In episode 10 of Bow to Fate we discuss the wrongful conviction of Ryan Ferguson and Charles Erickson. Ryan was eventually set free, but to this day Charles Erickson still remains in prison for the Halloween night murder of Kent Heitholt. This is the final installment of a three part series on this case. If you enjoy this episode please visit our website bowtofate.com to stay up to date with current events and episodes
Hello and thanks for listening to Bow to Fate- a podcast focusing on true crime with an emphasis on the flaws in our justice system. Today we are wrapping up the wrongful conviction of Ryan Ferguson and Charles Erickson for the murder of Kent Heitholt. We left just as Ryan’s trial had concluded. He had been found guilty of 2nd degree murder and 1st degree robbery. He was sentenced to a total of 40 years in jail.
Here is Bill Ferguson from the 2015 documentary Dream/Killer…
POST CONVICTION- BILL FERGUSON CRIME SCENE TOURS
As you can hear, Bill Ferguson has every intention of fulfilling his promise to clear his son’s name. It wasn’t long before Bill received the boxes of discovery from his son’s case. He started going through the documents and the interviews. He dedicated every spare second he had to learning all the ins and outs of the case.
Ryan celebrated his 21st birthday during his trial, his supporters stood outside the jail and sang happy birthday to him. Ryan had been in jail for 18 months leading up to the trial after receiving a bail requirement of $20 million dollars. Bill feared that he would never be able to see his son again outside the dingy lights of prison. After he saw the interest in the tours of the crime scene he gave, he started a website, freeryanferguson.com. He thought that if anyone had additional information they may start talking on the website. Lawyers had prevented him from reaching out and speaking to potential witnesses the first time around, this time he was going to be more involved. In his mind the experts had failed so he was going to take on more.
It wasn’t long before the website bore fruit. He received a message from Shawna Ornt, the Tribune janitor that had helped create the composite sketches. While Ryan was going through his initial appeals, Shawna agreed to meet Bill in the Tribune Parking lot. He decided to film the meeting.
Dream/Killer- BILL INTERVIEWS ORNT- She told Crane those are not the guys
No one had asked Ornt if Ryan was one of the two men she saw that night on the stand and she confessed to Bill that she was afraid, she said Prosecutor Crane pressured her and made her feel like she was wrong, but she was certain Ryan Ferguson was not one of the men that was in the parking lot Halloween night 2001.
The case files produced a lot of evidence that was not brought up at trial. There were many avenues that had not been discussed. Kent Heitholt was 315 lbs and 6’3, it did seem silly that two scrawny 17 year old boys would choose him as a target for their robbery. He was a big man with an intimidating stature, though his friends and family said he was a teddy bear, he certainly wouldn’t look like an easy mark. Police also neglected to investigate the last person to talk to Kent that night, Micheal Boyd. Boyd’s story had changed several times over the course of the investigation, but astonishingly no one had ever asked for his DNA or fingerprints to compare them to the scene.
While Boyd claimed that he left the Daily Tribune at 2am on the night of the murder and then spoke with Heitholt, his co-workers claimed that he left the tribune at 1AM that night, is it possible that he sat in his car for an entire hour, waiting for Heitholt to leave the Tribune that night?
Near Heitholt’s body they found Hickman High School basketball schedules and Columbia College Basketball materials, both were assigned to be reported on by Micheal Boyd. Boyd also did not carry a briefcase or backpack. He often carried all of his research materials by hand so they could have easily ended up at the crime scene, the Columbia police never tested any of these for prints or DNA.
Heitholt was Boyd’s supervisor and he had chastised Boyd that night for a mistake he made in the photo selection for an article. Heitholt instructed Boyd that he was going to have to call all 18 players of the team to apologize personally, yet he said that in their last conversation they joked around about the stray cat that Heitholt fed each night. Boyd was a father of 4 and one of his children was ill, a year earlier he had lost a job at another paper for plagiarism, his part time job at the Tribune did not provide health insurance and he was under an immense amount of financial pressure. He was of a similar height and weight to Heitholt and according to one account he gave to police he had spoken to Heitholt a mere 6 minutes before the 911 call at 2:26AM. He also often complained to the janitorial staff that Heitholt over critiqued his work, he felt that he was being singled out.
