Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Author's Corner: An Interview with Derek Sherwood

"Have you heard about the girl that was murdered in the stacks?" I heard the young male student ask of his female companion, "You really shouldn't go in there alone."

Having worked for Penn State Library for a couple of years, I had heard this more than once coming from the students. Although the murder occurred had occurred on November 28, 1969, the whispers that still go on around campus makes it seem it happened only a couple years ago...not years and years before they had been born.

In the time I spent at PSU I thought I heard it all when it came to the unsolved murder of Betsy Aardsma. The rumors and half-truths about what happened in the stacks of Pattee Library, mixed with little fact (in many of the cases no fact) whispered from one class to the next, seemed to leave little to the imagination about what may or may not have happened. When the question is asked of tour guides, they merely push it aside - after all, who wants to talk about a murder, especially an unsolved murder that has haunted Penn State's main campus.

While I had heard the rumors - not just when I worked for the library, but before that - I pushed many of the stories aside. After the tragic, unsolved death of young Betsy Aardsma, everybody in Central Pennsylvania seemed to have a theory. They ranged from the jilted lover to a cover-up so massive that it involved the whole university. Despite the theories, the stabbing death of Betsy Aardsma on November 28, 1969 in the Pattee Library stacks remains one of Penn State's unsolved mysteries.

Growing up in the shadow of the university, I often wondered why the case went cold. All though the case remains in the minds of locals, the case was rarely talked about on campus. People would whisper their thoughts and ideas, but bringing up in public almost seemed taboo.

Who Killed Betsy? was brought to my attention earlier this year by a friend, but it wasn't until I was contacted by the author Derek Sherwood did I sit down to read it. I was surprised about how much I really did not know about Betsy Aardma's murder.

In his book, Derek lays out the details of the murder, then sorts through the rumors to focus on one person of interest - Richard Haefner. The argument of Haefner's involvement in the Aardsma case is carefully laid out and presented in his book, Who Killed Betsy? that is available now in bookstores and online.

After reading Who Killed Betsy? I had the chance to talk with Derek about his book and it's impact.

Derek Sherwood
Author of Who Killed Betsy?
Pennsylvania Rambler (PR) - Welcome Derek to The Pennsylvania Rambler Blog. I finished your book Who Killed Betsy? and can say that I am impressed and intrigued with your take on the unsolved murder of Betsy Aardsma.

Derek - Thank-you for taking the time to read Who Killed Betsy? and being willing to share it with your readers.

PR - Before we get into the murder, tell me a little about yourself. Family? Hobbies?

Derek - I'm married with two children. My hobbies (prior to having kids) were things like working on cars, small engine repair, and history. Of course, two young children limits my free time now.

PR - With your interest in the Betsy Aardsma case, are you originally from the area?

Derek - I'm originally from York, Pennsylvania.

PR - Always glad to have a native Pennsylvanian here on The Pennsylvania Rambler. Let's get down to your book, Who Killed Betsy? Having grown up in the shadow of Penn State, I've heard about the case for many, many years. What brought Betsy's case to your attention?

Derek - I lived in State College for a year or two in the 1980s when [my] dad worked for the University. He mentioned it to me one day driving past the library. The image of a library so big that a woman could be murdered there, and the killer never found, stuck with me.

PR - May I ask how many years of research went into your book?

Derek - I've been working on the case since 2008. I didn't originally intend to write a book.

PR - You weren't originally planning on writing a book?

Derek - I wanted to generate leads by creating a website and possibly funding a billboard similar to some of the ones that have popped up listing Joe Paterno's 409 wins since the Sandusky scandal. However, once I got deep into the case people would ask me how it was going and there was so much information to share, I finally decided to put it all into a book, because no one would have believed it or been able to sit to hear it all.

PR - In your book, you focus on Richard Haefner as the man who was responsible for Betsy's death. What was it that turned your attention on him?

Derek - An author named Pamela West had told us back in 2008 that a "geography major" had gone to his professor's house the night of the murder in a bit of a panic. She couldn't remember his name or anything else. Sascha Skucek, my research partner, went to the head of the Geosciences Department and found that it was actually a Geology major by the name of Richard Haefner. That was the genesis of the Haefner theory back in late 2008, early 2009.

PR - So Richard was your prime subject from the beginning?

Derek - The way we worked the case was to try to rule people out, rather than in. We tried to find reasons why the suspects COULDN'T have done, rather than think up reasons why they could have committed it. Not only could we never rule Haefner out, there were numerous anecdotes and pieces of evidence that ruled him in quite circumstantially, but also convincingly.

PR - One thing that I found interesting is that the first sketch released by the police seems to be the worst one possible. Was there a reason for this composite sketch being released to the public?

Derek - Not to my recollection. It may have been an accident or simply a push to pick a composite to release to get the word out.

PR - Looking at the sketch later released after the police interviewed Uafinda it looks so much like Richard Haefner. In your opinion, if this sketch was released to the public first that the case would have been officially solved?

