Jeffrey Willis charged in 2014 murder of Rebekah Bletsch

Prosecutor: Kidnapped teen who helped break open case 'a hero'

Rebekah Blestch Jeffrey Willis
Left: A courtesy photo of Rebekah Bletsch. Right: Jeffrey Willis in a Muskegon County courtroom on May 18, 2016.


MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Jeffrey Willis, already accused of abducting a 16-year-old girl last month and named as a person of interest in the 2013 abduction of Jessica Heeringa, was formally charged Wednesday with the 2014 murder of Rebekah Bletsch, who was found shot in the head along the side of the road where she frequently jogged.

Willis was arraigned on charges of open murder and felony firearm in connection to Bletsch’s murder. Bletsch’s family looked on as the judge read the counts against him.

The judge entered a not guilty plea on Willis’ behalf since he did not have a public defender in the court.

At a press conference announcing the charges Wednesday, Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson said as far as he knows, Willis did not know Bletsch before the murder.

“Besides being a sick individual, I don’t know. I don’t know what his motive was,” he said.

>>App users: Watch Willis’ arraignment here.

Jeffrey Willis appeared in a Muskegon County court Wednesday to be arraigned in the Rebekah Bletsch murder case. (May 25, 2016)
Jeffrey Willis appeared in a Muskegon County court Wednesday to be arraigned in the Rebekah Bletsch murder case. (May 25, 2016)

“Besides being a sick individual, I don’t know. I don’t know what his motive was,” Hilson said.

Willis also faces four felony counts of using a computer to commit a crime and four felony counts of child sexually abusive activity for incidences authorities uncovered during the investigation. The charges are tied to evidence found on a hard drive at his home, court documents revealed.

On June 29, 2014, neighbors found Bletsch lying alongside Automobile Road in Dalton Township, where she often jogged. The 36-year-old woman had been shot three times in the back of the head, according to her death certificate. She also had bruises on her wrists, ankles, back and leg.

Rebekah Bletsch father 052516
The father of Rebekah Bletsch holds a photo of her as he addresses the murder case. (May 25, 2016)

“This is a good day. We’re on the road to resolution. We lost a wonderful person, and it was a brutal murder,” Bletsch’s father said.

Bletsch’s family was seated in the front row when the prosecutor announced during a press conference that Willis would be charged in her murder. Her mother woman wiped away tears. Her father’s hands shook as he clutched a photo of Bletsch while talking about the long-awaited developments.

“It’s been a rough couple years, but we’ve had our faith and trust in law enforcement and they haven’t let us down,” he said.

“This is a good day. We’re on the road to resolution. We lost a wonderful person, and it was a brutal murder,” he added before thanking supporters and investigators.

“Thank you to the Bletsch family. They have been very patient and they have waited a long time for this day. And I can only imagine what it’s been like for the last couple of years,” Hilson said. “I’m pleased to hopefully start them down the road of closure,” he added.

Authorities searching the home of Jeffrey Willis in Muskegon Township on May 25, 2015.
Authorities searching the home of Jeffrey Willis in Muskegon Township on May 25, 2015.

About two hours after Willis was arraigned, Michigan State Police again searched his home in Muskegon Township. Investigators walked out of the house with two bags filled with potential evidence. They also combed his late grandfather’s home in Norton Shores.

Willis was arrested last week in connection to the April 16 abduction of a 16-year-old girl. He’s charged with felony kidnapping, assault with a dangerous weapon and felony firearm in that case. According to the court complaint, Willis is accused of kidnapping or knowingly restraining the teen with the intent to commit a sex assault.

The teenager told authorities she was lost when the suspect pulled up and offered her his cellphone. When she got in the vehicle to use the device, she said he pulled away, locked the doors and reached for what appeared to be a gun. That’s when the teenager said she unlocked the door, jumped out of the vehicle and ran away.

Muskegon Township, attempted abduction
An undated courtesy photo of the scrapes that a 16-year-old girl sustained when she jumped from a moving minivan to escape an alleged attempted kidnapper.

“I think she’s a hero. I think that her bravery and her courage led us down this path and she probably doesn’t realize how much of a hero she really is,” Hilson said.

It was her case that led authorities to Willis’ van and the gun that ballistics testing later connected to Bletsch’s murder.

“I think she’s a hero. I think that her bravery and her courage led us down this path and she probably doesn’t realize how much of a hero she really is,” Hilson said.

Gun casings found near Bletsch’s body were a match for the .22-caliber pistol found in Willis’ silver van, the arrest warrant confirmed. The gun’s serial number had been destroyed. Authorities found it in a lock box, along with ammunition.

A second lock box contained disturbing photos of females bound and gagged, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and syringes including one with a liquid, according to court documents.

“It goes without saying that all this does not happen without the tireless efforts of law enforcement who never gave up during both of these investigations,” Hilson said, crediting all authorities involved in the investigation.

>>App users: Watch video of the press conference here

Hilson said he’s not aware of any accomplice in the Bletsch murder.

Jessica Heeringa (right) was working at an Exxon gas station (upper right) when she vanished April 26, 2013. Area security cameras captured a silver minivan in the area around her disappearance (lower right).
Jessica Heeringa (right) was working at an Exxon gas station (upper right) when she vanished April 26, 2013. Area security cameras captured a silver minivan in the area around her disappearance (lower right).

“Am I relieved? Absolutely. I was at the scene the night that this happened on Automobile Road,” Hilson said. “So anytime that you can close a case of this magnitude is a good day. We’re only in the beginning stages. We’ve got a long way to go and I’m prepared to make that walk with the Bletsch family as we work through the court system. But today is a good day. Today is a good day for law enforcement and hopefully it starts bringing closure to this wonderful family.”

Willis has also been named a person of interest in the disappearance of Jessica Heeringa. Hilson started Wednesday’s announcement saying there would be no reference at all to the Heeringa investigation.

Heeringa vanished April 26, 2013 from her job at a gas station on Sternberg Road in Norton Shores. She left behind her purse, cigarettes, money and her car. Investigators later found a few drops of blood outside the gas station.

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)

A silver minivan similar in description to Willis’ was captured on area surveillance cameras the night Heeringa disappeared.

Willis does not have a criminal history in Michigan. Hilson said he was not aware of any past crimes in other states involving Willis. Hilson said investigators are keeping their lines of communication open with other police agencies in neighboring communities and states to see if Willis is connected to any other open cases.

Willis’ next court hearing in the Bletsch murder case is scheduled for June 2. A probable cause hearing in the April abduction case is set for Thursday.

In the meantime, his previous $1 million bond has been revoked, which means he’ll stay behind bars.

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