Murder in the stacks: The unsolved case of Betsy Ruth Aardsma
John William Tuohy
On the afternoon of November 28,1969, Betsy Ruth Aardsma, a 22-year-old graduate student at the Pennsylvania State University was stabbed to death as she studied in the school’s library.
There was absolutely nothing in Betsy background that would have led to her murder. She was pretty and popular with the men. She was artistic and bright with high ideals and planned to work in the Peace Corps after graduating with honors from The University of Michigan in 1969. But instead, she followed her boyfriend, David L. Wright, to Pennsylvania where he was a pre-med student at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey. They were planning to marry in late 1969. Wright had last seen Betsy on November 27th, two days before she was killed. The couple had an informal Thanksgiving dinner with some of Wright’s fellow med students. Afterward, he drove her to the bus depot so that she could return to school.
On the night she killed, Betsy walked to the library around 4pm with her roommate, Sharon Brandt. Betsy, who was almost always dressed in student-casual, seemed to dress for the visit to the library, wearing a sleeveless red dress over a white cotton turtleneck sweater, causing police to guess that she planning to meet someone.
At the library, Betsy headed to the basement to the chief bibliographer’s office and then went up to the second floor. As she walked to the stacks, she came across another student, a girl, who asked her for a pen. The library is large, and the stacks were largely isolated although the library had about 90 students in it at the time.
Dean Brungart, an assistant stacks supervisor saw Betsy in the stacks at about 4:30 and also reported that he saw two men chatting near the area. At some point between 4:45 p.m. and 4:55 p.m. The rows were narrow, not large enough for two people to pass unless one turns sideways.
Betsy was stabbed with a knife, once, most likely from behind, through the left breast which severed her pulmonary artery and piercing the right ventricle of her heart. After she was stabbed, she slumped to the floor.
The pathologist report read in part “The findings also suggest that the wound was inflicted with considerable force at the time of a face-to-face confrontation of the victim and the assailant, and that this weapon was held in the right hand of the assailant" however the state policemen who investigated the case insist Betsy was grabbed from behind and killed with a perfectly aimed thrust with the knife.
Police speculated that the murder weapon was a hunting-style knife and that murder happened very quickly. The killer stabbed her and walked away. She didn’t scream. She was not sexually assaulted, and the depth of the stab wound would’ve required significant strength. It appears that the killer waited until she fell to the floor before he pulled the knife out of her.
Dean Brungart, the assistant stacks supervisor was one level above the crime scene and heard the books fall to the floor, the sound traveling through an air vent. There were at least nine people were within 70 feet of the murder, one or two reported that they heard a loud gasp but nothing else.
Perhaps a minute after she was stabbed, Mary Erdley, who knew Betsy, was a student who was working as a clerk in the library. She rose from her desk and walked a few feet when from her desk and walked around the corner and came across two men who said, "Somebody better help that girl." and led her back toward rows 50 and 51 where Betsy was. Then the two men vanished. Despite the best efforts to find them, they were never heard from again.
Police insist it was one man and not two, that the man was white, about 20 years old, six feet tall and between 185 and 200 pounds.
Erdley stayed by Betsy side and for 15 to 20 minutes begged passing students to help her before anyone would stop. Several books had fallen on the floor next to her. The stab wound produced only a small amount of visible blood and even that was covered up by a dark red dress she was wearing, enough so that it was not until she was examined at the Health Center that anyone realized that she had been stabbed. The first responders, seeing no outward sign of trauma, assumed she had suffered a seizure. Rushed by ambulance to the Health Center, she was pronounced dead. The campus patrol didn’t secure the crime scene which became contaminated. Worse, a well-meaning janitor cleaned up urine found near the scene and moved evidence around.
"It was just a bad set of circumstances for the police," said Trooper Kent Bernier, the current investigator of the Aardsma case. "The body gets removed. The scene gets contaminated. Then it's a murder. I mean, you couldn't imagine that today."
There had not been a murder on or near the campus since April of 1940 when Rachel Taylor's battered body was found in a parking lot a mile from campus. She had disappeared while walking to her dormitory from a local bus station.
At its peak, about 40 troopers worked on the case out of a command center on the campus. Thousands of students and faculty were questioned. The university posted a $25,000 reward.
The first suspect was Betsy’s boyfriend, David Wright largely because whoever had stabbed Betsy hit the vena cava, and as a medical student, he would have known where to plunge the knife.
Detectives interviewed him dozens of times, badgered him really, to the point where dean George T. Harrell ordered the cops off the grounds. "They still came down about two or three times a week, and there was a kind of drive-in restaurant across from the medical school," Wright said. "They would meet me there and eat lunch and buy me lunch and ask me questions."
Another passing suspect was Richard Haefner, also a student at Penn State at the time and an alleged child molester. Haefner, who generally fit the description of the man who rushed out of the building, was known to be violent, especially towards women and had been accused of several sexual assaults of young boys.
Haefner (left) and a drawing of one of the men who reported the stabbing
There was a baseless story that Betsy had dated Haefner and dropped him which brought around his revenge. Haefner did speak to his academic advisor right after the murder and was said to be very distraught over the killing. Haefner died of a heart attack in 2002.
Another passing suspect was serial killer John Norman Collins. The police suspected him in at least four murders of women between March and July 1969. Collins was sent to prison for life in 1970.
Serial killer Ted Bundy was mentioned as a possible killer. Bundy attended Temple University in part of 1969, and he was known to spend time at university libraries but those who followed Bundy’s case doubt it.
No leads ever panned out in the case which remains unsolved and grows colder with every passing year.