Ryan Ferguson’s Freedom Quest: Missouri Man Appeals to Court Once More

As the Columbia Daily Tribune’s sports editor, Kent Heitholt’s face and byline are familiar. Known to friends as “Heity,” he joins the Tribune in October of 1996, following ten years with The Times of Shreveport, La.

He was a large, generous man with an appetite for fun, family, Chinese buffets, and athletics. The son of a coach, Heitholt saw his role as more of a civic leader than a run-of-the-mill columnist.

Heitholt, a Lawrence, Missouri native, was found bludgeoned and strangled to death a little before 2:30 a.m. Nov. 1, 2001, in a parking lot adjacent to the newspaper’s offices. Fresh off his fifth anniversary on the job, he was attacked after he walked out the side door, spoke with a cohort, and perhaps lingered to feed a cat.

Ryan Ferguson
When Ryan’s alleged coconspirator, Charles Erickson, and supposed eye witness accuser, Jerry Trump, took the stand during Ryan’s appeal, in April of 2012, both men subjected themselves to perjury charges by recanting. Both alleged eyewitnesses disavowed all of their previous statements, but the conviction has been validated, and Ryan remains incarcerated.

Minutes later, he was discovered face down in a pool of crimson. There was a cleaning lady who witnessed two young men near Heitholt’s car. She provided physical and facial descriptions, which formed the basis of two separate police illustrations.

Three Years Later.

Ryan Ferguson and Charles Erickson, both 19, are arrested after word circulates that Erickson is implicating himself in the killing. There is strangeness in his implication – it sounds more like a disjointed illusion than an intimate account steeped in truth. Nonetheless, Ferguson and Erickson are arrested March 10, 2004.

Erickson thinks the murder is something that came to him in a dream. He has a hard enough time living with his own tumultuous inner ups and downs, his recurring, raging melancholy. But now he is trapped in a ceaseless bout with stark unbelief. Could I have done it? Did I do it? Exactly why would I do such a thing? Radically introspective, he becomes his own investigator. Could I have done such a thing? Could I? Could we?

At first, Erickson is a barrel full of false assumptions. Following extensive police questioning, the murder suspect’s memory changes – it gets more descriptive, more vivid, and almost infallible.

Columbia police investigators are eager to close this high-profile case. How far will they go to achieve closure? Did they coax a feeble, mentally-incomplete teenager into making a confession that fits the crime scene? Did their frustration and inability to solve the case force them to play havoc with his brain?

Free Ryan Ferguson
Ryan Ferguson’s life whittles down to what transpired during eighteen minutes in the early morning hours the day after Halloween in 2001. Since 2004, he has been robbed of his life and family by the criminal justice system. His conviction is a ghost that will haunt us until the state of Missouri comes to grips with what has happened.

Who Killed Kent Heitholt?

Why?

The community is convinced that something evil has turned the souls of two local boys into poison. Tolerate savagery on the streets of Columbia? No way, say locals. Evil people often don’t look evil. But we here in Columbia are convinced these two punks are evil.

Erickson is the star witness against Ferguson, though his affirmations should hardly have kept the dogs of reason and doubt at bay. None of the forensic evidence gathered at the crime scene – fingerprints, footprints, the copious amounts of blood, nor the hair clutched in Heitholt’s hand – link Ferguson or Erickson to the crime.

Yet, Erickson’s shrewdly-orchestrated testimony, coupled with a convincing eye witness indentification from a custodian named Jerry Trump, seals Ryan’s fate.

A pair of sentences are doled out to Ryan and Chuck. Forty years for Ferguson. Twenty five for Erickson.

Hard Questions Follow

Discrepant truths are revealed. Multiple recantations. Missed opportunities. Coercion. An overlooked suspect.

This is the first 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 is available September 3. For more information about Ryan’s plight, visit www.freeryanferguson.com

Brian D’Ambrosio lives in Missoula, Montana. He works as an instructor, media consultant, magazine editor, and marketing and communications coordinator. D’Ambrosio writes widely about history, theatre, architecture, blues music, boxing, NHL tough guys, and obscure American poets and authors. He is the author of 10 books and more than 600 published print articles.