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BookMark: 'Murder in the Stacks' by David DeKok

Murder in the Stacks book cover.
Kris Allen

This was a book I almost literally couldn’t put down. I devoured its 400 pages in just 3 days. Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away, by David DeKok, is a thriller of a tale.  It brings to life a 45-year old cold case: the murder of a 22-year-old grad student among the bookshelves at Penn State’s Pattee Library. 

Betsy Aardsma, of Holland, Michigan, came to Penn State as a graduate student in English. In a bit of wrenching irony, her parents encouraged her NOT to choose the nearby University of Michigan for graduate school, because there had been a recent string of murders of young women on that campus.

After just three months at Penn State, Aardsma was murdered while doing research for a paper on Thanksgiving weekend in the tall, dark stacks of Pattee Library. It happened in the late afternoon on Black Friday, November 28, 1969.

The facts of this case are jaw-dropping enough to be a cable network’s dream: Aardsma was stabbed, but did not scream – suggesting she probably knew her killer. Witnesses in the library only heard the sound of her body falling against the bookshelves. 

The first responders didn’t even know she was dead. They thought she’d fainted, because most of the blood pooled in her chest cavity, pushing color into her face. There was very little blood at the scene, and the bright red dress she wore obscured any stains.

After she was taken for medical treatment, the library cleaned-up what they didn’t know was a crime scene. No one knew Aardsma was dead until a doctor examined her.  And even then they didn’t know any crime had been committed until a small stab wound was discovered in her left breast.

Those mishaps and delays made tracking down the witnesses difficult, and allowed the killer to get away. The investigation went on for decades, with no charges ever filed. But that doesn’t mean the killer remains unknown. That man’s alleged identity, and his shadowy past, makes for gripping reading.

DeKok is a journalist for Reuters, and a former investigative reporter for the Patriot News in Harrisburg.  He also happens to come from Betsy Aardsma’s hometown. They went to the same high school in Holland, Michigan, but he never met her.

You can find out the possible identity of the killer by Googling the Aardsma murder case.  But don’t. Wait until you get your hands on a copy of Murder in the Stacks, and be riveted to your chair by this stunning true story.

Kristine Allen is Program Director of WPSU-FM. She also files feature stories for WPSU on the arts, culture, science, and more. When she's not at WPSU, Kris enjoys playing folk fiddle, acting, singing and portrait-sketching. She is also a self-confessed "science geek." Kris started working in public radio in college, at age 17, and says she "just couldn't stop."
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