Ryan Ferguson

This is another one of those cases in which people like myself who are staunch supporters of our justice system, whether I agree with decisions or laws or not, are left with a bad taste in their mouths.  It is not simply because a law was violated or that a bad seed in the system did unlawful things, it is because when it is exposed there does not seem to be any sort of ramifications for their actions. I am not just talking in monetary value... I am talking in real terms of punishment or sanctions.  It has been said that even when there is clear prosecution misconduct that the reason we rarely see someone punished for it is because people would lose faith in the justice system.  I do not believe that to be true, I believe people would have MORE faith in the justice system to know that wrongs are righted and the no matter who the person is there are consequences for actions.  Sadly this is not one of those cases.  In fact, although there are still some things sitting in the civil courts regarding this case, things I admit I did not quite understand all of, the main players in this case have seemed to go on and even prosper.  Well, let me get off my soapbox for a bit and go on with the story.

This case from the get go, or at least at the time of the arrests of Ryan Ferguson and his friend Charles Erickson has just been one of the strangest but I guess to tell the story completely and accurately we have to go back to the crime.... two years before Ferguson and Erickson were arrested.

On November 1, 2001 at 2:26 am 911 operators in Columbia Missouri received a call.  The caller was a man by the name of Jerry Trump.  He was the supervising janitor at the Columbia Daily Tribune.  Their sports editor, Kent Heitholt had been attacked in their parking lot.  Officers arrived on the scene. My research does not specifically say but apparently Heitholt had already died by the time that they arrived at the scene.  They found some bloody shoe prints around the area, they got some fingerprints from the car and they took some blood samples from the area. They would even find a hair in Heitholt's hand that did not belong to him. The officers then moved on to witnesses, there were only a few.

First there was Shawna Ornt. She was a janitor who had stepped outside for a smoke break when she saw two men near Heitholt's car. One of them yelled out to her that someone was hurt.  She went inside to get her supervisor Jerry Trump and when they emerged the two men were walking towards and down a nearby alley that was often used to get to a nearby area where there were a strip of bars in the area.  Ornt would tell officers that she got a pretty good look at one of the men.  Both were described at white men in their early 20's. Trump told officers he did not get a good look at them really and would not be able to identify anyone.  In that interview he told officers that he agreed that both men were white and probably early 20's and one had a ball cap on that looked to have a bit of blonde hair sticking out but that was as much information as he could give them. A sketch was made based on Ornt's description.

It was determined that Heitholt had been beaten and strangled.  The weapon for strangulation was apparently his own belt.  Heitholt's wallet was found in his car but it was believed that his watch and a few other things were missing from inside, but nothing super valuable it seems. The following day officers spoke to Michael Boyd.  Michael worked under Heitholt and had claimed to be the last person to see Heitholt alive.  Over the years his stories have changed and have become more and more conflicting.  Most of his stories start out the same it seems... he left the building just after 2 am and sat in his car for a few minutes adjusting his radio when he saw Heitholt emerge from the building.  Most of his stories also say that he stopped and talked with Heitholt, but he has changed whether he remained in his vehicle or if he got out to have that conversation, and sometimes he changed back again.  He then claimed he drove away.  In some versions he saw Heitholt getting in his car, in some versions he did not and in some versions he actually saw Heitholt's taillights come on.  He claims he left the parking lot about 2:20.  In most versions of his story he saw nothing or no one unusual in the area.  He would later claim a few years later, just before Ryan Ferguson went on trial that he saw two young men, matching the previous description walking down the alley.

At any rate apparently the authorities had nothing.  It seems they found no matches to anything in their evidence.  Funny thing is that they still never have found (are they even looking?) matches to any of the evidence at the scene. The case went cold.  Kent Heitholt was a beloved member of the community and the murder had hit the community rather hard.  So in November of 2003, at the two year anniversary the newspaper did a series of articles on the Heitholt and the case.  By this  time Charles Erickson was 19 at the time and when he saw the sketch in the newspaper in 2003 he began to worry.  Not only did he feel as if the sketch kind of resembled himself, he knew that was the night that he could not remember.  And what were the odds?  He happened to be with his friend, Ryan Ferguson at the time only a few blocks away.  

