In testimony that he described as “repressed memories” but that the defense said was riddled with inconsistencies, Charles Erickson described Monday how he and his high school friend beat and strangled to death a Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor “for no reason.”
Erickson is the prosecution’s key witness in its case against Ryan Ferguson, who is charged with second-degree* murder and first-degree* robbery in the death of Kent Heitholt.
Heitholt, 48, was killed as he left work at the Tribune in the early morning of Nov. 1, 2001. More than two years after his death, police arrested Erickson and Ferguson, both 17 and juniors at Rock Bridge High School at the time of the killing.
In November 2004, Erickson, 21, agreed to a plea bargain in which he would testify against Ferguson in exchange for a 25-year sentence on charges of second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action. If convicted, Ferguson faces life in prison.
Ferguson, who will turn 21 on Wednesday, stoically listened as Erickson told the jury that the attack was Ferguson’s idea, that Ferguson had said he had “always wanted to kill someone before he was 60” and that Ferguson finished off Heitholt by strangling him after Erickson beat him with a tire tool.
Erickson testified Monday that he recalled the night only in “snapshots” resembling a dream. Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane said in his opening statement that Erickson put the events of Heitholt’s killing “out of his conscious memory” but that guilt “began to eat at him” after the attack. Only after seeing a newspaper article published two days later did Erickson begin to believe he could have been involved in the killing.
The defense said in its opening statement that Erickson’s transition from describing the events as dreamlike to saying he was “100 percent certain” of what happened suggests he might suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Lead defense attorney Charlie Rogers of Kansas City said Erickson’s fixation on his dreams of the killing caused him to believe they were real.
Erickson was the second witness called Monday, following Heitholt’s wife, Deborah Evangelista. Erickson’s testimony lasted most of the day Monday and is expected to continue today.
Erickson, in shackles and a striped jumpsuit, gave concrete details about the events of Halloween night, 2001. He said it was Ferguson’s idea to rob someone to get more money for drinks at a now-defunct bar called By George. After three or four Amaretto sours each, he said, the teens were out of money and Ferguson’s sister would not give them more.
Erickson describes where he says he and Ferguson hid behind a trash bin moments before Kent Heitholt was killed in the parking lot of the Columbia Daily Tribune four years ago. (GERIK PARMELE/Pool photo)
The two went from the bar to Ferguson’s car, where Ferguson took a tire tool from his trunk, Erickson said. They walked toward the Tribune parking lot and saw Heitholt, who was finishing his shift and preparing to leave work. Ferguson suggested the two rob him, Erickson said.
They approached Heitholt from behind, and Erickson said he struck Heitholt with the tire tool. He stood up to gesture how Heitholt raised his hands in defense after Erickson struck him. Erickson said during questioning that he hit Heitholt several more times, until he fell.
“When I heard him groan, that’s when I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
After beating Heitholt, Erickson said he sat down with his head between his knees because he felt sick. When he looked up, he said Ferguson was standing over Heitholt and strangling him with a belt. Erickson said he suddenly became angry and yelled at Ferguson before ripping the belt off Heitholt’s neck.
During his testimony, Erickson said he remembered the clinking sound of Heitholt’s belt buckle when it snapped. He took the belt with him as the two ran away, he said, and later put it in a plastic grocery bag in Ferguson’s car. The belt was never found, Crane said in his opening statement.
In cross examination, Rogers showed the jury three separate videotaped police interrogations from March 2004, when the two were arrested. Rogers said the videotapes demonstrate significant inconsistencies between Erickson’s original account of the crime and the account he gave on the stand.
In the videotapes, Erickson tells investigators that he struck the man only once. Erickson said in the interrogations that Ferguson strangled Heitholt, but he could not remember what instrument was used to do so.In the first two videos, Erickson says he cannot remember much and cannot give police solid details of the night of Heitholt’s death. In the third video, an investigator raises his voice and rolls his chair toward Erickson, saying he is tired of listening to this “gibberish.”
Throughout Rogers’ cross-examination, Erickson said that his inconsistent statements about the night in question can be attributed to what he called “repressed memories.”
The trial is scheduled to continue at 8:30 a.m. today in Boone County Circuit Court.