Family: Police looking at ’96 death in Willis investigation

Jeffrey Willis already accused of 2014 murder, April kidnapping

Angela Thornburg
A file photo of Angela Thornburg.


MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — The family of a teen who died in the Muskegon area nearly 20 years ago says they have been in contact with police, who are looking in to whether Jeffrey Willis may have killed her.

The partially-clothed body of 15-year-old Angela Thornburg was found by a hunter on Oct. 17, 1996 in the woods in the area of I-96 and East Fruitport Road in Fruitport Township, southwest of Muskegon. The case was ruled a probable homicide, but no one was ever arrested in the case.

Thursday, Angela’s family told 24 Hour News 8 that police have called them and pulled her case file as they investigate Jeffrey Willis, seeing if there’s any connection.

Angela was a freshman at Fruitport High School at the time of her death. Willis, 46, graduated from Fruitport High School in 1988 and worked in the school district from 1998 until 1999, when he was fired for accessing pornography on a school computer.

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)

He is already charged with murdering Rebekah Bletsch in Dalton Township, north of Muskegon, in June 2014, and also with abducting a 16-year-old girl in Fruitland Township in April of this year. The teen girl in the April incident was able to escape.

Muskegon County Sheriff Dean Roesler would not comment Thursday on any of the cases authorities are looking into as they investigate Willis.

ANGELA’S 1996 DISAPPEARANCE

When Angela went missing on Sept. 20, 1996, she was initially considered a runaway. Reports from the time said she ran out a back door at her boyfriend’s house when her mother came to pick her up.

“It’s the most agonizing thing you could ever go through in life,” Angela’s mother, Mary Thornburg, told 24 Hour News 8 in 1997 at a vigil commemorating the one-year anniversary of her daughter’s death. “Hours upon hours wondering what’s happened with your child, wondering if they’re safe.”

The Muskegon County Sheriff’s Department said there were periodic sightings of Angela up to four days before her body was found.

Reports from 1996 did not say how Angela died. There were no signs of trauma, investigators said.

At the time, police were looking for a serial killer who they believed had murdered at least 10 young women in the Grand Rapids area, but investigators in Muskegon determined Angela’s death was not related.

JEFFREY WILLIS INVESTIGATION

When Willis was arrested for the April abduction, authorities searched his silver minivan and found a hidden compartment containing syringes filled with what seemed to be a sedative; rope, handcuffs and chains; images of bound and gagged women; and a gun, according to court documents. Ballistics later linked that gun to Bletsch’s homicide.

Willis has also been named a person of interest in the April 2013 disappearance of Jessica Heeringa from the Norton Shores gas station where she worked. Police don’t have any evidence yet to link him to the case, but co-workers told 24 Hour News 8 on Wednesday that Willis frequented the gas station.

A breakdown of the cases currently involved in the investigation into Jeffrey Willis.
A breakdown of the cases currently involved in the investigation into Jeffrey Willis.

**Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Willis worked for Fruitport Community Schools from 1988 until 1989. He actually worked there from 1998 to 1999. The text has been updated. We regret the error.

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