Derek - Possibly. The description of the killer was that he was wearing "khaki slacks, sneakers, etc." along with the image. There is a photo of Haefner in the book from @1970-72 that matches the composite exactly, down to the little curl of hair over his forehead, which was clearly a style of choice (it would have required maintenance and hair cream to make sure it curled just so). Haefner was also known for wearing khakis and sneakers almost exclusively.

The problem was, by the spring of 1970, Haefner was working extensively on his outside projects for his Ph.D., so his schedule was full of trips to Death Valley and independent study classes. There's a good chance he wouldn't have been noticed even based on the second composite simply because he wasn't on campus very much after the fall of '69.

PR - A while back, I spent a couple of years working at Pattee Library and during that time, I heard all sorts of strange theories about who murdered Betsy and the reasons behind it. Dare I ask...What is the strangest one you've heard?

Derek - One recent theory that seems to be popular is "Did Jerry Sandusky know Betsy Aardsma" or variations of that theme. I guess because of the homosexual theory that is covered in the book, people assume maybe she caught him with a boy in the library and he killed her to silence her. Crazy stuff. Certainly not anything I subscribe to.

PR - I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but do you think that the university had an idea and tried to cover it up? We've seen it recently with the Sandusky scandal. Do you think this is possible?

Derek - I know that Haefner was supposed to have been reported to the University attorney by the Geosciences Department Head. Nothing was done from there, so it's entirely possible the University had an idea, but covered it up. I also read an article that claimed that Haefner was supposed to undergo psychological counseling prior to entering Penn State. If this is true, and if the ball was dropped on that, it would give the University even more reason to want to sweep it under the rug, because it would tend to show that they allowed a possibly dangerous individual on campus.

PR - We've already mentioned a couple of the theories that abound about the unsolved murder and in Who Killed Betsy? you've put to rest some of those stories. Growing up, one theory I often heard was the murder was committed by a local and that the police helped to cover it up. Have you heard this one?

Derek - I had heard the local theory as well, but never really could find a strong genesis for it. It's a theory that was floated around in the Dana Bailey case, a girl murdered in State College in 1987. I don't think that the police had any reason to cover it up, because they were State Police; State College Police Department did not exist at the time that Betsy was murdered. So it would be harder in my opinion for a cover-up to have occurred to help somebody's kid or family member who happened to be a killer.

PR - Is there any other theories out there that could be possible?

Derek - The theory of the English professor, Robert Durgy, who died in a car accident not long after Betsy's death still haunts me. Though - allegedly - there is evidence he was already back in Michigan when she was killed.

PR - I know I get quite a few contacts from family members on the blog about the things I've researched, have either of the families contacted you after the release of your book? If so, what was the reaction?

Derek - I have spoken to a number of people in Rick's extended family. Most felt he was very intelligent, very strangely troubled, but probably not a killer - although that's not surprising. Betsy's family has been silent, although Sascha and I contacted them with letters after we finished up the bulk of our work on the case, in an attempt to explain ourselves. I spoke to Carol Aardsma back in 2008, but it was a very brief conversation essentially letting her know what I planned to do and asking if she had a problem with it. She basically said "Do what you have to do," and that was that.

PR - So I have to ask, are you planning on exploring any of the other unsolved murders or disappearances at Penn State?

Derek - I have briefly poked around with the idea of looking in the other PSU murders. There are slight issues with each one. The Rachel Taylor murder from 1940 is so far in the past that almost everyone involved is deceased, which makes getting good information though. The newspaper accounts are typical of the time and are very salacious/possibly slanted.

The Cindy Song case is hampered by the fact that she's never been found. Her case has been linked to Hugo Selenski and twelve more unidentified bodies have just recently been found on his property. So that's pretty active and until it's determined what happened to her...I've struggled with how to craft a book about it.

The Dana Bailey case in 1987 is most possible but I have been hesitant now that I have young kids to get back involved in one of the cases simply because they are so time-consuming and emotionally draining.

PR - As you are mentioning other unsolved murders and disappearances of PSU students, I have to bring up another connection. Earlier you mentioned Pamela West. While I haven't read her science fiction novel 20/20 Vision, I have enjoyed another of her novels: Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper. West's time-traveling novel is based on the Aardsma murder and has been mentioned in the newspapers with the April 15, 2005 disappearance of Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar. Any thoughts?

Derek - I have not yet gotten to read 20/20 Vision. I hear it is interesting and have heard of the Gricar parallels.

PR -  We'll both have to place it on our reading lists.

Derek - Yes, we'll have to.

PR - I want to thank-you for your time. I enjoyed it greatly and given the evidence at hand, you've made a very convincing argument for Richard Haefner being the prime suspect in her murder. Who Killed Betsy? is available through major booksellers. Again, thank-you for your time.

Derek - Thank-you.


I'd like to encourage you (if you already haven't) to pick up a copy of Derek Sherwood's book Who Killed Betsy? available now. And thank-you again Derek for stopping by,

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