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Changed story in death of sports editor

Changed story in death of sports editor

July 11th, 2011 in News

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - A man sentenced six years ago to 40 years in prison in the killing of a Columbia Tribune sports editor is hoping for a new trial after another man convicted in the crime said he acted alone.

Ryan Ferguson's latest legal argument will be heard Tuesday in a Cole County courtroom.

"The only thing I ask is for people to look at the facts of the case," Ferguson, 26, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in an interview at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, where he is serving a 40-year sentence for second-degree murder and first-degree robbery. "Anytime anyone does that, it's going to prove that I don't belong in prison."

A witness who claimed he saw Ferguson near the car belonging to the victim, Kent Heitholt, that night also now says he was lying.

Ferguson and Charles Erickson were high school students who snuck into a nightclub on Halloween night 2001 and left sometime around 1:15 a.m. Ferguson has said he drove Erickson home, then went home himself.

But Erickson testified that the two acted together to kill Heitholt, who was found dead in a pool of blood beside his car near the newspaper's downtown Columbia office around 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2001. He had been bludgeoned and strangled with his own belt.

In 2003, the Tribune published an anniversary story about the unsolved crime, and after that, Erickson began telling friends he was having strange dreams about the murder - prompting him to wonder if they were actually memories and he was somehow involved. Word got back to police, and Erickson was brought in for questioning.

He seemed confused but eventually told detectives Ferguson hit Heitholt once, when in fact the victim was struck numerous times. He expressed shock when a detective told him the killer used Heitholt's belt to strangle him. Erickson thought Ferguson must have used his hands, or maybe a shirt. When police videotaped a trip to the crime scene with Erickson, he seemed to have little notion of what happened there.

"Charles Erickson never seemed to have a good grasp on what happened that night," said Joe Walljasper, the current Tribune sports editor who worked for Heitholt for several years.

Yet at his trial in 2005, Erickson no longer seemed confused.

"I did this. He did this. I didn't dream anything," Erickson said during testimony.

Erickson testified that the two ran out of money at the nightclub and decided to rob someone so they could keep drinking. They hid behind a trash bin in the Tribune parking lot and came up behind Heitholt as he left the Tribune building, striking him repeatedly with a tire iron. Erickson said that when Heitholt fell, Ferguson removed the victim's belt and strangled him.

In exchange for his cooperation, Erickson received a reduced sentence of 25 years.

Jerry Trump, a Tribune janitor, told police he saw two men by Heitholt's car the night of the murder but could not provide a detailed description. Trump testified that he later saw photos of Ferguson and Erickson in a newspaper and that it refreshed his memory. At trial, he pointed to Ferguson as one of those men.

Erickson now says he alone killed Heitholt. Ferguson, he said, was only a witness.

"I regret now that I put an innocent man through that. He didn't deserve it," Erickson said in a videotaped deposition in 2009. He blamed "coercion and pressure" by police and prosecutors.

Erickson said he was a heavy drug user from age 14, was high on marijuana when he spoke to police, and was drunk and blacked out the night of the killing.

In October, Trump said that he lied during the original trial.

The Missouri attorney general's office said in a petition filed in May that Erickson's reversal is not credible. Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hawke wrote that Erickson's multiple statements before, during and after the trial "still placed Ferguson at the murder scene with sufficient detail for a jury to convict Ferguson of felony murder."

Walljasper said Heitholt's friends and family are still divided about whether they believe Ferguson was involved.

"The sad thing is we will probably never really know what happened," he said.


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch,