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Murder at Penn State – Betsy Aardsma

Born in Holland, Michigan, 22-year-old Betsy Aardsma, like many other women in small towns across America, was intrigued by the larger world. She thrived on the idea of helping others and dreamed of joining the Peace Corps. She was filled with liberal ideologies and had profound empathy for the underprivileged.

Her boyfriend, David L. Wright, however, told her that he couldn’t promise he would wait for her. Aardsma was besotted and dropped her own ambitions and her own plans and followed him to Pennsylvania. Aardsma enrolled in the graduate English program at Penn State’s main campus while David enrolled at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey. Aardsma would visit her boyfriend on weekends, taking the bus from Penn State to Hershey. Her parents were quite relieved that she was leaving Ann Arbor for Penn State. Reports had been circulating in the media of a serial killer targeting young women in college; he would later be identified as John Normin Collins. The Aardsmas believed that Penn State would be a much safer location for their daughter.

They were sadly mistaken.

Aardsma was expected to do well in life. Her teachers at school had nothing but praise for the hard-working student. Tragically, however, she never got the chance to reach her full potential.

It was the 28th of November, 1969, and Aardsma was in the library on the campus at Pennsylvania State University. She was there to research for a paper she was working on. Between 16:45 and 16:55, Aardsma was in Row 51 of the stacks of books. The space between the rows is extremely narrow. There isn’t enough room for two people to pass unless one turns sideways. The shelving units extended right to the wall meaning that there was only one entry and one exit. It would have been impossible to escape if cornered.

A witness in a row nearby would later say he heard a man and a woman having a conversation. It wasn’t an argument, he said. Shortly afterwards, the same witness said he heard a gasp and books falling to the ground. Moments later, two men walked out of the library, commenting “somebody better help that girl” to Mary Erdley, a student who knew Aardsma.

As Erdley searched the library, she found Aardsma. She was lying motionless in Row 51. Students originally believed she had fainted or suffered some kind of seizure. In fact, she had been stabbed once through the heart with a hunting-style knife with a one-edged blade 3 ½ to 4 inches long. The fact that she had been stabbed wouldn’t be revealed until she got to the hospital. The internal wound bled almost completely into her lungs. Her red dress camouflaged the small amount of blood that did seep from the wound. As Aardsma was stabbed, she slumped to the floor, pulling books down on herself as she fell. It took her approximately five minutes to die. The lack of defensive wounds indicated that she had been attacked from behind. The fact that she didn’t let out a scream is also indicative of this.

When investigators arrived at the crime scene, they were more than dismayed to discover that it had already been cleaned by the janitor. “It was just a bad set of circumstances for police,” said Trooper Kent Bernier. “The body gets removed. The scene gets contaminated. Then it’s a murder. I mean, you couldn’t imagine that today.”1 Since it wasn’t immediately known that Aardsma had been stabbed, students weren’t aware that Row 51 should have been an active crime scene. Numerous people had been in and out of the scene, touching books and contaminating potential evidence.

The first point of call was to question David Wright. In any murder investigation, the suspicion first falls on those closest to the victim. “Dave was a big suspect because whoever it was stabbed her in the vena cava, and because he was a medical student he would have known where to plunge the knife,” said Dr. Steven Margles, David’s roommate. David told investigators that he had been studying with his friends at the time of the murder. All of these friends corroborated his alibi; they had all been studying anatomy 100 miles away at Hershey.

Aardsma had been visiting Wright for Thanksgiving just the week before the murder. He had asked her to stay in Hershey for the weekend but she told him she had too much studying to do. He drove her to the bus depot in Harrisburg and it was the last time he saw her alive. He called this his biggest regrets in life. “I always wonder if she had stayed down that weekend that would have happened…”2

Troopers Mike Mutch and Ron Tyger were sent to Aardama’s hometown in a futile search for a potential motive for her slaying, something in her past that could lead to a potential suspect. They went through her letters and interviewed her friends and family. They found nothing. “We did not discover or find anything that would give rise to a reason, a motive. There was absolutely no motive at all to this situation,” said Tyger.

The desk clerk and several students helped an artist create composite sketches of people of interest. The student who found Aardsma, Mary Erdley, described two men she saw that night. One of the men came forward and was cleared but the other man was never identified.

The murder of Aardsma never received much media attention. It was underscored two days later by the arrest of the “Manson Family” in regards to the Tate-LaBianca murders.

The “Manson Family.”

Over the forthcoming years, there have been an abundance of theories in the murder of Aardsma.

