It was Halloween night, 2001. Sports editor of the Columbia Tribune Kent Heitholt was coming off of his shift at two in the morning. In the small town of Columbia, Missouri, he walked outside to his car, but he never made it inside. He was brutally attacked, knocked to the ground after being struck in the head, and ultimately died of strangulation by his own belt. The assailants took off on foot as Heitholt lay dying on the cold pavement.
Two janitors at the newspaper had stepped out for a smoke break that evening and claimed to have seen two shadowy figures near Heitholts car. One of them allegedly saw one of them take off and was able to get a good look at his face and she was later able to get a police sketch drawn to help identify who committed this vicious murder. At the crime scene, investigators found a strand of hair, blood, and fingerprints.
Shoeprints were also found walking away from the scene with traces of blood on the prints. Whoever had done this, the police figured, must have been covered in blood. Police dogs were able to track the scent from the shoe prints all the way to a dorm at the University of Missouri, but the trail ended there. Police were unable to come up with a match to the trove of evidence that was found, and despite all they had, the murder remained unsolved.
Three years after the murder, Chuck Erickson was reading the newspaper reports of the Heitholt murder and suddenly started having dreams of that night. A known abuser of drugs and alcohol, Erickson dreamt that it was him and friend Ryan Ferguson that were the two that murdered Kent Heitholt. His dreams placed them at the crime scene, even though he has no memory of that night.
The only thing he did know was that he and Ferguson were out a bar called By George located across the street from the Tribune. Erickson said his dreams must have been the truth of what happened because he had blacked out and didnt remember what happened, but certainly he was dreaming this as a repressed memory in his subconscious that had been there for years. He told Ferguson his story of his recent dreams, and Ferguson said there was no way they were the ones that committed that murder because he remembers perfectly what happened that night.
On the night of the murder, Erickson and Ferguson went to the bar, By George. They left around closing time (1:30am), says Ferguson, and Erickson was too inebriated to drive, so Ferguson drove him home. After he dropped Erickson off, he drove himself home, sat outside and made a few phone calls on his cell phone before going into the house for the night. (Cell phone records confirmed that he was on his phone until 2:09am.) His story was simple and it never changed. Ericksons dreams were just that dreams and he should not have believed them as truth.
However, Chuck Erickson liked to talk, and he told a lot of his friends about the dreams he was having about his involvement in the murder. One of his friends was deeply perplexed by these dreams, and decided that yes, they must be a repressed memory, so he went to the police. Dried from no leads in the last three years, the police pounced on this one and immediately brought Erickson and Ferguson in for questioning. While Erickson sat in the interrogation room, it was clear that the knowledge he had of the crime was minimal. The only information he had was what was in his dream, (which was what was released to the public by the media) and police took his dream as fact, figuring that no innocent person would dream something like this.
When police questioned Ferguson over the course of many hours, he stuck to the same story: they were not at the crime scene, and therefore, he and Chuck could not have been the murderers. However, the police were operating on a different motive and were certain they had the right people.
All they needed was a confession from Chuck, and they would be able to charge both of them with the murder of Kent Heitholt. After hours of talking to the police, Chuck finally gave in and told them what they wanted to hear, and both he and Ryan were charged with the murder. Because of his dreams and coercion from police, Chuck believed he and Ryan killed Heitholt in a robbery gone wrong. He ultimately was arranged a plea agreement to be the prosecutions star witness in Fergusons trial.
In 2005, Ryan Ferguson went on trial for murder. The defense figured they may have an easy acquittal from this jury because it was clear that there was so much physical evidence left at the crime, yet none of it matched Ferguson or Erickson. The only thing that could have convicted Ryan was Chucks testimony of the crime, which is exactly what happened. Ryan Ferguson was convicted of murder and robbery, and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Fergusons family maintained their belief that, despite a jury of 12 strangers finding their son guilty, he was not capable of robbery or murder and was completely innocent. His father vowed to do whatever it took to get Ryan freed. The case appeared on shows such as Dateline and 48 Hours and soon attracted the attention of attorney Kathleen Zellner, who has made a reputation of taking on wrongful convictions and winning the appeals. Zellner became Fergusons attorney in 2009 and started working to exonerate him.
Shortly after Zellner started working for Ferguson, in another prison cell sat Chuck Erickson, who was having doubts about what he had testified against Ryan. He was overwhelmed by guilt and wrote a letter to Ryan apologizing for what he had done. Chuck also said that he had realized now that he had lied under oath, which resulted in an innocent persons conviction. Another witness (one of the janitors at the Tribune) also came forward and said that he too had lied under oath when he identified Ferguson as one of the shadowy figures he saw at the crime scene. On the stand, he pointed to Ferguson and said without a doubt he knew it was him that he saw, but around the same time as Erickson, he recanted the testimony he made in court and said that he was sure about one thing: he could not be sure who it was he saw that night.
With two key witnesses taking back their sworn statements made on the stand, a habeas corpus motion was filed in 2012, which was ultimately denied. The website run by Ryans family, freeryanferguson.com, says: After an exhaustive review of case law across the United States, no case exists in which the only witnesses against the defendant admitted perjury in open court at a habeas hearing. However, the state of Missouri maintained the conviction. Both witnesses admitted to perjury, and though it was their testimony that convicted Ryan, the judge refused to declare a mistrial or overthrow his conviction. Perhaps the thought of the judge was, if Erickson has lied extensively before (and for no reason, at that), and lied under oath as well, why should he be taken seriously now? Ryans website also states, There is no case in the United States where the only alleged eyewitnesses recanted in open court, the conviction has been upheld, and the person remains incarcerated.
In January 2013, Zellner filed Ryans latest petition with the Western District Appellate Court in Kansas City. The previous response from the court was that if they granted another hearing for the case, it would be a waste of judicial resources. However, in July of 2013, the Western District Appellate Court announced that they would like to hear the arguments regarding Ryans request that charges be dropped due to lack of evidence. Zellner thought her case was strong, the arguments went well, and that Ryan had a great chance at freedom after nine years in prison. Months later, in November 2013, the appellate court overturned the conviction. If the state of Missouri did not file an appeal within 15 days, Ryan was to be released immediately.
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