UPDATE: Ryan Ferguson seeking $100 million in damages in federal civil rights case

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 | 12:08 p.m. CDT; updated 8:54 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 15, 2014
Ryan Ferguson holds the sign his lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, made to inform him of his freedom on Nov. 12 at The Tiger Hotel. Ferguson was released from prison earlier that evening after being convicted for murder in 2005. His attorneys filed a complaint in federal court Monday accusing members of the Columbia Police Department, the Boone County Prosecutor's office — including former Chief Prosecutor Kevin Crane, now a circuit court judge — the city and Boone County of violating Ferguson's civil rights.

UPDATES: This story has been updated to clarify information about attorney Kathleen Zellner's previous cases. Also, allegations in the Ryan Ferguson complaint, detailed in a previous version of this article, have been incorporated into a separate article.

*CORRECTION: The names of Sgt. Stephen Monticelli, prosecutor's investigator William Haws and Detective Lloyd Simons were misspelled in a previous version of this article.

Defendants named in the Ferguson lawsuit

  • Detective John Short
  • Detective Jeff Nichols
  • Detective Jeff Westbrook
  • Detective Bryan Liebhart
  • Detective Latisha Stroer
  • Detective Lloyd Simons*
  • Sgt. Stephen Monticelli*
  • Chief of Police Randy Boehm
  • The city of Columbia
  • Prosecutor's investigator William Haws*
  • Prosecutor's investigator Ben White
  • Chief Prosecutor Kevin Crane
  • Boone County

Stroer is the only police officer listed who is still working for the Columbia Police Department. The others have retired or moved to different agencies. Haws and White are still investigators for the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, and Crane is now a judge in the 13th Circuit of Boone County.
For a guide to who's who in this case, click here.

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COLUMBIA — Ryan Ferguson's attorneys filed a complaint in federal court Monday, suing police and investigators, among other city officials, for violating his civil rights by fabricating evidence, manipulating and coercing witnesses to falsely testify, and failing to investigate possible suspects.

His attorneys, Chicago-based Kathleen Zellner and St. Louis-based Samuel Henderson, are seeking $100 million in damages — $75 million in compensatory and actual damages and $25 million in punitive damages. They are also demanding a jury trial. 

Zellner has successfully fought 15 wrongful-conviction cases.

The Ferguson suit, filed in U.S. District Court Western District of Missouri, alleges that the Police Department needed an arrest in the high-profile 2001 slaying of Kent Heitholt, a sports editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune, because of rising public pressure. So, the suit alleges, it manipulated witnesses to identify Ferguson and a friend, Charles "Chuck" Erickson, as the killers and help convict them of the crime. 

Zellner also states that Ferguson and Erickson should have been eliminated as suspects after investigators learned that the physical evidence — including hair, fingerprints, blood and footprints — found at the scene did not match either of them. 

The complaint states that the detectives "commenced multiple interrogations of Erickson not aimed at finding the truth, but instead designed to obtain false, incriminating statements, implicating both Erickson and Ryan in the Heitholt homicide without any regard for their obvious innocence."

The allegations

The complaint lists and elaborates on nine allegations. Click here for details of each.

Implicating Michael Boyd

The complaint emphasizes the failure of officials to investigate Michael Boyd, a sports reporter at the Tribune and the last man to see Heitholt alive, as a suspect. He has given several stories to investigators about his actions that night but has consistently placed himself at the scene of the crime. Investigators never asked for his DNA or fingerprints.

According to the complaint, in an interview with Short the night of the murder, he said he spoke with Heitholt outside the Tribune about 2:10 a.m. and said he didn't see anyone suspicious in the parking lot. In a separate interview the next night, however, the complaint states that Boyd told Simons that he got into his car around 2:10 a.m. and tinkered with the radio before he saw Heitholt leave the building. Boyd said he drove around the parking lot and talked to him through the window of his car.

In 2005, he told defense investigator Jim Miller that he went out to his vehicle and listened to a cassette before he saw Heitholt exit the building. Boyd said he drove around the lot and spoke to him through the window. He said he then observed Heitholt get into his car and begin pulling out of his parking spot.

At that time, according to the complaint, he told Miller that he was driving a blue Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. But he also told prosecutor's investigator William Haws that he was driving his wife's red Plymouth Acclaim. Boyd got rid of the Oldsmobile in 2004, and the complaint faults investigators for never making an effort to examine either vehicle.

The complaint also contends that Boyd should have been questioned for the following reasons:

  • A schedule and programs for Columbia College basketball and Hickman High School girls basketball were found around and under Heitholt's car. Boyd covered both teams, and Heitholt wasn't carrying loose papers that night.
  • Boyd had a dispute with Heitholt shortly before the slaying about a major mistake he had made on an assignment.
  • Boyd didn't fill out a time sheet when he left work, as he was required to do.
  • Boyd was visible in a photograph at the crime scene after the slaying, but he told investigators he didn't return until 4:15 a.m.
  • Boyd said that when he got home, he immediately washed his clothes.
  • Boyd said he saw the body face down, but it had already been turned face up when Boyd returned at 4:15 a.m.
  • Boyd said he saw paramedics at the scene, but they had left nearly two hours before Boyd returned.

Casting doubts on Erickson

The complaint also questioned Erickson's reliability as a witness.

Erickson has stated that he has no memory of the night Heitholt was killed. His interest was sparked when he saw an article about the second anniversary of the slaying and thought the composition sketch of the killer accompanying the article looked like him. After that, the complaint states, he "became obsessed with the case because he could not remember leaving By George that night."

He approached Ferguson about two months later and told him he was having repressed memories of the killing, but Ferguson told him they weren't involved. Someone overheard the conversation, according to the complaint, and called in an anonymous tip to Crime Stoppers.

Afterward, the Police Department fingerprinted both men, but neither matched the evidence at the scene. A few months later, Erickson told friends he thought he might be connected to the homicide. However, he said "he felt he could be dreaming the whole scenario," according to the complaint. One of those friends also went to the police.

When Erickson was brought in for questioning, he maintained that he couldn't remember exactly what happened and often gave incorrect information about how the murder was committed and details of the crime scene. During the interview, Short and Nichols supplied some information about the crime. For example, Erickson told police he struck Heitholt once, but Short told him he struck him more than once. Erickson also said he strangled Heitholt with a shirt or bungee cord, but Short told him he strangled him with a belt.

Erickson also couldn't point out where the killing took place when they drove to the Tribune. The detectives pointed it out to him at the site.

The complaint emphasizes Erickson's drug use the night of the homicide and in the subsequent years. It states that at the time of the homicide was smoking marijuana three to four times a day. He also used Adderall, cocaine, LSD and mushrooms and drank excessively, according to the complaint.

The night of the homicide, he had used Adderall and cocaine and had been drinking heavily, according to the complaint. The next morning, he couldn't remember leaving the bar, but he didn't have blood on his clothes or any injuries on his body and didn't remember killing anyone.

The complaint also states that Erickson increased his drug and alcohol use significantly between 2001 and 2003.

Ferguson spent nearly a decade in prison after being convicted of the Oct. 31, 2001, murder. Ferguson, who maintained his innocence throughout his imprisonment, was arrested in 2004 after Erickson began remembering that the two of them had killed Heitholt after partying that night.

Erickson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action and testified against Ferguson in the trial. Erickson was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Ferguson was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

After years of failed efforts to get Ferguson a new trial, his conviction was vacated on Nov. 5, when the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District ruled that the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense in what is known as a Brady violation. Ferguson left prison a week later when the state attorney general's office announced it would not fight the decision or seek to retry him.

Missourian digital members: See a full timeline of the case.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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