(CBS) For two years, police investigated the
brutal 2001 Halloween night slaying of newspaper
editor Kent Heitholt in Columbia, Mo. They had
no viable suspects and the victim's family had
come to terms this crime might never be solved.
But then police heard that a young man told a
friend that he had dreamed he participated in
the killing and also named an accomplice to the
murder: his good friend, Ryan Ferguson.
48 Hours correspondent Erin Moriarty reports on
this mysterious murder investigation, and the
It's not unusual for a father to miss his college-aged
son but, in this case, Bill Ferguson's 21-year-old son
Ryan is in jail. He was arrested for the 2001 murder of
the Columbia Tribuneís sports editor Kent Heitholt,
after Ryanís alleged accomplice talked to friends about
"It just tears at your heart. And knowing that heís
going through this," says Bill.
Bill and his wife, Leslie ó now separated ó have put
aside their differences to fight for their son and help
prove his innocence.
"This is something that I never thought our family, our
child, would ever have to go through," says Leslie. "And
"It was so sad, and just such a shock. I just remember
thinking 'Well, they obviously have the wrong person,' "
says Ryan's sister Kelly.
Kelly and Ryan grew up in Columbia, Mo., an affluent
college town deeply rooted in family and tradition.
Their father made his mark in real estate; their mother
is a reading coach.
Asked to describe Ryan, Leslie says her son is "loving,"
"laid back" and has a "good sense of humor."
Even Kelly has only good things to say about her kid
brother. "Heís just got such a good heart. Being an
older sister, I put him through hell, growing up. And he
would always be my friend, no matter what."
Ryan, not much of a student, was more focused on the
social side of high school; Kelly says her brother was
always with a girl, no matter what.
Ryan says the murder charge is one big terrible mistake
and heís counting on his family to help him prove it.
"Theyíre doing everything they can for me. And I love 'em
so much for that. Iím just glad that they can see that I
am innocent," he says.
In 2001 when the murder occurred, Ryan often hung out
with Chuck Erickson, a high school buddy who, like Ryan,
loved to party.
That Halloween night, Kelly offered to sneak the two
boys into the dance club.
"I know that Ryan was underage, I shouldnít have gotten
him in the bar. But I just thought, maybe, you know,
heíll have fun," she recalls.
"It was extremely crowded," Ryan remembers, "And there
were people in costumes running around. Everyone was
having a good time. I enjoyed it."
Just a few blocks away from the bar where Ryan and Chuck
were partying, Kent Heitholt was at work. The Columbia
Tribuneís sports editor often worked into the wee hours,
as he did that night. After he left his office, he went
to his car and began his nightly routine.
Kali Heitholt says her father always took the time to
feed a stray cat that roamed the lot, keeping a box of
cat food in his car.
"Every night before he left, heíd pour a little on the
concrete slab for the cat to come and eat," she says.
Kent fed the cat that night, but never made it home.
Kali and her mother were fast asleep when police came
knocking on their door.
"They say to my mom like, 'Thereís been a horrific act
committed against your husband,' " Kali remembers.
(Page 2 of 10)
Tony Messenger, a weekly radio talk show host,
who also writes a column for the Columbia
Tribune, says the murder case of his colleague
Kent Heitholt is "shocking" and "bizarre."
"He was just the friendliest guy that you could
never imagine anybody having a reason to kill
him," says Messenger. "The people that worked
for him, loved him."
On the night of his murder, Kent signed off his computer
at 2:08 a.m. Less then 20 minutes later, he was found
dead by his car.
"He was beat mercilessly, with some sort of blunt
object. And then, once he was down to the ground as I
understand it, he was strangled with his own belt," says
Initially, police kept that detail about Kentís belt to
themselves; it would later become a crucial issue in the
case. But they did reveal other facts of the crime right
away: there were bloody shoeprints, an unidentified
human hair was found in Kentís hand, Kentís wallet was
there, but his keys and wristwatch were missing.
Messenger says the crime didn't have the typical signs
of a robbery, but police did have one lead: a janitor
caught a glimpse of two young white men running away
from Kentís car around the time of the murder, and
But the janitor said he could not provide a detailed
description of them.
