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Crime and punishment

Columbia’s biggest crimes from the past 30 years

May 6, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST


Crimes such as murders don’t happen frequently in Columbia. Kent Heitholt’s murder comes to most people’s mind when talking about recent crimes. The case remained unsolved for two years and left community members wondering if their safety was at risk. On March 10, 2004, after months of false leads, the police finally arrested two young men who are now awaiting trial.

Vox takes a look at other major crimes that have taken place in Columbia during the past 30 years. We highlight headlines ranging from arson to triple murders.

MU money down the drain, 1988 to July 1993

Thanks to Christy Tutin, MU has changed its accounting practices. Tutin (right) was an administrative assistant in the MU Graduate School. She admitted to embezzling more than $660,000 from the university from 1988 to 1993.

“This was a huge embarrassment for MU that she got away with that much for so long and she wasn’t punished,” says Ken Eich, an 11-year resident of Columbia and MU journalism professor who remembers hearing about Tutin’s case. “She literally got away with it.”

The irony of the situation is that a Columbia law firm had previously fired Tutin for embezzling but didn’t press charges. If the law firm had pressed charges, Tutin most likely would not have been able to embezzle from MU.

At MU, Tutin forged names on cash advance forms and travel vouchers for fictitious trips and then kept the money. Tutin started stealing money in 1988 by taking small amounts but then progressively took more. The largest amount she stole at one time was $265,000.

“Ms. Tutin voluntarily disclosed her own wrongdoing,” says J.R. Hobbs, Tutin’s attorney. After MU and the police had begun investigating the missing money, Tutin turned herself in on Feb. 10, 1994, waived indictment and entered a guilty plea on June 22, 1994. The federal court sentenced her on Aug. 17, 1994. She was ordered to pay restitution to MU and serve a two-year federal sentence of which she only served half. Before her release from federal prison on Sept. 18, 1995, Tutin had already paid more than $80,000. She was ordered to continue paying MU at a rate of $50 per month as part of the terms of her probation. Boone County Circuit Judge Frank Conley sentenced Tutin to serve seven years in state prison. She served six years of probation under state supervision.

The Tutin case prompted the university to change business and accounting procedures and to initiate an ongoing, campus-wide audit of individual departments. None of Tutin’s supervisors was ever disciplined.

— J.J.

Car theft gone awry, November 1978

In November 1978, teenager Shawn Bonuchi and Rock Bridge student Mitchell Osburn devised a plan to steal a car and head to Mexico to buy drugs. They approached Kelley Pontiac at 705 Business Loop 70 East and asked salesman Greg Bond to take them for a test drive. While Bonuchi drove, Osburn assembled a nickel-plated 20-gauge shotgun he had hidden in his jacket. Bonuchi pulled over, forced Bond out of the car, and Osburn shot him in the side and in the back, despite Bond’s pleas to spare his life for the sake of his family, including his 6-week-old son. Carroll Highbarger, a former Columbia police officer, says that their original plan to dispose of Bond’s body in a public school Dumpster was abandoned for unknown reasons, and they discarded his body in the weeds next to a bridge near Finger Lakes and fled toward the Mexico border.

The 16-year-olds ran out of money in Oklahoma and parked in a graveyard to stake out a convenience store to rob for some traveling cash. The convenience store turned out to be the demise of the young fugitives’ plan. Because the owner of the store provided free coffee for police officers, a steady flow of officers in and out of the store thwarted the teens’ robbery plans. In the early morning hours on the day following the murder, an officer noticed the stolen car parked at the cemetery and investigated. As he approached, the young men fled, and the officer apprehended them and collected the evidence including Bond’s identification and credit cards. Bonuchi and Osburn were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. However, both men were paroled and released for good behavior. Osburn, who was released in 1997, has since been charged with the murders of three men who were picnicking at Valley Park in St. Louis in March 2002.

