By Emily Duren
Columbia, Missouri is a college town known for the University of Missouri and its top-notch Division I football program. But behind all of the glitz and glamour, a dark secret has been hiding.
The Crime: Just after 2:10 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2001, 48-year-old sports editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune, Kent Heitholt, finished up his work for the evening. Within minutes he was dead. The brutal attack had happened next to his car in the Tribune’s parking lot. He was hit on the head multiple times, and strangled… with his own belt. Only his watch, which wasn’t of particularly high quality, and his car keys, were taken from the crime scene. The last person to see him alive, other than his attackers, was Michael Boyd, a sports writer for the Tribune, who said he had a brief conversation with Heitholt in the parking lot around 2:20 a.m.
The 911 call came in at 2:26 a.m. It was from Shawna Ornt, a janitor at the paper, and sole witness. She’d come out of the Tribune just after 2:22 a.m. for a break and saw shadows lurking near Kent Heitholt’s car. Ornt went back into the building to alert her co-worker, Jerry Trump, and when they came out together to investigate further, Ornt said she saw two people standing at the back of Heitholt’s car. One of them told her, “Get help, someone is hurt.” She was able to get a good enough look at the man and his clothes to later help police with a sketch.
A trail gone cold: When police arrived, there was a plethora of physical evidence, which is generally a good thing. On Heitholt’s body was one strand of bloody hair, there were fingerprints scattered around the crime scene and bloody shoeprints near his car. Yet the case went unsolved for two years. Well, if we’re being honest, the case has never been solved. Two young men were scapegoated, and it’s a story that’s so ridiculous, it’s almost too terrible to be true. Almost…
The suspects: On Halloween night 2001, 17-year-old Ryan Ferguson and his friend, Charles Erickson, went to a bar called By George. They partied until they ran out of money. Then Ryan said he drove Charles home at 1:30 a.m., when the club closed. When Ryan arrived back at his house, he claims he made phone calls from the curb out front. Phone records confirmed that he was on the phone from 1:41 a.m. to 2:09 a.m., and then he says he went to sleep, completely unaware of who Kent Heitholt was, or that he was being murdered.
Two years went by and 19-year-old Ryan Ferguson had gone away to college. Charles Erickson, who had a history of drug and alcohol abuse, had started seeing newspaper articles about the Heitholt murder, including the police sketch, which he believed resembled him. He started having vivid dreams that he and Ryan were involved in the murder. Concerned, he shared this with his friends, one of whom took him seriously and told the police. In March 2004, both he and Ryan were interrogated. When Ryan was arrested, his bail was $20 million, the highest amount ever given in the United States for a murder. In November 2004, Charles Erickson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, first-degree robbery, and armed criminal action. For all of this he received just 25 years in prison. Seems like a pretty sweet deal, right? Well, the catch was that he had to testify against Ryan. He did, and in 2005, after a five-day trial and only a few hours of deliberation, a jury convicted Ryan Ferguson of robbery and first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 40 years in a Missouri prison.
I knew Ryan and Charles were innocent from the first time I saw an episode of 48 Hours about this case several years ago. Most killers don’t admit to being killers. They’ll sit in front of journalists and adamantly deny their guilt. The most sociopathic and charming of the bunch can almost be convincing (see my column on Oscar Ray Bolin). But there are some people who, even after living in prison, among killers, retain a warm, human quality. Ryan had that, and something about the dumbstruck look that was perpetually on his face immediately told me he really didn’t know why he was in jail. Frankly, I didn’t either. Charles looked terrified, confused, and yet, hopeful. These guys weren’t killers. They were young, and Charles may have been stupid and a little loose-lipped with his fantasies, and they were for sure in the wrong place at the wrong time, but there was no way they were killers.
The evidence: It is honestly laughable how little evidence there was in this case. So, I’m going to do the reverse of what I normally do. I’m going to go over the evidence that proves Ryan and Charles’ innocence.
A shirt, a bungee cord and a rope walk into a bar: During Charles’ interrogation, the detective flat out told him that he knew what Kent Heitholt was strangled with, but he wanted Charles to tell him. Well, if you really saw Ryan strangle him, this is easy. You just say, “Ryan strangled him with his own belt.” That is not what Charles says. Instead, he makes three guesses. First, a shirt. Then, a bungee cord. Then he says something from the car, going on to something more specific: a rope. Of course, these are all wrong, and the detective finally tells Charles that they know it was Heitholt’s belt.
You own a tire iron? Guilty! This is almost the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. It was never determined what caused the wound to Heitholt’s head, and after Charles was coerced, he said that he hit Heitholt with a tire iron. When Ryan’s car was searched, a tire iron was found. OH. MY. GOD. Who would think you’d find a tire iron in a CAR? That is not evidence, my friends, not unless it’s covered in blood and hair. Which it wasn’t, by the way. It was determined to have no connection to the case, whatsoever. Expert testimony at the trial also revealed that it never would have been possible for Heitholt’s injuries to have been inflicted with a tire iron, anyway. So there.
They were brought in because of a DREAM: Okay, this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Do we not investigate these guys before bringing them in? If I go to bed tonight and have a dream that I won the lottery and don’t have to take my finals, that doesn’t make it true.
