Key witness recants in Ryan Ferguson case

Chuck Erickson says he acted alone in slaying of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor
Monday, February 8, 2010 | 2:32 p.m. CST; updated 3:35 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 28, 2011
Chuck Erickson describes where he says he and Ryan Ferguson were hiding behind a dumpster moments before they allegedly killed Kent Heitholt in the parking lot of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Erickson recanted that testimony in a deposition videotaped Nov. 22, 2009.

COLUMBIA — More than four years ago, Chuck Erickson delivered the testimony that helped send his former high school classmate Ryan Ferguson to prison with a sentence of 40 years for murder.

Erickson confessed to beating Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt with a tire tool, and he testified that Ferguson then strangled Heitholt to death. When Heitholt was dead, Erickson testified, they stole his car keys and the belt they’d used to strangle him.


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Now, Erickson says that was all a lie, according to a sworn statement he gave to Ferguson’s new lawyer.

The truth, Erickson said in a deposition videotaped Nov. 22 at Potosi Correctional Center, is that he alone beat and strangled Heitholt.

“I did not tell Ryan what I was going to do,” Erickson said, reading from a prepared statement. “He had no idea that I would act in such an aggressive manner. …He could not stop me, though he tried at the end.”

Erickson’s statement became public Monday as part of a motion filed by Ferguson’s  lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, asking the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District to send the post-conviction case back to the trial court for reconsideration based on the new evidence. The court could also deny the motion and make its decision based on the evidence already presented.

If Ferguson loses in the Western District and the state Supreme Court, he might still be able to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court and introduce Erickson’s statement there.

Prior to Ferguson's original trial, Erickson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action and was sentenced to 25 years. Ferguson was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery and was sentenced to 40 years.

Erickson’s statement came after he sent a letter to Ferguson, who is incarcerated at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. In the letter, dated Nov. 9, Erickson wrote: “Have your lawyers come speak to me the next time that they’re down here. If you tell the media that I asked to see your lawyers, or you tell the media what I talked to your lawyers about before I can talk to my family and/or consult an attorney, it will be regretful. I hope that you are holding up.”

As Zellner notes in her motion, Erickson has put himself at risk by volunteering this statement, in essence admitting to perjury and potentially violating his plea agreement, which required his “truthful testimony” against Ferguson.

Still, much is unclear about Erickson’s most recent statement. According to his original statements to police and his trial testimony, he had no memory of committing the murder, which occurred in the early morning hours on Nov. 1, 2001, until two years later. His accounts of the crime changed substantially over time, and much of what he told police seemed to contradict other evidence.

At a July 2008 evidentiary hearing in Ferguson’s post-conviction case, false confessions expert Richard Leo testified that Erickson’s statements bore many of the hallmarks of a persuaded false confession, one in which an innocent person becomes convinced he committed a crime.  

Leo testified that, in his initial videotaped police interrogations, Erickson appeared to be attempting to guess the correct answer to the detectives’ questions, rather than stating facts he truly remembered.

In his most recent statement, Erickson said: “I made a lot of assumptions and turned them into facts to satisfy the police. When I did that, I used the opportunity to move the blame onto Ryan and off of myself.”

He continued, “I could not accept in my conscious mind that I was the sole perpetrator and aggressor, so I put a lot of the blame on Ryan. …I don’t think that much of it was even consciously done. It was just too hard to admit to myself and others that I killed someone. I could not even accept the possibility of it.”

But later in the statement, he seemed to say that passing the blame to Ferguson was a conscious attempt to minimize his own punishment. “I was worried about survival,” he said, referencing the interrogation videos, in which one detective told Erickson that “it’s you that is on this chopping block.”

Ferguson denied any involvement in the crime throughout numerous interrogations, and he has maintained since his arrest that he was not even at the crime scene. Both Ferguson and Erickson were juniors at Rock Bridge High School at the time of the murder.

In Erickson’s most recent statement, the motive for the crime is unclear. Erickson testified at Ferguson’s trial that Ferguson wanted to rob someone to get more drinking money. The two agree that they were at the bar By George’s that night. But Erickson told Zellner, “I cannot … honestly remember if we had robbery on our minds.”

“On a subconscious level,” Erickson continued, “I’ve always known that I did it. That is a part of me that I have accepted. I enjoyed doing it at the time. I was in a lot of pain and felt the need to take it out on someone else. There was something wrong with me.”

In a letter to Zellner dated Nov. 27, Erickson asked that she make it clear that he would not have committed the crime or enjoyed doing it if he hadn’t been intoxicated at the time.

