Police searching for link between abduction, Jessica Heeringa

Suspect's silver van similar to one seen when Jessica Heeringa disappeared


MUSKEGON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Authorities are trying to determine if a man arrested for an abduction in Muskegon County is linked to the disappearance of Jessica Heeringa.

Muskegon County Sheriff Dean Roesler confirmed a man was was taken into custody Tuesday morning at a Muskegon Township home for the April 16 incident on W. River Road near Green Creek Road, north of Muskegon.

“The detectives stuck to it … and now we’ve made an arrest, ” Roesler said.

APRIL ABDUCTION

According to deputies, the 16-year-old girl said she got lost while walking home the morning of April 16. A vehicle stopped and the driver, a white man in his 30s or 40s, offered her his cellphone, she said.

She told authorities she got into his vehicle, but the driver pulled away and wouldn’t let her use his cellphone.

A Laketon Township street sign in the area where a teenager said she was abducted on April 16.
A Laketon Township street sign in the area where a teenager said she was abducted on April 16.

The victim said she asked to be let out, but the driver locked the doors and continued driving. She told authorities she saw the man reach for what appeared to be a handgun.

She then unlocked the door and jumped out of the moving vehicle on Green Creek Road. She was taken to the hospital for treatment.

“I’m sure it’s the guy,”  Roesler told 24 Hour News 8 Tuesday about the April abduction arrest.

Mug shot of Jeffrey Willis. (Courtesy Muskegon County Sheriff's Department)
Mug shot of Jeffrey Willis. (Courtesy Muskegon County Sheriff’s Department)

Based on jail records, 24 Hour News 8 determined the suspect in the recent abduction is 46-year-old Jeffrey Willis. Jail records show he is being held on a kidnapping charge.

He has no prior arrests in Michigan, according to a criminal background check.

State records show Willis lives in the 1800 block of S. Sheridan Drive in Muskegon Township, where police searched for hours Tuesday.

His home is about 11 miles — a 15-minute drive — from the scene of the alleged attempted abduction.

His neighbors say Willis mostly keeps to himself, but that they have had concerns about him for some time.

“We had trouble with him … we went to court,” Michelle Macomber, Willis’s neighbor, said. “When we were having trouble with him, he’d walk up and down with a camera and took pictures inside of our windows.”

She said he “creeps out” her children.

SILVER MINIVAN SEARCH

Secretary of State records indicate Willis owns a 2006 Dodge Grand Caravan. State records do not disclose the color of vehicles, but a Google street view map shows a silver minivan parked outside Willis’ home in October 2013.

A Google street view image of a silver minivan parked outside Jeffrey Willis' Muskegon Township home in October 2013. (Courtesy Google)
A Google street view image of a silver minivan parked outside Jeffrey Willis’ Muskegon Township home in October 2013. (Courtesy Google)

The teenage victim said the man who abducted her was driving a silver minivan — the same type of vehicle seen in the area when Heeringa disappeared on April 26, 2013 from her job at the ExxonMobil gas station on Sternberg Road in Norton Shores.

When Heeringa vanished,  she left behind her purse, cigarettes, money and her car, and investigators later found a few drops of blood outside the gas station.

A silver minivan captured on area surveillance cameras the night of her disappearance seemed to hold the key.

Lt. Michael Kasher with Norton Shores police said the silver minivan owned by the man arrested Tuesday was one of the vehicles detectives swept shortly after Heeringa’s abduction. He said authorities ruled his minivan out at the time.

A BREAK IN THE CASE?

Kasher said so far detectives have found no connection between the suspect in the April 2016 abduction and  Heeringa’s disappearance. However, he told 24 Hour News 8 detectives in the Heeringa case are still working with Muskegon County authorities and haven’t ruled the man in or out of their investigation.

Left: A composite sketch of a possible person of interest in the disappearance of Jessica Heeringa. Right: A mug shot of Jeffrey Willis, who was arrested for an abduction on April 16, 2016.
Left: A composite sketch of a possible person of interest in the disappearance of Jessica Heeringa. Right: A mug shot of Jeffrey Willis, who was arrested in connection to an abduction on April 16, 2016.

“I want to say this very clearly, very plainly and very openly,” Sheriff Roesler said. “We have not discovered any direct link to any of those open investigations — in particular the Jessica Heeringa case as well as other active similar-type investigations.”

He said that calling the cases directly related at this point is “speculation,” but he also said his department is keeping NSPD informed.

“We’re not ready to say it is and we’re not ready to say it isn’t,” he said.

While Heeringa’s grandfather said he didn’t know about the arrest until 24 Hour News 8 told him about it Tuesday, he sounded hopeful there may be a break in the case.

In the years since the 25-year-old mother disappeared, investigators followed up on hundreds of tips, but none have led to any answers.

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

Police have, however, identified persons of interest in the case. One of those persons of interest, Brad Mason, was shot and killed by police in 2014 as they tried to arrest him for a brutal abduction and rape in Kalamazoo. But with Mason dead, police were never able to tie him Heeringa.

Anyone with information about what happened to Heeringa can call the Norton Shores Police Department at 231.733.2691 or Silent Observer at 231.72.CRIME (2763). Her family has also set up an anonymous tip line at 231.222.0278.

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

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