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December 5, 2010

Murder verdict against Ryan Ferguson relied on confused confessor
CHRIS HAMBY, Special to The Star

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. The Jefferson City Correctional Center is tucked against a hillside at the end of No More Victims Road.

Encircled by layers of chain-link fence and razor wire, the maximum security prison is home to Ryan Ferguson, who at 26 still has ahead of him most of the sentence he received for a 2001 murder and robbery he says he didn’t commit.

And others believe him.

They point to virtually the only evidence against Ferguson — the bizarre and muddled statements of his former high-school classmate and alleged accomplice.

“There’s almost nothing weirder than the Ryan Ferguson case,” said Richard Leo, one of the nation’s leading false confessions experts and a witness in a 2008 hearing, in an interview.

“I am convinced that Ferguson is innocent.”

Prosecutors stand by Ferguson’s conviction and 40-year prison sentence in the notorious case — the brutal 2001 Halloween-night murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt in the newspaper’s parking lot. But almost everyone involved acknowledges that the case rests primarily on the answer to one question:

Did Ferguson’s friend Chuck Erickson give a false confession?

In 2004 — more than two years after the crime -— Erickson told police he and Ferguson committed the murder. But the police had no physical evidence linking either of them to the crime. Instead, they leaned hard on Erickson.

Much of Erickson’s confession was puzzling.

He couldn’t name the murder weapon, for example. In fact, he originally got it wrong. When the police took him to the crime scene, he couldn’t point out exactly where the murder occurred or how he’d fled the scene, pointing in the opposite direction from the path the killers took.

Even during his testimony at Ferguson’s trial, Erickson claimed that minutes after the murder, he ran into an acquaintance who has since denied seeing him, then went to a bar that had been closed for more than an hour.

Erickson’s explanation for his statements: he’d immediately repressed the memories of what he’d done and hadn’t recalled them for years.

The prosecutor, who previously spoke in an interview about the case but recently declined to discuss it in detail, acknowledged during Ferguson’s trial that Erickson didn’t remember every detail of the crime. But, he argued, Erickson was consistent in his accounts of “the essence of this murder.”

Ferguson’s defense team, on the other hand, believes that police manipulated Erickson into giving a more coherent confession. Indeed, in Erickson’s later conversations with police and the prosecutor, his recollections became less hazy and more damning for Ferguson.

Now Ferguson has a new high-profile attorney, Kathleen Zellner, who has won exonerations in a number of other cases. She says she agreed to represent him pro bono because she believes his conviction was a “terrible miscarriage of justice.”

But perhaps the most surprising person to proclaim Ferguson’s innocence is Erickson himself. In a stunning reversal, he now has given a statement saying he alone committed the crime while Ferguson tried to stop him.

Through it all, Ferguson has lost appeal after appeal. Now, as he finds himself nearing the end of his legal options in Missouri, his attorney is preparing the petition she hopes will convince a judge of what Ferguson has always maintained:

“I don’t belong here.”

•••

It was 5 a.m. on March 10, 2004, when Columbia Police Officer Mitch Baxley called Detective John Short at home with good news. There was a break in the murder case police had been working for the past 28 months.

For much of that time, Short had been the lead detective on the investigation. He had arrived on the newspaper’s parking lot in the early morning hours of Nov. 1, 2001, to find officers roping off the bloody results of a brutal attack.

Heitholt had been struck on the head at least 11 times with a blunt object. The ultimate cause of death, though, was strangulation – whoever killed Heitholt had ripped off his belt and strangled him to death with it, an autopsy showed.

Police reports detail the aftermath of the crime.

Two sets of bloody footprints – neither of which appeared to match Heitholt’s shoes – led from the driver’s side of Heitholt’s car, up the alley by the Tribune building and through part of downtown Columbia. A police tracking dog followed a similar scent trail, continuing even after the visible blood trail stopped and ending up at a dormitory on the northern edge of the University of Missouri campus.

The two sets of footprints jibed with what was perhaps the police’s best lead: two janitors had seen two men duck behind Heitholt’s car, then head up the alley. Heitholt had logged off his computer and left the office at 2:08 a.m. – not an unusual time for the sports department night owls. A few minutes later, one janitor – Shawna Ornt – went outside for a cigarette break and saw “someone in a shadow duck down” behind Heitholt’s car, she later testified.

She went inside and got another member of the cleaning crew, Jerry Trump. As the two stood in a doorway facing the parking lot, Trump yelled out, and two men stood up from behind the car. In Ornt’s recollection, the man at the back of the car walked toward her, looked her in the eyes, and said, “Someone needs help.”

A few hours later, Ornt told detectives she thought she would be able to identify the man who had spoken to her. She described him as a “white male, 20 to 21, 6 foot, medium to muscular build with blond hair spiked in the front, no glasses, unknown facial hair with a light gray shirt,” according to a police report. At the time, both Ferguson and Erickson were 17 years old and about 5-feet-7-inches tall, and both had brown hair.

(Heitholt himself was 6-feet-3-inches tall and weighed more than 300 pounds.)

