ONE YEAR LATER: Cops release details after W. Mich mom Jessica Heeringa taken from gas station

(WXYZ) - Jessica Herringa is a daughter, a sister and a mom. It will be a year this week since she disappeared from a quiet little town near Muskegon. And maybe the person who misses her most is her son, who’s now four.

Police have chased down nearly 3,000 tips in the past year.  But detectives are still missing some very important information in this mystery – a mystery that all began with a phone call.

911 Call: “Muskegon 911 what’s your emergency?”
Caller: “I’m at the Exxon gas station on Sternberg Road… and there’s nobody here! I just walked inside, there’s nobody!”

“The officers that went in initially found no signs of any struggle. There’s nothing tipped over, the back door was locked and latched,” said Norton Shores Police Chief Daniel Shaw.  Police in the small community were baffled.

Where was the clerk?  Where was Jessica Lynn Herringa?

The 25-year-old mom from nearby Muskegon was last seen at 10:52 pm on April 26, 2013.  That’s the time of Heeringa’s last cash register sale inside Exxon station. 

At the time, the gas station had no security cameras.  Now police have released photos taken just after officers arrived on the scene.  In them, you can see Heeringa’s leather coat and purse -- left inside the gas station’s back room.  Her car keys, $420 in cash, and her ID were all there. 

Officers also found a garbage can by the back door, as if Jessica had been getting ready to take the trash out as she closed the store.

“Is there any doubt in your mind that this was an abduction,” asked 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.
“Absolutely not,” said Chief Shaw.

A big reason he thinks that: Heeringa’s 4-year-old son, Zevyn.

“Her son meant everything to her, that’s one of the reasons why we don’t think she just walked away from the store and left everything behind,” said Shaw.

Right around 11:00 that night, a couple riding by on motorcycles noticed that a minivan had pulled in behind the gas station.  It caught their attention because the driver suddenly turned the vehicle’s lights off.

But by the time they could turn around to check out the mini-van, it was already parked by the Exxon station’s back door.

“They saw a male figure behind the van with the hatch of the van, was open.  The person shut the van door, and then opened it really quickly, and then acted like they were moving something, like something got caught in that door.  And then shut the van door again,” said Shaw.

The husband noticed the silver van was a Chrysler Town and Country, the wife got a good look at the driver and helped police create a suspect sketch (see description below).
They didn’t realize till much later that they may have seen the abduction in progress and never got a license plate, but their information did help police track down this video of the van moments after it could have left the gas station.

Ominously, officers later found a 2 by 3 inch section of Jessica’s blood on the pavement behind the gas station.

“I do think that she was taken by somebody that she knew.  I’m hoping and praying that she’s just abducted, where she’s being held against her will at this point,” said Shaw.

“Everybody’s looking for you and we’re going to bring you home,” said Shelly Heeringa, Jessica’s mom, last year.

From helicopter searches to dive teams scouring Lake Muskegon, police say they’ve used every resource available in their efforts to find the missing mother.

In the last year since Jessica vanished, police in Norton Shores say they’ve executed 32 search warrants on people’s cell phones and computers.  Another search warrant even brought detectives to Southeast Michigan, and the chief says they’ve also conducted at least 20 searches where people have agreed to let police inspect their phones or other property.

“We are missing a few pieces of the puzzle to put this all together…  We need the few pieces that lead up to the actual abduction.  We need to know whether or not that van was actually involved, or just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Chief Shaw. “We want to solve this for the family.”

While Jessica’s fiancé and a reported boyfriend were among about 12 persons of interest who have been scrutinized, police say they are no longer the focus of their case. They’ve narrowed it down to about four potential suspects – people either connected to Jessica’s past or customers at the store.

Jessica’s fiancé is now raising their son, and her whole family is hoping for answers. The reward for information in this case has grown to more than $15,000.

 

Investigators are still requesting that anyone who may have witnessed or has knowledge of Jessica’s abduction to contact the Norton Shores Police Department (231-733-2691) or Silent Observer (231-72-CRIME).

Below is an amended and expanded timeline constructed based on the investigation to date:

April 26, 2013
2:44 pm: JESSICA purchased groceries at Aldi, 2715 Henry Street.

4:35 pm: JESSICA begins her shift at the Exxon store.
• JESSICA was aware the store did not have video cameras, as she had advised customers of this and the fact she was working alone.
• She was not worried about the lack of cameras.
• It was not uncommon for JESSICA to prop open the rear door and turn off the store’s rear security light
so she could smoke cigarettes behind the store or allow friends to enter via the rear door.

7:30 – 8:15 pm: JESSICA’s reported boyfriend arrived at the Exxon station in a work vehicle, a silver full-size van. The two reportedly had a discussion regarding their relationship.
• A customer advised that JESSICA appeared to be upset after the conversation with the male subject.

7:40 – 8:50 pm: A female friend entered the store through the front door to visit JESSICA. Nothing suspicious was noticed at that time.
• Both the female friend and a male customer, observed a bluish silver van pull up to JESSICA while she was changing the receipt paper in one of the pumps. It appeared that the male driver and JESSICA were having a friendly conversation.