Police were further frustrated because the crime
happened on Halloween, the one night bloody clothes
wouldnít stand out.
Two years later, Heitholtís murder was the only unsolved
homicide in Columbia. Police said they were still
"hopeful" someone would pick up the phone to clear his
Heitholt's daughter, Kali, wasnít holding her breath.
"I just kinda gave up and just had to deal with the fact
that my dad was gone instead of worrying about who did
it anymore," she says.
Then, in January 2004, a call came in on a crime tip
hotline that someone was talking and telling his friends
he was involved in the murder. Police were convinced it
was the break they were looking for.
"It came off as a slam dunk case. Bragging about it at a
party," says Messenger. "People overheard. End of story.
Lets get these kids in jail."
Kali was only 15 when her father was murdered, and she
remembers her father as a "big teddy bear," smiling all
the time. Heitholt's late hours didn't worry Kali. "He
was 315 pounds, 6-3. I thought he could take care of
himself," she says.
Kali had come to accept the killers would never be
found. After two years investigating, police had no
viable suspects. But then they got word that community
college student Chuck Erickson was now talking to his
friends about the murder.
"This kind of answers why we were having, you know,
trouble working this case, because theyíre really kind
of under the radar," says Boone County Prosecutor Kevin
Crane says Chuck was no hardened criminal. He had come
from a stable, well-to-do family and was a high school
student at the time of the crime.
Police pulled Chuck in for questioning and he told them
what he told his friends: that he killed Kent Heitholt.
In a videotaped police interview, Chuck told an
investigator he hit Kent Heitholt in the head with a
tool. Chuck also named an accomplice: his friend, Ryan
That same day, Chuck was taken into custody, and so was
Ryan. Both had gone to the same high school as Kali
"I never really thought it would be so close to my age
group. That was really tough," she says.
(Page 3 of 10)
Chuck told police that the attack was Ryanís
idea. He said that after the two ran out of
money to buy drinks, Ryan suggested robbing
someone. Chuck said they ended up in the Tribune
parking lot, chose their victim and things
quickly got out of hand.
"Ericksonís got a tire tool. Walks up. Starts hitting
the guy. The crime is in progress. Itís hard to back up
from beating some guy over the head. And Ferguson
finishes the job," says Crane.
How did Ryan allegedly finish the job?
"Strangles him with the victimís own belt," says Crane.
"My personal view on this is this is just one stupid
decision after another. By two kids, 17-year-old boys,
that were intoxicated."
When Ryan was picked up by the police, he didnít think
he needed a lawyer.
Ryan's police interview was also videotaped and he
admitted that he and Chuck went to the dance club "By
George" that night and left together. But Ryan insists
they went straight home and he got upset when police
accused him of killing Heitholt.
"I would never f------ do anything like this. This is
just ridiculous," Ryan told police.
Still, relying on Chuckís version of events, police
charged both with murder. Ryanís family says it was a
rush to judgment.
"These people in Columbia are desperate to solve this
case," says Bill Ferguson. Not only does he think his
son, Ryan, is innocent, heís convinced Chuck is
His proof? The tape of Chuckís recorded confession to
Asked how many times he thinks he hit Heithold, Chuck
told police, "just the once."
"Just the once? Well, the only problem I have with that
is I know he was hit more than once Ö," the police
"He wants to give the answer. But he doesnít know the
answers," says Bill Ferguson.
Ryanís father says that Chuck appears to know few of the
details of the murder. In fact, investigators even have
to point out where the crime occurred, telling him where
Heitholt's car was parked.
Asked what's wrong with this, Bill says, "Whatís wrong
with this is the police are not asking Chuck 'Where did
the crime take place?' Theyíre not asking Chuck what he
thought. Theyíre telling what, where the crime took
Whatís more, in the taped interview, Chuck says Ryan
strangled Kent Heitholt, but he seems to have no idea
"I think it was a shirt or something, Chuck told police.
