Thursday, December 28, 2017

Book Review

A Matter of Record: The Commonwealth vs. Richard Charles Haefner  
Derek J. Sherwood 

Review by Robert A. Waters 

Derek J. Sherwood is the author of the successful true crime book, Who Killed Betsy?: Uncovering Penn State University's Most Notorious Unsolved Crime.  Like that book, A Matter of Record is meticulously researched and written in a readable and dramatic styleRichard Haefner, who had a Ph.D. in Geology from Penn State University, was later fingered as the probable killer of Betsy Aardsma, but never charged.    

Haefner, a former professor at several universities, bounced from job to job.  Everywhere he worked, valuable rocks would disappear.  Eventually, he drifted back home and worked in his family's rock shop which had a large contract to provide samples to the Smithsonian InstituteHaefner, a genius when it came to identifying rock specimens, even identified a once-undiscovered stone.  He was known to be socially awkward, vindictive toward perceived enemies, and had a history of abusing women. 
While still a doctoral student, Haefner was questioned by police about the stabbing death of Aardsma in Penn State's Pattee Library, but was never considered a suspect. 

The family's rock shop hired young teenaged boys to help collect rocks.  When two young teens accused Haefner of molesting them, he was hauled to the police station and interrogated for five hours.  Although he admitted nothing, and the young men could offer no tangible proof that the sexual encounters had occurred, Haefner was arrested and brought to trial.   

A Matter of Record describes this case, which, according to the author, "had set a precedent in [Pennsylvania] law and after I uncovered the related items mentioned in the book, I was able to write a story about police incompetence, prosecutorial misconduct, judicial prejudice, and the ultimate vindication of a man who should have gone to jail, but didn't." 

Sherwood located thousands of file documents related to the case, including formerly expunged transcripts of the trialHaefner filed a complaint against the Lancaster Police Department alleging civil rights violations for their treatment of him, and Sherwood found these documents as well.  Along with interviews with many of the participants, A Matter of Record is well-researched. 

The book is at once the record of a major criminal trial, an exploration of local history, and the continued documentation of Richard Haefner's sordid past.  It should be added to your true crime book collection.

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