Ryan Ferguson was nineteen years old on March 10, 2004, when he found himself in the back of a police car headed to the station in Columbia, Missouri.
On the basis of flimsy eyewitness reports and faulty if not fabricated evidence, he would be convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison for the murder two years earlier of Columbia Daily Tribune staffer Kent Heitholt.
Ferguson’s case is the subject of Andrew Jenks' gripping new documentary dream/killer, one of the opening-night features of the 2015 Kansas International Film Festival. (It's also one of 124 documentaries now under consideration for the 2016 Academy Award for Best Documentary.)
Heitholt's body was found in the Tribune parking lot on Halloween night in 2001; he had been beaten and strangled. Police had no credible suspects until a friend of Ferguson's, Chuck Erickson, began to wonder aloud if his and Ryan's Halloween carousing had somehow taken a grisly turn.
Erickson told police he'd had dreams about that night, provocations, it seems, from news reports about the crime and the crime scene's proximity to where they'd been partying. He couldn't definitively say he and his friend hadn't killed Heitholt, thus incriminating Ferguson and leading to the arrests of both men.
Early scenes in Jenks' film show footage from the police car's dashboard with Ferguson in the back seat, and the first interviews he gave to detectives in the interrogation room. The teenage Ferguson exhibits no awareness that his life is about to unravel.
"I thought I'd be going home in the near future," Ferguson says in a phone interview from Florida, where he now lives. "I had faith in the legal system and I believed that the interrogation process was to look at the evidence and determine whether a person was innocent or guilty.”
He didn’t realize, he says, “that interrogations were specifically designed to get a confession and that's it.”
His arrest “was a complete shock to the system," he says. "I had no idea what was going on. There's no way you could."
The trial was relatively quick, resulting in a guilty verdict of second-degree murder and robbery. (Erickson was tried and convicted separately and remains in prison; Heitholt's killer remains at large.)
In showing much of the trial, dream/killer presents damning evidence against Ferguson’s ill-equipped first attorney.
"He got names wrong," Ferguson recalls. "He got maps wrong. He fell asleep essentially. He just didn't know what he was doing.”
Ferguson hoped the jury would see enough facts to believe in his innocence. But by the time the case went to deliberations, he says, “it was very frightening."
Father as detective
As much as dream/killer is Ryan Ferguson’s story, it is equally his dad's. Bill Ferguson spent the nearly ten years of his son's incarceration gathering evidence that had been overlooked, doing detective work that would be impressive for a veteran cop, much less a Columbia, Missouri, real estate agent.
"Bill would say, 'Oh, any father would do what I did,'" Jenks says from New York City. "I don't know if every father would be so smart to track down certain facts, to track down witnesses, track down lawyers who would represent Ryan.”
Jenks says the family was enthusiastic when he approached them about making the film in 2013. It fit with Bill's mission of bringing any measure of publicity to the case.
Soon after he interviewed Ferguson in prison, Jenks says, he concluded he was innocent.
"When I first started talking to Ryan on the phone, before we even filmed, he would tell me, 'Look at the facts. At the end of the day, it's about the facts.'"
The truth did prevail when the case was retried in Western District Appellate Court in Kansas City with noted defense attorney Kathleen Zellner representing Ferguson. Several witnesses who had testified in the first trail recanted their stories and it was revealed that certain evidence was withheld. In November 2013, Ferguson was exonerated.
Yet he says he's far from forgiving and forgetting.
"For me, getting past it – not getting past it but moving forward – is understanding that you have these feelings, this frustration, this anger, this hate, whatever it might be. And once you understand it, you need to control it instead of it coming out in a negative way,” he says.
Ferguson channeled his energy in a positive action and is now a personal trainer. His book Stronger, Faster, Smarter: A Guide to Your Most Powerful Body was published earlier this year.
In addition to accompanying the film to festivals with a message about how his idyllic dream about the justice system was tarnished, he advocates in cases similar to his own.
"I'm not an anomaly," Ferguson says. "It's happening to other people. We need to understand our legal system – emphasis on our legal system, because this can affect us all. We need to look at how it operates.”
Ferguson says he tells kids, “‘Go live your lives. Choose your friends wisely, people who are doing good things.’ As long as they're doing that, I think they'll be good." It's a lesson Ferguson learned the hard way.
dream/killer | Dir. Andrew Jenks | 7:40 p.m. Friday, November 6 at the Kansas International Film Festival at Glenwood Arts, 3707 W. 95th St., Overland Park, Kansas, 66206 (it will roll out to select cities and on-demand services in coming months). For tickets to this and other festival films, call 913-642-1132 or visit www.kansasfilm.com.