Five decades have passed since the murder of 22-year-old Penn State graduate student, Betsy Aardsma. The unsolved murder has become a campus urban legend of sorts & those trying to solve the case fear that Betsy’s story is becoming a faded memory. November 28 of this year (2021) marks 52 years since Betsy was killed.
Elizabeth Ruth Aardsma/known as Betsy was born on July 11, 1947 in Holland, Michigan. She was the second of four children. Her parents were Esther & Richard Aardsma. Betsy was raised in a middle-class, religious & conservative household. Her father was a sales tax auditor for the Michigan State Treasurer & her mother was a housewife.
During her childhood, Betsy liked art & poetry & as she grew older, she developed liberal ideas & showed concerns for the underprivileged. Betsy attended Holland HS, did well in school & graduated 5th in her class & with honors in 1965. In the fall of 1965, she enrolled at Hope College; she was interested in English, art & biology with goals of becoming a physician. Her college roommate described Betsy as an intelligent & fascinating individual who showed feminist traits. She was 5’8”, had long brown hair & attracted plenty of boys. Betsy at this point, considered boys to be a distraction & wanted to focus on school. Two years later, in the fall of 1967 Betsy transferred to the University of Michigan to study art and English; she shared an apartment with 3 other women. In her senior year, she began dating medical student David Wright who became her first serious boyfriend. Wright would later describe Betsy as “a very brilliant person, extremely smart with a good sense of humor. Just a wonderful person.” In the summer of 1969, Betsy graduated with honors. Her drive to attend medical school had dwindled as her love of reading literature & poetry grew.
After graduation Betsy hoped to join the Peace Corps & travel to Africa. David had expressed that if she left the country, he couldn’t guarantee they would stay together. Because of this, Betsy chose to stay & enroll at Penn State to be close to David. She started in early October 1969. She lived on campus in Atherton Hall where she shared a dorm room with Sharon Brandt. Sharon would later say that Betsy spent much of her free time studying or traveling to Penn State Hershey 2 hours away to be with David on weekends; she rarely joined in on extracurricular activities.
As Betsy left Ann Arbor, there was a sense of relief; John Norman Collins, the co-ed killer was a 22 year old Eastern Michigan University student beginning his killing spree in 1967 & resuming in 1969. Betsy’s former brother-in-law had commented, “Thank God she’s at a place where it’s safe.”
By Thanksgiving break Betsy was feeling stressed out about falling behind on an English paper. She celebrated the holiday, November 27 with David & his roommates along with their girlfriends in Hershey Pennsylvania. After they had eaten, as the evening wore on, Betsy wanted to go back to campus to focus on her assignment; David drove her to the bus station & she headed back. At this point, Betsy & David had been dating one year & the two had talked about getting engaged by Christmas. She had been at Penn State for only 8 weeks at the time of her murder.
November 28, 1969
Friday, November 28, 1969 was a chilly day. Betsy started her morning working on her assignment before she needed to head to the library to do more research. In the afternoon Betsy & her roommate Sharon Brandt left their dorm. Sharon & Betsy parted ways & planned to meet up later that afternoon to watch Easy Rider or Take the Money & Run at a movie theater that evening. At approximately 4pm Betsy spoke with her professor, Nicholas Joukovsky about her assignment & what references she needed to complete it. She then made her way to Penn State’s (Puh-tee) Pattee Library (one of the 2 libraries on campus) to do research for her assignment. As she got to the library, Betsy bumped into 2 friends, Linda Marsa & Robert Steinberg & talked with them for a few minutes. She headed to Harrison Meserole’s office, another professor who had an office on level one of the library. From there she headed to level 3 where she put her purse, jacket & a book inside a carrel desk that was assigned to her & walked toward the card catalog. She found the reference she was looking for & walked down a flight of stairs into the Level 2 core stacks at approximately 4:30pm.
According to Derek Sherwood, author of “Who Killed Betsy”, the stacks weren’t meant to be accessed by students. They were very narrow/cramped & not meant for more than one person per aisle. Students would give their reference call numbers to a library employee who would then retrieve the book. Back in 1969, this wasn’t the case & students were allowed to move freely & collect their own references.
The last potential sighting of Betsy was in the Level 2 core stacks minutes after 4:30, where an assistant supervisor named Dean Brungart noticed a girl in a red dress standing by herself in an aisle with two young men talking between themselves in a nearby aisle closer to the west end of the core. Also sitting in the stacks were students Joao Uafinda & a short distance from him, Marilee Erdly, each working on their own assignments just outside the entrance to the core stacks, only feet away from where Betsy was standing.