Chuck Wilson, a local insurance agent and longtime Columbia resident, describes the crime as senseless. “If they wanted to steal the car, why did they have to kill him?” Wilson asks. He says that these types of crimes are why he is glad the carry and conceal legislation recently passed. “Cops are rarely there when a crime occurs, and this (carry and conceal) gives the victim some ability to defend themselves.”

— M.B.

[photo]

Ernest Lee Johnson was charged with the murder of three Casey’s store employees. Next month he will appear in court again. (Missourian file photo)

Tragedy at Casey’s, Feb. 12, 1994

Ernest Lee Johnson’s addiction to crack cocaine led him to rob a Columbia Casey’s General Store and kill three store employees in order to obtain money to support his drug habit.

Just after midnight on Feb. 12, 1994, Johnson killed three employees at Casey’s located at 2200 Ballenger Lane. High on crack cocaine, Johnson used a claw hammer to bludgeon store employees Mary Bratcher, Fred Jones and Mable Scraggs. All three victims died.

After visiting the store more than three times that day, Johnson made his attack. Johnson was arrested the day after the murders when CrimeStoppers, an organization that accepts anonymous calls about crimes, received a tip that identified Johnson as the culprit. Police found bloody clothes, money and receipts at Johnson’s house. The jury convicted him of three counts of first-degree murder. Johnson was sentenced to death by lethal injection on June 19, 1995.

In 1998, Johnson appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which overturned Johnson’s death penalty sentence due to his ineffective defense and ordered a retrial. The judges concluded that Johnson’s attorneys should have called a psychiatrist to testify about his mental state in order to create the probability of Johnson receiving a life sentence without the possibility of parole instead of the death penalty.

On June 13, 2000, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the three murder convictions. Johnson again appealed. His current lawyer, Rosemary Percival, argues that he is mildly mentally retarded and he should not be sentenced to death. Percival is basing this on a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that bars execution of mentally handicapped defendants. Johnson’s jury will be selected next month.

MU sociology professor John Galliher says it is time to look at laws regarding capital punishment. “We’re having evolving standards on the state of the death penalty regarding juveniles and the mentally handicapped,” he says. “I don’t pretend to know where it’s going to end, but we are in a state of flux right now, and we will have continued tinkering with execution and its standards.”

Due to this case, Casey’s installed security cameras and private telephones in all of its Columbia stores.

— K.G.

A piece of history disappears, Nov. 9, 1998

“Things burn down; things get torched,” says John Galliher, an MU professor of sociology who teaches criminology. “Who knows why? Some of these things are insurance fires, but things do happen.”

Early in the morning of Nov. 9, 1998, Gordon Manor, located on the Stephens College campus, was destroyed by fire. Built in 1823 by David Gordon, it was one of Columbia’s most prized historic landmarks because it represented the area’s early link to the culture and architecture of the South. The manor overlooked the first major land route through Missouri, Boonslick Road. No one can say who torched it or what the motive was. All that is known is that it was one of the oldest homes in the county and one of Columbia’s most endangered historic properties.

“Because we never found out who did it, the mystery remains,” says fire department Batallian Chief Steven Sapp. “It was a key Boone County historical site, and now it’s gone. It’s sad.”

— K.G.

Deadly nurse, May to August 1992

Nurses are typically thought of as having healing hands. The patients of nurse Richard Williams, however, never healed. Forty-one mysterious deaths occurred on Ward 4E of the Columbia Truman Veterans Hospital between May and August 1992 while Williams was on duty. CNN reported that people under Williams’ care were 20 times more likely to die than other patients on the ward. In August of 1992, preliminary statistics showed that the deaths were associated with Williams. He was no longer allowed to provide patient care and resigned in December of that year.

In 1993, authorities obtained permission to exhume the bodies of 13 of the 41 who died. Lab tests had failed to reveal a cause of death, but in 2001 Veteran Affairs Inspector General Richard Griffin recommended tests using new technology to figure out why there was an increase in the number of deaths at the hospital.

