Ferguson found guilty; jury recommends 30-40 years

Saturday, October 22, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:36 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

Ryan Ferguson was convicted late Friday of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery in the 2001 slaying of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.

The Lincoln County jury of nine men and three women recommended 30 years in prison for the murder charge and 10 years for the robbery charge. Sentencing was set for Dec. 5 in Boone County Circuit Court.

Defense attorney Charlie Rogers said he would file a motion for a new trial Monday.

The jury returned the guilty verdicts about 9:40 p.m. after more than five hours of deliberation. Supporters from both sides gasped as the verdict was read. Ferguson, who turned 21 Wednesday, listened stoically as all 12 members of the jury were polled on the verdict.

In arguing for a lenient sentence after the verdicts were read, Rogers told the jury that it would be a miscarriage of justice if Ferguson received a harsher sentence than Charles Erickson, 21, who testified against Ferguson as part of a plea bargain in which he will serve 25 years for charges of second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action.

It was Erickson’s comments to friends about his role in Heitholt’s killing that originally led investigators to the two men more than two and a half years after the Nov. 1, 2001 killing.

In testimony Monday and Tuesday, Erickson described how he and Ferguson went drinking at a bar on Broadway on Halloween night, 2001. When the two ran out of money, Erickson said it was Ferguson’s idea that they commit a robbery. Armed with a tire tool from Ferguson’s trunk, Erickson said the pair -- then 17 and juniors at Rock Bridge High School -- attacked Heitholt in the Tribune parking lot.

Heitholt was leaving work after celebrating his fifth anniversary at the Tribune. Erickson testifed that after he beat Heitholt with the tire tool, he saw Ferguson standing over Heitholt, strangling him with his own belt.

Crane had asked the jury to return a guilty verdict for first-degree murder, arguing that the act of stripping a man of his belt in order to strangle him showed that the murder was committed after deliberation. Had the jury found Ferguson guilty of that charge, he could have been sentenced to life in prison.

But the jury found Ferguson guilty of the lesser charge of second-degree murder.

Earlier in the day, Crane began his closing argument with a note of sympathy for jury members, who were brought in from Lincoln County because of the local publicity surrounding Heitholt’s killing.

“After all you’ve heard about Columbia this week, I bet you are ready to get back to Troy,” Crane said before a packed courthouse. One juror nodded vigorously.

Rogers argued in his closing argument that Crane had failed to meet the prosecution’s burden of proof. He urged the jurors to look at the standard of reasonable doubt.

“If you do that, this is not a difficult case,” Rogers said. “Not one iota of physical evidence indicates that Chuck Erickson or Ryan Ferguson were present at that scene, had any contact with Kent Heitholt, had any contact with Kent Heitholt’s car.”

Ferguson’s defense consistently sought to discredit Erickson’s testimony by noting the inconsistencies in his story and suggesting that his memory was influenced by details provided by police.

Rogers, in his closing argument, questioned why the prosecution never called Columbia police Detective John Short, the lead investigator in the case. He reminded the jury that a hair was found in Heitholt’s hand that matched neither Erickson’s nor Ferguson’s hair.

Rogers also attacked Erickson’s statement that the two teens went back to the bar after the killing. Two witnesses testified earlier this week that the bar closed at 1:30 a.m., before Heitholt was killed.

“What is there, other than the say-so of Chuck Erickson, to give any credence to that account?” Rogers asked the jury.

But ultimately, the jury did not believe Erickson would confess to a crime in which he played no part. And they believed Ferguson was with him that night.

After the guilty verdicts were read, the jury heard victim impact testimony from Heitholt’s former boss and two member of his family before recommending a sentence for Ferguson.

“One of the things that bothers me the most is that my children are growing up without a father,” said Heitholt’s wife, Deborah Evangelista. “And when they have children, my grandchildren will grow up without a grandfather.”

Tribune Managing Editor Jim Robertson called the 6-foot-3 inch, 315-pound editor a “big, jovial, teddy-bear of a guy.”

Heitholt’s daughter, Kali, who turns 19 on Monday, talked about how her father used to take her out to concerts, movies and restaurants.

After the victim impact testimony, Rogers called Ferguson’s parents, Leslie and Bill, who steadfastly defended their son.

“Ryan is a victim. Our family is a victim,” Leslie Ferguson said.

Bill Ferguson began independently investigating the case after Ryan’s arrest in March 2004. He told the jury the evidence he found led him to believe his son is innocent.

He pleaded with the jury to recommend a lenient sentence for Ryan.

“I’d like to be able to hold my son before I die,” Bill Ferguson said. “I’d like to give him a big hug. He's my best friend.”

-- The Missourian’s Allison Morrow, Jennifer Price, Elizabeth Phillips and Andrew Eder contributed to this report

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