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Michigan man who abducted teen girl probed in cold cases

New York Daily News New York Daily News 23/05/2016 TOBIAS SALINGER
Jeffery Willis is a person of interest in the disappearance of Jessica Heeringa © Fox News Jeffery Willis is a person of interest in the disappearance of Jessica Heeringa

A Western Michigan man who tried to kidnap a 16-year-old girl in his van may be linked with two years-old unsolved cases, prosecutors said Monday.

The teen escaped Jeffrey Willis’ Dodge minivan and managed to run away in April, helping investigators to identify and arrest Willis, 46, last week, according to police reports cited by WOOD-TV. Detectives said they later found a .22-caliber semi-automatic pistol, five syringes and pictures of women chained and bound in the van.

Investigators are now examining whether Willis was involved in the 2013 disappearance of Jessica Heeringa and the 2014 murder of Rebekah Bletsch, Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson told the Daily News.

“All I can really tell you is that investigators are certainly following any information that leads them into other investigations,” Hilson said. “I cannot say with certainty that there is any connection with these other cases.”

Willis faces charges of kidnapping, assault with a dangerous weapon and use of a firearm in a felony after his arraignment Wednesday, Hilson noted.

The latest twist in the case follows the discovery of the gun, handcuffs, ropes, chains, a mask, rubber gloves, batting gloves, a bar with wrist restraints and a ball gag in lockboxes inside the silver 2006 Grand Caravan, according to arresting documents cited by MLive. Detectives also found a thumb drive with child and bondage porn in his Muskegon Township home, police said.

The 16-year-old girl ran up to a home screaming for help getting away from a man with a gun on April 16 around 9:15 a.m., according to police records obtained by the Detroit Free Press. Police said she then pointed investigators to her abductor from a photo lineup.

“Based on the efforts of this brave girl, and the efforts of law enforcement, we were able to put together a case and put a very, very dangerous man behind bars,” Hilson told the newspaper. “Not only is she about the greatest girl that I know. But she could turn out to be a hero.”

Phone calls to Willis’ home were not immediately returned Monday. The lawyer from the Muskegon County Public Defender’s Office representing him declined to discuss the case.

Both earlier cases happened near Muskegon in other towns near the coast of Lake Michigan. A silver minivan drove away from a Norton Shores gas station around the same time the 25-year-old mother Heeringa went missing in April 2013, police said at the time.

And Muskegon County Undersheriff Daniel Stout told the Free Press the gun found in Willis’ van may match the one used to kill the 36-year-old mother of two Bletsch as she went jogging in Dalton Township in June 2014.

“The weapon is a similar model that would have shot the bullets in the Bletsch case. Similar … but 'similar' is a big word,” Stout said. “Hopefully, from the interviews, the follow-up and the forensic evidence, we can tie him to these other two cases.”

Other records cited by WOOD-TV showed Willis lost his custodian job at a local elementary school in 1999 after administrators caught him looking at porn on a school computer. He was working as an overnight employee at a furniture factory at the time of his arrest.

Michelle Macomber, Willis' neighbor, told the TV station he "creeps out" her children.

"We had trouble with him, we went to court," Macomber said. "He'd walk up and down with a camera and take pictures inside of our windows."

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