MUSKEGON, Mich. (AP) – Jurors convicted a man Wednesday of kidnapping and killing a western Michigan gas station clerk whose body has never been found.
The Muskegon County jury deliberated about 1½ hours before finding Jeffrey Willis, 48, guilty of first-degree murder in the death of 25-year-old Jessica Heeringa, a mother of a 3-year-old son who disappeared in 2013 while working late at a gas station in Norton Shores.
MLive reports a customer called police late that evening to say he found no one inside the gas station when he went inside. Officers found Heeringa’s coat and purse still inside and a drop of her blood out back.
The only eyewitnesses were two motorcyclists who reported seeing a suspicious silver van behind the gas station around the time Heeringa disappeared.
The case went cold.
In 2014, Rebekah Bletsch was shot in the head while jogging. That case went cold, too.
But in 2016, an attempted kidnapping gave investigators a break in both cases. A 16-year-old girl was walking home from a party when a man in a silver van approached and asked if she needed a ride. When she got inside, he pulled a gun on her. She jumped from the moving vehicle and was able to escape.
Investigators used surveillance video of the incident to identify Jeffrey Willis’ van.
When police searched his home, they found a folder on his laptop labeled "VICS," possibly meaning "victims," which contained information about Heeringa and Bletsch. They also found thousands of videos depicting abductions, torture and rape. In his van they found a gun, ammunition and a toolbox filled with bondage items and sex toys.
Although Heeringa’s body has not been found, Prosecutor D.J. Hilson said there was ample evidence to convict Willis in her death.
According to People, he contended Willis abducted Heeringa from the gas station before taking her to his grandfather’s house, where he sexually assaulted her before killing her.
“It was a torture sanctuary where he could make his own videos,” Hilson said.
Willis is scheduled to be sentenced June 12. First-degree murder in Michigan carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Willis showed no emotion as the verdicts were read, and he quickly was escorted from the courtroom.
Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson embraced police investigators who worked for years to build the state’s case.
Norton Shores Police Lt. Michael Kasher said the case will never be over until Heeringa "is home."
"I’ve had a lot of thought on this, hoping that one day Jeff Willis will be a man about it and point out where she’s at," Kasher said. "I’m not expecting him to be human about it, but there’s always that hope."
Willis was also convicted last year in the 2014 fatal shooting of Rebekah Bletsch. He’s already serving a life sentence in her death. According to MLive, he infuriated the victim’s family in that case by blowing a kiss as he walked out of the courtroom. Bletsch’s sisters and mother called him a "monster" and told him to "rot in hell."