The Disappearance of Evelyn Hartley

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EARLY LIFE:

Evelyn Grace Hartley was born on November 21, 1937 to her parents Richard and Ethyl Hartley. She was the youngest of four children, with one of her older brothers unfortunately passing away in 1946 due to polio. In 1949, the family relocated from Charleston, Illinois to La Crosse, Wisconsin.

15-year-old Evelyn was a junior at Central High School. With an interest in science, she was a straight-A student who was involved in numerous school activities, including drama club. According to her father, she’d had a few dates with some boys in her grade, but had never had a steady boyfriend.

Described as a quiet and dependable girl, Evelyn was active in her church community. Her family attended First Presbyterian Church and she was both an Officer of the Presbyterian Youth Program and the Westminster Fellowship. In her spare time, she was known to enjoy tennis, hiking, swimming, golfing and skiing.

LEAD UP TO DISAPPEARANCE:

The evening of October 24, 1953 was the night of the La Crosse State College (now the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse) homecoming game. The majority of the town was expected to attend, including Professor Viggo Rasmusen, his wife and their eldest daughter. They were planning on leaving their 20-month-old daughter, Janice, at home with their regular babysitter, but she too was attending the game. So they contacted Evelyn, who they knew through Richard, who was a biology professor at the university. While at first she’d agreed to take on the job, she later wanted to renege on her promise, which her mother refused to let her do.

At around 6:20pm that evening, Viggo picked up Evelyn from her home and brought her to the family’s house in the 2400 block of Hoeschler Drive. It was a newer neighbourhood on the edge of La Crosse, with very little external lighting installed along the street. Upon entering the home, Evelyn placed a bouquet of flowers on the kitchen table and set aside a few schoolbooks she’d brought with her, as she planned to study after the baby was put to bed. After instructing the teenager of Janice’s routine, the Rasmusens left to attend the football game.

DISAPPEARANCE:

Before leaving home, Evelyn was instructed by her father to call her parents at around 8:30pm to check-in. When she didn’t call, Richard tried phoning the Rasmusens’ home a few times and received no answer. Worried, he ended up driving over to the family’s house to check that everything was okay.

When he arrived at the home on Hoeschler Drive, he found the lights and radio were on and that the doors leading into the house were locked. He knocked on both and rang the front doorbell, but Evelyn never answered. As his concern grew, he looked through one of the windows to find his daughter’s glasses and one of her shoes lying on the living room floor. After a walk around of the home’s exterior, he found the only open window entered into the basement, toward the back of the house. The screen had been removed and placed against the outside wall, and a small stepladder had been positioned directly below it inside. It would later be learnt that the family had been using it while painting the basement. It was through this window that Richard would enter the home.

Upon entering the home, Richard found Evelyn’s other shoe in the basement. As he inspected each room, he found no sign of his daughter, but did notice that Janice was sound asleep in her crib, unharmed. A closer examination of the living room found the furniture was in disarray, Evelyn’s schoolbooks were scattered and her glasses had been broken. Richard also noticed blood in the home, which only worked to heighten his concern.

A neighbour of the Rasmusens saw Richard walking around the home and came over to see what was going on. Upon the worried father explaining the situation, the neighbour offered to help look for Evelyn, before returning home to call the police. Richard explained the situation to the dispatcher and officers were sent to the location to look into the matter. When the Rasmusens returned home, they found their residence surrounded by police cars.

INVESTIGATION:

Investigators found numerous clues when looking in and around the Rasmusen home. There were pry marks on three windows, showing someone had attempted numerous times to break into the home before finally settling on entering through the basement. There were also numerous areas where blood was present, which matched Evelyn’s blood type. There were two pools in the yard, with one 18″ in diameter, and more located inside the house, near the basement window. A bloody handprint was also located approximately 4′ from the ground on the wall of the garage, which was 100′ from the main house, and additional stains were found on the outer wall of a neighbour’s residence. Given the amount of blood at the scene, it was theorized that Evelyn’s abductors had been carrying her though the yard, but had to stop and rest her on the ground, which resulted in the pooling.

Footprints were also located in the basement window box and in the living room, which appeared to have come from a pair of sneakers with a distinct pattern on the sole.

According to a book on the case, detectives also found clues to suggest Evelyn had been removed from the house via the basement window. A button with red threads had been found attached to the window well, and her father recalled that she’d been wearing red denim pants when she left the house. Unfortunately, the evidence was not collected and eventually blew away in the wind.

Despite the front door being locked upon Richard arriving at the home, there was evidence to suggest that the suspect or suspects had left through it, as it had a self-locking mechanism.

Tracking dogs were brought to the scene to help investigators get a feel of where Evelyn’s abductors went after leaving the house. They were able to follow the missing girl’s scent two blocks, but unfortunately lost the trail at Coulee Drive, just northwest of the Rasmusen home. This led to the theory that she had been placed in a vehicle parked nearby. This was corroborated by numerous neighbours, who came forward to say they’d seen a suspicious car in the neighbourhood that night. One reported seeing a light-coloured vehicle circling around the neighbourhood at around 8:00pm, while another claimed to have heard screams around 7:00pm, but had assumed they were from children playing outside. This helped investigators to develop a timeline, which suggested Evelyn had been abducted sometimes within that hour.

