Oskaloosa Floyd Scott Bledsoe was set free Tuesday after a Jefferson County judge overturned his life sentence for the 1999 murder of his 14-year-old sister-in-law.
New evidence, including DNA evidence and three suicide letters written by his brother Tom Bledsoe, indicate that Floyd Bledsoe was not the killer. Floyd Bledsoe spent more than 15 years in prison.
In the suicide letters that were found with his body in November, Tom Bledsoe, 41, admits to killing Zetta Camille Arfmann, and says he accidentally shot her after he had sex with her and learned that she was only 14.
During the Tuesday hearing, Floyd Bledsoe, 39, whose feet were shackled, remained sitting but broke into a broad grin after Jefferson County District Court Judge Gary Nafziger, who presided over his murder trial and sentencing, announced “the defendant is to be released.”
The more than 40 people in the courtroom broke into applause, and some started crying.
During a news conference in front of the courthouse, Floyd Bledsoe told reporters that he planned to go back to “milking cows.”
“It’s all just barely sinking in,” he said. “I just want to take everything slow.”
The case has had many twists and turns.
After Arfmann went missing in 1999, Tom Bledsoe confessed to the crime and told authorities that they could find her body in a ditch that was used as a dump, Kirk Vernon, Jefferson County captain of detectives, testified Tuesday. Vernon was a young detective when the murder occurred and followed up on some of the leads.
Tom Bledsoe was charged with the girl’s murder but a few days later changed his story and said his brother, Floyd Bledsoe, told him he had done it. Floyd Bledsoe was married to Arfmann’s sister at the time.
At the trial, the only evidence that the prosecution had against Floyd Bledsoe was his brother’s testimony.
Floyd Bledsoe was convicted in April 2000 of first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated indecent liberties.
Attorneys with the Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies at Kansas University joined the legal fray for Floyd Bledsoe, and a report released in late October showed that semen from Arfmann’s body likely belonged to Tom Bledsoe.
The DNA also implicated the brothers’ father, also named Floyd Bledsoe; the odds are one in 20 sextillion that DNA evidence found on the girl’s left sock was not the father’s, Vernon testified.
After the Project for Innocence report was released, a hearing to consider releasing Floyd Bledsoe was scheduled for Tuesday.
But on Nov. 9, Tom Bledsoe’s body was found in his car in the Bonner Springs Wal-Mart parking lot. He had died by suicide. He was found with a bag on his head, and his left arm was bandaged from where he had apparently tried to take his own life a few days before, Vernon said.
In the letters to his wife, his parents and “To Whomever Cares,” he said he had been tortured by the guilt of what he had done.
Vernon read each of the letters into the court record.
“I sent a (sic) innocent man to prison,” Tom Bledsoe wrote. “The CA (county attorney) made me lie.”
He added that the Jefferson County attorney, who was Jim Vanderbilt at the time, also “told me to keep my mouth shut.”
Bledsoe wrote that the shooting was accidental, that he had taken the girl to the dump, that he pushed her down to scare her, and that the gun discharged, hitting her in the back of the head. He did not explain why she had three bullet holes in her chest.
“All I can say is sorry,” he wrote. “I seek forgiveness, but I don’t deserve it.”
Vernon said the Jefferson County Sheriff’s detectives along with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation are continuing the investigation. Tom Bledsoe’s letter had included a diagram of the murder scene, explaining that a shell casing was still there. Detectives 16 years ago had recovered only three of the four shell casings, Vernon said.
Recently investigators returned to the site and found a shell casing compatible with the 9mm gun used in the killing.
They are now trying to determine if the casing and the gun match.
In addition, detectives are continuing to have discussions with the brothers’ father and mother, who live in Texas.
On Tuesday, Floyd Bledsoe was asked how he feels about his brother.
He declined to comment.
“I’m ready to move beyond the last 15 or 16 years and into the next 50, 60, 70 years,” he said. “I can’t do anything about the past. All I can do is change the future.”