Wednesday, October 31, 2001. 101 North 4th Street. Columbia, Missouri.
Reporters cluster in a nondescript brown building that looks as if it could be used for some kind of light industrial purpose. Keyboards. Coffee pots. Conversations about city hall and byline credits. Bulletin boards tacked with snippets of paper. Standard stuff.
On this day, sports editor Kent Heitholt is honored for his five-year anniversary at the Columbia Daily Tribune. He poses for “a grip-and-grin photo” for the company newsletter, receives a package of golf balls as a gift and cracks a few jokes about “how long a guy has to work at the company to earn a set of clubs.”
Heitholt enjoys the moment, but he understands that he is only as good as his last story. There is another deadline – always a deadline. That’s the nature of a daily newspaper: no rest for the weary sports writer.
At around 11 p.m., Ryan Ferguson, 17, parks his car at the corner of Walnut and First Street. He and his friend Chuck Erickson, 17, enter the By George night club. The boys have school the next day. But there is something irresistible about staying out. Socializing, and the thrill of being out and underage, easily overwhelms the prospect of an early night preceding another mundane school day.
Ryan is much more sociable than Chuck, who comfortably slides into the role of the wallflower. Ryan is more interested than his friend in meeting and flirting with girls, striking up a chat with a tall, young lady dressed as a pink flamingo. Ryan loans Chuck $10, buys him drinks, and the boys part ways – at least for a while.
Throughout the night, Chuck consumes three or four Adderall pills, ingests cocaine and imbibes up to “14 alcoholic beverages.” He experiences another self-destructive blackout. Chuck is known to drink and cause mischief. He drinks and forgets, forgets things such as throwing a rock through a car window, or he forgets how he randomly destroys a neighbor’s white picket fence.
Ferguson’s intake is three drinks, one Amaretto Sour and a pair of Jack and Cokes.
After the bar closes at 1:30 a.m., Ryan says that he drives Chuck home and sits on the front curb of his home, making phone calls. He chooses the curb so as not to disrupt his parents, because his bedroom is located directly above theirs.
Kent Heitholt is ambushed and bashed to death in a red pond of blood beside his car in a parking lot north of the Tribune. At 2:26 a.m., he is found less than sixty feet from the door, the victim of an apparent blunt-impact head injury.
Chuck wakes up the next morning with a bit of a hangover – to be expected. He does not have blood on his clothes. There are no bloody sweatshirts, boots, or blue jeans in the laundry bin. He does not wake up believing he has killed someone. He does not see marks, bruises, or injuries to his body. There is nothing out of the ordinary – nothing a glass of water and some aspirin won’t heal.
Two years pass and leads about the sports editor’s death dry up. That’s until Chuck Erickson relates his “snapshot” images, his dreams about the murder, to some friends.
His memory gaps are soon filled by Columbia police. Fearing Ryan is going to turn against him, and supplied with a bevy of bogus police reports, he implicates Ryan, and, in 2004, pleads to a 25 year prison term. Ryan is sentenced to 40 years in 2005.
Chuck Erickson affirms he has no recollection of what happened on October 31, 2001, and that he fabricated a slew of tall tales tailored to fit the demands of police and prosecutors.
This is the second of a series of articles about the conviction of Ryan Ferguson. Ryan is making his fourteenth attempt to overturn the 2005 murder conviction. A hearing has been set for September 10. To coincide with the hearing, Brian will release a chronicle of the trial and its aftermath: “Free Ryan Ferguson: (c) 101 Reasons Why Ryan Should Be Released.” This free, downloadable ebook will be available before September 10.
For more information about Ryan’s plight, visit www.freeryanferguson.com