Web of lies, indifference to justice led to wrong Kansas brother being imprisoned for more than 15 years
In the beginning, even before the 14-year-old girl’s body was found on that unusually warm November day in 1999, authorities knew it was Tom Bledsoe who killed her.
After all, he said so himself.
He told his parents he did it. He left messages on his pastor’s phone saying he was sorry for doing it.
With his attorney, he led the police to the body hidden by a trash dump near his parents’ home outside Oskaloosa. He also handed over the Jennings 9mm handgun that was used to kill her.
Zetta Camille Arfmann, a ninth-grader, lay in a shallow grave, a bullet hole in the back of her head, an exit wound in her face.
Her shirt was pushed up, exposing her chest, which was riddled with an additional three bullet holes.
Tom Bledsoe, then 25, was arrested and charged, but 48 hours later he began to change his story dramatically, often to dovetail with facts emerging from the crime scene investigation, court testimony revealed last week.
His new story eventually was this: He did not kill Arfmann; his younger brother, Floyd Scott Bledsoe, did.
Tom told detectives he was driving to work when he saw his brother Floyd on Nov. 8, two days before the girl’s body had been found. He stopped to talk to him.
Floyd was upset and nervous, Tom told detectives, and he finally admitted to Tom that he “accidentally shot her” and sexually abused her. It was Floyd who told him the girl’s shirt was pushed up, Tom said, in an attempt to explain why he knew that detail.
And the gun that belonged to Tom? Floyd had somehow taken the gun from Tom’s car to shoot the girl and returned it without Tom’s knowing, Tom told detectives.
Tom told detectives he initially confessed to the murder because Floyd forced him to.
Tom had been caught having sex with a dog, according to court files, and Floyd was going to tell his friends about it unless Tom took the blame for killing Arfmann. Tom also had other sexual predilections that his brother threatened to reveal.
Tom still lived with his parents, Floyd L. and Catherine Bledsoe, and they provided him an alibi and an attorney, and they testified in support of their favored son.
From the moment Tom accused his brother of the crime, Floyd was clearly on his own.
Floyd’s court-appointed attorney, John Kurth, whose practice is in Atchison, was later criticized by state and federal judges for not providing his client with a proper defense.
Even Floyd’s own 2-year-old son’s statement to a baby sitter and other family members that “Daddy did it” was given to the jury. The fact that the 2-year-old initially said that Tom did it didn’t seem to carry any weight in the courtroom.
On July 14, 2000, in Jefferson County District Court, Floyd Bledsoe was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder, and that sentence was topped off by an additional 16 years for kidnapping and indecent liberties with a child.
It wouldn’t be until more than 15 years later — in the same courthouse — that a web of lies, incompetence and indifference to justice would unravel and finally set Floyd free.
Troubled family life
The Journal-World has compiled the following timeline of events and new revelations based off of court documents, past coverage and new interviews.
The Bledsoe parents lived in a small house near Oskaloosa, and created a dump on their property for their household trash. The dump is where Arfmann’s body would later be found.
It was reported at the time that the parents were hard drinkers and family bickering was the norm.
Floyd and Tom were said to despise each other, even though their resemblance to each other made them seem like twins.
Floyd worked at a local dairy milking cows. Sometimes he worked until midnight, as he did the night that Arfmann disappeared.
He and Heidi, Arfmann’s older sister, had married when she was only 17, and the couple’s relationship was not working. They were in the process of divorcing.
Arfmann had come to live with them in their trailer near McLouth from Winchester with the purpose of changing schools to try to improve her grades.
Tom was a security guard for Farmland Industries in Lawrence and still lived in the family home.
He belonged to Countryside Baptist Church, the same church that Arfmann was a member of. He attended Sunday School classes with kids 12 and older, the Pitch Weekly reported at the time. It was also reported that he made advances to some of the girls in the Sunday School class and had a number of pornographic magazines and videos that he left for the girls, including Arfmann, to see.
From the day Floyd first put on his prison uniform and for the next 15 years, a number of people from the community and the legal system continued to believe he had been wrongly convicted.
