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, freeryanferguson.com, details evidence that they say supports their claim. They have also posted three YouTube.com 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.