Cold Case: The Murder of Betsy Aardsma at Penn State

Mar 14, 2016 - by Cal Schoonover

Twenty-two-year-old grad student, Betsy Aardsma, was stabbed to death among the book shelves of the Pattee Library at Penn State University in 1969. Her murder remains unsolved.  

The slight breeze combined with the cold November air was enough to send a chill down the spine of anyone who strolled across Penn State University’s campus. The day was November 28, 1969; the day after Thanksgiving and for 22-year-old Betsy Aardsma, the large campus seemed empty. Many students had gone home for the holiday, but there were a few like Betsy who had a major paper due and needed to work on it. Betsy and her roommate, Sharon Brandt, left their room at Atherton Hall and walked toward the Pattee Library. The two agreed to meet up again later and catch a movie. As they approached the library, Betsy and Sharon parted ways.  

July 11, 1947 was a warm muggy day but that did not matter to Richard and Esther Aardsma, who welcomed a baby girl into the world. A baby girl who would later be described as “artistic” and “bright.” Richard and Esther named their daughter Elizabeth Ruth “Betsy” Aardsma. Betsy grew up in a household with three other siblings. Betsy’s father Richard, worked as a sales tax auditor for the state of Michigan and Esther was a stay-at-home mom. 

Betsy had a normal life growing up. Her parents were religious, like many other people in the town of Holland, Michigan. Betsy was the second oldest child in her family and was active in school activities which she continued through her whole school career. Her time at Holland High School was a breeze and she ended up graduating fifth in her class. As the end of her studies neared at Holland High, Betsy was conflicted on what she should do after high school. English, art and biology were her strong subjects and she often felt like she wanted to become a doctor.  

With her 5foot-8-inch frame, Betsy had long brown hair that had just a hint of a red to it. There was never a shortage of boys following her, but for the most part she was not interested. She knew college was a must and she was a serious student when it came time for her studies and having a boyfriend at this time would be a distraction. With a smile and small talk, Betsy would pass on dates the boys begged her for and her attention was now on her future at Hope College in the fall of 1965.  

The idea of becoming a doctor was not only what Betsy wanted, but her parents were also pushing for it. Betsy originally wanted to enroll at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, but Hope College was where her parents graduated from and the college was known for the strong pre-med courses.  

While at Hope College, Betsy came out of her shell and ended up going on several dates. However, no one special ever crossed her path and she was never in a serious relationship while she attended Hope. For the most part the young men Betsy went out with were nice, but there was one man who became angry with Betsy. After some form of disagreement the man either pulled a knife on her or threatened too, but either way, Betsy ended the relationship. No charges were filed by Betsy and the matter seems to have been dropped. 

“I run into asses every day,” Betsy told her friend who was attending Marquette University in Wisconsin. Time passed by too slowly for Betsy at Hope College and she often complained “This place is not as alive as it should be.” Hope College as it was turning out was not living up to Betsy’s expectations. She had other ambitions and interests that could not be fulfilled if she were to stay at Hope. Betsy was interested in the Peace Corps, she had a drive to help others who were in need. One way she would be able to pursue the Peace Corps was to transfer to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where the corps held a heavy presence. So she transferred. 

By the fall of 1967 the United States was in a full-blown war with Vietnam and the University of Michigan was a battleground for student protests. The university had been a hot bed for anti-war politics and was the birthplace for the left wing organization, Students for a Democratic Society, an organization led by Bill Ayers.  

When Betsy arrived in Ann Arbor that fall, she decided to change majors. She enjoyed reading literature and poetry, so a change to the English Department happened. Her drive to go into the medical field had dwindled, it was no longer what she wanted in life. Betsy also had another interest that continued to grow. His name was David Wright, a pre-med major she enjoyed being around. By the time of her senior year in college, 1968-69 came about, Wright decided to transfer to Penn State Hershey Medical School. 

Although Betsy still wanted to join the Peace Corps, which would have required her to travel around the world, Wright made it known he would not wait for her to return. A tough decision Betsy had to make, but she chose to be with Wright over the corps. So in the fall of 1969, Betsy continued on with her studies as a graduate student at Penn State’s main campus at University Park in the small town of State College. 

While it was a tough decision Betsy made, she could no longer pretend she was not afraid of the recent killings that had taken place in Ann Arbor. John Norman Collins, also known as the “Co-Ed Killer” was a 22 year-old Eastern Michigan University student studying elementary education. Collins began his killing spree in 1967 and resumed killing college women in March, 1969. Getting out of Ann Arbor was a must for Betsy, although she would miss her friends, but her family felt better now she was a safe distance from the killings. “Thank God, she’s at a place where she is safe,” said Betsy’s former brother- in-law.  

