Ryan Ferguson’s hearing expected to last two more days

Wednesday, July 16, 2008 | 9:39 p.m. CDT; updated 10:05 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 15, 2009

COLUMBIA — A woman who found the body of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt testified Wednesday that she would have told attorneys that the men later convicted of the killing were not the ones she saw near the body, but the defense attorney “didn’t ask.”

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.

This week’s hearing, which is slated to last through Friday, will determine whether Ferguson can receive a retrial on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. Ferguson has to prove that there is more evidence to strengthen his case and that his original attorneys did not adequately gather the evidence and defend him.

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 else during the trial or the deposition.

“He made me feel like I was wrong,” Ornt said of Crane. And Ornt did not tell Ferguson’s attorney because she didn’t know whether she was allowed to.

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 she said later that 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.

In the 2005 trial, Jerry Trump, who came outside after Ornt found the body, testified that the man he and Ornt saw was Ferguson.

Christine Varner, who in 2001 worked with the job work program that helped Trump get a janitorial job at the Tribune, testified Wednesday afternoon that Trump told her shortly after the murder that he could not recognize the person he saw standing near the body.

She said Trump told her that he was standing in a lit dock area next to the Tribune’s building and roughly 30 feet from Heitholt’s car, and the two people were standing near the car in the dark, so he couldn’t identify them. Varner said after she saw coverage of the trial, where Trump pointed to Ferguson, she contacted the public defender’s office.

“It just bothered me,” she said.

Mike Shook, who was a bouncer at By George’s night club on the night of the murder, said the club generally started turning off the music and turning on the lights around 12:45 a.m., and everyone would be off the property, including the parking lot, by 1:30 a.m., at which point he would do some clean up. He said the club was always empty when he left, which was never later than 2:15 a.m..

Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Stephanie Morrell asked Shook if he would know what happened after he left.

“Couldn’t tell you,” he said.

Erickson testified that after committing the murder, he and Ferguson went back to By George’s. Ferguson testified in the first trial that he was at the bar earlier in the night but went home after it closed.

Heitholt logged out of his computer at 2:08 a.m., and Ornt’s call to the police was logged at 2:26 a.m.

Throughout the case, Ferguson and his family have maintained he is innocent. Their Web site,, details evidence that they say supports their claim. They have also posted three videos containing clips from the police interrogation tapes.

The motion for a retrial is the latest in a series of appeals for Ferguson.

The Missouri Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal in August 2007.

Valerie Leftwich, Ferguson’s new attorney, brought to the stand K-9 officer Todd Alber, whose dog followed a scent from the top of an alley where Ornt saw the two men leave to McDavid Hall at MU.

His report several times refers to the dog continuing to follow “the man we were tracking” but said in his testimony that his experience since then has taught him that the dog could have been following the scent of many things, and, furthermore, the many stops they made could have made the dog follow a different scent.

However, the route the dog took did not follow the route Erickson told police he and Ferguson took after committing the crime.

Alber also testified that he had not been subpoenaed in the original trial until the day before, when he was out of town, so he could not testify.

None of the witnesses called to the stand Wednesday, other than Ornt or Alber, said they were contacted by Ferguson’s original attorneys or subpoenaed to testify in the original trial. David Tye, the owner of By George’s, testified that he had kept his employee records only about six months to a year after the night club closed in October 2003, two years before the trial. He testified that he was never asked for those records, although prosecutor Stephanie Morrell pointed out that by the time of the trial, the documents would have been disposed of.

A man who gave police information in 2002 about another man who said he committed the crime also testified Wednesday.

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 released to the media. 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 said he was hoping to lower his sentence for first-degree robbery from 15 to 10 years but that was not why he gave the information

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.

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 said he 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.

At the end of the day, Leftwich admitted into evidence Erickson’s mental health records from the Boone County Jail. She also admitted an affidavit from Ferguson’s first attorney, Scott McBride, stating that he asked Crane for discovery but did not receive the information about Mabon or anything about Ornt’s statements about whether Ferguson or Erickson was the man she saw that night.

The defense is expected to call to the stand Dallas Mallory, whom Erickson said he ran into immediately after committing the murder.

The prosecution is expected to call Crane.

