Editor’s note: Although author David DeKok identifies Rick Haefner as Betsy Aardsma’s killer, Haefner was never charged or convicted of this crime in a court of law before his death.
Pretty much everyone at Penn State has heard about the 1969 murder in the stacks of Pattee Library, although most will admit to not knowing much more about it. Forty-four years have passed since 22-year-old graduate student Betsy Aardsma was stabbed, yet the investigation of the case remains open. Police were never able to identify who murdered Aardsma on November 28, 1969.
After learning about the murder and finding himself fascinated with Aardsma’s story, former Patriot-News reporter David DeKok decided to write a book about the case. The book will focus on the personal lives of Aardsma and her killer, as well as the investigation of the murder. It will also be a portrait of an era: Penn State in the late 1960s. DeKok weaves in the history of the civil rights and anti-war movements at the university, including the 1970 student riots.
We caught up with DeKok, a native of Aardsma’s hometown of Holland, Michigan, to talk about his new book. He hasn’t been able to forget Aardsma since he saw the “hauntingly beautiful” photo of her on the front page on his local newspaper more than four decades ago. This was initially intended to be a profile on his work, but his answers were so compelling and in-depth that we decided to present them to you here, untouched.
Onward State: What is the book’s title and release date?
David DeKok: My book will be titled, The Girl Who Was Killed in the Library: Betsy Aardsma, Penn State University, and the Murderer Who Got Away. It will be published in September 2014 by Globe Pequot Press.
OS: Are you connected to Penn State in any way?
DD: My wife, Lisa W. Brittingham, is a 1983 graduate of Penn State. But I graduated from Hope College in Holland, Michigan and did graduate work at George Washington University. Until I began researching this story, I knew Penn State only from a distance. I think it must be difficult to write critically about a university if you have close ties, especially if you you depend on the school’s good graces for a graduate degree or tenure, or you want your child to be admitted as a student. You pull your punches, if you throw them at all. When I was researching one of my previous books, The Epidemic, which is about a devastating 1903 typhoid epidemic at Cornell University, I was amazed that no one had written a book about it before me. It was such a compelling story, even if it reflected badly on Cornell and the ruling elite of Ithaca, N.Y. But then it dawned on me that the most likely person to have done so would have been a graduate student or professor. Well, see above.
OS: When did you first hear about Aardsma’s story?
DD: Betsy and I grew up in the same town, Holland, Michigan, which is on the Lake Michigan side of the state and then had about 25,000 people. We both went to Holland High School, although she was six years older than me, and I didn’t know her. We did have several teachers in common, however. Betsy graduated fourth in her class in 1965 and had been number one as a sophomore. She intended to become a physician, still well out of the ordinary for a woman then, but gave it up after a year and went back to her other love, English. She did two years at Hope College and finished her undergraduate work at the University of Michigan. Men were drawn to her beauty, intellect, and friendliness. Kurt Vonnegut, briefly a visiting writer at Michigan, showed up at a party Betsy and her roommates had at their apartment in Ann Arbor, and it wasn’t for the beer. She had good grades and could have enrolled in graduate studies at Michigan, but her family — terrified about the serial killer then murdering pretty brunettes in the Ann Arbor area, pressured her to follow her boyfriend to Penn State, where he was going to start medical school. He was not her killer.
I was 16 years old on Nov. 28, 1969 and first heard about her murder when the Holland Evening Sentinel landed on our driveway. It was the top story and would be for several days, at least until her funeral. The Sentinel stories included the hauntingly beautiful portrait of her from the 1969 yearbook of the University of Michigan. In part because of that photo, and in part because it was such a strange murder — a good girl of unblemished reputation brutally stabbed to death in a library — I never completely forgot about it. When I began working as a reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot-News in 1987, I became aware of the continuing interest in the case among Penn State students. In 1988, I assisted one of my fellow journalists, Phil Galewitz, a recent Penn State graduate and ex-Collegian reporter, in a story he wrote for the Patriot-News about how after 19 years, the crime was still unsolved. He sat next to me in the newsroom and mentioned it one day. I told him Betsy’s parents were still alive and that their number was in the book, and he did talk to her mother.
OS: What made you want to write about Aardsma’s murder?
DD: Her story appealed to me on several levels. My previous books, Unseen Danger, Fire Underground, and The Epidemic, were about small towns and small town people in crisis. Those stories fascinate me. Unseen Danger and Fire Underground are about the Centralia mine fire. Betsy Aardsma’s story was not about an existential threat to an entire community, but it was about small town people, in both Holland and State College, struggling to cope with a terrible and seemingly inexplicable murder. As a veteran investigative reporter and a born-and-bred Hollander, I believed I could bring both professionalism and a fuller, more nuanced understanding of Betsy’s life to a book about the case. And I suspect it is every author’s secret desire to write about his or her hometown.