When told by police that it was a belt, Chuck said,
Bill Ferguson says police were wrong to hand feed Chuck
all those details. The reason he didnít know them on his
own, Bill says, is that he dreamed the whole thing up ó
literally. Bill says when Chuck began discussing the
crime with friends like Art Figueroa, he said it came to
him in a dream.
Art Figueroa says Chuck felt "really bad" and
"remorseful" and was disturbed by a newspaper report
marking the second anniversary of Kent Heitholtís
"He wanted to go to the police station, but he said he
had a dream. So I told him, I was like, 'Iím not gonna
take you down there for a dream. You need to think about
this in the morning,' " says Art.
(Page 4 of 10)
But Prosecutor Kevin Crane believes Chuckís memories are
real and that he was just reluctant to admit them.
"Didnít it concern you that Chuck didnít seem to know
much about this killing at all? He thinks heís only hit
him once when, in fact, Kent had been hit several
times," Moriarty asked.
"Why would you say you only hit him once? Because you
know that the more bad conduct you admit to, the worse
trouble youíre gonna be in," Crane replied. "And the
more certain you are youíre gonna get arrested and go to
prison for a long time."
But, whatever trouble Chuck might get himself into, Bill
Ferguson is convinced that the case against Ryan is so
weak, that his familyís ordeal will soon be over.
"He is going to be found innocent. He is going to be
acquitted. I wouldnít be surprised if it doesnít even go
to trial," says Bill.
Newspaper columnist Tony Messenger was relieved that the
murder of his colleague was apparently solved. In his
mind, the case against Chuck and Ryan seemed neatly sewn
up, until he saw Chuckís videotaped interview.
"It occurred to me that this might be a very troubled
kid who, for whatever reason, was reaching out for
attention," says Messenger.
Messenger says that his concern at that point was that
maybe police had the wrong people.
Ryanís father, Bill Ferguson, says he has proof of that.
Police photos show a bloody, messy crime scene. Yet,
somehow, none of physical evidence found at the scene
matches either Ryan or Chuck.
Bill says that lack of evidence proves that his son
wasnít there. "They did a luminol test of Ryanís car,
and they didnít find one drop of blood," he says.
The attack on Heitholt was so violent, he says, that
even investigators first on the scene thought it could
be a ďcontract killing.Ē
"This is unbelievable anybody could commit a crime like
that and not have any blood ever show up. It defies
imagination," says Bill.
Whatís more, the forensics team could not match the
bloody shoeprints leading away from the scene to either
Chuck or Ryan, nor could they match the strand of hair
found in Heitholtís hand to either teen.
Private investigator Jim Miller, hired by Ryan
Fergusonís family, has been to the crime scene numerous
"There was no evidence that linked Ryan or Chuck to this
crime ó DNA evidence, blood evidence, hair, fiber,
fingerprints ó nothing," says Miller.
Crane admits itís a tough case to prove. Asked if a
murder weapon was ever found, Crane says, "No."
What about the lack of physical evidence? What makes
Crane so sure Erickson and Ferguson committed this
"If Iíve got physical evidence at the scene, thatís
great. But I donít go 'I canít prosecute this case if
there is no physical evidence,' " says Crane.
(Page 5 of 10)
Kevin Crane was determined to take the case to court. On
Oct. 17, 2005, nearly four years after Heitholtís death,
Ryan was the first to stand trial.
His once-close friend, Chuck Erickson, who confessed to
the crime, served as the stateís star witness.
Asked what he did to Kent Heitholt, Chuck testified he
robbed him and beat him with a tire tool.
Asked what Ryan did, Chuck testified, "He robbed him and
he strangled him."
On the stand, Chuck was nothing like the confused young
man from the police interview a year and a half earlier.
He was confident and comfortable, calmly explaining that
when they ran out of money for drinks, Ryan suggested
they rob someone.
"There was a little bit of attraction to it just because
I was young and I was stupid and I was a little drunk.
It seemed like it would be something cool to do," Chuck
With Craneís help, Chuck even demonstrated for the jury
how he crept up on Heitholt and attacked.
