Kent Heitholt: The Man Ryan Ferguson Was Wrongly Convicted of Murdering

Keith Heitholt

Facebook/ColumbiaDailyTribune Keith Heitholt

Kent Heitholt was the sports editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri who was murdered on November 1, 2001. Two men were convicted of the crime. One, Ryan Ferguson, has since been exonerated, according to the Innocence Project. Ferguson’s friend, Charles Erickson, who confessed to killing Heitholt, remains in prison, but is also fighting to have his conviction overturned, according to KOMU.

According to the News-Tribune, Heitholt was killed after being “bludgeoned on the head and strangled with his own belt in the parking lot” of the newspaper.

The only witnesses nearby at the time of the attack were two custodial staff members, Jerry Trump and Shawna Ornt, the newspaper reported. According to the outlet, they reported seeing two white men nearby around the time Heitholt was assaulted.

In 2004, Erickson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He then involved his friend, Ryan Ferguson, who, too, was convicted of second-degree murder. After spending 10 years in prison, Ferguson’s conviction was overturned and he was released. He has been featured in a Netflix documentary and hosted an MTV show working to help others overturn wrongful convictions. And he is competing on season 34 of the CBS show “The Amazing Race,” airing in 2022.

But what do friends and family have to say about the legacy of Keith Heitholt? Here’s what you should know:

Heitholt Is Remembered as a ‘Kind, Easygoing’ Man

Keith Heitholt graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1975.

An article by the Columbia Daily Tribune described Heitholt as a “kind, easygoing man who supported and mentored his sports writing staff.” He was also recognized as an animal lover and would even feed a stray cat that lived near his place of work.

The Columbia Daily Tribune highlighted the fact that most memories of Heitholt refer to his warm personality. “He was considered a gentle giant.”

Prior to working for the Tribune newspaper, Heitholt was a sports editor for the Times in Shreveport, Louisiana, and also worked at the Nashville Banner, according to his obituary. 

Dave Matter, who wrote for the Tribune at the time of Heitholt’s death, shared, “Every year when Halloween rolls around, it always opens a fresh wound. I can only speak for myself, but I did not get a lot of closure out of how (the court) process unfolded, so for me, I just kind of keep (my thoughts) private, more for Kent’s family.”

‘Justice for Keith Heitholt’

In 2013, Ferguson was released from prison and shared his intention to help Heitholt’s family finally get justice. Keith Morrison, who interviewed Ferguson for years, told The Daily Mail, “Ryan is a remarkable young man. He has withstood the pressures of being in that environment for so many years and now that he’s free he wants to get the Heitholt family a sense of justice.”

The Facebook page, “Justice for Keith Heitholt,” currently has over 1,200 members. Its most recent post reads, “20 years. Zero answers,” alluding to the fact that the identity of Heitholt’s killer is still unknown.

The “About” section of the page reads, “We are a group of concerned citizens interested in final justice in this case. This page is NOT run by or on behalf of the Heitholt family, though they have our deepest, heartfelt sympathies for their tragic loss. Our mission here is limited to getting the investigation re-opened so we can learn the truth. We are not attempting to solve the crime ourselves, and as such would like to avoid implicating specific individuals without evidence of their involvement.”

Heitholt married his wife, Deborah Evangelista, on December 21, 1981. Together, the couple has two children: a son, Vincent, and a daughter, Kali Rose.

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