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An Examination of the Evidence in Kent Heitholt Murder

(Note: This is the first in a series of ten articles examining the evidence available over the internet regarding the murder of Kent Heitholt in 2001. The review and analysis has solely been on behalf of the Kent Heitholt family. The examination did not begin with any assumptions or conclusions of innocence or guilt on the part of any person of interest or prior convicted person. The first article is an overview of the case.)

Columbia Tribune Sports Editor, Kent Heitholt, was savagely beaten and violently murdered beside his car in the newspaper parking lot sometime after 2 AM on November 1, 2001. The last Tribune employee to see Heitholt alive was a part time sports writer named Mike Boyd who told the police he talked with him in the parking lot before driving away.

Two young Caucasian men were seen suspiciously loitering around his car for about two plus minutes by a couple of janitors before the body was discovered around 2:26 AM. The two young men left the scene shortly before the body was discovered and were not seen up close by either of the two janitors.

Columbia Tribune Sports Editor, Kent Heitholt, on right after being given a box of golf balls the night of October 31, 2001 by Managing Editor Jim Robertson in recognition of his five year tenure mark. This photo was taken only a few short hours before he was savagely beaten and murdered. Columbia Tribune photo.
Columbia Tribune Sports Editor, Kent Heitholt, on right after being given a box of golf
balls the night of October 31, 2001 by Managing Editor Jim Robertson in recognition of
his five year tenure mark. This photo was taken only a few short hours before he was
savagely beaten and murdered. Columbia Tribune photo.

A check of Kent Heitholt’s computer found it had been turned off at 2:08 AM. Heitholt is surmised to have left the building a few short minutes after that. Part time sports writer, Mike Boyd, talked to Heitholt in the parking lot and is the last known person to have seen him alive.

An autopsy found that Heitholt had been repeatedly beaten about the head by a blunt object and his hands and arms were mutilated from efforts to protect his head. The blunt object had edges and other features capable of inducing numerous lacerations to the victim’s head and hands. His death was the result of strangulation which was surmised to have been caused by the murderer using Heitholt’s own belt.

Because of the sighting of the two suspicious acting young men just before the discovery of the body, the police became fixated on them early on as the persons who likely committed the murder. However, their extensive efforts at tracking and pursuing leads about the young men failed to have any success.

Inexplicably, the police failed to properly and timely check out Mike Boyd as a person of interest in the case as he was the last known person to have seen Heitholt alive. Not only that, Mike Boyd had seen him alive at what would become the crime scene.

With a lack of productive leads on the two suspicious acting young men, the police became stymied and unable to solve the murder case. The police finally got a firm lead in early 2004 when someone called with a tip saying that a man named Charles Erickson was telling others that he had a dream that led him to think that he may have been involved in the murder with Ryan Ferguson when both were 17 years old. The police called Charles Erickson in for questioning.

Although he could not provide facts known only to the killer or killers, he admitted being involved and named Ryan Ferguson as the other person involved. Ryan Ferguson was taken in for questioning that same day but he steadfastly maintained his innocence and non involvement in any fashion. Notwithstanding Ferguson’s unwavering denial, both Erickson and Ferguson were arrested the day of their initial questioning for the murder of Kent Heitholt.

About six months later, Charles Erickson accepted a plea bargain where he would agree to confess to the killing and implicate Ryan Ferguson. The State then proceeded with trying Ferguson for the murder of Heitholt.

At the 2005 trial, Charles Erickson gave testimony indicating in graphic detail how he and Ryan Ferguson committed the murder using a tire tool as the assault weapon to beat the victim about the head and then strangling the victim with his own belt. His testimony was in stark contrast to his initial police interview tapes when he couldn’t give any unpublished detail about the case and expressed doubts about being involved several times.

