Just one month before a hearing that could overturn his brother’s 2000 murder conviction, a McLouth man who thrice confessed to the crime was found dead Monday — and all signs point to suicide.
Tom Bledsoe, 41, was found dead in his car Monday in Bonner Springs, Captain of Detectives for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Kirk Vernon said. Bledsoe’s official cause of death is currently under review by the Wyandotte County coroner, but Vernon said Bledsoe “is believed” to have died by his own hand.
Bledsoe was found dead 16 years to the day after he was charged Nov. 9, 1999, with 14-year-old Zetta “Camille” Arfmann’s murder. Bledsoe’s charges were dismissed one week later on Nov. 15, 1999, just 45 minutes before his brother Floyd would be charged with the same crime.
It was Tom Bledsoe’s gun that shot bullets into Arfmann’s head and chest; It was Tom Bledsoe who confessed to the crime, twice to a pastor and once to police, according to court records; and it was Tom Bledsoe who told law enforcement exactly where they could find Arfmann’s lifeless body — under piled trash and plywood on the property where he lived with his parents in Jefferson County.
But it is Floyd Bledsoe, Tom’s brother, who has spent the past 15 years in prison for the crime and faces the rest of his life behind bars.
Floyd Bledsoe, 39, was convicted of first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and indecent liberties with a child after a three-day trial in April 2000, despite the lack of any physical evidence tying him to the crime. Arfmann was the sister of Floyd Bledsoe’s then-wife, and lived with the couple at their rural Oskaloosa home before her death, according to Journal-World articles at the time.
Jefferson County prosecutor Jim Vanderbilt presented just one witness, of 28 total, whose testimony directly linked Floyd Bledsoe to Arfmann’s murder — and that was Tom Bledsoe. Vanderbilt at the time claimed Floyd Bledsoe took the gun from Tom Bledsoe’s pickup truck to kill Arfmann before returning it to its place behind the truck seat. Tom Bledsoe then supposedly put the pistol in a drawer in his bedroom. His father turned the weapon over to police when Tom Bledsoe surrendered.
Vanderbilt never explained how or when Floyd Bledsoe might have taken, then returned, the gun.
Vanderbilt gave up his county attorney position in 2003 after the Kansas Court of Appeals overturned another one of his convictions because he failed to file a brief in response to that defendant’s appeal, the Journal-World reported.
Tom Bledsoe had apparently lived a quiet life following his brother’s conviction, aside from pleading no contest to misdemeanor criminal damage to property in early 2012. A family member who wished to remain anonymous said Tom Bledsoe never left Jefferson County, though he moved from the farm where Arfmann’s body was found when his parents moved out of state after Floyd Bledsoe’s conviction. As recently as 2012, Tom lived in McLouth in a home just 1.8 miles and one left turn from the church where Arfmann’s loved ones held her funeral in November 1999, court records and Arfmann’s obituary indicate.
That quiet life continued until his name once again made headlines Oct. 21 when attorneys at the KU Project for Innocence and the Midwest Innocence Project representing Floyd Bledsoe announced they’d received testing results in September indicating semen recovered from Arfmann’s vagina was consistent with Tom Bledsoe’s DNA.
Tom Bledsoe would be discovered dead just two and a half weeks later.
The results from the long-sought DNA testing on swabs from Arfmann’s body and clothing also indicated that the Bledsoes’ father’s and Tom Bledsoe’s DNA were on one of Arfmann’s socks, consistent with coroner testimony that she was dragged to her grave site by her ankles.
The attorneys plan to use the new evidence to exonerate Floyd Bledsoe at a hearing Dec. 8 in Jefferson County District Court, where a judge will hear arguments on their October motion to vacate Floyd Bledsoe’s conviction and release him from prison.
It’s unclear how Arfmann’s family reacted to the DNA results. Even back in 2000, the family had differing viewpoints. Arfmann’s mother told the Journal-World after Floyd Bledsoe’s conviction that she was “sure” Floyd Bledsoe killed her daughter.
“(Floyd Bledsoe) is lying,” she said at his sentencing. “You can always tell when he’s lying.”
But Arfmann’s sisters said at the time that they thought Floyd Bledsoe was, at best, an accomplice.
"He couldn't have done it on his own," Floyd Bledsoe’s then-wife and Arfmann’s sister, Heidi Bledsoe, told the Journal-World in 2000. "I think he knew before everybody else did, but I can't see him pulling the trigger."
Heidi Bledsoe and Arfmann’s sister, Rose Anna Erhart, said at the time they thought Floyd Bledsoe was “taking the rap.”
Heidi Bledsoe has since divorced Floyd Bledsoe, according to court records. It is unclear whether she has changed her last name.
The Journal-World’s recent attempts to reach the Bledsoe and Arfmann families were unsuccessful.
Floyd Bledsoe’s attorneys on Friday declined to comment on how Tom Bledsoe’s death may affect their client’s appeal for exoneration. Floyd Bledsoe remains at the Lansing Correctional Facility, according to the Kansas Department of Corrections, until his court date Dec. 8.