Crime & Courts

Innocent man imprisoned for 16 years learns ‘what forgiveness is’ (+video)

The people of Kansas betrayed Floyd Bledsoe.

Floyd’s murdering, lying, child-molesting brother, Tom, betrayed Floyd Bledsoe.

Pretty much everybody betrayed Floyd Bledsoe.

And so Floyd went to prison an innocent man. That was in 2000.

After his lawyers turned up DNA evidence blaming his brother, and after his brother killed himself, the state of Kansas let him go. When he walked out of that prison in Lansing, the state didn’t even give him bus fare to get away.

His lawyers say the injustice continues to this day.

Floyd came to Wichita a few days ago and sat alongside Richard Ney, one of his attorneys.

He showed no bitterness. He smiled all the way through the hour it took to tell the tale. He learned to smile and forgive and stay calm in prison, he said. He even took forgiveness classes.

It began with his brother, Tom, Floyd said. Tom had sex with Zetta Camille Arfmann on Nov. 5, 1999.

After that Tom freaked out that she was only 14. So he shot her in the back of the head, dumped her in that ditch in Jefferson County and shot her in the chest three more times.

And after that, as Ney said, the injustices done to Floyd Bledsoe became more shameful and ridiculous.

An unbelievable story

He lost his freedom. He lost his family, including his sons. He lost his reputation. His accusers said that he was a child molester and murderer.

None of it was true. It’s all in the record and in the stories his lawyers tell.

The National Registry of Exonerations lists 1,747 cases of prison inmates exonerated nationally since 1989. The registry includes a long narrative about how Tom and the authorities mistreated Floyd Bledsoe. For example:

In the days following Camille’s murder, Tom twice told his pastor, in telephone voice-mail recordings, that he killed her. He then told his family that he killed her. He told police he’d killed her. He told them where to find her body. He said he did it with his gun, which was found in his truck.

But after he sat in jail for a few days, Tom determined, as Floyd said with a smile, that he did not like being in jail. And so Tom told everybody that Floyd killed Camille.

And after that, even though this next part of the tale seems unbelievably crazy, everybody believed Tom, not when he told the truth, but when he told the lies.

And so because of the lying testimony of a man who had already truthfully confessed several times, the police, the prosecutor, the jurors, the judge and the state of Kansas sent an innocent man to prison.

And then things got really bad.

‘Don’t think about family’

Camille, the victim, was the kid sister of Floyd’s wife, Heidi. Tom later wrote in his suicide notes that he had sex with Camille in his parents’ bed and then killed her. It was Nov. 5, 1999.

Camille had been living in Floyd’s trailer home in rural Oskaloosa, near Topeka, with Floyd, Heidi and their two little boys.

When Camille didn’t come home that night, Floyd, his family and friends searched for her. “I tried pretty hard to find her,” Floyd said.

Floyd was 23 years old and looked younger than that. He was only 5 feet 2, weighed only 130 pounds. He had a thin boyish face, pale blue eyes, a skinny little torso and sandy blond hair.

After Tom lied in court, a jury convicted Floyd on April 28, 2000, of first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated indecent liberties with a child.

Floyd soon after that entered the barbed wire and concrete of the prison in Hutchinson. When he saw that the prison had workout equipment, he began to lift weights vigorously. He put on 35 pounds in prison.

He never got attacked or hurt.

“But when you lie in that bunk day after day, never seeing outside, never knowing if you will get out, it becomes a serious mental problem,” he said.

Floyd’s aunt and uncle had sent him a photo of his own children.

An inmate saw him with the photo and gave him grim advice:

“He told me that from now on when I got a photo like that, ‘Look at it for just a second or two and then put it up for good. And don’t think about family at all.’ 

Floyd rejected that advice at first. But as the years rolled by, and his feeling of hopelessness grew, he did as the inmate said.

Floyd’s wife divorced him while he was in prison. She raised their two boys without him.

To this day, even after Floyd’s release from the state prison in Lansing last year, even after headlines declared him innocent, Floyd has not seen his sons.

They are now 19 and 17. Spending 16 years in prison meant that Floyd missed most of their lives.

And yet Floyd smiles.

The forgiveness classes really worked, he said.

1,747 exonerations

By 2007, seven years after Floyd’s conviction, lawyer groups around the country had become alarmed at the number of prison inmates being found innocent, including with DNA technology.

Since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, 1,747 people, including Floyd Bledsoe and five other people in Kansas, have been exonerated, some of them after having served decades in prison.

The Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence & Post Conviction Remedies at the University of Kansas took up Floyd’s case in 2007.

In 2008, the lawyers persuaded a federal appeals court to let Floyd out of prison, raising questions about whether his lawyer had provided an adequate defense.

But 10 months later, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court. Floyd went back, this time to Lansing.

“That was the worst moment,” Floyd said. “Because I knew what prison was like.”

‘Tell Floyd I’m sorry’

Floyd’s lying brother pulled a plastic bag over his own head on Nov. 9, 2015. He suffocated in the front seat of his car.

Beside him lay several handwritten suicide notes.

According to Floyd, his lawyers and the narrative of Floyd’s case on the National Registry of Exonerations, Tom finally took the blame – again.

“Floyd is innocent,” he wrote.

“Please tell Floyd I am sorry.”

“I raped and murdered a 14-year-old girl.”

“I sent an innocent man to prison.”

Floyd doesn’t know why Tom blamed him.

They’d never gotten along, but they’d never had a falling out.

It is hard to get his head around Tom’s betrayal. But he’s forgiven him.

“No matter what he did, he was still my brother,” Floyd said.

In one note, Tom had drawn a map showing where a handgun shell casing could be found – a few steps from where Camille’s body had been found.

Detectives, 16 years after Floyd’s conviction, went out with a metal detector and found the casing in the dirt, right where Tom said it would be.

Many injustices

Tom killed himself in part because he knew that Floyd’s lawyers were closing in on his lies, Ney said.

By October of 2015, Floyd had spent most of 16 years looking up at prison ceilings. And on this planet of more than 7.5 billion people, only a few, including lawyers Alice Craig from the University of Kansas and Ney of Wichita, were still trying to treat him decently.

They’d finally shaken out some evidence from the authorities.

Police had taken a vaginal swab from Camille’s body in 1999, for example. But DNA testing in 1999 wasn’t as good as it would soon be, so nothing helpful to Floyd came of that. But by 2015, before Tom’s November suicide, Floyd’s lawyers were pressing authorities to take another look at the rape kit they’d prepared on Camille in 1999. This time, when they did that, they found Tom’s DNA. There was no DNA from Floyd.

They shouldn’t have waited until 2015 to run those tests, Ney said.

And that’s only one injustice done to an innocent man.

Damning testimony

After Tom killed himself, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the KBI took up the old case again.

The Sheriff’s Office asked a longtime Jefferson County detective, Ramon Gonzalez, to read Floyd’s trial transcript and study the evidence.

Gonzalez is 72 years old and has worked cases for 40 years. He had taken no part in the conviction and imprisonment of Floyd Bledsoe.

In the newly opened investigation 16 years later, Gonzalez said, “I went into this pretty much trying to prove that Floyd really did kill the girl after all.

“Tom had already confessed, so I wasn’t trying to do Floyd any harm. I was playing devil’s advocate.

“I worked hard. I read the whole trial transcript five times. I looked at everything they had.

“And I could not find a single thing that pointed to Floyd doing the killing.

“I found all sorts of things that pointed to Tom.”

The most glaring thing, Gonzalez said, was a short but damning part of the trial testimony that Tom Bledsoe gave in betraying his brother.

‘It was pretty obvious’

Tom told the jury that not long after Camille disappeared, and before her body was found (with Tom’s help), he met Floyd on a lonely rural road, each of them seated in opposite directions in their pickup trucks. They talked with their truck motors running, Tom testified.

Tom told the jury that Floyd hung his head down into his arms on the steering wheel of his pickup and confessed to killing Camille.

And then, according to Tom’s testimony, Floyd told Tom to take the blame for the murder, or else Floyd would tell everybody that Tom had once tried to have sex with a dog.

That part of the trial transcript stopped Gonzalez cold when he read it. And not because of a dog.

Gonzalez has lived for years in Jefferson County. He knows everybody.

Everybody in Jefferson County knew that Tom Bledsoe was nearly stone cold deaf, Gonzalez said.

During the trial, Tom could not even hear questions that Floyd’s prosecutor was asking, Gonzalez said. In the transcript, Tom keeps asking the prosecutor to repeat his question, though the prosecutor was standing right in front of him.

“So at one point in his testimony, the prosecutor finally told Tom to ‘look at me.’ Tom could read lips, and that’s how he was able to understand the questions,” Gonzalez said.

