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Who Killed Betsy Aardsma

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Richard Haefner was called many things during his 58 years.

He was the brilliant Dr. Haefner, an assistant professor of geology and renowned lecturer with a doctorate from Penn State University.

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He was a defendant in a high-profile 1976 molestation case - which ended in a hung jury - and a series of other criminal complaints, some petty, some serious.

He was the plaintiff who spent a considerable portion of his final two decades in courtrooms, filing lawsuit after lawsuit, some intended to clear his name, others intended to harass his enemies.

He was a terror, a neighbor who enraged those who lived near him in the 200 block of Nevin Street in Lancaster with his slovenly ways and vindictive behavior.

But one thing Haefner, who died in 2002, was never called was a murderer.

Until now.

The current edition of State College Magazine contains an article by Penn State English lecturer and author Sascha Skucek, tying Haefner to one of the most famous unsolved murders in central Pennsylvania history: the 1969 stabbing of 22-year-old Betsy Aardsma in Penn State's Pattee Library.

Haefner, a doctoral student at Penn State at the time, knew and briefly dated Aardsma. He was one of nearly 5,000 people interviewed about the crime. Police have never called him a suspect - and still don't, saying only that he may have had more information than he shared with them.

But revelations by Haefner's cousin, a Lancaster author, and others who knew Haefner at Penn State led Skucek and an amateur Web sleuth who maintains a site devoted to the murder to conclude that Haefner, at the very least, knew who the killer was.

Skucek, whose article was titled "Case Closed?" said: "It's almost closed. The circumstantial evidence is there."

Added Derek Sherwood, who runs the website Whokilledbetsy.org, "I'd like to think if there are other people [in Lancaster] who know anything about this, that they'd come forward.

"There's a family that for 41 years has been waiting for answers."

Bright stars

Richard Haefner, born in 1943, was a local boy made good. A 1961 graduate of McCaskey High School and a 1965 Franklin & Marshall College alumnus, he worked on the staff of the North Museum before earning a doctoral degree in geology from Penn State. Many who knew him described him as strikingly intelligent.

The same was often said of Aardsma.

Petite and pretty, she came to Penn State from Holland, Mich., to enroll in the university's graduate English program. But mostly, according to published reports, she came to Happy Valley because her boyfriend had enrolled at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey.

She was described by friends as sensitive, even innocent. She didn't use drugs; she thought of joining the Peace Corps.

She spent Thanksgiving 1969 with her boyfriend in Hershey before taking a bus back to State College. She needed to work on a paper and meet with a professor the following day, Friday, Nov. 28, 1969.

She left her dorm room around 4 p.m. that day and walked to the library with a roommate. She stopped to see her professor, then went to the core of Level 2 in Pattee Library, a cramped, isolated central portion of the library with long rows of books and low ceilings. Students called the area "the stacks."

Sometime between 4:30 and 4:45 p.m., between rows 50 and 51, she was stabbed - a single blade thrust through her breastbone that penetrated her heart. She collapsed, pulling books upon herself; some people in the library thought they heard a scream. Others heard only falling books.

"Somebody better help that girl," a man leaving the area told a witness. That man was never found.

When Aardsma was discovered, no one initially knew she had been stabbed. She was wearing a red dress and had bled internally into her lungs. It wasn't until paramedics took her to the campus medical center that a doctor discovered the knife wound and deep bruising around the entry point - indicating the assailant had struck her with great force. No weapon was ever located.

Aardsma's family has given interviews about the crime over the years, but have stopped. "I wish you well, but I'm not going to be able to help you," Betsy's sister, Carole Aardsma, said Saturday night in response to a reporter's request for comment.

Students at Penn State at the time remember the crime well. "It was a very dark and scary episode," said Lancaster attorney Sam Mecum, a senior in 1969. "Pattee Library was a huge facility, and that area [the stacks] was very secluded and definitely creepy."

A stabbing, Mecum said, is "an up-close-and-personal killing done almost certainly by someone who knew her."

Richard Haefner did.

In the fall of 1969, according to Skucek's article, Haefner told acquaintances he'd dated Aardsma. Aardsma's roommate told police that Aardsma had spent time with Haefner. But Haefner told police Aardsma stopped seeing him in October 1969 because she was becoming serious with her medical student boyfriend.

Haefner told investigators he'd found out about her death the evening of Nov. 29, a day after she was stabbed. But in fact, Skucek asserted, Haefner knew of the crime shortly after it was committed. He'd shown up at the home of a professor just hours after Aardsma was killed, asking, "Have you seen the papers?" The stabbing had not yet been reported in the local newspapers. But Haefner knew about it and "expressed concern about what had happened to this young lady," the professor told Skucek.

Haefner behaved so strangely, Skucek said, that when he left, the professor wondered aloud to his wife if he had anything to do with the crime. But the professor never reported the incident to police.

The state police investigation ground on unsuccessfully. Sketches of a possible suspect described by witnesses were released to the press, to no avail. George Keibler, 79, was the state police sergeant who oversaw the investigation for the first 14 years. "As time goes by, you run into nothing or a dead end. It's frustrating," Keibler said in an interview last week.

