How Did He Die? Who Killed Kent Heitholt?

NBC’s ‘Dateline: Under A Killing Moon’ chronicles how 42-year-old sports editor Kent Heitholt was murdered in the parking lot of his Columbia, Missouri, office in November 2001. Initially baffled by the lack of suspects, the police apprehended two suspects with the help of a tip. However, a nearly two-decade-long fight for justice has cast aspersions on the credibility of the investigation as the probe still continues. So, how did Kent die, and who killed him? Let’s find out.

How Did Kent Heitholt Die?

Kent William Heitholt was born in Lawrence in Douglas County, Kansas, on January 4, 1953. He graduated from John Burroughs High School in St. Louis and attended the University of Missouri in the 1970s to study journalism. He met his wife, Deborah Evangelista, at the University and had two children — Kali and Vince. Kent had worked for about two years at the Nashville Banner (now defunct) and The Times in Shreveport, Louisiana, for nine years before joining the Columbia Daily Tribune in 1996 as a sports editor.

According to his family and colleagues, Kent loved all sports, and women’s sports were just as important as men’s for him. He even gave the small, local events the same importance as the Super Bowl. One of his colleagues, Joe Walljasper, recalled, “He gravitated toward overlooked sports and gave women’s sports equal attention as men’s sports.” Joe added, “Kent would give a chance to people with no experience at all if they were eager to work. He sympathized with the underdog and did not have much use for people with big egos.”

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Teddy Allen, one of his former colleagues at the Shreveport Times, reminisced, “Kent got along with people because he was sincere and hard-working and an example of how to do things the right way and still have fun. He helped young writers and young wannabe writers. He didn’t give up on people.” On the night of October 31, 2001, Kent had worked at the Columbia paper late into the wee hours. Robert Thompson, a sports writer for the Tribune, informed the authorities that the news agency’s computer system cut off at 2:00 am on November 1.

He last saw Kent at approximately 2:10 am when he had a work-related conversation with him in the parking lot. Court records show a maintenance worker approached Robert sometime later to report seeing someone outside lying in a pool of blood. Robert ran and found Kent lying face down on the concrete, turned him over, and checked his pulse. Meanwhile, Jerry Trump — the Tribune’s cleaning crew manager — called 911. The Columbia Police Department received the call at 2:26 am, and officers were dispatched to the scene.

The investigators found Kent lying on the ground next to a vehicle in the Tribune parking lot. He had sustained multiple head injuries, and a pathologist later testified that he was struck eleven times, possibly with a tire iron. However, Kent’s official cause of death was determined to be strangulation, and he was strangled with his belt. Court documents state the leather snapped, leaving the buckle and a fragment of the belt at the crime scene. The police found unidentified fingerprints in and on Kent’s vehicle, and his wallet was discovered inside the car.

Who Killed Kent Heitholt?

Two custodians — Shawna Ornt and Jerry Trump — working at the Tribune discovered the murder scene at approximately 2:20 am when they went out for a smoke. They saw two white males standing by the driver’s side of Kent Heitholt’s case, and one of the men hollered, “Someone’s hurt out here, man.” The two suspects then fled down an adjacent alley, and Jerry discovered Kent lying on the ground. Shawna told police that she got a good look at the man standing toward the back of the car.

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Shawna worked with sketch artists to develop composite sketches. The individual was described as muscular, not stocky, with blond hair, and in his early twenties. Jerry told police he could not provide a detailed description of the men he saw other than to say that both were white males in their 20s. The officers discovered physical evidence such as fingerprints, a strand of hair, and two sets of bloody footwear impressions. Though his watch and keys were reported missing, they found his wallet inside the car.

Articles appeared in Columbia newspapers about Kent’s unsolved murder in and around October 2003. Strangely, Charles Erickson read the articles and wondered whether he had committed the crime. On the night Kent was killed, Charles and Ryan Ferguson — both 17-year-old juniors in high school — had been drinking together at By George, a club within a few blocks of the Tribune. Charles became heavily intoxicated, “blacked out,” and was unable to remember his actions after leaving the club.

Charles confided in Ryan about his “dream-like” memories that he and Ferguson may have murdered Kent in late December 2003 or early January 2004. However, Ryan laughed it off and stated they had nothing to do with the homicide. Charles also told friends Nick Gilpin and Art Figueroa about his visions, and Nick reported the conversation to the police. The authorities picked up Charles from the Moberly Area Community College in Columbia, Missouri, on March 10, 2004.

Ryan Ferguson

After questioning, Charles confessed to involvement in the robbery and murder of and implicated Ryan, who was also arrested the same day. Charles and Ryan had been drinking at By George and borrowing money from Ryan’s sister, but at some point, she refused to provide them with more money. The prosecution claimed the duo left the bar in the early hours to rob someone so they could have more money to continue drinking. They allegedly retrieved a tire tool from Ryan’s trunk and went around to search for victims.

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The prosecutors alleged the duo chanced upon Kent and beat and strangled him to death between 2:12 am and 2:20 am. Charles pled guilty to first-degree robbery, second-degree murder, and armed criminal action and was sentenced to 25 years. He also testified against Ryan during his trial, and the latter was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery and sentenced to forty years. Even though the police had no physical evidence against the duo, Charles’ confession and Jerry’s testimony helped the prosecution to convict Ryan.

In the years after Ryan’s conviction, evidence that originally was not shared with his defense attorney revealed inconsistencies with witness statements. Ryan was released in 2013, and he would go on to be awarded $11 million in a civil rights case. Charles had sought to use the same witness inconsistencies in his case seeking his exoneration, along with arguing the police interviews that led to his confession were coercive. He also claimed he experienced memory issues associated with alcohol-related blackouts from the night of the murder.

Charles Erickson//Image Credit: 48 Hours/Facebook

Charles was released on parole in early January 2023 after spending nearly two decades in prison. According to police sources, Kent’s homicide investigation remains open, with a section of the victim’s friends and family claiming the police look into other suspects, including a co-worker named Mike Boyd. Reports stated his story changed dramatically over the course of his six statements to investigators, and he struggled to keep simple details consistent. Ryan’s family has offered a $10,000 reward for tips that may solve the case.

Read More: Where Are Ryan Ferguson and Charles Erickson Now?

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