Once the fall semester began at Penn State, Betsy spent a lot of time studying. She did not go to many parties and did not have much of a social life. However, with the exception of going to Hershey on the weekends to see David, Betsy was just as serious about graduate school as she was about her undergraduate studies. The English Department at Penn State was rather tough and in order to make it through, Betsy had to study hard. Whenever she had free-time, which was not often, she wrote to David and her family. Sometimes she felt alone and communication in letter writing was her way to stay connected to the outside world. The last letter she wrote to David arrived a few days after her death. 

English 501 was a difficult class and the professor, Harrison Meserole, was known around campus as a demanding teacher. Betsy, who was enrolled in his course had a major paper due 

within a few weeks so spending a lot of time in the library doing research was a must. Feeling the pressures of graduate school and everyday life, Betsy fell behind with her studies. She needed a break so when Thanksgiving, 1969 arrived, she was happy to get away from campus.  

Betsy took a bus to Hershey to spend the holiday with David and his roommates. There, she was able to give her mind a break from school, even if only for a short time. Betsy, along with David and a half dozen or so of David’s classmates sat down on Thanksgiving evening for dinner. After they ate, Betsy decided to return to State College due to the amount of research she had to do. David did not object, he had finals of his own to study for, so he drove Betsy to the bus depot. It was the last time he saw Betsy alive. 

Upon arriving back to State College, Betsy returned to her dorm, which she shared with Sharon Brandt. There the two spent the rest of the evening talking and playing cards before going to bed.  

Murder in Pattee Library  

On the chilly morning of Friday, November 28, 1969, Betsy woke and did what she could on her paper before going to the library. As the day progressed, she decided it was time to get ready to leave. Betsy dressed herself in a sleeveless red dress over a white turtleneck sweater and left her dorm with her roommate, Sharon. Before Betsy could begin her research in the library, she had to meet with her two English 501 professors. By 4 p.m. Betsy had met with Professor Nicholas Joukovsky and promised she would retrieve a book she used for reference on a project that he was interested in. However, first she had to meet with her other professor, Harrison Meserole.   

As she entered the library, Betsy encountered two friends, Linda Marsa and Rob Steinberg. The three spoke for a few minutes then went on their way. Betsy made her way to Meserole’s office, located on level one of the Pattee Library. Meserole was busy with a bunch of meetings with students that day. She arrived on time and left after it was over. From there she moved to Level 3 where she left her jacket, a book and her purse.  

Betsy wondered over to the card catalog where she needed to find the call numbers for the books she needed. Another student, Marilee Erdley bumped into Betsy as she was searching the card catalog. Finding the book number she needed, Betsy walked to Level 2 core, where the book was located.  

According to author Derek Sherwood, he writes in his book Who Killed Betsy? That “to understand the design and layout of the Pattee Core stacks, it is important to understand that the stacks were never intended to be accessed by students.” This means when a student had the reference call number of the book they needed, they gave the number to the library employee and he or she would go retrieve the book. Moving around amongst the stacks was cramped and not meant to have more than one person in a book aisle.  

However, in 1969 the stacks were open for all students to move around freely and collect their own materials. Dean Brungart, the assistant stacks supervisor, made his final rounds through the core before his shift ended at 5 p.m. It was just after 4:30 p.m. when Brungart claims to have seen a girl in a red dress alone in an aisle and two men talking quietly nearby.  

Also sitting in the stacks was a student named Joao Uafinda, who was at the university studying geography. At this time, Uafinda was working on his own research paper and sitting a short distance from him was Marilee Erdley, who had bumped into Betsy a few minutes prior. Erdley sat at a desk doing homework just outside the entrance to the core stacks, just feet away from where Betsy was standing.  

Richard Allen, an aerospace historian, was also in the stacks that day using the copy machine while he waited for his son. Allen told police he heard a conversation between a man and a woman while he made his copies. Nothing stood out about the conversation and there was no hostility between the two.  

A crash was heard not far away from where Allen stood. Curious, he walked toward where the sound came from. It was then a man came running past him. Allen said the man “looked like a student,” and he had to move or he would have been run into.  

The crash sound also caught the attention of Uafinda and Erdley, who saw a man rushing toward them. Somewhat alarmed by the actions of the man, Erdley stood up as the man came closer. “That girl needs help!” The man said to Erdley and pointed in the direction where the sound came from. Erdley wanted to see what the problem was so the man led her to where the girl was and he quickly left. There in aisle 50 and 51 lay the body of Betsy Aardsma. Erdley checked for signs of life, but found none. She spotted a little blood on the white turtleneck Betsy had on. 

Erdley, who was alarmed at this time, yelled for help. Books were scattered all over the floor and a metal bookshelf had been knocked loose as well. The sound of the falling books was the only sound heard by the people in the library. No screams or sounds of a struggle were reported.  

