On Friday, November 5, 1999, 14-year-old Zetta Camille Arfmann stepped off the school bus around 4:20 p.m. and walked inside the trailer home in Oskaloosa, Kansas, where she lived with her older sister, Heidi, Heidi’s husband, 23-year-old Floyd Bledsoe, and the couple’s two young boys.
She was not seen alive again. When one of her friend’s stopped by the trailer at 5 p.m. Camille’s coat and book bag were in the trailer, but she was not.
When Camille failed to attend a church social that night, family members began searching for her and ultimately called police. The family handed out flyers and on Saturday, November 6, her disappearance was discussed at the family church, Countryside Baptist. That night, the church’s pastor, James Bolinger, received a telephone message on his answering machine from Tom Bledsoe, Floyd’s brother.
The message said, in part, “I know where (Camille) is. When you get this message I turned myself in to the police department. You don’t know the grief that went through as I sat there thinking. I wish I never did it…..I will pay for the rest of my life for what I’ve done.”
Tom then called his parents. His father told him to wait and he would meet him. Tom called Bolinger again and left another message saying, “All I can ask is forgiveness for what I have done. I will pay for the rest of my life for what I have done.”
Tom turned himself into the police. Through his attorney, Tom turned over the murder weapon (confirmed subsequently by ballistics testing), a nine-millimeter handgun he had purchased two weeks. Later, the attorney turned over bullets that Tom purchased shortly before Camille disappeared. At the time, Tom told police, “I did it. I killed her.”
Tom told police where to find Camille’s body. She was burned in a trash dump on the farm where Tom lived with his parents. She had been shot four times and her top and bra were pushed up under her arms. An examination of the area showed she had been dragged to the burial site.
After he was jailed, Tom changed his story. He said that Floyd actually committed the crime and had admitted to it during a conversation on Saturday on the side of the road where Floyd was passing out missing person fliers. Tom told police that Floyd described the killing and told Tom where to find the body. Tom said that Floyd then coerced him into taking the blame by threatening to expose Tom for having attempted to have sex with a dog and masturbating while watching pornography.
The police then released Tom and charged Floyd with first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated indecent liberties with a child.
Floyd went to trial in Jefferson County District Court in April 2000, wearing a bulletproof vest under his clothing because of death threats from the victim’s family.
The prosecution contended that Floyd, who was divorcing his wife, admitted to police that Camille was attractive.
Tom testified and recounted Floyd’s confession to the crime. Tom said that he drove up to Floyd’s car and they were facing opposite directions with their windows rolled down and the motors of both cars running. Tom told the jury that Floyd put his head in his arms and confessed.
Floyd’s defense attorney failed to confront Tom about the fact that Tom had a hearing problem so severe that he could not hear normal conversation from more than a couple of feet away and had to be facing the speaker so he could read the speaker’s lips.
Tom and Floyd’s father testified and provided an alibi for Tom to rebut the defense attempt to portray Tom as the killer. Their father, who also was named Floyd, said that Tom was with him and his wife (Tom and Floyd’s mother) at an auction until 1 p.m. on the Friday that Camille disappeared and that when they got home at 10 p.m., Tom was asleep. A security alarm, which would have gone off if anyone left the house during the night, did not go off, Tom’s father said.
There was no forensic evidence presented that linked Floyd to the crime. The prosecution told the jury that the rape kit was negative. “It didn’t show that a male had been there.”
A man sitting in a deer stand near where the body was found testified that on Friday afternoon, he heard a woman screaming for help. However, he also said he never heard any gunshots.
Testimony at trial also included statements made by Floyd’s two-year-old son, Cody, who implicated both Tom and Floyd. Cody did not testify. Floyd’s defense attorney cross-examined the pastor’s wife, who said she heard Cody telling a story about Tom shooting Camille on Monday, November 8, 1999. She testified that Cody had said, “Tom shot (Camille), boom, boom, boom, boom, and dumped her in the water. Tom put his (Cody’s) blanket around (Camille) and also put (Camille’s) blanket around her․ Tom closed (Camille’s) eyes and he kissed her cheeks.”
Floyd’s wife, Heidi, also testified she and the pastor’s wife asked Cody what happened to Camille and Cody described Tom shooting her, wrapping her in a blanket, and putting her in the dump.