OS: Do you hope to clarify common misconceptions about the murder? Nearly every student has heard that a murder in the stacks occurred.
DD: Most Penn State alumni in my experience know that a girl was murdered in Pattee Library, but beyond that they often have wrong details. A Penn State student actually did a study in 1979 in which she surveyed fellow students about what they had heard about the murder. Their stories varied widely — and wildly. Several students she interviewed had heard that Betsy’s body had gone undiscovered for several days. Other students had heard she was a narcotics agent who had been both raped and murdered. Another problem was that the state police made no concerted effort to update the story as they went along, so information that was believed initially but later discovered to be wrong was not publicly withdrawn. For example, it was often reported for years that state police wanted to interview two men who had been seen running out of the Level 2 stacks just after her murder. In fact, it was one man, the killer. The second was a grad student from Mozambique who had actually followed the killer before losing him in the stacks and who was later interviewed under hypnosis. Other rumors in the Penn State community had Betsy being killed because she was a narcotics agent or because her parents were narcotics agents. Neither is even remotely true. Nor was she a nude model for the Art Department. There are some crazy tales out there.
OS: Who did you interview for your book?
DD: I conducted many, many interviews. Retired state police Sgt. George Keibler, a good man and skilled detective who was the chief investigator of the Aardsma murder from 1969-83, was my principal source for details about the murder and the early investigation. I was the first writer to whom he opened up fully — well, he held back a couple of names. He sat for seven or eight long interviews. Mike Simmers, who was the first state trooper to arrive at the already-compromised crime scene, provided me with many valuable observations and introduced me to other retired troopers who had worked on the case. I also interviewed many of Betsy’s high school and college friends, who opened up about the friend for whom they still grieve. I was able to interview only a couple of members of the extended Aardsma family. Her mother, brother, and sisters would not talk about her. Her mother’s interview with Ted Anthony of the Collegian in 1989 was the last known time any of her core family talked to the press. She died in 2012. Her father, who spiraled down into alcoholism after her murder, died in 1997. Interestingly, one of her cousins was Chris Van Allsburg, the author/illustrator of The Polar Express and Jumanji. We corresponded but it turned out the two branches of the family (Betsy’s mother was Esther Van Alsburg, with one ‘l’) were not close, and he didn’t know Betsy well, even though they were about the same age and had gone to the University of Michigan at the same time.
OS: How did you do research for this book?
DD: Very few documents about the murder and investigation are publicly available. The Penn State Archives has one file folder about the Aardsma murder, mostly press releases and news clips. I have a lot of experience in archival research from my previous books, and this murder — the first ever on the campus itself — and the subsequent investigation by the state police should have generated boxes of documents from the Penn State administration. As many as 40 state troopers were on campus for weeks questioning more than 2,500 students and faculty.
Penn State financially supported the investigation, yet there is perhaps only a single, inconsequential document in the archives about any of this. I looked in all relevant collections. Penn State president Eric Walker, who wrote detailed memos to the file about many things, including the weather, seemingly wrote nothing about this great trauma on his campus. Nor did he send a note of condolence to the Aardsma family, although he wrote sympathy notes to four or five other people during that period. Very strange. I suspect a decision was made early on not to put documents pertaining to the Aardsma murder in the archives or to take them out if they were already there.
The current archival staff was generally helpful but could shed no light on what happened to the Aardsma records. I simply cannot believe they never existed. Penn State is mostly exempt from the Open Records Act, and even if it wasn’t, the general exemption in the law for records relating to investigations would probably keep most of them out of public view if they were suddenly rediscovered and the university didn’t want to release them.
There is a huge archive relating to the Aardsma case held by the Pennsylvania State Police, but these 45-year-old documents are untouchable under the state Open Records Act. Believe me, I’ve tried. The exemption is ironclad and never expires. One has to question what purpose this serves after 45 years. I understand their institutional sensibilities about not officially solving the case, but the public has a greater interest in knowing why the killer got away and was never brought to justice. What would it hurt to have new sets of impartial eyes look at those old files? They know who the killer was, but he’s dead and they won’t close the case. All of the troopers who worked on the initial investigation and who are still alive helped me as much as they could. But I received only minimal cooperation from the current command structure of the PSP.
OS: What is the plot of the book? Does it center around the day of the murder/the later investigation or is it more about Aardsma’s life?