State police Trooper Leigh Barrows, of the Rockview barracks, now the investigator working on the case, did not return messages seeking comment.

Keibler knew of Haefner but said that "up until the time that I left the state police, Haefner was never considered in the 'suspect' category."

Over the years, the crime turned into myth. Generations of Penn State students heard of the Girl in the Stacks; some said that section of Pattee Library was haunted by Betsy Aardsma's ghost. Through the years, everyone from Ted Bundy to the Zodiac Killer has been suggested as a possible killer. The reason for the crime has remained elusive, too.

The area where the crime occurred, Keibler said, had a reputation. "Things happened there, yes," he said. Sexual trysts, often same-sex trysts. One theory over the years was that Betsy Aardsma interrupted one such tryst and was killed in order to silence her.

Barrows told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2009 that she thinks Aardsma knew her killer: "There was no struggle, she didn't run," Barrows said. "I think that she was familiar with [the killer], that she recognized him, and that she was not afraid of him."

Rise and fall

By the mid-1970s, as police struggled to find new leads, Richard Haefner's star was on the rise.

An assistant professor of geology at the University of South Carolina, he was listed in "Who's Who in America" in 1975-1976. He lectured at clubs and colleges throughout the eastern U.S., according to a 1975 article in the Intelligencer Journal, and was on the cusp of even greater things. The University of Southern California had offered him a teaching job and the position of curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

But Haefner's career as an esteemed academic crashed and burned in August 1975, when he was arrested and charged with involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and corrupting the morals of a 12-year-old boy.

The boy was one of several who worked for Haefner in his Nevin Street garage, assembling "rock boxes" - shipments of rocks and minerals Haefner sold to the Smithsonian Institution. Haefner vigorously professed his innocence and lined up several prominent character witnesses. For a week, from Jan. 27 to Feb. 6, 1976, the case was reported on the front pages of the Lancaster newspapers; it ended in a hung jury, though Judge Anthony R. Appel cited Haefner with contempt of court for blurting out that he'd passed a lie detector test after Appel had ruled the test was inadmissible.

Haefner was fined $500 and sentenced to a month in county prison; he served two weeks before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered him released pending an appeal of the contempt citation.

Haefner won that appeal, and in March 1979 the state Supreme Court ruled he could not be tried again because it would violate his constitutional protection against double jeopardy. Haefner's record was expunged after the state Superior Court ruled in his favor.

But his time in court had only just begun.

Haefner would sue virtually everyone involved in the morals case - the police officers, the county, the city, the court reporter, even his own defense lawyer. George Werner, an attorney with the law firm Barley Snyder in Lancaster, defended the city and the city police department in the federal cases. Werner, now general counsel to Lancaster Newspapers Inc., recalls that the suits, alleging that Haefner's civil rights had been violated, were all thrown out.

Haefner didn't lose all his lawsuits. He won nearly $300,000 after suing the California museum that had planned to hire him before the charges were filed.

"The guy was very bright, and he was convinced his career was going to be destroyed," Werner said. "The only thing he had left was pursuing this series of lawsuits, and he really devoted his life to that."

Werner recalled one deposition in which Haefner - acting as his own attorney, as he often did - leapt across a table and started wrestling with a witness being deposed.

Haefner's temper seemed to get the better of him on other occasions as well. In 1981, he was cited with disorderly conduct for causing a disturbance in the lobby of Lancaster Newspapers. In 1994, city police responded to an incident at Haefner's Nevin Street home and wound up charging him with aggravated assault, resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer, hindering apprehension and disorderly conduct for allegedly fighting with officers and trying to keep them out of his home.

In 1998, Haefner was convicted of assaulting a Delaware woman after an argument in the parking lot of Liquor World in Milltown, Del. The woman, according to court records, saw a dog in a shopping cart and thought it had been abandoned; Haefner said the dog was his. The conflict escalated. When the woman tried to walk away and get in her car, Haefner struck the door of the vehicle with a bottle. She then tried to follow his vehicle and get his license plate number; according to court documents, Haefner got out of his car, grabbed the woman by the neck and pulled her out of her vehicle, then kicked and punched her, dislocating her jaw and loosening several teeth.

Haefner would later file a lawsuit in federal court asserting that it was she who assaulted him. The case was thrown out, with the judge saying the complaint bordered on frivolousness.

There were other incidents involving boys. In 1992, Haefner was arrested for interfering with the custody of a child after he took a 13-year-old city boy to Chincoteague, Va., and the boy's mother called to report the child missing. That case was dropped after the mother said Haefner had taken the boy to Virginia on several previous occasions. The youth was ultimately placed in a group home; when Haefner came to visit he wasn't allowed in, "and he sued everybody and his grandmother," said Christopher Underhill, of Hartman, Underhill & Brubaker, a Lancaster attorney who represented several defendants in the case (and faced off against Haefner in court in at least three other cases).

Haefner, Underhill said, was "a cut above" most people who represent themselves in court. "He was a tough opponent," Underhill said. "He was just flat-out wrong about the facts."

Around the house

Neighbors detested him.

