“This individual, Mr. Willis, is a monster. He certainly is an individual I wouldn’t let any of my children around, much less any female around. What his total motivation was, that’s only for him to say. Ultimately, I think this was part of who he was as a person.”
-Muskegon County Prosecutor DJ Hilson
It was the 26th of April 2013. A Friday. Twenty six year old Jessica Heeringa was working the late shift at the Exxon Gas Station in Norton Shores, Michigan, United States. Jessica worked whatever shift she was given as she wanted to provide for her three year old son. Her boyfriend Dakotah Quail-Dyer had recently lost his job.
Things were not good between Jessica and Dakotah, they were arguing all the time, but she was determined to give her son the best life possible.
That day, the 26th of April, was a standard day for Jessica. At 2.44pm she bought some groceries before her shift was due to begin and she was in work at the gas station by 4.35pm.
At 11.14pm that night, a customer at the gas station made a 911 call:
"I don't know if this is an emergency. There is nobody here. It wouldn't allow me to pump gas. I went inside and there is nobody here. There's a car here. There is another car out front. It's very suspicious why there is nobody here."
The customer told the 911 operator that the gas station was open, it wasn't locked at all and the lights were on yet there was nobody inside or outside. Police went to the gas station to take a look around and they called the owner to let him know that the gas station was left open.
The police discovered that Jessica's car was still outside the gas station and her purse with over $400 in it was still inside the gas station along with her keys and jacket. The money from the gas station was still in the register. Apart from Jessica, nothing else appeared to be missing. It looked like Jessica was in the middle of preparing to close up and finish her shift when she disappeared. There were no signs of a struggle inside the store. When police looked at the back door and just outside the back door, they found some blood outside and a battery cover to a laser sight for a Walther P22 pistol, and two watch batteries.
According to the receipts, the last customer receipt was timestamped at 10.52pm. The owner of the store called the store manager as she lived close by to see if she could close the store.
One of Jessica's friends told police that she was in the store with Jessica from around 7.40pm that night and stayed for over an hour. She left around 8.50pm. Police spoke to the last known customer that Jessica had. She said that Jessica was alone when she was in the store and there was nobody else in the store at that time and nobody in the parking lot.
The store manager arrived at the gas station to lock up and told police that she was out at 11pm that night with her husband and they were riding their motorcycles eastbound on Sternberg Road when she saw a silver minivan slowly enter the north drive of the Exxon station from the service drive of the Pointes Mall.
She saw the van drive behind the gas station and turn of the headlights and it pulled up behind the store. The only other vehicle in the parking lot at that time was Jessica's car. She saw a figure at the back of the van and the rear hatch was open. It looked like he moved something and then he closed the rear hatch. The person then walked to the driver's door, got into the van and began driving westbound on the service drive.
During the time the van was there, the manager did not see Jessica and did not hear anything that indicated distress or a struggle. She saw the driver of the van. He was a male wearing a red or orange sweatshirt. Her husband did not get a clear view of him but thought he had "crazy" or wavy hair.
Her husband believed the van was a Chrysler Town and Country van, silver in color.
Police looked at surveillance footage in the area. There were no cameras at the gas station. But they obtained footage from a store in the Pointes Mall. The footage revealed that at 11.02pm, a silver minivan turned northbound onto Grand Haven Road. Footage from the Homestead Tavern revealed that one minute later the same van drove northbound on Grand Haven Road.
Christian VanAntwerpen worked in a store right next to the gas station and he told police that he saw a man in a minivan talking to Jessica. He said:
"It just seemed to me that this was just another guy hitting on her, or whatever, because she was an attractive girl. It was just an afterthought I almost didn't think about mentioning. But I thought it was my responsibility to say something about it."
Christian said that the man approached Jessica when she was at a gas pump preparing to close the station. He said that the man seemed flirtatious and asked her why she was outside and not inside.
Christian and the Exxon Manager provided police with a description of the man they saw in the minivan. Police released a composite sketch of the minivan driver. He was described as a white male, six feet tall with a medium to heavy build.
Police spoke with a man, Jeffrey Willis, in relation to Jessica's disappearance as he lived in the area and owned a silver minivan. He gave them permission to search his van and police did not find anything connected to Jessica inside. They observed that the van had been recently cleaned. He told police he was home that night until 12.30am.
