MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — On June 29, 2014, Rebekah Bletsch was found lying along the side of the road near her Dalton Township home. The 36-year-old mother had been shot three times in the head.
“She was minding her own business. She was a good daughter, a good mother, a good wife. She had a lot of friends in the area and community,” said Bletsch’s father, Nick Winberg.
Nearly two years passed before police said they had found the man who killed her. Now, finally, Jeffrey Willis will stand trial for Bletsch’s murder.
Bletsch’s father thinks Willis is guilty and the trial will only support his conclusion.
“She was loved by a lot of people and it was sad that she lost her life at the hands of this mad man,” Winberg said while clutching a photo of his daughter outside the courtroom Tuesday.
“I’m looking forward to all the facts being brought out and realizing that they do have the right guy,” he added.
Jury selection began Tuesday with 326 people, down from the 500 people who were originally called to the pool to ensure an impartial jury can be found.
During the first two days of jury selection, the prosecution and defense teams are expected to focus their efforts on finding people who are not biased based on the publicity surrounding Jeffrey Willis. The jury selection process is slightly different than normal; each potential juror is brought in individually and questioned by the prosecution and defense. Court officials tell 24 Hour News 8 the one-on-one process is meant to get a better sense of the people responsible for deciding the case.
A more traditional jury selection process is expected to start Thursday.
While whittling down the pool to 12 jurors and two alternates , the prosecution and defense teams ran into a major issue Tuesday: Finding people who did not know someone who worked with Willis at Herman Miller.
If a jury cannot be seated, the judge will consider moving the trial to a different venue. However, trial experts told 24 Hour News 8 last week that even considering the extensive media coverage of the case, it shouldn’t be too hard to find 14 impartial people to hear the case.
Bletsch’s father told 24 Hour News 8 Tuesday morning he’s ready for the trial to start and for justice to be served.
“I’m quite nerved up really. I’m quite anxious about the whole thing,” said Winberg. “It’s been a long time waiting for it to happen, and I have felt like I had my whole life under, totally under control. But when it rolled around 7:30, 8 o’clock this morning, it’s like man, I’m nerved up. How is this all going to play out?”
BLETSCH’S DAD: EVIDENCE SHOWS ‘AN EVIL PERSON’
Authorities have suggested that the shooting happened as Willis was trying to abduct Bletsch. She was still alive when a passing nurse found her lying on the side of Automobile Road, but she died at the scene.
Key evidence in the case will be the .22-caliber pistol found in a lock box, along with ammunition, in Willis’ minivan. Ballistics testing matched it to the weapon used to kill Bletsch, court records show. The gun’s serial number had been destroyed. Authorities say Willis stole it from a co-worker.
“This guy, Willis, has gone to a place that’s so evil, he really is an evil person. I mean who does what he did? Outfit a van like a murder wagon and then just set up to ambush people. I mean that’s sick,” Winberg said.
Last week, Willis’ defense team asked that some of the evidence found at his Muskegon Township home not be allowed at trial, arguing investigators didn’t have probable cause to search the property.
That evidence included electronic devices seized from the home. On one of those devices, investigators have testified, was a file titled “VICS” — an abbreviation 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 have also testified that the devices contained videos of necrophilia and thousands of “kidnap and kill” videos downloaded from the internet. Some were staged, but others were real.
A judge decided there was probable cause and denied the defense’s motion.
The trial had already been delayed twice when Willis argued his rights were violated when some notes were taken from his cell and when his former defense attorney was hired by the Muskegon County Prosecutor’s Office.
Bletsch’s family is ready for the trial to finally happen.
“My family really needs to heal. We’ve been carrying a mountain of pain for so long and we’ll continue to. But with the trial, conviction and sentencing, I’m sure we’ll get some relief in that regard,” Winberg said Tuesday.
While Willis’ trial for Bletsch’s murder is expected to last three weeks, Winberg is hoping it won’t last long. The father isn’t sure how much of the proceedings he will attend.
“I hope it doesn’t play out like a marathon event,” he said. “A little bit of a trial is going to be a lot for me.”
>>App users: Interactive timeline of Willis investigation
DID WILLIS KILL JESSICA HEERINGA?
Willis, now 47, has been in the Muskegon County Jail since May 2016. He was initially arrested because investigators suspected he had tried to abduct a teen girl as she walked in Fruitland Township the month prior. But after Willis was in custody, it wasn’t long before they realized he may hold the answers in two unsolved cases — Bletsch’s and that of Jessica Heeringa.
Almost immediately after Willis’ arrest, police said they were looking for a link between him and Heeringa, who vanished from the Norton Shores gas station where she worked in April 2013. The clues started mounting up: Willis’ van was similar to the 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 and the date of her disappearance in the “VICS” folder. But none of that was enough to warrant charges.
Then, a break: Police said Willis’ cousin, Kevin Bluhm, told them he helped Willis move and bury Heeringa’s body the day after she disappeared. It was after that Willis was charged with her kidnapping and murder. Bluhm was charged as an accessory after the fact. Both those court cases are still pending.
Heeringa’s remains have never been found. Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson told 24 Hour News 8 authorities think her body was initially buried where Bluhm indicated but later moved.
If you have any information about Heeringa’s disappearance or where her remains may be now, you’re asked to call the Norton Shores Police Department at 231.733.2691 or Silent Observer at 231.72.CRIME (2.7463).