A janitor, Jerry Trump, identified Ryan Ferguson as one of the two young men he saw at the crime scene. Despite the inability of the Police and Prosecution to link Erickson and Ferguson to the murder by fingerprint, DNA, or other physical evidence, the testimony of Erickson and eyewitness Trump was enough to convince the jury to come in with a guilty verdict. So Ryan Ferguson was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

After several unsuccessful appeals, an appeals court in late 2013 finally agreed to vacate the guilty verdict on the basis of a failure by the Prosecution to provide known exculpatory information prior to the trial that would have seriously undermined Jerry Trump’s identification of Ferguson as one of the two men he saw that night. The appeal was helped by a recantation by Erickson on his testimony implicating Ferguson and a recantation by the janitor Jerry Trump on his eyewitness identification of Ferguson as one of the two young men at the crime scene. The appeal was also helped by the focus of Ferguson’s appeal team on part time sports writer Mike Boyd as an overlooked person of interest whom the police failed to timely check out. The appeal team also focused on the fact that no fingerprint, DNA, or other physical evidence at the scene had been found to connect to either defendant. The appeal team also enlisted the services of a pathologist named Dr. Larry Blum, who among other opinions, said that the assaulting weapon was not a tire tool but was instead a nail puller.

The State has since declined to retry Ryan Ferguson but has not declared him innocent. Currently, Ferguson is a free man while Erickson is still serving a 25 year sentence. So the murder case is in limbo for the Heitholt family, Charles Erickson, Ryan Ferguson, and Mike Boyd. If and until material evidence is found that firmly implicates the killer or killers, innocent parties in this case will continue to receive negative attention and focus as regards the Kent Heitholt murder.

In hindsight, it would have been most desirable for the police to have interviewed Mike Boyd face to face as soon as possible after the discovery of the murder. Then they could have taken and recorded his initial statement for the record, examined his body for signs of injury, and examined his clothing, shoes, and vehicle for blood evidence. None of that was done and this leaves Mike Boyd still in limbo today as someone with an opportunity to have murdered Kent Heitholt.

No matter how this case ultimately turns out, the situation of Charles Erickson places it in a situation of legal importance and could become the impetus for important changes in our legal system. The importance of ascertaining with reasonably strong assurance just who killed Kent Heitholt will ultimately determine how we view the circumstances and bizarre testimony of Charles Erickson.

With that in mind, beginning in early November 2013, I have undertaken to review and analyze the crime scene, testimony, and other evidence in the case and to present my findings in the coming articles. My procedure regarding investigations has been to analyze the evidence and see how it compares to the statements of witnesses or involved persons.

My investigation has been limited by access to information only found on the internet. Notwithstanding this limitation, hopefully some of my analysis and findings in the following articles may assist the police in a proper ending to this case. Some of my findings explained in the following articles are:

  •  Currently no killer-specific identifying evidence has been developed that has a high degree of assurance of only being left by the killer
  • Such evidence would identify only the killer and eliminate other persons of interest from being involved in the murder of Kent Heitholt
  • Why the severed belt buckle offers the best prospect for finding killer-specific DNA identifying evidence and where on the buckle to look for it
  •  The watch that was taken was likely destroyed in the assault and this suggests robbery was not the reason it was taken
  • Considerable evidence on the vehicle and pavement was not discussed or plausibly explained as to how it was generated in the Ryan Ferguson trial
  • For instance, several downward scrub markings on the vehicle were consistent with having been made by the assault weapon during the striking process
  • These weapon markings suggest a two handed grip assault weapon with the weapon likely being rectangular in shape
  • One marking on the left rear tire suggests a thickness for the assault weapon of one plus inch
  • The pavement and vehicle markings present a picture of a frantic-moving-about struggle between Heitholt and the assaulting person until the conflict centers at the left rear wheel

A tire tool was promoted as the assault weapon during the Ryan Ferguson trial. More recently Pathologist Blum promoted a nail puller as the assault weapon.

Now my evaluation infers a rectangular object of the approximate size of a metal clipboard with paper storage compartments. Another possibility would be a metal or hard plastic cased notebook computer.

A more accurate determination of the assault weapon is needed as that might help identify the killer and or help eliminate others from being suspects or persons of interest. An opportunity to examine the full file of police photos and videos as well as the autopsy report and photos would most likely result in modifications and enhancement of my findings. I am also optimistic that such an examination would lead to a strong determination of the actual assault weapon.