Around 2:10 am on November 1st 2001, Kent Heitholt, sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune, logged off his computer and left his newspaper offices in Columbia, Missouri. Within minutes he was savagely attacked and murdered next to his car in the newspaper’s parking lot. A tragic death, Kent’s murder would shock the local community. But in this case there would be not one – but TWO eventual victims.
Waiting in the empty lot that night was Kent Heitholt’s colleague Michael Boyd. Boyd claimed the two spoke briefly and then he drove away at around 2:20 am. Boyd would never see his boss alive again.
The murder was brutal. Heitholt, a large man standing 6’3″ and 315 pounds, was struck from behind on his head multiple times and strangled with his own belt. Nothing of value was stolen from the victim, aside from an inexpensive watch and Kent’s car keys.
The first people on the scene were two janitors, Shawna Ornt and Jerry Trump. Ornt had observed a shadow in the side glass window of Heitholt’s car from the loading dock of a nearby building. She quickly retraced her steps and gathered her co-worker Trump. The two peered out into the parking lot but couldn’t see anything. Finally Jerry Trump called out and two men stepped out from behind the car. The man at the rear of the car walked toward Shawna and spoke to her before calmly re-joining the other man and walking down the alley heading east toward 4th Street. Ornt got a good look at the man, including his face, before he left the scene. She then called 911 at 2:26 am.
Later that night Shawna Ornt helped the police create a composite drawing of the man she had spoken to (an ‘improved’ version was created in 2003 as Ornt didn’t like the original sketch). Her colleague Jerry Trump was also questioned. Trump told the police, and later others, that he couldn’t identify the individuals. Michael Boyd meanwhile, the last known person to see Kent Heitholt alive, was only briefly questioned by the police and never investigated as a potential suspect.
Investigators discovered a trail of hair, blood and fingerprints at the crime scene. The killer would likely have been covered in blood. There were also two pairs of shoeprints leading away from the scene with a trace of blood on the shoes. A police K-9 unit tracked the scent from those shoeprints to a University of Missouri dorm. For the authorities there seemed to be a trove of evidence to follow. And yet the murder of Kent Heitholt remained unsolved for over 2 long years.
Then in 2004 – there seemed to be a possible break in the case.
A troubled young man named Chuck Erickson began to read newspaper reports about the murder of Kent Heitholt. Chuck, who had a history of drinking and drug issues, was partying at a nearby bar called By George the night of the murder along with fellow high school junior Ryan Ferguson. Chuck had seen Shawna Ornt’s revised composite sketches and thought they vaguely resembled him. He began to have dreams that he was involved in the murder. But could he have somehow repressed his memory of the crime for two long years? Erickson started to wonder, airing his fears and his dreams to his friends – including Ryan himself who was perplexed by Chuck’s dreams. Ryan clearly remembered that Halloween night. He recalled that he and Chuck had left the By George bar at closing time, he had driven Chuck home and then driven home himself. Chuck’s dreams didn’t make any sense. But Chuck’s story was taken seriously by one friend at least who reported Chuck’s dreams to the police. Based on the friend’s tip, Chuck was picked up for questioning in March 2004.
What followed was one of the most shocking and disturbing police interrogations ever caught on camera. Chuck had no actual independent knowledge of the crime. He didn’t know what the murder weapon was, how many times Kent Heitholt had been struck, or even where the murder had taken place. But the police, desperate to clear up a high profile cold case, coerced and spoonfed Chuck key information about the crime. Watch Chuck’s interrogation video:
Meanwhile, in another interrogation room, Ryan told the police time and time again, over multiple hours, of redundant questioning, that he had been at the By George bar, with Erickson, the night of the murder, but the pair had left around 1:30 am, when the bar closed. Ryan then drove Erickson home before heading home himself. When he arrived, Ryan sat on the curb, outside of his home and made some calls on his cell phone before going to bed. Ryan has never wavered from this account.
But police were determined to get a confession from Erickson, who had no unique information about the crimes and who had stated multiple times, that he’d blacked out and didn’t know what happened after he left the bar. After many grueling hours, Erickson simply assumed he must have done it, due to lies told him by police, and resorted to telling them what he thought they wanted to hear.
Over the following months, as Prosecutor Crane charged the two high school friends with murder, Erickson statements slowly evolved, changing a number of times. Aided by discovery, which contained fabricated police reports, implicated Erickson’s guilt, and an exhaustive source of details about this crime, Erickson eventually came to believe his dreams were true – that he and Ryan had murdered Heitholt in a robbery gone wrong. Due to these false beliefs, and fear that he must have committed the crime, Erickson panicked and agreed to a plea deal that would frame his friend, Ryan, for the murder of Heitholt in exchange for a lesser sentence for himself.
THE 2005 TRIAL
Ryan Ferguson’s 2005 trial attracted considerable media attention, including a crew from CBS 48 Hours who were intrigued by Erickson’s bizarre dreams. Many wondered why Ryan was even on trial in the first place since Chuck Erickson’s story was riddled with inconsistencies, none of the DNA evidence at the scene matched either Chuck or Ryan, the pair had no motive to murder and Ryan had no criminal background.
But many people had underestimated the Missouri police, led by an ambitious prosecutor named Kevin Crane. Crane had spent months coaching Chuck Erickson who now appeared before the jury confident and assured in his testimony. Chuck pointed out Ryan as responsible for the murder of Kent Heitholt and re-enacted particulars of the murder – details he had no memory of just a year earlier.
Still it was far from an open and shut case and Ryan’s attorneys fought back hard. But Prosecutor Kevin Crane had a new ‘star witness’ to place Ryan and Chuck at the scene – janitor Jerry Trump. Though he had previously admitted he couldn’t identify anyone at the scene, Trump now clearly pointed out Ryan in front of the jury as the man he had seen the night of the murder.
After just 5 days of evidence the jury deliberated. Hours later they delivered their verdict. Ryan Ferguson was guilty of robbery and second degree murder and would spend the next 40 years behind bars. Ryan was 19 years old at the time of his arrest. He has been behind bars ever since. He is now 28.
But that was not the end for Ryan Ferguson. Incensed by the jury’s verdict and knowing his son was innocent, Ryan’s dad, Bill Ferguson, made it his mission to uncover as much evidence as possible to prove his son’s innocence. Devoting his life to the case Bill uncovered a shocking series of facts that proved that Ryan should never have been convicted.
Highlighting Bill’s extraordinary efforts have been two major news magazine shows. CBS’s 48 Hours has aired two specials on Ryan’s story, with a third due in March 2013. Meanwhile NBC’s Dateline has also aired two specials following Ryan’s case, provoking intense reactions around the world. Meanwhile the Ferguson family themselves have appeared on many TV specials, including the Today show, to discuss their son’s wrongful conviction.
All the media attention for Ryan eventually attracted the attention of prominent attorney Kathleen Zellner, a well respected lawyer who focuses on appealing wrongful convictions. Zellner met with Ferguson, examined the evidence and realized there had been a major miscarriage of justice. Since 2009, Zellner has been working with the Ferguson family to help them free their son.
Shortly after coming on board the case, Zellner’s team received some unexpected good news. Chuck Erickson had decided to come clean. In a hand-written statement, Erickson admitted he had lied under oath at trial.
But there was more. Later the defense team spoke with witness Jerry Trump, who confessed he too had lied about his testimony under pressure from Prosecutor Crane. Crane told Trump it would be ‘helpful to him’ if Trump could place Ryan at the scene of the crime and intimidated him into changing his story.
Since his conviction, Ryan Ferguson has been back in court on several occasions including a 2008 evidentiary hearing and a 2012 habeas corpus. On all these occasions the local Missouri judges ruled against him, unwilling to challenge the authority and judgments of their colleagues. Even though, the only two witness against him committed perjury and the ‘sole witness’ says Ryan was not the individual she saw in the parking lot. Missouri stands alone in keeping an innocent man incarcerated after the only witnesses against him have admitted perjury in open court at a habeas hearing. After an exhaustive review of case law across the United States, no case exists in which the only witnesses against the defendant admitted perjury in open court at a habeas hearing.
Until April of 2012, Ryan had no chance of walking out of prison because of the original testimony of Jerry Trump and Chuck Erickson. When Erickson and Trump took the stand in April of 2012 and admitted they lied at Ryan’s trial both men subjected themselves to perjury charges by recanting. This has never happened before in an American courtroom in a habeas hearing. Recanting witnesses may give affidavits admitting perjury but they rarely take the stand and admit perjury. This is the watershed event in Ryan Ferguson’s case. There is no case in the United States where the only alleged eyewitnesses recanted in open court, the conviction has been upheld, and the person remains incarcerated.
Read the full shocking Facts and see for yourself the staggering evidence in Ryan Ferguson’s favor. How can a young man be sentenced to 40 years behind bars in the face of this much evidence?
Ryan’s story has touched and outraged millions of people across America – and the world. Kathleen Zellner continues to pursue legal avenues to fight for Ryan’s freedom. We await the day that this innocent man can regain the life that has been so cruelly stolen from him.