‘Who are you going to tell?’ — Floyd Bledsoe, wrongfully convicted of murder, discusses pain of prison, journey to forgiveness
During the 15 years that Floyd Bledsoe was wrongfully imprisoned, he had plenty of time to think about the murder of 14-year-old Zetta “Camille” Arfmann.
Who really did it?
Was it his brother, Tom Bledsoe, who initially confessed in 1999 and then recanted?
Did the killer act alone?
There was one name, however, that he never considered.
Last fall, when Floyd saw a report with the results of newly tested DNA, he wasn’t too surprised that the results incriminated his brother.
But Floyd was shocked beyond words when he saw that a concentrated level of his father’s DNA had been found on the socks of the victim, he told the Lawrence Journal-World in an interview Tuesday, just three weeks after he was released from prison.
“It’s something that I’m still trying to process and still working through even to this day,” Floyd said quietly.
Floyd, 39, was released from prison Dec. 8 following a hearing in Jefferson County District Court in which the new evidence was discussed. Believing that Floyd had been wrongfully convicted, the Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies at Kansas University and the Midwest Innocence Project had taken on his case years before and had paid to have the DNA from the original murder investigation tested.
Kirk Vernon, chief detective for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, testified at the Dec. 8 hearing that his agency and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation were re-examining the murder case.
On Tuesday, Jefferson County Sheriff Jeffrey Herrig told the Journal-World detectives would sit down after the holidays and determine what direction to take.
“We just want to make sure there aren’t any stones out there that haven’t been uncovered,” Vernon said.
The investigation is made more difficult because after the media published stories about the DNA report findings, Floyd’s brother killed himself on Nov. 9 in the parking lot of the Bonner Springs Wal-Mart before police had a chance to question him, Herrig said.
In the suicide letters, Tom, 41, confessed once again to killing Camille Arfmann, who was the sister of Floyd’s wife at the time.
Arfmann was shot once in the back of the head and three times in the chest and was sexually assaulted.
During the trial in 1990, experts testified Arfmann was killed at an unknown location and dragged by her feet to a trash dump on property owned by Floyd’s father.
In one of the suicide letters, Tom, who still lived with his parents near the dump at the time of the murder, wrote that he and the girl had sex on his father’s bed and he believed that is how his father’s DNA, consisting of skin cells, must have gotten on her socks.
But Herrig said the chances for the DNA to be from the bed were “very slim.”
“We did talk to the KBI lab about that,” Herrig said. “It is a very slim possibility to be honest, but you can’t say it didn’t (happen) because there is that little bit of doubt.”
Alice Craig, Floyd’s attorney and a professor with the innocence project, agreed.
“It’s not impossible but it is unlikely, especially with the level of DNA,” she said. “The match is not going to be just from incidental contact.”
The DNA evidence is overwhelming, authorities have said. The odds that the DNA found on the socks does not belong to the father are one in 20 sextillion.
The father, Floyd L. Bledsoe, and mother, Catherine Bledsoe, now live in Texas.
The Journal-World has not been able to reach the couple. The Associated Press said in a story last week that a reporter contacted Catherine Bledsoe, who had no comment, and her husband did not respond to a message seeking an interview.
The father has not been charged with any crime. Detectives talked to him and his wife about the case in November when they returned to Kansas to bury their son, Herrig said.
“They didn’t offer anything,” Herrig said.
On Tuesday, Floyd met with a Journal-World reporter and photographer in a small office in the innocence project located at Kansas University’s law school to talk about his time in prison.
He was dressed in a white polo shirt, his strawberry-blond hair now tinged with silver. Lines around his blue eyes crinkled when he smiled, which he did often.
Prison in the beginning is extremely hard, he said.
After he was sentenced to life, Floyd was sent to the Hutchinson Correctional Facility. That prison has high stone walls surrounding it, which means inmates, even in the prison yard, cannot see the outside world at all, Floyd said.
Even though Floyd knew he was innocent, there was no one to tell.
“From a prisoner’s perspective, who are you going to tell?” he said. “It’s not like you can show up at the governor’s door and say, ‘Hey, I need your assistance.'”
Three inmates took him under their wing and explained to him ways to adjust to prison society, Floyd said.
“The first 100 days, it’s crazy,” he said. “You walk into prison, you have nothing. You have a laundry bag with a towel, socks and stuff in it …”
Doing the time is even harder.
“You are sitting there, and the days seem very long, like the time is never going to add up and start clicking along,” Floyd said. “You learn to occupy your time with various things. You pick up hobbies. You read.”
The three inmate friends taught him how to avoid becoming homesick.
“They explained to me the importance of, like, when you get pictures from home, to not just sit there and stare at them day in and day out because it makes your time longer because all you do is think about that time — wish you were there,” he said. “You can’t function in two worlds.”
Floyd said he spent a lot of time trying to make sense of what had happened to him.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “It goes back to (inmates) say, ‘It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me.’ It’s not like a new profound revelation that an accused person ever said, ‘It wasn’t me.’
“All you can do is grasp on and hope that the right person will listen and take up your cause,” Floyd said.
Up to the point when Floyd was arrested on murder charges, his life in the Oskaloosa area had not been easy.
He married young and worked at a dairy farm providing for his wife and two small children, but there wasn’t a lot of money.
But in prison he turned his life around, using his time wisely, his attorneys said.
“The first thing when I got to Hutch, I made … a decision that I want to utilize the time to learn as much as I could so that I could better myself,” he said.
Floyd volunteered to work with inmates in hospice, which took three months of training.
Floyd’s job consisted of sitting with inmates, some of whom were his friends, as they worked out issues of anger and regret before they died. Most were dead within six months of coming to hospice, he said.