Police searched for Jessica in the area but could not find any trace of her anywhere. The case went cold.
In 2016, a driver in a silver minivan tried to abduct a teenage girl. She was on her way home from a party when the driver pulled up beside her and asked her if she wanted a lift home. She asked him if she could use his phone instead and he told her to get into the van and he would give her the phone. As soon as she was in the van, he locked the doors and told her the battery in the phone was dead. He pointed a gun at her. The girl asked him to open the window as she struggling to breathe. When he opened the window, she jumped out of the moving van and managed to escape.
The teenager identified the driver as Jeffrey Willis.
When police searched Jeffrey's van, they found a stolen Walther P22 pistol with the serial number obscured. Police managed to restore the number and found the owner. The owner was one of Jeffrey's coworkers and the gun was stolen from her home. She said that it had a laser sight but when the gun was recovered by police, the laser sight was missing.
The search of Jeffrey's van , home and computer devices led police to believe that Jeffrey not only tried to abduct a teenager, but that he was involved in the murder of Rebekah Bletsch and the disappearance and murder of Jessica Heeringa.
Jeffrey was charged with murder.
At Jessica's murder Trial, it was the Prosecution's case that Jeffrey was a regular customer at the Exxon gas station where Jessica worked. He inherited a derelict property, 3038 Bailey, when his grandfather died and that property was just 12 or 13 minutes from the gas station. The night that Jessica went missing, the 26th of April, Jeffrey attended a card game at a shop near the gas station. He drove to the card game in his silver minivan. His phone records revealed that he was in the area of the Bailey property at 11.23 pm that night. When police searched the property, which was padlocked, they found cleaning products including bleach.
His coworkers gave evidence and they told the Court that when Jeffrey came to work after that night, he had deep scratches on his face and arms. A witness who saw a man in the minivan the night Jessica went missing described the man as having blond streaks in his hair and Jeffrey frequently highlighted his hair.
It was the Prosecution's case that Jeffrey had been watching Jessica for some time and that night, he drove around the back of the gas station and ordered her to get into the minivan. They believed he threatened her with a gun or struck her to get her into the van. Her blood was found outside the back door. The Prosecution believed that Jeffrey kidnapped Jessica at the gas station and killed her within 24-48 hours. They believed his motive was to engage in criminal sexual penetration or criminal sexual contact.
Brenda Nester gave evidence. She was a regular customer at the Exxon gas station and she saw Jessica with Jeffrey the night before she disappeared. Brenda told Jessica that she should not be alone that late at night.
Jeffrey said to Brenda:
"She's got her customers looking out for her too."
Brenda said that Jessica "sort of shook her head and started shivering, like a chill went up her spine or something."
Brenda thought that there was something off with Jessica that night as she didn't seem her normal happy self so she waited in the car park outside until it closed. She saw Jeffrey leave. It was the Prosecution's case that Jeffrey returned the next night and abducted Jessica.
To support their case, the Prosecution told the Jury that Jeffrey had a pattern when it came to women. He abducts them. They told the Jury about the attempted abduction of the teenage girl. They also told the Jury about a thirty six year old woman called Rebekah Bletsch.
Rebekah was found dead on a road near her home. She had been shot. Rebekah had been out walking near her home on the 29th of June 2014. When she was found, her shirt was up a little bit and her bottoms were down a little bit.
The Prosecution believed that Jeffrey planned to abduct Rebekah at gunpoint, bring her back to the derelict Bailey property, rape her and kill her. But they believed he shot her when she tried to get away. Her DNA was found on his glove. The Prosecution told the Jury that Jeffrey used the Walther P22 pistol to kill her.
Police found her DNA on gloves and a vibrator in a locked toolbox. In a lockbox, which was also locked, her DNA was found on handcuffs. The toolbox and lockbox were found in Jeffrey's van. In that same lockbox, the police found the Walther P22 pistol. Jeffrey's DNA was found on the gloves, the vibrator, and the gun. The Prosecutors referred to the items as Jeffrey's rape kit. The toolbox and lock box contained handcuffs, rope, restraints, chains, sex toys, a gag, lubricating jelly, insulin, syringes,gloves, Viagra, cameras, and bullets. In relation to Rebekah's case, Jeffrey was found guilty of first degree murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. He was sentenced to life in prison and a consecutive two years’ imprisonment for felony-firearm.