“When I murdered Kent Heitholt, I was out of my mind on drugs and alcohol,” he wrote in an “Additional Comments” section dated Dec. 14. “I was under a lot of stress and filled with a lot of pain. I was a walking time bomb. I’d said that I enjoyed doing it. At the time, that was true. Not long after I committed the act, I remember feeling bad about it and scared about getting into trouble. When I realized what I’d done, I regretted doing it. Today I am ashamed of what I did. I wish I’d never done it.”

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Bob Smith February 9, 2010 | 8:38 a.m.

Wonder how much that cost the Fergusons?

(Report Comment)
Jeff Albright February 9, 2010 | 12:34 p.m.

When can we expect the 48 Hours update? Ryan should be free on bail pending a new trial. That first jury ought to be feeling terrible about their verdict.

(Report Comment)
Lucy Gough February 10, 2010 | 9:06 a.m.

I agree totally with Jeff Albright, Ryan should be free on bail until this complete travesty has been put to rights, I live in the UK and have supported Ryan and his family since I fist found out about it, the whole justice system should be ashamed at what has occured, I pray that it will not be long before this young man and his family can pick up their lives and look forward to a happier future.

(Report Comment)
Aldo Caballero February 14, 2010 | 12:57 p.m.

It's a shame innocent people are involved in crimes due to a madman's false testimony. I'm writting this from Mexico, where it's not inusual to see these situations. The judical system is far from being perfect.

(Report Comment)
Susan Sapp February 15, 2010 | 4:42 p.m.

I have watched this case from a point prior to the original trial and participated from that time until now and will continue for as long as it takes. Hold on Missouri, we're all still here.

When the videos became public of the interrogation I was ashamed for America that these types of tactics are actually assumed to be blind and carried forward to trial and manipulated in that venue also just to make the work of judgment a little faster. Each and every of those jurors need to be aware that the six years Ryan has spent in prison stands on each and every of those jurors, then it gets tangled up in the appeals mess.

Evidence was withheld, evidence was not allowed, and even the prosecutor was admonished for his behavior in the court. No one will ever be able to pay a minute back to Ryan, or Charles Erickson, for that matter. Dreams are not evidence and that is absolutely all the case stands on, other than disproven testimony by criminals and the mind of an obviously sick, needy and misinformed young man being led by our system to lie more to quickly slap their hands and say "well, that's that!" "Done deal!"

My suggestion is that each and every person in the Sheriff's division, the prosecutor's division and the jury should be investigated thoroughly. Prejudice was ousted in this country and it should have been a mistrial at the very least.

No one can pay a minute of this back. Not one minute!

(Report Comment)
Mike Adams March 4, 2010 | 12:49 a.m.
This comment has been removed.
cindy holden April 19, 2010 | 11:15 p.m.

Blatant prosecutorial misconduct..SHAME ON YOU.. hair in the dead mans hands .. dna under his fingernails..Footrints IN blood in Ryans car!!! SOLVE THE CRIME!!! stop railroading teens.. JUDGE you could have stopped this MISCARRIAGE of JUSTICE but you made it worse!! DROP ALL CHARGES AGAINST RYAN FERGUSON please start an online PETITION to get a new trial ..Ill sign it cindy holden

(Report Comment)
Melissa April 20, 2010 | 10:28 a.m.

I watched the special on ID channel last night and must say I was disgusted by the jury and judge for sending this child to jail with no actual PROOF. Mr Crane should be ashamed of himself for spoon feeding Chuck the exact moments of the murder to use against Ryan in the trial. At this point in time no one wants to take the blame for putting a wrongfully accused child in jail, They are more worried about their pride and ego to stand up and say they were wrong and give this man a new trial. They wanted so bad to just solve this case they would do whatever it took to put someone in jail. I would like to know why "his friend" who was the last person to see Kent that night (and changed his story several times) was not a suspect. I will also sign a petition to get Ryan a new trial.

(Report Comment)
marybeth hamblen zirkle May 31, 2010 | 3:06 p.m.

Chuck Ericson was and is a deeply disturbed young man.
However, the interview aired last night on ID channel showed that Chuck Ericson was literally FED the murder details by the cop doing the interview.
Also- the guy who couldn't even give haircolor or clothing descriptions at the time suddenly and positively ID's Ryan as one of two people he says he saw running away?!
I'd investigate HIM.
This Ryan kid was railroaded.

(Report Comment)
Randy Hardy June 19, 2010 | 4:28 p.m.