10:55 pm: A female customer entered the store and purchased a lighter. She advised that JESSICA was alone in the store and did not appear to be nervous or distressed. The customer did not see anyone in the store or in the parking lot.

11:00 pm (apx.): An Exxon manager and her husband were riding their motorcycles eastbound on Sternberg Road.
• She saw a silver minivan slowly enter the north drive of the Exxon station from the service drive of the Points Mall.
• The van drove behind the Exxon station, did a u-turn and extinguished its headlights as it pulled behind the store facing west.
• The manager suspected JESSICA may be in the process of stealing from Exxon, so she turned around on Harvey Street to return to the store.
• The manager and her husband drove to the Points Mall, west of the Exxon station, and parked in the lot with a view of the north and west sides of the Exxon station.

• The minivan was parked on the north side of the Exxon station.
• There were no other vehicles in the lot except for JESSICA’s.
• The manager saw a figure standing at the rear of the van and noticed the van’s rear hatch was open.
• The figure shut the rear hatch and quickly opened it again.
• It appeared as though the figure was adjusting something in the rear of the van, and then closed the hatch again.
• She noted that the figures head was just above the roof of the van.
• The figure then walked to the driver’s door, got into the van and began driving westbound on the service drive.
• The manager made the following observations:

o The store’s rear security light was not on.
o The store’s rear door did not open at any time.
o She never saw a struggle or heard anyone yell for help.
o She did not see JESSICA outside of the store.

• As the van drove closer to their location in the parking lot, the manager and her husband started their motorcycles and pulled up to the service drive.
• As the van passed, she looked at the driver, a male subject wearing a red or orange sweatshirt.

o Her husband stated that he did not see the subject well, but did see that he had “crazy” or wavy hair.
o Neither of them saw JESSICA or anyone else in the van.

• The manager and her husband pulled onto the service drive and followed the van until it stopped at Grand Haven Road.

o The manager’s husband stated that he was positive the van was a Chrysler Town and Country van, silver in color, as it was the same type a relative owned (Note: This vehicle was located and was in Traverse City, MI at the time of the abduction).
o He clearly remembered the town and country logo on the rear hatch door.
o Neither obtained the license plate number, as they had no reason to believe a crime had occurred.

• The van turned northbound on Grand Haven Road, while the manager and her husband turned southbound on Grand Haven Road and went home.

11:02 pm: Surveillance video from inside of a closed store in the Points Mall captured a silver minivan turning northbound onto Grand Haven Road.

11:03 pm: Surveillance video from the Homestead Tavern captured a silver minivan driving northbound on Grand Haven Road.

11:05 pm: Surveillance video from the Coin Zone captured a silver minivan driving northbound on Grand Haven Road.

11:10 pm (apx): A male customer arrived at the gas station, pulled up to the pump and attempted to purchase gasoline. He but was unable to do so as the pump would not activate.
• When the pump did not activate, he entered the store believing that the clerk (JESSICA) may have been in the back room and not aware of his presence at the pump. He was unable to locate JESSICA.
• Upon exiting the store, he spoke with a female customer and called 9-1-1.
11:15 PM: Patrol units are dispatched to Exxon, 1196 E Sternberg Rd., Norton Shores, regarding a suspicious situation.

11:25 PM: The first officer arrives and begins investigation.
• Officers searched the store but did not locate JESSICA.
• Officers located JESSICA’s purse and jacket in the back room. The purse contained $420 in cash.

(SEE PHOTO IN SLIDESHOW ABOVE)

• Officers noted a cash drawer on top of the safe in the back room.
• Officers found the back door closed and latched and there was a trash can in front of the door, as if JESSICA was preparing to empty the trash.

(SEE PHOTO IN SLIDESHOW ABOVE)

NOTE: The door propped open by officers.
• Officers noted that nothing inside the store indicated a struggle. There was nothing that appeared to be disturbed.
• Officers exited the rear door and noted that the door did not have a handle on the outside.
• Officers located items of possible evidence outside the rear door, including what appeared to be a 2”x3” blood stain on the concrete (The blood was later determined by DNA analysis to be from JESSICA).
• Officers photographed the interior and exterior of the store and evidence items prior to collection.
• Officers collected a sample of the possible blood stain and packaged the other evidence items.

11.38 PM: Exxon owner was contacted regarding the open store. He in turn contacted the dayshift manager to respond as she lives closer to the store.

11:50 PM: The dayshift manager arrives at the Exxon station and provides officers with her observations of the silver minivan and its driver.
• The manager advised that the cash drawer was “counted down” for the next shift, indicating JESSICA was preparing the close the store.
• While talking to officers, the manager observed JESSICA’s reported boyfriend drive past the store in a work vehicle. He was contacted to come to the Exxon station and was questioned by officers.

12:38 AM: K9 team requested to search area.
• A search of the area north and east of the store was conducted with nil results.

Jessica Heeringa is described as: white female, 5’1 tall, 110 lbs., blond shoulder length hair, blue eyes

The suspect in the van is described as: white male, approximately 30-40 years old, 6 feet tall with a medium to heavy build; he had light brown or sandy blond wavy hair which was parted down the middle and it was slightly longer on top; he was wearing a bright red or orange sweatshirt.

 

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