From the moment I held the book ‘Four Shots in Oskie’ by Justin Wingerter in my hands, the word unassuming started to flutter around in my brain.
Like the sound of rustling leaves on a windy fall day, the sound popped up in various degrees of loudness, often just a whisper, to never really leave.
Now that I have finished reading the book, I get it. But to make sure, I looked up the definition in the dictionary. English isn’t my first language so it is entirely possible that I get something wrong. But, I didn’t.
Justin Wingerter is a reporter for the Denver Post. An experienced writer, he guides us effortlessly through the labyrinth that is the wrongful conviction of Floyd Bledsoe. That is not a spoiler as you can read it on the back of the book cover.
Wingerter starts by describing the seemingly uncomplicated life in Oskaloosa, Kansas. We meet the Bledsoe family: Cathy and Floyd Sr., and sons Tom, still living at home, and Floyd. Floyd lived in a trailer with wife Heidi, their two young children, Cody and Christian, and Heidi’s younger sister, Zetta Camille Arfmann. Camille felt comfortable with her sister and her brother-in-law.
Zetta Camille Arfmann
Camille is fourteen years old, a ninth grade high school honor student, with plans to become a police officer. Her parents are divorced, life is complicated, but there is a sense of stability by living with Heidi and Floyd, and going to church.
On Nov 5, 1999 Camille was going to attend a youth retreat at the Countryside Baptist Church. Her friend, Robin Meyer, stopped by after work. She found the trailer’s door unlocked, the lights off, Camille’s school bag and books on the couch, and she saw a half-eaten brownie. Robin knew Camille had not yet gone to the retreat as her bible and coat were still near the door.
The Bledsoe Brothers
Tom (25) has limited intellectual capabilities, and due to an fungal infection on his eardrums, hearing problems. He is quiet, does not socialize much outside of family and church, no drink, and content to live at home with his parents. He worked as a security guard at Farmland Industries.
Floyd (23) loved to be outside. He worked as a dairy farmer at Zule Dairy and adored his children. Not getting along with Heidi though, a divorce was pending. Both brothers seem to lead simple lives centered on hard work, church, and family. Neither brother liked the other. Only one of them, is really unassuming.
Wingerter describes what each brother was doing on the day that Camille went missing until the moment that her remains were found on the Bledsoe Family property in a brome field. Many characters pass the review. We learn their activities, a bit of their history, and what they saw and heard that day. All of them set the scene. Which brother had motive, means, and opportunity? Which brother led information slip? Which brother behaved in a suspicious manner? I am not going to describe that all as Wingerter does it best. I do wish to draw your attention to a few points of interest.
I know that I said ‘a few points of interest’ but as you can see from the sticky notes, I have many. That is how good this book is. It draws you in, you eagerly await the next details, you follow along with the characters and discover for yourself how these timelines do not match up.
1: on page 9, we learn that Camille’s mom, Tommie Sue Arfmann, immediately wants to call police to report Camille missing but that Floyd holds off. He wants to search for her himself first. The book does not explain if that is just typical Floyd, wanting to try first himself, or that this is the result of a lack of faith in law enforcement. I can see how this detail makes people suspicious of Floyd.
2: from Floyd’s interrogations we learn that amongst detectives at the time, there was no clear understanding about the significance of Miranda warnings. Read this from page 62 onwards.
3: despite having an airtight alibi, provided by his boss, Richard Zule, Floyd was arrested. Nobody corroborated Tom’s alibi.
4: In Nov 1999, then-Jefferson County Sheriff Dunnway ordered a halt to all DNA examinations of all evidence pieces previously delivered to the state lab. Ultimately, when crucial evidence pieces were examined with modern technology, there would be no DNA matches with Floyd Bledsoe.
5: when you reach chapter nine, read slowly. Coroner Erik Mitchell is a colourful man, just Google him. Wingerter lists removing organs from bodies without family permission to allowing inappropriate behaviour of his employees with bodies. From the Buffalo News: “The state Health Department and Department of Environmental Conservation have been investigating accusations from Mitchell’s current and former employees that the Onondaga County medical examiner engaged in unethical, unprofessional and illegal activities over the past five years.” Check also the Hector Rivas case, the Carrody M. Buchhorn case, and the case of Alonzo Brooks.
6: proper jury instructions might, might, have helped Floyd. One of the jurors later admitted that “the jury decided that the evidence wasn’t overwhelming but we all decided to convict him because he [Floyd] was the only one we could make accountable for this poor girl’s murder.”
8: on page 177, the polymerase chain reaction is discussed. Click here to see it.
9: In chapter 15, we learn the fate of Tom Bledsoe. Note that even in death, “as Tom was confessing, he was holding back; even as he was admitting to a coverup, he was continuing to conceal.”
10: the book also discusses the struggle to get proper compensation for wrongfully convicted people. “The federal government, the District of Columbia, and 36 states have compensation statutes of some form. The following 14 states do not: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming.” More here.
11: on page 211, you can read what most likely happened to Camille. The only one who could have told the truth, committed suicide.
Wingerter discuses the greatest shortcoming of his own book on page 214. Why center on Floyd? Why was the unassuming man not just arrested but in spite of all the evidence favouring Tom, convicted? Why? This unassuming man, upon release, drew attention to another case instead of himself. Floyd called for action in the case of Trevor Corbett. I have not found any updates in this case. If you have links, please let me know so we can add them to this post.
On page 21, Wingerter writes that Floyd spoke to Dick Stevens about the missing Camille. He asked “if Stevens had seen her or a newer-model Trans Am she might be in.” Did Floyd at that point suspected his brother? Tom drove a newer Mazda short bed Trans Am pickup.
Published by Mission Point Press, the book has a cover finish that doesn’t want to leave your hand. The paper is off-white and the font is eye-friendly.
Unfortunately, there is no a cross-referenced index, only a few foot notes, and no list of consulted works or suggested works/articles for further reading. But, there is an epilogue which I always appreciate. There are also 10 pages with non-graphic black and white photographs.
Justin Wingerter has written a brilliant book in unassuming style. He could have speculated on motives and people’s behaviour or sensationalized the crime and/or crime scene but he did neither. True to journalistic form, he reported facts and highlighted discrepancies. Not at one single moment does he overload the reader with details to show off how much he knows about the case. He is the kind of writer how doesn’t need to do that.
This book is highly recommended reading for those interested in criminal justice, for those who devour details in scientists’ notebooks, wrongful convictions, criminal procedure, ineffective assistance of council, withheld evidence, the struggle to allow (or not) child testify especially when they are young, police investigations (recording interrogations or at least written reports) and forensic sciences and Innocence Projects.
State of Kansas v. Floyd Scott Bledsoe is here decided Feb 1, 2002
Floyd S. Bledsoe v. State of Kansas is here decided Feb 2, 2007
The Attorney-General’s public posting of Floyd’s innocence is here.
The case information from the Midwest Innocence Project is here.