Teen’s daring escape may help solve 2 cold cases

Jeffrey Willis, 46, of Muskegon Township, a married

Jeffrey Willis, 46, of Muskegon Township, a married factory worker with no criminal history who landed behind bars after allegedly kidnapping the 16-year-old girl last month while she was walking along a rural road in the North Muskegon area.

MUSKEGON, Mich. — Jeffrey Willis often played Frisbee with his dog in the mornings outside his western Michigan home, where a sign reading: “WELCOME TO OUR PORCH” hung next to the brightly painted yellow front door.

635994459846808620-Willis-051916-ac-01.JPG

But behind the cheery door were dark images of child porn and videos of women bound, taped and gagged, which investigators say they discovered last week.

On Tuesday, Willis was arrested as he returned from his job working overnights at a furniture manufacturer. He’s accused of kidnapping a 16-year-old girl on April 16 in rural Muskegon County. She had escaped, telling police she jumped from a minivan.

Detectives scoured the area looking for clues that would help them find the minivan and driver. Their sleuthing led to Willis and officials say evidence from their investigation and searches of property has made him a suspect in two other unsolved crimes.

Last month, the 16-year-old victim, who has not been identified by the Detroit Free Press, was abducted while she was walking from a party. She jumped from the moving van and and ran bloody and barefoot yelling for help.

“Based on the efforts of this brave girl, and the efforts of law enforcement, we were able to put together a case and put a very, very dangerous man behind bars,” said Muskegon County Prosecutor DJ Hilson. “Not only is she about the greatest girl that I know. But she could turn out to be a hero.”

Muskegon map

The teen’s grandmother told the Free Press the incident has been “like a horror movie. … Thank God she jumped out and ran.”

Officials say they’re investigating potential links between Willis and the disappearance three years ago of Jessica Heeringa, a 25-year-old gas station clerk who mysteriously vanished from her job late at night, and the killing of 36-year-old Rebekah Bletsch, who was shot in the head as she jogged about two years ago during daylight hours.

Grainy surveillance footage of a silver minivan seen in the area when Heeringa disappeared is a major clue in the young mother’s 2013 disappearance.

And investigators are now testing a .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol found during their search last week to see whether it matches the gun used to kill Bletsch.

Willis hasn’t talked to authorities since he was taken into custody, and his home, van and another property, once owned by his grandfather on Bailey Street in Norton Shores, were searched for evidence.

Muskegon County Undersheriff Daniel Stout said the evidence seized makes Willis a suspect in Heeringa’s disappearance and Bletsch’s homicide, but he would not reveal specifically what investigators found that led them to that conclusion.

“The weapon is a similar model that would have shot the bullets in the Bletsch case,” Stout said. “Similar … but similar is a big word.”

Hundreds of items, including computers, multiple phones, clothes and documents, are being analyzed along with evidence recovered from the van, including the pistol.

Investigators say they found locked boxes when they searched Willis’ 2006 silver Dodge Grand Caravan. Officials said one had handcuffs, chains, rope, five syringes — including one with liquid, possibly a sedative — photographs of females chained and bound, a mask and rubber gloves and another had a gun with the serial number destroyed.

As police continue to investigate, Willis is behind bars and charged with kidnapping, felonious assault and felony firearm possession. He is being held on a $1-million bond. The county’s public defender’s office, representing Willis, did not return messages left by the Free Press.

Dawn Schmitt was drinking coffee on her deck around 9:15 a.m. on April 16 when she heard the teen screaming.

“Help! Help! He’s got a gun!” the girl yelled. “He’s got a gun!”

Schmitt, 53, opened her door just enough to get the 16-year-old inside, took her into a bedroom, locked the door and called 911. She tried to calm down the hysterical girl, who had left her shoes behind where she jumped out of the van near the intersection of West River Road and North Weber Road.

She ran down the road barefoot and up my driveway barefoot,” Schmitt said.

Deputies said the teen left a party, got lost in a rural area of Muskegon County and a man in a silver minivan rolled up and said she could use his cellphone. The teen got in the vehicle, and then the driver locked the doors, rolled up the windows and pulled out a handgun.

She was able to escape from the moving van. The driver stopped the van and also got out, pointing the handgun at her, a court document said.

The girl’s memory of her attacker’s face and vehicle would eventually lead investigators to Willis.

Detectives with the Muskegon County Sheriff’s Office canvassed the area near the kidnapping and discovered surveillance video from a parking lot. They believed it showed the van in question.

Deputies worked with state and federal officials to identify the owners of similar looking vans, narrowing down the list from thousands.

The teen also picked Willis from a photo lineup. “As they were setting them down, the victim went, that’s him … immediately,” Stout, the Muskegon County undersheriff, said.

As evidence is tested, a process that could take weeks, a team of more than two dozen people are following up on leads in western Michigan.

“Hopefully, from the interviews, the follow-up and the forensic evidence, we can tie him to these other two cases,” Stout said.

Bletsch was killed on June 29, 2014, in Muskegon County. Investigators had no leads or motive.

Heeringa vanished from her job at the Exxon Mobil gas station on East Sternberg Road in Norton Shores on April 26, 2013.  A witness saw a silver minivan pulling up to the gas station near closing time.

Initially, the only connection that made Willis a potential suspect in the teen’s abduction was the van he drove.

Besides about a dozen traffic cases dating back decades for speeding and other violations, several of which were dismissed, and a dog at large case, his criminal record is clean.

But he has had contact with police over the years and was fired from his job as a custodian with Fruitport Community schools in 1999 for accessing pornography on a school computer and exposing a student to the material, records obtained by the Free Press show.

Willis was once questioned by police in 2007 for allegedly videotaping people in a Sam’s Club parking lot, records show, though he was never arrested.

And police had been to his home three times for domestic incidents and twice for animal complaints over the last seven years.

His next-door neighbor, a day care operator, said she had a strained relationship with Willis, but noticed his demeanor change in the last month.

“He wouldn’t wave anymore,” Michelle Macomber said. “We’d pull in. He’d put his head down or look the other way.”

Kasey Davis, 24, lives a few doors down from Willis with her young children and said she was “shocked” to learn of his arrest. She has been following Heeringa’s case closely and said she met the gas station clerk with her husband, just days before the woman went missing.

She made our day,” Davis said of Heeringa, recalling how she gave them free donuts on their one-year anniversary.

The Norton Shores Police Department is leading the investigation on Heeringa’s disappearance. Officials with the department did not return a message Friday.

The Muskegon County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the teen’s abduction and Bletsch’s death. Stout said they haven’t found any ties to those two and Willis.

Meanwhile, the family of the 16-year-old teen said what happened is the type of thing that “happens to somebody else.”

“This doesn’t seem real,” the girl’s grandmother said of what her granddaughter went through. “She’s very smart and thank God … she’s still alive.”

Sharing is caring