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Courts Grand Haven Tribune alert Jeffrey Willis Jessica Heeringa

Jeffrey Willis listens during a court hearing on Jan. 26, 2018.

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Day 1 of Heeringa trial: bullets, 911 call, victim testimony Kayla Fortney/WZZM-TV • May 8, 2018 at 7:27 PM

MUSKEGON — Opening statements are in the books for one of the most followed murder cases in Muskegon County's history.

Jeffrey Willis, 48, is on trial for the kidnapping and murder of Jessica Heeringa. She was last seen working at a gas station in Norton Shores on April 26, 2013.

Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson spent the first hour of the day giving jurors what he called a "roadmap" of the days ahead. He mentioned many witnesses who will be taking the stand — including, but not limited to, Heeringa's then-fiance and the father of her child, multiple detectives, sergeants and investigators, Willis' coworkers, now-ex-wife, and patrons of the gas station Heeringa was abducted from.

Hilson wrapped up by saying, "Even without a body in this case, the evidence will show that Jessica died at the hands of (Jeffrey Willis)."

Following Hilson's opening statement, defense attorney Fred Johnson was quick to say he would not take the same amount of time. Instead, Johnson's opening statement was only a few minutes. He told jurors that when this case is over, they won't know any more about Heeringa's disappearance than they do right now.

"I believe you will have information that will paint (Willis) as an ugly person, but you will not have evidence that he kidnapped or killed Jessica Heeringa," Johnson said.

The first witness called to the stand was the teenager Willis allegedly tried to kidnap in the early morning of April 16, 2016. Although the girl referred to as MJN is 18 now, she was 16 at the time of the incident.

Hilson asked MJN what she was doing on the night of April 15. She said she was at a party where she was drinking and smoking marijuana. She said she was there all night, for many hours. By the time she was ready to leave, there were only a few people left.

MJN told Hilson she asked one of the friends if she could go home. They went to the other friend's car to find him asleep inside with the doors locked. After unsuccessfully trying to wake him up, MJN decided to walk home alone. She told Hilson she thought she was only a 10- to 15-minute walk from home. After what she calls a few hours of walking, a silver van approached her with the passenger-side window rolled down.

MJN told Hilson the driver asked her if she needed a lift. Having seen a cellphone on the passenger seat, she asked if she could instead use his phone. He told her if she got in the car, she could use his phone.

Once inside, the doors locked and the window rolled up. Johnson asked MJN if she saw the driver, now identified as the defendant, Jeffrey Willis, lock the doors and roll up the window, or if the car automatically did it. She told Johnson she did not see Willis lock the doors or roll up the window. She also added that when she asked Willis to roll the window back down, he did.

Now inside the van, MJN asked to use Willis' phone. Without handing the phone over, he told her it was dead. She said she asked him to stop so she could get out. She told Johnson that Willis did slow down, but that it wasn't slow enough to get out safely. Moments later, she recalled Willis pulling a gun out from underneath his seat. Now feeling scared for her life, MJN unlocked the door and jumped out of the moving van.

The prosecutor showed several photos of MJN's injuries from the hospital. Her forearm, shoulder and backside were all badly scraped and bruised. She said when she exited the vehicle she fell down and rolled before getting up and running away.

While running, MJN said she turned around to see Willis standing at the back of his van pointing a gun at her. She remembers yelling, "Don't shoot me."

She ran to the nearest home, where Dawn Schmitt was outside. She recalled telling Schmitt that someone was after her and she needed help. Once inside, Schmitt said MJN was terrified and would not calm down. She said she tried to hide under her bed.

Then she called 911. The audio from that call was played in court.

The next witness called to testify was Deputy Jeff Blackmer. He was the responding officer to Schmitt's house on April 16. He explained that MJN was shaking, almost hyperventilating and bleeding when he arrived.

After speaking with Blackmer, MJN was taken to an area hospital. That's when Blackmer went to the scene she described and found what appeared to be the spot she jumped out of the van. Nearby were her shoes and a .22-round on the road.

The next person called by the state was Detective Matt Schultz of the Muskegon County Sheriff's Department. He was assigned the lead investigator in MJN's case.

Schultz explained that when he visited the scene, he found a second .22-round, likely in the spot Blackmer's patrol cruiser was parked during his first visit.

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