COLUMBIA — Nearly a decade after the 2001 murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt, his name still frequently appears in news stories.
These days, he is rarely the main subject of the stories. Neither are his widow and children. They have long since stopped talking to reporters.
Heitholt and his death have become a clause necessary to explain the latest effort of Ryan Ferguson to get out of prison. When Ferguson was convicted of killing Heitholt in 2005, his time in the media spotlight had just begun.
On Friday night, "Dateline NBC" will air a two-hour special on the 2001 slaying, the evidence that landed Ferguson behind bars and his father's relentless efforts to free him.
Ferguson's father, Bill, has been the driving force behind Ryan Ferguson's appeals and the media attention surrounding his case since he was convicted. The elder Ferguson has placed himself squarely in the public eye and has become both an investigator and publicist as he continues to search for and promote evidence that he hopes will help exonerate his son.
Ferguson's newest attorney, Chicago-based Kathleen Zellner, was hired by his father in 2009 after he learned of the lawyer's reputation for overturning wrongful convictions. Zellner had heard of the Fergusons through the media. She said she was convinced of Ryan's innocence and took on the case pro bono.
But despite recent positive media coverage, a high-profile attorney and throngs of supporters, Ferguson remains in prison, his most recent legal efforts shut down.
How it all began
If you ask Ryan Ferguson or his family, they won’t even concede that he might have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Ferguson has consistently maintained that he was “absolutely not” in the Tribune parking lot or near Heitholt that Halloween night.
“Try to remember what you did two Halloweens ago,” he said during a recent interview in the Jefferson City Correctional Center. He remembers the night as fun but unremarkable.
When asked in 2004 by Columbia police to recall what he did that night, Ryan Ferguson said he went to the now-defunct nightclub By George with his friend Charles Erickson, and when the club closed, he drove Erickson and then himself home. End of story.
Physical evidence has not contradicted this claim. Despite the bloody shoe prints and fingerprints at the scene, and hair found in the victim’s hand, lab results didn't tie Ferguson to the crime scene.
Erickson emerged as a factor in the case after a dream. After reading an article about the then-unsolved murder, Erickson began telling friends he had disturbing dreams and thoughts that he and Ferguson were involved. Soon both were brought in by police for questioning.
In October 2005, Erickson’s dream became testimony in Ferguson's trial in Boone County Circuit Court. The 20-year-old had already pleaded guilty to his role in Heitholt's slaying. Now, on the stand in striped prison garb too large for his thin frame, he testified for the prosecution.
“I did this,” Erickson said. Then he turned and lifted a shackled wrist to point at Ferguson. “He did this. I didn’t dream anything.”
The jury took five hours to unanimously decide they believed him. They sentenced Ferguson to 40 years in prison for second-degree murder and first-degree robbery.
Bill Ferguson and the media
To date, Ryan Ferguson has gone through eight lawyers and countless appeals — and hit nearly as many dead ends.
If his case has become a media circus, his father has become the ringmaster. He is unabashed about his relationship with reporters and his own prominence in the media. A real estate salesman, he's gregarious, oozes Midwestern charm and is chummy with reporters.
Bill Ferguson has never missed a hearing — nor an opportunity to dole out a sound bite. He is articulate yet desperately passionate when he speaks about his son’s plight; his quotes are practically tailor-made to wrap up articles and newscasts. He fancies himself an educator, and at the most recent hearing, he invited several reporters to join him on the now-famous crime-scene tour.
In 2008, he carried a spoon in his pocket to an evidentiary hearing, hoping to be asked about it. When reporters didn’t bite, he nudged them along.
“You’re probably wondering why I have this spoon in my pocket. Do you know why I have this spoon in my pocket?” he baited, in his rhetorical style. “This is a Columbia Police Department interrogation tool.”
It was an allusion to how he believes the police fed witnesses information: by the spoonful.
Reporters laughed. Cameras flashed. The shot of Bill Ferguson holding up the spoon ended up on the front page of the Columbia Daily Tribune the following day.
