Books by Jerry Bledsoe

A GIFT OF ANGELS by Jerry Bledsoe
Released: Nov. 1, 1999

Follow-up to The Angel Doll (1997), though Bledsoe is perhaps best known for Death Sentence: The True Story of Velma Barfield's Life, Crimes and Execution (1998) and similar true-crime books. Or maybe not, since The Angel Doll, we—re told, sold over 100,00 copies, with paperback release for both it and Death Sentence coming in November and a film version in development. The sequel replays the heart of the earlier book: set in the "50s in Thomasville, North Carolina, it tells of two newsboys, the narrator and Whitey Black, and Whitey's dying sister Sandy, who wants an angel doll. Whitey spends his precious nine dollars savings on a doll and a seamstress to dress it as an angel. But, alas, Sandy dies before she gets the angel. The narrator learns years later that Whitey now gives dolls to a children's hospital every Christmas in his sister's memory. Then we hear about North Carolinian Mutt Burton, who was 58 when Bledsoe, a cub reporter, met him at 26. Burton, a gifted photographer and regional actor (he played W.O. Gant in Look Homeward, Angel), celebrated all 12 tingling days of Christmas. He had Christmas in his bones. Mutt's death, and writing The Angel Doll, prompts Bledsoe to seek out the lost Whitey. Long after, he learns that Whitey died a hero in Vietnam. The rest of the story tells of Whitey's life, which is ten times more moving than The Angel Doll and may sell well past Christmas. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 1, 1998

Veteran true-crime writer Bledsoe (Before He Wakes, 1994, etc.) offers a vividly bifurcated portrait of a woman who was by turns a cruel killer and a loving grandmother. Velma Barfield was the first woman in 20 years to be executed in the US when she was given a lethal injection in North Carolina in 1984. She had confessed to killing four people with arsenic (though she was tried and convicted for only one death). Her path to crime: After a childhood of poverty and abuse, Velma made a happy marriage and devoted herself to her two children. In turn, they looked after her when a series of ailments led to Barfield's addiction to a shelf-ful of painkillers and sedatives. Often drugged to a stupor, and further afflicted with undiagnosed manic-depressive illness, she grew selfish and shrewish, poisoning her mother as well as her boyfriend and two elderly people who employed her as a caregiver (after forging their signatures to obtain money for her drugs). The second half of Bledsoe's smooth and engrossing narrative depicts the —other— Velma Barfield—the woman who found God after her murder conviction and served while in prison as a spiritual mentor and confidante to other women prisoners, earning their love and that of prison administrators and chaplains. This Velma, as Bledsoe makes clear, might have been best sentenced to life in prison. The author's account also evokes the drama of intriguing conflictual characters: Joe Freeman Britt, the near-fanatical prosecutor who obtained her conviction; Jimmy Little and Dick Burr, the lawyers who selflessly volunteered years of work without pay, trying to get Barfield's death sentence overturned; and Pam and Ronnie, Velma's children, whose lives were thrown into turmoil. Bledsoe's balanced and thorough examination raises important questions about the death penalty and how it is applied. Read full book review >
THE ANGEL DOLL by Jerry Bledsoe
Released: Nov. 11, 1997

Cleanly written and nicely detailed Christmas story, not wholesale sentimentality, by true-crime writer Bledsoe (Before He Wakes, 1994, etc.). Back in the '50s in Thomasville, North Carolina, ``Whitey'' Black and the narrator (nameless), both newsboys and fourth- graders, become friends when they go halves on a paper route. Neither boy is well off. Whitey lives on welfare with his cigarette-smoking mother and polio-crippled four-year-old sister, Sandy. One Thanksgiving a charity group gives the Blacks a bag of groceries, shaming Whitey before his friend. As time passes, though, Whitey at last allows the narrator into his house, where he meets Sandy. Sandy's one source of solace seems to come from the story The Littlest Angel, which Whitey repeatedly reads to her. Come Christmas, Whitey decides to buy his sister a much longed for angel doll. But no such item is in the stores. When the two lads see a big doll that someone might be able to dress as an angel, Whitey devotes his savings to buying the nine-dollar toy and hiring a seamstress. But then Sandy is hospitalized and dies before she can receive the angel. Though the narrator never sees Whitey again, he discovers, as an adult, that his old friend has been giving out dolls to a children's hospital every Christmas. Bledsoe says his story was inspired by ``my memory of the first person I'd know to die.'' But the tale, while sometimes affecting, has little impact, perhaps mainly because Sandy lacks weight on the page. There's an idyllic moment when the boys go out with the narrator's father to gather two Christmas trees and mistletoe from the woods, and indeed, this short novel's best quality has less to do with the plot than with descriptions evoking local stores and streets at Christmas. May well move young, unsophisticated readers. (Literary Guild alternate selection) Read full book review >
Released: Aug. 8, 1994