I just seen this case on 48 hours today. The whole time sitting there thinking there was no way there was going to be a conviction. You look into chucks face when hes in that police van showing where the murder took place he truly looks confused he had no idea what was going on. I feel so bad for this family and that prosecutor is a joke I dont think its any wonder he became a judge after that. Our system is so disgusting people are rewarded because they can get a guilty conviction on absolutely no evidence. I truly hope hope that prosecutor pays and that ryan is home real soon. As to chuck I feel horrible for him to but theres really no way i can say to let him go although i beleive that but after what this system has done to his head hes not going to ever recover.Anything that can be done for this family I would love to help and I am truly sorry for the years your son and you have had to go through hell because of our horrible justice system.

(Report Comment)
Debra Ferguson June 19, 2010 | 5:01 p.m.

i just watched the 48 Hours show on Ryan Ferguson and thought "well this one must be their aquittal show, because at no time that I watched did I ever believe that I would hear them say he was quilty. I understand that the police sometime can get tough with questioning, but really! I don't really understand how that police officer and the DA can sleep at night. I don't understand why they can't seem to give this young man who has already lost years of freedom, and subjected to no telling what, a new trial. Why were the DA's office not made to analyze the DNA? This DNA should be analyzed! I like what someone commented earlier, I would check out the janitor a little closer. I can't even believe they used him as a witness, when he clearly could not identify then back when the crime was committed, but he can years later? Give me a break. I feel so bad for the family also. They will probably never feel safe with our government system again. I am not sure I will! I will continue to pray for Ryan and his family.

(Report Comment)
maureen ryan June 19, 2010 | 6:50 p.m.

There's still something fishy about this story. Chuck still says Ryan was there and tried to stop him. What part of any of this is true, and what part is untrue. If Ryan had tried to stop him why doesn't he say so. Were they together when they left the bar. This was a huge victim, 300+ pounds. No gun. It all seems convoluted but really strange things can happen when people are drunk, especially young men. I feel for the victim and his family.

(Report Comment)
Ethan Eddy June 22, 2010 | 9:46 a.m.

I agree with Maureen. As I read the passage I began thinking about the new statement that Chuck spoke about. I even eatched a documentary for Ryan in my psychology class and had this question in my mind, "Could Ryan possibly be some kind of an accomplice?" While watching the documentray I also realized that Chuck said he hit the man from behind; that would put the man face down. In the picture he was lying face up. Regardless of how many different times they changed the murder weapon, presented flase evidence on Ryan, and Chuck's false memory, it is to my belief with the use of evident knowledge that Ryan did not commit this murder. We do need more evidence as to where Ryan was at for the rest of that night. For the Jury - It's sad to say but we are all ignorant at some point. We need to look at he bigger picture. Confirmation bias during a criminal case is not the way to go. This closes one's mind that should in fact be open.

(Report Comment)
Bridget Lee July 28, 2010 | 11:28 a.m.

I'm certainly no expert in criminal science, although I'm an avid follower of crime & forensics TV. This is probably the most blatant example I've ever seen of someone being found guilty with absolutely no evidence. In fact, there is very little circumstantial evidence, either. The ex-con janitor who can't describe any detail of the assailants, except that they were two white males, suddenly can point them out while they're sitting in court, already rounded up for him. And one juror actually said that was what sealed it for him! How ignorant! Didn't anyone explain to this jury what their responsibilities and limitations were? I've seen shows where juries unanimously believed a defendant was guilty but were compelled to vote -- against their own consciences -- "not guilty" because the law stipulates "innocent until PROVEN guilty," -- not "innocent unless he seems guilty in your personal opinion." Yet here, this young man (whether guilty or not) is pronounced guilty with NO ACTUAL PROOF. And the evidence that is there has either not substantiated his involvement or has not been analyzed. Why? How can this happen? A travesty, really. And very scary... next time it could be your child or mine that's dragged out of his home and incarcerated for 40 or more years -- maybe even sentenced to death -- because someone "dreamed" they committed a crime.

(Report Comment)
Ericka Smith July 28, 2010 | 12:48 p.m.

Chuck's offered a deal. He gets nearly half the time that Ryan gets. The janitor that positively identified Ryan is an ex-con. EX being the operative word. What was his crime and did he receive some type of early release for his testimony in the case? It would be interesting to know.

(Report Comment)
Burnie Harner July 30, 2010 | 9:24 p.m.

I just became acquainted with this case while watching it on ID Channel earlier this week. I watch plenty of documentaries dealing with the criminal justice system and this one simply enraged me. There was absolutely no way you could tie this young man with the homicide except through a very weak, and obviously coerced. confession by Mr. Erickson. This case should have never reached the indictment stage, let alone trial. Mr. Crane, like many DAs in this situation, looked at this case to help himself politically down the road. As for the jury, I don't know how they can live with themselves after rendering a guilty verdict in a case with no evidence to back up the charges.