Bill Ferguson manages the freeryanferguson.com website and blog. His daughter, Kelly, manages the Facebook pages, and Ryan's mother, Leslie, responds to e-correspondence. He said the site has received roughly 750,000 hits.
NBC's Keith Morrison, who is reporting on the story for "Dateline NBC" on Friday, said one of the elements that makes the story so compelling is the strong father-son relationship.
"It's something any family can relate to," he said. "What happens when one of their children is accused of something dreadful? This is a family that is wearing its agony on its sleeve."
Bill Ferguson's agony and obsession are apparent when he talks about his son's case. He says he has amassed eight years’ worth of evidence, police reports, news clips and details about the main characters responsible for his son’s incarceration. Every once in a while, he will casually drop into the conversation some unsavory tidbit about the police or the prosecution.
He can quickly search through his alphabetical files for ammunition when he needs to respond to a question posted in the media.
“I anticipate what people are going to ask,” he said. “And then if things are starting to get quiet, I throw a little meat in the cage.”
Many have felt Ryan Ferguson's demeanor helped convict him in the first place.
Ferguson said many people have told him he seemed “cocky” on the stand. For example, when then-Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane was swapping insults with him in court, Ferguson fired back with one of his trademark rhetorical questions: “Would you believe you'd be arrested for a crime you didn't commit?”
“I didn’t commit one,” Crane said.
An expressionless Ryan countered, “Neither did I.”
It wasn’t the first time he'd talked back. In the interrogation room, when police told him there were fingerprints found at the scene, a seemingly relieved Ferguson shooed the cop away, saying, “Well, you better get on that.”
Latisha Stroer, then a detective for the Columbia Police Department, interviewed several witnesses. Her initial impression of Ferguson was that he “partied a lot.” She said statements he made to witnesses — and subsequent statements witnesses made to police — convinced Stroer that the right man was going on trial.
After now spending nearly a quarter of his life behind bars, more than a year of that in solitary confinement, Ferguson says the five days of the trial were the worst of his life.
His “remorseless” demeanor was based on his attorney’s instructions to respect the court, he said. And he spent more than 18 months locked up in a Boone County Jail holding cell before the trial with “the worst people you’ve ever met it your life, times 10.”
“I went outside every chance I got,” he said of his first year. “And I went outside twice.”
By the time the trial rolled around in October 2005, he said he felt simply defeated.
He said he wanted nothing more than to scream that he was innocent, but was silenced by the “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t” dilemma.
He blames television for creating expectations of how an innocent person is supposed to behave. Act crushed, you show guilt. Hide emotions, you’re remorseless.
The case didn’t garner national attention until a series was written by former Columbia Tribune columnist Tony Messenger. "48 Hours" subsequently caught wind of the case and aired a segment.
By showing clips of the taped interrogations, the episode fostered the belief that police had fed Charles Erickson details he originally seemed to know nothing about.
For instance, in one clip, Erickson doesn't seem to be able to explain how he and Ryan strangled Heitholt. When a detective informs him it was with the victim’s belt, Erickson appears dumbfounded. The detective asks if that sounds familiar. “Not at all,” Erickson says.
That scene is immediately followed by a flash forward to the trial, where Erickson not only is certain about ripping the belt off Heitholt, but demonstrates how he and Ferguson were able to take down the 6-foot-3-inch-tall Heitholt by holding a foot on his back.
Both father and son say they saw a transition in public opinion following the "48 Hours" episode. And every time the show is re-aired, Ferguson says he receives a wave of letters in support.
“It gives me hope,” he said of the attention.
Over time, Ferguson said, the media have presented information that the jury had not heard, such as a statement from a Tribune janitor who said she saw two men leaving the crime scene the night of the murder.
She was later called as a witness in an appeal and testified that neither of them was Ferguson or Erickson.
“The only ones who are against me now are the people who don’t know the facts about the case,” Ferguson said.