In the early morning of November 1, 2001 Ryan and Charles had been out together, they were both 17 years old and juniors in high school.  Charles would say that at least for his part he had partook in cocaine and Adderall.  Late in the night they had gone to a bar called By George.  Ryan knew the bouncer and knew they could get in.  The last thing that Charles remembered from the night was they had left the bar.  The next thing he remembered was waking up in his bed the next morning but he had no memory as to how he got there.  It does not seem that it had happened before, or even since because that night had stuck in his head.  Now here it was 2003 and he is reading that on the night he could not remember two young men in their early twenties had killed a man just a few blocks from where he last knew he was.  Charles went to Ryan about it who told him basically he was crazy and told him that on that night he had taken Charles home after the bar and that they were not involved.  Apparently that did not ease Charles' mind. Over the next few months he began having dreams in which he says seemed vivid and involved he and Ryan murdering Heitholt. After a few months of this going on Charles told two friends of his about his fears.  His friends went to the police.

In March of 2004 investigators brought Charles Erickson in to be questioned. He apparently seemed honest with them in the beginning (even Erickson would probably admit that was the only time he was honest with them).  He told them he truthfully had no memory of the night and even told them that the things he thought he knew came to him in dreams and for all he knew they were not true. By the time they were done they had gotten Charles Erickson to confess that he and Ryan Ferguson had killed Kent Heitholt.  At one point they asked Charles what weapon was used to strangle Heitholt and he thought it was a shirt.  When they told him that was wrong he said "maybe a bungee cord?"  Seeing as he was not getting it right they finally told him that Heitholt had been strangled with his own belt.  Charles' answer was, "I don't remember that."  We've all heard (and maybe seen) the good cop/bad cop routine and it was used at it's finest with Charles. Both Charles and Ryan were arrested and charged with murder.

The following year Ryan Ferguson went on trial for the robbery and murder of Kent Heitholt.  Charles Erickson would never go to trial because prosecutors offered him a deal.  He would receive a sentence of 25 years if he testified against Ryan.  He took it.  So, as I often do, let's look at the evidence they had at trial.  They had Charles, who would get on the witness stand and no longer proclaim he had dreamed things but went into detail of how he watched Ryan Ferguson strangle Kent Heitholt. They also had Jerry Trump.  Remember him? He was the supervising janitor at the newspaper company who said he did not get a good enough look at anyone to identify them.  Well around the time of the arrests he was in jail on an unrelated charge and said on the stand that his wife had sent him an article with Ryan and Charles' pictures and he knew right away that was who he had seen.  And there you have it... that is the "evidence" that was against Ryan Ferguson.  And apparently that is all the jury needed.  They convicted Ryan Ferguson and sentenced him to 30 years for second degree murder and 10 years for robbery to run consecutively.... so he got 40 years.

Ryan's jury apparently was one of the few in America that needed nothing more than the word of people.  In today's world, and yes in 2003, most juries wanted more than that.  They want some fingerprints; they want some blood; they want some DNA.  I would love to hear what some of the jurors to see what it was they were thinking and what brought them to this conclusion.  But it is neither here nor there because the next step is always the appeal.  And those can take forever, let alone be successful. 

In 2009 after not getting anywhere in almost five years, Ryan's family hired Kathleen Zellner.  You may remember seeing her recently as she has become Steven Avery's (Making a Murderer) new lawyer.  She decided to take the case pro bono and just dig and dig at it, piece by piece.  She started with looking at all the evidence and interviewing witnesses.  What she found was amazing.  It was not just that now Charles Erickson was changing his story and admitting that he lied against Ryan, or even that she found out that Jerry Trump was recanting his story too.  Those things happen a lot in cases.  It was the other things she found.  Both Erickson and Trump told Zellner that they were pressured and coerced by the police, the DA Kevin Crane and the DA's investigator William Haws. Erickson's new story did not really help a lot though, because in the new version, he was the one who strangled and murdered Heitholt, but Ryan was there.  Trump on the other hand said that his wife had not sent him the article while he was in jail but that he had not seen it until Crane and Haws showed it to him after his release.  He was told it would be in his best interest seeing as he was on parole to identify Ryan.  He was convinced that the right men had been arrested.  No, neither of their recantations would be enough to free Ryan.  The legal system does not work that way.

