Evidence suppression denied before Willis’ trial

Jeffrey Willis accused of shooting and killing Rebekah Bletsch in June 2014

Jeffrey Willis
Jeffrey Willis in a Muskegon County courtroom Oct. 10, 2017 for a hearing regarding evidence in his case.

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — A Muskegon County judge has denied a public defender’s motion to suppress some evidence in the murder case of Rebekah Bletsch, clearing the way for Jeffrey Willis to stand trial next week.

Willis is accused of shooting and killing Bletsch, a 36-year-old mother, as she jogged near her Dalton Township home in June 2014.

Rebekah Bletsch (Source: Facebook)

At a Tuesday hearing, defense attorney Fred Johnson argued there wasn’t sufficient probable cause for investigators to enter and search Willis’ home after his arrest in May 2016.

“We believe the seizure of this search is invalid,” Johnson said. “They had my client, they had a van, but that’s all they had.”

He also raised questions about the magistrate who signed the search warrant, who previously worked as a prosecutor.

The main pieces of evidence in question are electronic devices seized from the home. On those devices, investigators found a file labeled “VICS” — apparently short for “victims” — and a subfolder labeled with Bletsch’s initials and the date of her death. The subfolder contained photos of Bletsch, wanted posters linked to her case and a photograph of a woman that resembled Bletsch lying on a bed. Investigators also found videos of necrophilia and thousands of “kidnap and kill” videos downloaded from the internet. Some were staged, but others were real.

>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the Jeffrey Willis investigation

Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson argued against the defense’s motion. He called a detective to the witness stand to illustrate what evidence was obtained and when. The detective also mentioned that photos of Willis with two partially or fully nude women were found in his van.

In the end, Judge William Marietti denied the motion to suppress the evidence.

“If there was a good-faith reliance on the warrant, which I find there was, there isn’t going to be an exclusion if it was lacking in probable cause, so for that reason the motion is denied,” he said.

Had the judge ruled the other way, it would have meant yet another delay in the trial, which was previously stalled when Willis claimed his constitutional rights were violated when jail guards took some notes from his cell and when his former defense attorney was hired by the prosecutor’s office.

“Jeffrey Willis is like a rat in a trap. And I hate to say it, but he’s got what I call his rat handlers and they’re doing everything they can to get him off,” Bletsch’s father, Nick Winberg, told 24 Hour News 8.

But now, Willis’ trial is slated to begin Oct. 17.

“When there’s a conviction and sentencing, I’m looking forward to my family healing,” Winberg said.

>>App users: Interactive timeline of Willis investigation

Some 500 people have received summons to be screened for the jury of 14 (including two alternates). Usually, Johnson told 24 Hour News 8 last week, the pool is made up of only 75 potential jurors. So many potential jurors have been called that jury selection will be moved from Marietti’s courtroom to a larger courtroom. The judge also approved the submission of a written questionnaire for jurors before attorneys begin their verbal questioning, a move meant to narrow the pool.

On Tuesday, prosecutors requested a change of venue for the trial, but Marietti called that motion “premature.”

“I’m hopeful the case can be tried here,” Marietti said.

He said he would only rule on the motion if a jury could not be seated.

It was apparent in court Tuesday that Willis, now behind bars for nearly 17 months, has lost quite a bit of weight. He was arrested the month after he allegedly tried to abduct a teen girl in Fruitland Township. That teen escaped, and it was her report that led police to Willis, 47, of Muskegon Township.

He’s also charged with kidnapping Jessica Heeringa from the Norton Shores gas station where she worked in April 2013 and killing her. Her remains have not been found, but another subfolder in the “VICS” folder on Willis’ computer was labeled with her initials, which authorities say is evidence she is dead.

–24 Hour News 8’s Evan Dean contributed to this report.