Jeffrey Willis to stand trial for murder, kidnapping of Jessica Heeringa

Posted at 1:26 PM, Dec 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-13 22:40:12-05

MUSKEGON, Mich. — Following an intensive four days of testimony, a judge has determined that Jeffrey Willis will stand trial for the murder and kidnapping of Jessica Heeringa, who disappeared in 2013.

Judge Raymond Kostrzewa on Tuesday said the totality of the evidence produced by prosecutors led him to bind Willis over for trial. Kostrzewa said there is enough evidence to show Heeringa is dead, even though her body has never been found.

"This was just a small taste of the evidence," Muskegon County prosecutor D.J. Hilson told reporters after the court hearing.

"I maintain my position on Mr. Willis, I think he was an extreme danger to this community—certainly to the female population—and he’s proven that, given the evidence.”

Heeringa disappeared from the gas station where she worked April 25, 2013.

Willis was arrested this spring, accused of abducting a teen girl who got away. Evidence later found at Willis' home and in his van led to the charges in Heeringa's disappearance as well as the 2014 murder of Rebekah Bletsch.

Jessica Heeringa.

Jessica Heeringa.

The preliminary hearing began last week with two full days of testimony from investigators and more than two dozen witnesses.

Monday, in a half day of testimony, Willis' co-worker testified about losing her gun, which was later found in Willis' possession and tied to the murder of Bletsch.  Two pairs of Willis' co-worker's underwear were found inside his home, which she testified she did not give to him.  She testified that he had asked her for her underwear in the past.

During testimony on Tuesday, the lead investigator, Lt. Michael Kasher of the Norton Shores Police Department detailed all the thousands of tips the department received the Heeringa case, including some that had spotted her overseas.

The defense questioned Kasher about an initial person-of-interest in the case who was rumored to be having an affair with Heeringa.  He testified that Willis was identified as a suspect shortly after his arrest in the abduction of the teen in 2016. A judge dismissed it as hearsay.

Elizabeth Lunsford

Elizabeth Lunsford

Elizabeth Lunsford, who called Jessica her best friend, also testified Tuesday saying she visited Jessica frequently at the gas station and also brought Heeringa heroin. The judge stopped proceedings for a short time to explain to Lunsford what she was saying and asked if she wanted to get an attorney as well.

While Heeringa's body has never been found, prosecutors say the evidence presented paints a clear picture that Willis intended to kill his victims, suggesting it's only reasonable to assume Heeringa is dead.

"We have the 22-caliber bullets, not only as I indicated already at the Rebekah Bletsch homicide scene, but the 22-caliber bullets found in the abduction which adds up in the defendant's method of operation that he was not leaving any of his victims alive," Hilson told the judge.

"That was true with Rebekah Bletsch, I suggest through the probable cause that it's true with Jessica Heeringa, and that certainly would have been the case had the gun not malfunctioned for (the teen who claimed to have been abducted by Willis).

Defense attorney Brian Hosticka argued the evidence laid out by prosecutors shows no direct evidence tying his client to the disappearance of Jessica Heeringa.

"We've heard evidence of Rebekah Bletsch getting shot from behind in June 2014, we know that there is a minor child that accused Willis of pointing a gun with an orange tip at her, none of these things have a connection to this disappearance of Jessica Heeringa," Hosticka said in court.

Hilson acknowledged the prosecution faces a tough road ahead as trials require a higher standard of proof for a conviction.

"A higher standard of proof, absolutely," he said. There’s going to be a lot more evidence we’re going to have to bring forward to show the jurors."

FOX 17s Doug Reardon and Josh Sidorowicz contributed to this report.