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Transcript of First 48 Hours Documentary on this Case
COLUMBIA, Mo., July 25, 2006
(CBS) This story originally aired Feb. 18, 2006.
For two years, police investigated the brutal 2001 Halloween night slaying of newspaper editor Kent Heitholt in Columbia, Mo. They had no viable suspects and the victim's family had come to terms this crime might never be solved.
But then police heard that a young man told a friend that he had dreamed he participated in the killing and also named an accomplice to the murder: his good friend, Ryan Ferguson.
48 Hours correspondent Erin Moriarty reports on this mysterious murder investigation, and the subsequent trial.
"Every night before he left, he’d pour a little on the concrete slab for the cat to come and eat," she says.
Kent fed the cat that night, but never made it home. Kali and her mother were fast asleep when police came knocking on their door.
"They say to my mom like, 'There’s been a horrific act committed against your husband,' " Kali remembers.
Tony Messenger, a weekly radio talk show host, who also writes a column for the Columbia Tribune, says the murder case of his colleague Kent Heitholt is "shocking" and "bizarre."
"He was just the friendliest guy that you could never imagine anybody having a reason to kill him," says Messenger. "The people that worked for him, loved him."
On the night of his murder, Kent signed off his computer at 2:08 a.m. Less then 20 minutes later, he was found dead by his car.
"He was beat mercilessly, with some sort of blunt object. And then, once he was down to the ground as I understand it, he was strangled with his own belt," says Messenger.
Initially, police kept that detail about Kent’s belt to themselves; it would later become a crucial issue in the case. But they did reveal other facts of the crime right away: there were bloody shoeprints, an unidentified human hair was found in Kent’s hand, Kent’s wallet was there, but his keys and wristwatch were missing.
Messenger says the crime didn't have the typical signs of a robbery, but police did have one lead: a janitor caught a glimpse of two young white men running away from Kent’s car around the time of the murder, and called 911.
But the janitor said he could not provide a detailed description of them.
Police were further frustrated because the crime happened on Halloween, the one night bloody clothes wouldn’t stand out.
Two years later, Heitholt’s murder was the only unsolved homicide in Columbia. Police said they were still "hopeful" someone would pick up the phone to clear his conscience.
Heitholt's daughter, Kali, wasn’t holding her breath.
"I just kinda gave up and just had to deal with the fact that my dad was gone instead of worrying about who did it anymore," she says.
Then, in January 2004, a call came in on a crime tip hotline that someone was talking and telling his friends he was involved in the murder. Police were convinced it was the break they were looking for.
"It came off as a slam dunk case. Bragging about it at a party," says Messenger. "People overheard. End of story. Lets get these kids in jail."
Kali was only 15 when her father was murdered, and she remembers her father as a "big teddy bear," smiling all the time. Heitholt's late hours didn't worry Kali. "He was 315 pounds, 6-3. I thought he could take care of himself," she says.
Kali had come to accept the killers would never be found. After two years investigating, police had no viable suspects. But then they got word that community college student Chuck Erickson was now talking to his friends about the murder.
"This kind of answers why we were having, you know, trouble working this case, because they’re really kind of under the radar," says Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane.
Crane says Chuck was no hardened criminal. He had come from a stable, well-to-do family and was a high school student at the time of the crime.
Police pulled Chuck in for questioning and he told them what he told his friends: that he killed Kent Heitholt.
In a videotaped police interview, Chuck told an investigator he hit Kent Heitholt in the head with a tool. Chuck also named an accomplice: his friend, Ryan Ferguson.
That same day, Chuck was taken into custody, and so was Ryan. Both had gone to the same high school as Kali
"I never really thought it would be so close to my age group. That was really tough," she says.
Chuck told police that the attack was Ryan’s idea. He said that after the two ran out of money to buy drinks, Ryan suggested robbing someone. Chuck said they ended up in the Tribune parking lot, chose their victim and things quickly got out of hand.
"Erickson’s got a tire tool. Walks up. Starts hitting the guy. The crime is in progress. It’s hard to back up from beating some guy over the head. And Ferguson finishes the job," says Crane.
How did Ryan allegedly finish the job?
"Strangles him with the victim’s own belt," says Crane. "My personal view on this is this is just one stupid decision after another. By two kids, 17-year-old boys, that were intoxicated."
When Ryan was picked up by the police, he didn’t think he needed a lawyer.