In 2001, the tests indicated that 10 of the 13 victims were given succinylcholine, a powerful muscle relaxant. Williams was charged with the murder of these patients and spent 14 months in jail. Prosecutor Kevin Crane freed him on Aug. 6, 2003, after authorities found the lab tests faulty. The tests no longer provided enough evidence for the prosecution to take Williams to trial. In an interview on CNN, Williams’ attorney, Don Catlett, said Williams was not necessarily free forever. “There is no statute of limitations of first-degree murder. So the possibility always rests out there.”

In March 2004, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that Williams wanted $10 million in punitive damages from National Medical Services, the Pennsylvania company that developed the tests used to prosecute him. Williams says his life was permanently and irreparably changed as a result of his prosecution. National Medical Services denies any wrongdoing.

Sarah Hill covered the Williams investigation for KRCG, Channel 13. She says the story was big at the time because there were several angel of death cases happening in the nation in which health-care providers were accused of killing patients. “This case made people question the quality of care they receive in hospitals,” Hill says.

— J.J.

A fiery rampage, July 10, 2003

When Melvin Davis, 35, was angry, the whole neighborhood knew it. Batallion Chief Steven Sapp says that after fighting with his family, Davis set fire to two Columbia residences on the morning of July 10, 2003. His wife reported that he broke down the door, forced his way into her home at 1218 Haven Road and set a bed on fire. Scared, his wife gathered their children and left the house, burning, with Davis still inside.

Davis fled the burning building and drove to his daughter’s house at 7 Navaho Ave. He told her to leave and then set her house on fire and left on foot before she came home. She reported that when she returned, her home was on fire and Davis was gone. He had left his car and fled to the state of California. After CrimeStoppers received a tip just a few days later, officers worked with cops from California to catch Davis and extradite him to Missouri. He was charged with first-degree arson, first-degree burglary and second-degree arson.

“He just went on a rampage,” says Sapp, who estimated damages at $55,000 on Haven Road and $70,000 on Navaho Avenue. “He’s awaiting prosecution for what he’s done, at least.”

— K.G.

Car wash murder, Dec. 8, 1998

On the evening of Dec. 8, 1998 David Weber was running errands and decided to make one final stop at the Oakland Plaza Car and Truck Wash on Vandiver Drive. Weber worked for MU’s campus mail system and lived just a few blocks from the car wash. Frederick Stone and Charles Anglin ambushed Weber at approximately 9:10 p.m. and fatally shot him. Stone and Anglin later admitted to police that they had been planning to rob and murder someone at the car wash weeks before it actually happened. They were both charged with first-degree murder, armed criminal action and robbery. Stone and Anglin were each sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.

After Stone was sentenced Dec. 29, 1999, David Weber’s widow, Mary, told the Columbia Daily Tribune she was satisfied with the sentence Stone had received. “We just wanted to get this over with, and we just wanted him punished,” she said. “No matter what happened, it doesn’t bring David back. If I could have him back, I would do anything.”

— J.J.

Ruby Tuesday murders, July 4, 1998

On July 4, 1998, a former Ruby Tuesday employee, Earl Ringo, and his childhood friend Quentin Jones, came up with a plan to rob the Ruby Tuesday restaurant on Stadium Boulevard. Ringo had worked at the Ruby Tuesday for a few months until he was fired that January.

Ringo and Jones planned to wear Ruby Tuesday T-shirts, go to the back door early in the morning and get the manager to let them inside. According to The Missourian, Ringo thought the manager would be the only person in the building at that time and that the two could steal cash from the restaurant’s safe.

Around 6 a.m. a delivery truck driven by Dennis Poyser arrived. Store manager JoAnna Baysinger opened the rear door of the building to let Poyser in, and both went inside. Carrying his pistol, Ringo ran in after them. According to court documents, once inside Ringo shot Poyser in the face from less than six inches away. Ringo grabbed Baysinger and forced her into the restaurant office and demanded she open the safe. Baysinger had trouble with the bottom part of the safe, which contained money from the previous days’ business.

While everything was happening, a store employee, Tony Jaco, arrived and knocked on the back door. He was supposed to help with the shipment but was running late. When there was no response, he went to a nearby McDonald’s where his sister worked to call the restaurant.

