COLUMBIA, Mo. – Twenty years ago, a journalist was killed outside his office building in Columbia, Missouri, in the overnight hours of Halloween 2001. Two young friends, seen galavanting around town that evening, were arrested years later and charged for the murder. Prosecutors believed it was the proverbial open and shut case – teenagers targeting a middle-aged man for a robbery that got out of hand.
One of the young defendants, Ryan Ferguson, believed—knew, in fact—that he and his friend were not responsible for the crime. Something was clearly wrong.
The Cold Case
Ferguson and his friend Chuck Erickson were arrested in March 2004 for the murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. The murder took place after 2 a.m. on Nov. 1 as Heitholt left work. Heitholt was found strangled in the parking lot. He was 48.
The case went cold for two years when Erickson confessed to the crime and implicated Ferguson in the murder.
Erickson and Ferguson, both 17 at the time of Heitholt’s murder, were in Columbia that evening attending Halloween parties and later snuck into a college bar. Erickson, who admitted to being under the influence of alcohol and drugs that evening, had no recollection of anything that happened.
The Strange Dreams
After reading news stories about the murder in Oct. 2003, Erickson began having dreams that made him believe he was the killer. The following month, Erickson saw a police sketch of a possible suspect and thought it looked like him. He told friends about all of this, and they contacted Columbia Police.
Erickson was taken into custody and interrogated. But watching the interrogation video, it becomes clear Erickson knew nothing about the crime.
When asked about the murder weapon, Erickson couldn’t identify the object used to kill Heitholt and made guesses. The detective interrogating Erickson did something no seasoned investigator would do; he actually gave him the details of the crime. He told Erickson that Heitholt was strangled with his own belt.
The belt was never recovered, only the buckle. However, plenty of forensic evidence was discovered, including hair, blood, fingerprints, and footprints. The problem is none of the DNA matched Erickson or Ferguson.
The only evidence linking Ferguson to the murder was the testimony of Erickson and a janitor, who said he saw both young men in the parking lot the night of the murder. That was enough to convict Ferguson on Dec. 5, 2005. Ferguson, who was 21 at the time, was sentenced to 40 years. In a plea deal, Erickson was sentenced to 25 years.
Four years after the trial, Erickson said he made it all up and was pressured by Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane. The janitor, Jerry Trump, also recanted his testimony under oath, saying he was coached by the prosecution.
A Free Man
Ferguson was released from prison on November 12, 2013, just a few weeks after his 29th birthday. The Boone County District Attorney’s Office said it would no longer pursue a case against Ferguson. The Missouri Attorney General also declined to re-file charges.
Ryan Ferguson spent nine years, eight months, and two days behind bars for a crime he did not commit.
$100 Million Civil Lawsuit
In March 2014, his attorney filed a $100 million civil lawsuit against former county prosecutor Crane, former Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm, and other members of the police force. The suit accused the police of failing to consider other suspects, as well as fabricating and suppressing evidence, and witness tampering. Part of that lawsuit was settled in the summer of 2017.
The Missouri Court of Appeals in Dec. 2019 issued a judgment in Ryan Ferguson’s favor over a pair of insurance providers for the city of Columbia, after discovering language in the city insurance policies that covered Ferguson’s claims of wrongful arrest and prosecution. Ultimately, Ferguson was awarded $11 million ($1 million for each year spent behind bars) for his ordeal.
In the months and years following his release, Ferguson became an advocate for criminal justice reform and people who have been wrongfully convicted.
“It is sad because there are so many innocent people in prison right now, conservative estimates say around 40,000 minimum. Most don’t have a voice and will never have a voice,” he said in a Nov. 2014 interview with FOX 2. “And it’s my responsibility, with whatever opportunities I get to speak about them, that I am not an anomaly. This happens on a daily basis all across America and we can change that.”
Co-Hosting a MTV True-Crime Series
In 2016, Ryan became the co-host of an MTV true-crime series investigating claims of wrongful conviction.
Ferguson went on to become a certified personal trainer and authored a fitness book inspired by his time in jail and prison.
And what of the former prosecutor who put Ryan behind bars? Kevin Crane served as Boone County prosecuting attorney until 2006 when he was elected to be a judge in Missouri’s 13th Circuit Court, a position he still holds today.
Meanwhile, Charles Erickson is still in prison. In a 2013 Dateline interview, Ferguson pledged to help get Erickson freed, even though it was Erickson’s faulty testimony that led to his conviction.
“I know that he was used and manipulated and I kind of feel sorry for the guy,” Ryan said. “He needs help, he needs support, he doesn’t belong in prison.”
Erickson lost two appeals to have his conviction overturned. In June 2021, an attorney filed an innocence petition on Erickson’s behalf.