UPDATE: Former prosecutor, investigator question some of week's testimony in Ferguson hearing

Thursday, April 19, 2012 | 9:29 p.m. CDT; updated 4:18 p.m. CDT, Friday, April 20, 2012
Judge Kevin Crane, who served as prosecutor in Ryan Ferguson's murder trial, testifies during an evidentiary hearing for Ferguson at the Cole County Circuit Court on Thursday in Jefferson City. Ferguson is serving a 40-year sentence after his 2005 conviction for second-degree murder and robbery in the death of Columbia Daily Tribune editor Kent Heitholt four years earlier.

*An earlier version of the story did not identify Kevin Crane's role in Ryan Ferguson's 2005 trial.

JEFFERSON CITY — Boone County Circuit Judge Kevin Crane denied allegations that he tampered with witness testimony, specifically that of Jerry Trump, during the fourth day of witness testimony in Ryan Ferguson's evidentiary hearing.

Trump, a Tribune janitor who placed Charles "Chuck" Erickson and Ferguson at the scene of the crime during Ferguson's 2005 trial, testified Tuesday that Crane assured him in December 2004 that prosecutors were sure they had the right people in custody. Trump also said Crane, who was the prosecuting attorney in the trial*, told him it would be "helpful" for the prosecution's case if Trump identified the two men.

The history

Ryan Ferguson was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery in the 2001 strangling death of Kent Heitholt, 48, in the Columbia Daily Tribune's parking lot. Charles "Chuck" Erickson testified during the 2005 trial that he and Ferguson killed Heitholt together. The conviction began a series of appeals and a change in representation for Ferguson to Chicago-based Kathleen Zellner.

Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green will determine at the end of the weeklong evidentiary hearing whether Ferguson will be granted a new trial.

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"It was a tough case, I'll admit that," Crane said under cross examination by Ferguson's attorney, Kathleen Zellner, but he denied that he bargained with Trump in exchange for his identification of Ferguson.

"There wasn't anything that I offered to do, (and) Jerry didn't solicit," Crane added later in his testimony.

Trump testified at Ferguson's 2005 trial that he received a newspaper article from his wife while serving a sentence for a sex-related crime. He said then that he saw the photos of Erickson and Ferguson and immediately recognized them as the two people he had seen in the parking lot the night of Kent Heitholt's death. Trump also testified that he had seen the photos before he saw the headline of the article.

Crane said Thursday that Trump's first testimony was the truth.

At their first meeting, Crane said Trump had not sat down before he told him he could identify the two people he saw. His demeanor was very "matter-of-fact," Crane said.

Crane said the first time Trump told authorities about being able to identify the two people was their first meeting in December 2004, eight months after he identified Erickson and Ferguson in prison.

"At that point, I didn't quite know what to think," Crane said. "I needed to assess the situation. ... I needed to see how I could deal with the situation from a legal standpoint."

Crane said he distinctly remembers visiting the crime scene with Trump. Crane testified that he didn't see anything that would have made identifying the men impossible for Trump that night.

The prosecution also called Bill Haws, a former investigator from the Boone County Prosecutor’s Office. Haws was assigned to investigate Heitholt’s killing and was given the task of making contact with Trump, who was in prison when Haws contacted him in December 2004.

Haws said he specifically requested an unrecorded phone line for his conversation with Trump and made no report of the call, which he said was a mistake.

Haws said he then set up a meeting with Crane and Trump at the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney's Office on Dec. 21, 2004. At this meeting, Trump told Haws and Crane that he had been sent a newspaper article with Ferguson and Erickson's photographs on the front page and that he recognized them as the two men he saw in the Tribune parking lot after Heitholt’s killing, Haws said.

Haws recalled on the stand that he was excited about Trump's statements and that he got a copy of the Tribune article he believed to be the one Trump had seen. Although the paper he chose had run the day after Erickson and Ferguson's arrests and included pictures of both suspects, Haws said he wasn't certain it contained the article Trump had seen.

Haws said Trump told him he hadn't kept the article he originally testified his wife had sent him in prison. Haws said he didn't show Trump the article he obtained from the Tribune until Trump testified at the 2005 trial.

The defense pointed out that there were many Tribune articles from that period that included photographs of Erickson and Ferguson. Haws said it was possible he had gotten the wrong article, but Trump identified it on the stand in 2005 as the article he had seen.

The prosecution called Mark Kempton, the criminal defense attorney who represented Erickson when he pleaded guilty in 2004 to second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action. Kempton testified Thursday about his interactions with Erickson throughout the case.

Kempton tried to evoke attorney-client privilege, but Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green ruled that Erickson had given up that privilege in court Wednesday when he implied Kempton had manipulated him into his 2005 guilty plea. 

