1999 Oskaloosa murder case reopened; possibility that killer ‘had assistance’

Floyd Bledsoe, center, walks out of Jefferson County District Court on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, after a judge released him from prison and overturned his April 2000 conviction in a first-degree murder case. Accompanying Bledsoe are Kansas University Innocence Project attorneys Jean Phillips, left, and Elizabeth Cateforis, right.

Kansas City, Mo. — Investigators have reopened the Kansas case of a 1999 shooting death for which a man served more than 15 years before his brother confessed in suicide notes that he was the killer.

The chief detective in northeast Kansas’ Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department says that while Tom Bledsoe’s November suicide notes helped free Floyd Bledsoe from prison this month, “We are open to all possibilities that (Tom) may have had assistance” in 14-year-old Camille Arfmann’s death or in hiding her body. Kirk Vernon wouldn’t elaborate about that probe.

Zetta Camille Arfmann

Tom Bledsoe in 2000

Floyd Bledsoe Sr. in 2000

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation is assisting, telling The Associated Press only that even before Floyd Bledsoe’s prison release, it had assigned staff to review the original investigation for errors.

“At this point in time, there is no reason to believe that (Floyd Bledsoe) is involved,” Vernon told the AP.

Vernon said the inquiry won’t target the county’s former elected prosecutor and sheriff over their original handling of the case. One of Tom Bledsoe’s suicide notes claimed the prosecutor, Jimmie Vanderbilt, told him to “keep my mouth shut” and continue blaming his brother. He eventually provided the key testimony that landed Floyd Bledsoe a life term on a first-degree murder conviction.

“At this time, there’s no information or suggestion of any wrongdoing by the former prosecutor or sheriff,” Vernon said.

Floyd Bledsoe, 39, always maintained he had no role in the death of sister-in-law Arfmann near Oskaloosa, about 45 miles west of Kansas City.

At the case’s outset, Tom Bledsoe was the lead suspect in the death of Arfmann, last seen alive as she stepped off her school bus at the Oskaloosa home she shared with Floyd Bledsoe, her sister and their two children. Her body was discovered three days later in a trash ditch near the home of the Bledsoes’ parents.

Tom Bledsoe initially confessed, then recanted and blamed his brother.

During a Dec. 8 court hearing that ended with Floyd Bledsoe walking free, Vernon testified that new DNA testing, far advanced since 1999, pointed the finger at Tom Bledsoe. A few weeks after the new DNA results were released, Tom Bledsoe killed himself and left notes that said, “Floyd is innocent,” ”I sent an innocent man to prison,” and “I raped and murdered a 14-year-old girl.”

Although a judge granted prosecutor Jason Belveal’s request to drop charges against Floyd Bledsoe, Bledsoe hasn’t been formally exonerated. Belveal reserves the right to re-charge Bledsoe if new evidence surfaces. But he said that’s unlikely because the key witness against Floyd Bledsoe — his brother, Tom — “is gone now.”

In one of his suicide notes, Tom Bledsoe wrote that the brothers’ father, Floyd Laverne Bledsoe, had nothing to do with the case, insisting his father’s DNA found on one of Arfmann’s socks was the result of Tom Bledsoe and Arfmann having sex on the father’s bed the day of the slaying.

When reached by telephone at their McAllen, Texas, home, Floyd Lavern Bledsoe’s wife told the AP her husband wasn’t available for comment, and he did not reply to a message left with her.

Vanderbilt’s whereabouts are not known.

In 2005, Vanderbilt’s law license was suspended for a year for failing to respond to several defendants’ appeals, in one case telling a disciplinary investigator that he wasn’t going to waste his time responding. In another case, a man sentenced to 21 years in prison on burglary, robbery and kidnapping counts got the convictions thrown out after Vanderbilt ignored that appeal; at his new trial, the man was found guilty of only one of the counts and received a roughly six-year prison term.

Vanderbilt’s law license was indefinitely suspended in 2011 for misconduct linked to his being more than $60,000 behind in child support.

Although Vanderbilt may seek to have his license reinstated, he has not paid the $1,250 to apply for it, according to Stan Hazlett, the state’s disciplinary administrator.

Alice Craig, an attorney with the Project for Innocence & Post-Conviction Remedies at Kansas University, called the 1999 investigation “not thorough” and prone to authorities’ “tunnel vision” focus on Floyd Bledsoe instead of his brother.

“I would love to see additional investigation done, but I don’t know of any at this time that’s going to reveal much more,” she said. “Can those things be discovered 16 years later? I think the answer is probably no.

“From our perspective, our sole focus was getting an innocent man out of prison.”