NBC’s ‘Dateline: Under A Killing Moon’ features Ryan Ferguson and Charles Erickson, who were allegedly wrongfully convicted of the murder of Kent Heitholt in Columbia, Missouri, in November 2001. While it took two years for the authorities to apprehend the suspects, a nearly two-decade-long fight for justice ensued for Ryan and Charles as they aimed to prove their innocence. Did they succeed, and where are they now? Here’s what we know.
Who Are Ryan Ferguson and Charles Erickson?
At 2:08 am on November 1, 2001, Kent Heitholt, the Sports Editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune, signed off his computer and left the Missouri newspaper office. Less than 15 minutes later, two newspaper custodians — Shawna Ornt and Jerry Trump — spotted two white males standing next to Kent’s car in the news agency’s parking lot. They fled upon seeing Shawna and Jerry, and by the time the police arrived, the 48-year-old was already dead. He was lying next to his vehicle with severe head wounds and had been strangled to death.
The investigators questioned Shawna and Jerry, with the former helping the authorities draw a composite sketch of one of the two suspicious men they had spotted. The murder remained unsolved for the following two years, with local newspapers printing stories about the homicide in October 2003. Charles Erickson read the articles and began wondering if he had committed the murder. He and his friend, Ryan W. Ferguson, both 17 then, were drinking at a tavern called By George, located a few blocks from the Tribune, on November 1, 2001.
According to reports, Charles began having dream-like memories that he and Ryan had committed the crime. He had been so drunk that he had blacked out and could not remember anything after leaving the bar. When he told Ryan and two others about his visions, Ryan ridiculed them. However, one of his friends contacted the police, and the Columbia police detained Charles on March 10, 2004. After extensive questioning, he confessed to the robbery and Kent’s murder. The police also arrested Ryan the same day.
Ryan denied any involvement in the crime and claimed he dropped Charles home after leaving the tavern before returning home. However, the authorities charged him and Charles with first-degree murder and robbery. Charles pled guilty to both charges in 2004 and agreed to testify against Ryan in exchange for a 25-year sentence in 2004. Ryan went to trial in 2005 fall, and the prosecutors claimed the duo had left the bar with the intention of robbing people to collect more money for drinking.
Even though Kent’s wallet was not stolen and the authorities had no physical evidence linking him to the murder, the court found him guilty of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery. He was sentenced to 40 years on December 5, 2005. The two primary witnesses for the prosecution were Charles and Jerry Trump, a convicted sex offender in prison for parole violation. Even though Jerry had initially claimed he did not get a good look at any of the alleged perpetrators, he later identified Ryan in court as the second offender.
Ryan’s convictions were upheld on appeal, but Charles reached out to his friend’s lawyers in November 2009 and gave a taped statement saying that he alone committed the murder and robbery. He claimed Ryan was an innocent bystander. Ryan’s attorneys filed a motion for a new trial based on the recantation but were denied. Ryan filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Cole County in February 2011. In the petition, he mentioned Charles’ expanded recantation of neither of them being involved in the murder.
Where Are Ryan Ferguson and Charles Erickson Today?
Ryan’s petition also included Jerry’s allegations of the prosecution reaching out to him and showing him a news report containing Ryan and Charles’ pictures so that falsely identified them in exchange for being released from prison early. Initially, it was reported Jerry’s wife had sent him the paper, but she declined the same. The prosecution also denied the illicit activities, and the petition was denied in October 2012. Ryan filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Missouri Court of Appeals in January 2012, upholding the same claims.
Ryan also alleged the prosecution had withheld evidence that would have impeached Jerry. The court reversed Ryan’s conviction on November 5, 2013, and ruled the prosecution had failed to disclose evidence that showed Jerry had lied at Ryan’s trial. The court also ordered the prosecutors to decide within 15 days whether to retry Ryan or to appeal the decision granting a new trial. The Boone County District Attorney’s Office decided not to pursue the case on November 12, and Ryan was released from prison after a decade.
Ryan filed a civil suit against 11 individuals as well as Boone County, Missouri, and the city of Columbia in the US District Court for the Western District of Missouri on March 11, 2014. The suit alleged suppression of exculpatory evidence, fabrication of evidence, reckless or intentional failure to investigate, malicious prosecution, conspiracy to deprive constitutional rights, false arrest, and defamation. The court awarded Ferguson $11 million — $1 million for each of the 10 years he was incarcerated — and $1 million in attorney’s fees in July 2017.
According to court documents, the prosecution compared the settlement to an Alford plea—not admitting liability, but admitting enough evidence exists that they would likely lose in court. Vowing to help Charles, Ryan said, “There are more innocent people in prison, including Erickson… I know that he was used and manipulated and I kind of feel sorry for the guy. He needs help, he needs support, and he doesn’t belong in prison.” His family has offered a $10,000 reward for tips that may solve the case.
After his release, Ryan made an appearance in a few TV shows, such as ‘Unlocking the Truth,’ wherein he served as the host, and season 33 of ‘The Amazing Race.’ He joined the reality show alongside his best buddy, Dusty Harris, and the pair came in third in the end. He said he initially struggled to find regular work because of his public reputation and has opened up regarding his experience of incarceration and hopes for the future. According to his social media profile, Ryan, now 38, works in New York City Real Estate. Charles, 38, walked out of the Boonville Correctional Center on parole in early January 2023 after spending nearly two decades in prison.