Writer Jerry Bledsoe's new book examines a family ripped apart by killings and capital punishment
by Jesse Fox Mayshark
Jerry Bledsoe has a lot to say about the death penalty, the publishing industry, true crime books, and the people who read them. But at the moment, he's annoyed about a speeding ticket. He was coming back from a two-hour radio appearance one night last week. A trooper pulled him over and, in the course of the roadside interrogation, asked what he did for a living. Bledsoe told him.
"I could tell that didn't go over well," he says with a chuckle. "Don't ever tell them you're a writer."
But "writer" is the only way to describe Bledsoe, 57, the author of 16 books and decades' worth of newspaper and magazine articles. And if he's best known for one genretrue crimehe's quick to point out that only four of his books fall into that category.
"If you have a success with a book, you get typed," says Bledsoe, who divides his time between his native Virginia and North Carolina. "That's all they want out of you."
That's why he swears his latest volume, Death Sentence (Dutton, $24.95), is his last foray in the field pioneered by "new journalists" like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer but lately run into the ground by publishers looking for lurid tales and quick sales. Not that it's hard to tell the difference between his sober study of confessed serial killer Velma Barfield and the paperback freak shows that line supermarket book racks. The book's sense of purpose and often heartbreaking rendering of Barfield and her family combine for a tale that is literary in scope and detail.
In fact, Bledsoe never intended to become, as mystery writer Patricia Cornwell has called him, "the master of true crime, the conclusion to what Truman Capote began." All he wanted was to tell stories. His first job was as "religion editor" at a paper in Kannapolis, N.C."the largest unincorporated town in America." For $75 a week, he compiled listings of church activities and sermon topics. But he also started stringing for regional papers like the Charlotte Observer, and soon wound up at the Greensboro (N.C.) News and Record. After a few years covering city hall, cops, and courts there, he moved into a full-time columnist position in 1968, which he kept for more than 20 years. At the same time, he became a regular freelancer and eventually a contributing editor for Esquire. He wrote books on travel and "topics of regional interest"stock-car racing, the Blue Ridge Parkway.
But it was a bizarre family saga, a case that first made North Carolina news with a triple slaying in Winston-Salem, that put him on his current path.
"It was just this incredible story. I was a columnist, so I didn't get involved in the newsroom stuff. But this was one of those exciting times to be in a newsroom, where everything's exploding and people are running hither and yon."
The murders of Robert, Florence, and Hattie Newsom started out as a big story and got bigger, as detectives connected it with earlier slayings in Louisville, Ky. Bledsoe was dying to get in on the action. After a few days, he got his chance. News and Record editors realized the story wasn't going to die down and decided to put someone on it who could convey it in all its strange drama; they called on Bledsoe. After eight weeks of research, he delivered an eight-part series that flew off the newsstand racks. Over the next two years, the series grew into Bitter Blood, published in 1988 later turned into a TV mini-series.
Other books followedBlood Games, about a group of kids at North Carolina State University who hatched a plot to murder one of their parents for inheritance; Before He Wakes, about a churchgoing woman who killed two husbands for insurance money; and, this month, Death Sentence.
Bledsoe knew about Velma Barfield, a North Carolina woman who was executed in 1984 for a string of murders. Her case had attracted international media attention because she was the first woman executed in the U.S. since 1962, and because her death row conversion to born-again Christianity convinced many people she deserved to live.
"I really wasn't attracted to [the story] at all in the beginning, because I don't like serial killer [stories], and Velma was the traditional female serial killer," Bledsoe says. While Hollywood has great fun with the notion of calculating repeat murderers, he says, in the true crime world they don't make for very good readingthey tend to be repetitive and unimaginative. The problem is compounded when the killer, like Barfield and a lot of other mass-murdering women, uses poison rather than something more dramatic.
"My thing is the family story," Bledsoe says. "That's where the literature lies"in the opportunity to paint three-dimensional characters and show how their relationships drive their actions.
But a few years ago, Bledsoe met Ronnie Burke, Velma Barfield's son. In talking to Burke, Bledsoe realized that Barfield's whole family had been devastated and divided by her confessed crimeswhich included killing her own mother. He also realized the story was a chance to show how the death penalty actually works in America and what it means for everyone involved.
The book traces Velma's rocky upbringing, young marriage, andcruciallyher decades of addiction to prescription drugs like Valium, handed out liberally by doctors in the 1960s and '70s to women with just about any kind of complaint.
"Velma was an early addict of Valium, and all of [the murders] happened before people knew Valium was even addictive," Bledsoe says. "It was a miracle cure, a happy pill."
By the time Betty Ford and other high-profile women stepped forward to talk about the disastrous effects of pill popping, Velma Barfield had already committed most of the four killings that would send her to death row. That's not to say Bledsoe's book is a defense of Barfieldwhile she may have been a victim in many ways, she was also manipulative, selfish, and often mean-spirited. Until, that is, her prison days, when she became known for providing spiritual counseling to other inmates.
"Of course, everyone wants to know, is this religion real, was it genuine?" Bledsoe says. "In certain ways, there's no way to know. But you can judge it in some ways by the grace by which she died. And there's no question about that."
As the book recounts, with her appeals exhausted and her children and siblings emotionally drained from fighting for her, Barfield accepted her death calmlyeven as demonstrators outside the prison chanted, "Die, bitch, die!" In those details, Death Sentence illuminates the strangeness and arbitrariness of capital punishment in the U.S. The book reflects Bledsoe's own mixed feelings about the issue. "I've been on both sides of the fence, and now I'm in the middle," he says.
On one hand, prolonged exposure to unrepentant killers and horrible crimes shattered Bledsoe's youthful, liberal ideas about rehabilitation and the sanctity of all life. On the other hand, the political, cultural, and geographic capriciousness of who gets executed strikes him as fundamentally unjust.
"If I had to vote on it, I think I'd probably vote against it at this point," he says.
Knoxville is just one stop on a city-hopping book tour (although Bledsoe does have local connectionshis son, Erik, is an instructor in the University of Tennessee's English department). From past experience, Bledsoe can anticipate what kind of crowds he will draw. They will be mostly women, for one thingthe true crime market is a largely female phenomenon. He has a few theories about what makes the books popular.
"The second story in the Bible is a murder," he says. "So from the beginning, we've been fascinated by murder. And we're probably fascinated by it because we wonder if we could do itif we could take a life without justification."
He also thinks the tales in a perverse way make readers feel better about themselveshowever bad or disappointing their own lives are, they're inevitably better than the ones portrayed in the books. Of course, some readers have their own grim stories, and at book signings they'll often beseech Bledsoe to write about them.
"That's the part I dread most about going out on tour," he says. It's difficult for him to explain to people that while their sagas are tragic on a personal level, they don't have the drama or scope required for good true crime.
Once he's done with this tour, Bledsoe plans to concentrate on some decidedly different projects. One is a sequel to his best-selling 1996 Christmas book The Angel Doll. Bledsoe's only work of fiction, the bittersweet storywhich has been optioned for a TV moviewas based on his own childhood experiences as a paperboy at Christmastime. (He notes with a chuckle that even at Angel Doll book signings, his true crime fans wade through the crowds of mothers and children to talk blood and guts with him.)
He's also writing a book about North Carolina painter and designer Bob Timberlake, whose creativity Bledsoe finds inspiring.
"He's the world's greatest optimist, too," he says. "So that's nice."