Dateline   |  November 30, 2012

'Under A Killing Moon', Part 1

A well-regarded newspaper editor, Kent Heitholt, is killed on Halloween night in Columbia, Missouri, as a full moon looms overhead. Ryan Ferguson and a friend remember being at a nearby college bar that same night. Police search for two young men but the trail goes cold.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> i never thought i'd be arrested for a crime i didn't skm commit.

>> would you?

>> i didn't commit one.

>> neither did i.

>> the whole thing is just so scary to me. that this can actually happen to someone.

>> you feel so empty and so alone and hopeless. and you wonder how it's possible.

>> tonight, new evidence in a case that's still a cliff-hanger.

>> it's baffling to me.

>> he awoke to a real-life nightmare, a crime he swears he didn't commit.

>> i have nothing to do with this case.

>> he and a friend arrested for murder one halloween night. there were fingerprints, footprints, strands of hair, but here's the thing. none of it matched theirs. so why on earth are they in prison? wait till you see what happened in court.

>> i lied and said i remember things i didn't remember. i basically told my soul to save myself.

>> now we put you in that courtroom. you decide who's telling the truth.

>> every single detail of this case needs to come out because there's been too much hidden for too long.

>> new witnesses bring a new chance.

>> i'd like to have forgiveness.

>> will there be a new outcome?

>> i'm going to get out of here. i'm going to prove my innocence.

>> i'm lester holt , and this is "dateline." tonight, the mystery, "under a killing moon." here's keith morrison .

>> reporter: in the dark is where things like this happen. in the dark where the truth could be hard to see. hard to see, maybe, even when they turn on the lights.

>> it was devastating, really, because everything you believed in, everything you love has been taken from you for no reason.

>> reporter: this is the story of a man stuck in another man's blackest nightmare, of freedom snatched away on the strength of a dream. but now also it's become the amazing story of what happened here in this remarkable courtroom in the heart of america . the fight here to uphold truth, find justice and perhaps undo a dreadful lie.

>> i don't want to die knowing that i did the wrong thing.

>> reporter: this is the dreamer. his name is chuck erickson .

>> i couldn't remember that night .

>> reporter: and this the subject, or should we say, casualty of his dream. his name is ryan ferguson . perhaps you've heard about his story. we've told it right here on "dateline." but what's happened since, what's happened changes everything. you can see it in motion here at this rarest of legal happening. as our tortured dreamer relives the bizarre tale that began that strange, dark, confusing night.

>> i couldn't remember going home . i couldn't remember leaving the club.

>> reporter: the club. yes. that's where it all began. so puzzling. the events of that night back in 2001 . a rare full moon on halloween , a college town , columbia, missouri, ryan ferguson and chuck erickson both at 17 considerably underage had gained entry to a college bar, a hangout named --

>> by george.

>> reporter: by george.

>> we showed up at the club, got in, started dancing, having a good time.

>> reporter: that's pretty young to be able to get into a club.

>> ts a college town , a university. it's the way people live in college towns . everybody wants to be in the mix, hang out.

>> reporter: it was ryan 's older sister, kelly, who helped sneak them in.

>> i remember seeing ryan and chuck one time in there. and ryan was talking to a flamingo-dressed girl who was very tall. they seemed to be having lots of fun.

>> reporter: outside raucous music carried through empty streets till closing time , 1:30 a.m . 2:00 a.m ., four blocks away, it was quitting time at the local paper, "the columbia daily tribune ." and the deadline for rookie sports writer michael boyd . that's your deadline.

>> that's the deadline to go.

>> reporter: boyd walked in the parking lot , encountered his boss, the revered sports editor, kent . as they talked, boyd says, they both saw, of all things on halloween night, a stray cat .

>> the cat was clawing his tire.

>> reporter: clawing his tire if.

>> clawing his tire like a scratching post .

>> reporter: then boyd remembers they said good night. and it was perhaps ten minutes later, 2:26 a.m ., when two night janitors called 911.

>> 911, what is your emergency?

>> we need someone here at "the columbia daily tribune ."

>> what's going on?

>> there's somebody hurt outside.

>> reporter: and "the columbia daily tribune " was suddenly the center of the deadliest story in town.

>> the sports editor, kent , is laying in a pool on the ground. looks like he's been shot or something.

>> reporter: kent was dead, murdered in the newspaper parking lot . they called him heidi, and he was huge, literally, big man, big presence at the paper, well liked around town. reporter boyd said he found out in the middle of the night and returned from home in time to see his boss's body still in the parking lot .

>> that was just awful. seeing him lying there. you're just, like -- i don't know. i'm sorry.

>> reporter: he wasn't shot. somebody hit him hard on the black of his head with a blunt i instrument. and investigators found fingerprints on that car and in his hands, strands of hair which he must surely have pulled from the head of his killer. and something else police don't often have in a crime like this, suspects described by one of the janitors in that 911 call.

>> who did you see?

>> two guys in the area.

>> white or black?

>> white. i'd say 19, 20.

>> can you remember any kind of description at all on these guys?

>> i don't. well, they were close to 6 feet. thin. one of them had blond hair , really, really short blond hair .

>> reporter: the other janitor, the woman, said she saw the young men briefly duck behind a car, then walk away out of the parking lot and toward the university. not far from the bar where teens like ryan were partying. the search in the dorm, though, turned up nothing. ditto for this composite sketch based on the janitor's descriptions. police were left with only a theory. the two students, maybe college kids , young, white-skinned men, set up on kent , belligerent halloween revelers and were interrupted by two night janitors.

>> at columbia, i don't think anybody could have gotten around and not heard about it.

>> reporter: now all police had to do was find out who those two young men were. never imagining for a moment the bizarre tale that would reel them in.

>> as our story unfolds tonight, you're going to see some startling new developments in this case. the quest for justice is not over yet. but first when we come back, pay close attention because you're about to hear two very different stories of what happened that night. one from chuck erickson . and another from ryan ferguson .

>> i was, like, oh, my goodness, this is absurd.

>> which one is telling the truth? when "under a killing moon" continues. to decorate your