Chuck also tried to explain how he could have no memory
of the murder for two years.
"The best way that I can explain it is I just put it out
of my mind," he testified. "It was not my normal
behavior. I was drunk. It wasnít something I never
wanted to remember again."
"It is definitely possible to consciously put something
out of your mind that you donít want to remember because
it is a terrible, terrible thing," says Crane.
He says that is exactly what Chuck did. Like a victim of
trauma, he blocked out the terrible memory.
He remembers now, says Crane, because the newspaper
coverage of the murderís second anniversary jogged his
memory and the details slowly returned.
So, although Chuck once seemed genuinely surprised to
hear that Heitholt was strangled with his own belt, he
now vividly recalls backing away after Heitholt fell and
looking up to see Ryan standing over the wounded man.
"He was down here and he had a belt, and he had his foot
on his back on the victimís back. And he was pulling up
on the belt," Chuck testified.
Chuck told jurors that when he and Ryan fled the scene
and went back to the club, they were seen by a friend,
Dallas Mallory. Throughout it all, Chuck says, Ryan
remained cool and was later amused when he found a $20
bill tucked in his wallet.
"Heís looking at me and heís kinda smilin'. He says, 'We
just did that for nothin'. I had this the entire time
and I forgot about it,' " Chuck testified.
Throughout the testimony, Ryan sat expressionless. Asked
if Chuck was making this story up, Ryan says, "In terms
of my involvement, yes. I donít know if he was there."
(Page 6 of 10)
Chuck Erickson, 21, does have a troubled history of drug
and alcohol abuse. His friends say he is prone to
outrageous behavior and he himself says he was arrested
for felony forgery ó an indication of deceit in the
past. Yet for two long days on the witness stand, Chuck
stuck by his story even when defense attorneys played
"I mean, I might not even know what Iím talking about,"
Erickson said in his taped police interview.
"You didnít know whether or not youíd done it, isnít
that what you were telling him?" a defense lawyer asked.
"I was telling him that but itís all just rushing at me,
'My God I killed this man, I gotta take responsibility
for this now. Iíve gotta tell them what that man did.'
It was a hard thing to do," Erickson replied.
Crane had another witness, Dallas Mallory ó the friend
that Chuck says he saw right after the murder. A
statement from Mallory confirms that he "saw Ryan
Ferguson and Chuck Erickson together."
But, by the time of trial, Dallas told 48 Hours a very
Asked if he remembered seeing either Chuck or Ryan later
that night, Dallas said, "No."
Dallas says the police simply didnít want to hear that
he was too drunk that night to remember anything.
"They kept on telling me, 'Well, Chuck said this, he
said he saw you,' " he says. "I was bawling in tears and
I said, 'Well, is that what you want me to say? That I
did it when I didnít? I can say that, if itís gonna make
me get out of this building quicker and I can go home.'
He says he only gave that statement under duress and is
terrified he will have to testify. To his relief, he was
But Jerry Trump was called to the witness stand. Trump
is the janitor who glimpsed the men by Heitholtís car
but had said at the time he could not provide a detailed
But at trial, when asked if he saw that individual or
individuals, Trump pointed to Ryan.
Trump has had his own problems with the law. He was in
prison when he saw the arrest photos of Ryan and Chuck
in the newspaper ó and, like Chuck, says the paper
jolted his memory.
At trial, Trump was far more confident about the
killers' identities than even the victimís daughter,
Asked if she was troubled by the lack of physical
evidence linking the suspects to the crime, Kali says,
"Yeah, it does a lot. I mean youíd think that they would
have left physical evidence, like being so young and
stupid. They would have missed something."
Still, Kali is taken by Chuckís testimony. "I wouldnít
think he would lie unless he really is crazy. But he
didnít seem crazy on the stand."
Radio talk show host Tony Messenger believes the stateís
case against Ryan may be in jeopardy.
"Unless the jury bought Chuck Fergusonís story, unless
they can get beyond, either lies he has told or
inconsistencies in his memory, Chuck Ericksonís
testimony was not enough to convict Ryan Ferguson,"
Messenger said on his radio show.
