His Friend Dreamed They Killed A Man, Then They Were Both Charged With Murder
Ryan Ferguson, the host of MTV's Unlocking the Truth, spent his twenties in prison. Now he's telling his side of the story.
BY KATE STOREY | Sep 6, 2016 | Culture
Ryan Ferguson noticed an SUV trailing him. Driving home from college in Columbia, Missouri in 2004, the 19-year-old had been pondering his upcoming midterms when he saw it. When more vehicles came up on both sides, he pulled over. So did the tailers. A group of men swarmed him, demanding he get out of the car.
"I thought I was getting jumped. Then I saw they had badges and guns, but I didn't even know if these people were legitimate cops at first," he says. "I didn't have a chance to comprehend what was going on. That's just where it starts, and it gets worse.”
The men were FBI agents and police, and they told Ferguson he was under arrest. They didn't say why.
As soon as he got into one of the unmarked vehicles, he noticed a printout of his photo next to him. Handcuffed, he tried to blow on the paper to flip it over so he could see what was printed on the other side, which might offer a clue to what was happening. It didn't work.
Eventually, authorities told Ferguson he was being charged with the murder of local newspaper sports editor Kent Heitholt, a crime that had taken place two years earlier in the parking lot of the Columbia Daily Tribune.
He was shocked. But he also felt a sense of relief, sure that this was just a mix up and would be cleared up quickly. "I thought, Well, I obviously had nothing to do with that," he says.
In the interrogation room that evening, investigators told Ferguson that his friend Charles Erickson had confessed that the two of them had killed Heitholt in an attempt to steal his money to buy more alcohol after a Halloween party.
Erickson had said that his recollections from that night came back to him in spurts over two years. "Consciously, I mean, there were memories in the back of my mind that I just wouldn't address," Erickson said, according to his deposition. "And I can't really put a date on that. The point at which I really allowed a lot of these things to surface was Oct. 31, 2003," which was two years after the murder. But when speaking to a detective, Erickson said that his recollections of that night might have been a dream or something he made up.
His friend's confession turned into a decade-long nightmare for Ferguson. For twelve years he has maintained he had nothing to do with the murder, and that the arrest, trial, and imprisonment that followed completely blindsided him.
Now back in the spotlight as the host of a new MTV reality show about those who say they were wrongfully accused, Unlocking the Truth, and the subject of an Investigation Discovery documentary, Dream Killer, Ferguson is telling his side of the story.
Ferguson was taken in for questioning on March 10, 2004. Police footage shows Ferguson, slouched in the corner across from an officer, become increasingly exasperated.
"I didn't do anything. I'm innocent. I'm innocent of even being there. I'm not involved in this in any way. What am I going to say?" Ferguson said. When the officer continued to ask why his friend implicated him, Ferguson slammed his hand on the table and said: "You can say it a hundred fucking times. All right? I'm telling the truth. I'm telling the truth, man.”
Meanwhile, interrogation footage shows an officer revealing key details about the crime scene to Erickson after they didn't match up to his original story.
"Going back to you hitting this guy with the tool … how many times would you say you hit him altogether?" the officer asked.
"Just once," Erickson responded.
"Just once? Well the only problem I have with that is I know he was hit more than once," the officer said.
When the officer asked Erickson what was used to strangle Heitholt, he said he thought it was a shirt, to which the officer responded: "Well we know for a fact that his belt was ripped off from his pants and he was strangled with his belt. Did you see a belt in Ryan's hand?"
"I don't know," Erickson said.
Throughout the questioning, Ferguson expected it would become obvious to the officers that he had nothing to do with the murder, and that he'd get to go home in time for dinner.
That didn't happen.
When he woke up in jail the next day, he thought they'd compare his fingerprints to those at the crime scene and test for blood in his car and that the evidence would come back and prove he wasn't there. He says he clung to the idea that evidence would convince everyone—including his family—that it was all a big mistake.
"Day after day would go by and test after test would come back and it would prove my innocence, and I would still sit there," he says. "You don't know what people are going to believe. And that's why I wanted people to have the documentation. I told my dad and my mom, 'I don't want you just to believe in my innocence. I want you to know my innocence.'"
Although fingerprints, hair, and blood were found at the scene of the murder, none were identified as Ferguson's or Erickson's. In November, Ferguson's bond was set: A record-breaking USD20 million, even though no physical evidence tied him to the crime scene at that point. Nearly a year later, on October 17, 2005, his trial began. In the Investigation Discovery documentary (which airs on August 20 at 9:00 a.m.), Ferguson's dad, Bill, jokes, "I felt like saying, 'Would you take a check?'"
Ferguson did not make bond.
Ferguson sat in court wearing a suit and tie, staring straight ahead, expressionless.
"You just want to yell, 'I don't have anything to do with this! Can't you see that?' But you can't because that will make you look bad in front of the jury, and the judge will reprimand you, and people will think you're even more crazy, right?" he says. "You just hope that the facts are presented by a competent attorney and that the jury is able to see that.”
