Charles was interrogated by Columbia Detective John Short and Detective Jeff Nichols. Short and Nichols mislead Charles in a series of interrogations designed to influence Charles to fabricate the information they needed to secure murder charges in a case they desperately needed to solve. It was clear from the start that Charles had no recollection of participating in the murder. Short and Nichols should have stopped the interrogation and concluded that there was no probable cause for an arrest. Instead, the detectives worked to extract a false confession.
Detective Short asked Charles if he knew what the victim was strangled with. Charles guessed that maybe a shirt or a bungee cord or maybe even a rope had been used. Charles had no idea how the victim was strangled. This is when Short began feeding information to Charles. Short told Charles that the victim’s own belt was used. Charles replied that he had no recollection of that. Short worked diligently to plant the information into Charles’s head. Short asked if it was possible that Ryan had a belt in his hand. Charles was still not convinced the belt was used. When pressured to remember the belt, Charles responded: “I might not even know what I’m talking about. I don’t know if I’m just flipping out. I’m making presumptions based on what I read in the newspaper.”
The only information Charles knew about the crime was what he had read in news reports. He knew no details of the crime because he was not there. The detectives had their work cut out for them and had to get tough with Charles to get the results they desired.
In the video, you can hear Detective Nichols begin to raise his voice, stating: “you had better start thinking very clearly because it is you that is on this chopping block. Am I clear to you?”
The detectives continued tag teaming Charles, pressuring him to "remember" information. Short told Charles that the victim had “multiple, multiple, multiple contusions, hits and strikes” to his head. Short knew that Heitholt had been hit 11 times with a blunt object. Charles had suggested to Short that Heitholt had been hit just once. Short needed to convince Charles otherwise. In the video you can see that Short’s techniques are effective. Charles eventually breaks down and states: “I must have done it then.”
The detectives then took Charles to the crime scene. While en route Charles asks the detectives where they are taking him. Shouldn't Charles be leading the detectives to the crime scene? When they arrived to the scene, Charles had no recollection of where the crime took place in the parking lot because Charles had never been to that parking lot.
After hours of badgering, the detectives successfully extracted a false confession out of a young man that was in no position to give a proper statement. The manipulation of Charles didn't stop there. It would only get worse once he was in custody.
Lead prosecutor Kevin Crane saw to it that his "star" witnesses were well prepared for trial. Evidence shows that Crane manipulated two vulnerable witnesses, Charles Erickson, and Jerry Trump, while withholding information from a credible witness, Shawna Ornt.
Jerry Trump, a janitor at the Tribune, was with fellow employee Shawna Ornt when they saw two figures in the parking lot near the crime scene on the night of the murder, leading Ornt to call 911. During the 911 call, Trump also spoke to the operator and could not provide a description of either figure he saw in the lot. Trump had gone to prison for an unrelated crime after the Heitholt murder, and he was out on probation when contacted by Prosecutor Crane. After Crane was finished with him, Trump was miraculously able to identify Charles and Ryan as the two figures he saw that night. At trial, Trump testified that he recognized Charles and Ryan in a newspaper article he received from his wife while he was in prison. This was a lie. Before the trial, the prosecutor's investigator, William Haws, interviewed Trump's wife Barbara, and she told him she had no memory of sending a newspaper article to her husband Jerry. Haws made no report of his conversation with Barbara Trump, and the information was never given to the defense. This prevented the defense from properly cross examining the prosecution's star witness at trial. Trump would later admit that he fabricated the story because he succumbed to the pressure of Crane. This omitted evidence was a Brady violation that would later prove very costly to the prosecution's case.
Ornt told Prosecutor Kevin Crane that the person that walked toward her that night was not Charles Erickson or Ryan Ferguson. This information was suppressed by Prosecutor Crane, and would not be discovered until Ornt testified under oath in 2008. This was another Brady violation. It is no surprise that Crane favored Trump as a star witness over Ornt at trial. Crane was very careful not to ask Ornt at trial if she could identity the figures she saw that night, because he already knew her answer would benefit the defense.
Charles was blindsided and lied to while in custody. Prosecutor Kevin Crane misled Charles into thinking Ryan was going to plea and leave him with a longer prison sentence and even threatened him with the death penalty. Charles was also shown falsified police reports detailing the statements of witness Dallas Mallory, claiming that he saw Charles in the area on the night of the murder. Charles succumbed to the pressure and took a plea bargain. He was given a 25 year sentence for second degree murder, in return for his testimony implicating Ryan.