There was also some confusion as to what car Boyd was driving the night of the murder. First account is he is driving his Blue Buick, next time it is his wife’s Red Oldsmobile, then again the blue, red, blue, red. There would have been a significant amount of blood on the perpetrator of Heitholt’s murder, the police had never found any blood in Ferguson’s Mercedes. But they had never checked Boyd’s vehicle. Boyd claims he sold his Blue Oldsmobile many years ago, but the car is still registered in his name, it has just vanished.
Obviously if the defense would have had this information it could have been used to establish reasonable doubt. The murder was vicious, it seemed more personal than just a random act. The police had tunnel vision though, they focused intensely on the two men outside the Tribune that night. The truth could have simply been that two drunk college kids happened upon a body and got scared, but the narrative was established too early and investigators continued down the line of locating them ignoring all other potential avenues of the crime.
Ryan Ferguson gets his first short at introducing new evidence in 2008. Represented by an attorney from the public defender’s office. Ryan’s defense team try several avenues. One of which was ineffective assistance of counsel. It was discovered that Ryan’s original trial attorney, Rogers, failed to call a detective that was in charge of the K-9 unit on the night of the murder. The officer followed a trail that took him in the opposite direction of the way that Charles Erickson stated they traveled in his trial testimony
They also challenged the jury pool in Boone County. During the time they said that Boone County had an “opt out” policy, where potential jurors could pay a $50 fee and agree to complete 6 hours of community service rather than serve on a jury. Ryan’s public defender argued that limiting the jury pool violated Ryan’s constitutional right to a fair trial by a jury of his peers.
Bill Ferguson had also been busy. On one of his nightly trips to the crime scene he walked out of the parking lot to the street crossing that Erickson claimed he and Ryan met Dallas Mallory at a stop light. He noticed that the light at the intersection was flashing yellow. They next day he contacted the Missouri Department of Transportation and found out the lights at those intersections turned to yellow at 1am, meaning that Erickson could not have met Dallas Mallory at a stop light at 2:30am on the night of the murder.
Bill contacted Mallory with the discrepancy. He found out that Mallory was not called to testify because his story had changed so many times. Mallory told Bill that the detectives brought him into interrogation back in 2004, he tried to tell them several times that he had not seen Chuck or Ryan that night, but they wouldn’t believe him, after several hours he told them that he would say anything they wanted. Dallas Mallory agreed to testify at Ryan Ferguson’s Evidentiary hearing on December 15th, 2009.
1st Appeal- DALLAS MALLORY TESTIFY
Not only did Dallas Mallory come forward, but Shawna Ornt did as well. She testified to everything she told Bill Ferguson earlier. She told the court that Prosecutor Crane frightened her and made her feel like she was in the wrong. Shawna did not lie in the trial, she just didn’t volunteer any information either. Their testimony, along with the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, and the constitutional rights violation in regards to the opt-out policy for jurors in Boone County allowed Ryan, his new defense team, and his family feel fairly confident that he may get out.
Unfortunately on June 15th, 2009 Boone County Circuit Judge Abel denied the appeal. She rejected the claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and the protests against the juror opt out policy. Her decision also stated that the new witnesses either were not credible or would not have made a material difference in the outcome of the first trial.
The Ferguson family was down, but they were not out. One night Bill Ferguson sent an email to the best wrongful conviction attorney in the country, Kathleen Zehlner. During this period CBS 48 Hours Mystery had done a few shows on Ryan’s case. The host Erin Moriarty had seen the interrogation tapes, then watched as Charles Erickson transformed into the Prosecution’s calm collected star witness in a little over a year. The episodes aired on television and Zehlner had been watching. When she received the email from Bill Ferguson with an invitation from him to walk the crime scene, she accepted right away.
