It's a terrifying thing to think about getting arrested, tried, and convicted of a gruesome crime that you didn't commit. That's exactly what happened to Ryan Ferguson, who was arrested at the age of 17 for the murder of a man he had never met before. One of his best friends turned on him, and gave damning (false) testimony that implicated the high-schooler in murder.
Ryan spent years locked up and doing everything he could to try to prove his innocence. After almost a decade behind bars, Ryan finally got the freedom he had sought for so long.
Now, Ryan is working to prevent this from happening in the future. Netflix is releasing his 2015 documentary, Dream/Killer about his prison experience and the work he's done afterwards to help people in situations similar to his own. Putting the documentary on the streaming platform will provide a new audience to his advocacy work.
What did Ryan Ferguson allegedly do?
Ryan's decade of hell began on Nov. 1, 2001 when sports editor Kent Heitholt was murdered in the parking lot outside of The Columbia Tribune. He had been beaten to death outside of his car, and had been speaking to a co-worker in the same lot just minutes before he was ambushed.
Shawna Ornt, who worked as a janitor for the building, had seen two figures standing near Kent's car when she went outside to take a cigarette break. She got her supervisor, and they both noted that two men who appeared to be college-aged were by the car.
Ryan and his friend, Charles Erickson, had been attending Halloween parties nearby during the time of the murder. They had even gone to a bar afterwards, despite being very underage. When they ran out of cash for drinks, the boys left. Erickson was on Adderall, cocaine, and had alcohol in his system at the time. He had no memory of the night before.
Over the next two years, Erickson became paranoid that he was somehow involved in the murders, because he had literally no memory from the night at all. He found it odd that he and Ryan had been just a few blocks away at the time of the killing, and over time, he convinced himself that they were involved, especially when a sketch of the killers was released that slightly resembled him.
He eventually turned himself in to the police, and even though he could not accurately remember the murder weapon and other details from the crime, he and Ryan were arrested.
Sadly, Erickson was offered a plea deal if he turned on his former best friend, which he took to get a lesser sentence. Even though he had said that he had no memory, Erickson still offered a detailed depiction of the night. Though there was no physical evidence to tie Ryan to the crime, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2005.
Where is Ryan Ferguson today?
Soon after his conviction, advocacy groups took notice of Ryan's case. Kathleen Zellner, a prominent Chicago attorney, who now represents Steven Avery from Netflix's Making a Murderer, took Ryan's case pro bono. The supervisor of the building and Erickson later admitted that they lied about the testimony they gave under oath.
Shawna also said she was coerced into giving testimony that implicated Ryan and Erickson. When questioned again, Erickson noted that he and Ryan had actually left the bar at around 4 a.m., which proved they were at the bar during the murder.
In 2013, Ryan won his appeal and was released from prison. The murder remains unsolved, and Erickson is still serving his 25-year sentence for lying under oath.
In the years since he was released, Ryan has worked to publicize other cases where he believes that the person imprisoned has been wrongfully convicted. Interestingly, he says that he is working to get Erickson out of prison too.
Ryan's case has been covered on major shows like Dateline and 48 Hours. His father, Bill Ferguson, began putting together Dream/Killer during the trial and appeals process while his son was in prison.
"A lot of people think, 'Oh this could never happen to me,'" Kathleen Zellner chillingly says in the documentary's trailer. "Trust, me. This could happen to you."
Dream/Killer was released to the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015, and it will now be released on Netflix. The press has compared it to The Jinx and Making a Murderer.
Ryan also became passionate about fitness while he was in prison to keep his mind sane and to protect himself from the other prisoners.
"You have to do everything you can to make yourself stronger, faster, and smarter to survive," Ryan recalled his dad saying. In 2016, he became a certified personal trainer.
"They can't take my mind, they can't take my body. No matter what," Ryan says in the trailer.
Also in 2016, Ryan was the host of an MTV show, Unlocking the Truth, which explored cases of people who many believed were wrongfully imprisoned. The case of Kalvin Michael Smith was covered on the show, and he was exonerated shortly after.
As for Ryan's personal life, he's dating someone who was by his side before he walked free.
Ryan has been dating longtime girlfriend Myka Cain since before his exoneration. She wrote a letter to him while he was in prison, and the two began corresponding. The couple has a dog together.
Dream/Killer will be available to stream on Netflix beginning on Nov. 20.