"I remember when he died, I called up Charlie [former Mayor Charlie Smithgall] and said, 'Charlie! He's dead!' " said one former neighbor who lived across the street from Haefner for a decade.

His yard, she said, was stuffed with metal drums, tarps covering piles of rocks, and vehicles in disrepair - a huge mess. Neighbors continually complained to city officials about it. But few found the courage to complain to Haefner's face.

"If he found out you had called [the city], he would terrorize you," said the ex-neighbor, who asked that her name not be used. He'd spread his trash across neighbors' porches, and once took a knife to a neighbor's tire.

On another occasion, she said, some neighbors were in their car when they saw Haefner's dog defecate in their yard. They asked him to remove the animal's feces.

"He picked it up with his hands and threw it through the car window," said the former neighbor.

"He was very scary, very threatening."

Talk of 1975

But a murderer?

Skucek, 34, has spent years researching the Aardsma case and writing about it for State College Magazine and The Penn Stater Magazine.

Haefner has "been my prime suspect since 2008," since his conversation with Haefner's former professor who remembered him showing up the night of the murder.

Skucek remembered leaving the interview "with my mouth wide open - oh my God, this guy did it."

But it remained just a hunch - until eight months ago.

Derek Sherwood, the amateur Web sleuth who befriended and worked with Skucek, had posted an ad online, offering a reward for anyone who could provide additional information about Richard Haefner.

In February of this year, Haefner's cousin stumbled upon it.

"I was searching online for some of Rick's research," said Chris Haefner, who had worked with Richard Haefner for five years in the mid-1970s, lived a block away and later worked as assistant director of The Lost Dutchman Gemboree, a local gem and mineral show his cousin ran for more than a decade.

At first, Chris Haefner said in an e-mail to the Sunday News, he couldn't believe what Sherwood had to say. Then he spent hours online researching the case and his cousin's possible connection. He knew his cousin as a "genius" - "He discovered new mineral species in Cedar Hill Quarry in Lancaster County. ... The U.S. government used his knowledge to find copper deposits in the Death Valley region," Chris said in the e-mail.

But now, reading about his cousin's possible connection to the case, Chris Haefner remembered something: a 1975 conversation he'd overheard while working in the Nevin Street garage, a confrontation between Richard Haefner and his mother, Ere. Inside, out of sight, Chris Haefner heard it all.

Ere was angry about the molestation charges filed against her son. As reported by Skucek in his State College Magazine story, Chris Haefner said the talk turned to what Rick "owed" her, and "deteriorated into what [Rick] had done to 'that girl at Penn State.' "

No name was ever mentioned, Chris Haefner said: "The crux of the conversation was that he had admitted something to her at some point and she was there to cover for him, and here after all that she had done for him, here he went and put everything on the line again," Haefner told Skucek.

Then Haefner said he heard his aunt say, "You might as well kill me too, Rick."

" I can't recall it verbatim; there's no way I can," Chris Haefner told Skucek. "All I can remember is that she damn well talked about that he had 'killed that girl' and I thought it was nonsense."

In an e-mail to the Sunday News, Chris noted that for decades, he had dismissed the conversation "because I never had a name." Now, Skucek and Sherwood provided one. And Chris began to reevaluate his relationship with his late cousin: "Once Rick knew that I knew about Betsy [Aardsma] he wanted to keep me ever more in his favor. He kept me close."

So close that Chris testified on his cousin's behalf during the 1976 molestation trial. "He needed to involve me so he asked me to testify on his behalf in a measure to throw the case out by turning the tables on the prosecution," Chris said. "He accused them of their giving their witnesses money in exchange for testimony. He had me go on the stand just to say that I saw them there - which was true but it meant nothing. The real reason I testified was that he was afraid of what I had found out."

There remains no physical evidence linking Richard Haefner to the murder of Betsy Aardsma.

Richard Haefner died of a heart attack in the Mojave Desert in 2002, where he was studying rocks. Eight years later - and despite his cousin's recollections - police still won't formally identify him as a suspect: "He is not a suspect," State Trooper Jeff Petucci told Skucek for his article. "He [is] a person who we believe may have possibly had more information about the crime."

The investigation is still active, Petucci said.

But Skucek and Sherwood, who for years have obsessed about the case, poring over every little detail, feel as if, finally, they are closer to an answer.

"He was there, he had intimate knowledge of [the crime], he was interviewed by police and he lied to them," asserted Sherwood, who runs whokilledbetsy.org.

And he hopes the recent media attention can draw out more people who knew Haefner and who, like his cousin, might have heard something that can tie Richard Haefner to the girl he knew briefly back at Penn State in the late 1960s.

"I think that the Aardsma murder may have both burdened and emboldened Rick, if he truly committed it," Sherwood said.

"Burdened in the sense that he probably always felt that he had to watch his back for police and his past, so to speak, and emboldened in the sense that once you've gotten away with murder, everything else is small potatoes."

Gil Smart is associate editor of the Sunday News. E-mail him at gsmart@lnpnews.com, or phone 291-8817.


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Source : https://lancasteronline.com/news/who-killed-betsy-aardsma/article_960ccf9d-03af-59f4-a8fb-4c5749caff40.html

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