At 2:08 a.m. on November 1, 2001, 48-year-old Kent Heitholt, sports editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune, signed off his computer and left the newspaper offices. Less than 15 minutes later, two newspaper custodians saw two white males standing next to the Heitholt’s car in the Tribune parking lot. One yelled, “Someone’s hurt out here, man,” and both walked out of the lot. Police were called and arrived within minutes, but Heitholt was next to his car with severe head wounds. He had been strangled to death.
Police questioned the two custodians, Shawna Ornt and Jerry Trump. Ornt was able to work with a sketch artist and provide a composite drawing of only one of the men, who she said was muscular, with blond hair and was in his early 20’s. Trump was unable to provide a description of either man, except to say they were white and in their 20’s. Heitholt’s watch and keys were missing, but his wallet was inside the car.
The murder remained unsolved for two years. In October 2003, the local newspapers printed articles about the case and the fact that it was still unsolved. Charles Erickson read the articles and began to wonder if he had committed the crime. On the night of the murder, Erickson and his high school classmate, Ryan Ferguson, both 17 years old, were drinking at a tavern called By George, located a few blocks from the Tribune.
Erickson had gotten so drunk that night that he blacked out and could not remember anything after leaving the bar. But prompted by the news articles, Erickson told Ferguson in late December 2003 or early January 2004, that he was having “dream like” memories that he and Ferguson had murdered Heitholt. Ferguson ridiculed Erickson and said that was not true, but Erickson told two other friends about his recovered memories. One of the friends called police.
On March 10, 2004, Columbia police picked up Erickson and after questioning, he confessed that he and Ferguson robbed and killed Heitholt. Ferguson was arrested the same day. He denied any involvement in the crime and said that after he and Erickson left the tavern, he dropped Erickson off at his home and then went to his own home.
Ferguson and Erickson were charged with first degree murder and robbery. In 2004, Erickson pled guilty to murder and robbery, was sentenced to 25 years in prison and agreed to testify against Ferguson.
Ferguson went on trial in the fall of 2005 in Boone County Circuit Court before a jury. There was no physical evidence linking him or Erickson to the crime, though the police had recovered fingerprints and footprints from the murder scene. The prosecution claimed that Erickson and Ferguson left the bar intending to rob someone to get money so they could continue drinking—despite the fact that the bar had already closed by the time of the crime and even though Heitholt’s wallet was found in his car.
The prosecution theorized that Ferguson and Erickson walked a few blocks from the bar, happened upon Heitholt and beat and strangled him. A pathologist testified that Heitholt was struck 11 times in the head with what appeared to be a tire iron before being strangled.
The prosecution’s evidence consisted of Erickson’s confession and the testimony of Trump, the newspaper custodian who had initially said he could not identify the men in the parking lot. Trump, a convicted sex offender, testified that he had been arrested on a parole violation in December 2001—not long after the murder—and was in prison in December 2004 when his wife mailed him a copy of a newspaper article about the arrests of Erickson and Ferguson.
Trump claimed that the newspaper was folded in such a way that he saw the photographs of Ferguson and Erickson before he saw the article about their arrest. He testified that he immediately recognized the photographs as the men he saw in the parking lot on the night of Heitholt’s murder. Trump then identified Ferguson in court.
On December 5, 2005, Ferguson was convicted of second degree murder and first degree robbery. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Ferguson’s convictions were upheld on appeal. In November 2009, Erickson reached out to Ferguson’s lawyers and gave a taped statement saying that he alone committed the murder and robbery and that Ferguson was an innocent bystander. The videotape was given to attorney Kathleen Zellner, a Chicago area defense lawyer who had investigated and helped more than a dozen other wrongfully convicted defendants prove their innocence.
A motion for a new trial based on the recantation was filed and denied. In February 2011, Ferguson filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Cole County, where he was incarcerated. The petition alleged that Trump had recanted his trial testimony that his wife had mailed him the newspaper with the story about the Heitholt murder. In fact, Trump said, the prosecution had reached out to him and showed him the newspaper, and that he falsely identified Ferguson and Erickson so that he would be released from prison. The prosecution denied showing the newspaper to Trump.
In addition, the petition alleged that Erickson had expanded his recantation to say that he was not involved in the murder and neither was Ferguson. Moreover, the petition alleged that the prosecution had interviewed Trump’s wife before Ferguson’s trial and she told them that she had not sent any newspaper articles to Trump.
After a hearing, the petition was denied in October 2012. Ferguson then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Missouri Court of Appeals in January 2012, alleging the same claims—that the prosecution had withheld evidence that would have impeached Trump.
At a hearing on the petition, Trump claimed that the prosecution showed him the newspaper photographs and he decided to falsely implicate Ferguson and Erickson in the hope of future leniency.
On November 5, 2013, the Missouri Court Of Appeals reversed Ferguson’s conviction, ruling that the prosecution had failed to disclose evidence that showed Trump had lied at Ferguson’s trial—that Trump’s wife said she did not mail him the newspaper. The court ordered the prosecution to decide within 15 days whether to retry Ferguson or to appeal the decision granting a new trial.
On November 12, the Boone County District Attorney’s Office said it would not pursue the case any longer and Ferguson was released.
In March 2014, Ferguson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the prosecutor and police officers involved in his case.
– Maurice Possley