Wrongly Accused? Missouri Man Has Spent Almost a Decade in Prison for Murder, Claims Innocence

PHOTO: Ryan Ferguson has spent almost a decade in a maximum security prison for a brutal murder he, and many others, insist he didn’t commit.
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Ryan Ferguson has spent almost a decade in a maximum security prison for a brutal murder he, and many others, insist he didn't commit. But finally, the 28-year-old believes he could be days away from getting a phone call that could set him free.

"It's hard to have much hope, at this point, in the justice system based on what they've done," he said. "It's scary knowing that they're not looking for the truth, they're looking for a conviction… I might never have a chance to get my life back again."

Ferguson's saga started nine years ago when he was in college. A former Eagle Scout growing up in Columbia, Mo., he was a popular kid and extremely close with his family.

"We did a lot of things together," said his father Bill Ferguson. "He was just really mellow and very friendly, got along with everybody."

But one day when Ryan was leaving class, police pulled him over and accused him of a vicious murder that had occurred three years earlier, in 2001, on Halloween night. The victim was Kent Heitholt, a beloved sports journalist, who had been found bludgeoned and strangled to death in the parking lot of the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he worked.

"I'm thinking, 'Well, I can obviously prove I had nothing to with that, so you know, question me for an hour and I go back,'" Ferguson said.

Police questioned Ferguson for hours and he never wavered in his insistence that he had nothing to do with the murder. But at the same time, a man named Charles Erickson, one of Ferguson's classmates, was in another interrogation room down the hall, telling police that he and Ferguson had committed the crime and that it had been Ferguson's idea. Erickson said the pair had been out together on that Halloween night when Heitholt was killed.

"We had a few drinks, hung out and then when the bar closed, you know, I took Erickson home and that was pretty much the night, like any other Halloween," Ferguson is heard telling police on interrogation tapes.

Erickson, who had a history of substance abuse, had started telling people before Ferguson was a suspect that he had dreamt he had been at the crime scene the night of the murder. Ferguson said one night, Erickson showed up inebriated at a friend's house while Ferguson was there and started talking about it.

"He starts asking me if I know about him having anything to do with the murder of Kent Heitholt," Ferguson recalled. "And I'm looking at him, I'm like, 'I don't know anything about that man, I know I took you home that night but you even saying that is incredibly strange and it's kind of freaking me out,' so, you know, pretty much, 'get away from me.'"

When Erickson was interrogated by police in 2004, the interrogation tapes showed that he seemed confused and didn't seem to know how the murder occurred or even the kind of murder weapon used.

"I think it was a shirt or something," Erickson is heard saying on police interrogation tapes when he went with police to the crime scene.

"I know it wasn't a shirt," an officer said.

"Maybe a bungee cord?" Erickson replied.

"Well, we know for a fact that his belt was ripped off of his pants and he was strangled with his belt," an officer said. "Does that ring a bell?"

When Erickson replied, "No," an officer then asked, "you didn't put anything in your hand then?"

"No," Erickson said. "I don't remember that at all."

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