While waiting for help to arrive, Erdley remained with the unconscious Betsy. Uafinda, however saw the man who approached Erdley leave the core and became suspicious. He followed the man up the stairs. He continued to follow the fleeing man out of the library but the daylight had faded into night by this time and Uafinda lost the man. A student library employee witnessed a man rushing out of the library with a black man following. The library employee was able to give a description of the man to police and a sketch was made. 

The screams of Erdley were heard and another library employee raced to a phone to call for help. The time was 5:01 p.m. when a pair of student paramedics were dispatched from the Ritenour Health Center. The two arriving medics were told they were responding to a girl who had fainted in the library. Upon arriving at the scene, the two medics parted through the small crowd that had gathered and felt for a pulse. One thought he felt one and the two medics lifted Betsy on a gurney and exited through the core on a service elevator.  

At the health center, chest compressions were still being administered on Betsy. Only then, did the attending doctor notice more blood appearing with each chest compression. The chest compressions were ordered stopped, as it was obvious something far worse than fainting was wrong with Betsy. At 5:19 p.m. the attending doctor declared 22-year-old Betsy Aardsma dead.  

Not knowing anything beyond someone fainted in the library and caused a mess, library staff began cleaning the scene. The books were picked up and placed back on the shelf and a mop was used to clean the floor. Any physical evidence left at the scene was now gone. 

Still not knowing the exact cause of death, the doctor at the health center, along with a member of the state police present, cut away Betsy’s bloody sweater and bra. It was then the cause of death had been discovered: a single stab wound to the chest. Betsy’s death was now ruled a homicide. The police ordered campus security to assist in gathering statements from anyone present at the library.  

Betsy’s body was transported to a nearby hospital for an autopsy within hours of her death. By 11 p.m. Dr. Thomas Magnani arrived at the hospital to determine the exact cause of death. The conclusions reached by Dr. Magnani shed some light on what happened in the stacks at Pattee Library.  

As mentioned before the aisle between bookshelves was too narrow for anyone to pass by another person without turning sideways. At the time of the murder, the bookshelves extended to the wall, so anyone would be unable to escape if need be. So this means Betsy’s killer could only have approached from one direction. The killer must have appeared to Betsy as either another student doing research or possibly someone she knew. Whoever it was obviously approached in a non-threating manner since no screams for help were heard.  

“There was nothing that suggested a struggle of any kind,” Dr. Magnani said. It was also the opinion of Magnani that the killer knew exactly where to plunge the knife into Betsy in order to keep her quiet. By stabbing her in the chest like the killer did, it caused Betsy’s lungs to fill with blood, leaving her unable to call out. 

The stab wound Aardsma received would have required her killer to have considerable strength to penetrate that deep into her chest. Her pulmonary artery was severed and her heart was hit. Dr. Magnani believes Betsy was attacked while facing her killer, which could explain the conversation Richard Allen overheard. With no signs of a struggle and no defensive wounds were found on Betsy, the evidence points to the fact the killer was someone she knew or didn’t appear to pose a threat.  

As time passed, the police still were no closer to finding the killer of Betsy Aardsma. They developed a few theories that were never proven and spoke with a few possible suspects which led to dead ends. The murder of Betsy Aardsma is still technically an “open investigation” and as such, police case files are not open for public viewing. So it is unknown exactly who or what the police actually know about the killer. 

What is known is that he approached Betsy in an aisle where she was unable to escape and he had enough strength to plunge a knife into her chest in a location that would prevent her from calling out. Chances are the killer was the same person who approached Erdley and said help was needed. After showing Erdley where help was needed, he left the scene by way of a staircase, which Uafinda followed. Later police found a little splatter of blood on the stairway wall. To police, it looked as if the killer had flicked the blood off his fingers after wiping off the knife.  

Betsy’s funeral was held on December 3, 1969 at Trinity Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. David Wright, who was devastated by Betsy’s murder, thought about not attending her funeral. He did attend however and he placed one rose in Betsy’s hand as she lay in her coffin. 

For more in-depth reading about the murder of Betsy Aardsma read Who Killed Betsy: Uncovering Penn State University’s Most Notorious Unsolved Crime by Derek Sherwood.  

 

Sources: 

Dekok, David. “A 39-year mystery: The murder of Betsy Aardsma.” The Patriot –News 7 Dec. 2008 www.pennlive.com. Accessed December 4, 2015.  

Sherwood, Derek. Who Killed Betsy: Uncovering Penn State University’s Most Notorious Unsolved Crime. Pine Grove Press, 2011. 

Other Newspaper sources: 

"Pennsylvania Stabbing Fatal for Holland Coed" -- Holland Evening Sentinel, 11/29/69 
 

"Cries for Help Unheeded" -- Daily Collegian, 12/2/69 

 

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