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Betsy Aardsma’s heart-breaking murder in the PSU library still unsolved more than 50 years later

Repost: Betsy Aardsma and the "Murder in the Stacks": Penn State case unsolved after almost 48 years, but police do not believe writer's theory about the killer

... Derek Sherwood speaks about his book

In November 1969, a young Penn State graduate student was researching in the stacks of Pattee Library on the main campus in University Park, Pa.

Somehow, a person approached her and stabbed her and pushed her against some bookcases, which collapsed and sent books to the floor, creating a little chaos. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, so hardly anyone was on campus. The stacks are so remote that few heard the commotion.

I was one of the few students on campus and was leaving Willard Building, a classroom facility just down the mall from the library, at just after 5 p.m. I heard the sirens at the library and thought it strange, but I had more important things on my mind, like a paper that I was trying to write -- the reason I stayed on campus and did not go home for Thanksgiving. The people who tried to help Betsy did not realize that she had been stabbed. They saw no blood and thought that she had just passed out.

A short time later, the young woman was declared dead at the school medical facility. Now, almost 48 years later, the case has never been solved. It has been frustrating for Derek Sherwood, a writer who has spent years researching and writing about the case.

"Who Killed Betsy?"

Betsy Aardsma was an English graduate student who was focused on writing a paper for an introductory research course. She was dating a medical student at Penn State-Hershey, which is how the young woman from Holland, Mich. arrived in University Park in September.

Police later said that she was a remarkably clean person without an enemy in the world, but someone apparently thought otherwise. Derek Sherwood became interested in the case since his father worked for Penn State and had talked about it.

His book, "Who Killed Betsy?" was released in 2011. He paints a picture of an inept investigation and a university that was more interested in protecting its name that in finding a killer. He painstakingly goes through the situation in the immediate aftermath to how it devolved into a miscarriage of justice. He paints a clear picture of whom he thinks the killer was, and he makes a convincing argument that he could have done it.

However, the police could care less about what he discovered. They continue to say that they are investigating the case, but it has been cold -- stone cold -- for many years.

Rick Haefner

The man whom Sherwood alleges could have killed Aardsma was Richard Charles Haefner, then a 26-year-old geology grad student at Penn State from Lancaster. Sherwood carefully investigated the life of Haefner, who went by Rick, both before Penn State and after, interviewing many people who knew him, including former students in the geology program, people who worked at a Lancaster museum with him, and even some relatives. All painted a picture of a man who was keenly interested in rocks and their formations, who was very intelligent, but who also had some serious emotional issues throughout his life. He did earn a Ph.D. from Penn State, but as Sherwood notes, pushed the envelope in that area, too.

The case that he makes against Haefner is fascinating, but the investigators missed so many of the clues that he puts together today. Why won't the police believe him after all these years of having no clue?

"Even today there are alternate schools of thought and some believe in Rick, others believe in another man who is still alive. Most of the retired officers I have spoken to at least believe Rick was involved and had knowledge of it. I think a dead suspect is less interesting because there's no way to arrest and make a break, and also because its a tacit admission of failure -- we took so long to figure this out, the killer died before we did.

Interview with Derek Sherwood

Investigative failure

Sherwood points out how the police really did not regard Haefner as a real suspect. He said that the man said that he had dated Betsy -- even though she was dating a med student at the time -- but that she had broken it off a short time before the murder. Sherwood said that the investigation failed in the early stages for a few reasons.

Police personalities and university politics were to blame in my opinion. Everyone wanted to solve it, and as a result, every cop had their own ideas, and a lot of them kept to themselves because then it would be their collar. The university had their own sort of investigation going, and there were so many officers that I don't think info was shared effectively.

Rick fell through these cracks, getting interviewed twice and then cleared, apparently on the strength of his mother claiming he had spent the holiday with them, which wasn't true." This point that Haefner's mother cleared him in the eyes of the police, saying that he was at home over Thanksgiving, was a key, but that was a lie. The police did not pursue it since they did not regard him as a chief suspect. They did not know that he had seen Betsy, even if it was casual and just over coffee or some minor event. Still, that shows a lack of investigative effort on their part.

Interview with Derek Sherwood

Will never be solved

When a case is cold for almost 48 years, the chances of solving it -- absent a deathbed confession or other shocking discovery -- is unlikely. Sherwood does not think that the current investigators will be successful.

The trooper in charge has changed again and unless they have a strong opinion or are brought up to speed, I doubt they will ever know. DNA or some other definitive evidence also seems to be lacking. It's just an albatross on the neck of whoever occupies that desk in the Rockview Barracks.

Interview with Derek Sherwood

Sherwood said that he knew about the Aardsma case from his father, and that he had lived in State College for a while when he was younger.

I was in this since 2008. My dad told me about Betsy when he worked for the university [and I was] in third grade and we lived in State College. Something triggered that, and in 2008, I wanted to see if it was true or an urban legend. It seemed sad that she had been so utterly forgotten, and I started digging to find more and was hooked.

The book is easy to read and his argument is easy to follow. He makes a strong case that Haefner should have been a prime suspect. He evens interviewed a cousin who heard Haefner's mother say that she had covered up the murder of that girl in the library. That is pretty good investigative reporting. The book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and some State College bookstores. It is a fascinating read and reveals a great deal about the "Murder in the Stacks."


The sad part of this is that the family of Betsy Aardsma have never been able to find closure to this horrible event. Her parents never even received a call from Penn State expressing sorrow about their loss, nor about the investigation as it progressed. It seemed like this reaction was similar to the coverup of the Sandusky scandal that came later.

To lose a young woman like that and never know why is terrible. I feel so sorry for what her family -- who were very religious -- had to go through with her murder. It is very sad.

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