(Report Comment)
David Eidelman July 31, 2010 | 11:33 p.m.

Not ony is Ryan Ferguson innocent, but so is Chuck Erickson. I believe the whole reason for this horrific mistake by the prosecutors is that it is rare for an innocent person to keep insisting he is guilty. Usually guys who are coerced into admission of guilt change their minds. Luckily, Erickson now says Ryan didn't do it, but he still places Ryan at the scene. Charles Erickson has some sort of personality disorder which causes him to believe he is actually guilty. So he is a victim also, although a less sympathetic one. Anyone viewing tapes of his interview can tell he knew nothing about the crime he wasn't told by the police. Unfortunatley, Kevin Crane does not have the insight to see the true nature of this very unusual case. He just can't believe an innocent person would admit guilt. Too bad he just doesn't get it, and that ignorance and stubbornesses is causing an innocent man...two innocent people suffer greatly. Soomer or later it will be shown Crane was totally wrong, and then he will say "I still know he did it." That's how prosecutors who convict innocent people think.

(Report Comment)
Ken Woodard September 24, 2010 | 12:15 p.m.

Anyone who thinks Ryan Ferguson is guily is insane. I have watched this case twice on ID and I can see where the prosecution has proven its case. Not one bit! All they have is two people saying "Yeah, he did it!" That is hooey.
I'm glad I don't live in Missouri. The Rush To Justice is Alive and Well in that state. An ole ex-con janitor is suddenly a renown witness? Give me a break! He couldn't see half in front of his hands. do you spell it?....Misery!!!

(Report Comment)
Colt Swift November 17, 2010 | 6:43 p.m.

Chuck wouldn't lie about killing someone. He wouldn't want to spend the best years of his life in prison. A father was murdered. If your father was murdered and someone insisted that they are the one responsible wouldn't you want them sentenced to prison? There may be doubts in this case but the defense couldn't prove that either of these two are innocent. Don't be so quick to blame the courts and jury.

(Report Comment)
pamela giangregorio November 18, 2010 | 8:21 a.m.

the only word i can think of absurd and "backwoods" is all of this???? were those jurors paid off? this injustice infuriates me and my family. i agree with all of the other posts above. how can people be so blind and deaf???

(Report Comment)
Gerald Scheuerman November 27, 2010 | 10:26 p.m.

Crane did this rush job to convict someone on a national level case so that he could get the position that he is currently in.
I believe that Erickson is the same kind of nut (like Joran Van Der Sloot) who just wants media attention. However in Erickson's case how likely would it be that a 150 pound boy would have the strength to beat down a man that is double his weight and a good foot taller?
The point is the real killer as ID'ed in the composite drawing by the newspaper janitor woman, who a police officer with a dog tracked the scent to University of Missouri dorm building -- is still out there.
One more point -- the stupidity of the jury and the instructions that were not given to them. Remember the OJ trial '' If the glove does not fit you must Acquit"? No DNA evidence was linked to either Erickson or Ferguerson. So how could you convict on 'The way he (Ferguerson) looked at Erickson?

(Report Comment)
Jeff Tanner March 8, 2011 | 7:05 p.m.

This is one of the worse misjustice of a young man i have watched.RYAN I PRAY you will SOON be FREE.Another stripe on the prosecutors sleeve.Its so sad so many prosecutors will do anything to get a conviction.My son did 4.5 years from the false testimony of his best frinds dad who did the crime. My son was 17 at the time and all they charged him with was stealing a pair of shoes.NO JUSTICE IN THE USA.IT'S SO SAD THEY ARE SO MANY INNOCENT PEOPLE IN PRISON.I WOULD LOVE TO SEE MORE COPS AND PROSECUTORS SENT TO PRISON FOR SENDING INNOCENT PEOPLE TO JAIL.

(Report Comment)
Steven J. Smith M.D. March 27, 2011 | 1:23 a.m.

So many crime shows, its pretty easy to become numb. Maybe almost as numb and soulless as the judges who've heard the new evidence, but somehow found it in their black stone hearts, no compassion or pity for an innocent man, whiling away his youth in prison.

By the end of the cbs program, outlining the recantations, I had only contempt for a system that could railroad 2 kids. When I saw the program was ending without telling us, the date of the new trial I had tears in my eyes.

How nice things have worked out for the D.A., who is now a judge. We can only hope karma delivers him into the hands of an equally uncaring prosecutor. For this story to have a happy ending both boys need to be freed and the old prosecutor needs to be tried for prosecutorial misconduct. I'll settle for the boys freedom.

