by Robert A. Waters
The disappearance and probable murder of fifteen-year-old Evelyn Hartley defies logic. The studious, disciplined, straight-A student simply vanished, leaving behind the child whom she was babysitting and wide smears of blood all over the house and yard.
The Wisconsin State Journal summarized what happened: "It was on [the night of October 24, 1953]...that the daughter of Prof. and Mrs. Richard Hartley was abducted while babysitting at the home of Prof. and Mrs. Viggo Rasmusen. The Rasmusens had gone to the homecoming [football] game where more than 8,000 saw La Crosse State College demolish River Falls 34-6." Still others attended a Central High School gala and pre-Halloween bash.
The screams of Evelyn died among the festivities of the night.
At 7:00, Evelyn put twenty-month-old Janis in her crib. Police speculated that someone attacked Evelyn a few minutes later.
Evidence at the scene indicated that an intruder had removed a window screen from the side of the house. He climbed through a basement window, up a set of stairs, and likely assaulted Evelyn in the living room. The teenager had turned the radio on to a local station, and it's possible that she did not hear the invader until it was too late.
In the living room, a violent struggle ensued. Furniture was knocked over, and blood swaths covered the walls. One of Evelyn's shoes and her broken glasses lay on the living room floor. Her second shoe was found in the basement.
It was obvious to investigators that the assailant snatched Evelyn from the living room, dragged her back through the house, and down into the basement. He then took her outside, carrying her to the street, where a waiting car likely drove off with the girl.
In the book, Getting Away with Murder: 57 Unsolved Murders with Reward Information, Ed Baumann and John O'Brien wrote: "Stunned neighbors watched from their yards that Saturday morning [as] police discovered an ominous trail of blood leading from the Rasmusen home. The crimson splotches cut a zigzag path for a distance of one block, leading past homes and garages. A hideous red smear defiling the side of a neighboring house bore mute evidence that someone bleeding badly had lurched against the wall."
Police questioned everyone in the neighborhood. Several people claimed to have seen a man and young woman walking through yards as they made their way to the street. The girl, staggering, was being led by the man. Because of the revelry going on in town, neighbors thought the couple was inebriated and paid no attention to them. Another witness claimed to have seen the man and woman enter a waiting car, driven by a second man, and drive away.
As news media gathered from all over the Midwest, the small police department worked feverishly to solve the case. Cops discovered footprints leading from the Rasmusen home to the road. Several tracking hounds followed the prints, described as having been made by tennis shoes, but the dogs lost the scent at the street.
Weeks later, a road grader spotted a "well-washed" denim jacket in a ditch. After several days, he turned it over to the police. One thousand feet away, searchers located a pair of heavily-worn tennis shoes. Investigators thought the shoes matched the footprints found in the yard. The jacket, possibly belonging to a steeplejack, may have been worn by one of the kidnappers. But these leads eventually dead-ended.
Six months later, the La Crosse County Board hired a full-time professional investigator to work the case. For more than four years, Alma M. "Joe" Josephson, a former insurance investigator, doggedly pursued the killer. One of his first acts was to order a mass lie detector test--all male high school and college students were to be tested. Hundreds of men and teenagers came forward to take the polygraph, but no one stood out.
Josephson described his theory of the events that took place on the fateful evening Evelyn went missing:
"There had to be two men, based on a very obvious deduction. One man forced his way into the Rasmusen home by tearing off the screen and entering through the basement window. He crept up the stairs and surprised the frightened girl in the living room. We know that because his shoes left mud on the carpet.
"There was a struggle and Evelyn's eyeglasses were knocked to the floor. Her shoes, one left behind on the living room rug and the other found in the basement, fell off as the intruder dragged her, kicking and screaming, through the house. When they reached the basement, she was grabbed around the waist and shoved up through the window and out into the yard.
"Why didn't she run? Simple. The second man was waiting outside to pounce on her.
"The individual with the size 11 tennis shoes--the one who had gone inside the house to get the girl--picked her up and slunk between houses and garages with the semi-conscious girl slung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. The blood on the jacket shows that. The second individual, meanwhile, doubled back to get the car and bring it around to meet his accomplice.
"As the man in the size 11 sneakers neared the road, where he might be seen, he put his burden down, held her around the waist, and semi-dragged her upright at his side."
According to Josephson's theory, the abductor placed Evelyn into the back seat and climbed in beside her. With that, the kidnappers sped away.
While this theory may or may not have been accurate, it didn't help identify who took the babysitter. Or why?
After four years, La Crosse County cancelled Joe Josephson's contract. He left the area, a defeated man.
In the end, no real suspects ever emerged.
Serial killer Ed Gein has often been mentioned as a possible perpetrator. He allegedly had been in the area that day. But no evidence was ever found to tie him to the crime.
Someone got away with murder, and the mystery of the lost babysitter remains.