“Have you ever had the cops in your face?” That’s the question posed in a video Bill Ferguson posted on the popular Web site YouTube last week. The video shows two Columbia police detectives interrogating Charles T. Erickson on the day of his arrest in March 2004 in connection with the 2001 slaying of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.
During that interrogation, Erickson implicated Ferguson’s son, Ryan Ferguson, in the murder of Heitholt. The heavily-edited video has garnered more than 2,000 views on YouTube, and responses posted on YouTube and e-mailed to the Ferguson family have been overwhelming, family members said.
“The response has been very, very positive,” Bill Ferguson said. “We’ve had people e-mail from all over the world and all over the United States.”
Two maintenance workers found Heitholt beaten and strangled to death in the parking lot of the newspaper in the early morning hours of Nov. 1, 2001. More than two years later, Erickson told Columbia police that he was having “snapshot” memories of the slaying and believed he and Ferguson committed the crime. The 17-year-olds were students at Rock Bridge High School at the time of the slaying.
A Lincoln County jury found Ferguson guilty of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery on Oct. 21, 2005 — two days after his 21st birthday. Boone County Circuit Judge Ellen Roper sentenced him to 40 years’ imprisonment for his role in the murder.
Erickson, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action, testified against Ferguson at his trial. He was sentenced to 25 years.
Ferguson has appealed his conviction. The Missouri Western District Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in Ferguson’s appeal almost six months ago.
The video tries to spotlight Erickson’s apparent lack of knowledge of the Halloween-night killing, though the audio is poor and makes his answers hard to hear.
“Right now, your hind end is the one that’s hanging over the edge, and Ryan Ferguson could care less about it,” Columbia Police Department Detective Jeff Nichols can be seen telling Erickson. “You had better start thinking very clearly, because it’s you that’s on the chopping block.”
The video shows Erickson telling the detective that he was “making presumptions” based on what he “read in the newspaper.”
“I might not even know what I’m talking about,” he told the investigator.
It’s not the first time the Ferguson family has been the intermediary for Erickson’s interrogation video.
Before the trial, Bill Ferguson leaked the video to the Columbia Tribune and, subsequently, the Columbia Missourian. Last year, a TV show aired a segment called “Dream Killer,” which made the case that Ferguson’s family has tried to build since the beginning: that Erickson “dreamed” his and Ferguson’s involvement in the slaying, and that’s why he struggled to remember details during police questioning.
After his conviction, Ryan Ferguson’s family set up a Web site, freeryanferguson.com, detailing his case, and Bill Ferguson speaks to college classes and leads tours around the crime scene pointing out what he calls inconsistencies in Erickson’s statements to police and in court. The Columbia Daily Tribune has a running blog on the subject, with nearly 700 comments posted on it since it was created in October.
The video’s central claim is that police forced a false confession out of Erickson.
Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm defended his detectives’ practices, saying they did nothing wrong.
“It’s very unusual to sit down with someone and for them to just admit what they’ve done,” Boehm said. “It’s not unusual for us to have to push that a little bit harder and use a variety of techniques to try to get at the truth.”
Sandy Davidson, an associate professor of journalism at MU who teaches Internet Law, said YouTube presents almost limitless possibilities for taking a case directly to the public.
“I think the purpose of putting something like this on YouTube is to influence the public and maybe, by doing so, put some pressure on the judicial system or attorneys on the case,” Davidson said.
Davidson said that she thinks such postings on YouTube could actually help the criminal justice system. She said such public monitoring of the courts could increase the public’s confidence in the justice system. But, she cautioned, postings such as this could also undermine confidence in the courts by presenting just one side of the story.
Bill Ferguson said the public’s support has given his family the strength to keep up their fight to free their son.
“We wake up every day re-energized, convinced even more than the previous day that Ryan will prevail,” he said.