Richard Allen, aerospace historian, was in the stacks that evening, using the copy machine as he waited for his son. Allen said he overheard a conversation between a male & female in the area of where Betsy stood. Allen could not hear what exactly the two were saying though nothing seemed unusual. Moments later, Allen heard a metallic crashing noise not far from where he stood. Out of curiosity, he began to walk toward the sound. At this time he saw a young man “looking like a student” run “barrelling” past him, nearly running him over.
The crashing sound caught the attention of Uafinda & Erdly who saw this same man rushing toward them. Erdley stood up as the man got closer & said, “That girl needs help!” as he pointed in the direction where the sound came from. The man led her toward the sound though quickly left. There Erdley saw the body of Betsy Aardsma laying between the dimly lit aisles of 50 & 51. Uafinda watched the man leaving the library & discreetly followed him upstairs & saw him run out of the library. Uafinda attempted to chase him but couldn’t keep up. The man was last seen running in the direction of the Recreation Hall. Erdley described him as wearing khaki washable slacks, a tie & a sports jacket. He had well groomed brown hair & was approximately 6’ tall & 185# & may have been wearing glasses. A student library employee witnessed a man rushing out of the library. The police tried to get this man to come forward but he was never identified.
Between 4:45 and 4:55pm Betsy was stabbed a single time through the left breast with a knife. The wound severed her pulmonary artery & pierced the right ventricle of her heart. Betsy slumped to the ground near the end of the aisle, pulling several books off adjacent shelves as she fell onto her back. Erdley checked Betsy’s body for a pulse. More people began to gather around Betsy, including the librarian who attempted first aid & mouth-to-mouth. The campus hospital had been called at 5:01pm & responders had initially been told that a “girl had fainted” in the university library. Two student paramedics had been sent to the scene & arrived minutes later. Betsy was placed on a gurney & taken to the Health Center as the paramedics continued CPR.
Trooper Mike Simmers had been working undercover on the campus when he received the call. He remembers that it was a call that he had never had experience with. He was told that there was a medical emergency & the student was believed to have fainted or had a seizure. He had no idea that it was a murder as no one did at the time. He recalls following campus security into the library to the dimly lit stacks where he saw several books scattered around the floor. The floor was stained with a small amount of an unknown liquid but there was no body to be found as Betsy had already been transferred to the hospital on campus. Simmers found the situation very odd; the area was being cleaned up & people were just milling about.
By the time Simmers arrived at the hospital, he had found that Betsy was not only dead but that her death was ruled a homicide. Simmers knew at this point that he was in over his head & needed to call in back up. He immediately called state police who were located about 8 miles from campus & they met at the library which was now a crime scene.
Betsy was wearing a white turtleneck sweater though the wound had produced only a small amount of visible blood. She wore a thick red sleeveless dress over the sweater so the single knife wound was concealed. She had also urinated as she fell so this plus the other reports of her having fainted caused the student paramedics to believe that she just fainted, had experienced a seizure or suffered some other non-critical ailment. Little blood was left at the scene as Betsy had bled internally into her lungs.
Shortly after arriving at the Health Center, a more senior medical worker noticed the blood seeping through Betsy’s clothing & the two student paramedics were told to immediately stop CPR. Her blood soaked shirt & bra were cut from her body to reveal a single stab wound that was one inch wide & three inches deep. 22 year old Betsy was pronounced dead at 5:19pm.
The autopsy was done by Dr Thomas Magnani at Bellefonte Hospital at 11pm on November 28 & ended at 4am the next morning. Cause of death was a single stab wound that had penetrated Betsy’s breast bone, piercing her heart & severing her pulmonary artery, causing extensive hemorrhaging into her chest cavity. Death occurred within 5 minutes. Betsy had been basically drowning in her own blood, unable to call for help. Signs of petechial hemorrhaging was seen on Betsy’s chest & minor signs of bruising & abrasions were seen around one ear & likely happened as she fell to the ground. Magnani believed that Betsy’s murderer had aimed for her heart as he faced her & that he was right-handed & would have required significant strength to penetrate that deep into her chest. There were no defensive wounds on Betsy & nothing suggesting a struggle of any kind according to Dr Magnani. It seemed the killer knew exactly where to plunge the knife.
Penn State police assigned about 35 officers to investigate Betsy’s murder. Hundreds of students were interviewed in the weeks after her death & the campus was unsuccessfully scoured to find the murder weapon. A $25,000 reward was offered for information. Investigators found that up to 400 individuals would typically enter & exit the library between 4:30-5pm on a typical Friday though that evening only about 90 had done so because of the holiday break. None that were interviewed were considered suspects.