Messenger is anxious to see if Ryan will be more
convincing when he says he had nothing to do with
(Page 7 of 10)
As the defense laid out its case, Ryan Ferguson
testified about the time when Chuck first mentioned the
Heitholt murder to him.
"He told me he had a dream about it. I told him he was
weird and just to leave me alone. I went back inside and
at that point never saw him again," Ryan testified.
Ryan hoped to convince jurors that his story made more
sense than Chuckís.
Asked if he went to the Tribune parking lot or saw Kent
Heitholt anywhere, Ryan said no.
"Youíre there for a horrible thing. Something that Iíve
never even conceived of doing and theyíre looking at me
like Iím some kind of criminal. And ó itís just the
worst feeling in the world," he says.
Asked if he participated in the murder, Ryan said, "No."
Unlike Chuck, Ryan never changed his story, from the day
he was pulled in by police for questioning. Even when
pressed for four grueling hours, Ryan told police he
wasn't at the crime scene.
Ryanís attorneys pointed out he has always maintained
But Crane tried to chip away at Ryan's story.
"You were asked if you ran out of money and your answer
was 'I donít believe so,' " Crane asked.
"Yes," Ryan replied.
Yet under pressure, Ryan stood firm. "I never thought I
would be arrested for a crime I did not commit. Would
you believe youíd be arrested for a crime you didnít
commit?" he testified.
"I donít know how he is so strong. But it's just really
hard to see. Heís sitting right by us. And we canít even
touch him," says Ryan's sister, Kelly.
When Kelly took the stand in her brotherís defense,
Crane reminded jurors how she had sneaked her brother
into the bar illegally.
"I feel like its kind of my fault," says Kelly. "He
wouldnít have even been downtown if it wasnít for me.
And then he would never have been a suspect."
But Kelly and other defense witnesses also contradict a
crucial part of Chuckís story. Chuck had claimed that
they went back to the bar after killing Heitholt around
Chris Canada, who tended bar that night, says thatís
"The law of the land is you close by 1:30. And thatís
what time our boss always had us close at," he says.
"When the lights came on, and they were, like, pushing
people out. Itís pretty aggressive," says Kelly.
(Page 8 of 10)
To save Ryan, however, the defense is going to have to
do more than attack details in Chuckís story. The
defense has to answer the question that is at the very
heart of the stateís case: While accusing Ryan of
murder, Chuck is admitting the same crime. Why would
anyone lie about that?
"If you conduct interviews that suggest details in the
course of interviews, that witnesses will pick up ó
often pick up those details and claim them as their own
memory," says memory expert Elizabeth Loftus, who was
flown in from the University of California by the
"Probably the hardest thing to get past is why would
anybody confess to something so awful and subject
themselves to prison unless they really did it and
thatís hard to get past," says Loftus.
But she says she doesn't find that hard to believe.
"After studying false memories for 30 years, I know that
people can believe in things that didnít happen, they
can be detailed about them, they can be confident about
them, they can be emotional about them, even when they
False memories? Could Chuck sincerely believe he
committed an act that in fact he didnít? Thatís what
Loftus believes. Her evidence: Chuckís vivid recalling
of specific details after having no memory of the murder
for two years.
Loftus told jurors that you can clearly see how the
investigators told Chuck so many of the things he now
"I certainly saw evidence of repeated suggestion in the
sense that, repeatedly, details are being introduced
into the interview," she says.
Crane, who notes that Chuck has no documented history of
delusional disorders, found the defense theory
ludicrous. "A guilty conscience was really the thing
that brought this out. He preferred to take
responsibility and admit to it," he says.
But Crane did make it easier for Chuck to take
responsibility: he gave him a deal. In exchange for his
testimony against Ryan, Chuck plead guilty to second
degree murder and got 25 years. He could be paroled in
less than 13.
Asked if he was concerned that Chuck was taking the
blame for something he might not have done, Chuck's
attorney Mark Kemtpon says, "Sure. I would not have been
doing my job if I had not explored that issue with him
... What convinces me is Chuck himself."
