December 5, 2010
Murder verdict against Ryan
Ferguson relied on confused confessor
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.
point to virtually the only evidence against
“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.
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:
In 2004 —
more than two years after the crime -— Erickson told police he and
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.
during his testimony at
Erickson’s explanation for his statements: he’d immediately repressed the memories of what he’d done and hadn’t recalled them for years.
prosecutor, who previously spoke in an interview about the case but recently
declined to discuss it in detail, acknowledged during
perhaps the most surprising person to proclaim
“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.
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
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.”
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
(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.
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
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
told Short that he and
got sick and sat down. He looked over to see
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
“I saw Ryan
over the guy,” Erickson told Short, describing the attack. Heitholt was on
his back, and
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.”
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?”
“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.”
about 50 minutes, Short concluded the interview and turned his attention west
Ryan William Ferguson was born
The murder occurred while the two were juniors in high school.
graduation, Erickson enrolled at
“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.
said they had gone back to the night club after the murder and stayed for at
least an hour. (Bars in
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
“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.
has declined to be interviewed for this story, citing
Nichols would later defend his questioning of Erickson when it came under
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.”
the physical evidence failed to implicate Erickson or
fingerprints lifted from Heitholt’s car didn’t match any known samples,
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.
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