NORTON SHORES, Mich. (WOOD) — Jeffrey Willis, the man accused of murdering a woman and trying to abduct a teen in Muskegon County, frequented the gas station from which Jessica Heeringa vanished in 2013, some of his co-workers told 24 Hour News 8 Wednesday.
Police say Heeringa, then 25, was abducted from the gas station on Sternberg Road in Norton Shores where she worked on April 26, 2013. They have named Willis, 46, a person of interest but so far haven’t found any evidence linking him to the case.
Willis’s co-workers say they all went to the Sternberg Road gas station and knew Heeringa. Now, they think Willis is the one who took her.
STERNBERG ROAD GAS STATION BETWEEN HOME AND WORK
“He stopped there a lot of times,” said Cliff Baron, who has worked with Willis for about 5 years, said of the gas station where Heeringa worked. “Me and a lot of my work buddies, we always stopped there. It was definitely on his way.”
Google Maps shows the fastest route from Willis’ home in Muskegon Township to his workplace, Herman Miller, goes right by the gas station.
Baron said Willis was familiar with Heeringa as one of the gas station attendants. Her case, he said, was always talked about at work.
“Sometimes he (Willis) would ask how the case is going,” Baron said.
Investigators have been asking co-workers about Willis — specifically a large barrel found in his possession. Co-workers say it came from work.
“I don’t know what he needed it for,” Baron said.
Herman Miller has said Willis is on leave from his job, pending further investigation. He has worked there for 18 years.
‘A MONSTER HIDDEN UNDERNEATH YOUR NOSE’
Willis is behind bars without bond after being charged with two other crimes in Muskegon County.
He was charged Wednesday with open murder and felony firearm in the June 2014 murder of Rebekah Bletsch, 36. She was shot three times in the head along Automobile Road in Dalton Township, where she often jogged.
Last week, Wills was charged with felony kidnapping, assault with a dangerous weapon and felony firearm in connection to an abduction in Fruitland Township in April of this year. The teen involved in that incident was able to escape by jumping out of a moving vehicle and then running away. A probable cause hearing in the case is set for Thursday.
When asked what he thought when he heard that police were looking into whether Willis was connected to Heeringa’s disappearance, Baron replied, “I’d probably bet money on it.”
But, he said, before learning of the recent allegations against Willis, he never would have thought him a murderer.
“I was like, ‘Holy crap.’ I can’t believe he was right underneath my nose like that or somebody that you could talk to every single day could hide that and not show nothing ever,” he said. “I mean, it came out today that he killed (Bletsch) and it just amazes me how he can come back to work and act like nothing happened.”
Before now, he said, he would have described Willis as a nice, helpful guy.
“Just like a normal guy at work, just unbelievable that there could be a monster like that hidden right underneath your nose without even knowing,” Baron continued.
He said there were no signs that anything was off.
“That’s the sad part,” he said. “He was pretty good about covering it up, I guess.”
Police have had little to go on as they search for Heeringa — only a composite sketch of a possible person of interest and surveillance images of a silver minivan that was seen at the gas station round the time she went missing.
Police previously said the witness whose description was used to make the sketch was not able to positively identify Willis as the person she saw, but she also couldn’t rule him out.
Willis drives a silver minivan similar to the one police were looking for in the Heeringa case. When police searched it, they found multiple syringes containing what seemed to be a sedative; rope, handcuffs and chains; disturbing photos of bound and gagged women; and a .22-caliber pistol that ballistics testing linked to Bletsch’s murder.
Anyone with information about Heeringa’s disappearance can call Norton Shores police at 231.733.2691 or Silent Observer at 231.72.CRIME (27463). Her family has also set up an anonymous tip line at 231.222.0278.