Zehlner walked the scene with Bill and looked over the discovery information he had, along with the additional information and witness statements Bill had collected post conviction. In November 2009 Kathleen Zehlner signed on to represent Ryan Ferguson pro bono.
In the Documentary Dream/Killer Zehlner talks about taking on the case….
4. ZEHLNER- DREAM KILLER DOC
When you are represented by Kathleen Zehlner everything changes. This is her wheelhouse and no one does wrongful conviction cases better than Kathleen Zehlner and her team. She recognized right away the investigating prowess of Bill Ferguson and how the entire Ferguson family put everything behind freeing Ryan.
As Zehlner worked on filing a writ of Habeas Corpus, Ryan received a letter from Charles Erickson. He asked Ryan if the next time his attorney was in town she would visit him.
Zehlner assumed that Charles was going to recant, so she brought a court reporter with her to video the conversation with Erickson, what she heard was totally unexpected…..
5. POST CONVICTION- CHUCK statement to Zehlner
Chuck was still saying that Ryan was at the scene of the crime, but that he was attempting to stop him from committing the crime. Erickson was obviously still very confused. He said later that he was trying to make amends, he did not want Ryan to stay in prison for something he wasn’t even sure himself that they had done. He said admitting to committing the crime alone, he thought he was doing the right thing. Erickson knew that there was still what he assumed were witnesses that saw them at the crime scene, so he did not know how to reconcile that with what he actually knew.
After this deposition with Zehlner, she realized that Charles had no idea what had actually happened the night of the crime, and it confirmed for her that all of his information was being pulled from the discovery he was given by police and from news reports. Zehlner started to send him information in regards to the case. She sent him the correct police statements from Dallas Mallory and from other witnesses who said that they never saw Erickson or Ferguson that night. Police also gave Erickson statements from witnesses that said that Ryan had confessed to the murder and that he intended to put it all on Chuck, none of these were accurate. Zehlner obtained affidavits from these supposed witnesses and provided those to Chuck. It was not long before Charles Erickson realized that he had been duped into pleading guilty and into testifying against Ryan Ferguson.
For a short while Zehlner also represented Charles Erickson and was assisting in obtaining his release from prison as well, however as time progressed and it became clear to her that she would secure Ryan a new trial, she was forced to withdraw from his case for fear of being accused of a conflict of interest in representing both defendants.
On April 16th, 2012 the new evidentiary hearing began for Ryan Ferguson in front of Cole County Judge Daniel Green. Charles Erickson was called to the stand first….
6. HABEAS- Erickson- Remembers nothing
He thought that the police account was right, he believed that others had corroborated his involvement in the murder. Erickson mistakenly believed that he was doing the right thing by testifying and pleading guilty. It never crossed his mind that the police would lie to him, remember his grandfather, father, uncle, and brother all worked for the police. It was inconceivable for him to believe that law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office would put an innocent man in jail for something they did not do. The realization was a hard pill to swallow for Erickson, and it made him abrasive and embarrassed by his nativity of the whole process.
Erickson was not the only witness that Zehlner needed to overcome for Ryan though, but luckily she had the assistance of Bill Ferguson.
During the first trial, Jerry Trump’s story didn’t really stand out, but the more Bill looked at the case documents he thought that they may be missing a big part. The story that Trump told regarding the identification seemed a bit odd, and Bill found out that no one had ever corroborated Trump’s claim that his wife mailed him the newspaper article that he claimed led to his identification of the arrest. Bill Ferguson tracked down Barbara Trump, Jerry’s wife, and asked her if she had mailed him that newspaper article as Trump had claimed at trial. Mrs. Trump denied ever doing so, Jerry knew that if he did not come clean, Zehlner would call his wife to the stand and she would dispute his account of the events. Eventually Jerry Trump decided it was best to come clean.
