Ryan Ferguson is an American man who spent nearly a decade in prison for the 2001 murder of Kent Heitholt. Kent’s murder remained unsolved for two years after he was found beaten and strangled in the parking lot of the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he worked as an editor.
A break in the case happened when Ferguson’s friend, Charles Erikson, told police that he believed he and Ryan were somehow involved in the murder. Charles was high and intoxicated that night, and couldn’t remember anything that happened, but via his testimony, the prosecution convinced the court to sentence Ryan to 40 years in prison for Kent’s murder.
Ten years after his conviction, the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals vacated Ryan’s sentence. Ryan is a certified personal trainer and an advocate against false convictions.
Ryan’s mission is to help wrongfully convicted people get out of prison
Immediately after his release, Ryan stated that it ‘takes an army’ to get a person out of prison. A positively beaming Ferguson waved at droves of supporters during a press conference held after he ditched his prison attire for a sweater and shirt.
Ryan’s conviction caught the attention of advocacy groups soon after it was handed down – such was the unusual nature of his trial. Kathleen Zellner took up the case pro bono, and gradually, she helped expose the massive loopholes in the prosecution’s case.
The prosecution had failed to disclose crucial information to the original defense team – information that the defense could have used to prove Ferguson’s innocence. The prosecution’s key witnesses – a supervisor at the building, and Erickson – recanted the testimonies they’d made under oath.
Janitor Shawna Ornt testified that the prosecution tried to coerce her into stating that she saw Ferguson at the parking lot on the night of the murder. At the trial, the prosecution refused to ask her to identify Ferguson because they knew that her answer would ruin their case, Shawna added. The court found there to be enough evidence to set aside the conviction.
“This is not an anomaly,” Ryan told the audience following his release. ‘I think that we have to look at other cases and be aware that this is part of our justice system and there are more innocent people in prison. So keep your eyes open and support them as well.”
Ryan started his advocacy by letting media outlets tell his story. His father, Bill Ferguson, began putting together the documentary Dream/Killer during Ryan’s trial and appeals. The documentary was released at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015 and later appeared on Netflix. In 2016, Ryan hosted MTV’s Unlocking the Truth, a series about wrongfully convicted prisoners.
“You have to do everything to make yourself stronger, faster, and smarter to survive,” Ryan’s father told Ryan after his arrest. His words inspired Ryan’s book, ‘Stronger, Faster, Smarter’, about how to overcome life’s trials. Ryan took up weightlifting in prison and after his release, became a certified personal trainer.
Ryan started dating meteorologist Brigit Mahoney after breaking up with longtime girlfriend Myka Cain
Myka Cain couldn’t hide her joy after the court released Ryan. She’d been heavily involved in getting him out of prison, but at first, Ryan’s friends were skeptical of her intentions. Cain learned of Ryan’s case in the summer of 2012 after watching a news show detailing Ferguson’s wrongful conviction.
The couple started talking after Cain sent Ryan a birthday card. Ryan later allowed Cain to visit him at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. Ferguson’s close friend, Hamrah, told The Daily Mail that she found it odd that Ryan had agreed to a prison visit from a person he’d never met. Hamrah – and most of Ryan’s friends – feared that Myka had bad intentions. Hamrah said:
“Myka sought him out like a lot of people. Somebody who corresponds and develops a relationship with someone that they haven’t spent any real time with, I mean, I was searching for the crazy in her. Like waiting for the ‘Ah, that’s it. That’s why she’s there.’ But it never happened.”
“She came to visit him and right after he instantly knew there was more to it.” Eventually, Ferguson’s friends and family learned to trust Myka. Bill Ferguson was the face of Ryan’s push for exoneration, while Cain worked in the shadows, as a fierce foot soldier, warding off anyone who dared doubt Ryan’s innocence.
Ryan and Cain appeared arm in arm for a while after Ryan’s release, but they are no longer together, and the reason for their break remains unclear. Ferguson is currently dating FOX 2’s meteorologist Brigit Mahoney. Brigit enjoys posting occasional photos of the pair on Instagram. In mid-December 2020, she posted a photo of the pair kissing at sunset while out at sea.
Ryan has vowed to fight for the release of the friend who helped send him to prison
Ryan’s ten-year prison ordeal ended quite well: A federal court granted him $11 million as compensation for the wrongful conviction, he landed a lucrative book deal and became the host of an MTV show, and is living a full life surrounded by loved ones. His friend, Charles Erickson, isn’t as lucky, however.
Authorities offered Charles Erikson a 25-year plea deal in exchange for his testimony against Ryan. After his exoneration, Ryan vowed to fight for Charles’ release. “I know that he [Charles] was used and manipulated and I kind of feel sorry for the guy,” Ryan said. “He needs help, he needs support, he doesn’t belong in prison.”
A Pike County Circuit Court denied Charles’ first petition to get out of prison, stating that he ‘freely, knowingly, and voluntarily’ pleaded guilty to the crimes. His attorneys filed an appeal in June 2020, claiming that Ryan is innocent and that he didn’t make a voluntary plea because police withheld and fabricated evidence.
“This petition was a very long time coming,” Charles’ attorney, Landon Magnusson, told ABC. “We are very excited to have another chance at obtaining justice for Charles Erickson after sixteen years in prison as an innocent man.”
The Ferguson family has offered a $10,000 reward for tips that may help resolve the case.