Day 5 of testimony in Willis trial: DNA, ballistics evidence

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

Jeffrey Willis looks toward the jury gallery during his murder trial on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017, at the Muskegon County Courthouse. (Joel Bissell/Pool)

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — The latest in the trial of Jeffrey Willis for the murder of Rebekah Bletsch:

5:20 p.m. –  Testimony has wrapped for the day. The judge said jurors should expect testimony all day Friday, starting at 9:30 a.m. with the prosecution’s final witness: another DNA analysis expert.

5:15 p.m. –  Lt. Crump said based on the striations, he concluded the shell casings found at the Bletsch murder scene and the bullet fragments recovered from her head were fired from the Walther P22 with the defaced serial number, which authorities seized from Willis’ van.

In cross-examination, Lt. Crump said he took 12 shots and compared all of them to the evidence samples. He said he couldn’t recall if any of them didn’t match, because the policy is that they only need to report at least two test shots that have consistent markings.

>>App users: Listen to the second half of Thursday’s testimony here.

5 p.m. –  Crump eventually received a weapon with a serial number that was defaced or appeared to be removed – the weapon found in Willis’ van.

Crump says investigators can smooth out the area and apply an acid that brings up a shadow of the serial number if the defacing isn’t too deep.

Using this process, Crump says he was able to restore the serial number: L397098, which matched the serial number of the Walther P22 purchased by Willis’ co-worker, Michelle Schnotala.

4:45 p.m. –  The prosecution has called its final witness of the day to the stand: Jeff Crump of the Michigan State Police firearms and forensics lab.

Crump analyzed the cartridge cases collected from the scene of Bletsch’s murder. Before he had a weapon to compare the shells to, Crump says he could only deduce they were likely from a .22 long rifle caliber weapon. He says their head stamp of “C” generally means the manufacturer or marketer is CCI.

Initially, none of the weapons collected by authorities and test fired by Crump matched the shells.

4:10 p.m. – Hayhurst says he has no concerns about compromised samples during analysis and evidence processing.

“Everything has been received at a standard that I would expect,” he says.

Hayhurst said he did not have Kevin Bluhm’s DNA profile to compare until September 2016.

4 p.m. – Hayhurst says a DNA swab taken from the battery cover of the laser sight for the gun was analyzed in 2013 using the lab’s older kit and the DNA mixture was low enough that the results were inconclusive. He said he then dried down the DNA sample, rehydrated, then retested it later using the new system. That sampling was analyzed by another DNA expert who will testify Friday. Hayhurst said there was a more complete DNA profile that could be compared.

Given the right conditions, “stains are potentially sustainable for years and years,” Hayhurst says. He says stains are typically blood, saliva or other body
fluids and are more likely to have DNA.

>>Photos: Inside the courtroom during Day 5 of Willis trial testimony

3:45 p.m. – Hayhurst testifies the swabbed gloves that tested positive for Willis’ DNA were kept in the toolbox and tested later.

He says at the time of his report, he compared the DNA sample to “a more limited profile” of Heeringa and Bletsch. New technology gave them a more comprehensive DNA profile for both women later.

3:30 p.m. – The DNA swab from a camera bag taken from Willis’ property matched Willis, Hayhurst says.

In cross-examination, Hayhurst says the policy is to try to compare swabs to seven DNA profiles, although exceptions can be made. He agrees there are limits to testing because of materials, time and the number of people testing the samples.

Defense attorney Fred Johnson works to poke holes in the reliability of DNA sampling. Hayhurst testifies sunlight, humidity and other environmental conditions can degrade DNA, although blood stains last longer.

Hayhurst says the interior of the gloves were not tested for DNA, although they were swabbed. He says items in the toolbox were “comingled.”

“If these items were rolling around in a toolbox for some time, there is a possibility that something could transfer,” he said.

Hayhurst says the DNA swabbing and search took place in May 2016 – nearly two years after Bletsch’s murder.

2:30 p.m. – Before the court took a 10 minute break, Hayhurst testified the straps of the leather in the ball-gag had a major DNA profile matched Willis; Bluhm, Willis’ ex-wife, Schnotala, Bletsch, Heeringa and MJN were all excluded from the major DNA profile.

