Original suspect in girl’s murder dies of apparent suicide as case about to be revisited

Then 25-year-old Thomas E. Bledsoe, center, is led into the Jefferson County Courthouse in Oskaloosa Nov. 9, 1999, for arraignment in the shooting death of Zetta Camille Arfmann, 14, of rural Oskaloosa.

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.

Zetta Camille Arfmann

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.

Then 23-year-old Floyd Scott Bledsoe, of Oskaloosa, was charged with first-degree murder in the death of Zetta Camille Arfman Nov. 15, 1999, at the Jefferson County Courthouse. Bledsoe's brother, Thomas E. Bledsoe, who was charged Tuesday, Nov. 9, 1999, with first-degree murder in connection with Arfmann's death, but prosecutors dismissed the case less than an hour before Floyd Bledsoe was charged with the same crime. Floyd Bledsoe is the brother-in-law of the victim.

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 in 2000

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.

Floyd S. Bledsoe in 2000

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.

Timeline: Floyd Bledsoe murder conviction overturned

● May 29, 2016 — Lawsuit filed by wrongfully convicted man details how law enforcement officials allegedly framed him

● May 21, 2016 — Floyd Bledsoe, wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years, pushes to end death penalty in Kansas

● May 10, 2016 — Floyd Bledsoe, wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years, says he was ‘framed,’ files lawsuit against Kansas justice officials

● Feb. 12, 2016 — Wrongfully convicted Floyd Bledsoe seeks videotaped interrogations in Kansas

● Feb. 8, 2016 — Kansas bill would allow $235K for wrongfully convicted man who spent 15 years in prison

● Jan. 18, 2016 — Jefferson County attorney doesn’t expect further action against former sheriff, others involved in wrongful murder conviction

● Jan. 17, 2016 — Bledsoe case spurs measure to allow compensation for wrongful convictions

● Jan. 10, 2016 — Requiring that police interrogations be recorded might have prevented tragedy of wrongful conviction

● Dec. 30, 2015 — ‘Who are you going to tell?’ — Floyd Bledsoe, wrongfully convicted of murder, discusses pain of prison, journey to forgiveness

● Dec. 27, 2015 — 1999 Oskaloosa murder case reopened; possibility that killer ‘had assistance’

● Dec. 13, 2015 — Web of lies, indifference to justice led to wrong Kansas brother being imprisoned for more than 15 years

● Dec. 13, 2015 — Kansas has no law on payouts for wrongly incarcerated prisoners

Dec. 8, 2015 — Judge throws out 2000 murder conviction, frees Oskaloosa man after 15 years in prison

● Nov. 13, 2015 — Original suspect in girl’s murder dies of apparent suicide as case about to be revisited

● Oct. 21, 2015 — KU Project for Innocence, Midwest Innocence Project seeks to free convicted murderer with DNA evidence

● July 8, 2012 — Objection to DNA testing not likely

● June 20, 2012 — Motion seeks DNA testing in 1999 murder of teen

● Sept. 30, 2009 — Further appeals limited in Bledsoe case

● July 5, 2009 — 1999 murder case won’t settle

● June 28, 2009 — Federal court reverses release in murder case

● Oct. 7, 2008 — Floyd Bledsoe, sentenced to life for murder of teen sister-in-law, set free; ineffective assistance of counsel cited

● Feb. 3, 2007 — Court upholds murder conviction

● Feb. 2, 2002 — Murder conviction is upheld

● Dec. 5, 2001 — Attorneys appeal conviction of teen-ager’s murderer

● Dec. 2, 2001 — Oskaloosa murder case to be heard

● July 15, 2000 — Victim’s family unsure justice was served

● July 15, 2000 — Bledsoe gets life

● July 14, 2000 — Bledsoe sentenced to life in prison

● June 23, 2000 — Bledsoe sentencing delayed

● May 31, 2000 — Lawyer: Mother’s story changes

● April 30, 2000 — Minister supports Bledsoe in spirit

● April 28, 2000 — Bledsoe found guilty

● April 28, 2000 — Bledsoe murder case goes to jury

● April 27, 2000 — Bledsoe charges amended

● April 27, 2000 — Bledsoe prosecution rests

● April 27, 2000 — Bledsoe murder trial wrapping up

● April 26, 2000 — Tom Bledsoe seeks to explain lies

● April 26, 2000 — Bledsoe told his mother he didn’t kill Arfmann

● April 25, 2000 — Pool of potential jurors knows all about case

● April 25 2000 — Trial starts in murder of girl, 14

● April 24, 2000 — Murder trial to begin today

● Dec. 10, 1999 — Family of victim tries to cope with pain, loss

● Dec. 10, 1999 — Murder suspect enters innocent plea

● Dec. 9, 1999 — Murder suspect to be arraigned

● Nov. 30, 1999 — Case pits brother vs. brother

● Nov. 18, 1999 — Friends relieved charges were dismissed against Oskaloosa man

● Nov. 16, 1999 — Wife proclaims husband’s innocence in girl’s death

● Nov. 14, 1999 — In-law jailed in slaying of teen-ager

● Nov. 14, 1999 — Family, friends mourn Camille

● Nov. 10, 1999 — Quiet hearing for defendant charged with girl’s slaying

● Nov. 10, 1999 — Bledsoe recieves murder charge

● Nov. 9, 1999 — Police hold relative of slain girl

● Nov. 9, 1999 — Girl’s death leaves family, children with questions