48 Hours: "The Accuser"
(CBS) -- When authorities in Columbia, Missouri got a tip in 2004 about an unsolved murder, they did the right thing. After an anonymous caller informed the local Crimestoppers' hotline that 19-year-old Chuck Erickson was telling friends he might have been involved in an unsolved murder, they picked him up and brought him in for questioning. Unfortunately, good judgment and prudence seemed to end there. What investigators did next may have irretrievably damaged a murder investigation and helped put the wrong men in prison.
Back in early 2004, we can only imagine investigators' excitement when they first heard about Erickson. For more than two years, they had been looking for two young white men who had been seen in a parking lot where Kent Heitholt, a newspaper sports editor, was found beaten and strangled. And finally, here was a 19-year-old teenager who seemed to fit the bill. Erickson admitted being just blocks away from the crime scene at a local bar on the night of the murder, Halloween, 2001. Even better, he had been with another white teenager by the name of Ryan Ferguson.
Still, wise, experienced investigators know that troubled individuals sometimes claim responsibility for high profile crimes they didn't commit. Speaking with Erickson should have set off red flags. Erickson, by his own admission, was high on marijuana when he was interrogated by investigators. When he repeatedly told them that he wasn't sure he had committed the crime and could offer few details other than what had appeared in newspaper articles, detectives simply gave him the information. Erickson didn't know the type of weapon used to strangle the victim, so they told him it was the victim's belt. Erickson also didn't know exactly where the murder took place, so investigators drove him there and showed him. While authorities claim that Erickson did offer a few facts that had not been reported publicly, it is impossible to confirm this since only a portion of the interrogation was recorded. Also troubling is the alleged motive for the slaying: Erickson claimed he and Ferguson robbed the victim so that they could continue drinking. Yet, investigators knew that only an inexpensive watch and keys had been taken. The victim's wallet was still in his car. What's more, the bars closed an hour before Heitholt was murdered.
Meanwhile, Ryan Ferguson, when interrogated by detectives in March of 2004, told a very different story. He never wavered from his insistence that he had nothing to do with the murder. Further investigation also showed that none of the physical evidence at the scene matched either Ferguson or Chuck Erickson. And yet, both teenagers were charged with murder. Once investigators had their suspects, they focused their efforts on convicting them.
It is easy to judge and criticize an investigation with the benefit of hindsight, but when I finally got to meet Erickson myself (he now prefers to be called Charles), I was surprised that detectives were so willing to accept the word of this very smart, but clearly troubled young man. I sat down with Charles recently at the Missouri prison where he is serving a 12 to 25 year sentence for second degree murder. He is sober now, but when police interrogated him back in March of 2004, he had been using copious amounts of both legal and illegal drugs and alcohol for years and frequently experienced blackouts. If detectives had looked into his background, they might have had serious doubts about the story he told. Instead, they were anxious to close this high profile case.
This is what Charles Erickson told me: On the night Kent Heitholt was murdered, Halloween, 2001, he was 17-years-old and had just come off probation for a drug charge. Erickson celebrated, he says, by using and abusing all the drugs and alcohol that he had been denied for several months. At a party that evening, he says he took cocaine and Adderall. Later, he and Ryan Ferguson sneaked illegally into a bar just blocks from The Columbia Daily Tribune office where Kent Heitholt worked into the night. Erickson drank some "green drinks", he recalls, and suffered his first blackout. He can remember nothing after that, not even how he got home. He does recall waking up in his own bedroom the following morning, surprised by how clearheaded he felt. He says he heard about the murder later in the day, but it made no impression on him. He says he found no blood on his clothing, no weapon in his room, and nothing that would have him believe he had anything to do with a murder.
A full two years later, Erickson saw a newspaper article timed to the anniversary of Heitholt's still unsolved murder that included a sketch. As Erickson said to me, "I read there were two white guys there, two white kids. I saw the picture in the paper which is a sketch...and it looked like me." Erickson says that he would often do stupid things during his drug and alcohol induced blackouts and has no memory of them. When he realized he couldn't remember the night Heitholt was killed, he began to wonder aloud, in front of friends, if he, in fact, had been involved in the killing. "I was probably paranoid because of all the drugs that I was doing," he says. The tip to police soon followed.
Erickson says he hoped police would be able to put his mind at ease, by comparing his blood and DNA to the crime scene evidence, but instead, he says, they pressured him to admit to the crime and implicate the person he was with that night, Ryan Ferguson. Although he had no memory of the crime, after he heard, incorrectly as it turns out, that there was a witness who saw him near the crime scene covered in blood, he actually became convinced he had done the killing. After detectives told him that Ryan Ferguson was talking and would pin the murder entirely on him, Erickson agreed to testify against his one-time high school friend, in return for a reduced sentence.
It was Erickson's testimony at Ferguson's trial that sealed Ferguson's fate. Even though there is no physical evidence to tie Ferguson to Heitholt's murder, the fact that Erickson was willing to go to prison for the crime convinced the jurors. They convicted Ferguson of first degree murder in October of 2005. He has been in a Missouri prison ever since, serving a forty year sentence.
Now, Erickson says he lied to the police and he lied at Ferguson's trial. He still doesn't know what he did after he left the bar on Halloween, 2001, and has no memory of ever killing anyone. He regrets that he "really screwed" Ryan Ferguson in a misguided attempt to save himself.
Last April, at a hearing for Ferguson, Erickson admitted under oath that he lied. At that same hearing, the only other witness connecting Ferguson to the crime scene, a janitor also admitted he lied. The recantations mean that, today, there are no witnesses and no physical evidence that ties Ferguson to a murder yet he remains incarcerated.
Ferguson turned 28-years-old last October, insisting as he always has, that he is innocent. He filed, yet another appeal, earlier this month. It appears to be a terrible injustice that could have been avoided...if only the Columbia, Missouri police had done the right thing in 2004.