Ryan Ferguson's freedom bears a price tag

Friday, November 15, 2013 | 4:59 p.m. CST
Bill Ferguson drove this customized car on a nationwide tour to build awareness for his son's case.

COLUMBIA — Ryan Ferguson paid for a crime he says he didn't commit with almost eight years of his life. His family paid for it with savings, retirement funds, loans from extended family and a new mortgage on the house.

To raise national support for his son's case, Bill Ferguson toured the country, rented billboards, launched a website and created the well-known "Free Ryan Ferguson" car bearing his son's face. These efforts helped create support, but they weren't free.

A full-car decal like the one on the "Free Ryan Ferguson" car costs at least $1,000, an employee of Fast Signs saidBillboards on Interstate 70 can cost between $2,750 and $25,445 a month to rent, according to Lamar Advertising's website, the same company the Ferguson family uses.

Bill Ferguson once paid $800 to fly a plane towing a "Free Ryan Ferguson" banner over Memorial Stadium before an MU football game. But not even Bill Ferguson knows who paid for a similar plane towing a "Welcome Home Ryan Ferguson" banner that was spotted flying over MU on Tuesday.

And these are just the costs of publicity. Bill Ferguson said his family spent approximately $250,000 on the case. That price would have been higher, but lawyer Kathleen Zellner took over the case in 2009 pro bono. Her law firm spent an estimated 3,500 hours on the case, which would have cost about $1.065 million plus $132,636.65 in expenses, according to a statement Zellner gave to "Dateline."

"You cannot get justice without money or a good attorney," Bill Ferguson said in an interview Friday.

While campaigning for his son's release, Bill Ferguson continued to work as a real estate agent at RE/MAX Boone Realty. He said he didn't miss any sales because of his son's case and was able to continue working. In fact, he said, this year has been his most profitable in the past three or four years. His wife, Leslie, retired from her job as a reading specialist for Columbia schools this year.

Now, others are taking over the job of finding money for the Fergusons.

In anticipation of the release of Ryan Ferguson, who is now 29, supporters created an online fundraising campaign on on Nov. 8 to help pay for his basic expenses, including food, clothes and "whatever he wants to spend it on," said Mike Rognlien, who created the fund with Richard Drew. 

"He has nothing," Rognlien said. "People don't really realize that your 20s are all about establishing yourself. Getting a car, your first apartment, and he has none of that."

In little more than a week, more than 1,300 people have donated more than $48,000.

The biggest donations so far? Rognlien and an anonymous donor each gave $1,000. But Rognlien said that there is no minimum.

"The whole point of this Facebook page and fund is not to show what one person could do but to show what a group of people with a common purpose can do," he said.

Although Rognlien, a Facebook employee who lives in San Francisco, had known about Ferguson's case since the trial, it wasn't until a year ago that he became directly involved. After seeing an episode of "Dateline," he felt compelled to act and reached out to the family to see how he could help.

An episode of Dateline also attracted Drew, a television producer who lives in New York, to the case. After watching an episode in the summer of 2011, Drew started giving the Ferguson family tips about how to better use the media to their advantage. But his involvement in the movement started in earnest a year ago when he teamed up with Rognlien to run, the Facebook page, the Twitter account and the petition.

Through their work, both men have developed personal relationships with Ferguson and his family. Rognlien has talked to Ferguson on the phone almost every weekend for the past year, though he has never met him in person. Drew came to Missouri to visit Ferguson in prison in April.

Both men plan to travel from their respective coasts to visit Ryan Ferguson in the coming weeks.

"He's a friend for life," Drew said. "He's family. I cannot wait to see him in a couple weeks' time. I'm going to give him the biggest hug ever."

Rognlien and Drew approached the Ferguson family with the idea for the fundraiser. The family was at first hesitant to ask for money when people had already shown so much support but eventually gave its blessing.

The donations and support have come from all over the country.

A 13-year-old in California raised about $2,000 for Ryan Ferguson through bake sales, Rognlien said. Although the teen, Riley Mulcahy, had never met Ryan Ferguson, he met his father when Bill Ferguson visited California on his cross-country road trip.

Supporters have been able to show their support for Ryan Ferguson through a variety of social media outlets. His Facebook page has more than 84,000 likes, and the petition on asking for his release has 266,872 signees.

"This story has really struck a chord in people," Rognlien said.

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