Trump could not provide a detailed description of either man, a police report said.

But none of these pieces of evidence – not the footprints, not the fingerprints from Heitholt’s car, not the hairs collected from Heitholt’s hands, not eyewitness statements – was responsible for the development that had roused Short early on March 10, 2004. Instead, it was the strange story of a 19-year-old local community college student.

•••

Beginning in November 2003, two years after the slaying, Erickson had been making increasingly specific statements to friends, always after drinking, using drugs or both, according to police reports and court testimony. They started as vague recollections of doing something he regretted, and at least once he said he’d dreamed he was involved in Heitholt’s murder. He eventually told a friend that he and Ferguson had killed Heitholt. Erickson’s friends finally called the police in the early morning hours of March 10, 2004.

Confronted with these incriminating statements, Erickson’s response was, “I don’t even remember it,” according to Short’s report of his initial interview with Erickson, the first in a series of sessions that spanned much of the day. Short, who declined to comment for the articles because of Ferguson’s ongoing appeal, later said during a deposition that Erickson appeared to be telling what he remembered, not playing games to minimize his culpability.

Erickson told Short that he and Ferguson had been at By George, a nightclub a few blocks from the Tribune. They had run out of drinking money and decided to rob someone. They ended up at the Tribune parking lot, where Erickson said he hit Heitholt with a wrench or some other tool from Ferguson’s car.

Erickson got sick and sat down. He looked over to see Ferguson strangling Heitholt. He saw a cleaning lady and may have yelled to her. Leaving the scene, he and Ferguson ran into an acquaintance named Dallas Mallory, who was driving by. Mallory stopped, and Erickson told him they’d attacked someone. Erickson and Ferguson then went back to the club.

Short turned on a video camera and went over Erickson’s story again. Erickson again said he thought he’d vomited at the crime scene. Later, he brought it up again, and Short finally acknowledged to Erickson that police hadn’t found any vomit. Erickson ultimately testified at Ferguson’s trial that he still thought he’d thrown up, but maybe not at the crime scene – he wasn’t sure where exactly.

“I saw Ryan over the guy,” Erickson told Short, describing the attack. Heitholt was on his back, and Ferguson was “like that,” Erickson said, leaning forward and motioning as if choking someone with his hands.

A few minutes later, Short brought up the strangulation again. “We know what the guy got strangled with,” he told Erickson. “That’s kind of a thing I’ve been holding back from you.”

Indeed, the police had held back that information from everyone, not disclosing the unusual murder weapon.

“Is it possible that you know what he was strangled with and you just didn’t want to tell me?” Short asked.

“I think it was a shirt or something,” Erickson answered.

“Well, I know it wasn’t a shirt.”

“Maybe a bungee cord or something from his car. I don’t see why he’d have a rope in his car.”

“Well, we know for a fact that his belt was ripped off of his pants and he was strangled with his belt.”

“Really?”

Moments later, Short tried again: “So it’s possible Ryan could have strangled this guy with his belt, got the keys, and you not know about it?”

“The guy – the man’s belt?”

“Yeah.”

“His own belt?”

“Yes. Does that ring a bell?”

“Not at all.” Erickson’s tone was incredulous.

“But you saw Ryan strangle him though?”

“I thought I did. … I mean, I might not even know what I’m talking about now.”

The other unusual crime fact that police had kept quiet was what one of the men behind Heitholt’s car had yelled to Ornt: “Someone’s hurt,” or, “Someone needs help.” It isn’t clear from Short’s report who brought up Ornt in the initial unrecorded interview.

The presence of a cleaning lady at the crime scene was mentioned in a Tribune article marking the murder’s second anniversary — the same article that Erickson would later testify triggered his “snapshot memories” of committing the murder. In an interview with police later on the same day he was arrested, Erickson said, “I’m making presumptions based on what I read in the newspaper.”

After about 50 minutes, Short concluded the interview and turned his attention west to Kansas City, where police were starting the search for the man who, according to the confession Erickson had just given, had both suggested the robbery and brought it to a violent end.

•••

Ryan William Ferguson was born in Australia, but his family had moved to Columbia when he was about a year old. His father worked as a real estate agent, and his mother was a reading specialist. Ferguson had a middle-class, suburban childhood filled with travel and organized sports, his father recalled in an interview.

Ferguson and Erickson met in junior high school. Erickson’s father was a lawyer who worked as a vice president for an insurance company, and his mother was a microbiologist at the University Hospital. Ferguson and Erickson became friends, but, as high school wore on, they spent less and less time together.

The murder occurred while the two were juniors in high school.

After graduation, Erickson enrolled at Moberly Community College in Columbia and Ferguson completed one trimester at Columbia College, then moved to Kansas City to attend Maple Woods Community College.

•••

Police arrested Ferguson in front of his apartment at 12:30 p.m. on March 10, 2004. At about 3 p.m., Short entered an interview room in the Kansas City Police Department and confronted Ferguson with Erickson’s statements.

Ferguson denied any involvement in the crime. He told Short and other officers throughout the day that he was at By George with Erickson until the bar closed, then he drove Erickson home and went home himself.

