In episode 9 of Bow to Fate we continue to 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 part 2 of a 3 part series on this case so please be sure to stay tuned in for the additional episodes. If you enjoy this episode please visit our website bowtofate.com to stay up to date with current events and episodes
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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. We are continuing the cases of Ryan Ferguson and Charles Erickson from our last episode. We left off with Charles Erickson’s deposition just before the trial of Ryan Ferguson. Erickson had access to the case files prior to the deposition so he was able to form a cohesive accounting of the events. He admitted that the events came back to him in short spurts over the span of two years and his memory was jogged by new reports of the crime.
Erickson had become completely sure after police slipped doctored reports into the files given to him of Ryan confessing to others and the police planting a jailhouse snitch in the cell block with Charles that continuously told him that Ryan was about to place all the blame on him. Erickson had no idea about this prior to the trial though, he believed that he was doing the right thing. Years of alcohol and drug abuse had left him confused and scared. His family pushed him to take a plea and admit to his wrongdoing in hopes of a more lenient sentence. Charles Erickson came from a family of law enforcement, he could not imagine a world where the police would work to convince him that he was guilty of a crime he did not commit.
The trial of Ryan Ferguson relied solely on the testimony of Charles Erickson. Despite there being ample physical evidence left behind at the crime scene, including a bloody hair in the hand of the victim, Kent Heitholt, none of this evidence pointed towards either Ryan Ferguson or Charles Erickson. This was going to be a case about who the jury believed, it would not be based on any physical evidence. Charles Erickson was prepared to get on the witness stand and admit to the murder of Kent Heitholt in the early morning hours of November, 1st 2001 with the help of Ryan Ferguson.
Beyond a reasonable doubt, we have all heard this phrase before. In a criminal trial the burden of proof is supposed to lie with the prosecution. They need to prove using evidence and testimony that no other logical explanation existed other than the defendant committed the crime. This case split of the town of Columbia in two. Bill Ferguson accused the Columbia Daily Tribune not being impartial in their reporting up to the trial, who could blame them really, this horrific crime happened literally in their backyard to one of their own. The media spent a lot of time portraying Ryan as just another rich kid who thought that he would never be held accountable for his actions. They focused a lot of time on the fact that Chuck and Ryan were high schoolers that were drinking underage, doing drugs, and violating curfew. If any of these things were indicators of murder we would be in a much worse situation in the world. There are very few high school aged children who do not try alcohol or sneak out past curfew from time to time.
The trial for Ryan Ferguson began on October 17th, 2005. There were over 40 witnesses that would be called to the stand. The truth was that only two of those witnesses that would be able to link Ryan Ferguson to the robbery and murder of Kent Heitholt. I cannot stress this enough……..There was absolutely no physical evidence tying Ryan Ferguson to the crime. There was physical evidence of the crime, there were fingerprints, blood evidence, DNA, footprints, and a strand of unidentified hair in the victim’s hand. Prosecutor Kevin Crane told the jury that the strand of hair could have blown in from the street or been from a waitress from a diner he visited that remained on his sweater. It was ridiculous that the jury was unable to see any reasonable doubt. Kevin Crane knew his town though. He spoke in a confident down home Missouri way, he used small words and used that southern draw while he spoke. He had one of the most uneducated juries ever sat and he was going to take advantage of that.
Truthfully if you think about it our justice system is really more about theatrics than facts. If you like one attorney over the other, you tend to believe that person, despite the facts or lack thereof, that are being presented to you. Ryan’s attorney Rogers was a big man, but when he spoke to the jury he did so at almost a whisper, jurors later said they struggled to hear him and at some point just stopped listening, they said he almost put them to sleep with his long pauses and soft voice.
Charles Erickson was called to the stand on October 17th, 2005, the first day of witness testimony. Far from the scared confused kid first seen in the police videos, he had time to rehearse his story and shore up the plot holes with the information he found in the police documents.
Erickson Testimony- Overcoming memory lapse with Crane
It was more than just his words though, it was his actions as well. He gladly acted out striking Kent Heitholt in the head several times, he mimicked the movements of Ryan Ferguson strangling Heitholt with his own belt. Watching him on the stand brought goosebumps to my arms. It was frightening and very, very believable. He projected confidence and told the jury he was only there to do the right thing. Prosecutor Kevin Crane took the time in his opening statements to address issues with Erickson’s memory so the jury was well prepared for the gaps. Erickson had also been placed on medication for his anxiety. He projected a calm collected young man that was admitting to a horrible murder.
2. PLAY DREAM/KILLER
Erickson Testimony- Chuck I DID THIS
Charlie Rogers, Ryan’s defense attorney tries to reason with the jury during the cross examination of Erickson. He points out that neither the fingerprints or the hairs in the victims hand matches Ferguson or Erickson. He points out the inconsistencies in the testimony of Erickson. He tried to play the interrogation videos of Erickson. The audio and video in the courtroom are terrible. The jury complains that they are unable to both see or hear the video, the defense tries to move it closer to the jury box, but the audio is still awful, you can barely hear or see the interrogation. Roger’s wanted the jury to see the stark differences between the scared, confused kid in the interrogation tapes, telling detectives he could just be fabricating this whole thing and the confident, poised, well rehearsed young man that took the witness stand. This was a missed opportunity for the defense.
