By Brandie Piper
Published Nov. 13, 2013 on KSDK.com.
COLUMBIA, Mo. – Ryan Ferguson was released from prison Tuesday after spending nearly a decade behind bars for the murder of Columbia Daily Tribunesports editor Kent Heitholt.
Here is a timeline of the case:
Nov. 1, 2001 – 1:15 a.m.: Seventeen-year-old high school junior Ryan Ferguson and his classmate, Chuck Erickson, leave By George, a bar in Columbia, Mo. Ferguson drives Erickson home before going home himself.
Approximately 2:20 a.m.: Michael Boyd, Heitholt’s colleague, says goodbye to Heitholt.
2:22 a.m.: Janitor Shawna Ornt goes outside and sees shadows near Heitholt’s car. She goes inside and tells her colleague, Jerry Trump. They go back outside and see two people standing near Heitholt’s vehicle. One of the men walks over to speak to Ornt before leaving with the other man, walking east toward 4th Street.
2:26 a.m.: Ornt calls 911.
Ornt and Trump are questioned by police. Ornt helps police create a composite sketch. She says the man was around 6’0″ tall, weighed around 200 pounds, had blonde hair, and was wearing a t-shirt. She is described as the “sole witness” to the crime.
Trump says he was unable to clearly see the faces of either suspect. Police determine he has no useful information.
Boyd, the last person to see Heitholt alive, was briefly questioned. His story changes five times throughout the case. He is never considered a suspect. He claims to have traded the blue Oldsmobile he owned at the time of the murder in to Enterprise a few years after the murder.
Two pairs of bloody footprints are found leading away from the scene. A police K-9 follow the scent to a dorm at University of Missouri, but authorities are unable to find a suspect.
A strand of hair with blood on it is found at the scene, along with fingerprints.
2001 until 2004 – Trump serves time in prison.
2003 – Ornt has composite sketches of the suspects revised.
2004 – Chuck Erickson reads about Heitholt’s murder in the newspaper. He remembers partying with Ferguson the night of the murder. He sees one of the revised composite sketches of the suspect and believes it resembles him.
Erickson has dreams that he and Ferguson committed the murder, and tells his friend, who calls police.
March 10, 2004 – Erickson is questioned by police in March.
According to Erickson did not know details of the crime, including what was used to kill Heitholt, where the crime occurred, or how many times Heitholt had been struck.
Ryan Ferguson, now 19, is brought in for questioning. He tells police he left the bar around 1:15 a.m., took Erickson home, and then sat outside his home to talk on the phone before going inside and going to sleep.
Later in 2004, Ferguson and Erickson are charged with murder by then-Prosecutor Kevin Crane. There is no DNA evidence linking Ferguson or Erickson to the crime scene, and the pair have no motive to kill Heitholt. The strand of hair found at the crime scene, the blood found on the hair, and the fingerprints do not match Ferguson or Erickson.
Ornt had described the suspect as standing 6’0″ tall, weighing around 200 pounds, with blonde hair when she was questioned the night of the murder. Ferguson stands 5’8″ and weighed 160 pounds at the time of the murder, and Erickson stand 5’6″ tall and weighed 150 pounds at the time.
Erickson’s statements about the night of the crime continue to change. He believes the dream he had about the murder is true, and agrees to a plea deal to receive a lighter sentence.
Dec. 13, 2004 – Trump is released from prison. He will be on probation for two years.
Dec. 21, 2004 – Trump is asked to come to Prosecutor Crane’s office. During this meeting Trump says he remembers seeing Ferguson and Erickson in the parking lot the night of the murder.
2005 – Ryan Ferguson’s murder trial begins. Erickson details specifics regarding the murder that he originally had no knowledge of.
Trump, the janitor who originally said he did not clearly see the face of either man he saw near Heitholt’s car, now says he saw Ryan Ferguson at the crime scene, and points to him in front of the jury. He says he received a Columbia Daily Tribunenewspaper from his wife while he was in prison during the spring of 2004 which showed pictures of Ferguson and Erickson. He says when he saw them he recognized them as the men in the parking lot the night Heitholt was killed.