7. HABEAS- TRUMP
Jerry Trump now said that Prosecutor Crane had provided him with the newspaper and asked him to make an identification. Jerry Trump was out on parole, he had served just three years of a five year sentence for child endangerment. He knew the possibility of going back to prison was very real and he was scared. In his mind if he could be as helpful to the prosecution as possible that would take the heat off of him on his case. He claims that he was called into the prosecutor’s office in order to make that identification.
Bill Ferguson’s interview with Barbara Trump had also bore some more fruit though. Before the trial, the prosecutor’s investigator, William Haws, interviewed Trump’s wife, and she told him she had no memory of sending a newspaper article to her husband Jerry. Haws made no report of his conversation with Barbara Trump, and the information was never given to the defense. This prevented the defense from properly cross examining the prosecution’s star witness at trial and was a clear Brady violation.
The prosecution had already tried to have Shawna Ornt make that ID, she had told them in no uncertain terms that Ryan Ferguson was not one of the men she saw near Heitholt’s car in the Early morning of November 1, 2001. Ornt says that Crane scared her and made her feel like she was wrong, but regardless she was not going to get on the stand and identify Ryan. Crane had no dirt on Shawna Ornt, but Jerry Trump was an easier target. Because of the allegations made against him, Zehlner thought that it would be prudent for Prosecutor Crane to testify at the evidentiary hearing.
8. HABEUS- CRANE testifies about TRUMP ID
The focus is really driven towards the newspaper article that allowed Trump to make the identification. If in fact Crane showed Trump the article or if someone on his staff did, that is a Brady violation. That would mean that Ryan Ferguson was entitled to a new trial. Zehlner stresses it at the end, a lot of emphasis was given to the fact that there was no governmental entity involved in the identification made by Trump. He claimed at trial that he received the article in the mail from his wife, if the jury had heard that he had actually been shown the article in the prosecutor’s office and asked to make the identification that would change the perception of Trump’s identification. Rather than coming to the conclusion on his own, his testimony could have been swayed in much the same way Erickson’s was.
By the time of this evidentiary hearing in 2012, Prosecutor Crane was now Judge Crane. The judge presiding over this case, Judge Green was a trial lawyer before Judge Crane. Ryan Ferguson’s defense was laying out their case of prosecutorial misconduct in unfriendly territory.
Zehlner had taken apart the first trial and left nothing on the table, they addressed each and every piece of incriminating evidence against Ryan Ferguson. Ultimately the only real evidence was the testimonies of Charles Erickson and Jerry Trump, both had now recanted. Zehlner was very confident that Ryan was going to be granted a new trial. But as our favorite astronaut, Neil Armstrong reminds us “When you get overconfident, that’s when something snaps up and bites you”
On October 31st, 2012, Judge Daniel Green denied Ryan Ferguson’s writ of Habeas Corpus. He waited until the day of the murder to issue the ruling. While reading the opinion the defense team was in shock. Judge Green advised that neither Erickson nor Trump were believable in their recantations and confirmed the original conviction would stand.
Bill Ferguson was not done though, he had planned for every possible outcome. The Ferguson family immediately put up a billboard with the original sketches drawn by Shawna Ornt asking for information on the murder of Kent Heitholt and offering a $10,000 reward for any information on the two men or the crime itself. When it was announced that Judge Crane was going to give the commencement speech for the University of Missouri-Columbia, the Ferguson’s hired a plan to fly over with a banner stating Free Ryan Ferguson, they then continued that over homecoming and other large events. Kelly Ferguson started a facebook page, she had thousands of people from all over the world send photos to the page holding up signs that read, “Free Ryan Ferguson.” Bill Ferguson had his car wrapped with his son’s picture and the words Free Ryan Ferguson. They did everything they could to shine a light onto Columbia and the miscarriage of justice that was unfolding before their very eyes.