Last week, their beliefs were validated when Jefferson County District Court Judge Gary Nafziger, who presided over Floyd’s murder trial, ordered his conviction overturned.
The motion for the hearing was filed by attorneys with the Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies at Kansas University School of Law, along with the Midwest Innocence Project in Kansas City.
The motion came about partly because of new DNA testing and partly because Tom, now 41, killed himself on Nov. 9 after he learned about the DNA results.
Tom left behind three suicide notes in which he confessed for the fifth time to killing Arfmann and also revealed new details about the crime.
Many courtroom observers during the hearing were stunned at some of the revelations that showed how deeply Floyd’s brother and parents and the Kansas legal system had betrayed him.
“It’s been like a horror show, and that it has gone on this long is the only reason I’m shocked,” said Richard Ney, Floyd’s Wichita attorney who sued the state over prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective counsel. “It’s all been so ridiculous.”
The revelations from last week’s hearing include:
After Arfmann’s body was found, a rape kit was used to collect semen samples, said Kirk Vernon, captain of the Jefferson County sheriff’s detectives, who testified at the hearing on Tuesday.
But during testing of the rape kit for semen, a stop order was issued, and testing was halted. The order was signed by Jefferson County Attorney Jim Vanderbilt, Sheriff Roy Dunnaway and KBI Special Agent James Woods, Vernon testified.
Vanderbilt and Dunnaway no longer hold those elected offices, and Woods is no longer with the KBI.
The results of that test were then listed as inconclusive for semen, Vernon said, and no further testing was done at that time.
Vernon said investigators only found the order to halt testing in the last few months, and why Jefferson County’s top law enforcement officials and a special agent with the state’s top law enforcement agency signed such an order is being investigated.
In 1999, Floyd and his attorney were not told about the order. Instead, Floyd was told the DNA test results were negative, Vernon testified Tuesday.
Last year, Floyd’s attorneys sent the rape kit and Arfmann’s clothing to the Serological Research Institute for testing.
The results received in October ruled out Floyd as the perpetrator, Vernon testified.
But the results implicated Tom. There was only a chance of one in 300 that it might be someone else, Vernon said.
“One in 300, it’s not a large probability, but it becomes more important with other evidence,” Vernon said.
The biggest surprise came from additional DNA testing on Arfmann’s clothing. The evidence was overwhelming that the DNA found on Arfmann’s socks belonged to the brothers’ father.
Detectives have long held that Arfmann was killed elsewhere and dragged to the dump by her feet.
The evidence to compare DNA came from the father’s saliva, found on less than a handful of envelopes he licked to seal and send to his son in prison over the years, said Tricia Bushnell, legal director for the Midwest Innocence Project.
After the serological report was released, the KBI and the Jefferson County sheriff ordered the case reopened in late October or early November, Vernon said. ?Detectives in November took a swab from the inside of the elder Floyd Bledsoe’s cheek, and the results from additional DNA testing came back the same as the first time: 1 in 20 sextillion.
“You have to go through the population of the earth several million times to find a match,” Vernon said.
The Journal-World was unable to locate the Bledsoe parents, who moved to Texas almost as soon as Floyd’s trial ended.
After Tom told detectives he murdered the girl, he was given a polygraph test. Floyd and his attorney were told that Tom passed the test. But Vernon testified last week that was not true.
Detectives in recent weeks reviewed the polygraph results and now say Tom did not pass it, Vernon testified.
Tom specifically failed the question, “Did you kill Camille Arfmann,” Vernon explained.
At the time, authorities said he passed the test. Vernon said detectives now are investigating to find out why the results of the test were falsified.
Polygraph tests are inadmissible in trials, but law enforcement officials depend heavily upon them during investigations.
Even without the DNA and polygraph tests, there was never any physical evidence to tie Floyd to the murder, officials say.
Floyd’s home and vehicle were searched. But the parents’ home, where Tom lived, and his vehicle were not. No one can explain why, Vernon said.
Out of 28 witnesses, only Tom’s testimony tied Floyd to the murder.