Rogers then pulls out a map to go over the events of the crime, Rogers has only walked the crime scene one time, the map is labeled wrong and he is struggling. Prosecutor Crane watches on, correcting Rogers on multiple occasions, his eyes squint in confusion, he speaks loudly with bravado and confidence.
TRIAL- CRANE AND ROGERS MAP DEBACLE
The entire affair makes Rogers look like he doesn’t know what he is doing. He is not from Columbia, and is unfamiliar with the area. His map is labeled incorrectly and out of date, he asks Crane if he can borrow one of his.
Rogers continued tried to punch holes in Erickson’s story on the stand. He brought in the owner and employees of the By George night club that Ryan and Chuck went to that night. Chucks testimony had them returning to the club after the murder at about 3:30am. All testified that the club was closed by 1:30 am that night and in fact every night. Despite being a club that would look the other way with underage kids, they were very careful not to violate the closing time. They did not want to bring themselves to the attention of law enforcement. Rogers pointed out that Chuck did not tell Detective Short many of the details he is now claiming are facts when he was brought in on March 10th, 2004. Erickson’s explanation was that when he was first interviewed he had hopes that he had no participation in this crime. He advised that as time has passed he now knows that he did. Unfortunately it never occurred to Erickson that he could have absolutely nothing to do with this crime and simply because he confessed and implicated his friend that they would both go to prison for crimes that they did not commit.
Rogers appeals to Judge Roper. He says that Erickson’s testimony should be invalid. Erickson states that he they planned to commit the robbery to continue drinking, but the murder was committed after 2AM, after the club was already closed. He says that the By George club have never had a violation for being open after hours. Crane argues back that just because they were never caught, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Judge Roper sides with Prosecutor Crane.
Ryan’s sister, Kelly, took the stand. She walked through Halloween night 2004. She said that she had invited Ryan to the club and had told him that she could get him in. Prosecutor Crane questioned her on the credit card dilemma. Apparently, Ryan had lost his debit card a few days earlier and she had told him to tell their dad, because if he couldn’t find it, it would need to be canceled. This played into Crane’s theory of the crime, and he believed it gave credence to Erickson, because once the two were out of cash, Ryan would have no way to access additional cash, therefore if they wanted to continue partying, they would need to rob someone to get more money.
The medical examiner testified about the violent nature of the murder. He says that he counted 11 total blows to the victims head done with a long, thin object, possibly a pipe , tire tool, or the handle of a baseball bat. He described the force it would take to make the words. He described the gruesome strangulation of Kent Heitholt. He described the attacker pulling up and back with the belt around Heitholt’s neck with his knee or foot possibly on his back while the victim laid face down. He described that the wounds suffered to the neck are not often seen in a strangulation, but rather in a hanging.
They call Detective Nichols to the stand. He was one of the interrogators of Charles Erickson. Nichols does state that they used several police tactics in the interrogation of Erickson. The forcefulness is used to draw a confession out of the suspect, saying that very few suspects will willing come in and confess just because someone asks them to.
Detective Short, the primary interrogator in the case, was not called to the stand. Crane later said that he felt that all the detective had to offer was shown on the interrogation tapes shown to the jury. He did not find a need to call him to the stand, neither did the defense. Without calling him to the stand the defense was unable to question Detective Short on his forceful interrogation and confrontational plea for Chuck to tell him exactly what part Ryan played in the murder and robbery.
Jerry Trump’s turn was up next. Before the trial began, Roger objected to his identification of Ferguson being that for years after the crime, the police found him not to be a credible witness, however Crane told Judge Roper that he would call him as a witness to the stand. Roper agreed that she would like to hear what Trump had to say at trial.
Trump testifies that as he was serving time in prison for five counts of child endangerment, his wife sent him an article from the Columbia daily Tribune.
TRIAL- Jerry Trump- Paper fold his story
Trump pointed to Ryan at the defense table. He takes care to tell the jury how the article fell out of the envelope. This was incredibly important as it will give him credibility. The article is a notice about the arrest of Charles Erickson and Ryan Ferguson. Trump says that it was folded in such a way that he saw the pictures first and immediately recognized them as the men he saw outside the Tribune on the night of the murder.
According to Trump’s testimony Shawna Ornt told him that there were people lurking next to a car in the parking lot. He looks out the loading dock window and does not see anything. Once the door is open he yelled “Who is out there?” When he got no response, he tried a trick that he used with kids, he yelled “I see you out there.” He says two young men stand up from behind the car. He says one shouts back that someone is hurt. He then closes the loading bay door and walks to the parking lot. He comes to the car and sees Kent Heitholt face down on the pavement in a pool of blood. Trump says because of the wound he assumed Kent had been shot. He swears that one of the two men he saw that night was Ryan Ferguson. He has no doubt what-so-ever. Rogers, Ryan’s attorney, tries to push back at Trump, he points out the discrepancies in his story, the clothing the assailants were wearing, one account they are wearing jackets, then they are not, at one point someone is wearing a backwards ball cap, then they are not. Trump, whom the police found to have no reliable information related to the crime, became the only other witness aside from Erickson who placed Ryan Ferguson at the scene.
