Sunday, August 7, 2011

TENNESSEE TRAGEDY: Did drugs-in-sports scandal play role in Ryan Ferguson case? Pt. 1

A young sports journalist, a murky morass, and a highly-charged time in college athletics   

A Special Report, Part 1

COLUMBIA, 8/7/11  (Beat Byte) --  From inconsistent testimony to witness recantations, a growing list of circumstances could create "reasonable doubt" in the 2001 murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.   Add to that list a collegiate athletics scandal that tarnished coaches, athletes, trainers, boosters -- and reporters -- when Heitholt worked as a sports writer in Tennessee. 

Fifteen years before his death, Heitholt and a photojournalist got caught up in a murky and tragic morass that seized the public's attention.   On January 9, 1986, University of Tennessee Volunteers (UT Vols) star quarterback Tony Robinson, 21, and former Vol fullback Kenneth "B. B." Cooper, 22, were arrested on charges of selling cocaine to undercover cops.   

NCAA rule violations, athlete suspensions, and questions about who was supplying the two football players with dozens of grams of cocaine followed, rocking the University of Tennessee and casting a wide, unsavory net at a time when drug use was reportedly rampant among college athletes.  Star University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias would lose his life to a cocaine overdose just a few months later.  

On January 20, less than two weeks after Knoxville police arrested Robinson and Cooper, management at the 110-year-old Nashville Banner newspaper concluded what they described as an "intensive investigation" sparked by a "tip from a confidential source."  

As a result, Banner publisher Irby Simpkins fired chief photographer Bill Thorup and then 33-year-old sportswriter Kent Heitholt for "using controlled substances on the job," which Simpkins said both men admitted in taped interviews.   

Though authorities never charged either journalist, reports soon linked Heitholt -- who covered Vols football and basketball -- to the UT drug scandal, and narcotics detectives considered both men potential witnesses.  

Robinson and Cooper went to prison; Heitholt left Tennessee for The Shreveport Times and later, the Tribune;  Thorup still works in Nashville; and in 1998, the Nashville Banner ended a century-and-a-quarter run.

Enemy mine?

Nearly 20 years after the Vols scandal broke, Columbia residents Charles Erickson and Ryan Ferguson (right) were sent to prison for Kent Heitholt's murder, which Boston College victimologist Ann Burgess characterized for an appellate brief this year as a "revenge killing, in retaliation for a perceived wrong, real or imagined."   

Police looked for any potential enemies, Burgess explained, even newspaper readers who may have been disgruntled with Heitholt's columns.

But no enemies emerged, and neither Ferguson nor Erickson even knew Heitholt.  

With the revenge theory in mind, attention turned to the last man who saw Heitholt alive -- journalist Michael Boyd, whom an investigator hired by Ferguson's appellate attorney openly accused of the homicide.  "It is our theory that [Boyd] murdered the victim," private investigator Matthew Allen wrote in a report presented as evidence in a recent appeal.

But the focus on Boyd -- rumored to have had a workplace grudge against Heitholt, his boss at the Tribune -- is unfair, claim former co-workers.   Reports indicate, moreover, that law enforcement authorities did not investigate Heitholt's past much beyond his five years at the Tribune.   [Burgess, Ferguson appellate lawyer Kathleen Zellner, and the Columbia Police Department did not respond to interview questions.]

Tennessee Waltz

Considered a Heisman Trophy candidate, Tony Robinson -- who played for the Vols from 1982-85 -- set several passing records and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated alongside the title "The Tennessee Waltz."  The year prior to his arrest, the Tennessee Vols had won the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Championship and defeated Miami in the Sugar Bowl.   Despite an injury, Robinson planned to join the NFL. 

It was a magical season Vols fans are more likely to remember than any other, including a 1998 championship year, Knoxville Sentinel sports writer Mike Strange told the Heart Beat.  

Needless to say, Robinson's arrest with Cooper shocked the college sports community, where the "quarterback had been hailed as a fallen hero," AP reporter Steve Baker wrote.   Hundreds of headlines blared the news for months.

Vols' Robinson arrested on cocaine charges 
Prosecutors say Robinson's cocaine involvement too deep to avoid trial
26-count indictment accuses Volunteers' Robinson, Cooper

Though it seemed a sign of the times they were chronicling, equally shocking came headlines that Thorup and Heitholt had been fired for illegal drug use on the job. 

"The Nashville Banner cannot and will not tolerate or condone employees using or being under the influence of controlled substances while working or otherwise representing the Nashville Banner," publisher Irby Simpkins said at the time.  

Neither Heitholt nor Thorup ever commented publicly.   [Thorup did not respond to Heart Beat interview questions.  Robinson -- who dropped out of sight years ago and reportedly has no contact with his family -- was not located, but was last thought to be living in Florida.]

