Accused kidnapper named person of interest in 2013 case
A man accused of kidnapping a teen in west Michigan has been named a person of interest in the 2013 disappearance of a gas station clerk.
Jeffrey Willis, 46, has been charged with kidnapping and other crimes in an April incident involving a 16-year-old girl in Fruitland Township. Authorities Monday said Willis was added as a person of interest in the disappearance of Jessica Heeringa, the clerk who disappeared from a Norton Shores gas station in 2013.
“Investigators have now upgraded Jeffrey Willis as a person of interest in the Jessica Heeringa abduction case,” the Norton Shores Police Department said in a statement on its Facebook page Monday.
Prosecutor D.J. Hilson recently told a judge Willis was being investigated in Heeringa’s disappearance and the 2014 homicide of Rebecca Bletsch in Dalton Township. Muskegon County authorities said Bletsch, whom a passer-by found a short distance from her home, had been shot in the head.
Meanwhile, police found rope, handcuffs and syringes possibly filled with sedatives in Willis’ van during a search in the case involving the 16-year-old, said the prosecutor, who called him an “extreme risk” to the public.
The teen told police that a man driving a silver minivan stopped and offered to help her after she spent the night trying to reach her North Muskegon home then locked the doors once she was inside, Mlive.com reported. The girl jumped from the van and ran for help.
Police in 2013 said a man was questioned by Norton Shores police after being pulled over in a silver minivan that matched the description of a vehicle officials sought in the Heeringa case.
In a statement Monday, Norton Shores police said they had been working with federal, state, county and city law enforcement investigators to determine if Willis was connected to the Heeringa case.
“Investigators are interviewing known associates of Willis, trying to determine the connections to Jessica,” the statement read.
Norton Shores police did not release additional details or immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
“As we have stated … we will update the media and families of the victim when we have enough evidence to believe Willis is responsible for the disappearance of Jessica Heeringa,” their release read.
Heeringa’s case has long drawn attention. The clerk disappeared April 26, 2013, before she was set to close the Exxon Norton Shores gas station where she worked.
Heeringa was 25 years old at the time. The gas station had no security cameras, leaving authorities with few clues.
Authorities have said there was no indication of a robbery. Investigators said a small amount of blood found outside the station belonged to her.
In the months after she vanished, police said they interviewed and cleared a least four persons of interest in connection to her disappearance. Police have also said they ruled out several family members, friends and acquaintances.
Heeringa’s case also prompted a Michigan legislator to introduce a bill in 2013 to require gas stations and convenience stores that stay open late to have two employees working or to install security cameras. That bill never became law.
As investigators continue to seek answers, others have worked to generate tips.
The Silent Observer program is offering a $21,285 reward for information, according to its website.
A Facebook page, “Find Jessica Heeringa,” has also been created to further the search.
In a Monday post about the Willis development, the page operators wrote that police have named others as persons in interest, “so this may just be a tactic to get (people) off their backs so they can do what needs to be done. We’ve heard from many of you, and know they are indeed working around the clock on this.”
Other supporters on the site welcomed the news. “I have felt since his arrest he may be involved in jessica’s and rebekah cases,” one user wrote. “Lord know’ s how many others that may be out there. Just so sad.”
Another visitor wrote: “Prayers and really everyone must have patience. If they have evidence they need to be able to build a case that will put him away forever!”