A 20-year-old Columbia man pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree robbery Thursday in connection with the 2001 killing of Kent Heitholt, the Columbia Daily Tribune’s former sports editor.
Charles Timothy Erickson walked into the courtroom handcuffed, wearing a black and white jumpsuit from Boone County Jail, for a brief hearing with Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton.
According to a plea agreement, Erickson will serve 25 years in prison if he cooperates with the prosecution of co-defendant Ryan William Ferguson, 20, who is charged with first-degree murder and first-degree robbery.
In exchange, Erickson would serve a concurrent 15-year sentence for murder and robbery and a 10-year sentence for the newly added count of armed criminal action.
The final sentencing for Erickson is scheduled for Feb. 28. Erickson’s trial was supposed to start this week but was delayed because of the plea agreement between Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane and defense attorney Mark Kempton.
Heitholt was murdered in the early hours of Nov. 1, 2001, in what detectives described as a “sloppy crime.” According to police reports, Heitholt stopped to feed a stray cat and was jumped from behind, beaten and strangled.
Police say Erickson and Ferguson had left a nearby club earlier that night. At the time, they were 17 and juniors at Rock Bridge High School.
Erickson and Ferguson are being held in Boone County Jail. A grand jury indicted Erickson and Ferguson on April 30. On May 3, both pleaded not guilty to charges. Ferguson’s trial is set for Jan. 24. He could face a life sentence if convicted by the jury brought in from Lincoln County, about 40 miles north of St. Louis.
Because Ferguson was a minor at the time of the murder, he cannot be given the death penalty under Missouri law. The U.S. Supreme Court must review a decision by the Missouri Supreme Court prohibiting execution of someone who was a minor at the time of a crime before they would receive the death penalty.
Erickson had implicated himself and Ferguson when arrested, according to police reports.
Crane said he had been in discussions with Kempton early on about an agreement. Ferguson’s attorney Scott McBride said his client has no intention of pleading guilty.
“We were anticipating this, given that Charles had spoken with the police, but I have to say that we are surprised that anyone would plead guilty to this case,” McBride said.
He said Erickson’s plea does not change the plans of Ferguson's defense team, made up of McBride and Kathryn Benson.
“Ryan has always denied involvement,” McBride said. “The question we have to now answer is, ‘why is Chuck pleading guilty?’ ”