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After serving nearly a decade in prison for a gruesome murder he didn’t commit, Ryan Ferguson walked out of the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Missouri a free man last week.

And that’s cause for celebration for one Missoula author, who worked tirelessly for two years writing a book proving Ferguson is innocent of strangling the Daily Tribune sports editor in Columbia, Mo.

Brian D’Ambrosio started working on the book with the Ferguson family when he heard about the case from a friend in Columbia.

He became intrigued by inconsistencies in the case against Ferguson – a case that, D’Ambrosio said, was predicated on the shaky testimony of a troubled teenager named Charles Erickson and the false testimony of an eyewitness to the crime.

Even worse, D’Ambrosio said, prosecutors and police were so desperate to solve the case that had been going cold for two years, they intimidated Erickson and coerced his testimony, and withheld the testimony of key witnesses who could have proven Ferguson’s innocence and brought down the entire investigation.

“There are errors to be revealed, and lies to be exposed and falsehoods to be brought to light,” D’Ambrosio said. “There has to be accountability and people need to know about the bogus police reports.”

Now that Ferguson is free, the 109-page document serves as testament to a broken system, “an organism that feeds on itself,” D’Ambrosio said.

Three judges in Kansas City, Mo., overturned Ferguson’s conviction last week, overruling 13 other decisions that put Ferguson behind bars, facing a 40-year sentence.

***

The bizarre string of events that led to the arrest and conviction of both Erickson and Ferguson begins on Halloween night in 2001. Kent Heitholt, the Tribune sports editor, left the paper at about 2 a.m. after a long day at the office.

By all accounts Heitholt was a well-liked person with no known enemies. He poured his heart and soul into his career and was much appreciated and respected for his work in the college town.

According to Michael Boyd, a co-worker, the two chatted nonchalantly in the Tribune’s parking lot about an upcoming sporting event and other nonspecific topics between 2:12 and 2:20 a.m.

Minutes later, a member of the building’s cleaning staff, Shawna Ornt, went outside for a cigarette and saw something amiss near Heitholt’s Nissan Altima. She ran upstairs to get her supervisor, Jerry Trump. The pair returned to see a body lying near the car and two college-aged men standing around the car.

One of the men told Ornt and Trump to get help.

At 2:26 a.m., Heitholt was found by fellow Tribune reporters lying in a pool of his own blood, face down, strangled and beaten to death.

Ornt told police that she got a good look at the pair of men and later was able to provide a description. Trump said he only saw head bobs.

Police observed footprints in the blood, fingerprints were found around the scene, and a hair was found on Heitholt’s body.

Boyd, the last person to see Heitholt alive, was never interviewed by police.

***

Nearly an hour earlier and a few blocks away, 17-year-old Ferguson and his friend Erickson left the By George bar, an establishment that was notorious for allowing underage patrons in the front door.

They had gotten in with Ferguson’s older sister, a junior at the University of Missouri, and her roommate.

According to D’Ambrosio, Erickson had a drug problem that was spiraling out of control. That night, the high school junior imbibed copious amounts of alcohol and snorted cocaine and Adderall until he blacked out.

Ferguson, however, claimed to have had three drinks and remembered driving Erickson home in his 10-year-old midnight blue Mercedes.

The bar closed shortly after the high school students left and the next morning Ferguson and Erickson woke up and went to school as if nothing had happened besides a night of partying.

***

Two years later, the Columbia police were desperate to close the horrific unsolved case, when they received an anonymous tip about Heitholt’s murder, D’Ambrosio wrote.

“There’s some pressure here,” D’Ambrosio said. “No department wants a cold case. No department wants to drop the ball and not complete a case.”

Erickson, who continued in his drug and alcohol abuse and was diagnosed with an obsessive compulsive disorder, implicated himself and Ferguson in the murder of the beloved newspaperman.

In interviews with the media later, Erickson said that he had noticed a story about the crime in the newspaper in November 2003 and in a paranoid state induced by his drug abuse started believing that he and Ferguson were involved.

As police delved into the lead, they seemed to lock onto Erickson and Ferguson being the two college-aged men seen at the crime, D’Ambrosio said. They interrogated Erickson with ferocity and asked leading questions about the crime.

The teenager, who was admittedly high during the interview, repeatedly told investigators that he didn’t remember or that he may have made up the whole thing.

Despite having no forensic connection to the crime, the investigators were relentless in their pursuit, D’Ambrosio wrote.

They took Erickson to the scene of the crime and suggested details that he said he didn’t remember. They also told him that Ferguson confessed and implicated him as the murderer.

The pliable youth confessed to beating Heithold over the head with a rod while drunk to steal bar money. He told police that Ferguson used the man’s belt to strangle him and took money from the man’s pocket.

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Erickson accepted a plea deal and agreed to testify against Ferguson. He was sentenced to 25 years in jail.

At trial in 2005, state prosecutor Kevin Crane, who is now a district judge, painted Ferguson as a spoiled rich kid with no sense of remorse. He repeatedly refered to Ferguson’s Mercedes – with no reference to its poor condition, D’Ambrosio said.

He withheld multiple witnesses from the defense who claimed the bar closed at 1:30 a.m. and pointed out other lapses in Erickson’s story. D’Ambrosio also believes that Crane went so far as to threaten Trump – the cleaning staff supervisor, who is a convicted felon – with more jail time if he didn’t positively identify Ferguson at the trial.

In 2005, Trump pointed to Ferguson in the courtroom and said he saw the teenager at the scene of the crime, despite failing to be able to describe the suspect to police directly after the murder in 2001.

Finally, after Erickson’s well-groomed and damning testimony, which D’Ambrosio said was riddled with errors and inconsistencies, Ferguson was sentenced to 40 years behind bars.

In a subsequent hearing, Trump would recant and apologize for positively identifying Ferguson at trial. Erickson, too, would later recant.

***

Ferguson’s battle was an uphill one.

The judges’ decision to vacate the 2005 conviction contradicted the decision of 12 previous judges and one previous jury.

Erickson is still in jail, despite testifying in 2012 that he made up the story to appease police. He has racked up several new felony assault charges in prison and now may face perjury charges for changing his testimony, D’Ambrosio said.

Even though Ferguson was wrongly convicted and spent the majority of his 20s in jail, he was fortunate with the support rendered him.

D’Ambrosio said Ferguson’s father, Bill Ferguson, was relentless in his pursuit to free his only son from jail.

He spent hours at the scene of the crime, mapping out what happened that night. He drove across the state to talk on numerous radio shows about his son’s case and collaborated with marketing firms and D’Ambrosio to project the message that his son was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.

He even started a Facebook page devoted to the cause. At press time, the Free Ryan Ferguson Facebook page had more than 90,000 supporters from around the world.

D’Ambrosio said that he published his book for free to help with the project, and it was downloaded thousands of times before the September hearing that eventually cleared Ryan’s name.

“There are a lot of people out there that don’t have that support structure,” D’Ambrosio said. “They don’t have the means.”

D’Ambrosio would like to set up a nonprofit to help the wrongly convicted without a voice get out of prison. He wants to serve as an advocate for those who are less fortunate than Ferguson, but still innocent.

“This isn’t the last case that I am going to participate in and in some minute way influence,” he said.

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Reporter Kathryn Haake can be reached at 523-5268 or at kate.haake@missoulian.com.

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