Kempton said Thursday that he negotiated Erickson’s plea deal with Crane and that he explained to Erickson the full ramifications of his guilty plea, which he told Erickson would be given in exchange for his testimony in Ferguson’s 2005 trial. Kempton said he told Erickson that if he did not take the plea deal, he would be given a jury trial.

“He told me he wanted to plead guilty because he was guilty,” Kempton said.

Kempton also testified that Erickson told him a consistent story throughout their relationship and that he had no reason to doubt Erickson when he confessed to police that he killed Heitholt.

“Fundamentally, from day one, he wanted to plead guilty,” Kempton said.

Kempton also testified that Erickson never mentioned to him that he had “imagined” or “dreamed” the killing.

Crane testified earlier Thursday that there seemed to be a gap in Erickson's memory of the night of the killing.

Morning testimony

The defense rested its case Thursday morning after three of its final witnesses testified about the timeline of events that led up to Heitholt's death.

Michael Boyd, a former Tribune sports reporter, and Rus Baer, who still works as a sports reporter for the newspaper, gave testimony about what they saw at the Tribune building the night of Heitholt's death. 

Boyd was working as a sports writer at the Tribune the night of Heitholt's killing and is the last known person to have seen or spoken to Heitholt before his death.

He testified that he logged off his computer at 2 a.m. and that he was in the newspaper's empty parking lot around 2:10 a.m. He said he got into his red Chevy and fiddled with the radio for a few minutes.

Boyd testified that when Heitholt came out of the building and walked to his car a few minutes later, Boyd pulled up next to him, and the two men spoke for about five minutes. He said they talked about the cat that was using Heitholt's car tire as a scratching post as well as the week's story assignments.

Boyd said when he pulled into the alley to drive away, he wasn't fully paying attention and was startled by two people walking in the alley. Boyd testified that he didn't get a good look at them — he couldn't identify their gender, race, hair color or any other features, he said. Boyd said that he didn't question the presence of the two people in the alley and that he had no reason to believe they intended to kill Heitholt.

"Everybody comes through that alley," Boyd said. "Nothing suspicious ... no hiding."

"They were just walking," he continued. "No hiding or running ... just walking."

Boyd testified that as he drove away around 2:20 a.m., he looked back in his rear-view mirror at Heitholt, who was bent over with his head inside his car. Boyd said that because Heitholt was a tall man, he usually entered his car that way. Boyd said he assumed Heitholt was getting into his car to leave.

Boyd said he arrived home around 2:45 a.m. and went to bed. He said that around 4 a.m. he received a phone call from co-worker Rus Baer, who told him Heitholt was hurt. Boyd said Baer handed the phone to someone Boyd thought was Columbia Police Department Detective John Short, who asked Boyd a few questions, he said.

Boyd testified that he told police and William Haws, a Boone County Prosecuting Attorney's Office investigator, that he could not identify the people he saw in the alley the night of Heitholt's killing.

On the stand, Boyd said that his car was never searched for DNA evidence and that police never asked about the clothes he wore that night.

The defense called Baer, who testified that he was in the Tribune building the night of Heitholt's killing. He told the court that Shawna Ornt, a member of the custodial staff, ran into the sports department and said something had happened to Heitholt. Baer went with a co-worker to the parking lot, where they found Heitholt "laying on his side, kind of face down."

Baer testified that he briefly looked around for anyone fleeing the scene but said he saw no one.

Baer also testified that when he called Boyd later that night to tell him Heitholt was hurt, he didn't give the phone to Short to speak with Boyd.

The defense also called Kimberly Bennett, who testified that she saw Ferguson and Erickson the night of the killing at By George, a former Columbia dance club. She said the bar began to close at 1 a.m., after which Bennett said she waited in the parking lot with a friend.

They were waiting for another friend who was working as a deejay at the bar that night and was packing up his equipment. Bennett described the club as being "empty" around 1:30 a.m.

Bennett, who said she saw Ferguson and Erickson outside By George, told the court she saw the two drive away from the club in Ferguson's car before the killing.

Bennett testified that Erickson and Ferguson said goodbye to her as they walked past, crossed the street, waved goodbye again, entered their car and drove away.

About a half a block stood between where Bennett was waiting in the parking lot to where Ferguson and Erickson entered their parked car, she said. Bennett testified that she could see the two clearly and said she remembered the maroon color of Ferguson's car. Bennett said she was "100 percent" sure when asked of her certainty that she saw them drive away.

Bennett said she left the club around 1:45 a.m.

In his 2005 trial testimony, Erickson said he and Ferguson returned to By George after killing Heitholt around 2:20 a.m.

Bennett said she remembers the events of the night so vividly because it was her first time at a bar — she said she was 16 at the time. Although she said she ordered a drink, she only took one or two sips of it because she was extremely nervous. Bennett said she was not at all intoxicated.

The prosecution was expected to call its final witnesses and rest its case by noon Friday.

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Michael Williams April 20, 2012 | 11:55 a.m.