Hang in their Ryan. Maybe Barack Obama is a fan of "48 hours."

(Report Comment)
Sammi Arden March 27, 2011 | 8:58 p.m.

Dr. Smith,

Well said!!!!! Shame on that police department and that over zealous prosecutor!!!! I am sure glad we don't live there as I would be fearful knowing that two innocent young men are in prison for a crime they didn't comment and in the meantime the real killer/s are on the loose!

We are praying for you Ryan! May god bless you and your family! Please don't give up! We the public will NEVER be at peace until justice has prevailed for you and your family!!!!

(Report Comment)
Gerald Shelnutt March 27, 2011 | 9:41 p.m.

All parties have ruined a young man's life. No wonder people do not trust the officials. Crane ought to be run out of Boone County on a rail, The police have railroaded a dumb kid. The jury was/is just stupid. Everyone but Ryan has won and now he can not. You wonder why people do not respect the officials? This is why.

(Report Comment)
Wendell Moine April 13, 2011 | 4:16 a.m.

This is the absolutely worst miscarriage of justice I have ever even heard of in modern times. The prosecutor Crane should be in jail, not on a bench; and those 2 cops shown in the interrogation video should be fired. Ryan and Chuck should be freed immediately. There is and never was enough evidence for an indictment against Ryan anyway, let alone a conviction. It blows my mind that knowing what we know now, that our justice system still considers a jury verdict as sacrosainct in the face of obvious evidence to contrary. I believe in using juries, but the appeals process needs to be changed. Juries are human and as long as humans are involved in anything, mistakes will be made. Our justice system needs to be changed so that when a jury does make a mistake, innocent people don't pay for it. I feel for Ryan and his family. I hope that someone in the Missouri justice steps up and rights this terrible wrong soon. No reasonable person, that doesn't have a vested interest in the outcome of this case anyways, could say that Ryan, or Chuck for that matter are guilty. If there is a petition to sign for this, I will be happy to put my name to it.

(Report Comment)
kim miske May 6, 2011 | 2:04 a.m.

it was obvious that ryan did not kill mr. heitholt in the first '48 hours on id'. later chuck recants his testimony. so WHY IS RYAN NOT HOME WITH HIS PARENTS AND SISTER? it's not too late...yet.

(Report Comment)
Patsy Tunnell July 26, 2011 | 3:56 a.m.

I just watched the episode about this and was astounded that the jury came back with a guilty verdict. The fault is entirely on the jury. It is their responsibility to analyze evidence (or lack of it) presented. One of the jurors interviewed afterward, when questioned about why he made such a decision based on what was actually presented said, "I just felt like he did it." Since when does just "having a feeling" make someone guilty? Does he have ESP or telepathic abilities? He apparently believes so. I know someone who once said this to me, "The police don't go around arresting innocent people." If that is the case, why would we ever need to waste money on a trial for anyone? Obviously the person who said this to me (from Texas) has a lot of company in Missouri. Its frightening. Shame on the judge too. Shame on the citizens who allowed the DA to become a judge.

(Report Comment)
Kerry Walker August 5, 2011 | 11:07 p.m.

I would like to thank Ms. Zellner and praise her in the highest regard for her work.

There are thousands of innocent men and women in prisons in this great country...

I want to tell you that my story is true. I have been living in the free world since being released after my false arrest in 2001, but the hell I have endured is difficult for most people to comprehend. I fought so hard for my freedom, and I won that battle. Then I had to fight for the expungement of my record. Two so-called lawyers told me that I was wasting my time and that I would never get my record expunged. They told me that since they falsely arrested me for a crime I did not commit (and where I was the victim) and then tried to frame me for the crime, that they would be admitting guilt to grant me my expungement. I have presented my case to several so-called lawyers but no one will help me. My case is now in the Georgia Court of Appeals.

Please help me if you can. Search Kerry Walker Story to learn more about my Nightmare in Georgia.

I have a citizen witness that was never interviewed and has never been interviewed to this day (Drew Mayo). I also have an expert witness (Wade Pittman). I also have an attorney who became a witness during my first attempt at trial where they had tampered with exculpatory evidence (Jeff Rusbridge of Dyer & Rusbridge).

(Report Comment)
Kerry Walker August 5, 2011 | 11:25 p.m.

We live in a neurotic society where people who make up these jury pools, and ultimately the jury, can not come upon the fact they are likely to convict an innocent human being. This guy was convicted based on the contradictory testimony of a psychotic man. I know the feeling...I have walked in his shoes...Search Kerry Walker Story

(Report Comment)

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