The prosecution also called Shawna Ornt to the stand as well. She had provided two seperate sketches of the individuals she had seen the night of the murder, yet neither the prosecution nor the defense asked her if Ryan Ferguson was one of the two men she saw that night. As a lawyer, you are never supposed to ask a question that you do not already know the answer to in the trial, this may have been the reason why Rogers chose not to ask.
The defense called renowned memory expert, Elizabeth Loftus, to the stand. They had flown her in from California to testify for Ryan. She had analyzed the interrogation videos of Charles Erickson and has this to say on the stand….
5. 48 HOURS MYSTERY- DREAM KILLER
MEMORY EXPERT- Suggest Details
Prosecutor Crane watched Loftus with the same squinty confused eyes he used when he saw Rogers struggling with the map earlier in the trial. He tore into her on the stand. He asked if a person who experienced a traumatic event could then repress or rather forget that event for a long period of time before they were to start remembering. Loftus conceded that could and does happen. In the end she was a better witness for the prosecution than the defense.
Here is Crane describing the defense to Erin Moriarty on 48 hours Mystery- the Dream Killer
6. 48 HOURS MYSTERY- DREAM KILLER
CRANE- DEFENSE IS HE THINKS HE DID IT BUT HE DIDN’T
Ryan Ferguson, after watching the trial felt that he needed to tell his story. He said that he wanted the jurors to know him and to hear him stand up and say that he did not commit this horrific murder. His attorney did very little in preparing him for the cross examination. Ryan told the jury that he had gone to By George that night after a house party he was attending was broken up by the police, he picked up Charles Erickson who was walking on the sidewalk.
He took Chuck back to his house to change out of the 70’s clothes he was wearing at the party. Ryan waited outside while Chuck went in changed and came back out. They arrived that the club between 11:30 and midnight. Just as his older sister had promised, she was able to get them into the club. Once inside the club, he had three drinks, he does not remember how many Chuck had that night, but confirmed he was drunk. At 1:15AM they turned the lights on at the club and started ushering people out the door. He got in his car with Chuck, and drove Chuck straight home. He then continued on to his own home. Once he got home he sat in the driveway to make a few phone calls. His bedroom was directly above his parents and he did not want to wake them. He talked to people on his cell phone between 1:30 am and 2:09AM. Then went to bed.
On cross examination Crane pushes Erickson on every little detail that seemed to match up with Erickson’s testimony. He hammered Ryan on why he had not told investigators about the cell phone calls he made the night of the murder, Ryan says that he did not feel like they were relevant at the time. Bill Ferguson says in the documentary Dream/Killer that he felt like Prosecutor Crane was being a bully and picking on his son.
Ryan Testimony- Odd Man and I did not commit a crime
Judge Roper threatened to throw his family and friends out of the courtroom after they cheered and clapped to that last part. Ryan continued on. He confirmed that Chuck had come to him two years after the supposed crime, Ryan told him to get lost and felt that he was just a weird kid that was going through some stuff. Ryan confirmed that it was well known that Chuck suffered problems with alcohol and drug abuse and was prone to lying and blacking out after overindulging in these vices.
Watching Ryan during the trial, he seems confident and almost happy, in between sessions. I cannot imagine the stress he was under. I also see a very naive kid, he believed that there was no way that the jury could convict him because he generally did nothing wrong. He did a great job of remaining stoic when they read the verdict. I would have crapped my pants mostly he just looks dumbfounded, that this could ever happen. His lawyers told him to stay quiet and try not to show any emotion during the proceedings. They worried any reactions he showed could be misconstrued by the jury. It turns out that the jury found him cold and unemotional. The truth was that no matter how Ryan reacted it would not matter.
The jury took five and a half hours to deliberate and called the court back in session on December 5th, 2005 with a verdict.
8. TRIAL TAPES- Verdict
Bill Ferguson went on the stand after the verdict was read prior to sentencing, here are his words
9. TRIAL TAPES Before Sentencing- Bill Ferguson- I’m gonna learn more
The Jury sentenced Ryan Ferguson 30 years for the 2nd degree Murder charge and 10 years for the 1st degree robbery charge. Judge Roper advised that the time would be served consecutively. Ryan was facing a 40 year prison sentence for something he did not do. Jurors were later interviewed and said that they believed Charles Erickson enough to find Ryan guilty of the crime they could not be sure of who actually committed the murder. Because of this the charge of 2nd degree murder was given rather than murder in the first degree.
The Ferguson’s were in shock and they had no idea the long road they would need to take to proclaim their son’s innocence. Bill Ferguson vowed to learn more about the system and he would need to do just that to continue this fight.
Next time we are going to wrap up the Ryan Ferguson and Charles Erickson saga, there are still many twists and turns in this story to be told.
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