Ryan's police interview was also videotaped and he admitted that he and Chuck went to the dance club "By George" that night and left together. But Ryan insists they went straight home and he got upset when police accused him of killing Heitholt.
"I would never f------ do anything like this. This is just ridiculous," Ryan told police.
Still, relying on Chuck’s version of events, police charged both with murder. Ryan’s family says it was a rush to judgment.
"These people in Columbia are desperate to solve this case," says Bill Ferguson. Not only does he think his son, Ryan, is innocent, he’s convinced Chuck is innocent, too.
His proof? The tape of Chuck’s recorded confession to police.
Asked how many times he thinks he hit Heithold, Chuck told police, "just the once."
"Just the once? Well, the only problem I have with that is I know he was hit more than once …," the police investigator said.
"He wants to give the answer. But he doesn’t know the answers," says Bill Ferguson.
Ryan’s father says that Chuck appears to know few of the details of the murder. In fact, investigators even have to point out where the crime occurred, telling him where Heitholt's car was parked.
Asked what's wrong with this, Bill says, "What’s wrong with this is the police are not asking Chuck 'Where did the crime take place?' They’re not asking Chuck what he thought. They’re telling what, where the crime took place."
What’s more, in the taped interview, Chuck says Ryan strangled Kent Heitholt, but he seems to have no idea how.
"I think it was a shirt or something, Chuck told police. When told by police that it was a belt, Chuck said, "Really?"
Bill Ferguson says police were wrong to hand feed Chuck all those details. The reason he didn’t know them on his own, Bill says, is that he dreamed the whole thing up — literally. Bill says when Chuck began discussing the crime with friends like Art Figueroa, he said it came to him in a dream.
Art Figueroa says Chuck felt "really bad" and "remorseful" and was disturbed by a newspaper report marking the second anniversary of Kent Heitholt’s murder.
"He wanted to go to the police station, but he said he had a dream. So I told him, I was like, 'I’m not gonna take you down there for a dream. You need to think about this in the morning,' " says Art.
But Prosecutor Kevin Crane believes Chuck’s memories are real and that he was just reluctant to admit them.
"Didn’t it concern you that Chuck didn’t seem to know much about this killing at all? He thinks he’s only hit him once when, in fact, Kent had been hit several times," Moriarty asked.
"Why would you say you only hit him once? Because you know that the more bad conduct you admit to, the worse trouble you’re gonna be in," Crane replied. "And the more certain you are you’re gonna get arrested and go to prison for a long time."
But, whatever trouble Chuck might get himself into, Bill Ferguson is convinced that the case against Ryan is so weak, that his family’s ordeal will soon be over.
"He is going to be found innocent. He is going to be acquitted. I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t even go to trial," says Bill.
Newspaper columnist Tony Messenger was relieved that the murder of his colleague was apparently solved. In his mind, the case against Chuck and Ryan seemed neatly sewn up, until he saw Chuck’s videotaped interview.
"It occurred to me that this might be a very troubled kid who, for whatever reason, was reaching out for attention," says Messenger.
Messenger says that his concern at that point was that maybe police had the wrong people.
Ryan’s father, Bill Ferguson, says he has proof of that. Police photos show a bloody, messy crime scene. Yet, somehow, none of physical evidence found at the scene matches either Ryan or Chuck.
Bill says that lack of evidence proves that his son wasn’t there. "They did a luminol test of Ryan’s car, and they didn’t find one drop of blood," he says.
The attack on Heitholt was so violent, he says, that even investigators first on the scene thought it could be a “contract killing.”
"This is unbelievable anybody could commit a crime like that and not have any blood ever show up. It defies imagination," says Bill.
What’s more, the forensics team could not match the bloody shoeprints leading away from the scene to either Chuck or Ryan, nor could they match the strand of hair found in Heitholt’s hand to either teen.
Private investigator Jim Miller, hired by Ryan Ferguson’s family, has been to the crime scene numerous times.
"There was no evidence that linked Ryan or Chuck to this crime — DNA evidence, blood evidence, hair, fiber, fingerprints — nothing," says Miller.
Crane admits it’s a tough case to prove. Asked if a murder weapon was ever found, Crane says, "No."
What about the lack of physical evidence? What makes Crane so sure Erickson and Ferguson committed this murder?
