For more than five decades, the story of Penn State University graduate student Betsy Aardsma’s unsolved murder has haunted the campus as an urban legend of sorts. But for those who have spent years trying to solve her case, they fear her story is becoming a faded memory.
It was a quiet Thanksgiving week on campus in the fall of 1969 when 22-year-old Betsy was stabbed to death in the stacks of the Pattee Library. Sunday marks 52 years and her killer has never been caught.
That year, the Holland, Michigan native had spent Thanksgiving Day in Hershey, Pennsylvania, with her boyfriend but went back to campus early to finish a school assignment.
The next day, on the afternoon of November 28, 1969, Betsy and her roommate Sharon walked from their dorm to the library. It was just after 4:45 p.m. when witnesses said they heard books falling.
Betsy was found beneath a pile of books in aisle 51 of the stacks and a library employee called campus security. She was transported to the student hospital on campus, where she was declared dead at 5:19 p.m.
At the time, Mike Simmers was a young trooper with the Pennsylvania State Police working undercover on the Penn State campus while attending college classes. He told Dateline that he normally dealt with drug busts and crowd control during the anti-Vietnam War protests on campus, so this call was something he had never experienced.
“When I got the call that day… it was for a medical emergency,” Simmers told Dateline. “It was believed she had fainted, or had a seizure. I had no idea it was murder. No one did.”
Simmers told Dateline that he remembers following campus security into the library, back to the dimly lit stacks where several books were scattered on the floor stained just a little with an unknown liquid. But there was no body to be found.
“They told me the body had already been transported to the hospital on campus,” Simmers said. “It was all very strange. The area was being cleaned up. Students were milling about.”
He made his way to the hospital, where he discovered that the student, identified as Betsy Aardsma, had not only died from her injuries, but that her death was a homicide.
“I knew I needed to call in backup,” Simmers said. “This was over my head.”
In the briefing from the doctor, Simmers found out that Betsy had been stabbed once in her left breast. The wound, which was one inch wide and three inches deep, hit her pulmonary artery. Blood quickly entered her lungs which kept her from screaming. That also accounted for the lack of blood on aisle 51, the doctor had told Simmers, which was also confirmed by the autopsy a few days later.
Simmers immediately called the state police barracks located about eight miles away from campus and they went back to the library.
“We went back over to the library,” he said. “Back to what we now know was a crime scene.”
But when they arrived, nothing was left intact. The books had been reshelved and the floors had been mopped. After the area had been straightened up, students were allowed to walk through the area and no one was asked to stick around to answer questions.
Simmers told Dateline that through the investigation, witnesses were eventually questioned, but most could only recollect hearing books falling. A sketch was created from a description given by one of the witnesses who said they saw a man running away, but a suspect has never been named, Simmers said.
“We had a couple of people who we believed could be the suspect,” Simmers said. “But there was never enough evidence to make any arrests.”
Simmers said that state police brought in an expert to use an ultraviolet black light to detect bodily fluids in the area Betsy had been found. Aisle 51 lit up. It was covered in semen, Simmers said, but most samples appeared to be days old, or even older. He added that the stacks were a place where porn magazines were stashed and people would meet up for secret rendezvous.
Other evidence collected was a “spray of tiny blood droplets” that law enforcement said looked like someone was flicking their hands. It matched Betsy’s blood type, but Simmers said DNA technology was not available at that time, and there wasn’t sufficient evidence collected to solve the case.
Simmers told Dateline he was on case for months, thanks to his knowledge of the campus and ability to locate and bring in a student for questioning. He added that between 30 and 40 state troopers worked the case, interviewing hundreds of students and following leads around the country, including Pennsylvania and Betsy’s home state of Michigan.
“There are so many people who worked this case, doing everything they can do,” Simmers said. “But it was a perfect storm - and we just couldn’t solve her case.”
Simmers told Dateline there are many theories floating around about what could have happened to Betsy. But he believes it was someone who was close to her.
“Everyone either wanted to be her friend or wanted to date her,” Simmers said. “But she was focused on her schooling. And she didn’t entertain the boys who had crushes on her.”
Throughout the days, months and years following Betsy’s murder, countless rumors have circulated around her death.
Many agreed with Simmers that the killer was a man whose romantic advances had been rejected by Betsy.
Some believe she was murdered by serial killer Ted Bundy, as it was discovered he was at Temple University around the time of the incident. Law enforcement, however, did not see a correlation between her stabbing and the Bundy murders, Simmers told Dateline.
David DeKok, author of “Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away,” told Dateline that the answer to him is clear — Richard Haefner, another Penn State graduate student, murdered Betsy.
“I remember when the Holland Evening Sentinel landed on our doorstep on November 29 of 1969 and saw her picture,” he said. “She was so beautiful and then I read that she had been murdered… stabbed to death in the library. That just stuck with me.”
DeKok, who was six years younger than Betsy, grew up in Betsy’s hometown of Holland, Michigan, and attended the same high school that she did.
The former Patriot-News reporter decided to write a book about the case which focuses on Betsy and the investigation of the murder. It also weaves in the history of the civil rights and anti-war movements at the university, including the 1970 student riots.
In the book, DeKok contends that Betsy’s case is unsolved due to mistakes made at the scene, which wasn’t secured as it should have been.
DeKok also explains why he believes Haefner was the one who killed Betsy. He said that Haefner is one of many who had a crush on Betsy, knew her well and that they even went on a few dates. But that she had wanted to just remain friends and rejected further romantic advances from him. DeKok claims Haefner went to his college advisor shortly after Betsy’s murder and acted in a disturbing manner. Haefner was one of hundreds interviewed by state police.
Haefner told police he was not at the library that night, and that he knew nothing of Betsy’s murder until days later, Simmers said.
Simmers, who is now retired from the state police, says Sergeant George H. Keibler, also retired, oversaw the investigation for the first 14 years.
“As time goes by, you run into nothing or a dead end. It's frustrating,” Keibler said in an interview with Lancaster Online back in 2010. Keibler added that he knew of Haefner but said that “up until the time that I left the state police, Haefner was never considered in the 'suspect' category.” Simmers confirmed to Dateline that Haefner has never been named a suspect.
According to Lancaster Online, which covered Betsy’s case extensively, Haefner got his doctorate from Penn State University and went on to become a geologist and a professor of geology. But his academic career took a downhill turn in 1975 after he was charged with involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and corruption of minors. The criminal charges arose from an alleged incident involving Haefner and a 12-year-old juvenile, according to the Commonwealth V. Haefner case summary.
A jury trial began on January 27, 1976 and ended on February 3, 1976, when a mistrial was declared, as the jury was unable to reach a verdict, the case summary states. According to local news reports, Haefner repeatedly professed his innocence. In 2002, he died in a Las Vegas hospital at the age of 58.
Both DeKok and Simmers told Dateline that today, many Penn State students are unaware of the long-ago murder of Betsy Aardsma.
“It’s been so long, but we don’t want her to be forgotten,” DeKok said. “That’s why we keep trying. We keep pushing for justice.”
Many people involved in the investigation have either died or retired, and Betsy’s family no longer speaks about the case, having chosen to move forward with their lives. But justice for Betsy is something all are hoping for.
Simmers, who was the same age as Betsy was when she died, told Dateline there isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t think about Betsy or her case.
“It’s a case that was so horrific,” he said. “It’s one that sticks to me to this day. It’s been decades, but I’m hoping it can still be solved. For her family. For Betsy.”
Anyone with information about Betsy Aardsma’s murder is asked call the Pennsylvania State Police at (717) 783-5599.