'Watching the system'
For the past few years, Bill Ferguson and Kathleen Zellner have been talking about the case to the media as few others have been willing — or able — to do.
Heitholt’s family has since moved away, and Kali, Kent’s daughter, said she has vowed to no longer talk to the media. She said the family just wants to move on.
The Columbia Police Department has been reluctant to speak publicly. Stroer, one of the detectives at the time, said she and the officers who worked on the case have not altered their view of Ferguson and believe he received a fair trial.
In a recent interview, she chose each word carefully, and simply shook her head apologetically when pressed for specifics. The pending appeal bars the department from speaking further.
“I wish we could comment more about the case,” she said. “The victim seems to be forgotten at some point throughout this; that’s the hardest part.”
She said most police agree that everyone has a right to appeal, but the trial should remain in the courts.
“They want it to be dealt with in the system,” she said of her colleagues, “not in the media.”
And former prosecutor Crane, who is now a Boone County Circuit Court judge, has denied numerous requests for an on- or off-the-record interview.
Columbia Tribune Managing Editor Jim Robertson agreed to talk about his former employee but wouldn't comment on the merits of the case against Ferguson. He recalled how he hired Kent Heitholt after the reporter moved to Columbia from Shreveport, La., to live in a safer place for his children.
Robertson said he was fond of Heitholt and has watched the case unfold over the years.
“I’ve been watching the system do its work,” he said. “Nothing has moved me from where I was at the end of the trial.”
But he won't say where that is.
Robertson admits that it has been a challenge to report the story because so many of the staff were close to Heitholt, but reporters have taken pains to ensure balanced coverage.
“Some people continue to allege that we are not fair to Ryan,” he said. “I would challenge anybody to look over the body of work on this story and find we were biased.”
Is it working?
On May 5, the Missourian asked readers if they thought Ferguson should be granted a new evidentiary hearing. Seven of eight commenters thought he should. This ratio is typical of comments on nearly all of the Missourian and Columbia Tribune articles on Ferguson this year.
Columbia criminal defense attorney Jennifer Bukowsky said the media attention couldn’t hurt in court.
“I think that will benefit him that the public is interested in his plight,” she said. “It will make the courts examine things more closely and not just brush him off.”
But Bukowsky said in a real legal sense, the publicity probably has no bearing. However, judges are subject to retention votes in the state of Missouri.
“They are public servants; they are sworn to uphold the constitution,” she said. “Hopefully, the public attention this case has gotten will have the judges focus on the actual facts.”
So far, however, there has been no actual progress toward obtaining a new trial for Ferguson. He has lost every appeal to date and is hoping the recantations of Charles Erickson and another witness, Jerry Trump, will open the door.
His laywer said Missouri’s appeals system is to blame.
“Missouri has some of the most restrictive habeas procedures in the United States," Zellner said. "I have said before that if Ryan were in Illinois, he would be back in college by now. I think it's going to take a higher court to untangle this case."
Ferguson is running out of appeals in Missouri, Zellner said, so after the Missouri state court process has been exhausted, she and Bill Ferguson will make a go at federal district court, and then the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“If necessary, we will go to the United States Supreme Court,” she said.
More to come
For now, Ryan Ferguson waits. He speaks with an easy, camera-ready smile, and remains tanned, upbeat and humble. Ask him how it’s going and he’ll answer, “As good as can be expected.”
He is optimistic that he will be released and speaks in “whens” instead of “ifs.”
On Thursday, Bill Ferguson was flown to New York to appear on the "Today" show Friday morning, a teaser of sorts for the "Dateline" special Friday night. The Ferguson team has updated the website and emailed supporters, encouraging them to watch.
A hearing is set for Tuesday to discuss the other issues in the habeas petition, namely, the recantations of Charles Erickson and Jerry Trump, who now both say they lied at the trial.
"Dateline" reporter Morrison said his team was unable to speak with Erickson.
"We're still hoping to at some point, and that's one of the reasons we're not finished yet," he said. "And we won't be after Friday. Because there is more to come."