Charles was well rehearsed when it came time to testify. His testimony was based on the information given to him by police, along with "discovery" from Prosecutor Crane. Crane gave Charles the details needed to fabricate his story. By the time the trial began, Charles was able to recite every detail that Crane wanted to hear. Crane even had Charles rehearse his testimony with him and role-play the actual assault with members of the prosecutor's office in order to get ready for his performance in court.
Charles filled in all of the necessary blanks for Crane. In his mind he was facing the death penalty if he didn't provide the information Crane demanded. Charles was doing what he felt was necessary to save his own life.
Charles would later find out the truth. Ryan was never going to testify against him. It was all a ploy by Prosecutor Crane to convince Charles to testify against Ryan.
No evidence links Charles Erickson or Ryan Ferguson to the crime
No DNA, fingerprints or any other physical evidence was found at the murder scene connecting Charles or Ryan to the crime.
The tire tool retrieved from Ryan's trunk was cleared by the FBI and had no connection to the crime.
Ryan’s car was searched. There was no evidence found in Ryan's car. Not one drop of blood was detected. If Charles and Ryan had participated in the horrific murder of Kent Heitholt, it would have been impossible for them to not have left a single trace in the car they drove in that night.
Charles Erickson’s home was searched. No evidence was found related to the crime. No blood was detected anywhere in the house.
There is plenty of evidence pointing away from Charles Erickson and Ryan Ferguson
A single strand of bloody hair was found in the hand of the victim Kent Heitholt. It did not match Ryan Ferguson, Chuck Erickson or Heitholt.
There were unidentified fingerprints retrieved from the crime scene.
There were two sets of bloody shoe prints leading away from Kent Heitholt’s car – neither of the shoe sizes matched Ryan or Charles.
After police coercion, Charles claimed that he struck Kent Heitholt with a tire iron taken from Ryan’s car trunk and Ryan strangled him. Heitholt was hit 11 times but none of these blows resulted in a skull fracture. Medical experts stated at trial that it was not physically possible to inflict the wounds with a tire iron.
After being fed information to fabricate his story, Charles provided information about running into a friend named Dallas Mallory after committing the murder. Mallory refuted these claims at trial.
Witness Shawna Ornt testified under oath that she had told Prosecutor Kevin Crane that the person that walked toward her that night was not Chuck Erickson or Ryan Ferguson.
Charles Erickson was at home when the murder occurred
Kent Heitholt logged off his computer at the Columbia Daily Tribune 2:08 am. At 2:26 am, employees of the Tribune called 911 to report an assault in the parking lot. Heitholt’s murder took place after Charles Erickson was already home for the evening. Evidence shows that Charles was nowhere near the scene of the crime at the time of the murder.
Charles Erickson and Ryan Ferguson were childhood friends that had drifted apart during their high school years. Charles and Ryan ran into each other on Halloween night in 2001, while attending Halloween gatherings. Charles was leaving a party, and Ryan was headed to a nightclub called “By George,” so Ryan offered Charles a ride. Both were 17 and underage, but were both allowed inside the club.
They arrived at By George, around 11:30 pm, and left at approximately 1:15 am. The bar closed at 1:30 am, as stipulated by state law and city ordinance. During the trial, the prosecutor stated that the bar likely stayed open past the 1:30 closing time, but provided no evidence to support his claims. The State made this suggestion in order to try and make their timeline work. The facts do not support the prosecution’s claims.
State records show that the club had never been cited for being open after 1:30 am at any time in its 10 years in business. Unfortunately, these records were not presented at trial. Ten people that were at the club on the night in question have given sworn statements (before and after trial) saying the bar was closed at 1:30 am that morning. The prosecution did not produce any witnesses stating that the club violated the law by staying open past 1:30.
The bouncer working on Halloween night provided a sworn affidavit stating that last drinks were announced at 1:00 am and club closed at 1:30 am. Ryan testified that he walked out of the club around 1:15 a.m.
Ryan called his sister from the parking lot at 1:18 am. This call has been verified through cell phone records. He then drove Charles Erickson home, which was about a ten minute drive from the club.
Ryan then drove home. Once he arrived home, he made a few calls on his cell phone. These calls (verified by cell phone records) started at 1:41 am and ended with his last call at 2:09 am. Ryan then went to bed.
Ryan Ferguson’s description of events matches the facts available in this case. Ryan drove Charles home, where he would have arrived shortly after 1:30 am. Charles Erickson was nowhere near the scene of the crime at the time of the murder. Charles Erickson and Ryan Ferguson are innocent.