An investigator interviewed Trump’s wife, who said she didn’t remember sending him a newspaper. A report of this interview was never recorded, and the interview was never shared with Ferguson’s attorney.
Ornt, the person described as the “sole witness” throughout the case is never asked in court if she can identify Ferguson. Ferguson’s team says this is a Brady Violation, and that Prosecutor Crane did not ask her if she could identify Ferguson because he knew her answer would contradict the case he was trying to make.
Ferguson’s phone records show he was on the phone from 1:41 a.m. until 2:09 a.m.
Erickson testifies after the murder he and Ferguson went back to By George around 2:45 a.m. and were let into the bar by the same bouncer who had let them in earlier in the evening. He said the music was loud, and left the bar between 4 and 4:30 a.m.
Kim Bennett signs a sworn affidavit saying she saw Ferguson and Erickson leave By George between 1:15 a.m. and 1:30 a.m., but she is never called to testify at the trial. Ferguson’s defense team does not hear her statement.
Ferguson is convicted of second-degree murder and robbery after a five day trial. He is sentenced to 40 years in prison.
July 2008 – During an appeals hearing, Ornt says under oath that she had told Prosecutor Crane before the trial the man she saw the night of the murder was not Ferguson. She says that on three occasions Prosecutor Crane tried to get her to say she saw Ferguson the night of the murder, and that he became threatening during his last conversation with her.
Trump’s manager, Christine Varner, says he told her the day after the crime that he didn’t see either suspect’s face because a light was shining in his eyes.
Mike Schook, the bouncer at By George the night of the murder, says the bar closed at 1:30 a.m. and that he left the business by 2:15 a.m., which contradicts what Erickson had said under oath during Ferguson’s 2005 trial.
2009 – Kathleen Zellner, an attorney who specializes in appeals for wrongful convictions, takes Ferguson’s case pro bono.
Erickson comes forward, saying he lied under oath.
Trump also confesses he lied under oath, citing coercion from Prosecutor Kevin Crane. He claims Crane told him it would be beneficial to himself if he could place Ferguson at the scene. Trump says he changed his story because he was intimidated.
2010 – The Missouri Department of Revenue still has Boyd’s blue Oldsmobile that he claims to have traded to Enterprise, titled to him. Enterprise says they have no record of receiving the car.
April 2012 – Erickson and Trump admit in court they committed perjury by saying Ferguson was involved in the murder.
Trump says the first time he saw a newspaper showing Ferguson’s face was in Prosecutor Crane’s office after he was released from prison in 2004. He asks the Ferguson family to forgive him.
Erickson says he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol the night of the murder.
Kim Bennett testifies, corroborating Ferguson’s statement that he and Erickson left By George between 1:15 a.m.a nd 1:30 a.m.
October 2012 – Judge Dan Green of Cole County, Mo. says “this Court does not believe that Jerry Trump testified truthfully about his positive identification of Ryan Ferguson,” but declines to give Ferguson a new trial.
Sept. 2013 – Ferguson takes his case to the Missouri appeals court.
Nov. 5, 2013 – A Missouri appeals court overturns Ferguson’s conviction, stating the prosecutor’s office withheld evidence from defense attorneys. Part of the evidence that was withheld was the interview conducted with Trump’s wife about the newspaper he claimed to have received from her. The state is given 15 days to file a notice of retrial.
Nov. 8, 2013 – Assistant Attorney General Susan Boresi is named as a special prosecutor for the case.
Nov. 12, 2013 – Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announces the state will not re-try Ferguson.
Approximately 5:55 p.m.: Ryan Ferguson is officially released from prison.
Raw video of Ryan Ferguson and his family leaving the Boone County Jail in Columbia, Mo. Earlier Tuesday Mo. Attorney General Chris Koster announced the state will not re-try Ferguson for the 2001 death of Kent Heitholt.
7 p.m.: Ryan Ferguson, his family, and his attorney, Kathleen Zellner, hold a news conference at the Tiger Hotel.
Nov. 13, 2013 – Ferguson appears on the TODAY show.
Columbia, Mo. police say they will look at new leads in Heitholt’s murder.
Information from FreeRyanFerguson.com and the Associated Press was used in this report.