Penn State Cold Case: The Unsolved Murder of Betsy Aardsma

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Call numbers have changed and shelves have been moved, but it has proved impossible to expunge the mystery of the 51st row in the basement “Stacks” of Penn State’s Pattee Library. The shelves contain a history far more tragic than the contents of the dusty philosophy tomes they hold.

Forty-five years ago, a sensational murder took the smile out of Happy Valley. The body of 22-year-old graduate student Betsy Aardsma was found amid piles of overturned books in the area of shelving affectionately known as the “Stacks.” With no killer apprehended and no weapon found, the case has remained an unsolved fascination for students and members of the community ever since.

“It’s a legend every school acquires,” said long-time library employee Alissa Mann. “Something occurs and then it’s whispered down the alley until it’s unrecognizable.”

Aardsma met her untimely end on the afternoon of November 28, 1969. Aardsma had returned to Penn State early from Thanksgiving break to get a head start on an English paper. Her research led her to one of the darker and more isolated parts of the library. Police speculate that it was there that an unknown assailant attacked Aardsma from behind, stabbing her once in the left breast and puncturing her pulmonary artery and the right ventricle of her heart.

According The Daily Collegian, the campus newspaper, help only found Aardsma 15 to 25 minutes after she was stabbed. A student working a mere 60 feet away discovered a collapsed Aardsma in a pile of fallen books.

Believing Aardsma suffered from an epileptic fit and had bitten her tongue, first responders failed to notice Aardsma’s stab wound. Her red dress concealed any sign of blood. It wasn’t until Aardsma was transported to the campus health center that doctors discovered the one-inch wide, three-inch deep stab wound. Lt. William Kimmel, commander of the State College police in 1969, told The Collegian that Aardsma must have been dead within five to ten minutes of the attack.

A larger question quickly overcame the initial shock of a homicide on campus. In a school that then held 26,000 students, the Collegian reported that 3,348 passed through the library that day. Which one of them killed Betsy Aardsma?

David DeKok, author of Murder in the Stacks, a work detailing the lives of Aardsma and her potential killer, said that the case was lost within 90 minutes of the murder. With very little training, campus patrol failed to secure the crime scene, allowing numerous students and faculty to run through. A janitor had even mopped up a pool of urine found near the scene, moving things around and destroying evidence. By the time police arrived, outside influences had compromised the crime scene.

The only lead investigators had to follow revolved around loose reports of a man fleeing the scene. Several witnesses claimed to have bumped into a man running through the bookshelves. Allegedly, the suspect once stopped and said, “Somebody better help that girl.”

Thousands were interviewed and police continue to actively seek leads, but have failed to identify the killer. Mann said that investigators still sought out clues in the basement stacks within the last ten years.

While police continue the search, the academic community has given the knifeman a name in the last few years.

Many investigators and researchers now believe with near certainty that known child molester Richard Haefner murdered Aardsma. Known for his erratic temper and violence towards women, Haefner attended Penn State at the same time as Aardsma, even living in the same residence hall. After going on a few dates with Haefner, Aardsma broke off the relationship, telling family and friends that he frightened her, which left him upset and angry.

DeKok said that before news of the crime made the newspapers, Haefner showed up at the home of his academic advisor Lauren Wright, distraught about the murder. Though Wright knew of Haefner’s instability and the fact that he regularly carried a knife for protection, Wright maintained silence for seven years. When he finally spoke up, he made his statement to Penn State officials and the state police were never contacted. “The case disappeared in Penn State bureaucracy,” DeKok said.

Though theory pinpoints Richard Haefner as a key person of interest, without more concrete evidence, it may prove too difficult to meet the burden of proof. Haefner died of a heart attack in 2002 and police have yet to label him as a suspect. Forty-five years after the murder, the case remains cold in the vault of state police.

DeKok said that such inconclusiveness transformed the Aardsma case from an unfavorable piece of Penn State history to an urban legend. “In the absence of real facts, people fill in the blanks,” he said.

Numerous theories have emerged across the decades, each more ridiculous than the last. Mann said that potential suspects in the killing have ranged from fraternity brothers to Ted Bundy. In 1979, DeKok said the story had been altered to the point where Aardsma was murdered because her name was the first in the phone book and her body had rotted in the stacks for two days before it was discovered.

Others conclude that Aardsma never left the library. Reports of a ghost in the basement began soon after her death. Among other paranormal activity, students claim to have heard otherworldly screams and witnessed shadowy figures walking through walls where doors and halls used to be. More than one female student has stated they were attacked in the basement by an unseen figure. Every so often, a lit candle finds its way to the row where Aardsma was murdered.

Whether a subject of fascination or yet another reason to avoid the library like the plague, Aardsma’s story has and will remain inextricably linked to the university. Alhough many won’t recall a name, DeKok said that most graduates since 1969 could tell you about “the stabbing in the Stacks.”

Even today students find reasons to avoid the basement. Ghost or no ghost, many find studying at a murder site just a little too creepy. Despite the university’s lack of acknowledgement, the case survives through legend and the consistent development of new theories. While it’s hard to imagine that a killer still lurks among the periodicals, renovating and rearranging shelves fails to erase the stigma.

Though she personally doesn’t fear the basement, library employee Jennifer Funk said the eeriness is impossible to deny. “The floor is extremely quiet. If you screamed you wouldn’t think anyone one would hear it.”

Daniel Kuhn is a senior studying journalism at Penn State University. A great companion. Just don't feed him after midnight.

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