48 Hours Mystery: The Lost Night

A father's mission to prove his son is innocent of a horrific crime

Produced by Gail Zimmerman and Chuck Stevenson

COLUMBIA, Mo.- Bill Ferguson is a driven man. A real estate broker, nothing in his life ever prepared him for what he is doing now: trying to solve a 10-year-old murder.

"I started going to the crime scene within a week of the arrest... I'd go down at 1:30 [a.m.], stay down 'til 3 o'clock," Ferguson tells "48 Hours Mystery" correspondent Erin Moriarty. "I would sit in different spots of the whole crime scene, from different angles. I'd do it every Halloween for sure."

Ferguson says he's gone down to the crime scene "40, 50 [times] at least."

"What did you know about investigations before this?" asks Moriarty.

"Well, I used to watch 'Perry Mason,'" he replies.

One thing Ferguson knows for sure, he says, is that his 26-year-old son, Ryan, is innocent.

"I wanna be exonerated," Ryan tells Moriarty. "I want everyone to know that I have absolutely nothin' to do with this case."

Ryan is Bill Ferguson's only son.

"We've always been close. Really, really close," Ferguson says. "He never gave us trouble at all."

Ryan had just turned 21 in 2005, when he was convicted and sentenced to 40 years. The key witness against him is his high school friend, Chuck Erickson, who told the court that he and Ryan robbed and murdered 48-year-old Kent Heitholt.

"Was there any side of you wondering, 'Well, Chuck is willing to go to prison for this. Maybe - Chuck and Ryan did this?'" Moriarty asks Ferguson.

"No," he replies. "I know that my son could not have committed the crime because the facts prove that was not possible."

It was Halloween night in 2001, when Kent, the popular sports editor of Columbia Missouri's newspaper, the Tribune, worked into the wee hours.

Sports reporter Rus Baer was among the handful of people there with him.

"Kent Heitholt was a big, bubbly, friendly bear of a man," he says. "...a good guy, very relaxed, very laid back."

Part-time writer Mike Boyd was also there. He says he was getting ready to drive off of the parking lot a little after 2 a.m. when Kent came out. Boyd stopped to speak with him.

Asked if Kent seemed concerned with anything at that moment, Boyd says, "No ... just, like normal. It was just a normal night."

"What was the last thing Kent said to you?" Moriarty asks.

"... I can't remember the exact words ... but it was just more in line with, 'See you later,'" Boyd recalls. And - and I thought I would."

Minutes after Boyd left, two janitors on the loading dock saw that Kent's car was still there and the driver's door open.

"I had that gut feeling that something was wrong," says Shawna Ornt. She remembers seeing two shadowy figures emerge from behind the car. She says one ran away; the other, a college-aged male, stopped to speak.

"...looked me dead in the eyes and said, 'Somebody's hurt,' and he walked off casually like nothing had happened," Ornt says.

Alerted to the incident, Rus Baer rushed outside and found Kent's body by his car.

"I was like, 'What the hell's going on here?'" Baer recalls. "I - couldn't believe what I saw."

Crime scene photos
Coverage from the Columbia Daily Tribune

Kent Heitholt had been bludgeoned and strangled.

"Not the kind of guy you'd think would be murdered?" Moriarty asks Baer.

"No, no, definitely. I mean, just size alone," Baer replies, describing his friend as "a big six foot five, 300-pound guy. That is not the kind of guy I'd want to mess with in a dark parking lot."

"No one's gonna mess with Kent," Boyd says. "Who was gonna mess with Kent?"

Earlier, on that same Halloween night, Ryan Ferguson and Chuck Erickson - 17-year-old high school students at the time, managed to sneak into a bar a few blocks away.

"Underage drinking?" Moriarty asks Ryan.

"Yeah, had a few drinks," he explains. "I was not intoxicated. It's something that goes on in college towns."

Around 1:15 a.m., about an hour before the murder, Ryan says everyone was kicked out of the bar - including himself and Chuck.

"I dropped him off at his house and I went home myself," Ryan tells Moriarty. "...it's very simple, easy night."

Asked if he had anything to do with the murder of Kent Heitholt, Ryan says, "I have absolutely nothing to do with the murder of Kent Heitholt. ...I wasn't even anywhere near that crime scene."

Whoever was at the crime scene may have left clues. Police found fingerprints on Kent's car, hairs in his hand and bloody shoeprints on the ground.

And they had the two janitors. One "could not provide a detailed description" of the men they saw. But the other one, Shawna Ornt, said she got a good look at the man who spoke. "He was tall. He was skinny. ...he had light colored hair," she says.

Police released a sketch and fielded dozens of leads, but none of them went anywhere. Kent Heitholt's murder was a mystery.

"It just doesn't seem possible how - that anybody could hurt him," Boyd says. "And - bein' as nice as he was, why."

Two years passed before there was finally a break. In November 2003, the Tribune published an anniversary story about the unsolved crime. That prompted Chuck Erickson to have disturbing thoughts, vague ideas - dreams - that he was somehow involved in the murder. He told some friends.

"He said, 'I had a dream,'" a friend of Chuck's tells Moriarty.

"I had a dream?"

"Yeah - about the crime... bits and pieces of it."

Police got wind of what Chuck was saying and brought him in. In a bizarre taped interview, Chuck seems cooperative, but also clueless.

"It's just so foggy. I could be fabricating all of this," he tells police.

He doesn't even seem to know the weapon used to strangle Kent Heitholt.

Chuck Erickson: I think it was a shirt or something.

Police Interrogator: I know it wasn't a shirt

Chuck Erickson: A bungee?

Police Interrogator: We know for a fact that his belt was ripped off ... he was strangled with his belt.

Chuck Erickson: Really?

Police Interrogator: ...does that ring a bell?

Chuck Erickson: No! Not at all...

That's the way most of the interview goes. What Chuck doesn't know about the crime, the police tell him. They even take him to where the crime occurred.

Police Interrogator [in car]: That is the parking spot where Mr. Heitholt had his car parked...

Chuck Erickson [in car]: OK...I don't recall a lot of what happened so I don't know.

Still, Chuck's memory seems vague, at best. And that frustrates the cops.

Police Interrogator: It's you that is on this chopping block ... and I don't want to hear, "Oh, all the sudden I just think I may be fabricating all of this."

Watch excerpts of Chuck Erickson's police interrogation

Chuck Erickson fits their profile - at least half of it. Two young men were seen that night. So police press Chuck to give up the friend he was with on Halloween, and he does.

Police Interrogator: Whose idea was it?

Chuck Erickson: It was Ryan's idea

Police Interrogator: Ryan's idea...

Ryan Ferguson, then in college, is also brought in. Police question him for hours, but he never wavers.

Ryan Ferguson: I wasn't there, I didn't do anything!

Ryan Ferguson: You're trying to get me to admit to something I didn't do. ...I'm not lying, I was not there.

Watch excerpts of Ryan Ferguson's police interrogation

Still, in March 2004, two years after the crime, Ryan Ferguson and Chuck Erickson are arrested and charged with murder.

"It just - just tears at your heart," Bill Ferguson says. "Just a moment of desperation."

Ryan's father, his older sister, Kelly, and mother Leslie are prepared to fight for him.

"They just don't have their story right," Leslie Ferguson tells Moriarty. "There's something that is going to come out that is going to free him."

But things were about to get much worse.

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