Hayhurst said a DNA swab from the interior of the handcuffs matched Willis. Bluhm, Willis’ ex-wife, Schnotala, Bletsch, Heeringa and MJN were all excluded from the major DNA profile.

A loaded syringe needle had a male DNA profile from an unknown male donor, according to Hayhurst. Willis, Bluhm, Willis’ ex-wife, Schnotala, Bletsch, Heeringa and MJN were all excluded.

A swab of the grip and trigger of the gun came back positive for male DNA that matched Willis, according to Hayhurst.

A Mizuno glove had a DNA mixture that matched Willis as a major donor, Hayhurst testified. The minor donors couldn’t be matched. The swab from the pair of Adidas gloves had a major DNA profile that matched Willis, according to Hayhurst.

Adding in the new DNA sample from Schnotala, Hayhurst said her DNA could be included in the red panties and pink panties.

2 p.m. – Hayhurst testified a swab of the red panties’ waistband did not have any DNA of Bletsch, Heeringa or MJN, but the mixture profile matched with Willis, to a lesser probability.

He said the fluid found in the crotch of the pink panties tested positive for an unidentified female. Willis is included as being a possible match for the stain, Hayhurst said. Heeringa, Bletsch and MJN were all excluded from the stain in the underwear.

1:45 p.m. – The passenger side manual lock on Willis’ minivan had a mixture of DNA, according to Hayhurst.

A swab on the ball of the ball-gag had a partial DNA profile that matched Willis, Hayhurst said. Hayhurst said MJN, Jessica Heeringa and Rebekah Bletsch were all excluded from having DNA on the ball of the ball-gag.

DNA of two individuals was found on leather restraints recovered from Willis’ minivan. Willis’ DNA matched the “major donor,” Hayhurst said. The minor donor was too minimal for comparison.

The stain on the muzzle end of the Carl Walther P22 gun was a DNA mixture, Hayhurst testified. Willis’ DNA matched as the major donor. Bletsch, Heeringa and MJN were excluded as major donors.

The handgun slide interior had a mix of DNA, according to Hayhurst. The major DNA profile matched with Willis, he said.

1:30 p.m. – Hayhurst said he received a DNA sample from Willis’ inner check, called a buccal swab.

He said he also received a pair of pink panties and red panties wrapped in aluminum foil in a plastic bag. He tested the underwear. Hayhurst said he found semen in the crotch area of the pink underwear, but not in the red ones. Says he also tested the waistband of each pair to determine who they belonged to.

12:30 p.m. – MSP forensics lab expert David Hayhurst said he also took an interior cheek swabbing, called a buccal swab, from MJN – the then-16 year old who identified Willis as the driver who tried to abduct her at gunpoint.

The judge then ordered a lunch break. Testimony is expected to resume at 1:15 p.m.

>>App users: Listen to Thursday morning’s testimony live here. (NOTE: Audio recordings are only being allowed by the judge at this time.)

12 p.m. – Michigan State Police forensics lab expert David Hayhurst is testifying about the items he swabbed from Jeffrey Willis’ van for DNA analysis.

Some sex toys and items located in lockboxes found in Willis’ vehicle were among the items tested, according to Hayhurst. He said he also swabbed the van handles for DNA.

Earlier he testified he obtained DNA samples taken from Kevin Bluhm’s mouth and Jessica Heeringa’s toothbrush.

11 a.m. – The court has taken a ten minute break after defense attorney cross-examined Rambadt.

She explained nail clippings are generally collected if the victim scratched or came into contact with another person.

Rambadt said in 2016, an updated lab policy issued after her report, saying they would no longer provide an “exclusions only” report on minor DNA mixtures, as found on Bletsch’s cell phone holder.

Rambadt said the environment can play a role in what is found during DNA testing – dust can contain skin cells, etc.

“There are many variables and all I can say is it’s possible,” she said.

10:45 a.m. – Sarah Rambadt of the Michigan State Police forensic crime laboratory is testifying about the DNA swabs she analayzed in connection to Bletsch’s death.

Rambadt said she examined a swab from the top back of Bletsch’s pants and Roger Johnson. No DNA type came back from the pants and Johnson was excluded from the new and prior DNA swabs taken from Bletsch’s body and items, according to Rambadt.