“Every time Tom Bledsoe changed his story, it was to fit the crime rather than about Floyd being at the crime scene,” said Ramon Gonzalez, a special investigator and state legislator who was assigned to review the evidence and testified Tuesday.
The suicide letters
No one knows why Tom went to the Bonner Springs Wal-Mart to end his own life. Special investigator Gonzalez testified last week that when he arrived, the car door was open, and Tom’s left hand was hanging out. It was bandaged, and his wife later said he had tried to kill himself a few days before.
Tom had a bag over his head.
But most startling were the three letters Tom wrote before he died.
The Journal-World obtained the letters from Jefferson County Attorney Jason Belveal, who filed the motion to have Floyd released Tuesday.
Judge Nafziger had refused to release the letters, and a court clerk said he is considering sealing them, which would mean they would not be part of the court record available to the public in years to come.
The packet of letters is titled “To Whomever Cares.”
The first letter is the fifth confession.
Tom wrote that he sent an innocent man to prison and “County Attorney Jim Vanderbilt made me do it. I was told by Vanderbilt to keep my mouth shut. Now I am going to set things right.”
Vanderbilt could not be reached for this story.
Tom wrote that he picked up Arfmann about 4:30 p.m., after she got home from school, and took her to his parents’ house.
“We had sex on my parents’ bed. That’s how my father’s DNA got on her clothes,” he wrote. “Afterwards we were leaving and I asked her not to tell. That’s when I found out she was 14, and I freaked out.”
Tom wrote that he drove her to the “family dump” and tried to convince her not to tell anyone.
He went to his truck, got his gun from behind the seat and “pushed her to the ground to try to scare her … when the gun went off behind her head,” he wrote. “It was (an) accident, I didn’t mean to kill her.”
Then he wrote, “I as well might go ahead and say it: I raped and murdered a 14 year girl.”
He said he tried to tell the truth but no one would listen.
“Floyd S. Bledsoe is (an) innocent man,” he wrote. “Thomas E. Bledsoe is the guilty one.”
On the last page of that letter, Tom Bledsoe drew a diagram of the murder scene and wrote, “You will find (an) empty shell no more than 20 yards off the ditch.”
Detectives have since returned to the scene and did find a shell casing, Vernon testified. In 1999, detectives had recovered only three of the four shell casings. They now are trying to determine whether the recently found casing was fired from Bledsoe’s 9mm gun.
The second letter was to his parents.
“I’m sorry I have cased [sic] all this pain,” he wrote. “Floyd is innocent. … Please tell Floyd I am sorry.”
He apologized again in his letter to his wife, writing, “I really loved you, but I cannot go on. It’s tearing me up inside.”
He added a postscript asking her to cremate his body.
“It’s the cheapest way,” he said.
Capt. Kirk Vernon, who is heavily involved in the current investigation into Arfmann’s death, was just a young detective in 1999 and was assigned to follow some leads.
He testified last week that he was concerned at the time about how the case so quickly flipped from Tom to Floyd, and he refused to provide a proper signature for Floyd’s arrest report.
“The whole thing 16 years ago, it swung too quickly without any concrete evidence that I was shown,” he told the Journal-World.
Since Floyd’s conviction, the career of Jefferson County Attorney Jim Vanderbilt has spiraled downward.
In 2003, the Kansas Court of Appeals overturned another of Vanderbilt’s murder cases.
That case also had the same players as in Floyd’s case, and there was conflicting testimony.
The suspect in that case had been arrested in 1999 for aiding and abetting aggravated burglary, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery.
Judge Nafziger tried the case, and the man was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to 21 years in prison.
The man’s defense attorney also was John Kurth, who was Floyd’s defense attorney.
The appeals court judges criticized Vanderbilt for failing to file a brief with the court and said his unresponsiveness created a “lack of confidence” in the convictions he won.
Following the appeals court ruling, Vanderbilt announced that he would not run for re-election in 2004.
In a motion filed by Vanderbilt asking the appeals court for a rehearing, he surprised even the judges.
He told them that his skills at oral arguments and writing briefs were poor.