By eliciting that testimony, however, the defense allowed the prosecution to bring in testimony that a few days after Floyd’s arrest, Cody’s statements changed to say that “Daddy” killed Camille.
Floyd did not testify, although witnesses were called that testified that Floyd spent the day that Camille disappeared working on a dairy farm and did not get home until around midnight. According to the testimony, Floyd then immediately began to search for Camille. His whereabouts were accounted for from the morning of November 5 through November 6, 1999.
On April 28, 2000, the jury convicted Floyd of first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated indecent liberties with a child. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 16 years.
In 2004, after the Kansas Supreme Court upheld his convictions and sentence, a hearing was held on a motion for a new trial alleging that Floyd’s attorney had provided a constitutionally inadequate defense at trial.
The motion was denied and in 2007, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the decision, although the court found that the prosecution had improperly discussed facts that were not in evidence and improperly misstated evidence and testimony in its closing argument to the jury.
The court also held that Floyd’s defense attorney made numerous mistakes, including introducing Cody’s statements, suggesting that to the jury that the case was similar to that of Susan Smith—a woman who years earlier had claimed her children were abducted only to later admit she drowned them in a lake—and failing to object to the prosecution’s improper arguments to the jury.
“Lacking any strategic explanation in the record for (the defense attorney’s) failure to object and given the repeated nature of the prosecutor’s behavior, we agree that (Floyd’s attorney) was ineffective by failing to object to these statements,” the court said. Floyd’s attorney’s performance “fell below the constitutional threshold of objective reasonableness” the court held.
Still, the court said the errors were not sufficiently prejudicial to require vacating the convictions. “On the record before us, this was a difficult case. Two brothers accused each other of vile crimes. There was ample evidence to support each accusation. The jury, after weighing all of its substance and the credibility of the many witnesses, was persuaded that the State prosecuted the right brother. Although, in the hands of another defense lawyer, the case may have been tried to another conclusion, ‘may’ is not good enough,” the court said.
Floyd then filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus and in 2008, a U.S. District Court judge granted the petition on the ground that Floyd’s lawyer had provided a constitutionally inadequate defense. Floyd was released on bond while the prosecution appealed. About a year later, the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the lower court decision and reinstated Floyd’s conviction and sentence. The Appeals Court held that it could not conclude that the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision was unreasonable. Floyd went back to prison.
Floyd was represented by the Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence & Post-Conviction Remedies at Kansas University School of Law. A law student with a degree in forensics investigated the use of touch DNA and in 2012, the Project for Innocence sought permission from the state district court to conduct DNA testing. In 2013, the Project began DNA testing, but was limited by a lack of resources. In 2014, the Project joined with the Midwest Innocence Project and DNA testing of the vaginal swab, the sexual assault kit, and the clothing of the victim was conducted. The testing identified DNA consistent with Tom Bledsoe on the vaginal swab. Floyd was excluded from the vaginal swab. Testing also identified the DNA of Tom’s father on the victim’s socks, suggesting that he helped drag the victim to the burial site.
During their investigation of the case, the lawyers also discovered an order signed by the prosecutor, the county sheriff and a representative of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation prior to Floyd’s trial agreeing that there would not be any DNA testing conducted on the evidence.
In October 2015, lawyers for Floyd filed a motion to vacate his convictions and sentence based on the DNA test results.
On November 9, 2015, Tom Bledsoe committed suicide in Bonner Springs, Kansas. He left behind several suicide notes admitting that he killed Camille after he raped her.
In one of the notes, addressed to his parents, Tom wrote: “Floyd is innocent” and asked his parents to “please tell Floyd I am sorry.”
In another note, Tom said that the prosecuting attorney had ordered him to lie and implicate Floyd by the prosecuting attorney. “I raped and murdered a 14-year-old girl,” he wrote. “I sent an innocent man to prison,” Bledsoe wrote.
In one of the notes, he drew a map showing where a shell casing could be found “less than 20 yards” from where the victim’s body was buried. Using a metal detector, detectives found a shell casing buried beneath an inch or two of dirt about 24 feet from that location.
On December 8, 2015, Judge Gary Nafziger vacated Floyd’s convictions, the prosecution dismissed the charges, and Floyd was released. In May, 2016, Bledsoe filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging he was framed by prosecutors, police and his brother’s attorney.
– Maurice Possley, National Registry of Exonerations