Teen who escaped Willis testifies as first witness in murder trial

Posted at 12:21 PM, May 08, 2018

MUSKEGON, Mich. - The trial of Jeffrey Willis is underway as the prosecution and defense made their opening statements about what they are going to present during the next couple of weeks.

Willis is accused of abducting and killing Jessica Heeringa from the Norton Shores gas station where she worked in April 2013.  Her body has never been found.

Willis was arrested in 2016 after allegedly trying to abduct a 16-year-old girl, identified by initials as MJN. After his arrest, investigators tied him to Heeringa's disappearance and the murder of another woman, Rebekah Bletsch, in 2014.  Willis has already been tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for Bletsch's murder.

The trial for Heeringa's murder started Tuesday morning after about a week of jury selection.

In his opening statements, Muskegon County Prosecutor DJ Hilson told the jury that even though they don't know the location of Heeringa's body, they will prove that she is dead and that Willis was responsible.  He says they'll show how Willis has a "serial killer's tool box" in his van with syringes, ball gags, rope, chains, a handgun and more.  He says he'll also prove that the van the MJN escaped from was the same van seen on surveillance video near the site where Heeringa disappeared.

Chief Public Defender Fred Johnson told jurors that they'll also hear about Heeringa's "tumultuous life" which includes heroin use.  He says that the witnesses to be called by the prosecution will have conflicting testimonies and that none of them ever saw Willis and Heeringa together.

MJN was the first witness called by Hilson. She told how she was walking home from a party the night before after sobering up.  Willis pulled up next to her in his silver van and offered help. She asked to use his cell phone and he let her get in the van, but then told her his cell phone was dead and started driving away.  She testified that Willis pulled a gun from under the front seat and pointed it at her, but she jumped out and ran to a nearby home and called 911.

Johnson, in his cross-examination, said that her story doesn't work out. He asked her why she didn't go back to the party location to use a phone instead of walking.

You can follow Dana Chicklas on Twitter throughout the trial.

After lunch, the first testimony came from Dawn Schmidt, the woman whose home MJN ran to after jumping from Willis' van. She testified that MJN was in hysterics and was even trying to hide while in her home.  The prosecutor also played the 911 call from MJN at Schmidt's home describing what was going on.

Much of the rest of the afternoon was testimony from law enforcement that started piecing together evidence found in Willis' van after his arrest to the murder of Bletsch and to being a suspect in Heeringa's disappearance. Surveillance video of Willis' van was replayed from the time of her disappearance.  Also, investigators testified to the tool box found in Willis' van with handcuffs and bondage materials, syringes, insulin and the handgun.  They also testified to finding a pair of women's underwear, wrapped in foil, in Willis' shed at his home.

Meanwhile, Jessica Heeringa's mother, who maintains the Find Jessica Heeringa Facebook page, maintains that Jessica is still alive.