One theory is that she was killed by somebody that she knew. Aardsma was dressed quite smartly. Aardsma’s friend, Linda Marsa, said that Aardsma was more of a casual dresser and most likely wouldn’t have been wearing a dress in winter just to study in the library. “Personally? I think it was one of her fellow students who knew her,” Trooper Mike Simmers said. “This was up close and personal. I just feel it.”3

Another theory was that Aardsma had happened upon a gay sexual encounter and was killed to prevent her from telling anybody. This theory garnered attention due to what professor Mary Willard of Penn State found near where Aardsma was murdered. Willard was a member of the chemistry faculty and would frequently assist police with lab work from crime scenes. According to Trooper Mike Simmers, Willard went to the crime scene with a black light which is used to reveal the presence of human bodily fluids, including both blood and semen. According to Troopers who were at the scene, the light showed up a of of semen. “Troopers there said it was everywhere. I mean, there was a lot going on in that area,” said Trooper Kent Bernier. Moreover, 20 to 30 pornographic books were discovered stuffed among the shelves in the area that Aardsma was stabbed. Robert Smith, a retired state trooper who investigated the case, doesn’t think this theory holds much water, however: “I just can’t buy into that theory too deep.”

The third theory is that Aardsma was killed by a professor. Investigators spent a considerable time investigating Robert G. Durgy. He had come to Penn State from the University of Michigan as an English instructor. Just three weeks after Aardsma’s slaying, in the midst of the investigation, Durgy committed suicide by crashing his car into a bridge abutment. His widow told investigators that he was plagued by “demons” and that he had a long history of depression. She did confirm that her husband and Aardsma were both English scholars but that they had left Penn State just the day before the murder.

Another theory is that Aardsma was murdered by drug dealers and this theory has a couple of variations. One is that Aardsma witnessed a drug deal in the stacks and was murdered to keep her quiet. This theory stemmed from the fact that a drug dealer from Philadelphia had shown up on state police intelligence just before the murder. Trooper Mike Simmers refutes this theory, however, saying: “It wasn’t him. We proved he was in Philly.” The other variation of this theory is that Aardsma was killed by her friend who was also a drug dealer. Aardsma’s friend, Phyllis Wich Vandenberg, said that two state troopers came to Washington D.C. to interview her in regards to this unidentified drug dealer friend. Investigators asked her whether she thought Aardsma would have said anything if she knew that her friend was involved in a drug ring. They asked would she have reported it to police or ignored it. “I said no, she would have kept on her merry way and acted like she didn’t see it,” she said.

One of the popular theories amongst sleuths is that Aardsma was killed by Ted Bundy. Bundy had spent part of his youth in Philadelphia and had spent the first half of 1969 at Temple University, placing him in the same area at the time of the murder. However, it should be noted that the modus operandi doesn’t fit with Bundy. He would typically bludgeon, rape and strangle his victims . “There was some conjecture that maybe Ted Bundy was responsible, so they kicked that around,” Trooper Ron Tyger said.

Ted Bundy.

Arguably the most plausible theory was widely overlooked in the beginning of the investigation. Just hours after Aardsma’s murder, Richard Haefner went to a Penn State professor’s home and asked if he had heard the news. Haefner had once dated Aardsma and when questioned by police, he told them they had stopped dating in October 1969. However, at that time, Aardsma and Wright had been dating and were even in talks about marriage. He also told police that he hadn’t even heard about her death until the next day. This, however, was a blatant lie.

He was never investigated any further.

Those who knew him said he was odd. In fact, some used the term “sociopath.”4 On one occasion, he drove over 800 miles and showed up on the doorstep of a woman that he barely even knew to proclaim his love to her. She told him to leave or she would call the police. His neighbours avoided him at all costs. Once he punctured a neighbour’s tire with a knife; on another occasion, he threw dog waste through a neighbour’s car window.

Skip forward to 1975, Haefner was arrested for allegedly molesting a 13-year-old boy. The sensational trial shed some light into his extremely erratic and bizarre behaviour. Ultimately, his trial ended in a hung jury but in 1979, he cleared his name. For the remainder of his life, he was continually in and out of trouble with the law. In 1992, he was accused of inappropriate behaviour with a child and in 1998, he was charged with assaulting a woman in a parking lot. He kicked and punched the woman with such force that he dislocated her law and loosened several teeth.

Richard Haefner & Betsy Aardsma.

More circumstantial evidence which could point towards his guilt was an argument he had with his mother. His nephew, Chris Haefner, once overheard his mother shout: “You killed that girl and now you’re killing me!”5 In 2002, he died alone. He had no immediate family other than his nephew who believed his uncle was guilty of Aardsma’s murder. In fact, since his death, two books have been released which finger him as the killer of Aardsma.

Despite the plethora of theories and an exhaustive investigation, the murder of Betsy Aardsma still remains unsolved.


Recommended Reading:

Footnotes:

  1. The Patriot-News, 8 December, 2008 – “A 39 Year Slaying Investigation”
  2. The Patriot News, 7 December, 2008 – “A Grad Student’s Fatal Stabbing”
  3. The Patriot-News, 8 December, 2008 – “5 Theories on Aardsma’s Case”
  4. Sunday News, 28 August, 2011 – “Local Man is Fingered As Mystery Murderer”
  5. Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era, 22 November, 2013 – “69 Murder Mystery Spawns Docu-Drama”

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Frankie
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Wow some information in here I did not know about this case. She sounded like a real cool woman who would have gone on to do some amazing things….

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