On this day, sports editor Kent Heitholt, 48, is honored for his fifth anniversary at the Columbia Daily Tribune. He logs off his computer at 2:08 a.m.
A few blocks away, Kelly Ferguson, 21, a junior at the University of Missouri, and her roommate, Christine Lo, 21, find a bouncer at the By George who is willing to ignore the age of her teenage brother, Ryan, 17, and his friend, Chuck, 17.
At about 2:22 a.m., 19-year-old Shawna Ornt, a cleaning lady on the night shift, exits the rear of the Tribune building. She takes out the trash and prepares for a cigarette break. Lighting up, preparing to suck in a deep, heavy drag, she notices something amiss near Heitholt’s black Nissan Maxima.
Ornt and co-worker Jerry Trump get close enough to see Heitholt’s body face-down on the ground in a pool of blood. One of the individuals, according to Ornt, yells, “Somebody’s hurt. Get help.” Ornt sees one of the two men’s faces.
Police are uncertain whether the men are the murderous culprits or unlucky bystanders.
Chuck Erickson reads an article in the newspaper about the murder of Heitholt. This sketch looks a lot like me, he thinks. He investigates himself by searching the online archives of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Increasingly paranoid, Erickson imagines that people are talking negatively about him at school.
New Year’s Eve, December 2003
Ryan Ferguson is at a party at a friend’s house – John Whitworth’s. Erickson shows up, uninvited. Heavily under the influence of alcohol and cocaine, Erickson says he has had a dream about possibly being involved in a murder. No memory whatsoever of an actual crime, just an eerie feeling.
March 10, 2004
Despite the fact that there is an abundance of evidence at Heitholt’s murder scene – including fingerprints, bloody footprints, a thread of hair in the victim’s hand and ample DNA – the case baffles the police until they have opportunity to interview 19-year-old Charles “Chuck” Erickson.
It is 860 days after that fatal morning.
At 9:22 a.m., Erickson answers questions from Columbia Police Detective John Short. In this first non-taped interview, the homicide detective looks coldly at Erickson after the officer shouts an introduction. Short’s lips are pursed, impatient. Erickson expresses with just a look a complex inner world of self-doubt, sadness and angst.
Over the course of 52 minutes, he confesses to the murder and robbery, and he implicates his friend, Ferguson. According to Erickson, after killing Heitholt, he says, they return to the By George at around 2:30 a.m. and continue to drink.
Erickson is the star witness against Ferguson. His affirmations should hardly have kept the dogs of reason and doubt at bay. Bouncers, bartenders and club patrons affirm that the By George was closed at 1:30 a.m. A man whom Erickson claims he saw moments after the murder, Dallas Mallory, says he was at home sleeping.
It alarms that none of the forensic evidence gathered at the crime scene – not just the fingerprints and the copious amounts of blood, but the hair clutched in Heitholt’s hand and bloody footprints – link Ferguson or Erickson to the crime.
But Erickson insists he and Ferguson are guilty.
Trump’s testimony is equally devastating. He identifies Ferguson as one of the two young men he sees at the crime scene. A pair of lengthy sentences. Forty years for Ferguson. Twenty-five for Erickson.
Habeas hearing: Multiple recantations
In April 2012, after more than seven years in prison, Ferguson gets the hearing he has dreamed about in front of a Missouri state judge. He has to convince the judge of new evidence that proves his innocence.
Attorney Kathleen Zellner calls on Trump to clinch her case for innocence. Trump begs Ferguson for forgiveness, and claims he was pressured to lie by Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane.
Ornt reveals that she positively excluded both Ferguson and Erickson to Crane on multiple occasions.
Erickson says he has never had any memory of that night. When detectives told him that Ferguson was going to pin this “whole mess” on him, he says, he reacted defensively.
Repetition will frequently trip up liars. Ironically, in a case predicated on lies and conflicting testimony, Ferguson never changes his story.
Ferguson’s appeal centers on the new testimony of two key witnesses who testified against him at trial in 2005 – Erickson, who pleaded guilty to second degree murder, first degree robbery and agreed to be a witness for the prosecution, and a night custodian, Jerry Trump, who identified Ferguson as one of the young men he saw in the parking lot that night.
Both men have now recanted their stories, admitting to a lower court judge in 2012 that they lied on the stand during Ferguson’s trial. There is no physical evidence tying Ferguson to the crime scene and neither the fingerprints nor strands of hair found at the scene match Ferguson or Erickson.
In a Halloween day decision last year, the lower court rejected Ferguson’s petition to have his conviction overturned, leading Ferguson’s legal team to file their latest appeal.
September 10 Appeal
On Tuesday, September 10, attorney Kathleen Zellner and her law partner, Doug Johnson, appeared in Missouri’s Western District Court of Appeals intent on righting what they see as an absolute wrong.
Zellner argued that Ferguson deserved to have his conviction overturned, not only because both Erickson and Trump have now recanted their testimony, but also because the prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence from Ferguson’s original defense team.
The judges honed in on one alleged lapse – an undisclosed pre-trial interview with Jerry Trump’s wife which could have helped the defense dismantle Trump’s testimony at trial.
In less than an hour, the judges surrendered to their chambers and took the case under consideration.
“Free Ryan Ferguson: 101 Reasons Why Ryan Should Be Released” is available as a downloadable e-book: