NORTON SHORES (WWJ) – Police investigating the disappearance of a 25-year-old mother from her job at a western Michigan gas station nearly a year ago are issuing a fresh appeal for tips in the case.
Norton Shores police Chief Dan Shaw issued a statement Thursday on the search for Jessica Heeringa, saying efforts to find her continue.
“We have not received or discovered the necessary information leading us to Jessica or her abductor,” Shaw said, despite a year of “intensive investigation” by 15 local, state and federal agencies.
Heeringa disappeared April 26, 2013 before she was set to close the Exxon gas station on Sternberg Road in Norton Shores. Police said there was no indication of a robbery, as Heeringa’s purse, vehicle and other items were left behind at the scene, including hundreds of dollars in cash. DNA testing showed a small amount of blood found outside the gas station belonged to Heeringa.
After her disappearance, investigators released a description of a silver minivan and a man seen in the area, but he has never been identified. The gas station had no security cameras, leaving authorities without potential clues.
Shaw said at its peak, their task force was staffed by 75 investigators who conducted approximately 1,400 follow-up investigations based on tips and information received. Investigators executed a total of 33 search warrants and a minimum of 20 consensual searches, primarily to recovered cellphone, computer and social media data. Several searches of residential property for other physical evidence, as well as 12 ground searches and two underwater searches were also performed.
Shaw also provided an updated, expanded timeline of events the day Herringa went missing.
“We know that the last time anyone actually saw her in the store was at 10:55 p.m. At that time, Jessica did not seem disturbed or nervous or anything,” Shaw said. “Prior to that, we do know that a reported boyfriend had stopped by the store to talk to her, they had some kind of discussion and a customer later saw that Jessica appeared to be crying or upset after he had left.”
“At this point, investigators are still requesting anyone who may have witnessed or has knowledge of Jessica’s abduction to contact us,” Shaw added.
April 26, 2013
2:44 pm: Heeringa purchased groceries at Aldi, 2715 Henry Street.
4:35 pm: Heeringa begins her shift at the Exxon store.
• Heeringa 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 Heeringa 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: Heeringa’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 Heeringa 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 Heeringa. Nothing suspicious was noticed at that time.
• Both the female friend and a male customer, observed a bluish silver van pull up to Heeringa while she was changing the receipt paper in one of the pumps. It appeared that the male driver and Heeringa were having a friendly conversation.
10:55 pm: A female customer entered the store and purchased a lighter.
• She advised that Heeringa 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 Heeringa 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 Heeringa’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 figure’s 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:
— The store’s rear security light was not on.
— The store’s rear door did not open at any time.
— She never saw a struggle or heard anyone yell for help.
— She did not see Heeringa 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.
— Her husband stated that he did not see the subject well, but did see that he had “crazy” or wavy hair.
— Neither of them saw Heeringa 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.
— 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.
— He clearly remembered the town and country logo on the rear hatch door.
— 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 (Heeringa) may have been in the back room and not aware of his presence at the pump. He was unable to locate Heeringa.
• 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 an investigation.
• Officers searched the store but did not locate Heeringa.
• Officers located Heeringa’s purse and jacket in the back room. The purse contained $420 in cash.
• Officers noted a cash drawer on top of the safe in the back room. The back door was closed and latched and there was a trash can in front of the door, as if Heeringa was preparing to empty the trash.
• 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 Heeringa).
• 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 Heeringa was preparing the close the store.
• While talking to officers, the manager observed Heeringa’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.
“It’s frustrating,” Shaw said, “not only for us within the police department, but we’re frustrated because we cannot solve this crime for the family and that we have not been able to, so far, bring a mother back to her child.”
Anyone with information on the case is asked to call the Norton Shores Police Department at 231-733-2691 or Silent Observer at 231-72-CRIME.