When someone heads off to college, it’s assumed that they are moving onwards and upwards in life. Campuses are meant to be safe places. Libraries are meant to be quiet bastions of learning. This month’s unsolved murder revolves around a young woman enrolled at Penn State who walked into the library one night, and was carried out with a single stab wound to the chest. What happened to Betsy Aardsma in the stacks of Pattee Library? Let’s explore.
Who was Betsy?
Betsy Aardsma was born on July 11, 1947 to father Richard and mother Esther. She was the second oldest of four Aardsma children. She grew up in Holland, MI, which is on the coast of Lake Michigan. She was a smart young woman who graduated from Holland High School with honors. After graduating high school, she was accepted to Hope College in Holland, but that school left her unsatisfied. She transferred to the University of Michigan her sophomore year, and she majored in English. According to several sources, Betsy sought to rebel against the prescribed gender roles in the 60s. She wanted to join the Peace Corps to travel and help people.
Unfortunately, life led her away from the Peace Corps. She fell in love with a boy she met through an acquaintance. His name was David Wright. When she asked him if he would wait for her while she was away in the Peace Corps, David hesitated. He told Betsy that it was her choice – she could choose the Peace Corps and its exotic travels, or she could choose him and head to Pennsylvania, where he was going to be attending Law School. In the end, Betsy chose to enroll in a Graduate English program at Penn State. She had no idea that her choice would be fatal.
Betsy and David had spent Thanksgiving in 1969 with his fellow med students up in Hershey, PA. They parted ways at the bus depot, with Betsy heading back to Penn State’s main campus and David staying in Hershey as both had homework to catch up on before school resumed after the holiday break. Betsy took a day to settle back into campus. On November 28, 1969, she headed to the library to get some work done.
The exact time of the attack is not known, as there were no reports of strange noises, shouts, or screams at the library. Investigators believe that the attack took place between 4:45 and 4:55 PM. Betsy fell to the floor and one or two men – witness accounts vary on that fact – told an employee that “somebody better help that girl.” This is the only thing that alerted anyone to Betsy’s condition. As soon Betsy was located, mouth-to-mouth was performed as she was originally simply thought to have fainted. Someone called the campus hospital to send an ambulance, reporting that a student was unresponsive in the library.
The reason no one noticed the wound on Betsy is twofold. First, the wound was so deep that it did not produce much blood on the surface. Second, Betsy wore a red dress to the library that day, which obscured any blood that did surface from the wound. The stab wound was only discovered after her arrival at the hospital and her subsequent examination there. Unfortunately, there was nothing that anyone could do for Betsy, and she died shortly after her arrival at the campus hospital.
The investigation began with Betsy’s personal life, trying to find an obvious thread to follow. But Betsy came from a good family. She got along well with her peers and professors. She was in a committed relationship with a good boy. No one had a bad thing to say about her. She was a smart girl with a good social life, leading the police to look elsewhere for clues.
The biggest lead in the investigation was the man or men – reports differ on whether the speaker was alone or not – who alerted the library worker to Betsy’s need for help. They said “somebody better help that girl” which insinuates that they knew what happened, possibly because they were the one responsible for it. Unfortunately, in the ensuing rush to get Betsy to the hospital, the speaker was able to slip away unburdened. There is one composite sketch based on witness descriptions of this man, but it looks…very basic.
Despite the police begging students and residents to report any tips, no matter how disconnected it may seem to them, the case went cold shortly after the murder. The case never closed due to lack of effort, however. Investigating agencies still actively seek out information and elads regarding her case. And less in line with traditional investigative tactics, students interested in the paranormal have been known to try and contact Betsy with a Ouija board in the stacks each year – though none have reported receiving any reply.
There are a few theories that have been put forth in the decades since Betsy’s murder, but nearly all of them boil down to whether the attack was planned on Betsy specifically, or whether it was a crime of opportunity. There is very little evidence in this case to support any theory, as the crime itself was not discovered until Betsy arrived at the hospital. This hindered the investigation in a few ways – first, the scene was immediately compromised and evidence was destroyed and second, the perpetrator was able to slip away unnoticed. To me, that second point signals at least one thing about the attacker – they fit in with the college crowd in some way. With that in mind, let’s examine some theories.
The first theory is that Betsy was attacked by a random person. To be upfront, this theory does not seem at all possible to me. The method of attack was up close and personal – not to mention methodical. The only reason I can think of for someone to kill a stranger with a single stab wound in a very public place is for the thrill of it. But in my mind, if someone is doing it for the thrill, they’re not so steady in their execution and escape. Additionally, no one reported hearing Betsy scream and there were no signs of a struggle or attempted escape in the stacks where Betsy was found. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I think she at least recognized the attacker, or at least believed she did.
The second theory that comes up often is that Betsy’s boyfriend David Wright had something to do with her death. This seems to be due to the fact that most violence against women is perpetrated by someone close to them. But David had stayed away from campus that weekend due to the Thanksgiving holiday, and the other students he was staying with vouched for him. The police interrogated David, but eventually accepted his grief as genuine and accepted his alibi. David Wright is officially not a suspect in this case.
The final theory I will discuss is one that has been put forth by investigative reporters and authors looking into Betsy’s death. At the time of her murder, Betsy had recently broken off a relationship with a doctoral student named Richard Haefner. Of course, all evidence presented is circumstantial and everyone is innocent until proven guilty. With that caveat out of the way, let’s look at some circumstantial evidence that could point to Haefner. First, he knew allegedly knew about the murder before the information had spread widely through campus. He would have been able to fit in with the college crowd at the library without arousing suspicion. Plus, there was no evidence that Betsy screamed or struggled with her attacker, which possibly suggests that she knew her killer. Plus, Haefner showed signs of having an explosive temper and low regard for women throughout the years after Betsy’s murder. He had a motive, and the method was deeply personal. But, again, there is only circumstantial evidence here.
Due to the fact that the attack occurred on the Penn State campus, their police force have ownership of the case. Betsy’s death has gone unsolved for over fifty years. Her family deserves closure, Betsy deserves justice, and whoever committed this terrible murder deserves to pay for what they did. You can reach the Penn State Police at 814-863-1111. You can also report tips anonymously to Pennsylvania Crime Stoppers at 1-800-4-PA-TIPS.