MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Melvin Bledsoe was living the American dream with a wife, two kids and a successful tour bus company in Memphis, but it all came crashing down June 1, 2009.
Seven shots were fired at an Army recruiting center in Little Rock, killing one person.
Melvin got a call from the FBI and was told his son was the shooter.
“It was like really my heart dropped to the bottom of my shoe,” Melvin said. “It was the darkest day of my life.”
Carlos Bledsoe, a young Memphian — now known as Abdul-Hakim Mohammad — was being called a terrorist.
What happened? Carlos had been radicalized. He wanted to bring jihad to America. His target: men in uniform.
After Carlos fired the shots, he tried to escape but he was captured a few miles from the attack.
“I knew that I had to be strong for my family,” Melvin said. “To try to understand how our life just got turned upside down.”
Carlos graduated in 2003 from Craigmont High School in Memphis and eventually enrolled in Tennessee State University.
It was there that he decided to pursue a different faith.
“He was welcomed at the mosque with open arms,” Melvin said. “He met a lot of people who later became his brothers.”
For his real family, the change was noticeable, perceptible and troubling because, they now believe, that was the beginning of the radicalization at the hands of a small group of Islamic extremists.
“I feel like they knew, you know, what will push his buttons. What will alarm him,” said Carlos’ sister, Monica Holley.
“They were trying to get him more on their side and against Americans,” Monica said. “So, they are like, ‘Ok well, look what the Americans are doing to the Muslim women.”
That is when Carlos changed his name and moved to Yemen, where the cancer of radicalization metastasized. A Nashville cleric introduced Carlos to some of the most radical, extremist academies in the Middle East.
Melvin explained how it began:
“Well, he started off and was supposed to be teaching English and of course, I think he might have had a couple days doing that. But that was only a front.”
He eventually ended up in a training camp in the rugged mountains in Yemen. That’s where Melvin says the brainwashing and the military training began.
When Carlos finally returned to the states for the holidays, it was clear he wasn’t the same.
“He wanted us to, you know, become Muslims,” Monica said.
When they refused, they say Carlos became angry — an anger that led to the shooting his trial, conviction, and now a lifetime behind bars.
“We had no idea he had been fully brainwashed, fully radicalized by the time he got back to America. No idea,” his family says. “He was programmed. He was trained to kill …”
Police in Yemen were monitoring the radical group and ultimately arrested Carlos with a fake passport and a thumb drive with bomb-making instructions. Carlos was deported back to the U.S.
Hoping to get his son back on his feet, Melvin opened a branch of the family tour business in Little Rock with hopes that Carlos would run it.
At that time, the family says they were still kept in the dark, unaware of how Carlos had been indoctrinated and changed.
Over one weekend in early June of 2009, Carlos had tried and failed to attack the home of a rabbi in Nashville and an Army office in Kentucky.
When he returned home to Little Rock, he accidentally stumbled upon an unexpected victim — a convenient target standing outside an army recruiting center.
Private Andy Long was gunned down by Carlos. Another soldier was injured.
After he was arrested for murder, Carlos would write, “Consider this a small retaliation. The best is to come, Allah willing. This is not the first attack and won’t be the last.”
Carlos is currently serving a life sentence at the supermax prison in Lincoln, Arkansas.
Melvin and his family were in uncharted water. They felt like they were drowning, with nowhere to turn, no one to lean on, no support for the answer to the all-important question of why.
Knowing other families would someday be confronted with their same painful reality, they started a lifeline called Parents for Peace, which is headquartered in Boston.
Knowing the pain Carlos had created, the Bledsoes reached out to an expert to help them share their mistakes — and their suffering — hoping to spare future generations the agony of extremism.
Myrieum Churchill understands the ticking time bomb of radicalization. She’s a clinician who’s studied violent behavior and is now executive director of the Bledsoes’ organization Parents for Peace.
“They are really using their pain to spread the word in the communities to say, look this has happened to us. We are a good family. We run a small business. We were all happy. And this is what happened to us and it can happen to any anyone,” Churchill said.
Melvin said he still loves his son, but he’ll have to pay for what he did.
“I’m troubled by that. You know, I think what he did was a crime. And of course you know, we know, that when you commit a crime you have to pay for it,” he said. “But I also want the world to understand that before he committed that crime in Little Rock, there was a crime committed against him.”
Monica says it’s still a difficult subject for her.
“You try to hold up this wall, you try to be strong and you talk about it. And I think the more we talk about it, the stronger it makes you or makes me. But it hurts.”
Melvin said he’ll have a pain in his heart until he dies, “but the good part about it, I feel better when I can help someone else.”
So that’s what they do now — they try to help others.
Melvin and his daughter are also extraordinarily apologetic and sympathetic toward the victims — understanding it was their Carlos who took a life. That’s why they’re created this organization, hoping others will recognize warning signs and learn from their painful past.
“You have to explain to your children, you know, and you, like, how do I explain it?” Melvin said. “I don’t know. I have not, I have not told them what happened.
“All I said was, you know, Uncle Carlos did something bad and, you know, this is what happened when you do something bad.”
No one dreams to be on the first page of the newspaper. Not when the headline reads terrorist — or murderer.
It’s his son today — Melvin Bledsoe hopes it’s not someone else’s tomorrow.