Bill Ferguson's pursuit of son's acquittal is worthy of praise

Thursday, May 28, 2009 | 2:12 p.m. CDT; updated 10:02 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 15, 2009

If I ever get in serious trouble, I’m going to hope I have somebody like Bill Ferguson on my side.

You may recognize that name, though it’s been a while since it has been in the paper. Bill Ferguson is the father of Ryan Ferguson, and Ryan Ferguson is one of the two young men convicted of murdering Kent Heitholt back in 2001.

Bill Ferguson came to see me this week. He’d run across a column I wrote back in February in which I wondered whether anybody was investigating Kenny Hulshof after Kenny’s prosecutorial conduct was strongly criticized by a judge. That was in another murder case, one that ended with the court order freeing a wrongly convicted defendant.

Kenny didn’t prosecute Ryan Ferguson. Kevin Crane did. It’s Judge Crane now, of course. He succeeded on the Circuit Court bench Judge Ellen, who presided over Ryan Ferguson’s trial in October 2005 and later retired.

Mr. Ferguson argues, and thinks he can prove, that his son’s prosecution was also unlawfully flawed. I have no idea whether he’ll be able to do that to a court’s satisfaction, but I have no doubt he’ll keep trying.

“If I don’t push it, nothing is going to happen,” Mr. Ferguson told me. He has been pushing since his son’s arrest in 2004. Along the way, he has learned a lot about the criminal justice system and a lot about apparent flaws in the investigation of the murder. He remains unshaken in his belief in his son’s innocence.

Last month, the Court of Appeals turned down an argument that the jury in the trial was improperly selected. Ryan Ferguson’s latest lawyer said she will appeal that rejection to the state Supreme Court. Bill Ferguson has his hopes pinned more on a different appeal. That one is awaiting a ruling by Circuit Court Judge Jodie Asel.

In July, Judge Asel heard arguments and saw new evidence on the issues of whether then-Prosecuting Attorney Crane disclosed to the defense before trial, as the law requires, evidence that would have favored the defendant (“exculpatory” is the term) and whether the defense attorneys did an adequate job for their client.

Mr. Ferguson thinks the answer in both instances is no. He has spent much of the past four years and upward of $200,000 trying to prove that. He has changed lawyers twice. He has become his own investigator.

After Mr. Ferguson called me, I went back and reread much of the coverage of the murder and the trial. I was reminded what a strange case it was.

You may recall that Kent Heitholt, the sports editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune, was beaten and strangled to death in the parking lot of the paper after he left work about 2 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2001. For more than two years, investigators were stumped. Then Chuck Erickson, a Rock Bridge High School classmate of Ryan Ferguson, began telling friends that he’d dreamed he might have been involved. That dream turned into a nightmare for the Fergusons, as repeated police interrogations resulted in an eventual confession by Erickson that he and Ryan Ferguson had committed murder.

There never was any physical evidence linking either defendant to the crime, no fingerprint or DNA matches. No murder weapon was found. The only eye witnesses were two janitors who saw two men near Heitholt’s car. One of them later told Crane (and testified at the hearingin July) that the men she saw were not the defendants. The other, an ex-con, first said he couldn’t recognize them because of bad lighting but in the trial pointed to Ryan Ferguson.

Chuck Erickson wound up being sentenced to 25 years in prison. Ryan Ferguson is serving 40 years.

If you go to the Web site Bill Ferguson maintains,, you’ll find a collection of videos and statements that make his case. You can see how Chuck Erickson’s story changed under police questioning. You can hear one janitor say Crane tried to intimidate her into identifying the defendants and that neither he nor the defense attorneys asked her at trial whether she saw them. There’s a lot more.

To me, it’s disturbing material. To Bill Ferguson, it should be enough to free his son. He has learned enough, however, not to be too hopeful. He puts the odds that Judge Asel will order a new trial at about 50/50.

If these appeals fail, there’ll be more. If all else fails, there’s the Innocence Project, which takes on the cases of the wrongfully convicted.

Meanwhile, Bill and Leslie Ferguson visit their son every week in the maximum security prison near Jefferson City. Now 24 and a prisoner for five years, Ryan is doing well, his father says.

When I told Mr. Ferguson I was impressed by his efforts, he shrugged.

“What else could I do?”

