trash. Courtesy Norton Shores PD)
  • 4:35 p.m.: Jessica begins her shift at the Exxon gas station.
  • 7:30-8:15 p.m.: Jessica’s reported boyfriend arrived at the Exxon station in a work vehicle, a silver full-size van. The two reportedly had a discussion regarding their relationship.
  • 7:40-8:50 p.m.: A female friend entered the store through the front door to visit Jessica. Nothing suspicious was noticed at that time.
  • 10:55 p.m.: A female customer entered the store and purchased a lighter. She advised that Jessica was alone in the store and did not appear to be nervous or distressed. The customer did not see anyone in the store or in the parking lot.
  • 11 p.m. (approximately): An Exxon manager and her husband were riding their motorcycles on eastbound on Sternberg Road. She saw a silver minivan slowly enter the north drive of the Exxon station from the service drive of the Points Mall. The van drove behind the Exxon station, did a U-turn and extinguished its headlights as it pulled behind the store facing west. The manager suspected Jessica may be in the process of stealing from Exxon, so she turned around to return to the store. The manager and her husband drove to the Points Mall and parked in the lot with a view of the north and west sides of the Exxon station. The minivan was parked on the north side of the Exxon station. There were no other vehicles in the lot except for Jessica’s. The manager saw a figure standing at the rear of the van and noticed the van’s rear hatch was open. The figure shut the rear hatch and quickly opened it again. It appeared as though the figure was adjusting something in the rear of the van and then closed the hatch again. The figure then walked to the driver’s door, got into the van and began driving westbound on the service drive.
  • Manager’s observations: The store’s rear security light was not on. The store’s rear door did not open at any time. She never saw a struggle or heard anyone yell for help. She did not see Jessica outside of the store. As the van passed the manager, she looked at the driver and saw a man wearing a red or orange sweatshirt. Her husband said he did not see the man very well, but did see that he had “crazy” or wavy hair. Neither of them saw Jessica or anyone else in the van.
  •  The manager and her husband pulled onto the service drive and followed the van until it stopped at Grand Haven Road. The manager’s husband stated that he was positive the van was a Chrysler Town and Country, silver in color, as it was the same type a relative owned. (Note: This vehicle was located and was in Traverse City at the time of the abduction). He clearly remembered the town and country logo on the rear hatch door. Neither obtained the license plate number, as they had no reason to believe a crime had occurred. The van turned northbound on Grand Haven Road, while the manager and her husband turned southbound on Grand Haven Road and went home.
  • 11:02 p.m.: Surveillance video from inside of a closed store in the Points Mall captured a silver minivan turning northbound on Grand Haven Road.
  • 11:03 p.m.: Surveillance video from the Homestead Tavern captured a silver minivan driving northbound on Grand Haven Road.
  • 11:05 p.m.: Surveillance video from the CoinZone captured a silver minivan driving northbound on Grand Haven Road.
  •  11:10 p.m. (approximately): A male customer arrived at the gas station, pulled up to the pump and attempted to purchase gasoline. But he was unable to do so as the pump would not activate. When the pump did not activate, he entered the store believing that the clerk may have been in the back room and not aware of his presence at the pump. He was unable to locate Jessica. Upon exiting the store, he spoke with a female customer and called 911.
  • 11:15 p.m.: Patrol units are dispatched to Exxon on Sternberg Road regarding a suspicious situation.

    Jessica's purse and jacket pictured in back room of Exxon gas station. (Courtesy Norton Shores PD)
    (Jessica’s purse and jacket pictured in back room of Exxon gas station. Courtesy Norton Shores PD)
  • 11:25 p.m.: The first officer arrives and begins investigation. Officers searched the store, but did not locate Jessica. Officers located Jessica’s purse and jacket in the back room. The purse contained $420 in cash. Officers noted a cash drawer on top of the safe in the back room. Officers found the back door closed and latched and there was a trash can in front of the door, as if Jessica was preparing to empty the trash. Officers noted that nothing inside the store indicated a struggle. There was nothing that appeared to be disturbed. Officers exited the rear door and noted that the door did not have a handle on the outside. Officers located items of possible evidence outside the rear door, including what appeared to be a 2″x3″ blood stain on the concrete. (The blood was later determined by DNA analysis to be from Jessica).
  • 11:38 p.m.: Exxon owner was contacted regarding the open store. He in turn contacted the day shift manager to respond as she lives closer to the store.
  • 11:50 p.m.: The day shift manager arrives at the Exxon station and provides officers with her observations of the silver minivan and its driver. The manager advised that the cash drawer was “counted down” for the next shift, indicating Jessica was preparing to close the store. While talking to officers, the manager observed Jessica’s reported boyfriend drive past the store in a work vehicle. He was contacted to come to the Exxon station and was questioned by officers.
  • 12:38 a.m.: K9 requested to search area. A search of the area north and east of the store was conducted with no results.

Investigators are still requesting that anyone who may have witnessed or has knowledge of Heeringa’s abduction to contact Norton Shores police at 231.733.2691 or Silent Observer 231.72.CRIME.

24 Hour News 8’s Leon Hendrix contributed to this report.

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