"If I’ve got physical evidence at the scene, that’s great. But I don’t go 'I can’t prosecute this case if there is no physical evidence,' " says Crane.
Kevin Crane was determined to take the case to court. On Oct. 17, 2005, nearly four years after Heitholt’s death, Ryan was the first to stand trial.
His once-close friend, Chuck Erickson, who confessed to the crime, served as the state’s star witness.
Asked what he did to Kent Heitholt, Chuck testified he robbed him and beat him with a tire tool.
Asked what Ryan did, Chuck testified, "He robbed him and he strangled him."
On the stand, Chuck was nothing like the confused young man from the police interview a year and a half earlier. He was confident and comfortable, calmly explaining that when they ran out of money for drinks, Ryan suggested they rob someone.
"There was a little bit of attraction to it just because I was young and I was stupid and I was a little drunk. It seemed like it would be something cool to do," Chuck testified.
With Crane’s help, Chuck even demonstrated for the jury how he crept up on Heitholt and attacked.
Chuck also tried to explain how he could have no memory of the murder for two years.
"The best way that I can explain it is I just put it out of my mind," he testified. "It was not my normal behavior. I was drunk. It wasn’t something I never wanted to remember again."
"It is definitely possible to consciously put something out of your mind that you don’t want to remember because it is a terrible, terrible thing," says Crane.
He says that is exactly what Chuck did. Like a victim of trauma, he blocked out the terrible memory.
He remembers now, says Crane, because the newspaper coverage of the murder’s second anniversary jogged his memory and the details slowly returned.
So, although Chuck once seemed genuinely surprised to hear that Heitholt was strangled with his own belt, he now vividly recalls backing away after Heitholt fell and looking up to see Ryan standing over the wounded man.
"He was down here and he had a belt, and he had his foot on his back on the victim’s back. And he was pulling up on the belt," Chuck testified.
Chuck told jurors that when he and Ryan fled the scene and went back to the club, they were seen by a friend, Dallas Mallory. Throughout it all, Chuck says, Ryan remained cool and was later amused when he found a $20 bill tucked in his wallet.
"He’s looking at me and he’s kinda smilin'. He says, 'We just did that for nothin'. I had this the entire time and I forgot about it,' " Chuck testified.
Throughout the testimony, Ryan sat expressionless. Asked if Chuck was making this story up, Ryan says, "In terms of my involvement, yes. I don’t know if he was there."
Chuck Erickson, 21, does have a troubled history of drug and alcohol abuse. His friends say he is prone to outrageous behavior and he himself says he was arrested for felony forgery — an indication of deceit in the past. Yet for two long days on the witness stand, Chuck stuck by his story even when defense attorneys played those videotapes.
"I mean, I might not even know what I’m talking about," Erickson said in his taped police interview.
"You didn’t know whether or not you’d done it, isn’t that what you were telling him?" a defense lawyer asked.
"I was telling him that but it’s all just rushing at me, 'My God I killed this man, I gotta take responsibility for this now. I’ve gotta tell them what that man did.' It was a hard thing to do," Erickson replied.
Crane had another witness, Dallas Mallory — the friend that Chuck says he saw right after the murder. A statement from Mallory confirms that he "saw Ryan Ferguson and Chuck Erickson together."
But, by the time of trial, Dallas told 48 Hours a very different story.
Asked if he remembered seeing either Chuck or Ryan later that night, Dallas said, "No."
Dallas says the police simply didn’t want to hear that he was too drunk that night to remember anything.
"They kept on telling me, 'Well, Chuck said this, he said he saw you,' " he says. "I was bawling in tears and I said, 'Well, is that what you want me to say? That I did it when I didn’t? I can say that, if it’s gonna make me get out of this building quicker and I can go home.' "
He says he only gave that statement under duress and is terrified he will have to testify. To his relief, he was not called.
But Jerry Trump was called to the witness stand. Trump is the janitor who glimpsed the men by Heitholt’s car but had said at the time he could not provide a detailed description.
But at trial, when asked if he saw that individual or individuals, Trump pointed to Ryan.
Trump has had his own problems with the law. He was in prison when he saw the arrest photos of Ryan and Chuck in the newspaper — and, like Chuck, says the paper jolted his memory.
At trial, Trump was far more confident about the killers' identities than even the victim’s daughter, Kali Heitholt.