Floyd said the hospice work was healing to him because he learned how to help others.
“I had several friends I had the blessing to sit with and to be able to share and talk with them and to learn more about their lives,” he said. “It’s a wonderful thing to be able to help people.”
The lives of many of the inmates who were dying usually had changed from the time they committed crimes, he said.
“True enough, they messed up — some have done horrible things — but that does not change the fact that they are human beings,” he said.
One inmate friend persuaded Floyd to take up painting, and in that he discovered a talent, producing colorful nature paintings, always with animals and wildlife. One painting was published in a newspaper, and another won an award at an art show.
“The reason I started doing artwork was a New Year’s resolution,” he said. “It was a way to say thank you to someone for doing something for me.”
He painted one picture of a bird dog with very lifelike eyes over a three-day period while sitting with an inmate who was dying of cancer.
“Just before he passed away, he really actually thought he could pet the dog, which touched me,” he said, his eyes growing watery.
Floyd joined Freedom Challenge, a nonprofit agency that assists inmates in addressing their life issues by developing life-skills based on biblical principles, according to its website. It’s located at the Hutchinson prison and is an intense eight-month program that meets five days a week.
Floyd also was involved in church groups.
When he was at the Lansing prison, after 2008, he took some undergraduate college courses through Donnelly College, a private Catholic school in Kansas City, Kan. A private donor pays a portion of the tuition, requiring the inmate to pay only $200 a course.
In addition, he attended tech classes for utility maintenance that included preparation for him to work in refrigeration, plumbing and electrical fields.
“My artwork, volunteering with church and volunteering with hospice, I stayed pretty busy,” he said.
Floyd had been in prison only a couple years when he lost his direct appeal to the Kansas Supreme Court.
Just before that decision came down, he said he had started on what he calls “my road to forgiveness,” and had attended one of the prison’s “inner healing seminars.”
At the seminar, “they talked about forgiveness and how it opens doors,” Floyd said. “I decided yes, that’s what I will do is go out and tell everybody that I forgive them.”
His parents came to visit him the following Saturday, and he had decided to start his forgiveness plan with them.
When he walked into the visitation room, he said he thought he was happy, but his mother asked him why he seemed so gloomy.
“‘Why are you looking so sad?'” he said she asked. “‘Normally you are happy and smiling and happy to see us.'”
Floyd said he pointed out that he had lost his appeal and would be spending the rest of his life in prison.
“And she was like, ‘Why, I know that, we saw it in the paper,'” Floyd said.
It upset Floyd that she seemed to make light of the court decision and decided it was not the right time to forgive them.
“I stood up, and I was like, ‘Don’t write me, don’t call me, don’t come visit me,'” Floyd said. “‘I’ve got some stuff I’ve got to work out.’ I walked out of that visiting room, tears running down my face. I was mad at God. I was mad at everybody.”
He was in his cell when the program director for the inner healing seminar opened his door and let him know the seminar was starting.
“I went, and that day is one of the first days that I learned that forgiveness doesn’t free the offender from what they have done; forgiveness frees the offended from having to live with the hurt and the pain of what others have done to them,” he said. “That is one of many days that God has truly changed my entire life, changed my entire perspective of how I look at things.”
Other programs such as Freedom Challenge taught him how to love, to be loved and to truly care about people, he said.
In 2008, a federal district judge overturned Floyd’s conviction, and he was suddenly freed for what he thought would be the rest of his life.
But 10 months later, an appeals judge rescinded it and ordered Floyd back to prison.
Craig, Floyd’s attorney, called to give him the bad news.
“That was a terrible day,” Craig said during the interview. “I don’t know how you survived it.”
The news was devastating, Floyd said.
He remembered the pain that was associated with prison and those first dark days after he was sentenced.
“I remember walking on the side of the road right after Alice had told me, and I spent what seemed like hours but it was only less than 45 minutes, crying out to God about it, and all he would tell me was, ‘Just trust me, just trust me,'” Floyd said. “I just kept looking around and said, ‘I do, but all this I can touch and I can see.'”
Floyd said he finally realized that he had his faith in God and friends in prison and that he would be able to survive.
“It was hard, I won’t beat around the bush,” Floyd said. “Back inside, I hung onto the hope that maybe this next appeal will clear everything back up, and I would be back out free and clear.”
Years passed and finally the DNA results came in last fall.
After seeing the results connecting DNA to his father, he remembered how his father and mother would never discuss the murder with him or respond to questions he asked about it.
They never said they were sorry for what had happened to him, he said.
“The whole thing was like a pink elephant in the middle of the room,” Floyd said. “We never even talked about the situation.”
Floyd said he hasn’t spoken with his parents since he saw the report, and they have not tried to contact him even when they were in Kansas for his brother’s funeral.
He said that for him, the findings regarding his father’s DNA leave only one thought.
“You walk away thinking he assisted in some fashion,” Floyd said.
Waiting for the Dec. 8 hearing to determine whether he would be freed after the DNA results were released was extremely frustrating, he added.
“What’s crazy is when you are lying there, and you start thinking maybe this week, maybe today, maybe tomorrow,” he said. “But every day you wake up and you still look at the same fence, the same bars, the same whatever. You start thinking, ‘Is this really ever going to happen?'”
Floyd said he now is living in south-central Kansas and is working “odds and ends” until he finds a permanent job.
He hopes the Kansas Legislature will consider passing laws to try to prevent the incarceration of innocent people, including requiring police interrogations to be recorded.
He has friends in prison still and at least one or two who he believes may be innocent.
“I have tried to stay connected with them because I want them to know that they are not forgotten,” he said.