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Jury finds Willis guilty

Emma Nicolas/WZZM-TV • May 16, 2018 at 6:48 PM

MUSKEGON — A Muskegon County jury has found Jeffrey Willis guilty in the 2013 abduction and murder of a Norton Shores gas station clerk whose body has never been found.

Jurors deliberated for about 90 minutes late Wednesday afternoon before finding Willis guilty in the death of Jessica Heeringa, whose disappearance more than five years ago garnered national headlines.

Willis, 48, showed no emotion as the verdicts were read at 6:41 p.m. He now faces mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Willis is already serving a mandatory life term for the June 2014 murder of Rebekah Bletsch, who was fatally shot while jogging in Muskegon County’s Dalton Township. He was convicted of her murder late last year.

Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson told jurors that Willis had computer files containing information about Bletsch and Heeringa. Although Heeringa's body has not been found, Hilson said there was ample evidence to convict Willis in her death.

Defense attorney Fred Johnson said there was no evidence Willis killed or kidnapped Heeringa, a 25-year-old single mother the public defender described as “living a tumultuous life.”

Both the prosecution and defense rested their cases Wednesday, May 16. Willis did not testify and no defense witnesses were called.

Final day of testimony

Willis wrote down questions for Johnson to ask the prosecution's final witness, Lt. Michael Kasher of the Norton Shores Police Department, on Wednesday. The issue led to a brief removal of the jury.

Johnson divulged that Willis was directing him to ask a line of questioning that did not align with his defense strategy. Judge William Marietti asked Willis if he realized that Johnson would not be responsible for what came of his questioning.

The room went possibly the most quiet it had been all morning, given the amount of people in it, as Willis piped up saying, “I understand.” With that, the jury was brought back in and Johnson carried on with his cross-examination, asking a line of Willis' own questions, unbeknownst to the jurors.

Johnson asked Kasher, the lead detective in the Heeringa case, if he remembered what Willis said regarding the gun and underwear found in his possession, which both belonged to his co-worker at Herman Miller, Michelle Schnotala. Kasher said Willis told law enforcement that Schnotala sold him the Walther P-22 for $150, and that the underwear was just part of a running joke between the two.

Both claims were denied by Schnotala during her testimony last week.

Johnson then handed two “word-for-word” police reports provided by Sgt. Todd Baker and Cpl. Chris Hare the day they initially investigated the first and only tip that ever came in regarding to Willis.

Johnson continued to pursue questions regarding the possible plagiarism of the reports. Kasher insisted that this was normal, but did concede that had the reports been copied that would be against procedure.

Once the jury was released for a lunch break, Johnson motioned for a directed verdict of not guilty, citing a lack of evidence. The judge denied the motion after listing his reasons for how a “reasonable trier” would be able to convict Willis of kidnapping and open murder. The most damning evidence, in Marietti's opinion, was the laser light cover from the Walther P-22 found outside the Exxon station along with a blood stain from Heeringa.

"That puts him (Willis) in the bull’s eye of circumstantial evidence," Marietti said.

Hilson led jurors along the entire path of his case, from the first witness to last. He drove home the point that Willis had an affinity with this type of killing.

"Ultimately, they all end the same way, they end up dead," Hilson said about the downloaded videos found on Willis' computer hard drives. "Willis was fascinated by toolbox serial killers."

Johnson started his closing argument by shouting “Lights on, lights off!” — referring to the light outside the Exxon station where Heeringa worked.

"When you're buying heroin, you'd turn the lights off so nobody can see what you're doing," the defense attorney said.

Johnson proposed the jurors with a number of theories: Jessica overdosed or she ran away on purpose.

People in the gallery began to shake their heads, including Jessica Josephson, the sister of Rebekah Bletsch, but the jurors remained engaged.

“Maybe, she's in Alaska,” Johnson said.

The jurors went into deliberation shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, after receiving extensive instructions on their verdict options from the judge. They returned from deliberation to ask the judge a question: “Were the lights on or off at the Exxon station when crews first arrived on scene?”

"I cannot answer that for you," Marietti told the jurors. He told them that it was up to them to make decisions based on the evidence presented to them.

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