was like the setting on one of the era’s popular sitcoms, like “Father Knows
Best” or “Ozzie and Harriet.” It was a world of freshly painted houses, neat
lawns, stay at home moms, and church on Sundays, people didn’t lock their
doors, and kids rode their bikes to the malt shop or movie dates, and football
and basketball games. The rock and roll craze hadn’t hit La Crosse, Wisconsin yet and the bogey man was anyone
who had ever been a member of the Communist Party. Girls earned their spending
money by babysitting and guys by pumping gas at the local station. It was a
Norman Rockwell world of innocence, and it was about to be shattered. La Crosse
October 24, 1953 Viggo Rasmusen, a
college professor, and his wife were eager to attend the Homecoming game. They
needed a babysitter. But the girl they usually called was unavailable. But
Evelyn Hartley, the mature and responsible daughter of their neighbor, biology
professor, Richard Hartley, was free. The fifteen-year-old straight A student,
a fresh-faced, blue-eyed, brunette in a white blouse and red denim pants, arrived
promptly with her spectacles on and her schoolbooks in hand, ready to study
while the Rasmusens’ baby daughter, Janice, slept. Everyone knew “you could
always rely on Evelyn.” She was a quiet, studious girl, with no boyfriend who
went on very few dates. She loved music and the outdoors.
Everything seemed fine. Until when Evelyn failed to call. She always called her parents promptly at whenever she was babysitting. When her parents dialed the Rasumsens’ number the phone rang and rang, no one ever answered. Finally Mr. Hartley decided to go find out why. He found the lights on, the doors locked, and music playing on the radio inside. He rang the doorbell but Evelyn never came. He found the basement window was unlocked, the metal frame was warped, and the screen had been removed and propped against the wall. In the basement he found one of Evelyn’s shoes lying at the foot of the basement stairs, and upstairs he found its mate lying on the living room floor with Evelyn’s glasses amidst scattered schoolbooks and other signs suggesting a struggle.
Baby Janice was safe, asleep in her crib; she had slept through whatever had happened to Evelyn, that may have saved her life. As for Evelyn, she was never seen again. “She was an ordinary girl in an ordinary home and someone someone had come in and taken her,” as the news would soon report.
The police would later find blood, Type A, the same as Evelyn’s, which was all that could be determined in this era long before DNA, a few feet from the basement window on the dark side of the house and some tennis shoe prints in the window box, and matching clumps of dirt on the living room carpet. A trail of blood on the side of a neighboring house, presumably left as the kidnapper or kidnappers were taking Evelyn away, indicated significant blood loss and led the Hartleys to believe their daughter was dead.
The police did everything that was humanly possible to find Evelyn Hartley. Police in neighboring states offered their full cooperation. The case was well publicized. They canvassed the neighborhood and stopped cars and even searched parked ones, looking for a girl without shoes on who fit Evelyn’s description. They rounded up known sex offenders and suspicious charactes. Bloodhounds followed the trail of blood and Evelyn’s scent through adjacent years to the street where Evelyn must have been put into a car and driven away. Thousands of volunteers, including forty troops of Boy Scouts, helped conduct widespread searches of the woodlands, highways, sewers, and gullys, and any other likely locations for concealing a body. There were also aerial searches, lakes were dragged, and divers explored the
River. Fresh graves were even opened to make sure Evelyn’s body
had not been deposited on top of the deceased.
Despite some later criticisms, all evidence suggests they worked very hard and gave the investigation their best in this era of limited technology, in spite of the interference of the press, some of whom even went so far as to impersonate police, replete with fake badges, in their quest for scoops to fill their newspapers. Even as late as the 1990s police were still following up any tips they received about the case.
One eyewitness came forward to say that around he had seen a girl, staggering, semi-conscious (he thought perhaps she was drunk) in the company of two men, walking between the Rasmusens’ house and the neighbor’s, where blood was later found on the wall. He saw them again later the same evening in a two-tone green Buick with the girl slumped in the backseat. But he didn’t know anyone was missing at the time and merely assumed they were just people getting a head start on celebrating the Homecoming game.
October 28, 1953 a bra and panties of
the same size and type worn by Evelyn were found near an underpass on Highway
14, two miles south of the city limits. Type A blood, the same as Evelyn’s, was
found on the panties (Evelyn had her period at the time she disappeared.) A few days later, on October 31, another
search party found a pair of men’s size eleven tennis shoes along the same
highway. Tests would later confirm that these had probably been worn by the
kidnapper. A bloodstained denim jacket was also found nearby. The shoes and
jacket were displayed in nearby communities in the hope that someone would
recognize them. A reward was offered but no one ever came forward to claim it.
To this day questions abound, but answers are lacking. Was it a burglary gone wrong or an intended sex crime all along? Was Evelyn the intended victim or randomly chosen? Did she know her abductor(s)? If it was planned, was the Rasmusens’ regular babysitter the target? Was Evelyn merely in the wrong place at the wrong time?
This book gives a thorough account of the investigation, all the leads and clues are explored, including the theory that the notorious killer Ed Gein, one of the inspirations for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” may have kidnapped and killed Evelyn, as well as the inevitable cruel hoaxes and confessions that form a part of any missing person’s case. It also covers what may be an intriguing clue or just another dead end, an old reel-to-reel tape recorded in a bar in 1969 came to light in 2004 that claims to reveal what really happened to Evelyn. But no one knows if it is real or just bar talk and drunken boasting.
In missing person and murder cases, time is the enemy. A case that is well publicized at the time may fade from human memory. People die and people forget. It’s been a long time since
October 24, 1953. Let’s
pause to remember Evelyn Hartley wherever she may be.