How I got to this book is interesting in and of itself. It started with one of those articles that lists books you would love if you love true crime, and when I saw that this one occurred at Penn State, I was excited because a dear friend of mine works there. This is David DeKok’s Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away.
1969 was quite a year across the United States, and Pennsylvania State University was not to be left out. It was in between some students who fought for more rights and against a government sending their friends off to war, and a state university in the middle of a tiny, conservative town that wanted everything to stay the same. In the middle of all of this, a beautiful, young graduate student is murdered in the library the day after Thanksgiving. No one knows it’s a murder for hours; it appeared as though she fainted. The crime scene was destroyed, and it would take years to identify all of the witnesses.
But most interesting is who on earth would want to murder the young woman whom everyone says was wonderful? While the murderer would be pinpointed within a few years, he would never be brought to justice. Her close-knit family, her friends, and her fiancé would be forever broken hearted after losing the light of their lives. This book, however, gives Betsy life in a way that had been missing for decades. DeKok gives readers this woman who had so much promise — she wanted to enter into the Peace Corps, but instead commuted to being a physician’s wife, which at that time meant hosting and supporting and philanthropizing. However, she was lost to a violent act that could — and should — have been stopped.
You can (and should) read about the man that we all accept as her killer in this book. It never ceases to amaze me how many people are willing to cover up horrible acts by people in order to save their own reputations or belief systems. For example, and quite related to this book, is the current sexual abuse scandals coming out about the Southern Baptist church, which mimics that of the Catholic Church. This was done to protect an institution, which protected individuals’ reputations and belief systems, not to mention keeping systems of power in place. This reminded me of this book, in that the man responsible for Betsy’s murder was an established pedophile who was let go by police and the community time and time again.
There are many points in this book that are dry and tedious, and I tried to think of how they could have been edited or cut to make the story flow better. However, after much thought, I realize that this story called for these details. It’s not a whodunnit — at least not the whole book — but rather a full bodied portrait of a murder and a system that allowed her perpetrator to get away. It’s Betsy’s story, but it’s also a treatise on what happens when we don’t hold our fellow citizens to account for their egregious acts. It’s the story of a small town with politics owning every move the police force makes, and it’s the story of what happened, not what might have been. It’s detailed for sure, but it captures the entirety of the story, not just the juicy bits. And that is what makes the book well worth the time you will spend with it.