Two composite drawings had been done of the man Uafinda & Erdley had seen running; one with the help of Uafinda & a library desk clerk & one with Erdley. Only Erdley’s drawing had been released to the public.
By the time Simmers was back at the library to meet state police, he found that nothing was left intact. Janitors had been instructed to mop up the urine from the tile floor & the fallen shelves & books had been replaced. Any possible evidence had been compromised. A “spray of tiny droplets” of blood was found in the stairwell leading into the level 3 core stacks; Law enforcement said it appeared that someone was flicking their hands, possibly after wiping blood off the knife. They matched Betsy’s blood type & indicated the murder had fled the library through this route though DNA technology wasn’t available at the time.
No one was asked to stick around for questioning. When witnesses were eventually questioned, most just recalled hearing books falling. Police had a couple of people who could have been the suspect though there was never enough evidence to make an arrest. State police brought in experts who used a UV blacklight to detect bodily fluids & aisle 51 where Betsy was murdered lit up like a Christmas tree. It was covered in semen though most of the samples appeared to be days old, if not older. One investigator commented that semen was practically “everywhere.” They found more than 2 dozen porno mags stashed between the books in the aisle Betsy had been murdered. It was suspected that the location served as a secret rendezvous spot for couples or even singles. Near the aisle where Betsy had been murdered, there was a desk with a chair that was pulled out. On the desk was a partially consumed can of soda & a small stack of heterosexual & homosexual porno magazaines dated as recently as October/November 1969. Fingerprints had been taken from the can but matched no sources in the database. All fingerprints found on the magazines were smudged & unusable.
It was suspected that Betsy may have known her assailant. The library aisles were extremely narrow & if someone needed to pass you, they had to turn sideways in order to do so. There was also only one way into the aisle as the bookshelves extended to the wall, effectively trapping Betsy in the aisle. The killer either appeared to Betsy as another student doing research or someone she knew. Betsy had also made no attempt to scream or flee. Much research was done to see if Betsy had been stalked. That day, Betsy was supposed to be with her boyfriend, not on campus; her going back was an unplanned decision. David had been quickly ruled out as a suspect. Betsy had voiced concerns that she was going to end up a “physician’s wife” but diary entries did not indicate issues in her relationship. They also indicated no other suitors or issues with other men in the 8 weeks she had been at Penn State. Simmers had said that everyone either wanted to be Betsy’s friend or to date her but she was focused on her schooling. She didn’t entertain the boys who had crushes on her.
Some ideas that had been considered & ruled out was that Betsy just happened to stumble upon a situation with an exhibitionist, someone who was masturbating in the stacks or “a homosexual encounter.”
Other possibilities included Betsy coming upon a drug deal or an unsettled drug debt. Betsy did smoke cigarettes but rarely drank alcohol & was not a user of drugs so this was dismissed. Countless rumors have circulated over the months & years that followed Betsy’s murder. Some even believed she was murdered by Ted Bundy as he was at Temple University around the time of the incident. No correlation ended up being found to link Bundy.
The case turned cold & the case remains unsolved. Records related to the murder are sealed under the state’s Open Record Act but Pennsylvania State Police continue to seek for information on the case.
Richard/Rick Haefner: 25 year old doctoral geology student at the time of the murder. Author of Murder in the Stacks: Penn State Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away, David DeKok (DeCook), feels Rick is the clear killer, describing him as a charmer, “He was handsome, well dressed with a pleasant speaking voice, but he was a monster, a molester of boys again & again throughout his life. He harbored a violent rage against women that could erupt without warning.” DeKok was six years younger than Betsy at the time of her murder & remembers seeing the newspaper article on November 29, 1969. He didn’t know Betsy but they had both grown up in Holland, MI, attended the same HS & had teachers in common. DeKok recalls how beautiful she was & the nature of her murder stuck with him so he decided to write a book about the case & the investigation. DeKok explains that he feels Rick was the murderer because he had a crush on Betsy who just wanted to remain friends & rejected him. Rick claimed to be eating dinner at the HUB Student Union when he found out about the murder though this was not far from the library. When speaking with police, he left out the fact that only 45 minutes after Betsy had been pronounced dead, he went to his college advisor, out of breath, saying, “have you seen the papers?” while referencing Bety’s murders. The stabbing had yet to appear in the paper. Both the professor & his wife got the impression that he may have been involved in the incident he was describing. Rick was said to have gone to extreme measures to obtain platonic relationships with women to conceal his homosexuality.
