In his book “Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away,” author David DeKok tells the story of the 22-year-old Penn State student killed in Pattee Library the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 28, 1969.
He details her life and death, and alleges several mistakes and oversights that left the killing unsolved for more than 40 years. The book reads like a dual biography, giving a detailed account of Aardsma and DeKok’s own person of interest, Richard Haefner.
“Murder in the Stacks” also touches on similarities that DeKok says exist between the Aardsma case and the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal at Penn State. DeKok alleges, like the Sandusky scandal, that the Aardsma case was not properly investigated and information was withheld to save the reputations of certain people and of the university itself — at the expense of the victims and their families.
DeKok recently spoke with the Centre Daily Times about the book and his perspective on the case.
Q: The book at times reads more like a biography rather than a murder mystery — humanizing Betsy Aardsma as a person and not just a homicide victim. Was that one of the angles you were aiming for when you decided to write this?
A: Yes. I wanted to bring her back from the dead, in a literary sense. So many victims of murders are only remembered for their violent death. What can you tell me about any of the victims of the Zodiac Killer in California in 1969, or the Coed Killer in Michigan? Not much, I would wager.
Betsy was from my hometown of Holland, Mich., and went to my high school. ... I didn’t know her, but I knew several of her teachers and was able to find most of her friends. Because of their help, and because I had grown up in the same town and culture she did, I was able to write a biography of her. She was beautiful, intelligent and kind. Everyone said so. It frustrated the state police to no end, because they depend on character flaws in a victim to lead them to the killer.
Q: You not only talk about Betsy at great length, but you also give readers a detailed description of Betsy’s alleged killer, Rick Haefner. What can you say about him?
A: His violent and sordid life doesn’t necessarily prove he killed Betsy, but when you view the totality of who he was and the things he did, you wonder, if not him, then who?
Haefner, who grew up in Lancaster, ... was a boy-oriented pedophile who sought out “relationships”with women as cover for what he was. ... You see this throughout his life. But he had a violent temper when a woman annoyed or rejected him. He was probably minutes away from killing a woman in a parking lot in Delaware in 1998 when a Tastykake driver rushed to intervene. Haefner was slamming her face into her car. She had extensive dental damage and never truly recovered emotionally from the brutality of the attack, her husband told me. When you view these incidents, it is easy to imagine him flying into a rage against Betsy Aardsma and plunging the knife he always carried into her heart.
Q: The extensive research and interviews you conducted for the book are astounding — you included so much background information of the time period, weaving it in with the events surrounding the killing. Can you explain how you were able to piece that all together?
A: There was no single source for this. Some information I found in news clips from the Collegian and the Centre Daily Times. Sgt. George Keibler, the lead investigator of the Aardsma case, told me of other incidents. Trooper Mike Simmers, who worked undercover on the Penn State campus in the late 1960s, was a big help. One of the really interesting sources was a collection of state police undercover reports to Gov. Raymond Shafer, which are in Shafer’s papers in the State Archives in Harrisburg. I located the Students for a Democratic Society president at Penn State from the late 1960s, Jeffrey Berger, and we had a delightful conversation about those days. The left wing students at Penn State had important issues — increasing black enrollment at Penn State, which was scandalously low, and protesting the Vietnam War. But on occasion, and especially in the riots of April 1970, they crossed the line into mindless violence and anarchy.
There was great mistrust of the state police by many Penn State students in 1969 because of the police role in breaking up demonstrations and arresting marijuana smokers. And it hurt the investigation. Students just weren’t coming forward to talk to the police. They would answer questions if asked, but on a campus this large, the police needed to have people come forward on their own. The same thing happened at the University of Michigan earlier that year, when the Michigan State Police were trying desperately to find the Coed Killer before he struck again.
Q: As you have stated in other interviews, there are parallels between the Aardsma case and the Sandusky scandal — in that vital information was not reported properly within the chain of command at Penn State, and those in authority looked the other way. In your book, you say professor Lauren Wright waited too long to tell someone about the night of the murder, when Rick Haefner came to his house. Why do you think he never followed up on it?
