“Oskaloosa is a town of one grocery store, two gas stations, four restaurants and about eleven hundred people. Situated somewhere near the buckle of the Bible belt, there are more than a half-dozen churches in or around town. To the extent there is any fear in Oskaloosa, it is a fear of God.”
So begins “Four Shots in Oskie: Murder and Innocence in Middle America” by Denver journalist Justin Wingerter. Following in the footsteps of Truman Capote’s famous novel “In Cold Blood,” Four Shots in Oskie is a stranger-than-fiction true crime story set in a small town in the American Midwest.
In 2015 Wingerter, who now covers federal politics at the Denver Post, was a reporter at the Topeka Capital-Journal when a colleague forwarded him an email about a criminal case he had covered years earlier. The colleague was swamped, so he agreed to look into it.
“From the minute I read about it it’s just a sense of ‘this cannot be real,’” Wingerter said.
Lawyers for Floyd Bledsoe Jr., an Oskaloosa man, were alleging that he was innocent of the crime he had been convicted of 15 years earlier: murdering his 14-year-old niece Camille Arfmann, and that they had DNA evidence to prove that his brother was the true culprit.
They were right.
After a shocking series of events that fall, in December 2015 Bledsoe was released from prison after over a decade and a half behind bars, and his case was dismissed. Instead of a cold-hearted murderer, Bledsoe had been proven to be the victim or an atrocious miscarriage of justice.
The case began in November 1999, when Arfmann disappeared from home one Friday afternoon. Arfmann lived with her sister, Heidi Bledsoe, and her husband Floyd. Once it became clear that nobody knew where she was, the family, and eventually the police, launched a frantic search to find her.
The couple lived close to Floyd’s parents, Cathy and Floyd Bledsoe Sr., and Floyd’s brother Tom. At 25, Tom still lived with his parents and had little social life outside of his church.
After two days of searching, Tom confessed to Arfmann’s murder and led police to her body, which he had dragged to a trash dump after shooting her.
Tom’s conscience had gotten the better of him, and he admitted to the crime and was booked into jail. But after spending time behind bars, he changed his tune. Going back on his original confession, he told police a different story: he was innocent, his brother, Floyd, was the culprit.
Floyd had an alibi for the time of Arfmann’s disappearance, and the story that Tom told investigators was full of holes. Despite that, the Sheriff’s Department turned their suspicions towards Floyd, and arrested him. Tom was released on bond and days later the charges against him were dropped, despite all evidence pointing towards him being guilty.
After a jury trial the following spring where Floyd was poorly represented and the prosecution made their case on the back of flimsy evidence — including the testimony of a toddler who claimed to have witnessed the killing — he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Over the following years, Wingerter paints a picture of how Floyd and a team of lawyers, including the Kansas University Project for Innocence and the Midwest Innocence Project, exhausted every possible opportunity to free him. After a series of failures, they finally succeeded.
Wingerter wrote a three-part series for the Capital-Journal about Floyd after he was freed. He figured that would be it, but couldn’t get Floyd’s situation out of his mind and decided to expand his work into a book. He left the state and has worked at two different papers since first covering the case, but it remained a passion project of his.
A sense of indignation at what happened fueled him to keep working.
“Frankly it’s always made me so mad that I wanted to tell the story and get it out there,” he said.
Wingerter worked on the book on nights and weekends while spending his days chasing down stories of Colorado’s elected representatives. Over the past year, he and his wife Megan Wingerter (also a Denver Post reporter) have rebranded their COVID-induced furlough weeks as “writing sabbaticals” and used them to work on their own projects.
After five years of work, the book was published this spring. While he’s happy it’s finally out in the world, Wingerter said he remains frustrated by unanswered questions in the case.
Namely, why was Tom released and Floyd wrongfully convicted?
“The people who know are either dead or not talking,” he said.
Though the case takes place in small-town Kansas, Wingerter said the subject of wrongful conviction is relevant to virtually everyone. In order to prevent more innocent people from being wrongfully convicted, it’s important to understand how situations like Floyd’s happened, he said.
He hopes that Four Shots in Oskie will help readers to better understand the criminal justice system and make them more prepared if they are ever called to serve on a jury for a violent crime.
If you are on a jury, you should not “get wrapped up in the grisly nature of a crime, which is what prosecutors use to get a jury angry and seeking revenge and punishment,” Wingerter said. “But step back and ask yourself, is the evidence there? Has the government proved its case?”