Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Murder at Penn State by Robert A. Waters

Why do some murders gain media notoriety and others don’t? I don’t know the answer to that. I know I had never heard about the Betsy Aardsma murder until a few weeks ago when I stumbled on the website. The senselessness of the murder drew me to the case as well as the fact that it was new to me. Someone has gotten away with this brutal crime for nearly forty years. Here’s hoping Betsy's story will jog a memory or conscience and justice can be served.

On the afternoon of November 28, 1969, Betsy Aardsma was visiting the Pattee Library at Pennsylvania State University when someone pushed the blade of a knife through her heart and walked away. To this day, there are no suspects in the murder. But a new website hopes to shed light on this long-cold case.

According to the website’s introduction, “Betsy was a 22-year-old graduate student from Ann Arbor, Michigan who was enrolled in a Master's Program in English at Penn State University in August of 1969. She had come back to State College, Pennsylvania over the Thanksgiving holiday break in November of 1969 in order to work on a research paper for her English 501 class, which was an Introduction to Research. She was not scheduled to be in State College, but had cut her Thanksgiving vacation with her fiancee in Hershey, Pennsylvania, short to get a jump on her class project. Betsy was not a drug user, not a criminal, and in fact was regarded as an intelligent, well-liked girl who had recently become engaged to her fiancee, a medical student at the University. At approximately 4:00 p.m. on November 28th, Betsy and her roommate parted ways at the library after planning to meet at 7:00 p.m. that evening for dinner. Betsy met with a professor, Harrison Meserole, to talk about her research paper, and then she headed into the Level 2 Core ‘stacks’ to find some materials. At some point around 4:45 p.m., she was stabbed one single time in the heart by an unknown assailant, presumably male, and fell to the floor. She was found lying on the floor shortly thereafter, but her red dress made what little blood that had spilled look as though she’d had a seizure and bitten her tongue...Betsy was transported to the Ritenour Health Center and pronounced dead there at 5:20 p. m. Early the following morning, her death was ruled a homicide and the investigation began -- an investigation which, after almost 40 years, has produced no good suspects, few witnesses, and no resolution. The purpose of this site is to kick-start the investigation and assist police in bringing the case to a close.”

Derek Sherwood was a child when his father worked at Penn State. He remembers hearing about the unsolved murder. “The more I read about [the case],” he said, “the more I was sucked in.” He and a friend recently created the website in an attempt to generate interest in the case and develop new leads that police can follow up on.

Betsy was on the second level of the library, among rows of long, high shelves filled with vintage hardback books. Approximately 650 people were in the library that afternoon, but in the section where Betsy stood browsing, there were few patrons. A female student who was in Betsy’s class sat at a nearby table and saw two men exit the area. One said, “Somebody better help that girl,” and led her back to where Betsy lay. Other than a few books that had fallen from the shelves, there was no sign of a struggle.

As her classmate (interviewed but never identified by police) stooped to help Betsy, the two men kept walking. They were never identified although a composite of one of the men was published in the local newspapers.

It was only after the autopsy, performed by Dr. Thomas Magnani, that it was determined that Betsy Aardsma had been murdered. A four-inch blade had penetrated the sternum and gone through the heart. Death had come within a minute or two.

By the time police began an investigation, the crime scene had been compromised and everyone who had been in the library was long gone. Investigators eventually interviewed about 85 patrons and employees, but came up with no leads. A task force was formed but was disbanded after a few months.

Two questions remain: why was Betsy Aardsma targeted and who murdered her? Was Betsy the target of a random killer or did someone want her dead?

When I first visited, I was impressed with both its simplicity and ease of navigation. I’ve visited thousands of websites dedicated to murder victims and missing persons. This is one of the best.

The website has its own domain, which is always a plus. That means the creator can keep those annoying ads out of the face of the viewer and indeed, there are no such ads here. Another thing I like about this website is that there are dozens of articles about the case and they are cached within the website so that the links won’t disappear.

There’s also a Theory/Rumor FAQ, another nice touch. For instance, there was a rumor going around campus that Ted Bundy may have killed Betsy.

“Q: Could Ted Bundy have killed her? I heard he was in the area in 1969. A: Ted Bundy found out in early 1969 that his real father lived in the Philadelphia area. It is rumored that he went to visit him. However, Bundy's movements have been highly documented and he was not in the area at the time. Furthermore, the murder was not his 'style' and fingerprints found at the scene have never been matched to anyone in the NCIC database -- a database which Bundy's prints were in.”

Other such questions are dealt with in like manner.

In an email to me, Derek wrote: “I decided to start the website in March of 2008. I wanted a way to publicize the case and hopefully jog some folks’ memories, as well as to be a centralized hub for contacting the police with new information.

“The theory of the police was either that Betsy witnessed a drug deal, or that she caught some homosexuals/exhibitionists in the act and was killed to keep her from talking. I do think they messed up big-time by trying to find a pothead or gay men when in reality the motive was likely a lot more obtuse.

“Between 4:30 and 5:15 roughly 440 people came into or left the library, according to the foot counters at the doors. So anyone could have come or gone in that time. The police investigation was hampered by the fact that, at first, no one knew it was a homicide.”

If you wish to learn more about this case or have information, you are encouraged to visit the website which has an email address where you can contact Derek.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think Coral eugene watts made this kill He was certainly able to travel long distances with a car at this time