In September 2004, a hearing before the panel of the Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys had even more revelations.
Two other criminal cases had been called into question because Vanderbilt failed to file briefs with the appeals court, casting doubt on the convictions in those cases.
The disciplinary panel also faulted Vanderbilt for using his county cellphone for personal use and also for using his county-issued debit card for personal expenditures.
Vanderbilt’s mental stability also was brought into question, according to the disciplinary records.
A psychologist testified that Vanderbilt was suffering from an acute “disorder with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct when he acted unprofessionally.”
The disciplinary panel ordered Vanderbilt to immediately start psychotherapy, attend a continuing legal education program, obtain professional liability insurance, and pay restitution to Jefferson County for the money he misspent.
Vanderbilt’s law license was suspended for a year.
But the panel reinstated Vanderbilt’s law license three months later after it said in a court filing that he had completed all requirements.
Vanderbilt moved to Douglas County and set up practice on New Hampshire Street in Lawrence.
But when he failed to pay child support he again found himself in trouble.
A judge found he was in arrears of $60,000, according to a 2011 disciplinary panel report.
When he failed to appear in court after several warnings, the judge found him in contempt, and on Jan. 12, 2010, he was arrested and taken to the Douglas County Jail.
On Jan. 15, Vanderbilt failed to show up for three hearings and failed to notify his clients and the judge, the report said.
On Jan. 25, the child custody judge granted Vanderbilt work release, which means he was able to leave the jail during the day to work but had to return in the evening.
On Feb. 4, the child custody judge suspended the balance of the 30-day sentence.
In 2011, Vanderbilt told the disciplinary panel during a hearing that he didn’t have a mailing address per se “because he lived in a camper and worked from whatever county law library he was at during a particular day, which changed often,” according to the panel’s report.
The disciplinary panel suspended Vanderbilt’s license indefinitely in 2011, and it has not been renewed.
As for Jefferson County Sheriff Roy A. Dunnaway, he retired in 2008 after 40 years in law enforcement and nearly 25 years as the sheriff of Jefferson County.
Dunnaway always maintained that Floyd was probably guilty because of the nervous way he acted and that Floyd asked the sheriff if he thought Arfmann was dead before her body was found.
Dunnaway told the media at the time that law enforcement still thought she was a runaway and most people usually keep hope and would not voice such an outcome unless they already knew.
He also said that his investigation found that Tom was a good church-going man, and he also passed his lie-detector test “with flying colors.”
Dunnaway did not return a phone call from the Journal-World requesting comment.
KBI Special Agent James Woods could not be reached for comment.
The years passed slowly for Floyd, but his legal appeals kept him hoping.
Richard Ney, his Wichita post-conviction attorney, appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.
In 2007, the Supreme Court denied him freedom, saying that the prosecutorial misconduct, the ineffective counsel and the admission of the 2-year-old’s statements weren’t egregious enough errors to change the outcome of the original trial.
But in June 2008, U.S. District Judge Richard Rogers ordered Floyd freed from prison to await another trial.
Rogers found that Floyd had been denied his constitutional right to effective assistance by his attorney.
Rogers was critical of the state courts, as well as the county attorney and defense counsel, noting the evidence in the case was not strong against Floyd, especially because there was no physical evidence.
Because Tom had confessed to the crime, a stronger case could have been made against him than Floyd, Rogers wrote.
Floyd enjoyed his new-found freedom, working once again on a dairy, but it was fleeting.
The Kansas attorney general appealed the federal district court’s ruling to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which then sided with the Kansas Supreme Court.
In June 2009, Floyd was ordered back to prison and told there would not be a new trial.
That is when Ney approached the Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies at KU’s School of Law, where students work on cases for people who are believed to have been wrongfully convicted.
“We had a federal district judge who said this case was ridiculous,” Ney said. “The courts, not just the Jefferson County court but the Kansas Supreme Court and the 10th Circuit, turned their backs on him.”
There is still one piece missing, Ney said.
“I have not heard, ‘Gee, Floyd, we’re sorry, the justice system failed you,'” Ney said.