Dateline   |  November 15, 2013

'The Wrong Man' part 1

Halloween night, 2001. Sports editor Kent Heitholt is found dead in the parking lot of the Columbia, MO newspaper where he worked. The case is cold for two years, until someone steps forward with a confession. But even then, the mystery is far from over.

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

>> reporter: no one knows how many there are sprinkled through the populations of america's bursting prisons, the innocent, the falsely convicted, the tiny percentage we have to hope. most with names we'll never know. but sometimes rarely we learn their stories.

>> ryan ferguson will soon be a free man.

>> reporter: like the one about ryan ferguson , the young man in the news this week.

>> for a missouri man whose murder conviction has now been overturned.

>> ryan ferguson is now a free man. his conviction wiped clean.

>> reporter: easy, you'd think, to hear the news, show he's innocent, out he comes. but that, as you're about to see, isn't how it works in 21st century america. ryan ferguson has been a preoccupation here at "dateline" for years. the prison here on no more victims row, our familiar destination. you've been here what, how many years?

>> 40 years.

>> reporter: tonight we'll she you the inside story of his long saga and how he went from college student to convicted murderer to prisoner and finally to tourist in his own home town . you recognize your town?

>> i do recognize it. i've always wondered whether this particular building here was. i've seen it on tv a lot.

>> reporter: atsz ps been a trip all right. the sort of trip that on the wrong night at the wrong place could happen to anyone. this is the cautionary tale of what happened to him. easy to get convicted of something.

>> absolutely.

>> reporter: hard to get out again.

>> incredibly difficult.

>> reporter: the night back when it all began was a rare combination, halloween under a full moon . it was 2001 , 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 the by george. that's pretty young to be able to get into a club.

>> that's a college town . you know, university. just the way the people live in college towns . everybody wants to be in the mix, hang out, yeah.

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

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

>> reporter: outside, raucous music carried through empty streets until closing time , 1:30 a.m . four blocks away it was nearly quitting time at the local paper, "the columbia daily tribune ." sports editor kent heitholt headed to his car after a long day at work. it was just about 2:30 when two night janitors from the paper called 911.

>> 911 what's your emergency?

>> what's going on.

>> there's somebody outside.

>> reporter: it was suddenly at the deadly center of the biggest story in town.

>> the sports editor kent is laying on the ground in a pool of blood.

>> it just rocks you back on your heels.

>> reporter: the managing editor jim robertson got the call. his friend heidi, the beloved sports editor, was dead.

>> we were in shock. the whole newsroom, the whole building was in shock because everybody knew kent .

>> reporter: it wasn't pretty. murder never is. somebody smashed kent 's head, maybe with something like a tire iron , then strangled him. the investigators found fingerprints on his car and in the victim's hand strands of hair which he must surely have pulled from the head of his killer or perhaps two killers? in that call to 911 those night custodians reported this.

>> i saw two guys in the area.

>> were they white or black?

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

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

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

>> reporter: the trail of bloody footprints, two sets of footprints led from the parking lot toward a college dorm a few blocks away, but a search there turned up nobody suspicious. ditto for this composite sketch based on the janitors' descriptions. they vanished like a pair of ghosts at halloween .

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

>> reporter: this is leslie, ryan 's mother.

>> when you live in a town and there's been a murder and they don't know who committed the murder, you're wondering, you know, is this person still out there?

>> reporter: but life goes on. ryan went to college, chuck struggled, booze, drugs, the usual cocktail of trouble. and then two years after kent 's murder, the "tribune" ran an anniversary story, printed what details were known all over again. and a couple of months later chuck was in the sauce, and he ran into ryan home from college for the holidays.

>> he says, hey, man, remember hanging out on halloween a couple years back going to the pub? yeah. he says, do you know if i had anything to do with that crime that was committed against this guy who was killed? and at that point, i'm kind of freaked out. it's night. i'm outside. it's past midnight , and this guy's talking about do i know if he's involved in a murder.

>> reporter: ryan shook it off. he said it had to be chuck's idea of a morbid joke. but it wasn't. chuck told other friends about his weird dream-like notion. and before long someone took his seriously and called the police.

>> you know that reporter at the tribune that was murdered and no one found out who it was?

>> mm-hmm.

>> i know what happened and i know the murderer.

>> reporter: and a dead case came roaring back to life. what happened next? now, that's where the real mystery lies.