No matching DNA: The hair on Heitholt’s body was not from him, nor did it match Ryan or Charles. They were never connected to any blood or fingerprints at the scene. There were bloody shoeprints at the scene, which were the wrong size for both Ryan and Charles.
No blood in Ryan’s car: I’m really tempted to use the word “impossible” here, but as I’ve said time and again, absolutely nothing is impossible when it comes to the commission or covering up of a crime (in my opinion). HOWEVER, Ryan’s car was searched thoroughly, and not a single drop of blood was found. This is what I have to say: there is an EXTREMELY MICROSCOPIC PROBABILITY that these two men could have bludgeoned a man (especially a 6’3” 315 lb. man) to death without getting even one drop of blood on their skin or clothing, and somehow transferring it to Ryan’s car. Not impossible, but certainly not probable.
There was no blood or physical evidence at Charles’ house.
It’s really improbable that either of them could have taken him down. I’m going to admit, the opposite could also be argued for this. As I said, Kent Heitholt was a big dude compared to Ryan Ferguson’s 5’8” and Charles Erickson’s 5’6”. Even with two people, unless he was surprised, which is still a strong possibility, I personally believe it would take people much larger than Ryan and Charles to take Kent Heitholt down.
The bouncer, Mike Schook, testified that the bar closed at 1:30 a.m.—This is extremely important because Charles said that he and Ryan had returned to the bar at 2:45 a.m., after killing Heitholt, and the bouncer’s testimony disproved that.
Kim Bennett, a woman who’d been at By George on Halloween, told prosecutors she’d seen Ryan and Charles leave the bar between 1:15 a.m. and 1:30 a.m.
Though what Bennett said is seemingly small in the grand scheme of things, it was arguably one of the most important pieces of evidence in the case, because what she told the prosecution was never shared with the defense, which is a huge no no. This wasn’t discovered until after Ryan’s trial, when his post-conviction attorney, Kathleen Zellner, who is currently representing Steven Avery of Making a Murderer, started digging things up. And she’s found a lot, like the fact that both Charles Erickson and Jerry Trump gave false testimony during Ryan’s trial.
In 2013, Ryan’s conviction was vacated, and on Nov. 12, 2013, after 9 years, 8 months and 2 days behind bars, he was released from prison. So, you might be thinking that all of this stuff about Ryan is a moot point, and in a way maybe it is. But I don’t feel that way. Charles is still in prison, and I know that just because Ryan’s conviction was vacated, that doesn’t mean Charles’ has to be. I know that’s not the way the law works. It’s unfortunate, but it’s also the reality. It’s also unfortunate that the state of Missouri can reopen the investigation while Charles is still in prison. That’s basically admitting that they know he’s not guilty, they don’t know who did, but they’re still not going to let him out.
I hate to think of him rotting in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. As fate would have it, in the very first column, which was about Steven Avery, I said I didn’t know if he’s guilty, but I would rather see a guilty man out on the street than an innocent man in prison, and I still stand by that. And I wholeheartedly believe Charles Erickson is innocent. Did he lie and were his actions stupid? Yes. Would Ryan Ferguson have even gone to prison in the first place if it wasn’t for Charles’ false testimony? No. But does he deserve to be in prison for a crime he didn’t commit? Absolutely not. And he doesn’t think so, either. Which is why he’s decided to appeal his conviction…
For many years, Charles Erickson didn’t try to appeal because he believed he was guilty and thought he should serve the sentence. But apparently he changed his mind. He says he feels there was a violation when it came to due process. But more than anything, he wants everyone to focus on the facts at hand, not that his credibility is basically shot from changing his story so many times over the years. This appeal is his last shot, his attorney, Gary Brotherton, says. “If the petition is rejected by the Pike County Circuit Court, he plans to refile the petition in the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District and, if that fails, the Supreme Court of Missouri.
“This is the last legal remedy that is available to him,” Brotherton said. “The only other thing left is a clemency,” according to the Columbia Missourian.
I think that, at this point in time, we’re as close to a happy medium as we can get. I do believe that Charles will get out of prison one day, but I know what a long process it can be. Though, let’s not forget that the ultimate victims here are Kent Heitholt and his family. With the overwhelming amount of physical evidence in this case, I am 100% confident Kent Heitholt’s killers will be brought to justice one day. They will slip up eventually. Someone will say something to someone, or a DNA connection will be made.
As for Ryan, well there was a happy ending for him. He’s got a girlfriend, as well as his own personal training business, and is living in Florida. While in prison, where he discovered fitness as a means of survival, he started writing a book about the subject, which was published in 2014: Stronger, Faster, Smarter: A Guide to Your Most Powerful Body.
Unfortunately, there are many people who have fallen victim to killers. This means that there is an inconceivable amount of cases I’ve yet to hear about. But of the ones I have, this one enrages me the most. From the day I started this column, I knew this was the story I wanted to end with because I feel like Ryan and Charles’ situation is something everyone should hear about. This particular situation absolutely does not represent our judicial system as a whole, and I have so much respect for the police departments and DAs that protect us and keep society moving. But the fact is that stuff like this does happen, and it’s terrifying.
Thank you, dear reader, for taking this journey with me, and congratulations to the class of 2016.