Witness(es) for the prosecution

A few days after the journalists' termination, the Nashville Tennessean -- the Banner's local rival -- and the Associated Press (AP) reported that Heitholt "also had been with University of Tennessee athletes using cocaine."   AP editors were confident enough in their information that they titled the story, "Fired writer, Vol cocaine use linked." 

At a subsequent news conference, Simpkins told reporters that Banner management "didn't have enough information" to confirm or deny that either Heitholt or Thorup ever used controlled substances with any athletes.  "But obviously, these two men did not sit in a room and partake in this process by themselves," Simpkins explained. 

Knoxville police seemed to concur.  More arrests in the Robinson case might follow, Knoxville narcotics detective Lt. Jerry Day told the AP.   Though they knew of no links between the journalists and the accused athletes, Day said he nonetheless wanted to interview Heitholt and Thorup, "to find out if they have information we need to have to follow our investigation, and if they'd be willing to work with us."

Now retired from the police department and working as a private investigator in Knoxville, Day -- who expressed surprise at the news Heitholt had been murdered 10 years ago -- says he "doesn't recall if I or another officer interviewed either Heitholt or Thorup."  

Day did explain that local media were heavily involved in the drug investigation and confidential information about it spread beyond law enforcement. 

"Reporters even picked up on one of our wired informants," he told the Heart Beat.  "One media group -- I think it was a television station -- actually paid a couple to move out of an apartment next to where Robinson and Cooper were dealing drugs.  At the time we went to arrest them, reporters popped out with their cameras.  It was quite a shock."    

The Sentinel's Mike Strange -- who knew Heitholt and Thorup -- said he didn't think either journalist was directly connected to the Robinson/Cooper case.  "I believe the accusations against Heity [Heitholt] involved doing cocaine with the basketball team," explained Strange, who said he recalled a coach asking players in a locker room "if they had ever done cocaine with Kent Heitholt."     

Strange also recalls that his editors knew about the pending bust beforehand, even asking him to sit next to Robinson on a flight to catch the arrest.  "That was absurd, because we didn't travel with the athletes," Strange said. 

Though no other arrests made headlines, a long-brewing scandal finally exploded across the University of Tennessee


  1. Hmmm, sounds like someone is grasping for straws.

    1. This is the most plausible explanation beyond Heitholt reporting on a scandal that ruined someone's sports career.

  2. The idea that long-ago enemies may have emerged from a scandal of this magnitude makes more sense than many other aspects of this case.

    If you read the expert's report, she says everything about the crime points to a revenge killing, from someone nursing a grudge for a long time. She also says police focused on enemies early on, even considering unlikely people who "disagreed with Heitholt's columns."

    "The police, early in the investigation, had focused on identifying any enemies that Kent Heitholt had."

    I suspect if police had this information, they would have checked it out too, as would any defense attorneys.

  3. The attack on Kent Heitholt appears to have been an impromptu attack, a temper flare-up over something. The long simmering stressful relationship between a demanding editor and a less skilled writer perhaps? It was a terrible time and place to select for a killing. It just happened to work out that suspicion fell upon two young college students who happened by and who raised the alarm then fled.

    1. Ryan & Chuck didn't just "happen by & raise the alarm". They weren't anywhere around the newspaper that night! Its only after the newspaper did a follow up story 2 years later that Chuck dreamt about the murder & thought he might have been there that night.

  4. I have to say that this story seems like a pretty desperate attempt to advance a weak theory about the crime at the expense of a dead man's reputation. Pretty much the lowest form of tabloid journalism I've seen in quite a long time. Trying to build a link between events that occurred 15 years before Heitholt's death and a murder motive is just one hair shy of nutball.

  5. Found this piece from this link and enjoyed it! Look forward to second part -- definitely a fascinating human interest story regardless.

  6. Sorry -- I don't see any link. Good read, though.

  7. This story doesn't set out a theory, but reveals a part of history that was apparently overlooked -- but well reported at the time it happened. I certainly knew nothing about it, but am interested to have learned.

  8. This case was based on extremely shaky testimony (which has recently fallen apart!) and a truly bizarre set of circumstances.

    So bashing alternative theories, suggestions, directions is ridiculous.

  9. Anyone who doesn't think a murder can be committed over revenge from something done many years earlier doesn't know what they're talking about, e.g.

  10. "It just happened to work out that suspicion fell upon two college students . . ." Just happened? Say what you will, but Chuck came forward.

  11. And what kind of "whacky" dreams have you ever had? Just because a person had a "whacky" dream doesn't connect the dots to the Heitholt murder, far fetched. Remember some of the information "planted" by interrogators? The kid had a bad dream and wondered, maybe, could I? Again, what kind of a "whacky" dream have you found yourself in and woke up shaking your head while you make coffee or drive to work?