State Prosecutor Kevin Crane argued that Erickson struck Heitholt in the head with a tire tool, then Ferguson strangled him to death. Erickson, escorted to the witness stand in a striped prison jumpsuit, testified against his friend, sounding much more confident than in the investigation tapes. Now his story matched the interrogating officer's: He described his friend strangling the victim with a belt. He declared: "I did this. He did this. This is not a dream. I'm 100 percent certain."
Jerry Trump, the former janitor for the Columbia Daily Tribune, took the stand on day three of the trial. He said he saw two young white men in the parking lot the night of the murder. Trump claimed that two years later, his wife sent him a newspaper article detailing Erickson's confession.
You just want to yell, 'I don't have anything to do with this! Can't you see that?'
"I first saw the two pictures [of Erickson and Ferguson]; I didn't see the headline or anything. And my mouth dropped because I recognised them," Trump said in the courtroom. He then identified Ferguson in the audience.
On October 21, 2005, the jury came back with Ferguson's verdict: guilty of murder in the second degree and robbery in the first degree, which carried with it a 40-year sentence. The Ferguson family sobbed in the stands. Erickson was later convicted of second degree murder in exchange for testimony used to convict Ferguson.
"To me, [the end of the trial] was an opportunity to get away from the Boone County system to a place I thought was unbiased [in appeals]," Ferguson says. "We had the documentation [DNA evidence], the facts to prove I was innocent, so it was on to the next thing, going to a place where we'd have the opportunity to have a fair hearing.”
In prison, Ferguson had good days and bad days.
"I had every thought, feeling, and emotion you can have. I had days when I knew nothing bad was going to happen and days when I felt like I might get stabbed," he says. "For me, it was a matter of taking care of my mind and body."
Every three days, his dad would visit with books. But when the seventh Harry Potter novel came out, he was in a part of the prison where he couldn't get deliveries. So his mom mailed the book to him five pages at a time.
Another good day was when he found out that celebrated defense attorney Kathleen Zellner was taking his case. Zellner is currently representing Steven Avery, the subject of the Netflix series Making a Murderer. In the habeas corpus hearing Zellner brought to court in 2012, she called the newspaper's former janitor, Jerry Trump, back to the witness stand. She learned that Trump's wife—who hadn't been contacted by Ferguson's previous lawyer—never mailed her husband the news article he referenced. Back on the stand for a second time, Trump admitted he'd lied and, crying, asked Ferguson and his family for forgiveness. Erickson also took the stand again. This time, he said that he didn't remember the night of the crime at all because he was blacked out after using cocaine and Adderall, and that it was false that he remembered seeing Ferguson strangling the victim.
Surely he'd get to go home now, Ferguson thought. But the court declined to set him free, on the premise that the witnesses weren't credible because of the changes to their stories. Ferguson returned to prison.
"That was the lowest low that I ever felt," he says.
The next year, on November 12, 2013, when Ferguson was 29, there was finally a break. Zellner appealed the verdict to a new court in 2013, the conviction was overturned.
One day, the prison guards told Ferguson to pack his bags but, still skeptical, he thought he was being sent to solitary confinement. Without handcuffs, he was led out and saw his lawyer holding a sign that read: "It is over!"
"Even then I was like, I don't know about this, is it really over? It wasn't until I saw my parents that I knew it was.”
After his release, Ferguson became a personal trainer and wrote a book called Stronger, Faster, Smarter: A Guide to Your Most Powerful Body, named for the advice his dad gave him before he started his sentence.
He continues to defend Erickson, who remains in prison serving a 25-year term. Ferguson says he has not been in contact with the victim's family, which has never spoken publicly about Ferguson's sentence or release specifically, instead giving only rare interviews to the media about their family member's legacy. Esquire attempted to reach Heitholt's widow via email, but she did not respond.
A couple of years ago, Ferguson decided to take a more public role speaking about wrongful convictions, working with filmmaker Andrew Jenks to create the reality series Unlocking the Truth.
In the show, which premiered on MTV August 17, Ferguson works with Eva Nagao from the Exoneration Project to research three cases in which the convicts maintain their innocence.
"The fact that this is going to air on MTV is super important. We need people like Ryan to be allies across the board," Nagao says. "You know, it's young black men who are being wrongfully convicted disproportionately: That's really the face of wrongful conviction. The fact of the matter is, though, that this is a fight that everyone needs to join in on.”
Though Ferguson has had moments in the last few years where he's considered retreating to his home with his girlfriend in Florida and staying out of the spotlight to lead a normal, quiet life, he says a sense of responsibility keeps him from doing it.
"Getting out of prison was bittersweet. Of course I'm happy that I'm out and I get to live my life," he says. "But I won't be satisfied until something happens so that this doesn't happen to other people. I want to use whatever little voice I have to expose injustice. I hope it raises awareness so that people see that this is a bigger issue.”
From: Esquire US.