Thanks to the fine-toothed-comb reporting of ace crime journalist Bledsoe (Blood Games, 1991, etc.), there's no mistaking for fiction this seemingly incredible tale of sex, greed, and murder. An emergency team responds to a 911 call on a quiet, residential street in Durham, NC. It seems that high school coach Russ Stager was accidentally shot and killed when his wife, Barbara, set off the pistol he kept under his pillow. But a dogged detective's investigation slowly reveals the apple-pie family's accident was really a coldblooded murder for money—and not Barbara's first. Flashing back to her first marriage in another North Carolina county, Bledsoe builds the portrait of a suburban southern perfectionist who, when bored with daily conjugal life, goes shopping for expensive clothes, luxury cars, and extramarital affairs. When the debts mount up, Barbara gets a gun. In the middle of the night, her husband (and father of her two sons), Larry Ford, is shot. The physical evidence doesn't support an accident, but it's an election year, and due to political considerations within the police department, the one suspicious detective and his investigation are given the heave-ho. With over $70,000 in life insurance claims in hand, Barbara moves to Durham with a new lease on the good life. Ten years later, her second husband's ``accidental'' shooting—also in the night and also preceded by mounting debts and adultery—leads to her first-degree murder conviction and death sentence. Bledsoe masterfully weaves together the two murders, their investigations, and Barbara Stager's trial. He even maintains suspense when there's no longer any question of whodunit or why. If this fact-packed tale reads a bit like a TV docudrama—the kind you can't turn off, even though you know the ending—it's probably because it's scheduled to be a four-hour CBS miniseries. Read full book review >
Released: Nov. 1, 1991

Chilling if overlong true-crime chronicle by the author of the bestselling Bitter Blood (1988). Here, as in the earlier work, the setting is North Carolina and again the narrative revolves about a brutal murder committed by a family member. Though less involving than Bitter Blood, this is nonetheless top-notch reporting. In mid-1988, a hooded figure burst into the bedroom of Lieth and Bonnie Von Stein in the town of Washington, N.C. The intruder bludgeoned and stabbed the pair, leaving Lieth dead and Bonnie gravely wounded. The woman was able to summon aid and eventually survived. Suspicion soon focused on Chris Pritchard, Bonnie's son by a previous marriage. Chris was a college student in nearby Raleigh, where he apparently was less interested in his studies than he was in drugs and the game Dungeons & Dragons. Evidence, including a crudely drawn map of the area and a charred baseball bat, was discovered near the scene and seemed to link the young man to the crime. Bledsoe traces the subsequent police investigation in painstaking detail, showing how it eventually became clear that Chris had enlisted the aid of two college chums, Neal Henderson and James Upchurch, and masterminded the plot to kill his mother and stepfather in order to inherit their multimillion-dollar estate. The author is especially effective in capturing the aimlessness and amorality of the campus scene, though he does tend to overload his narrative with such details as street addresses and incidental figures in the story. Also, the linkage he attempts to establish between Dungeons & Dragons and the crime seems tenuous. Still, by and large, a worthwhile follow-up to Bledsoe's earlier blockbuster—but for a richer, more riveting account of the same crime, see Joe McGinniss's Cruel Doubt, reviewed below. (Eight pages of photographs—not seen.) Read full book review >