On the morning of November 1, 2001, Kent Heitholt was found dead in the parking lot of the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he worked as a sports editor. Two years later, Ryan Ferguson, who was only 17 at the time, was convicted of the murder. Ferguson spent a decade in prison, though he continued to proclaim his innocence. In 2013, the conviction was vacated, and Ferguson was released from prison. In April, it was announced that he would be hosting a new MTV series called The Investigation, which follows other cases of wrongful conviction.
Read on to learn more about Ryan Ferguson.
1. He Spent 9 Years in Prison for a Murder He Didn’t Commit
Keith Heitholt was 48-years-old when he was found dead in the parking lot of the Columbia Daily Tribune. His coworker, Michael Boyd, was the last to see him alive– Boyd told police the two had had a work-related conversation in the parking lot around 2:12am. According to The Missoulian, Heitholt was well-liked and did not have any known enemies. “He poured his heart and soul into his career and was much appreciated and respected for his work in the college town.”
Shortly after Boyd and Heitholt’s conversation ended, a janitor named Shawna Ornt went outside for a cigarette and noticed something strange near Heitholt’s car. When she returned with her supervisor, Jerry Trump, just minutes later, they saw Heitholt body near the vehicle and “two college-aged men standing around the car.” One of the men then told Ornt and Trump to get help, and when fellow Tribune reporters arrived at the scene at 2:26 am, “Heitholt… was lying in a pool of his own blood, face down, strangled and beaten to death.”
2. Ferguson Had No Ties to the Murdered Man
The night Heitholt was killed, Ferguson and a fellow high school junior, Charles Erickson, were attending Halloween parties in the area, according to the Missouri Court of Appeals Report. They decided to meet Ryan’s sister at a bar called By George, where they knew they could get in even though they were underaged.
Two and a half years after the murder, Erickson, who went by Chuck, told Columbia police he “had a feeling” that he and Ferguson were guilty of killing Heitholt while trying to rob him. According to the Columbia Tribune, Erickson had become increasingly disturbed by “…disjointed memories of their attack on the 6-foot-3-inch, 300-pound editor as he was preparing to go home.” Erickson told authorities that he and Ferguson bludgeoned Heitholt to death because they wanted drinking money to continue partying.
On the night of the murder, Erickson was under the influence of cocaine, Adderall, and alcohol. When police asked him about that evening, he said he had no memory of anything unusual happening, nor did he have any residue on his clothing, like blood.
3. Ferguson’s Conviction Was Overturned on His Last Appeal Attempt
At Ferguson’s trial, Erickson accepted a plea deal and testified against his friend, claiming that the two killed Heitholt for alcohol money. In March 2004, Ferguson was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 40 years. The fact that none of the hair, blood, or fingerprints from the crime scene matched Ferguson or Erickson, and that Heitholt’s blood wasn’t found in the vehicle the boys were driving on the night of the murder, seems to have been disregarded.
In 2012, Erickson and Trump recanted their confessions, and admitted they lied in Ferguson’s trial. According to ABC News, Erickson revealed that everything he said was a lie, and he didn’t want to die “knowing, you know, this guy is still in prison because of something I did.”
Ferguson’s conviction was vacated in November 2013. To this day, the case remains unsolved.
4. A Documentary About His Dad’s Journey to Free Him Debuted at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival
A documentary titled dreamer/killer, spends nearly two-hours reviewing Bill Ferguson’s decade-long quest to free his son from prison. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and aired on Investigation Discovery in August 2016. Andrew Jenks, the film’s director, told the Columbia Tribune, “Bill Ferguson is the superhero father. You couldn’t make someone like that up in a script.” Work on the documentary began in early 2013, and when Ferguson was released in November, the focus of the script shifted. While in production, Jenks said, “I’m kind of seeing this story unfold, and I’m like, ‘Man, this could have happened to me. This could have happened to anyone.'”
In 2015, Ferguson also published a book called, Stronger, Faster, Smarter: A Guide To Your Most Powerful Body, in honor of the advice his father gave him before being charged. He wrote the book while serving part of his sentence, and claims that without writing, “…I likely wouldn’t have survived that decade-long journey through hell…”
5. He’s Now a Personal Trainer
After he was arrested, Ferguson tried to devote his time to fitness and health. He exercised and lifted weights in the confinement of his prison cell, and after he was released, he became a personal trainer.
He also has a website, Ryan Ferguson Fitness. A small portion of his bio reads, “Hello everyone, my name is Ryan Ferguson and I am definitely not your typical personal trainer! As many of you know, I spent nearly a decade of my life in prison, wrongfully convicted of a murder in which I had no involvement. I used much of my time in prison to educate myself about health and fitness…I’ve found what’s been proven to work best for our bodies and now I want to share my knowledge and experience with all of you.”
Ferguson is a NASM certified personal trainer, has appeared in Men’s Health Magazine, and was featured as a Spartan Racer on NBC Sports.