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Mystery Still Surrounds Murder Of Penn State Graduate Student Found Dead In The School's Library

Betsy Aardsma was found stabbed to death under a pile of books in Pattee Library on Nov. 28, 1969.

By Jill Sederstrom
Betsy Aardsma Pd

More than 50 years ago, during a quiet Thanksgiving week at Penn State University, a 22-year-old graduate student was stabbed to death in the school library’s stacks—leaving a mystery that continues to endure decades later.

The murder of Betsy Aardsma has never been solved, although the brutal crime continues to haunt the case’s original investigators and those who knew the beautiful and studious young woman before her death.

“There are so many people who worked this case, doing everything they can do,” Mike Simmers, then a young trooper with the Pennsylvania State Police told NBC's "Dateline." “But it was a perfect storm - and we just couldn’t solve her case.”

Sunday was the 52nd anniversary of Aardsma’s death. She was found just after 4:45 p.m. on Nov. 28, 1969 covered in books in an area of the Pattee Library known as the stacks.

“It was a very dark and scary episode,” Lancaster attorney Sam Mecum, who had been a senior at the university in 1969, told Lancaster Online in 2010. “Pattee Library was a huge facility, and that area was very secluded and definitely creepy.”

Simmers—who had been working undercover at the college—remembers being called to the scene of what he initially believed had been a medical episode. It wasn’t until Aardsma had been taken to the hospital that the medical staff had discovered that she had been stabbed once in her left breast.

There had been little blood left at the scene because Aardsma, who had been wearing a red dress, bled internally into her lung.

Simmers knew he was in “over my head” and called for backup from the state police before returning to the library. However, since no one initially thought her death had been a murder, no one had preserved the scene: the books had been cleaned up, the floor had been mopped and students were once again milling through the area.

Investigators interviewed several witnesses who had been in the library at the time, but many only recalled hearing the books fall. One witness was able to provide police with information about a man who had been seen running away around the time of the killing, but the sketch never produced any suspects.

Mecum always believed Aardsma was killed by someone who knew her due to the “up-close-and-personal” aspect of the killing.

Investigators have also said that it didn’t appear that Aardsma had tried to run from her killer, further supporting the theory that she may have known her attacker.

“We had a couple of people who we believed could be the suspect,” Simmers told Dateline. “But there was never enough evidence to make any arrests.”

Aardsma had attracted a lot of attention from male suitors, but those who knew her said she was always more focused on her studies.

Just the day before the killing, she had been to Hershey, Pennsylvania to celebrate Thanksgiving with her boyfriend, David L. Wright.

"She was just a very brilliant person, extremely smart," Wright told The Patriot News in 2008. "Good sense of humor. Just a wonderful person."

She had taken a bus back to campus because she had school work that she needed to finish over her break.

The case has been hampered over the years by the lack of physical evidence at the scene. According to Simmers, an ultra-violet black light detected semen in the area but the samples had appeared to be old and investigators have noted that the secluded area had been known as a meeting spot for trysts.

A “spray of tiny blood droplets” was also found that matched Aardsma’s blood type, but the sample wasn’t large enough to collect for further testing, NBC News reports.

In the decades that followed, the case has continued to fascinate the Penn State community and spawned rumors that the graduate student may been a victim of serial killer Ted Bundy, who was believed to be at nearby Temple University at the time. Others insist that section of the library is haunted by Aardsma's spirit.

David DeKok, a former Patriot-News reporter who grew up in the same Michigan community as Aardsma, explored the case in-depth in the book “Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma and the Killer Who Got Away.”

He believes Aardsma was killed by Richard Haefner, another graduate student at the university who had briefly dated Aardsma.

According to DeKok, while Haefner wanted to pursue a romantic relationship, Aardsma had rebuffed his advances and preferred the two remain friends.

There were also reports that Haefner had gone to visit one of his professors just hours after the stabbing and seemed distraught, asking the professor “Have you seen the papers?” and talking about the murder, Lancaster Online reports.

Yet, the stabbing had not yet appeared in the paper.

Haefner, who later became a geologist after getting his doctorate from Penn State University, was charged in 1975 with involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and corruption of minors in connection with an alleged incident with a 12-year-old, but the case ended in a mistrial.

George Keibler, a state police sergeant who oversaw the investigation for the first 14 years, told Lancaster Online that while investigators knew of Haefner, he was “never considered in the ‘suspect’ category.”  

Haefner continued to profess his innocence until his death in 2002 at the age of 58, according to NBC News.

Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Tyler J. Grube, with the criminal investigations unit, told Oxygen.com that today the case remains “active and open.”

“Throughout the years there have been several persons of interest developed, but none that have been labeled as a ‘suspect,’” he said. “Any and all information that comes in to the Pennsylvania State Police is promptly followed up and investigated thoroughly.”

Although it’s been decades since Aardsma was killed, those who knew the 22-year-old or were involved with her case are still hoping someday it can be solved.

“It’s a case that was so horrific,” Simmers said. “It’s one that sticks to me to this day.”

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