A: Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Lauren Wright is one of the saddest and most infuriating characters in this story. He was a great geologist, but failed a serious legal and moral test by remaining silent for seven years. You will hear his defenders say, well, Lauren always saw the best in people, and Haefner was his student, blah, blah, blah. I don’t buy that. When Haefner started to behave in a threatening way toward him in 1976, Wright immediately went to Charles Hosler, his dean, and poured out what had happened at his house the night of the murder, how Haefner always carried a knife, and how he thought his former student might be the killer of Betsy. Hosler then reported it to Del McQuaide, the Penn State general counsel, the insider’s insider. And nothing happened. But back to Wright. I believe Haefner had something on him that Wright was terrified of being revealed in that day and age. Remember, he stayed silent even when the state police were publicly pleading for information in early 1970 and offering a $25,000 reward, which was a lot of money then. Even late in life, he refused to pick up the phone and call the state police, even while telling the story of Haefner’s visit to his house to former students like Dan Stephens. Wright maintained ties with Haefner right up to the latter’s death in 2002.
Q: The Penn State Police still have not closed the Aardsma case Why do you think they would keep the case open with all the new information that has come to light in the past few years?
A: Some of the state police are still quite definitely in Camp Maurer (Larry Paul Maurer). As recently as 2008, there were conversations between the state police and then-Centre County district attorney Michael Madeira about convening a grand jury. Didn’t happen. I was told by the Aardsma investigator at the time, Trooper Kent Bernier, that there wasn’t enough evidence. I don’t believe Maurer was the killer.
(Maurer) knew Haefner, and briefly roomed with him in Atherton Hall. Maurer did just about everything he could to make the state police believe that he was the killer, but he passed a lie detector test with flying colors, then vanished into the National Security Agency for a long career. I think it was all an act on his part; a way to get attention. When I phoned him, he refused to talk to me beyond commenting that the Aardsma murder had been a “tar baby” for him, meaning something he couldn’t get rid of.
Why do they refuse to close the case? For all the reasons above, plus I don’t think that, as an institution, they like the fact that citizens developed Haefner as a suspect.
Q: The case is complex and there have been so many theories as to who the killer was. Besides Haefner, did you at any time believe any of the other theories to be possibly true?
A: Not really. As noted, I fully considered what was known about Maurer and rejected the idea of him being the killer. Some of the other theories range from comical to weird, like her being an undercover drug agent, her parents being undercover drug agents or Satanists being responsible. A lot of people remember a theory about someone supposedly murdering the first person in campus telephone directories. With her double-A first name, she indeed was that; although in her hometown, the Aalderinks beat out the Aardsmas for top billing.
Sgt. Keibler told me they ran all these theories down and dismissed them. Another one that really irked him was the rumor that Betsy had been a nude model for the art department and her murder somehow grew out of that. She wasn’t, and Keibler remains permanently soured on art students.
Q: The Betsy Aardsma murder is not the only case in the State College area that has gone unsolved. There’s the murder of Rachel Taylor in 1940, the Dana Bailey murder in 1987 the disappearance of Cindy Song in 2001, not to mention the disappearance of former Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar, who has a connection to a couple of the aforementioned cases. Do you think there is a pattern or is it a matter of circumstance?
A: With the students, the pattern is that they occurred in a college town, where a lot of people come and go. That makes murders harder to investigate. Students live here but their roots are elsewhere. With Ray Gricar, who knows? That one has as many theories as the Kennedy Assassination.
Q: Ultimately, what do you hope this book accomplishes? A better understanding among the Penn State community, alumni and the general public of what happened and the events of that time period? Exposure of the incompetence of authority figures at Penn State — past and present? Closure for Aardsma’s family and friends?
A: All of that, although I don’t think it will bring closure to the family. Her parents are both dead, although her mother died only in 2012. She has a brother and two sisters left alive, and they will not talk to me or, apparently, anyone else about Betsy. Mrs. Aardsma spoke to the press until 1989 and then abruptly stopped. Did something happen? Was there a settlement with Penn State that was never publicly revealed? Given everything else that has happened in Happy Valley, I can’t rule that out; although I have no proof one way or the other. It’s just something to think about.
What really ought to happen at Penn State is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission made up of independent outsiders who have full authority and access to documents to investigate what Penn State did about Betsy’s murder, about the Antonio Lasaga pedophile professor scandal of 1981, and, of course, about Jerry Sandusky. It’s time to stop looking the other way. If Penn State wants to bury the Freeh report, this is the way to go.