Late one April evening, a man parks outside a gas station in Michigan. Inside, he finds the place deserted. The young woman working the night shift alone has disappeared without a trace. Then, police spot CCTV footage of a silver minivan driving away from the scene. Could this mystery vehicle provide a clue to Jessica Heeringa’s ultimate fate?
On April 26, 2013, 25-year-old Heeringa was working at an ExxonMobil gas station in Norton Shores, MI. At the time, she was living with her fiancé Dakotah Quail-Dyer in Muskegon, some five miles away. The couple’s three-year-old son, Zevyn, shared their rented home.
According to Heeringa’s mother, the young woman had experienced a troubled past. However, she was apparently trying to change her life for the better and was a good mom to Zevyn. As the family’s main breadwinner, she didn’t make much money, but she was always trying to do her best for her son.
By all accounts, Heeringa was a friendly and popular employee. So, when a regular customer dropped by on the evening of April 25, 2013, and found her out of sorts, she suspected that something was wrong. The woman, concerned about Heeringa’s safety alone in the station at night, parked outside until closing time.
That night, Heeringa got home safely. Unfortunately, the next day she was not so lucky. On the evening of April 26, Heeringa was again working at the gas station alone. And just before 11pm, she rang up the sale of a cigarette lighter on the till. But what happened next may never be fully known.
Around 11:00 p.m., an Exxon manager drove past the station with her husband. Apparently, they spotted a man acting strangely by a silver minivan, opening and shutting the rear hatch. After repeating this action several times, the man drove away.
In the following minutes, surveillance cameras belonging to businesses near the gas station picked up a similar vehicle driving away from the scene. Unfortunately, the station did not have its own security camera – something that has certainly contributed to the uncertainty about what really took place that night.
At around 11:10 p.m., a man pulled into the station and attempted to purchase some gas. But when he entered, he found the building empty. Somehow, Heeringa had disappeared. The man alerted the authorities, and police arrived on the scene just before 11:30 p.m.
As the police investigated, Heeringa’s disappearance began to take on a sinister tone. Her jacket, purse and cigarettes had all been left behind, suggesting that she did not leave of her own accord. Moreover, Heeringa’s car was still parked outside the station.
Could something have happened to Heeringa during a robbery gone wrong? Police soon decided that this was unlikely, as her wallet still contained $400. Also, no money had been taken from the cash register. Instead, they began to suspect that Heeringa had been kidnapped.
Outside the gas station, police made another disconcerting discovery. Alarmingly, they found a puddle of blood on the ground, along with gun accessories nearby. All of this pointed to something terrible having happened to Heeringa – but it would be years before anyone would know the truth.
When DNA tests proved that the blood belonged to Heeringa, a massive police investigation commenced. For more than three years, a task force of 75 people attempted to solve the mystery of the young woman’s disappearance. In fact, everyone from behavioral sciences specialists to intelligence analysts were consulted, all in the hope that they could shed some light on the case.
In total, some 12,000 man hours were dedicated to finding out what happened that night. Over the course of the investigation, police followed up 1,400 tips and examined 12 areas of ground, as well as conducting two underwater searches. They also inspected 53 private residences, with 33 of those being the subject of an executed warrant.
Over time, more facts about the night that Heeringa disappeared came to light. According to one witness, an unidentified man had been flirting with Heeringa shortly before she went missing. He was described as Caucasian, in his 30s, around 6 feet tall – and the owner of a silver minivan.
Although police used the witness’s description to draw up a sketch of the man, they were unable to track him down. Then, in May 2016 factory worker Jeffrey Willis was taken into custody. He had attempted to kidnap a 16-year-old girl, but she had escaped and alerted police.
Shortly afterwards, Willis was also charged with the June 2014 murder of Rebekah Sue Bletsch, who had been shot in Dalton Township, Michigan. Around the same time, investigators noticed that he bore a striking resemblance to the only suspect in Heeringa’s case. What’s more, he drove a similar minivan.
As police looked closer at Willis, their suspicions grew. Apparently, he was a regular customer at the Exxon gas station where Heeringa worked. Furthermore, his colleagues reported that he had failed to show up for work on the night of her death.
This was enough for police to attain a search warrant for Willis’s home and vehicle. Once inside the minivan, they found a pistol and a knife, plus ammunition, syringes and video recorders. And there was worse to come. In Willis’ house, investigators uncovered evidence of child pornography and an obsession with serial killers, as well as a list of women’s telephone numbers.
Most damningly, investigators also found a file on Willis’s computer entitled “VICS.” Inside were images of Heeringa, along with photographs of the recently murdered Bletsch. On December 12, 2016, prosecutor D.J. Hilston argued that this evidence was enough to prove that Jessica was dead. The following day, a judge ruled that Willis was to stand trial for murder.
Currently, a date has yet to be set for Willis trial. And despite the authorities’ considerable efforts, Heeringa’s body has never been found. Meanwhile, a new bill known as Jessica’s Law is being debated in Michigan. If passed, gas stations will have to provide better security for employees working late at night. For Heeringa, however, the development seems to have come too late.