Asked if she was troubled by the lack of physical evidence linking the suspects to the crime, Kali says, "Yeah, it does a lot. I mean you’d think that they would have left physical evidence, like being so young and stupid. They would have missed something."
Still, Kali is taken by Chuck’s testimony. "I wouldn’t think he would lie unless he really is crazy. But he didn’t seem crazy on the stand."
Radio talk show host Tony Messenger believes the state’s case against Ryan may be in jeopardy.
"Unless the jury bought Chuck Ferguson’s story, unless they can get beyond, either lies he has told or inconsistencies in his memory, Chuck Erickson’s testimony was not enough to convict Ryan Ferguson," Messenger said on his radio show.
Messenger is anxious to see if Ryan will be more convincing when he says he had nothing to do with Heitholt's murder.
As the defense laid out its case, Ryan Ferguson testified about the time when Chuck first mentioned the Heitholt murder to him.
"He told me he had a dream about it. I told him he was weird and just to leave me alone. I went back inside and at that point never saw him again," Ryan testified.
Ryan hoped to convince jurors that his story made more sense than Chuck’s.
Asked if he went to the Tribune parking lot or saw Kent Heitholt anywhere, Ryan said no.
"You’re there for a horrible thing. Something that I’ve never even conceived of doing and they’re looking at me like I’m some kind of criminal. And — it’s just the worst feeling in the world," he says.
Asked if he participated in the murder, Ryan said, "No."
Unlike Chuck, Ryan never changed his story, from the day he was pulled in by police for questioning. Even when pressed for four grueling hours, Ryan told police he wasn't at the crime scene.
Ryan’s attorneys pointed out he has always maintained his innocence.
But Crane tried to chip away at Ryan's story.
"You were asked if you ran out of money and your answer was 'I don’t believe so,' " Crane asked.
"Yes," Ryan replied.
Yet under pressure, Ryan stood firm. "I never thought I would be arrested for a crime I did not commit. Would you believe you’d be arrested for a crime you didn’t commit?" he testified.
"I don’t know how he is so strong. But it's just really hard to see. He’s sitting right by us. And we can’t even touch him," says Ryan's sister, Kelly.
When Kelly took the stand in her brother’s defense, Crane reminded jurors how she had sneaked her brother into the bar illegally.
"I feel like its kind of my fault," says Kelly. "He wouldn’t have even been downtown if it wasn’t for me. And then he would never have been a suspect."
But Kelly and other defense witnesses also contradict a crucial part of Chuck’s story. Chuck had claimed that they went back to the bar after killing Heitholt around 2:30 a.m.
Chris Canada, who tended bar that night, says that’s impossible.
"The law of the land is you close by 1:30. And that’s what time our boss always had us close at," he says.
"When the lights came on, and they were, like, pushing people out. It’s pretty aggressive," says Kelly.
To save Ryan, however, the defense is going to have to do more than attack details in Chuck’s story. The defense has to answer the question that is at the very heart of the state’s case: While accusing Ryan of murder, Chuck is admitting the same crime. Why would anyone lie about that?
"If you conduct interviews that suggest details in the course of interviews, that witnesses will pick up — often pick up those details and claim them as their own memory," says memory expert Elizabeth Loftus, who was flown in from the University of California by the defense.
"Probably the hardest thing to get past is why would anybody confess to something so awful and subject themselves to prison unless they really did it and that’s hard to get past," says Loftus.
But she says she doesn't find that hard to believe. "After studying false memories for 30 years, I know that people can believe in things that didn’t happen, they can be detailed about them, they can be confident about them, they can be emotional about them, even when they never happened."
False memories? Could Chuck sincerely believe he committed an act that in fact he didn’t? That’s what Loftus believes. Her evidence: Chuck’s vivid recalling of specific details after having no memory of the murder for two years.
Loftus told jurors that you can clearly see how the investigators told Chuck so many of the things he now "remembers."
"I certainly saw evidence of repeated suggestion in the sense that, repeatedly, details are being introduced into the interview," she says.
Crane, who notes that Chuck has no documented history of delusional disorders, found the defense theory ludicrous. "A guilty conscience was really the thing that brought this out. He preferred to take responsibility and admit to it," he says.
But Crane did make it easier for Chuck to take responsibility: he gave him a deal. In exchange for his testimony against Ryan, Chuck plead guilty to second degree murder and got 25 years. He could be paroled in less than 13.