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holly freidrich August 22, 2008 | 3:57 p.m.

remind me not to come to missouri where they put innocent boys in prison for crimes they didn't commit due to jaded/ tainted jurors who believe a delusional drug addict boy and the testimony of an alcoholic janitor... They are trying to pin this crime on them (or anyone) bc the investigators were too eager to get the case of their desk, get a raise, and a pat on the back.... when their skills and training are proven to be incompetent in the police interrogation videos. They should free this boy and kiss his rear end every day he lives. Our justice system is a crock. I'm sure the family of the slain man feel relieved just to have someone take the blame for the murder, in desperation, that must have consoled the family, its just a shame it had to be an innocent boy they put in jail.

(Report Comment)
ali kane January 12, 2009 | 8:11 p.m.

I just watched a news magazine program about this crime. I am appalled at the level of incompetency the jury displayed. Ryan was convicted before the evidence was presented. I don't understand how 12 people concluded this young man is guilty without a trace of his DNA. I understand Mr.Heiholt's daughter must be in a great deal of pain but to put an innocent man in jail for a sense of closure is disgraceful. I hope there is future justice for Ryan. I cannot express how disturbing this was to watch. My prayers are with the Fergusons.

(Report Comment)
larry smith January 13, 2009 | 11:47 p.m.

I watched the 48 Hours Show on the internet tonight (1/13/09), and I can certify, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that those jurors were Missouri's most pathetic idiots. One claimed that the janitor's testimony sealed the deal for him, he didn't even have to listen to Ferguson testify. Apparently, he was real impressed by the old jailbird alchoholic, who changed his story, from not seeing their faces, to being able to identify them in court. Eye-witness testimony is always suspect, never more-so than at night, in the shadows, memorizing the shadowy faces of strangers that he saw from a distance for a few seconds - if at all. And in this case, he first said he didn't see them well! Then the one young juror with the lisp claimed it was just common sense that Erickson wouldn't make up a story. Au contraire. Common sense says that the young man was confused, impressionable, probably hypnotic, a druggie, and ridden with guilt. Who has never even once in their life, woken from a dream in which one had the awful sense that one had done something terrible? And this is a drug and alcholol riddled youngster, adrift, going nowhere, aimless, lost. Common sense was seeing that the youngster learned from the police interrogator that a belt was used to strangle the man. Common sense tells us that his story is bogus because he says they returned to the bar to drink up the stolen cash. But the bar was closed then. What a pathetic bunch of loser jurists. On the other hand, Ferguson never wavered, never cracked under the relentless pressure, his story never changed. And what pathetic representation that young man had. Didn't the family have enough money to pay this so-called lawyer? He couldn't interview the witnesses himself? Unbelievable.

(Report Comment)
marvin saunders January 14, 2009 | 4:38 a.m.

Guilty or not they just did not have the evidence to put this man in jail.Aparently the jury was asleep or just didn't pay attention.I for one feel really sorry for this man and what he must be thinking of his fellow man.Not all people are pathetic as the twelve you drew,keep on trying.

(Report Comment)
monna lopez February 22, 2009 | 11:27 p.m.

I just watched the story of Ryan on a Hard 48. All I can offer this family are my prayers and faith that God will set him free. I can't believe that there still are people that can be railroaded into believing lies. Such a beautiful young life wasted.

(Report Comment)
Eve Rowley February 23, 2009 | 2:30 p.m.

It is so obvious that Ryan Ferguson had absolutely nothing to do with this crime whatsoever. Regardless, he will never recover those lost years and his life is changed forever. Human beings, in situations such as this, do not operate on facts. They operate on emotion. There was NO evidence this kid was even near the crime scene. I feel for Heitholt's family but this jury created two tragedies from one.

(Report Comment)
Christine D March 24, 2009 | 12:07 a.m.

This is a very sad story & my sympathy goes out to Ryan & his family for all the pain they have endured. As a Canadian who crosses the border into USA frequently, I can confirm that the that the tactics of trained US Custom's officers has put an unbelievable strain on my family as they treat me as a criminal crossing the border every time I come across when I am only taking my young daughter to visit her father who lives there. I can only imagine what they conjured up to get the confession out of Erickson who was an easy 'break' due to his colorful past. My situation surely pales in comparison to what the justice system has done to the Ferguson's. I also agree that the jury's comments on ID channel were quite unbelievable stating that 'the janitor' was the fate sealed for Ryan as well as the testimony of Erickson. I guess there was little else to say since that is all they had. Physical evidence did not seem to matter at all. I watch a lot of these cases & I can only recall one other similar case & it was a mistaken 6 year old girl who convicted her uncle of murdering her grandmother. He eventually got out after 6 years I believe. Hang in there & keep fighting, even when it seems hopeless. Ryan will come home soon, Christine.

(Report Comment)
Louis Teller March 24, 2009 | 7:37 a.m.

I saw this story last night on Investigation/Discovery. I was frankly appalled at the fact that Ryan was found guity and even more appalled that he received a longer sentence than Chuck. What was worse was that the jury believed the testimonies of a boy who has drug problems and is obviously a pathological liar and a janitor who is a criminal himself. I agree with Larry that those jurors were idiots. That is unconsciable how people can believe testimonies of criminals. The defense was weak too. I pray that Ryan will be freed soon.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr March 24, 2009 | 10:39 a.m.

The question is and should be asked by all citizens "is there any true justice in this community,county or state"?

(Report Comment)
caroline errickson March 24, 2009 | 1:18 p.m.

caroline Errickson March 24 2009 1:27PM EASTERN TIME

Dear God-

What possible reason could this happen to Ryan Ferguson. Where in your higher being justifies this infalable series of events. From fumbling attorneys to overzealous cops to inbred jurors. I say that because it is the only possible explanation for their moronic comments on how they came to convict this obviously innocent man. Where in this justice system does the lack of evidence and only incompetent testimony become the basis for a guilty outcome. You must now step in from the beyond and guide the proper series of events to free Ryan. Do the right thing!!

Ryan to you...The universe works in mysterious ways. You better believe that every idiot who condemned you from the cops to the attorneys to those poor unfortunate moronic jurors will see their time come. Sit back and watch the show. You will be free one day and that is when true redemption will begin. I sat and watched 48 hours in horror as I realized that you are not the only one. When you are free(and you will be) give your time over to freeing those who have been unjustly condemned. What a fulfilled life you will lead when you realize one by one your true calling come to fruition when each man woman or child will be free again.

(Report Comment)
Judi Walker July 29, 2009 | 1:21 p.m.

I just watched Ryan Ferguson's story on ID. I was shocked that the jury convicted him. I live in New Mexico and am currently serving as a juror. There is no way on this earth that I would have convicted Ryan. The evidence left at the scene didn't indicate that he was anywhere near the parking lot. The janitor's eyewitness testimony should have been disregarded in its entirety. If he couldn't give even a brief description the night this occured, then how could he positively identify Ryan over 4 years later? Chuck Erickson's story was not credible as he had clearly been fed information and details by the police. I do believe he had a dream about the murder perhaps brought on by reading an article about it. But I don't believe that either Chuck or Ryan had anything to do with this crime. I'm embarrassed by the behavior of the jurors in this case, they make us all look bad. Our job is to look at the evidence presented to us and decide beyond all REASONABLE doubt the guilt or innocence of the defendant. There was so much reasonable doubt in this case, I still can't believe 12 people couldn't see it. - Judi Walker

(Report Comment)
Sally Pointerman October 4, 2009 | 10:59 p.m.

Where is the outrage from people in the state? What happened to Ryan could happen to you, since clearly justice has no meaning in Missouri. Get this man out of prison, now!

By the way, how did you manage to get the 12 biggest idiots in the state on the jury at once?

(Report Comment)
onawa barrette April 20, 2010 | 12:40 a.m.

I just saw this on ID Investigate Life. And I wasnt paying attention to the show reall up until Ryan was in the room and started talking to the investigators and he sounded like an innocent guy. I was thinking to myself that guy sounds innocent...Then I recorded it and watched it again and I was blown away with the conviction. The jurors even admitted at the end of the show that they looked at the attitudes of both these boys as they were on the stand and it was a metter of who sounded more convincing they said. You cant just look at that, can you?? And not even look at the evidence? What a shame.

(Report Comment)
Jeremy Myers April 22, 2010 | 11:57 a.m.

I firmly believe that to be a Jury member, one needs to have a college degree. The most important thing I learned in college was the ability to think,and take on different view points. This Jury thought to themselves I wouldn't admit to something I didn't do, so since Chuck admitted it, Ryan must be guilty. When the real question they should have been asking themselves is how mentally disturbed is Chuck? I agree with Ryan's father, I think Chuck is innocent as well, he is an emotionally impressionable boy, who admitted to it because the police told him he did it.

(Report Comment)

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