Dream Killer

A Young Man Dreams He Murdered A Man

Produced by Gail Zimmerman

This story originally aired Feb. 18, 2006. It was updated on April 17, 2008.

For two years, police investigated the brutal 2001 Halloween night slaying of newspaper editor Kent Heitholt in Columbia, Mo. They had no viable suspects and the victim's family had come to terms this crime might never be solved.

But then police heard that a young man told a friend that he had dreamed he participated in the killing and also named an accomplice to the murder: his good friend, Ryan Ferguson.

48 Hours correspondent Erin Moriarty reports on this mysterious murder investigation, and the subsequent trial.

It's not unusual for a father to miss his college-aged son but, in this case, Bill Ferguson's 21-year-old son Ryan is in jail. He was arrested for the 2001 murder of the Columbia Tribune's sports editor Kent Heitholt, after Ryan's alleged accomplice talked to friends about the crime.

"It just tears at your heart. And knowing that he's going through this," says Bill.

Bill and his wife, Leslie - now separated - have put aside their differences to fight for their son and help prove his innocence.

"This is something that I never thought our family, our child, would ever have to go through," says Leslie. "And it's scary."

"It was so sad, and just such a shock. I just remember thinking 'Well, they obviously have the wrong person,' " says Ryan's sister Kelly.

Kelly and Ryan grew up in Columbia, Mo., an affluent college town deeply rooted in family and tradition. Their father made his mark in real estate; their mother is a reading coach.

Asked to describe Ryan, Leslie says her son is "loving," "laid back" and has a "good sense of humor."

Even Kelly has only good things to say about her kid brother. "He's just got such a good heart. Being an older sister, I put him through hell, growing up. And he would always be my friend, no matter what."

Ryan, not much of a student, was more focused on the social side of high school; Kelly says her brother was always with a girl, no matter what.

Ryan says the murder charge is one big terrible mistake and he's counting on his family to help him prove it.

"They're doing everything they can for me. And I love 'em so much for that. I'm just glad that they can see that I am innocent," he says.

In 2001 when the murder occurred, Ryan often hung out with Chuck Erickson, a high school buddy who, like Ryan, loved to party.

That Halloween night, Kelly offered to sneak the two boys into the dance club.

"I know that Ryan was underage, I shouldn't have gotten him in the bar. But I just thought, maybe, you know, he'll have fun," she recalls.

"It was extremely crowded," Ryan remembers, "And there were people in costumes running around. Everyone was having a good time. I enjoyed it."

Just a few blocks away from the bar where Ryan and Chuck were partying, Kent Heitholt was at work. The Columbia Tribune's sports editor often worked into the wee hours, as he did that night. After he left his office, he went to his car and began his nightly routine.

Kali Heitholt says her father always took the time to feed a stray cat that roamed the lot, keeping a box of cat food in his car.

"Every night before he left, he'd pour a little on the concrete slab for the cat to come and eat," she says.

Kent fed the cat that night, but never made it home. Kali and her mother were fast asleep when police came knocking on their door.

"They say to my mom like, 'There's been a horrific act committed against your husband,' " Kali remembers.