Charles Erickson's Interrogation - March 2004
Columbia Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt was brutally murdered on November 1, 2001, in Columbia, Missouri. Heitholt was attacked in the Tribune parking lot as he left work. His body was discovered next to his car. Heitholt had been struck from behind sustaining multiple head injuries and was strangled with his own belt. Fellow Tribune employee Michael Boyd was the last person to see Heitholt alive. Boyd claims that he met up with Heitholt briefly in the parking lot before driving away at around 2:20 AM. Police had no solid leads in the first 2 ½ years of the investigation.
In late 2003, Charles Erickson read an article published by the Columbia Tribune discussing the unsolved murder of Kent Heitholt. Unfortunately, Charles and his friends partied too hard that Halloween night, leaving Charles with no recollection of his actions at the time of the murder. It has been reported that party-goers, including Charles, were experimenting with Adderall, cocaine, and alcohol at a party that was broken up by police. Charles left that party and ended up catching a ride with Ryan Ferguson to the "By George" bar near the scene of the crime. When browsing through news reports, Charles feared that he resembled a composite sketch released by police. Knowing only that he was at a bar near the scene that night, caused him to worry that he might be involved.
Charles's confusion caused him to obsess over the case for months. Charles talked to Ryan in January, 2004, telling him that he thought he might be having “repressed” memories about the murder, and feared that he and Ryan were involved. Ryan told him that they were not involved.
Charles began telling friends that he had a dream, leading him to think that he and Ryan may have been involved in the murder. One of the friends that Charles spoke to decided to call Crimestoppers with a tip. After receiving the Crimestoppers tip, police obtained fingerprints from Charles and Ryan. The prints were tested and eliminated as a match for prints collected at the Heitholt murder scene.
From the end of January to early March, 2004, Charles continued to worry about the case. During that time, Charles told two more friends about his fears. One of those friends contacted the police, leading Charles to find himself in an interrogation room trying to answer questions about a murder that he had nothing to do with.
Charles's interrogation took place on March 10, 2004. During his interrogation, Charles was initially unaware of any details of the crime that were not already public knowledge, telling police he may have dreamed up his entire involvement. The video of the police interrogation shows Charles struggling to answer basic questions.
Ryan Ferguson was granted a habeas corpus hearing in April 2012, resulting from the two star witnesses providing affidavits recanting their testimony. Ryan's defense received a major boost when high profile attorney Kathleen Zellner took the case pro bono in 2009, leading to these developments. Zellner presented a powerful argument at the habeas hearing, detailing multiple Brady violations committed by the prosecutor. In addition, both key prosecution witnesses, Charles Erickson and Jerry Trump, both took the stand, testifying under oath that they deliberately lied at trial in order to benefit the prosecution. The hearing should have been a slam dunk for the defense.
Charles reaches out to Ryan to try and repair the damage
Charles recants his testimony in an interview with Kathleen Zellner in the prison
Charles asked to speak with Ryan Ferguson's attorney Kathleen Zellner in 2009. An interview was arranged at the prison. Charles was still confused at that time. In the video Charles states that he has no recollection of the crime. He states that he put his trust in the police, and that they had convinced him that he did commit the crime. He retracts all of his claims that Ryan committed the crime, but states that Ryan tried to stop him from killing Heitholt. It was only later at Ryan's 2012 habeas corpus hearing that Charles would finally come to realize what the police did to him.
On Wednesday, October 31, after 6 1/2 months of deliberation, Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green ruled against Ryan’s habeas appeal and denied his request for a new trial. Green wrote in his ruling that he considered Erickson and Trump's new testimony as not credible.
Green's decision came on the 11th anniversary of Kent Heitholt’s death. Delaying the ruling until the anniversary was cruel and unnecessary. It was disturbing to see a judge ruling to protect the reputation of a fellow judge, rather than ruling on the facts of the case. Judge Green showed that he felt protecting Judge Crane outweighed the search for truth.
Western District Court of Appeals
Kathleen Zellner appealed Judge Green's ruling to the Western District Appellate Court of Appeals. Ryan’s conviction was unanimously overturned by the Western District Court of Appeals on November 5, 2013.
The court's ruling was not based on the testimony of Charles Erickson and Jerry Trump, but rather on the blatant Brady violations committed by Prosecutor Crane's office that were highlighted by Kathleen Zellner. In the end, it was the Barbara Trump Brady violation that vacated the conviction, but it was the recantations of Jerry Trump and Charles Erickson that prevented the state from pursuing a new trial. Without their testimony, the state had no case.
After the appellate court ruling, the State opted against pursuing the case further, making Ryan Ferguson a free man.
It is important to note that the Brady violations that led to Ryan's release also pertain to Charles Erickson. The withheld evidence proves Charles's innocence as well as Ryan's.