MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — More than three years after Jessica Heeringa vanished from a Norton Shores gas station, Jeffrey Willis has been charged with abducting and killing her.
Shackled hand and foot, Willis walked into a Muskegon County courtroom around 2:45 p.m. Tuesday to be arraigned on charges of kidnapping and open murder in Heeringa’s case. He spoke only a few words to his attorney, who entered a not guilty plea to the new charges.
While listing the charges, Muskegon County Judge Raymond Kostrzewa said investigators believe Willis restrained Heeringa with the intent to commit sexual assault.
The judge denied Willis bond due to the seriousness of the crimes he’s charged with and the potential danger he could pose to the public.
Willis seemed to smirk at prosecutors as he entered the courtroom. Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson’s response to that smirk: “Challenge accepted,” he told 24 Hour News 8.
>>WATCH: Willis arraigned in Heeringa case
Only a few minutes later, Willis’ cousin Kevin Bluhm walked into the same courtroom in chains. He’s charged with being an accessory after the fact in Heeringa’s kidnapping and murder.
Muskegon County Chief Trial Attorney Matt Roberts asked the judge to consider the seriousness of the crime and the threat Bluhm could pose to the public when considering bond. Bluhm’s attorney countered by reminding the judge that Bluhm doesn’t have a previous criminal history and the crime he faced was a five-year felony.
Bluhm, who previously worked as a sergeant at a state prison in Muskegon, shook his head as Judge Kostrzewa discussed the danger he may pose to the public. The judge ultimately set his bond at $250,000 cash or surety.
>>WATCH: Bluhm arraigned in Heeringa case
Willis, 46, was deemed a person of interest in Heeringa’s case in May, the same month he was charged with trying to abduct a teen girl the month prior and the murder of Rebekah Bletsch.
Prosecutor Hilson said his office issued charges against Willis and Bluhm late Monday afternoon.
“In my opinion, we’ve found Jessica’s killer,” Hilson said during a Tuesday news conference.
BLUHM SENTENCED FOR LYING
Bluhm was previously charged with lying to a peace officer after Norton Shores police said he weaved an elaborate account about how he helped Willis “take care” of Heeringa, then later admitted the entire story was a lie. Bluhm was also charged with lying to police in the Bletsch murder investigation during a May 18 interview.
About an hour before he was charged with being an accessory to Heeringa’s murder, Judge William Marietta sentenced Bluhm to time served, 96 days in jail, for two counts of lying to a peace officer. He remained in police custody, awaiting arraignment on the more serious accessory charge.
“I think a lot of us didn’t want to see him walk out before he was held accountable today,” Hilson said of Bluhm before his sentencing.
THREE YEARS OF AGONY AND ANGUISH
Police say Heeringa, then 25 and the mother of a young son, was abducted from the gas station on Sternberg Road in Norton Shores where she worked on the night of April 26, 2013. Her disappearance led to thousands of tips over the course of three years, some of which seemed promising, but nothing panned out. There were no firm leads until earlier this year.
“The Norton Shores Police Department never gave up and they always pursued and they always persisted. And because of that, because of that dedication we are standing here today announcing these charges,” Hilson said.
“This comes at a time that a lot of people including the Heeringa family have been waiting for, for many years,” he continued.
Hilson said there was a sense of gratitude and gratefulness from Heeringa’s family when he updated them on the case Tuesday morning.
“I want to personally thank them for their patience. For just the agony and anguish they have endured over these last three years,” Hilson said before repeatedly asking media to respect their privacy.
PIECING TOGETHER THE PUZZLE OF ‘A MONSTER’
After his arrest, ballistics testing matched a gun found in his silver minivan to the one used in the June 2014 killing of Rebekah Bletsch in Dalton Township. As a result, he was charged with her murder.
Hilson continues to call the teenage victim a hero and a very important piece to the entire puzzle.
“I think that her bravery and her willingness to really put her life on the line on that fateful early morning has opened the doors to a lot of different things,” he said Tuesday.
Also found in Willis’ van: handcuffs, rope, syringes, and images of bound and gagged women. When investigators searched his computers and hard drives, they found necrophilia and “kidnap and kill” videos downloaded from the internet — some of which were acted out and some of which were real.
Investigators said they also found a file labeled “VICS” (short for victims) that contained a folder labeled with Bletsch’s initials and a code for the date of her death. It contained photos of Bletsch and wanted posters from the case. A police source told 24 Hour News 8 there was a file bearing Heeringa’s name.
“Mr. Willis is a monster. He certainly is an individual I wouldn’t let any of my children around, much less any female around. And what his total motivation was, that’s only for him to say. Ultimately I think this was part of who he was as a person,” Hilson said.
WILLIS AND THE JESSICA HEERINGA CASE
Investigators have repeatedly searched Willis’ Muskegon Township home and his deceased father’s home. A Michigan State Police report previously said that investigators thought Willis killed Heeringa and a police source told 24 Hour News 8 there was a file bearing her initials in a folder labeled “VICS” (short for victims) on his computer.
Willis owns a silver minivan similar to the one police were searching for in the Heeringa case. Hilson said investigators searched Willis’ minivan in the days following Heeringa’s disappearance but he didn’t raise any red flags at the time.
“He was one of several hundred people that were looked at,” Hilson told 24 Hour News 8 late Tuesday evening. “And certainly had investigators had any hint of criminality on his part on that particular day, maybe we’d get one more step closer in time. But they searched his van, they searched his phone, they had an opportunity to talk to him and found nothing, and so obviously they had to keep moving on because they were following up on several hundred tips during that time in the investigation.”
Prosecutors refused to discuss the evidence that led to the new charges, but Hilson told 24 Hour News 8 that he feels “pretty confident” about their case and that “we’re going to be able to be successful in bringing justice in this particular case to Jessica.”
‘HE’S GOING TO PAY FOR HIS CRIMES’
Bletsch’s family attended Tuesday’s news conference updating the Heeringa case.
“I am happy that there is resolution for that family. Personally knowing all the pain that I’ve gone through and my family, I know they’ve gone through a mountain of pain and will continue to for a great while. And it’s good to know that this man, the brutal murderer of my daughter and their daughter, is going to sit in a courtroom and he’s going to pay for his crimes,” Bletsch’s father, Nick Winberg, told 24 Hour News 8 after the announcement.
“I want the Heeringa family to know that they’ve got people that are out there that have wondered and worried and want to see justice for them and I am absolutely elated that this is coming to an end for them,” he continued.
FINDING JESSICA HEERINGA
“It’s a bittersweet victory because obviously we’re still dealing with a tragedy,” Hilson said of filing the charges.
But at least one step remains: finding Heeringa’s body. Hilson said he thinks she died within 24 hours to 48 hours of her abduction.
“We are actively pursuing any and all leads on where Jessica may be laying to rest. This team will not finish its responsibilities until that happens,” he said.
He encouraged people to continue sending in tips about Willis.
“If this isn’t the end of the line for what Mr. Willis is involved in, we want to find out about it and we want to hold him accountable to it,” Hilson said.
Willis’ next court hearing is scheduled for Sept. 28; his preliminary hearing is scheduled for Oct. 4. Hilson requested half of the day in the courtroom for the preliminary hearing, saying he would need several hours to present all of the evidence against Willis.
Bluhm’s probable cause hearing is scheduled for Oct. 12; his prelim is set for Oct. 18.