Kathleen Zehlner appealed the ruling to the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals, arguing he is innocent of the crime on Jan. 30, 2013. This would be Ryan Ferguson’s 14th attempt to overturn his murder conviction. On September 13th, 2013 the appeals court agreed to hear the case, Zehlner prepared for any argument. She would have approximately 15 minutes to present their case and ask any questions posed by the judges.
A Brady violation is when the prosecution withholds evidence or information in their possession that could be beneficial to the defense. The petition of habeas corpus focused on the brady violations in this case, primarily the identification made by Jerry Trump.
The four types of prosecutorial misconduct are offering inadmissible evidence in court, suppressing evidence from the defense, encouraging deceit from witnesses, and prosecutorial bluffing (in other words threats or intimidation). It could be argued that the prosecutor in this case hit all four. By focusing on the identification made by Jerry Trump it appeared like the appeals court judges may have agreed. The newspaper story was just too convenient.
In November 2005 the appeals court rendered their decision vacating the sentence of Ryan Ferguson specifically citing the various Brady violations as the reason to issue a new trial. In the end, it was the Barbara Trump Brady violation that vacated the conviction, but it was the recantations of Jerry Trump and Charles Erickson that prevented the state from pursuing a new trial. Without their testimony, the state had no case. Ryan Ferguson was released from prison on Nov. 12, 2013. He had served 10 years for a crime he did not commit, for his trouble he filed a civil suit alleging that his civil rights were violated by city officials, including investigators and prosecutors. After another court battle he received $10 million dollars, $1 million dollars for every year he spent in a cell.
Ryan suffered through an incredible injustice, but it was over. He was now able to move on with his life, when Charles Erickson heard the news of Ryan’s vacated sentence he was overjoyed that Ryan was finally out. Erickson was not wrongfully convicted though, he had pled guilty to the murder and robbery, there was no verdict to overturn. His battle is much more difficult to overcome.
In order to have Charles Erickson released from jail, his lawyers would need to prove that his guilty plea was not voluntarily, knowingly, and understandably made. Ryan Ferguson’s appeals had revealed so much about the case and the more Erickson read the more he understood that he had entered into a guilty plea based on falsified reports and threats of long term prison sentences. Short of proving actual innocence, and thereby finding the real killer of Kent Heitholt, the legal battle to turn over a guilty plea would be very difficult. When you plead guilty to a crime and admit fault you have a very short window to file an appeal, Erickson had missed all those windows. His new defense team would need to find a way to vacate the guilty plea all together.
They began where Erickson’s original defense team should have, Chuck’s mental competency. Charles had pleaded guilty to second degree murder and first degree robbery, he received a prison sentence fo 25 years in return for his testimony against Ryan Ferguson. His defense attorney, Mark Kempton, never had Chuck evaluated for mental competency. Chuck had seen several psychologist before and his family had sent him to a treatment center for his drug abuse.
His first visit to a mental health professional was when Charles was fifteen years old. The psychologist noted that she doubted Charles will to stop his drug abuse. They diagnosed with Adjustment Disorder and Mixed Anxiety and Depressed Mood. He was seen again at the age of seventeen. After testing they found that his memory was severely below normal especially in relation to his IQ and verbal reasoning. They surmised that this was the result of years of substance abuse, Erickson admitted to using LSD, shrooms, cocaine, adderall, and marijuana in excess. They also noted a potential for OCD, his mother at the time had already been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and he was exhibiting the warning signs of the disorder as well.
Charles was not formally diagnosed with OCD until after his arrest, he was placed anti-anxiety medication and medication to help with the OCD as well. His OCD likely played a role in his obsession with the Kent Heitholt murder and his potential involvement in the crime. Because Erickson frequently suffered black outs from his drug induced escapades. After the news articles came out about the case 2 years after the murder Erickson began to obsess about his possible involvement in the murder. He read all the articles he could find online about the case, then tested his theory out on his friends. Desperate for answers Erickson finally asked Ryan at a New Years Eve story, Ryan essentially told him to get lost, this only fueled his obsession about the case. At one point he told his friends he was going to go down to the police station to get some answers, but his close friends talked him out of it, telling him he would know if he was involved and to just let it go, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t long before an acquaintance tipped of the Columbia police department regarding the stories Chuck was telling and he was brought in for interrogation, it was not hard to break him after that.