Asked if he was concerned that Chuck was taking the blame for something he might not have done, Chuck's attorney Mark Kemtpon says, "Sure. I would not have been doing my job if I had not explored that issue with him ... What convinces me is Chuck himself."
At the time, neither Chuck nor his parents would talk to 48 Hours.
"Do you believe that Ryan Ferguson was involved in this murder?" Moriarty asked.
"I believe very strongly that Chuck was told the truth throughout," Kempton replied.
But, in the end, it was up to the jurors. Would they believe Chuck or Ryan?
On the fifth day of the trial, jurors reached a verdict after five hours of deliberations.
Ryan Ferguson was found guilty of second degree murder and guilty of first degree robbery.
The verdict came as a shock and a surprise to Ryan's family.
"When she said the verdict I just — I didn’t think I heard her right," says his mother Leslie.
"I heard it, but I just didn’t believe it," his sister, Kelly, adds.
That same night, the sentencing hearing began and Ryan’s father pleaded for leniency.
"We feel very, very badly for the Heitholt family," Bill said. "They have a beautiful family and an innocent man's life has been taken away. But it was not my son that took it away."
But for Heitholt’s daughter, Kali, the verdict removed all the doubts she once had. "In my heart I believe that Ryan Ferguson did do this crime," she told reporters.
And when it was her turn to speak, she finally released the emotion she held throughout the trial. "I want other people to be able to know my father. But, they never will and that just — it hurts so bad for me because it's not fair that his life was taken away so early and then — everyone can know how great he was," she tearfully said on the stand.
Just minutes before midnight, the jurors returned, asking the judge to sentence Ryan to a total of 40 years.
Speaking to 48 Hours, a group of jurors say they believed Chuck's story.
"He wants to clear his conscience but he wasn’t sure how to do it. And I think he was striving when he was talking to the other friends of his how to get it out," one male juror said.
"Did any of you at any time through this trial then think that it was possible that Chuck Erickson had made this up?" Moriarty asked.
"I never felt like that Chuck Erickson had made it up," another male juror said.
"He looked over at Mr. Ferguson and the pleading look in his eye like, 'Come on buddy, you know you did it.' It really cinched it for me," a female juror added.
And the jurors didn't believe Chuck’s memories were false memories implanted by the police as the defense memory expert had testified. Did that at all seem possible?
"Not in my mind. Just common sense. What was the reason that you’d make something up like that?" one juror said.
Another juror said he was won over by the janitor who, while initially unable to describe the killers, pointed to Ryan in court. "He’d seen 'em and pointed 'em out, and that was pretty much all you needed right there," the male juror said.
The jurors say they were not really bothered by the lack of physical evidence. It all came down to which witness was most believable.
Columnist Tony Messenger still has some doubts about Ryan’s guilt, but has come to believe the essence of Chuck’s story.
"I just ultimately don’t believe he made it up," he says. "I think he’s a troubled kid. And I still think he doesn’t know everything that happened. But I believe those two boys were in the parking lot of the Tribune and killed Kent Heitholt."
Messenger admits he is still bothered by the lack of evidence. "I’m more bothered by the mistakes that I think the prosecution and the police made in their early rush to judgment."
Meanwhile, Ryan Ferguson began his sentence in a Fulton, Mo. prison. More than a month after he was convicted, Ryan was still showing no emotion.
"I really thought I could prove my innocence and be with my family," he says.
Asked why he didn't show any emotion when the verdict came down, Ryan says, "I was devastated. What are you gonna do, cry? I mean, I did not have anything to do with this crime."
Ryan knows that some people may have a hard time with his lack of emotion.
Ryan says is "beyond" him why Chuck said he was involved and was also willing to go to prison. "If I knew the answers to that, I would love to explain it."
As for Ryan’s family, the trial has stunned them but not stopped them.
"We’re gonna appeal. And we’re gonna reinvestigate and we’re gonna try to start gathering information," says Ryan's father, Bill.
As Ryan marks time, they say they’re more determined than ever to prove that both he — and his accuser — are innocent.
"We’ve just begun to fight," Bill told reporters. "One day Chuck’s going to wake up in his cell and say, 'Oh my Gosh, what have I done?'"
Ryan Ferguson will be eligible for parole in Sept. 2042. He will be 57 years old.
Producer: Gail Zimmerman
||Truth in Justice