The other newspaper in town is reporting that Erickson, during his interrogation, was able to identify two things about the crime that had not been previously made public: (1) That Heitholt'c car door was left open after his murder and (2) That he and Ferguson waited for the exit of a red car (presumably Boyd's, see above article) before approaching Heitholt.

Being able to expound on evidential "identifiers" is a big deal for me when establishing guilt or innocence. I'd like to hear counter explanations for this from others. True? False? Other explanations?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams April 20, 2012 | 11:59 a.m.

If Erickson did indeed expound on an exiting red car, and the existence of the red car was never made did he know about ANY exiting red car?

Same thing with the open car door.

Someone chime in.........

(Report Comment)
Denna Shipley April 20, 2012 | 2:21 p.m.

Boyd claimed he was driving a blue oldsmobile that night in a report given to an Investigator in 2005. He also owned a Red minivan but now can't determine what he was driving that night. The blue car is still registered in his name but attempts to locate it have turned up nothing. As for the car door being open, once a person is formally charged they may receive all discovery regarding their charge such as police reports etc. Hope this helps.

(Report Comment)
Denna Shipley April 20, 2012 | 2:49 p.m.

correcting earlier post...his other vehicle wasn't a minivan.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams April 20, 2012 | 3:24 p.m.

Denna: This is what the "other" newspaper had to say:

"Although Erickson claims to have made the entire story up from Tribune articles, he still corroborated evidence that Heitholt's car door was open when he was found dead and that he waited for a man, later identified as former Tribune sportswriter Michael Boyd, to leave in a red car just before the killing. The state claims Erickson would not have learned such information from the newspaper."

Unfortunately, the Trib does not tell us the timeline for WHEN Erickson corroborated these things or to whom. If it was BEFORE any such information leaked out or was made available to him during discovery, then he (and Ferguson) has a problem.

The Trib didn't do a very good job with this particular paragraph. Too much unanswered, even in your own response. To my knowledge, the Missourian articles have not addressed what seems to me to be a rather critical point.

I wish someone would.

(Report Comment)
mike mentor April 20, 2012 | 4:29 p.m.

Not sure that this would rise to critical level unless we had more specifics. If you want to review the tape of the "investigator" feeding Chuck the cause of death, the murder weapon, and many other very important details of the crime scene, it's out there. Either this was his first try or he is a dirty cop. Either way, not good...

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams April 20, 2012 | 4:58 p.m.

MikeM: The open car door is a small deal someone could guess.

Waiting for the red car to leave is a much bigger deal. Not only is it specific, it matches testimony in both the event AND the time. That's huge, especially since other testimony conflicted and said they went home post By-George. Something is wrong and I'm curious.

I'm just curious and responding to the Trib's words. It's something I did not know. Being able to articulate held-back events is a big deal for me. Given the "forum spamming" on this particular topic, I'm surprised no one is all over the Trib with countermeasures.

(Report Comment)
audrey pyle April 23, 2012 | 2:09 p.m.

So where does Ryan come in then in any of what Erickson possibly said about waiting for the red car to exit or the victim's car door being open? I thought Ryan was the one being imprisoned as the sole propieter in this murder...

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle April 23, 2012 | 6:06 p.m.

It remains incredibly unlikely that two drunken teenagers could have committed this crime without both leaving behind, and taking with, boatloads of physical evidence.

Where is the physical evidence?

(Report Comment)
jen Fitzgerald April 28, 2012 | 5:41 p.m.

With respect to the claim that Erickson had been able to identify two things that had not previously been made public: As many people are aware, Columbia Police made a video and audio taped record of their interrogation of Chuck Erickson at the Columbia Police Department; HOWEVER, as many people are not aware, and according to Detective Short's own police report, Chuck Erickson spoke with police for an entire 45 minutes BEFORE the video/audio recorder was turned on. This, unfortunately, is standard police practice in many police departments around the country. There is no way of knowing what factual information was revealed to Chuck Erickson by police during that initial 45 minute unrecorded interrogation. While it may very well be true that the general public was not told about the red car or about Heitholt's car door being open at the time his body was discovered, given the disgraceful tactics utilized by police during the recorded portion of the interrogation, it is more than reasonable to suspect that these two facts were revealed to Chuck Erickson by Columbia Police during that initial 45 minutes. We will never know what, exactly, was said during those 45 minutes, but I am not foolish enough to rely upon the word of any member of law enforcement whom was involved in the [botched] investigation of this case.

(Report Comment)
Michael Duffin May 14, 2012 | 12:54 a.m.

Nobody is mentioning one fact. Chuck testified that Ryan hit him and chocked him (I know he changed that). Ryan is small in stature. Heitholt was a very large man and he fought back. Physically, I don't think Ryan could have done it. Heitholt's long arms should of been able to hold him at bay. Maybe he brought a step ladder.

(Report Comment)

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