The police fed him specific details of the crime and convinced him that the things he read in the news reports were not disclosed and only known by the killer. Chuck tried to tell them several times that he read about the crime in the papers and that he could be just making it all up, but they did not believe him and continued to press him and feed him specifics about the murder weapon, where the crime took place, and why it was done.
The Brady Violations that released Ryan Ferguson from prison, should also apply to Charles Erickson. Police gave Erickson false or misleading reports in order to secure his guilty plea. Meghan Arthur, who was at the New Year’s Eve party where Chuck confronted Ryan said that Ryan told her that Chuck was trying to tell him that they did something, but Ryan was confused and weirded out by him. Meghan swore that this is what she told detectives in 2005, but in an unsigned police report it reads that their conversation went differently. The report states that Ryan told Meghan that Chuck was trying to turn themselves in and that Ryan told her that he and Erickson had done something stupid. Meghan Arthur vehemently denies ever telling a detective this. She was never called to testify in Ryan’s trial and Chuck only had the unsigned report to go off of.
Chuck was also not provided the report by the Prosecution’s investigator in relation to the Barbara Trump interview, where she states that she never mailed her husband the newspaper article that led to his identification of Ferguson and Erickson.
Kim Bennet was at thee club, By George, she stated that she saw both Erickson and Ferguson at the club that night and watched them leave the By George parking lot at 1:15AM heading the direction of home, just as Ryan Ferguson had always claimed, not the direction of the Crime Scene as the prosecution stated.
Dallas Mallory said that he was threatened and scared by police and after hours of questioning eventually told them he would say anything they wanted. Erickson claimed that he saw Dallas Mallory the night of the murder with two females. Mallory eventually conceded, even though he knew it was not true (He didn’t own a car and at the time could not drive due to DUI conviction). He just wanted to get away from police
When Erickson began to waiver in jail, they provided him with testimony from a jailhouse snitch, Richard Walker, who claimed that Ryan admitted to the murder and had intentions on blaming the whole thing on Chuck. When that wasn’t enough, they moved Richard Walker into the same cell block as Charles Erickson and had him tell him personally that Ryan confessed and planned to turn on Chuck. Later on his death bed Richard Walker admitted to lying about the entire encounter stating that he would have said or done anything to get out of prison.
Prior to his guilty plea Chuck had access to the discovery in the case, the same information that was kept from Ryan’s defense was kept from his as well. Looking at what the prosecution had and with the police threatening him with life in prison or even the death sentence, Erickson’s family convinced him that pleading guilty was the right thing to do.
On appeal Erickson’s attorney’s argued that his original defense attorney failed to investigate any of the claims he made to police and failed to make sure his client had the mental capacity to understand the guilty plea he was entering into. They also claimed that the Columbia Police and the Boone County Prosecutor’s office knowingly manipulated a confession out of a vulnerable person and then threatened him with the death sentence or life in prison in order plead guilty to the plea.
Unfortunately for Charles Erickson, his appeal was denied and his guilty plea still stands to this day. Because of two assaults he committed while in prison, he will not be eligible for parole until 2023. Despite how you may feel about Charles Erickson, leaving him in prison for a crime he did not commit is not right. It is not only robbing an innocent man of a free life outside of prison walls, but it is also robbing the Heitholt family of justice for Kent. The real murder or murders are still out there. You can read more about Erickson’s appeals and view trial testimony and documents at FreeCharlesErickson.com. The level headed, compassionate, Ryan Ferguson, has always sworn to help free Charles from wrongful imprisonment, he is a much better human being that I am, I do not know if I would have that kind of forgiveness to give.
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