Rambadt said she also checked the DNA of evidence tech Brian Harris against the Bletsch DNA swabs – he matched the major donor in the DNA taken from Bletsch’s sunglasses.

“A crime scene is not a sterile environment… it’s not a controlled environment so it’s possible that someone who’s collected evidence can leave behind DNA,” Rambadt said.

Rambadt said there was not enough information from the “minor donor” of DNA found on Bletsch’s right shoulder to identify.

10:30 a.m. – In cross-examination, defense attorney Fred Johnson asked what cleaning products would destroy DNA, referencing the cleaning products found at Willis’ grandfather’s home on Bailey Street.

Meredith said Pinesol, alcohol, bleach and sanitation wipes could destroy DNA. She said Tide laundry detergent was not something they used to clean their labs.

When asked about the DNA found of an unknown male, Meredith said the DNA was identified, but didn’t say who it was. She agreed that what items are tested for DNA is at the discretion of investigators.

10 a.m. – Katherine Meredith of the Michigan State Police forensic science division is the first to testify Thursday in the murder trial.

She said she analyzed DNA from swabs on sunglasses, fired casings, and the fingernail clippings and blood of Bletsch.

Meredith said DNA found on Bletsch’s sunglasses was from at least two donors, including an unidentified male. She testified there wasn’t enough DNA from the second “donor” to identify them, but Blestch’s DNA was not on the sunglasses.

The other items contained undeterminable DNA, according to Meredith. Rebekah Bletsch’s DNA was only found on her left wrist; that wrist also contained DNA from another unknown person, according to Meredith.

Meredith said the DNA from the unidentified male found on the sunglasses was put into a national DNA database. She said the DNA was compared to investigators and Bletsch’s husband – they were excluded from being “donors” for all the swabs taken from Bletsch’s items and body.

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Prosecutors say they have five more witnesses to call in the trial of Jeffrey Willis for the June 2014 slaying of Rebekah Bletsch.

Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson said he expects to call at least four of those witnesses — mostly investigators — during proceedings Thursday. The defense will call a few rebuttal witnesses, but has not yet said whether Willis will take the stand in his own defense. The trial, which started last week, was initially scheduled to run through the end of next week but could be in the hands of the jury by Tuesday.

Authorities say Willis shot Bletsch in the head, killing her, as she jogged near her Dalton Township home.

Prosecutors have tried to show the jury that Willis, 47, of Muskegon Township, has a history of victimizing women. He’s also charged with kidnapping and murdering Jessica Heeringa, who vanished from a Norton Shores gas station in April 2013, and attempting to abduct a teen girl in April 2016.

>>Inside Complete coverage of the Jeffrey Willis investigation

Evidence presented in the last two days of Willis’ trial has been meant to paint the picture of a serial killer. On Wednesday, investigators went through chilling electronic evidence, including a file labeled “VICS” that had subfolders labeled with Bletsch’s and Heeringa’s initials and a code indicating the dates of their death and disappearance, respectively. Pictures of Blestch were found in the folder labeled with her initials.

Also found on Willis’ electronic devices were tens of thousands of murder porn videos downloaded from the internet. Those videos weren’t played in court, a detective described them as showing women being kidnapped, raped and murdered. In one video, the victim was a jogger.

Willis’ ex-wife testified that he tried to get her to create an alibi for him, but she refused. She said their marriage was strained and that Willis was verbally abusive.

On Tuesday, the teen who Willis is accused of kidnapping described her escape, saying she jumped from his moving minivan and ran away, “screaming for him please not to kill me.” Jurors saw pictures of the evidence collected from Willis’ minivan following his May 2016 arrest: a gun, rope and chains, and a ball gag, among other things. In the trash at Willis’ late grandfather’s property, investigators found what they say is a handwritten list of items to go in a rape kit.

The defense is trying to raise reasonable doubt by blaming Bletsch’s killing on Willis’ cousin, Kevin Bluhm. Bluhm is charged as an accessory after the fact in Heeringa’s death after apparently telling investigators he helped Willis dump her body. Her remains have not been found.

>>App users: Interactive timeline of Willis investigation