MUSKEGON, Mich. — Three and a half years after she vanished, the Muskegon County Prosecutor on Tuesday filed charges against a Norton Shores man for the murder of Jessica Heeringa.
D.J. Hilson made the announcement Tuesday morning.
Jeffrey Willis is charged with the kidnapping, with intent to sexually assault, and the murder of Heeringa, who was last seen working the overnight shift at a Norton Shores gas station in April 2013. Willis was arraigned Tuesday afternoon.
"In my opinion we’ve found Jessica’s killer," Hilson said.
Willis has been in custody since Spring, when he was arrested after allegedly abducting a 16-year-old girl. The girl got away and helped lead police to Willis. Willis's van was found to have an 'abduction kit' of restraints, sedatives and other equipment. He was also found to have a gun.
The gun was then traced to the 2014 murder of Rebekah Bletsch, also in Muskegon County. Willis has been charged in that crime, as well as abducting the teen.
Hilson said that investigators believe Heeringa died within 24 to 48 hours of being abducted from the Exxon gas station on Sternberg Road on the night of April 23, 2013. He did not go into further details on what lead the team to believe this, though said Willis' silver minivan was searched days after Heeringa was abducted and was not considered to be a suspect at the time.
"Mr. Willis, is a monster," Hilson said at the press conference. "What his total motivation was, that's only for him to say. Ultimately, I think this is part of who he was as a person."
None of Heeringa's relatives were in attendance at Tuesday's press conference. Hilson requested the family's privacy be respected, but said he had spoken with them prior to announcing the charges.
"They certainly have been going through a roller coaster of emotions over the last three years," he said.
“I will say that I think there was a sense of gratitude and gratefulness, but again, they are processing and digesting everything they’ve been told today.”
But several of Bletsch's relatives, including her father and sister, watched as the new charges were filed. Bletch's father expressed hope for Heeringa's family to be able to find peace in knowing justice is now being served.
"I am happy that there's resolution for that family," said Nick Winberg, Rebekah's father. "Personally, knowing all the pain that I've gone through and my family, I know they've gone through a mountain a pain and will continue to for a great while."
Kevin Bluhm, Willis's cousin, is also facing charges for being an accessory after the fact in the death of Heeringa, prosecutors announced Tuesday. The announcement came the same day Bluhm was set to be sentenced for lying to police during the investigation into Heeringa's disappearance, the murder of Bletsch and Willis' suspected involvement in each crime.
In June, Bluhm, a corrections officer at the time, told police he saw a 'blonde female' tied up and bound in the basement of a home once owned by Willis's grandfather.
He said Willis asked him to stop over there in late April 2013, the day after Heeringa disappeared.
Bluhm recalled the 'blonde female' wasn't moving and told detectives it appeared the woman was being video taped. He said he believed it was Jessica Heeringa and also admitted to helping Willis dispose of the woman's body.
Hilson said the decision to announce charges on the day of Bluhm's sentencing was no coincidence.
"It was important to us as investigators that Kevin Bluhm be held accountable for what we believe to be his participation in this particular crime," Hilson said. "I think a lot of us didn’t want to see him walk out before he was held accountable on that.”
Investigators have combed through Willis's Norton Shores home and the home of Willis's grandfather several times looking for clues. To this day, Heeringa's body has never been found.
"This team will not finish its responsibilities until that happens" Hilson said.
Hilson and Norton Shores Police Chief John Gale said investigators continue to pursue leads to find Heeringa's body.
"The investigation will not be complete until we have a conviction and until we bring Jessica home to her family," Gale said. "Today is just one step toward justice.”
Willis was denied bond and Hilson asked for a half-day for his upcoming preliminary hearing next month due to a high amount of evidence. Meanwhile, Bluhm was given a $250,000 bond cash or surety.
FOX 17 reporters Dana Chicklas and Josh Sidorowicz contributed to this report.