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Woman testifies about kidnapping of Jessica Heeringa

Emma Nicolas/WZZM-TV • May 10, 2018 at 8:27 PM

MUSKEGON — Jurors on Thursday heard from the woman who believes she saw the kidnapping of Jessica Heeringa, a Muskegon County store clerk who went missing five years ago, allegedly at the hands of Jeffrey Willis.

Heeringa went missing April 26, 2013, from a Norton Shores convenience store where she worked. Willis is on trial for her abduction and murder, even though the 25-year-old woman's body has never been found.

Susan Follett testified that she caught a brief glimpse of a man driving a silver minivan away from the gas station on the night of Heeringa’s disappearance. Follett testified that the man had “pretty hair” with “blonde highlights” — a description that does not align with Willis’ current head of hair.

But Janis Horton, Willis’ hairdresser of 14 years, said she had highlighted his hair before. Horton said she could not remember if she highlighted Willis’ hair during 2013, but she does remember a change in his personality that year.

Unlike most of the prosecution’s witnesses thus far, Horton had not taken the stand prior to Thursday.

Follett has taken the stand several times, including during the trial that led to Willis’ conviction for the murder of Rebekah Bletsch.

Follett worked at the same ExxonMobil station where Heeringa worked, but their paths rarely crossed. The night Heeringa disappeared, Follett was out riding motorcycles with her now ex-husband, Eric Barber, who testified at the trial on Wednesday. They rode past the gas station and noticed a silver minivan around the back of the store.

“I felt that something wasn’t right,” Follett testified.

They turned their bikes around and pulled into a nearby lot to get a better look at the van and the driver.

Follett broke into a sob as Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson asked her if she ever thought to get the van's license plate. She replied, “No.”

In cross-examination, defense attorney Fred Johnson reassured Follett that she should feel no guilt for what happened to Heeringa.

"People do blame me for not seeing enough,” Follett said with a shaky voice.

Johnson asked why Follett didn’t just drive into the store parking lot to see what was going on.

“I thought she (Heeringa) was taking product and it wasn't my place,'' Follett responded. "I wasn't a manager.”

On Wednesday, Dakotah Quail-Dyer, the father of Heeringa’s young son, testified that Heeringa had stolen from the store in the past.

One of the first officers to reach the gas station on the night Heeringa went missing said there was no indication of a struggle or disruption inside the building. But outside the back door, Cpl. Joel Hoeksema found a blood stain, which a DNA specialist later confirmed came from Heeringa. Also found was a battery cover similar to one that would have been on the Walther P22 handgun found in Willis’ possession.

Gary Foster, who owns Gary's Guns, confirmed that Michelle Schnotala, Willis' co-worker, purchased a Walther P22 with a laser sight from his store.

Michigan State Police DNA specialist David Hayhurst was on the stand for several hours on Thursday. Most of his testimony mirrored what was provided during the Bletsch murder trial in October 2017.

None of the items Hayhurst analyzed, including various sex toys and two pairs of underwear found in Willis' possession, contained Heeringa's DNA. One pair of underwear tested positive for DNA from both Schnotala and Willis. Other items, including a ball gag and a video camera, had Willis' DNA on them, Hayhurt testified.

Under cross-examination, Hayhurst explained there was no way to determine how long Heeringa's blood had been outside the gas station.

Michelle Schmitt, a DNA specialist who also testified in the Bletsch murder trial, took the stand next. She said Bletsch's DNA was found on a sex toy and on the exterior of a Reebok glove, both of which were found in Willis' possession.

Schmitt said Willis' DNA can't be excluded from the battery cover, but said test results were inconclusive. DNA from Heeringa and Kevin Bluhm, who is Willis' cousin, can be excluded from the battery cover.

Johnson worked to make the point that other DNA results could be labeled as “uninformative.”

The prosecution called a total of 25 witnesses to the stand over the past three days.

The trial will resume at 1:30 p.m. Friday. The prosecution is expected to call additional witnesses, including Willis' ex-wife.

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