Few people who serve the time admit they did the crime. And one of my loyal readers is no exception.
William Ferguson, 61, who grew up in Cuyahoga Falls and graduated from the University of Akron before moving to Arizona, was quoted extensively in a recent column about license plates.
Little did I know he had been making them.
Another reader knew the connection and clued me in. Turns out Ferguson served 16 years for being part of a conspiracy to rob an armored car. The driver was killed, and a trio of thieves drove off with nearly a million dollars.
“Congratulations,” Ferguson said in an email. “I haven’t talked to any reporter since I was arrested in February of 1995, despite several attempts on their parts, the main reason being that the very first reporter who shoved a microphone in my face asked, ‘Did you think you could get away with it?’ Naturally there is no answer.”
The story didn’t get much ink around here, but it was big, big news out there. For years Arizona papers were filled with stories about the bizarre plot, which involved two former prison guards and a former Phoenix police officer — Ferguson.
The shooting took place about 1:30 p.m. on the Monday after Thanksgiving in 1994, at Arrowhead Mall in Glendale, a suburb of Phoenix.
Here’s the version of events the jury believed:
An armored van owned by Wells Fargo stopped behind Dillard’s, and one of its two occupants went inside.
The driver, John Magoch, stayed in the van. He was a smoker, and when he lit up, he opened his door about 8 inches to get better ventilation. (The windows in an armored car don’t roll down.)
That provided an opening for ex-corrections officer Timothy Ring, an expert marksman who was lurking in the parking lot with a rifle. He shot Magoch in the head from 40 yards away.
Another conspirator was James Greenham, who shoved Magoch onto the passenger’s side, got behind the wheel and drove off. Ring and our man from the Falls followed in their own vehicles.
Afterward they rendezvoused in a church parking lot in Sun City, where they loaded about $563,000 in bills into Ring’s truck, a small red Toyota pickup, and $271,000 in checks, which they later burned. They left behind $132,000 in coins — along with the dead body.
Here’s Ferguson’s version:
He was home watching TV.
Ferguson says investigators and prosecutors were so eager to solve the high-profile case, they consistently adjusted the “facts” to fit their storyline, as well as doing everything in their power to protect a former felon whom they had long used as a paid informant.
During a lengthy phone interview, Ferguson rattles off a string of examples he says illustrate investigative work that was shoddy at best and purposely misleading at worst — an obvious suspect ignored, people changing their stories, prosecutors withholding evidence.
He says he knew the convicted triggerman from his days as a cop. Ferguson grew close to the owner of a gun shop on his beat, and “Tim Ring ended up being one of the guys who hung around [the gun shop] during the day.
“I wouldn’t say I was chummy with him, but I knew who he was. He was a master manipulator. ...
“I didn’t know these other guys at all.”
Ferguson’s record as a cop was not exactly pristine. According to Phoenix newspapers, the man known by friends and colleagues as “Fergy” retired in 1993, shortly before he was about to be fired for using police computers to get the lowdown on rock stars, models and newscasters.
Ring and Greenham were identified as suspects early on, but a third man referred to by witnesses remained a mystery until a tip fingered Michael Sanders, a repeat felon who during the 1980s worked as a paid informant for the county attorney’s office (collecting $20,000) and the FBI. Instead of investigating him, police used him to set up the other suspects for wiretaps.
Ferguson isn’t the only one who thinks the investigation was fishy. A scathing 1997 story in the Phoenix New Times all but accused Glendale police of protecting a murderer.
During the trials, wrote Terry Greene Sterling in a lengthy article, “it became clear that Glendale police ignored red flags while investigating the crime.”
“We don’t know if they were pressured to solve this notorious crime too quickly,” the story said. “Or if they were merely stupid. Or if Sanders had something on one of them.”
The report said Sanders lied about his alibi and that police hid a videotape of a witness who reported seeing Sanders speed away from the mall.
Then, just two summers ago, the Arizona Republic ran a story headlined, “New questions in ’94 armored-car murder in Glendale.”
It said doubt had been cast by “new evidence — or rather, evidence that had been downplayed. There are questions about a missing bullet, a cigarette butt that was never found and a pile of cash found in Ring’s home.
“The findings may or may not mean Ring is not guilty. But they strongly suggest the crime didn’t happen the way prosecutors said it did.”
The case is extremely complex, and we can’t wade into all of the details here. Suffice it to say that, without any forensic evidence linking the men to the murder, the entire case was circumstantial.
But circumstantial evidence is enough to convict people, and in this case, the circumstances were powerful.
A search of Ring’s house came up with a bag containing $272,000 plus a piece of paper in his headboard with “575,995” written on it, along with the word “splits” and various amounts of money designated to go to “F,” “T” and “Y.” Police figured that meant “Fergy,” “Tim” and “Yoda,” a nickname friends bestowed on Greenham because he was so ugly.
Tim Ring was given the death penalty, but his appeal went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the death sentence was thrown out and replaced by life in prison. His case changed the way the death penalty is applied. The justices ruled that juries, rather than judges, had to cite the aggravating circumstances required for a judge to impose a death penalty.
Ferguson, whose case was split off from Ring’s, was taken down mainly by wiretaps. What those wiretaps contained certainly seems damning.
In a phone conversation with Ring, Ferguson tells him he should still be worried, even though an eyewitness report said the red truck speeding away from the scene was a Nissan, rather than a Toyota (Ring’s brand).
On another tape, Ring tells Ferguson that Yoda’s “house is clean. Mine, on the other hand, contains a very large bag.”
In yet another conversation, Ferguson tells Ring he “laughed my ass off” after watching a TV report police had planted with intentionally mangled facts about the murder. After watching that broadcast, Ferguson told Ring, he was “not real worried at all now.”
Court documents say Ferguson bought a new motorcycle for $8,700, in cash, not long after the murder, paying in denominations of $50 and $100. A search of his home uncovered $60,600.
In the end, Ferguson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and armed robbery and spent the next 16 years in prisons in Colorado, Texas and Ohio (Lisbon) before being released in April of last year.
“I’m not going to say there was a huge conspiracy pointed at me,” he says by phone. “I can’t say that. But I’m going to say there was a lot of problems with the case.”
So why plead guilty if you’re not?
“When you’re looking at the death penalty, and your lawyers are telling you, ‘This is the best deal we’re gonna get you to save your life’ — and your parents are sitting there crying, ‘Take the deal, take the deal!’ — what would you do?
“Well, you don’t know because you weren’t there. You weren’t in that situation. I swore an innocent man would never sign a plea deal — until it happened to me.”
Despite Ferguson’s lack of income during his days in the big house, and his obligation to pay more than $86,000 in restitution, he says he’s in decent financial shape because the law allowed him to keep his police pension.
In addition, he says, both of his parents died within two months of each other before he was released and “we were upper-middle class. So I am not hurting for money.”
He owns an acre and a quarter of property in a remote area of northern Arizona.
“It’s pretty nice, actually,” he says. “There might be some people up here who suspect [my identity], but I don’t have any neighbors. I like it that way.”
When asked how he passes his time, he says his big-screen TV is locked onto “SportsTime Ohio and FoxSports Arizona, watching the Diamondbacks and the Tribe.”
He also continues to read the Akron Beacon Journal, as he has for most of his life, to keep up with what’s going on in his hometown.
His case, he says, is “over with. It’s in the past. It’s just — here’s what it is. I’m not looking to draw any attention to myself.”
A bit late to worry about that, I’d say.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.