Key witness recants in Ryan Ferguson case

Erickson testifies at Ferguson trial

COLUMBIA — More than four years ago, Chuck Erickson delivered the testimony that helped send his former high school classmate Ryan Ferguson to prison with a sentence of 40 years for murder.

Erickson confessed to beating Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt with a tire tool, and he testified that Ferguson then strangled Heitholt to death. When Heitholt was dead, Erickson testified, they stole his car keys and the belt they’d used to strangle him.

Now, Erickson says that was all a lie, according to a sworn statement he gave to Ferguson’s new lawyer.

The truth, Erickson said in a deposition videotaped Nov. 22 at Potosi Correctional Center, is that he alone beat and strangled Heitholt.

“I did not tell Ryan what I was going to do,” Erickson said, reading from a prepared statement. “He had no idea that I would act in such an aggressive manner. …He could not stop me, though he tried at the end.”

Erickson’s statement became public Monday as part of a motion filed by Ferguson’s  lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, asking the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District to send the post-conviction case back to the trial court for reconsideration based on the new evidence. The court could also deny the motion and make its decision based on the evidence already presented.

If Ferguson loses in the Western District and the state Supreme Court, he might still be able to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court and introduce Erickson’s statement there.

Prior to Ferguson's original trial, Erickson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action and was sentenced to 25 years. Ferguson was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery and was sentenced to 40 years.

Erickson’s statement came after he sent a letter to Ferguson, who is incarcerated at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. In the letter, dated Nov. 9, Erickson wrote: “Have your lawyers come speak to me the next time that they’re down here. If you tell the media that I asked to see your lawyers, or you tell the media what I talked to your lawyers about before I can talk to my family and/or consult an attorney, it will be regretful. I hope that you are holding up.”

As Zellner notes in her motion, Erickson has put himself at risk by volunteering this statement, in essence admitting to perjury and potentially violating his plea agreement, which required his “truthful testimony” against Ferguson.

Still, much is unclear about Erickson’s most recent statement. According to his original statements to police and his trial testimony, he had no memory of committing the murder, which occurred in the early morning hours on Nov. 1, 2001, until two years later. His accounts of the crime changed substantially over time, and much of what he told police seemed to contradict other evidence.

At a July 2008 evidentiary hearing in Ferguson’s post-conviction case, false confessions expert Richard Leo testified that Erickson’s statements bore many of the hallmarks of a persuaded false confession, one in which an innocent person becomes convinced he committed a crime.

Leo testified that, in his initial videotaped police interrogations, Erickson appeared to be attempting to guess the correct answer to the detectives’ questions, rather than stating facts he truly remembered.

In his most recent statement, Erickson said: “I made a lot of assumptions and turned them into facts to satisfy the police. When I did that, I used the opportunity to move the blame onto Ryan and off of myself.”

He continued, “I could not accept in my conscious mind that I was the sole perpetrator and aggressor, so I put a lot of the blame on Ryan. …I don’t think that much of it was even consciously done. It was just too hard to admit to myself and others that I killed someone. I could not even accept the possibility of it.”

But later in the statement, he seemed to say that passing the blame to Ferguson was a conscious attempt to minimize his own punishment. “I was worried about survival,” he said, referencing the interrogation videos, in which one detective told Erickson that “it’s you that is on this chopping block.”

Ferguson denied any involvement in the crime throughout numerous interrogations, and he has maintained since his arrest that he was not even at the crime scene. Both Ferguson and Erickson were juniors at Rock Bridge High School at the time of the murder.

In Erickson’s most recent statement, the motive for the crime is unclear. Erickson testified at Ferguson’s trial that Ferguson wanted to rob someone to get more drinking money. The two agree that they were at the bar By George’s that night. But Erickson told Zellner, “I cannot … honestly remember if we had robbery on our minds.”

“On a subconscious level,” Erickson continued, “I’ve always known that I did it. That is a part of me that I have accepted. I enjoyed doing it at the time. I was in a lot of pain and felt the need to take it out on someone else. There was something wrong with me.”

In a letter to Zellner dated Nov. 27, Erickson asked that she make it clear that he would not have committed the crime or enjoyed doing it if he hadn’t been intoxicated at the time.

“When I murdered Kent Heitholt, I was out of my mind on drugs and alcohol,” he wrote in an “Additional Comments” section dated Dec. 14. “I was under a lot of stress and filled with a lot of pain. I was a walking time bomb. I’d said that I enjoyed doing it. At the time, that was true. Not long after I committed the act, I remember feeling bad about it and scared about getting into trouble. When I realized what I’d done, I regretted doing it. Today I am ashamed of what I did. I wish I’d never done it.”

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