No DNA was found in relation to Jessica but the Prosecution told the Jury that they did not need DNA evidence as they had plenty of other evidence.
Forensic computer analysis of Jeffrey's devices revealed that he had folders named "vics" and two folders, one with Jessica's initials and the other one with Rebekah's initials. Police believed these were named after Jessica and Rebekah as they were their initials. The names also included dates and police believed these dates were the dates that they were killed. The date beside Jessica's initials was the day after she disappeared.
The JLH folder (Jessica's folder) included photographs of Jessica and her Missing Poster. There was also a news article about her disappearance saved on his computer.
The Missing Poster
A document listing his computer passwords revealed that his password for many of his accounts was J4l27H13— Jessica’s initials (JLH) and the number 42713, the day after Jessica disappeared.
Police also discovered thousands of pornographic images and videos depicting the abduction, restraint, rape, and murder of women. Items were used in the images and videos such as restraints and gags.
Jeffrey had several homemade, voyeuristic videos saved. The videos were of young girls and young women swimming and in their homes and it was clear from the footage that they did not know they were being filmed.
It was the Defense's case that Jeffrey was innocent. They argued that just because Jeffrey had a silver minivan, that did not mean it was the same minivan from the footage at the gas station. Nobody took down the license plate number of the van at the gas station.
They referred to Brenda's testimony and questioned why she only told police that she saw Jeffrey at the gas station the night before Jessica disappeared some three years after her disappearance.
They also questioned Jessica's boyfriend Dakotah Quail-Dyer. They referred to their turbulent relationship and fights. Dakotah said that he discovered Jessica was a heroin user. It was the Defense's case that Jessica's disappearance may have something to do with a drug deal.
The Jury did not agree. Jeffrey was found guilty of the kidnapping and murder of Jessica Herringa. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Jeffrey's cousin, Kevin Bluhm, pleaded guilty to lying to detectives. He lied during the investigation into Jessica's disappearance. He pleaded no contest to having been an accessory after the fact by helping Jeffrey dispose of Jessica's body. He admitted that he saw Jeffrey with Jessica's body and he helped him bury her after she was sexually assaulted. He claimed that Jeffrey called him a day after Jessica disappeared and told him he had a woman.
When Kevin saw Jessica, she had a head wound and was tied up. She was naked and not moving. According to Kevin, Jeffrey had been watching Jessica for some time and the night he abducted her, he hit her first so that he could get her into the van. Kevin told police that Jeffrey raped Jessica and used sex toys and tortured her. He said they both drove to Sheridan Road near Laketon Road with Jessica's body. When they got there, Kevin discovered that Jeffrey had already dug the hole.
He was sentenced to time served plus five years probation.
To date, Jessica's body has not been found.
In 2013, Jessica's parents tried to have a Bill known as the Jessica Heeringa Act or Jessica's Law signed into law. The bill would require gas stations and convenience stores that are open between the hours of 11pm and 5am to install and maintain a security camera system or two employees working the same shift. To date, it has not been signed into law.
In 2018, a Bill was passed in the Michigan House of Representatives that will require convicted defendants to listen to Victim Impact Statements. The Bill was required due to the actions of Jeffrey in relation to Rebekah's case. When he was convicted of her murder, he refused to listen to the Statements. It was signed into law that same year and is known as the "Rebekah Bletsch Law."
Jeffrey is a suspect in the unsolved murder of Angela Marie Thornburg. Fifteen year old Angela was a Fruitport High School student. She was found by a hunter on the 17th of October 1996 in the woods in Fruitport. She had been missing for a month.
Jeffrey graduated from Fruitport High School in 1988 and worked as a janitor for the school district from 1998 to 1999.
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"The criminal justice system will take a hard look at what happened to Matthew Eappen. It is up to the rest of us to take an even harder look at who is minding our children."
- Eileen McNamara, the Boston Globe
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- Sandra Pupatello
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