According to Jones’ testimony, Ringo asked Jones if he wanted to shoot Baysinger and handed him the gun. Jones took the gun and shot Baysinger in the head. The men got away with approximately $1,400.

Ringo was arrested nine days after the murder. Jones turned himself in the same day. Jones pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action. In order to avoid the death penalty, Jones testified that Ringo had planned the robbery. Jones received two life sentences and one 50-year sentence — all of which were to be served consecutively. On June 8, 1999, a jury found Ringo guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and recommended that he be sentenced to death for each of the murders. Ringo is currently on death row and has attempted but failed to get his death sentence overturned.

— J.J.

Boxer-clad bank robbery, April 29, 1974

Most bank robbers wear as much clothing as possible to disguise their identities. On April 29, 1974, four Kansas City gang members decided to wear only boxers so that they couldn’t be identified by their clothing after robbing a bank.

Police department historian and detective Jeff Westbrook says officer Jimmie Hanks responded to the bank alarm at First Bank of Commerce West, and his presence prompted an escape attempt by the gang of thieves. Officer Hanks fired five shots as the robbers fled in a stolen vehicle.

During the high-speed pursuit the armed bandits opened fire on an approaching police car. They missed the cop car but came close to shooting West Junior High students with their errant shots. Highbarger says no students were seriously injured. The suspects crashed their getaway car at Ryan’s Family Steakhouse on I-70 Drive southwest and took to the streets. One of the culprits shot a pistol at officer Marty Treaster and hit Treaster’s gun, pushing the gun into his chest, but it did not severely injure him.

Carroll Highbarger, who was working at the Columbia Police Department at the time, helped corner another assailant, who was running through backyards in his underwear on Sexton Avenue toward Garth. After catching up with him, Highbarger and two other officers were able to coerce him to surrender his weapon. “He told us the only reason he didn’t open fire was because he had a single-shot shotgun,” Highbarger says. Milt Harper was the attorney who later tried the cases. Harper says: “When we got to the scene, he yelled, ‘Get out of the car, and get down’. Highbarger stepped toward the thief with one other officer and commanded, ‘Drop the gun, or you’re a dead man.’”

Highbarger says the robbers’ delay caused their capture. He says they ruined their chances of escaping by taking the time to tie up bank employees.

One of the robbers escaped that day but was later identified and arrested when he came to the preliminary hearing of one his cohorts. The police also recovered the $22,000 that was stolen on an afternoon that subjected Columbia neighborhoods to high-speed chases and gunplay.

— M.B.

A fallen reporter, Nov. 1, 2001

Residents of Columbia were stunned when local sportswriter Kent Heitholt was murdered. It was even more shocking that the case was unsolved for two years.

Heitholt was feeding a stray cat outside his office at The Columbia Tribune when he was attacked by two 17-year-olds on Nov. 1, 2001. Ryan Ferguson (upper left) and Charles “Chuck” Erickson (upper right) allegedly strangled the sportswriter by using their hands and a tire iron. The young men had spent the evening at By George’s nightclub. The skirmish began as theft but ended in tragedy.

MU professor of sociology John Galliher was surprised to find the boys came from affluent, white families. “Everyone thought that this case was going to be a racial issue; we looked for African-American assailants at first,” he says. “I was happy, well not happy because it is a murder, but glad that this story didn’t take that racial turn.”

The crime raised a lot of questions about the safety of Columbia. “I live right by that disco,” says Galliher. “I walk downtown to get a cup of coffee every day. I don’t feel unsafe, like people who live in big cities who have to constantly watch their backs. But I do have a feeling that there is a geography of time, which is to say that going to certain places at certain times makes them more dangerous.”

The two men have been charged as adults. Ferguson awaits charges of first-degree murder and robbery; Erickson has been charged with second-degree murder and robbery. The police broke the case after CrimeStoppers received a call stating that one of the men was discussing the murder. The two men were arrested on March 10, 2004. Ferguson and Erickson both pleaded not guilty on May 4, 2004.

— K.G.

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