He lived across the courtyard from Betsy at Atherton Hall. Rick was known for erratic behavior; periods of explosive anger outbursts. During his time as an undergraduate, Rick worked at the North Museum at Franklin & Marshall College. During his time, specimens began to vanish. Despite working obsessively at the museum nearly everyday, he could not account for where the rock collections had gone.
Similar to how the suspect was described, Rick frequently wore khakis & a sport coat & kept his brown hair short & neat. Shortly before Betsy’s death, she had ended their friendship. Betsy’s roommate Sharon had brought up Rick’s name; he had visited their apartment more than once in the weeks before her death. Rick was questioned in early December 1969 & admitted to their budding friendship & the fact that Betsy ended it. He said he had been eating a meal at the student union building on the evening of November 28th when he heard a rumor of a student being murdered at the library. He said he hadn’t ever set a foot in the library, doing his research at another building. The image made by Uafinda and a desk clerk that hadn’t been given to the media does show a strong resemblance to Richard. Simmers who is now retired from the state police said that Richard was never named a suspect.
In August 1975 two boys who worked in Richard’s family’s rock shop had separately accused him of pedophelia. He went to trial which resulted in a hung jury & successfully ensured expungement of his records for his arrest/trial in 1981. Richard was fined $500 & sentenced to one month in county prison but served only 2 weeks. Richard’s temper came through on future occasions; cited with disorderly conduct for causing a disturbance in the lobby of Lancaster Newspapers. In 1992 Richard was arrested for interfering with the custody of a child after he took a 13 year old boy to Virginia. The boy’s mother reported him missing though the case was dropped after the mother said Richard had taken the boy to VA on previous occasions.
In 1994 police responded to an incident at his home & charged him with aggravated assault, resisting arrest, assaulting an officer. In 1998 Richard was convicted of assaulting a Delaware woman after an argument in a liquor store parking lot. The woman had seen a dog in a shopping cart & thought the dog had been abandoned though apparently it belonged to Richard. They argued, the woman went to leave & Richard struck the door of her car with a liquor bottle. When she got out of her car to get his license plate number, he got out of his car & grabbed her by the neck, pulled her out of her car, kicked & punched her causing her jaw to dislocate & several of her teeth to become loose.
Neighbors heavily disliked Richard; his yard was in disarray, filled with broken down cars, metal drums & tarps covering piles of rocks. When one particular neighbor complained to city officials, Richard spread his trash across their porch & on another time pierced a neighbor’s tire. Another time his dog pooped in the neighbor’s yard & when he was called out on it, he picked up the poop with his bare hands & threw it through the car window. Very scary & threatening.
In 2009 Richard’s cousin said that on one occasion in 1975, he overheard a conversation between Richard & his mother; she was angry about the molestation charges that had been filed against him. She was upset that she needed to cover for him again after all that she’d done for him & put on the line. There was talk about how he had ‘killed that girl.’ The conversation ended with her saying, “you might as well kill me too, Rick.” In 2002 Richard died in a Las Vegas hospital at age 58 after he had suffered a heart attack in the Mojave Desert while studying rocks.
Betsy was laid to rest December 3, 1969. Her casket remained open. She was buried at her family plot at Pilgrim Home Cemetery in her home town of Holland. She held a single rose from her boyfriend, David. The final letter she wrote him arrived one day after she was murdered.
The fear is that Betsy will be forgotten. Many Penn State students are unaware of the long-ago murder. Many people in the investigation have died or retired & Betsy’s family no longer speak of the case despite hoping for justice. They’ve chosen to move forward in their lives.
Betsy’s death helped play a factor in forming the university Police force at Penn State. Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Tyler J Grube with the criminal investigations unit told Oxygen.com that the case remains “active & open.”
Anyone with information about Betsy Aardsma is asked to call the Pennsylvania State Police at 717-783-5599.
- NBC News: Unsolved Murder of Penn State student Betsy Aardsma haunts community 52 years after she was stabbed in the library stacks
- Oxygen True Crime: Mystery Still Surrounds Murder of Penn State Gradute Student Found Dead in the School’s Library
- Lancaster Online: Who Killed Betsy Aardsma? After 41 years, a cold case warms with questions connecting the victim, stabbed in a Penn State library to a Lancaster geologist known for a hot temper & litigious behavior.
- Lancaster Online: 2 authors peg Lancaster native as mystery murderer of 19 year old Penn State student in 1969
- Cold Case: The Murder of Betsy Aardsma at Penn State
Leave a Reply