Mich. Man Kidnapped Young Mom From Her Gas Station Job and Murdered Her in 'Torture Sanctuary'
Jeffrey Willis was convicted of murdering both Jessica Heeringa and Rebekah Bletsch
A 47-year-old Michigan man who was already serving a life sentence for murder has been convicted of kidnapping and murdering a second young woman.
In court on Wednesday, Jeffrey Willis was convicted of the 2013 kidnapping and murder of Jessica Heeringa, who disappeared from an Exxon gas station where she worked. It took the jury nearly 12 hours to find Willis guilty of first-degree premeditated and felony murder and the sexually-motivated kidnapping of Heeringa.
On April 16, 2013, Heeringa, a 25-year-old mother of a 3-year-old boy, had been working the night shift at a gas station when a customer arrived at 11 p.m. and found the station abandoned. Heeringa’s purse and jacket were still in the gas station, but she was nowhere to be found.
One of the gas station managers told police that she was driving by the station when she noticed a suspicious silver van behind the building. She watched as a man drove the van away, but she didn’t know at the time that Heeringa was missing.
The case went cold, and for about three years, authorities had no leads.
On June 29, 2014, young mother Rebekah Bletsch was shot in the head while jogging. That case, too, went cold.
But in April 2016, authorities caught a break when a 16-year-old girl was walking home from a party. The girl said a man in a silver van asked her if she needed a ride. When she got into his van to use his phone, the man allegedly began to drive away and pulled a gun on her.
The girl jumped out of the moving van and called police to report the alleged attempted kidnapping.
Police pulled surveillance video and allegedly identified Willis’ van. They searched his home and found evidence that tied Willis to the alleged attempted kidnapping as well as to the murders of both Heeringa and Bletsch. (Willis faces trial in the girl’s attempted kidnapping later this year.)
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At Willis’ trial for Heeringa’s murder, detectives testified that they found a folder on Willis’ laptop entitled “VICS.” The folder included information related to both murders.
After Willis’ arrest, a court official told PEOPLE that investigators recovered bondage equipment from his van, including handcuffs, rope, chain, a bail gag and leather restraints. They also allegedly found lubricant and sex toys along with a handgun, syringes, insulin, gloves and Viagra.
The recovered gun became a significant part of the case against Willis for Heeringa’s murder. During the trial, Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson told jurors that the firearm in the van was linked to the kidnapping and the two murders.
Willis initially faced trial for the murder of Bletsch. He was convicted last November and sentenced to life in prison. He wept while the sentence was handed down.
During his murder trial in Heeringa’s death, Hilson, the prosecutor, contended that Willis abducted the woman from the gas station at approximately 11 p.m. Then, Hilson said, Willis brought Heeringa to his grandfather’s house where he sexually assaulted her before shooting her.
“It was a torture sanctuary where he could make his own videos,” Hilson said during closing statements, pointing out that thousands of torture videos were found on Willis’ computer.
Willis had pleaded not guilty to the charges. His defense attorney, Fred Johnson, suggested that the van seen behind the gas station actually belonged to someone who was buying drugs from Heeringa. Heeringa’s boyfriend had testified that she had used heroin.
In the end, the jury sided with the prosecution and found Willis guilty. He was escorted out of the courtroom. He will be sentenced later this month.
An attorney for Willis did not immediately return PEOPLE’s call for comment.