COLUMBIA — A witness testified that the two men convicted of killing Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt were not the pair she saw near the body minutes after the crime occurred.
The testimony came Wednesday in a hearing in Boone County Circuit Court for Ryan Ferguson, who is seeking a retrial for the murder of Heitholt. Ferguson was convicted of the crime in 2005.
Heitholt was leaving work in the early morning of Nov. 1, 2001, when he was beaten and strangled to death. The case was unsolved for two years until Charles “Chuck” Erickson told police that he and Ferguson committed the crime for money to continue drinking.
Shawna Ornt testified that she repeatedly told then-Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane that a man she saw near the body was neither Ferguson nor Erickson. She said Crane scared her, and she did not know what she was allowed to say to attorneys or in the trial. So she did not tell anyone during the trial or the deposition.
“He made me feel like I was wrong,” Ornt said of Crane.
Nor did Ornt tell Charlie Rogers, Ferguson’s attorney, because “he didn’t ask,” she said.
In Ferguson’s 2005 trial, Ornt testified that she found Heitholt’s body in the early morning of Nov. 1, 2001, and that she saw two men and spoke with one of them. But neither Ferguson nor Erickson could have been the man she spoke to because, after seeing high school pictures of them, she thought they were too young at the time of the murder to have been that man. Ferguson and Erickson were 17 at the time of the murder.
Last year, Ornt began corresponding with Ferguson’s father and agreed to take the stand, she testified Wednesday morning.
Ferguson and his family have maintained Ferguson’s innocence. Their Web site, freeryanferguson.com, details evidence that they say supports his innocence. They have also posted three YouTube.com videos containing clips from the police interrogation tapes.
This is the latest in a series of appeals for Ferguson. The Missouri Supreme Court refused to hear his last appeal in August 2007.
This hearing will determine whether Ferguson can receive a retrial on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel.
None of the witnesses called to the stand Wednesday, other than Ornt, was contacted by Ferguson’s original attorneys or asked to testify in the original trial.
Valerie Leftwich, Ferguson’s attorney, brought to the stand a man who gave police information in 2002 about another man who said he committed the crime.
Ronald Hudson said he ran into an acquaintance, Clarence Mabon, who told Hudson that the police were “trying to play tricks” with him — that Mabon said they were looking for him, a black man, rather than the white man in the composite sketch.
At the time Mabon was in Reality House, a nonprofit “community” to facilitate the process of re-entry into society. In spring 2002, he was on work release, which means he was allowed to leave to work or look for work, according to Missy Marlett, a supervisor from the Boone County Circuit Clerk’s office.
She also said that according to court documents, Mabon absconded in May 2002.
Hudson’s public defender at the time, Rob Fleming, testified about meetings between Hudson and the police officers. He said to his knowledge, they did not follow up on the information because they were looking for a white man, not a black man.
Fleming also said he told the prosecutor’s office in an e-mail that he didn’t think the information would come to anything. He testified that Hudson was hoping to reduce his sentence from 15 to 10 years for pleading guilty to first-degree robbery.
Leftwich also called to the stand three men who were incarcerated in the Boone County Jail with Erickson. All three testified that Erickson told them he wasn’t sure if he had committed the murder.
John James said Erickson told him that he was high on marijuana when he gave his original statement to police.
Kevin Fletcher said that he and Erickson became “pretty close” while staying in neighboring cells and that Erickson talked about the murder every day.
“He said he did not believe he did it,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher said Erickson told him that Erickson confessed to the police because they told him he could go home if he did.
He also said he was “shocked” when he learned that Erickson had pleaded guilty.
Testimony continued Wednesday afternoon in the hearing and was expected to last until Friday.