On the day after Thanksgiving in 1969, Betsy Aardsma, a 22-year-old graduate student, was stabbed and killed in Pattee Library on the campus of Penn State University. In her hometown of Holland, Mich., the local newspaper’s front-page coverage of the murder included her senior class photo from the University of Michigan.
David DeKok, a Holland resident six years younger than the victim, was struck by the image.
“There was something about that picture that was captivating and mysterious,” DeKok recalls. “Why did this young girl become a crime victim?”
DeKok will be at Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont on Nov. 23 to talk about “Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away” (Globe Pequot Press, $18.95), his exhaustive look at Aardsma’s murder and why the man the author believes to be the killer got away.
Formerly a reporter with the Harrisburg Patriot-News, DeKok started the book after he wrote a two-part story about Aardsma for the newspaper in 2008.
While there were some errors by the state police who investigated the crime, DeKok thinks the tragedy might have been averted if Penn State’s administration had paid more attention to the library’s reputation as a meeting place for flashers, gropers and others who conducted seamy sexual acts in the stacks.
“The director of the library (W. Carl Jackson) was pleading with Col. (William) Pelton to assign more campus patrols to the library,” DeKok says.
But Pelton, the director of campus security, didn’t feel the library was a priority, instead concentrating on the student organizations that were protesting the Vietnam War and advocating for civil rights.
DeKok also thinks the problems in the library were ignored because of societal attitudes that condoned “boys being boys” behavior.
“That was a problem,” DeKok says, noting that during a news conference shortly after the murder, Lt. William Kimmel of the Pennsylvania State Police dismissed the significance of reports by Penn State coeds being harassed at the library. “Women’s stories were discounted when it came to things like this, even though there were problems. Today, I don’t think that would happen.”
After the murder, there were other missteps. State police concentrated their investigation on a student who was in the library at the time of the stabbing and admitted he had a knife on him. The crime scene wasn’t secured until 90 minutes after the murder, allowing crucial evidence to be compromised.
And the man who most likely killed Betsy Aardsma was allowed to walk away, partially because of a severe error in judgment by a professor. An hour after Aardsma died, Rick Haefner, a graduate student in geology, showed up at the home of professor Lauren Wright, “out of breath and disheveled,” DeKok writes. Haefner then asked his thesis adviser if there was anything in the newspaper about the girl who was murdered, even though it happened just 60 minutes beforehand.
Wright didn’t report the incident for seven years.
“Wright basically did nothing for seven years, although she denied that to me,” DeKok says, noting that Charles Hostler, the dean of Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences from 1965 to 1985 and Wright’s boss, corroborated that the professor did not report the incident for seven years.
Haefner, a pedophile who would be convicted of child molestation, died in 2002. He was never accused by authorities of Aardsma’s death, but DeKok firmly believes all the evidence points to him as the killer. DeKok thinks that Penn State officials should be held accountable for their lack of urgency in the Aardsma case, and other incidents including the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
“It’s probably not unique to Penn State, but it’s not a situation that would occur at every university,” noting a situation at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster years earlier when officials turned in a student who was accused of murder. “They did their duty, and that’s what Penn State should have done.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.