48 Hours Mystery: The Lost Night
The more Bill Ferguson studied Chuck Erickson's police interrogations, the more he believed that not only is his son, Ryan, innocent - so is Ryan's accuser.
"He looks like someone that's totally lost. He doesn't know anything about the crime scene," Ferguson observes. "I think it's the first time he's ever been there, quite honestly."
What Chuck knew about Kent Heitholt's murder, says Ferguson, seemed to come from the police.
Police Interrogator: We know for a fact that his belt was ripped off from his pants and he was strangled with his belt.
Chuck Erickson: Really?
"They fed him all the information," says Ferguson
"But why would Chuck want to fit the evidence? I mean-" Erin Moriarty asks.
"That's the $64,000 question," Ferguson laughs. "Who knows? I have no idea how his mind works."
It's a huge missing piece of the puzzle: why Chuck was willing to go to prison for a crime he seemed to know nothing about.
"I think they put a lot of pressure on him to comply with the evidence," Ferguson explains. "I think what happens is in Chuck's heart, he did it. He knows no details because he wasn't there."
And Chuck's story continues to fall apart when Christine Varner comes forward.
"It's your conscience," she tells Moriarty. "I felt I had to do it."
Varner once managed the agency that employed Jerry Trump, the janitor who definitively identified Ryan at trial.
When she saw Trump's testimony on "48 Hours" when we first aired this story, she says, "I'm thinkin', 'How can you do that? That's not what you had said.'"
Varner says that shortly after the murder in 2001, Trump told her that he'd never be able to identify the men he saw by Kent's car.
"But he said that the way the lighting was, 'I couldn't tell who - who was there, at all," she says.
Three years of digging for new witnesses finally pays off for Bill Ferguson. In July 2008, the state agrees to hear the new evidence.
Varner is one of 22 witnesses who testify - many who undermine the state's case against Ryan.
"We were able to, for the first time, present this new evidence. So, we were very excited," says Ferguson.
The state, however, questions the credibility of some of the witnesses.
For example, the janitor who now claims she told the prosecutor she didn't see either Ryan or Chuck the night of the murder had actually earlier said - in a sworn statement - that she wasn't sure. She tells "48 Hours" that back then the she felt pressured by the prosecutor.
"Kevin Crane had me so intimidated and so - so scared, you know," Shawna Ornt says. "I was scared of what he would do or say to me if I said, you know, somethin'."
But Prosecutor Kevin Crane says Ornt did tell him she just wasn't sure. After the hearing, the judge takes nearly a year to make a decision... and it's a huge disappointment for Ryan: No new trial. His conviction will stand.
"It broke me, in a way, because I allowed myself to get hopeful," says Ryan.
But Ryan's father does not accept defeat, and out of the blue, he's found a new ally.
Kathleen Zellner doesn't even live in Missouri. She's a high-profile attorney in Chicago who also saw the "48 Hours" report.
"A case like this to me is just consuming," says Zellner, who agrees to take Ryan's case pro bono. She's worried. "My big concern is that I came into the case so late, I'm not sure that the case is salvageable."
"Wait a minute, Kathleen. You're saying that you truly believe Ryan Ferguson had nothing to do with this murder, that he's completely innocent... But you're not absolutely sure you can get him out?" Moriarty asks.
"Right, because... the case has just progressed procedurally so far," she says.
Zellner believes the entire case was based on a faulty premise.
"The police came up with the theory and just bought into it 100 percent - that these people that came upon the scene were the murderers," she says. "These two white guys."
Zellner thinks that the two young men seen there were not the killers at all - just college kids cutting across the lot. That's why one of them stopped to tell the janitors to get help.
"Who would do that if you've just committed a murder? You want to get the police there faster? I don't think so," says Zellner.
Because of that wrong assumption, Zellner says other possible suspects were not fully investigated. In particular, the last person known to see Kent Heitholt alive: Sports writer Mike Boyd.
"Did the police take hair samples, fingerprints?" Moriarty asks Zellner.
"No," she replies.
"Check Boyd's car?"
"No. No. None of the above."
Boyd was never interrogated, although he has cooperated with investigators from both sides. He did expect to come under more scrutiny in the beginning.
"Were you worried at how the police would look at you?" Moriarty asks Boyd. "I mean, because-"
"Oh, immediately, yeah, because I was the last one, you know, and - I've seen my share of crime shows to realize that they always, you know, look at the time of all this and where were you and what were you doing?" he replies.
He admits that over the years he has given troubling inconsistent statements - telling one investigator he was driving his wife's blue car that night, and then later telling another he was in his red car.
"What car were you driving that night?" asks Moriarty.
"That's how tired I was," says Boyd.
"But that night, on Halloween night, what car do you think you were driving?"
"I'm gonna say the red car."
After Ryan and Chuck were arrested, Boyd claimed that he also saw two young men by the parking lot. But that doesn't match what he told police on the night of the murder.
"'Boyd stated he did not see anybody around the parking lot, or anybody who was suspicious in nature,'" Moriarty says, reading the report to Boyd.
"OK," he says.
"Is that what you told John Short, right after the murder?" Moriarty asks.
"I do remember having to go back and tell him that I did see two people."
"There's no police report that says you saw two people."
"Later on. That night, I remember - there were so many questions, so many things goin' through my head - that it just - and I'm still tired."
"Now, let me ask you a very tough question," Moriarty continues. "Did you fight with Kent that night? Did you have anything to do with this murder?"
"No, ma'am. No, ma'am."
Zellner believes that Ryan's jury should have been told about Michael Boyd.
"I can't possibly know if Michael Boyd committed this murder. And I wouldn't say that," Zellner says. "But I do think that he raises reasonable doubt about Ryan Ferguson's guilt."
Zellner is confident she could win if Ryan gets a new trial and determined to get an appeals court to hear his case. But that won't be easy.
"Once you're convicted, the system works completely against you," she says. "The analogy I think of is that he's in quicksand. And I'm trying to grab a hold of him."
She needs more evidence... and she's about to get it from the last person she'd ever expect to hear from.
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