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Bill Ferguson May 29, 2009 | 10:30 a.m.

For the record the current 29.15 Appeal which is under consideration by Judge Asel is the only appeal in which Ryan has been allowed to present new evidence or witnesses.

All of the other appeals were base totally and completely on the trial transcript from October 2005.

The new evidence and witnesses was never heard by the jury.
Shawna Ornt
Dallas Mallory
Christine Varner
Mike Schook
and the dozens of other witnesses presented July 2008

I am not referring to the side issue of the jury situation which was not a part of the actually trial.

(Report Comment)
Bill Ferguson May 29, 2009 | 11:23 a.m.

Columbia lawyer Kenny Hulshof’s performance as a special prosecutor in the murder trial of Dale Helmig will be re-examined in an unusual episode of “America’s Most Wanted” that will be televised Saturday.

“America’s Most Wanted,” scheduled for broadcast at

8 p.m. Saturday on KQFX-TV (Fox 38), May 30, 2009

The Josh Kezer case and Kenny Hulshof

In February in another case Judge Callahan is quoted as saying,
"we now know everything Mr. Hulshof said in his closing of the Josh Kezer's case was unture"

Josh had been prosecuted by Kenny Hulshof in 1993 and was sentenced to 60 years prison.
In February Judge Callaham release Josh Kezer after he had served 16 years.

Josh Kezer was wrongfully convicted thanks to Mr. Hulshof hiding evidence during the trial which the jury did not see.
This evidence would have proven Josh Kezer innocent.

Now we have yet another case where Mr Hulshof's conduct is being questioned and will be the subject of an hour long television program Saturday night.

Mr. Hulshof seems to have created a pattern of hiding evidence with his prosecutons.

(Report Comment)
M_A Groves May 31, 2009 | 2:42 p.m.

Thank you for a nice article Mr. Kennedy.
Since it has taken the Judge almost a year, and counting, to make a ruling there are questions in the community. Even people who had no questions before are now asking what is going on. I don't think this issue is going to just fade away with neglect.

(Report Comment)
becky sterling May 31, 2009 | 3:47 p.m.

Thanks you for your great update! This story should not and cannot die. Somewhere along the line, the truth must come out! The new evidence really needs to be heard. Surely, Judge Asel will bring this new evidence to light. Please keep this story as an active story. Thank you.

(Report Comment)
K H August 10, 2009 | 12:03 a.m.

I just watched the 48 Hour Mystery report on Ryan Ferguson's murder trial and I wasn't sure who to contact or how to give a view that was completely missed at this young man's trial. I do not think he did this after watching the show and it seemed that Ryan's defense did not take the right approach in proving his case. It should not have been a case of which teen to believe nor why would Chuck lie, but it should have been more of proving it was a lie. While they proved that the bar was closed and that they could not have gone back...I did not see them disprove the foot in the back of the victim while strangled. If there was already blood from the beating, was there a bloody foot print or any foot print on the back of the victim? I did not see that question answered nor did I see the police officers who gave Chuck details take the stand and be asked to explain why they gave him details or why they felt the need to give him details and if that is something they do often or just in this case. And when Chuck showed how the victim was hit and strangled, does the evidence prove he was hit from or strangled in the direction that Chuck acted out in court. Since there is no evidence to connect Ryan to the crime other than Chuck's testimony, it should be Chuck's testimony that is disected, seperating what the police told him from what he claims to have recalled and should be measured against the evidence in the case. Chuck's reasons for implicating Ryan are irrelevant, but that's why he was convicted because nobody could figure out why Chuck would say he was there if he wasn't and the workings of another person's mind or how they recall things is not how to defend yourself from what they say, but facts stacked against what they say is how it should be done.

(Report Comment)
marvin saunders August 10, 2009 | 5:02 a.m.

From what i have read I don't see how that young man got convicted.There is no evidence & for a judge to take a year to make a decision is so wrong.Does she not care that shes got a man's life in her hands.Wonder if you would take that long if it was your son,I think not!This case has so many holes its a good thing its not a boat.Everybody knows the police will do anything to get a conviction,they don't care.They will go after the weakest link,the one that they can scare,who will say anything they tell him to.Wake-up let Ryan ferguson out and go find some real evidence!!

(Report Comment)

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