Neither Chuck nor his parents would talk to 48 Hours.
"Do you believe that Ryan Ferguson was involved in this
murder?" Moriarty asked.
"I believe very strongly that Chuck was told the truth
throughout," Kempton replied.
But, in the end, it was up to the jurors. Would they
believe Chuck or Ryan?
(Page 9 of 10)
On the fifth day of the trial, jurors reached a verdict
after five hours of deliberations.
Ryan Ferguson was found guilty of second degree murder
and guilty of first degree robbery.
The verdict came as a shock and a surprise to Ryan's
"When she said the verdict I just ó I didnít think I
heard her right," says his mother Leslie.
"I heard it, but I just didnít believe it," his sister,
That same night, the sentencing hearing began and Ryanís
father pleaded for leniency.
"We feel very, very badly for the Heitholt family," Bill
said. "They have a beautiful family and an innocent
man's life has been taken away. But it was not my son
that took it away."
But for Heitholtís daughter, Kali, the verdict removed
all the doubts she once had. "In my heart I believe that
Ryan Ferguson did do this crime," she told reporters.
And when it was her turn to speak, she finally released
the emotion she held throughout the trial. "I want other
people to be able to know my father. But, they never
will and that just ó it hurts so bad for me because it's
not fair that his life was taken away so early and then
ó everyone can know how great he was," she tearfully
said on the stand.
Just minutes before midnight, the jurors returned,
asking the judge to sentence Ryan to a total of 40
Speaking to 48 Hours, a group of jurors say they
believed Chuck's story.
"He wants to clear his conscience but he wasnít sure how
to do it. And I think he was striving when he was
talking to the other friends of his how to get it out,"
one male juror said.
"Did any of you at any time through this trial then
think that it was possible that Chuck Erickson had made
this up?" Moriarty asked.
"I never felt like that Chuck Erickson had made it up,"
another male juror said.
"He looked over at Mr. Ferguson and the pleading look in
his eye like, 'Come on buddy, you know you did it.' It
really cinched it for me," a female juror added.
And the jurors didn't believe Chuckís memories were
false memories implanted by the police as the defense
memory expert had testified. Did that at all seem
"Not in my mind. Just common sense. What was the reason
that youíd make something up like that?" one juror said.
Another juror said he was won over by the janitor who,
while initially unable to describe the killers, pointed
to Ryan in court. "Heíd seen 'em and pointed 'em out,
and that was pretty much all you needed right there,"
the male juror said.
The jurors say they were not really bothered by the lack
of physical evidence. It all came down to which witness
was most believable.
(Page 10 of 10)
Columnist Tony Messenger still has some doubts about
Ryanís guilt, but has come to believe the essence of
"I just ultimately donít believe he made it up," he
says. "I think heís a troubled kid. And I still think he
doesnít know everything that happened. But I believe
those two boys were in the parking lot of the Tribune
and killed Kent Heitholt."
Messenger admits he is still bothered by the lack of
evidence. "Iím more bothered by the mistakes that I
think the prosecution and the police made in their early
rush to judgment."
Meanwhile, Ryan began his sentence in a Fulton County,
Mo., prison. And even now, more than a month after he
was convicted, Ryan still shows no emotion.
"I really thought I could prove my innocence and be with
my family," he says.
Asked why he didn't show any emotion when the verdict
came down, Ryan says, "I was devastated. What are you
gonna do, cry? I mean, I did not have anything to do
with this crime."
Ryan knows that some people may have a hard time with
his lack of emotion.
Ryan says is "beyond" him why Chuck said he was involved
and was also willing to go to prison. "If I knew the
answers to that, I would love to explain it."
As for Ryanís family, the trial has stunned them but not
"Weíre gonna appeal. And weíre gonna reinvestigate and
weíre gonna try to start gathering information," says
Ryan's father, Bill.
As Ryan marks time, they say theyíre more determined
than ever to prove that both he ó and his accuser ó are
"Weíve just begun to fight," Bill told reporters. "One
day Chuckís going to wake up in his cell and say, 'Oh my
Gosh, what have I done?'"