MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — The lead attorney for accused killer Jeffrey Willis has been pitted for months against the Muskegon County Prosecutor’s Office. But in two weeks, he will start working for the prosecutor’s office, raising questions about a potential conflict.
“It won’t give them an unfair advantage because I’m not going to talk about the case,” defense attorney Brian Hosticka told 24 Hour News 8 Thursday.
Talking about it, he said, would violate ethics rules.
While working for the Muskegon County Public Defender’s Office, Hosticka has been the lead attorney in the Rebekah Bletsch murder case and the kidnapping and murder case of Jessica Heeringa, whose body has not been found.
It was Hosticka who previously filed a motion to dismiss the Bletsch case after claiming that searches of Willis’s jail cell violated his civil rights and gave prosecutors an inside look at the defense’s playbook. The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled against him.
On Thursday, the head of the public defender’s office told 24 Hour News 8 he plans to ask a judge on Monday to rule if Hosticka’s move gives the prosecutor an unfair advantage.
“I would certainly, if I were watching this and I weren’t an attorney, I’d be going, ‘Holy cow, how can they do that?'” Public Defender Fred Johnson said. “You have the lead attorney for an ongoing case, a major case, going to work for, literally, the other side. You certainly have to ask a judge to look at that and say if there’s something untoward there that’s inappropriate and maybe should not be allowed.”
>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the Jeffrey Willis investigation
Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson told 24 Hour News 8 Hosticka will work in the family division of his office and will play no role in the Willis case. He said his office didn’t approach Hosticka about applying to fill an open position; Hosticka applied on his own.
“This kind of thing happens,” Hosticka said. “I’m not going to comment why I’m changing jobs, but I thought it was best for me.”
Hilson said a code of ethics would not allow him or anyone from his office to talk to Hosticka about the Willis case.
“Lawyers move around from law firm to law firm and from private sector to public sector all the time, and we have a specific ethical rule that tells us that if there’s a conflict that you create essentially what they call a Chinese wall between you and that lawyer,” Hilson said.
“I’m not going to talk to him about the case just like he’s not going to talk to me about the case,” he added.
The trial in the 2014 slaying of Bletsch is scheduled to start Sept. 12. Johnson, of the public defender’s office, said the move could lead to another delay in the case.
Hilson said he hopes that won’t happen.
“I’m fully prepared and will be prepared for starting Rebekah Bletsch’s trial on Sept. 12,” he said.
Hosticka said he informed Willis of the change.
“I’ve talked to him several times. I talked to him today, as a matter of fact,” he said. “He’s aware of everything that’s happening and he knows he’s going to get a good defense.”
No date has been set for murder and kidnapping charges in the 2013 disappearance of Heeringa.
THE INVESTIGATION INTO JEFFREY WILLIS
Willis, 47, was arrested in May 2016 after allegedly attempting to abduct a 16-year-old girl in Fruitland Township the previous month. He was charged with kidnapping and assault with a dangerous weapon in that case.
Ballistics testing soon matched a gun found in his vehicle to the one used in the June 2014 killing of Bletsch, 36, in Dalton Township. As a result, Willis was charged with her murder.
Almost immediately after he was arrested, authorities said they were looking into whether Willis was involved in the abduction of Jessica Heeringa. There were some things that lined up — Willis owns a silver minivan like the one police were looking for in the Heeringa case, he frequented her gas station, he wasn’t at work in the days after she vanished and he had a file labeled with her initials on his computer — but not enough to warrant charges. So for months, he was referred to only as a person of interest in the case.
Then, in September, authorities charged Willis with kidnapping and murdering Heeringa.
Those charges came three months after Willis’ cousin, Kevin Bluhm, was arrested. Bluhm is charged with being an accessory after the fact in Heeringa’s murder. According to court documents, he admitted to investigators 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 in a wooded area less than a mile from Willis’ home. However, Prosecutor Hilson told 24 Hour News 8 investigators think Heeringa’s remains have since been moved to an unknown location. The search for her body continues.
**Correction: Citing Public Defender Fred Johnson, a previous version of this article stated Hosticka would start with the prosecutor’s office Tuesday. That was not correct, Prosecutor D.J. Hilson said; he actually starts in two weeks.