Columbia, Mo. — A Columbia man pleaded guilty Thursday to second-degree murder in the 2001 slaying of a newspaper sports editor and agreed to testify against a co-defendant charged with fatally strangling the victim.
Charles Timothy Erickson, 20, also pleaded guilty to a charge of first-degree robbery and a newly filed charge of armed criminal action in the Nov. 1, 2001, slaying of Kent Heitholt, sports editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune.
Erickson's trial had been scheduled for this week but was delayed as both sides worked on the plea agreement. Erickson entered his guilty pleas during a brief hearing before Boone County Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton.
Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane said the agreement required Erickson's cooperation in the prosecution of his one-time friend, Ryan Ferguson, 20, who is scheduled for trial Jan. 24 on charges of first-degree murder and first-degree robbery.
Crane said he agreed to recommend a 25-year sentence for Erickson if he cooperated in Ferguson's prosecution -- 15 years on the second-degree murder and robbery charges, to run concurrently, plus another 10 years for armed criminal action. Erickson's sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 28.
First-degree murder is punishable in Missouri by death or life in prison without chance of parole.
But the Missouri Supreme Court has barred imposing the death penalty against defendants under 18, a decision that has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Erickson and Ferguson were both 17 when Heitholt was killed. So if Ferguson is convicted of first-degree murder, his only possible sentence would be life in prison, Crane said after the hearing.
Both men are being held in the Boone County Jail in Columbia.
Heitholt, 48, was the Columbia area's best-known homicide victim since the Depression-era slaying of the local sheriff.
He was leaving the Tribune early on Nov. 1, 2001, and had paused to feed a stray cat in the newspaper parking lot.
Police said Erickson and Ferguson had been partying on Halloween at a night club a few blocks from the newspaper and set out to rob someone.
They said Ferguson strangled Heitholt from behind and that Erickson struck him in the head with a tire tool. An autopsy concluded strangulation was the cause of death, which led to the more serious charge against Ferguson.
A cleaning woman who stepped outside the newspaper saw a commotion next to Heitholt's car and said two men walked away, toward the University of Missouri campus a few blocks to the south. She provided a description of one of the men, but there were no arrests until March 10 of this year.
Authorities said a third party heard Erickson talking about Heitholt's death, leading to the arrest of both men.