Harrisburg writer David DeKok reminds us in his latest book that it also was the “Murder Year” — a surreal time of violence that shook middle America. “Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away” is an in-depth look at that summer through the lens of a horrifying murder of a Penn State graduate student.
Aardsma died from a stab wound to the chest. She had been searching for a book in the depths of the dimly lit university library during Thanksgiving weekend. The 22-year-old grew up in the same hometown as DeKok, who was a reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot-News when he revisited the unsolved murder in a series for the newspaper in 2008. A few years after that series, more information came out that led DeKok to conclude that the crime has been solved, after being a cold case for nearly 45 years. The story takes the reader to Lancaster County, as well as Hershey, places familiar to most York countians.
The detailed look at Penn State makes the university a central character in the book, which describes how the library stacks were infamous for sexual trysts among students and non-students. DeKok’s thorough research also raises a number of questions that Penn State and state police authorities should address. Here is a question-and-answer with DeKok, edited for space.
Q: I am not clear on why the state police will not follow through on what seems like an obvious conclusion to the mystery. What is your insight?
A: Trooper Leigh Barrows, who was the Aardsma cold case officer in 2010, told the Aardsma family in the summer of 2010 that she was convinced Rick Haefner killed their daughter. She had good reason to believe that, and I point out why in my book. … The state police leadership won’t say why they disavowed Trooper Barrows and refused to close the case. (DeKok added that he thinks some in the Pennsylvania State Police had always suspected another student and that camp still “holds sway.”)
Q: The book weaves in all the turmoil and paranoia of the time. It goes to her state of mind, of course, of why she left Michigan for Penn State. Why were those aspects important to include?
A: I tried to recreate the era around the events to give readers a feel for what life was like then and make it more like a novel. I call 1969 the “Murder Year.” It was a year of almost unprecedented, remarkably savage crimes against young women and sometimes young men. I talk a little about Charles Manson, the Zodiac Killer, and the Coed Killer (John Norman Collins) at the University of Michigan, who was the reason Betsy’s family pressed her to go to Penn State.
Q: While this is a story about the time, it also seems like things never change. Thoughts on that?
A: Penn State University, as readers of my book will discover, has long had a problem with looking the other way when it came to certain behaviors by faculty and students. Jerry Sandusky was far from the first. There was another pedophile professor incident in 1981. I obtained the police file. The incident — two boys were molested at the Park Forest Village pool — was covered up, and Antonio Lasaga, a brilliant academic, went on to Yale University, where he was arrested in 1998 for child pornography and child molestation. Some of his colleagues in the Penn State geosciences department pleaded with the New Haven court to spare him for science. He is still in prison.
Q: When you did the series in 2008, I don’t think Haefner was on anyone’s radar, correct? As the puzzle pieces fell together, what was that like?
A: No, Haefner did not come into the picture until 2010, after his cousin, Christopher Haefner, bravely came forward and told what he knew. … I need to give some credit to Sascha Skucek, a writer for State College magazine, who first reported some of this. He had no interest in writing a book. I built on his findings, doing much additional research, and nailed the story down. It was a good feeling. Betsy was from my hometown of Holland, Mich., and went to my high school. I was glad to be the one to tell her story and to bring her back as a real person, not just a victim. She was a remarkable young woman, born the same year as Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney. She might have accomplished much if she had lived. Everyone described her as whip-smart, interesting, kind — and beautiful.
Q: The most incredible part is that Lauren Wright waited so long to come forward. Is there a lot more to this story?
A: Professor Lauren Wright, who was Haefner’s thesis adviser and mentor in the Geology Department at Penn State, failed a serious legal and moral test here. He waited seven years to go to his dean, Charles Hosler, with the story of Haefner’s visit and his belief that his former student, who he knew regularly carried a knife, was responsible for Betsy’s murder. Hosler immediately reported what Wright told him to Delbert McQuaide, the Penn State general counsel. There it died. Sgt. George Keibler, the lead investigator of the murder from 1969-83, told me he heard nothing about this from McQuaide or anyone else. Wright talked about this even late in life, yet remained close to Haefner until Haefner died in 2002. And he never picked up the phone to call the state police, even when they were publicly pleading with people who knew something to come forward. The current Centre County District Attorney, Stacy Parks Miller, has read my book and praised it both publicly and to me personally, but has given no indication whether she might pursue any of this. So many of the players are dead. Wright died in 2013, McQuaide in 1997. Hosler did the right thing in a chain-of-command sense, but even he wonders whether he should have also gone directly to PSU President John Oswald.
Q: Anything you want to add?
A: Penn State University needs to address the findings of my book regarding their own actions. So far, they are studiously ignoring it. I’m not the NCAA and can’t take away their football program, so the pressure is off. To anyone who thinks any college would have acted the same to protect its image and people, I point to Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. In 1950, F&M cooperated fully with police in the investigation of the murder of a college employee, even when the trail began to move toward a student, Edward Gibbs. Gibbs confessed, was convicted, and was executed in the electric chair. The college did its civic duty and moved on.