DD: All of this and more. My book in a sense is a dual biography of Betsy and her killer, Rick Haefner, a geology graduate student at Penn State who died in 2002. I look at her life, his life, and how they collided on Nov. 28, 1969, in Pattee Library. The book starts out with the immediate aftermath of her murder, then segues into the investigation. Then I explore Betsy’s life in Holland and away at college, her decision to enroll in graduate school at Penn State, and the events leading up to the murder. Then I look at Haefner’s wretched life. He was from Lancaster, Pa., and did his undergraduate work at Franklin & Marshall College. I say wretched because he was a pedophile attracted to pre-teen boys. There are numerous documented incidents, yet until 1975 he was never arrested for any of them. He was just passed along. He was supposed to get psychiatric counseling at Penn State when he enrolled as a graduate student in the fall of 1965, but there is no evidence he did. Haefner sought out women, including Betsy, as cover for what he was. He was tall, handsome, well-dressed (albeit with a predilection for khaki pants), book-smart, and evil and had a hair-trigger temper where women were concerned. I found incidents of this throughout his life. And he was known to carry a homemade knife for protection.
My book concludes with a section about how Haefner was uncovered — he was dead by that time — and the inexplicable decision by the state police command structure to disavow their own cold case officer, who was convinced Haefner was Betsy’s killer and had informed the Aardsma family in the summer of 2010. That was how I heard about Haefner. Betsy’s younger sister Kathy talked about it at her Holland High class reunion. One of the friends she told mentioned it to her hairdresser, who then told her sister, a friend of Betsy who was one of my key sources. She then emailed me.
OS: Can you tell us any new information you learned that will be revealed in your book?
DD: Penn State’s administration was indifferent to security in Pattee Library in the year leading up to Betsy’s murder and was not prepared for a major crime on campus. There had been at least two arson fires, probably politically-related, in the library that year and numerous incidents of sexual assault or creepy behavior toward women students. The Director of Libraries, Carl Jackson, pleaded with Col. William B. Pelton, the director of campus security, to permanently assign a member of the Campus Patrol to the library when it was open but Pelton refused. The Campus Patrol was the unarmed and (in 1969) mostly untrained security force on campus. Pelton said he couldn’t make a special exception for Pattee Library. He just didn’t get it. The university Safety Council, over which Pelton presided, spent its time discussing issues like the dangers of unattended coffeemakers. The library finally reallocated funds in its own budget to hire two security guards but could not afford to have them work all hours the library was open. One would work each night from 8 to midnight, and they caught several sexual violators in the act. Betsy was murdered at 4:55 p.m., before the guard came on duty.
Pelton and the Campus Patrol botched the critical first 90 minutes after Betsy’s body was found on the floor of the stacks. He knew by 5:30 p.m. that Betsy had died in the library but didn’t treat it as even a potential crime scene. He sent Campus Patrolmen to the library, but they had no specific orders and stood by while students and even top university officials, including President Eric Walker, walked through the crime scene. Then a library custodian mopped the aisle where Betsy was murdered, cleaning up a puddle of urine and who knows what else. Things were touched and moved. There was no effort to stop people from leaving the library or to get names of possible witnesses. By the time Trooper Simmers of the PSP arrived around 6:30 p.m. — the soonest he could have gotten there — the damage was done, and the investigation never recovered. PSP tried hard to solve the case, but they were operating at a serious disadvantage.
My book also explores the unfortunate behavior of Penn State geology professor Lauren Wright, who was Rick Haefner’s advisor on his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation. Haefner showed up at Wright’s house in State College an hour after the murder, behaving in an agitated and suspicious manner. He wanted to know if there was anything in the news about a girl being killed in Pattee Library. There wasn’t, of course. Wright said nothing to anyone for seven years. In the summer or early fall of 1976, after Haefner had threatened him, he went to his dean, Charles Hosler, and told him about Haefner and what had happened, and of his suspicions that his former student was involved in Betsy’s murder. The dean promptly reported what Wright told him to the university counsel, Delbert McQuaid. Nothing happened. Sgt. Keibler told me that he was told nothing about the incident by McQuaid or anyone at Penn State. Wright could have picked up the phone and called the state police on his own but did not. He seemed to lack moral courage. As late as the early 1990s, he repeated his suspicions of Haefner’s involvement in the crime to another former student but maintained a relationship with Haefner until the latter’s death in 2002.
OS: If you could be any dinosaur, which would you be and why?
DD: I think I would have to go with the Ankylosaur. They were among the last dinosaurs standing 65 million years ago, built like Sherman tanks with armor plating, spikes, and clubs. We traditional journalists are made to feel like dinosaurs sometimes; if that is the case, I’ll at least be the last survivor.