MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — A Muskegon County judge heard from 13 witnesses Tuesday as he prepared to decide whether there is enough evidence to send Jeffrey Willis to trial for the murder of Jessica Heeringa.
Willis is accused of kidnapping and murdering Heeringa, 25. The young mom disappeared from the Norton Shores gas station where she worked on the night of April 26, 2013. Her body has never been found.
Tuesday’s proceedings wrapped up without a conclusion; the hearing will resume Friday.
TEEN DESCRIBES ATTEMPTED ABDUCTION
The 16-year-old girl whose report to police prompted the investigation into Willis faced him in court to tell the judge how she escaped from an alleged abduction on April 16, 2016 in Fruitland Township.
She said Willis pointed a gun at her when she was inside his van after walking home from a party.
The teen told the court how he made her get into his minivan when she asked to use his cellphone. Willis then allegedly rolled up the window and locked the doors.
“I asked him to roll (the window) down. I was crying and I wanted air. I asked him if I could use the phone, he said it was dead,” she said.
She testified that she then asked him to stop the minivan.
“He stared at me — slowed down, but he didn’t stop. That’s when he reached for the gun and pointed it at me and I jumped out,” she told the court.
She described the gun being pulled from a basket that matched pictures of a netted basket in Willis’ vehicle. Pictures of the injuries she sustained when she jumped from the minivan were submitted as evidence.
“He got out, went behind his van. I yelled at him to please not kill me and I have a mom. After I got far enough away from him, he told me he was just kidding and it was all a joke and to come back,” the teen, whose name is being withheld, said.
The teen got emotional at times but was able to make it through all the testimony, including a cross-examination by the defense team that tried to poke holes in her testimony. The defense focused on the fact she had been smoking weed and drinking at the party, but she told the court that she was sober at the time of the alleged abduction.
DEFENSE BRINGS UP HEERINGA’S DRUG USE, RELATIONSHIP
Willis’s defense attorney used the testimony of witnesses to portray Heeringa as a heroin abuser who wanted to run away. His goal is to show there are other possible explanations for Heeringa’s disappearance.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Brian E. Hosticka, Heeringa’s boyfriend Dakotah Quail-Dyer admitted that Jessica was a heroin user and that she had a second phone to talk to her drug dealer.
Quail-Dyer, who lived with Heeringa and had a son with her, said he smashed the phone in anger not long before the disappearance.
Quail-Dyer testified he and Heeringa had a “rocky” relationship and that they suspected each other of infidelity.
For a time, police investigating Heeringa’s disappearance considered Quail-Dyer a person of interest. On Tuesday in court, he denied any involvement.
“Did you have anything to do with the disappearance of Jessica Heeringa?” Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson asked him.
“No I didn’t.”
Also Tuesday, a woman testified she saw Willis at the gas station the night before the disappearance and that she felt afraid for Heeringa, who was working alone.
Brenda Nester testified that when she told Heeringa about her concern, Willis responded: “She’s got her customers looking out for her.”
“She shook her head and started shivering…like a chill went up her spine,” Nester said of Heeringa.
“She was acting different that night, wasn’t her usual happy self. So I thought something was wrong,” Nester said.
Nester said she called police earlier this year to tell her story after seeing Willis’ face on the news, leading the defense attorney to question why she didn’t tell them in the days immediately after the appearance.
NIGHT OF THE ABDUCTION
Testimony Tuesday morning also included a couple who said they saw a suspicious silver minivan circle behind the gas station the night Heeringa disappeared.
Susan Follett, who also worked at the gas station, said she and her then-husband were riding past on their motorcycles when they saw the headlights go dark on the minivan. Both of them testified they drove past, then turned around.
“I told Eric (her then-husband) that I didn’t feel good about it, so I was going back,” Follett testified. “As soon as I seen the van, I knew something wasn’t right. I actually figured she (Heeringa) was stealing.”
She said they they parked in a lot adjacent to the gas station, watched movement near the van but didn’t see Heeringa, then saw the van drive right past them.
Follett said the driver of the van looked at her, “casually, as if he did nothing wrong.”
It was Follett’s description that led to a composite drawing of the suspect.
Follett broke down in tears during her testimony, then complained that Willis was looking at her.
DEFENSE CHALLENGES POLICE INVESTIGATION
The defense also raised questions about how the Norton Shores Police Department handled the case from the start.
NSPD Corp. Christopher Hare testified he and a sergeant questioned Willis shortly after the disappearance based on a tip that came from a Starbucks. It was among thousands of tips in the case.
Hare said Willis told them he had seen Heeringa at the gas station just hours before she went missing. Police searched his silver minivan, which had fresh vacuum marks and smelled of cleaner, Hare said. He said they also asked to check his cellphone, but Willis told them his wife had it.
The defense questioned why police didn’t write a formal report on that interaction until this year, after his arrest for the attempted abduction of a teen girl. Prosecutors say police did take handwritten notes, which only became important after Willis’ arrest.
In 2013, Hare said, Willis was not considered a “high-target” suspect.
Prosecutors on Tuesday built at least part of their case on the gun found in Willis’ minivan. Police seized it after his arrest. A battery cover from a laser sight found at the gas station after Heeringa’s disappearance came from the same kind of gun. It was found near a drop of Heeringa’s blood. Prosecutors have suggested it broke when Willis hit her.
THE INVESTIGATION INTO JEFFREY WILLIS
Authorities say ballistics show the gun found in Willis’ minivan is the one used in the June 2014 killing of Rebekah Bletsch in Dalton Township in his minivan. Willis was charged with murdering her as week after his arrest in May.
In September, citing information provided to investigators by his cousin, Willis was charged with kidnapping and murdering Heeringa. According to court documents, the cousin, Kevin Bluhm, admitted that he saw Heeringa’s body in the basement of Willis’ late grandfather’s home in Norton Shores the day after she was abducted and that Willis told him he had tortured her. Authorities say Bluhm helped Willis bury Heeringa’s body less than a mile from Willis’ Muskegon Township home. Investigators think her remains have since been moved — they don’t know to where.
>>Inside woodtv.com: The Willis investigation
Willis’ defense attorneys previously moved to close the hearing from the public and media, arguing the amount of attention the case had gotten could affect their client’s right to a fair trial. But Judge Raymond Kostrzewa said the defense failed to demonstrate that was true and ruled the hearing would be open, as is typical.
Defense attorneys argued in court Monday that prosecutors shouldn’t be able to use evidence in one of the cases to prove the other, arguing they were entirely unrelated. Kostrzewa disagreed, allowing the prosecution to present some evidence collected in the Bletsch case in the Heeringa case.
In the Bletsch case, Willis has claimed that his rights were violated because he says jail personnel took notes meant for his attorney and passed them on to detectives. Investigators deny ever having seen those notes. As a judge considers those claims, the trial in that case has been delayed at least until January.
Prosecutors say the attempted abduction case involving the 16-year-old will be delayed at least until the murder cases are adjudicated.
–24 Hour News 8’s Heather Walker contributed to this report.