No matter what happens to Ryan Ferguson in this season of The Amazing Race, there is almost no possibility it’s as interesting or as frightening as the life he’s led before. The years between 2001 and 2013 seem more like a lurid suspense film than an episode of Reality TV. Ferguson spent a significant portion of those years behind bars – serving time for a murder conviction.
In a bizarre set of circumstances, then 17-year-old Ferguson was charged and convicted of murder based on the confession of his friend and classmate, Charles “Chuck” Erickson, who, according to Newsweek, began to have dreams that he had participated in the unsolved murder of a local paper editor. In 2001, Ken Heitholt, sports editor of Columbia, Missouri’s The Columbia Daily Tribune was strangled and beaten to death in the paper’s parking lot. The investigation quickly grew cold and after two years, the press began to question why the case had hit a dead end. Erickson then confessed to the killing, implicating his friend Ryan as well.
Despite no physical evidence for the pair ever having been at the scene and the presence of fingerprints and footprints that did not match either of them, both men were charged with Heitholt’s murder. While Erickson pled guilty in exchange for a ten-year sentence, Ferguson steadfastly maintained his innocence and gained a forty-year sentence for his pains. He served nearly a decade behind bars before he was freed.
According to The Kansas City Star, Ferguson’s case became a cause célèbre amongst advocacy groups and in 2009 his case was taken over by Kathleen Zellner, a high-profile attorney who has helped free a number of wrongfully convicted individuals. The Daily Tribune has reported that the two key witnesses against Ferguson, Daily Tribune janitor, Shawna Ornt and her supervisor Jerry Trump, claimed that they had been pressured by prosecutors to implicate Ferguson and Erickson. Erickson would later recant his testimony as well, and Ferguson was finally released in 2013. Erickson remains in prison and is still fighting for his conviction to be overturned.
Ferguson’s wrongful conviction became the subject of a Deadline episode as well as a documentary film, entitled, Dream Killer. In an appearance on Reality Life with Kate Casey, Ferguson stated, “I feel for the other people who are still experiencing what I experienced. That’s always my first thought and last thought. Just knowing that we have a criminal justice in America, and it is not functioning properly. There’s no accountability for police and prosecutors when they do the wrong thing. My prosecutor is now a judge! It’s mind-boggling.”
Ferguson also told Casey that he was approached by The Amazing Race and asked to participate this season. “They contacted me and asked if we would like to audition, and so we did. I didn’t know if we were gonna get on or not, but it was cool that they reached out and gave us the opportunity,” said Ferguson. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I love ‘The Amazing Race,’ I watched it in prison. I was stuck in a cell, a little cage for 10 years, do I want to explore the world with my best friend? Sure, why not!”
Ferguson’s best friend Dusty Harris will be his partner for the series. The Amazing Race 33 is currently airing on CBS.