True crime is not my favorite genre but how could a librarian pass up a book titled “Murder in the Stacks”? The complete title of this whodunit by David DeKok is Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away.

In the library world, stacks are the rows of shelving that hold a library’s books. In 1969 Penn State’s library had thousands of stacks, many in dark secluded spaces. It was a security nightmare for library administration. Graduate student, Betsy Aardsma, went into those dark secluded stacks Thanksgiving weekend and came out on a gurney. Her killer was never identified.

The author grew up in the same town as Aardsma — Holland, Michigan — and graduated from the same high school six years after Betsy. Fascinated by the unsolved murder, he wrote an investigative piece for the Harrisburg newspaper in 2008 — just before the 40th anniversary of the murder.

In his story, DeKok wrote about how he had amassed enough clues to implicate a killer. That suspect died before the book was published; people didn’t come forward while the suspect was alive. A cold-case officer told Aardsma that they had the killer, but state police never charged him.

However, this is more than the story of a crime. It is dual biographies of an innocent victim and a predator without a conscience. It is also a cultural history of an institution and of a turbulent time in the history of the country.

all of 1969 from the University of Michigan, ironically, to escape the Coed Killer who targeted brunette coeds at Michigan universities. Love was another draw to Pennsylvania. Boyfriend David Wright was enrolled at the medical school in Hershey.

After spending Thanksgiving in Hershey with David, Betsy returned to Penn State to work on an English paper. Several of her classmates were also venturing into the gloomy stacks of the library.  Not long after Betsy turned down an aisle looking for a book a thump was heard, followed by a crash and the sound of books hitting the floor.

Three people close to the area saw a man run from the aisle. He slowed long enough to tell them “someone had better help that girl”. Joao Uafinda thought the running man was going for help and followed him.  He soon lost him and went home.

Richard Allen saw what was happening and could provide a general description of the man but he did not offer assistance. Only Betsy’s classmate Marilee Erdely ventured into the aisle to check on the girl who needed help.

Marilee found Betsy lying motionless in a pile of books. Kneeling beside Betsy she began straightening Betsy’s hair and dress and putting books back on the shelf. Her cry for help was answered by library staff who began CPR and checked for a pulse. The assumption by them and the ambulance attendants who responded was fainting or a seizure.

The stab wound through Betsy’s chest into her heart was not discovered until after she had been pronounced dead.  Meanwhile the library staff returned the books to the shelf and had a janitor clean up the mess. Campus police had responded to the call for help but made no attempt to secure the scene or the library.

Chief of criminal investigation for the Pennsylvania State Police Rockview Barracks, Sergeant George Keibler, was recalled from vacation to take the case. He began a decade’s long search for a killer with virtually no evidence, no murder weapon, and no reliable witnesses.

The social unrest on campus, against the Vietnam War and the lack of diversity at the university, complicated an already challenging case.  Plus Penn State officials didn’t seem to care about finding the killer; they just wanted it out of the headlines.

The description of the investigation gives us a glimpse of how a criminal investigation was done fifty years ago. Betsy’s life and that of her named killer are detailed showing a stark contrast between an all-American girl and a man portrayed as a psychopathic pedophile.

This isn’t a lock your doors, sleep with your lights on true crime thriller. It is a detailed, thoughtful examination of an unsolved case. However, if only one or two citizens had come forward at any point, it may have been a case solved by Sergeant Keibler.

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