The Hustlers and the Movie Star


By William Van Meter

Ramon Novarro was the king of the silent screen. In 1968, two very uncommon criminals were arrested for his brutal slaying.

Paul Ferguson at the Jefferson City Correctional Center


After his release from San Quentin, Paul married again and had a son. He was a successful entrepreneur, doing such disparate things as owning a restaurant, a rodeo, a nightclub, and a racetrack. A remarkable collection of his autobiographical short stories, No More War Stuff About God, Anymore, was published by a small imprint in 2009. For a time, he followed in his father Lucky’s footsteps and was a steeplejack. Paul is currently serving a sentence of 60 years for a 1989 rape and sodomy charge.

Paul contends that the prosecutor, Christopher J. Miller, who is now the district attorney of Ripley County, Mo., framed him. Paul alleges that Miller had represented him in a previous real estate deal and shouldn’t have been prosecuting the case (Miller denied an affiliation with Paul). Paul filed an appeal for Habeas Corpus in 1996, among the documents supporting a relationship were affidavits and a receipt from Miller’s firm. Paul’s request was denied (Miller didn’t respond to requests for comment).

Reclining in a blue plastic chair in the prison’s visitation room, Paul discusses the events of October 30, 1968, at Ramon Novarro’s house. “I’m drinking and listening to him talk about the movies,” Paul says. “I’m going, Wow, this guy can tell some pretty good stories.  But I’m getting drunk. The next thing I knew, I find myself being overwhelmed by this body, and just, like, hairiness, and I guess being kissed or whatever the fuck it was. And I come out of that, I go, ‘Get the fuck–,’ and boom, and I walked out. So, that’s what happened. So of murder I was innocent. Of manslaughter, I wasn’t innocent. Even of manslaughter, maybe you could say I was innocent, but I was guilty of hitting him. I did hit him, but I did it in a drunken stupor.”

Paul insists that what the police referred to as a “striking instrument,” the cane, was manufactured evidence, that he never saw it until it was exhibited at trial (the cane is listed on the original preliminary autopsy report, however, as is the condom in his hand, which Paul says was planted, too, he thinks by detectives). Paul maintains that there was no murder weapon. He continues, “I’ll tell you what, I’m a boxer. When I hit you, I probably hit you three or four times. I remember standing beside this man and coming out of this heavy drunken fog and hitting him and seeing him fall on the bed. But I didn’t do anything more than that. Mr. Novarro died because he was so drunk that the blood in his throat; the involuntary muscle in his throat didn’t work because the alcohol suppressed it. If he had turned his head, if he had been a little more sober, he would not have died. That’s the God’s truth.”

Of Tommy’s involvement, Paul says, “Basically nothing. He was supposed to be staying there. He was on the phone to his girlfriend, and he heard me hit Novarro. Next thing, I was sitting on the couch and I went back in the front room. I poured a drink and sat down on the couch and I dozed off and he came in there and said, ‘You gotta come with me.’ And I went in there, and he pointed at Novarro and said, ‘This guy’s dead.’ Mr. Novarro was lying on the floor, and we picked him up and put him on the bed. Then we got the brilliant idea: Let’s make it look like a robbery.”

Paul continues, “I was telling my lawyer and mother what happened, and they said, ‘You can’t say that because you will get the gas chamber.’ Tommy got wrapped up in the circumstances, but was crazy and didn’t know what to do. He had a huge IQ, but it worked against him. Sometimes being so smart makes you dumber than shit. You think you can outthink people when you’re way off in the clouds.”

“As far as Mr. Novarro, I came to peace with that a long time ago,” Paul says. “I’m at peace with: what happened, it was not intentional; it was an accident. I’m not at peace that a human being is dead and I was a part of that. That has haunted me. I never deliberately hurt Mr. Navarro. I am absolutely responsible, but it’s not the things that you do, it’s the things you do intentionally. It’s who you are. You have a lot of shit written on your brow with your regrets. And I don’t know what role it played in my brother Tommy’s suicide either. I have to wonder about that.”

When Paul gets escorted back to his cell, a letter awaits him. The Missouri Supreme Court approved his request for an appeal hearing. “What will come of this might be my freedom,” he writes in a letter later in the week. “I’ve all the evidence to prove what I say.”