“And yet there he is in the transcript, testifying that Floyd was talking down through the steering wheel in the pickup truck – and Tom could hear him.

“It was pretty obvious.

“It didn’t make any sense.”

It’s not much

Gonzalez the detective is also Rep. Ramon Gonzalez, R-Perry, a member of the Kansas House of Representatives.

He thinks the injustice might have been avoided had the investigators at the time videotaped the interrogations of Tom Bledsoe and other witnesses. He has introduced a bill this year that would require law enforcement to do that with some interrogations. The bill had one committee hearing and is unlikely to pass this year.

In a separate bill, Gonzalez also has gone to bat for compensating Floyd.

Like some other states, Kansas has no law that directs whether or how much to compensate people wrongly convicted, Gonzalez said.

“No amount can ever make up for what Floyd lost,” he said. “But he deserves something.”

While writing the proposed legislation, Gonzalez did a little math.

He figured that if Floyd were paid the federal minimum wage for 40 hours a week for 16 years, he’d be entitled to $235,000.

Gonzalez said he proposed the number “to at least start a conversation.”

“Nothing against Gonzalez,” Floyd said. “But when they send you to prison, you’re in there a lot more than 40 hours a week.”

That bill also had one committee hearing and is unlikely to pass the Legislature this year.

“Some people might say $235,000 would be a windfall,” said Alice Craig, one of Floyd’s attorneys. “But Floyd has no retirement plan, no health care, no Social Security. He lost everything.”

Floyd testified in favor of the compensation bill, but said he is not wasting any time worrying.

Not even bus fare

Floyd was released on Dec. 8, 2015. That was a thrilling moment.

“I got to thank everybody who helped me,” he said.

People stared at him, and he stared at people. He saw that the human race had changed.

“I saw how impersonal everybody is,” he said. “Nobody looks at each other. Family gathered around a meal table – nobody looks at each other. They all fiddle with their phones instead.”

He also saw how beautiful Kansas looks. He’d taken the natural wonders of Kansas for granted before.

“I went to Clinton Lake the other day,” he said. “Beautiful. The Flint Hills, all those rolling hills. Beautiful.”

Besides his attorneys, the people who stuck with him from conviction to exoneration were Gary and Jan Bledsoe, his uncle and aunt.

He needed them. After Floyd was released, the state didn’t even give him bus fare.

“They give money for that to inmates who complete their sentences,” he said with a grin. “But I never completed mine.”

Letting go of anger

Floyd lives in Hutchinson now, living off dollars he earns from doing odds-and-ends maintenance jobs.

Renting is a problem. Asking for a loan is a problem. If anyone does a background check on him, they will not find a murder conviction. But they will find a black hole where a credit history would turn up in any other person’s background check. For 16 years of his life, he has no credit history.

He learned to paint portraits in prison and makes some money painting pet portraits.

In his free time, when an inmate gets released in Kansas, Floyd sometimes picks them up at the bus stop, talks with them, helps them re-enter civilization.

He smiles a lot. “I really am happy.”

In prison he took classes and learned how forgiveness works.

“What forgiveness is. What forgiveness isn’t,” he said. “Anger can be a prison.”

He let go of his anger, not to condone what Tom and everybody did, but to keep himself calm.

And so, he said, all those injustices don’t upset him anymore.

In their own time

There are two people he won’t talk about, except to say that he loves them.

He said he has not been able to see his two sons, even though he is innocent.

He isn’t going to force a reunion, he said. Because the injustices done to him were so unbelievably cruel, he thinks it would be hard for his boys or anyone else to easily get their heads around how it happened.

So he will wait.

He hopes his sons know by now that he is innocent. But he’s not sure.

He wants his boys to come to their own understanding of him and his innocence on their own time, in their own way.

A deep breath

Floyd stood on the dull gray concrete of the sidewalk outside Ney’s law office on North Broadway.

He was smiling as usual.

He was 23 when he got arrested. He’s 39 now. The sandy blond hair he had when he went behind bars has turned pale.

He turned his pale blue eyes up to pale blue sky. He sucked in a deep breath, closed his eyes and flung his arms out, so that for a moment he looked like a grinning figure on a crucifix. Then he curled his arms inward, as though to embrace the free air.

“The worst day out here is better than the best day in there,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Floyd Bledsoe

Friends have set up a GoFundMe account for Bledsoe. To donate, go to www.gofundme.com and search for Floyd Bledsoe and Hutchinson.

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