As Ferguson was being questioned in Kansas City, Erickson was riding in the back of a police car winding around downtown Columbia. Three detectives videotaped Erickson as they tried to recreate the route Erickson said he and Ferguson had taken on the night of the crime.

“Can you tell me exactly where this happened?” Erickson asked. “Yes,” said Detective Jeff Nichols. He pointed out where Heitholt’s car had been parked.

Which direction had they gone after the attack? Nichols asked. “Probably that direction,” Erickson said, motioning west. The bloody footprints that Nichols had followed led in the opposite direction, toward the east end of the alley. Nichols told Erickson this and asked if they might actually have gone east. “It’s possible,” Erickson said.

Erickson said they had gone back to the night club after the murder and stayed for at least an hour. (Bars in Columbia are required to close by 1:30 a.m., almost an hour before Heitholt was killed.)

Later, back at the police station, Erickson and Nichols went over the night of the murder again; clips from the videotaped interview would be played at Ferguson’s trial and even posted on YouTube.

“Like, I could just be sitting here fabricating all of it and not know,” Erickson said. “I mean, you understand, like, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel guilty about it. But it’s just I don’t — I can’t recollect. I mean, it’s just a trip for me to have to sit here and try to look at something that happened that I read about and try to base what I remember off of that, you know?”

Nichols had heard enough. “Let’s just stop right there,” he cut in. “Okay? Now, one thing I’m not gonna do is I’m not gonna sit here and listen to this kind of gibberish.”

Erickson tried to talk, but Nichols cut him off. “Now, listen,” Nichols continued. “I’m gonna start talking … and you’re gonna start listening.”

Nichols rolled his chair forward, sitting face-to-face with Erickson. “Now, you better start thinking very clearly,” Nichols said, enunciating each word and waving a hand in front of Erickson’s face.

They were going to go through everything “step by step,” Nichols told Erickson. “And I don’t want hear, ‘Oh, all of a sudden I just think I maybe fabricated all this,’ ” Nichols said, affecting an effeminate voice. “No. What I want to hear is exactly what Ryan told you, because that’s what’s gonna keep you in a position to where you’re not gonna be the sole individual out here responsible for what happened to Kent.”

They started at the club. Whose idea was it to rob someone to get more drinking money? “It was Ryan’s idea. … To the best of my knowledge,” Erickson said.

“I don’t even want to hear … ‘best of my knowledge,’ ” Nichols said. “Whose idea was it?”

Erickson answered, “It was Ryan’s idea.”

In this rapid-fire fashion, they went over the attack and the aftermath. Nichols ended the interview after about 20 minutes. Alone in the interrogation room, Erickson clasped his hand over his mouth and stared at the ground.

Nichols has declined to be interviewed for this story, citing Ferguson’s ongoing appeal, and Columbia police didn’t respond to requests for interviews.

But Nichols would later defend his questioning of Erickson when it came under fire during Ferguson’s trial.

•••

Police worked to corroborate Erickson’s confession. Two detectives picked up Dallas Mallory, the acquaintance Erickson said he’d run into just after killing Heitholt. When police questioned Mallory, however, he “continually denied seeing Erickson that night,” according to one detective’s report.

But Mallory changed his story after police told him a Computer Voice Stress Analysis test appeared to be a “deceptive indicator.” After police questioned him further, Mallory “advised he did seem to remember speaking with Erickson,” one detective reported. Mallory later testified that he’d just told the police what they wanted to hear after they yelled at him and called him a liar.

“I was crying hysterically, telling them I wanted to leave,” he testified. “They wouldn’t let me leave.”

Meanwhile, the physical evidence failed to implicate Erickson or Ferguson, as the prosecutor would later concede. Nichols couldn’t locate any evidence of blood in Ferguson’s car. Police never located either weapon – the tire tool or the belt – that Erickson said was used in the attack.

Six fingerprints lifted from Heitholt’s car didn’t match any known samples, including Ferguson’s and Erickson’s. Of three hairs taken from the bags that had been placed over Heitholt’s hands at the crime scene, FBI testing showed two could have come from Heitholt, but all three excluded Ferguson and Erickson.

•••

After his confession, Erickson still showed signs of uncertainty. He later acknowledged telling a psychiatric nurse at the jail that he wasn’t sure whether he’d committed the crime. He had to see the nurse periodically to stay on the medications he’d been prescribed – Lexapro, then Prozac — for “obsessive-compulsive symptoms.”

A psychologist later determined that Erickson was suffering from chronic depression.

Three inmates who were housed near Erickson in the county jail later testified at a post-conviction hearing that he discussed his case with them regularly. Two testified that Erickson said he wasn’t sure whether he’d committed the murder and that it might have been a dream.

The third said Erickson went further.

“He said that he did not believe that he did it,” the inmate testified.


Chris Hamby, a staff writer at The Center for Public Integrity, graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a master’s degree in journalism. Hamby wrote his master’s project on the Ferguson case. He has worked with The Star for several months reporting and editing these stories. He can be reached at cnienaber@kcstar.com .