But the other things Zellner discovered could be.  First Zellner learned that after Trump had supposedly told Crane and Haws that his wife sent him the article, Haws spoke to his wife. Haws would later say that she "reluctantly" admitted not remembering ever sending that article to him while he was in jail.  Then there was Shawna Ornt.  She would tell Zellner and her investigators that when she was shown the picture of Ryan Ferguson she told Crane that was not one of the men she saw.  She said Crane repeatedly tried to change her mind and even became threatening.  I am unclear as to whether she was brought into court to testify at all at the trial but if she was she was never asked to identify Ryan. This is presumably because the prosecution knew she could not and would not do so.  Now, these things may seem minor things and not worthy for a conviction to be over turned, vacated, as the defense would eventually ask.  I mean, where was the original defense attorney's in all of this? Isn't it their job to interview witnesses, just as Zellner and her crew were doing now?  Well yes, it is and while we see claims of "ineffective counsel" all the time it is almost so routine now that it is glossed over.  And really could that have been enough to prevent a conviction?  The big deal was not that the defense did not go digging, the big deal was that the defense had never been notified of these things. When it comes to courts and the law.... full disclosure is everything.  The legal term given when a prosecution withholds evidence is called a Brady violation.  In layman's terms we call it many things but most commonly called prosecution misconduct.  They know they are to hand everything over to the defense no matter what it is.  So, how do they try to get out of these things?  Much the same way the prosecution in this case did.... they do not create paper trails. In this case it seems as if William Haws became the prosecutors 'scapegoat' and why not?  Kevin Crane by now a circuit court judge.  He's not going to risk his career on the bench ... are you kidding? No, so we're going to put it all on William Haws who says he talked to Jerry's Trumps wife on the phone but did not take notes of the conversation.  It seems that he obviously told Crane but in a legal sense if it is not on paper then most think it does not have to be disclosed.  I mean, who is ever going to find out and know? The original defense could have talked to her and found out her version and they could say "oops, we did not know because we did not talk to her." No harm, no foul.  They got their conviction and that was what mattered.  Who ever thought Jerry's Trumps wife would be talked to again?  

November 5, 2013 the Court of Appeals vacated Ryan Ferguson's conviction. Now, keep in mind it was not over turned but vacated. So what is the difference?  When a case is overturned it is basically sent back to a lower court to be decided and appeals can continue on.  When a case is vacated it is as if the trial never took place.  Considering all they did not have the Attorney General decided not to recharge Ryan and he was released from prison on November 12, 2013.  Kevin Crane apparently continued to state his belief in Ryan's guilt.

In March of 2014 Ryan filed a civil suit against the county, the city and several individuals involved in the case. All I could for sure determine is that as of now this case is on hold.  The article I read about this case was published in late 2015 and for me was one of the most difficult to understand.  It seems that many of the main players, including Crane and the city, as well as the county had been dismissed from the lawsuit but I could not determine why for sure.  It seems to me that unless they have settled (which I saw no record of) they would be the most responsible.  

When Ryan Ferguson went to jail at age 19 his father told him he needed to get "stronger, faster, and smarter" while he was there as he would not be able to protect him.  While in prison he concentrated on weight lifting.  Upon his release he became a certified personal trainer and in 2015 published a book called Stronger, Faster, Smarter: A Guide to Your Most Powerful Body. He continues to fight for Charles Erickson's release from jail.  He seems to harbor no grudge towards Erickson and knows that he is innocent of the crime.

I could find no reference as to if anyone is trying to find the real killer of Kent Heitholt or any reaction of his family to the things that have happened.


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