Two days later, a local man by the name of Ed Hofer came forward to share with investigators the encounter he’d had with a two-toned green 1941 or 1942 Buick on the night of Evelyn’s disappearance. He said he’d been out driving when, at around 7:15pm, he was almost hit by the vehicle. Inside were two men and a woman – one of the men was driving the car, while the second was in the backseat with the woman, who was slumped forward with her head leaning against the front seat. He believed he’d seen the occupants staggering down the street a few minutes earlier, close to where the pools of blood were later located. At the time, he hadn’t thought anything of the encounter, as he’d assumed they were heading to the homecoming game and Evelyn hadn’t yet been reported missing.

Several days after Evelyn disappeared, a pair of underpants and a brassiere were located near the underpass on Highway 14, two miles south of La Crosse. Both were bloodstained, and the blood in the underpants was later determined to be menstrual blood of Evelyn’s blood type. A pair of bloodstained men’s pants were found four miles down the same road, but it’s unknown if they were connected to the case.

More bloodstained items were later located: a pair of size 11 Goodrich-brand sneakers and a size 36 denim jacket. They were found 800′ from each other in the Coon Valley area, located southeast of La Crosse, and had apparently been dumped only a short time before being found.

As with the brassiere and underpants, the blood on both matched Evelyn’s blood type, and the shoes, in particular, had a suction-cup pattern that was similar to the footprints found at the Rasmusens’ home. Investigators contacted Goodrich and learned the particular model, called “Hood Mogul”, had been sold in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota. Based on the tread pattern, it’s believed whoever owned them worked with machinery, and the wear pattern was distinctive of someone who frequently operated a Whizzer motorbike. Inside of one was a single human hair, possibly belonging to an African American individual, and it was determined that two different people had worn the shoes, with the second wearer’s feet having been too big.

Investigators had heard a rumour a few days prior, saying the jacket was been seen lying along the highway. They followed up and found it in the possession of a local farmer, who’d picked it up and thrown it into his truck, where it remained until taken into police possession. On it were base metal paint flecks, and it had been cut off at the bottom and crudely re-hemmed with white thread. One of the four buttons were also missing. There were blast fibres, similar to the kind used in scrubbing brushes, in the left-hand pocket, and there was a worn mark under the armpits, running the entire width of the jacket, which was similar to the wear of someone who worked as a steeplejack. This led them to look into locals working in the trade, but the lead led nowhere.

Investigators connected the jacket to the crime scene via spectrographic analysis, but noted that it appeared too small to have been worn by someone large enough to wear size 11 shoes. In the hopes of garnering new leads, they brought the shoes and jacket to 31 different communities, where 10,000 people viewed them, but nothing of value came from the showings.

Evelyn’s disappearance resulted in one of the largest missing person searches in Wisconsin’s history, with 2,000 people volunteering. Searching on foot, with the aid of watercraft, airplane and helicopter, were members of the local community, law enforcement officials, La Crosse State College faculty and students, the National Guard and members of the the Boy Scouts who combed the area in and around La Crosse. Squirrel and deer hunters were told to stay on alert for anything suspicious, while local farmers were urged to check their properties.

Investigators conducted a mass search of local vehicles, suspecting the one belonging to the suspects would contain traces of Evelyn’s blood. The rear seats and the trunk of each vehicle were the primary focus, and local law enforcement enlisted the help of gas station attendants, who were also tasked with checking. They were told to report the license plate numbers of anyone who refused a search, and the cars deemed clean were marked with a sticker, which read “My Car Is OK”.

Recent graves were reopened during the early days of the investigation, in case Evelyn’s abductors had placed her body in a burial plot.

Clam Lake, located near Fairmont, Minnesota, was dragged after a fisherman said he’d caught a number of hair strands and a bobby pin in a hook after freeing his tackle from an underwater snag, all of which he threw back in the water. Neither they, nor anything else of value, were recovered and the search was eventually called off.

In May 1954, investigators began to conduct mass lie detector tests on all male students and teachers at Central High School. In total, they’d planned to administer them to over 1,750 individuals, but decided to halt the tests after just 300, as the practice was controversial. Evelyn’s father and Viggo Rasmusen were also given polygraphs and passed.

Throughout the beginning of the investigation, the Hartleys repeatedly appealed for information regarding Evelyn’s case. They also used the media to speak directly to those involved, asking them to somehow let them know what happened to her. As a result, they were the subjects of an attempted extortion, after a 20-year-old man offered to exchange information for a $500 fee. The family contacted the police and managed to ensnare the man in a trap. He, along with a 13-year-old boy he’d convinced to participate, were arrested, and he was subsequently convicted of and imprisoned for the crime.

Many suspects were questioned over the years, but investigators were never able to connect the evidence to any of them. Dozens of people falsely confessed, and during the first year over 3,500 individuals were interviewed.

Evelyn’s case has always been considered a homicide, despite her body not being located. Police say every lead has been followed, and they currently have her dentals available for comparison, should her remains be located. It has been revealed that the shoes and jacket were misplaced, but that other evidence has been maintained and stored.

THEORIES:

1) A popular theory that has since been discredited by investigators is that serial killer Edward “Ed” Theodore Gein was involved in Evelyn’s disappearance. Many believe him to have been involved, as he was in La Crosse visiting relatives on the night she went missing, just a few blocks from the Rasmusen home. He was known to kill women and dig up their remains in a cemetery, after which he would mutilate them.

In 1957, he was questioned in the disappearance of a local barmaid, and a search of his property uncovered human remains. No trace of Evelyn was found on the property and he denied any involvement in the crime, passing two lie detector tests. He was officially cleared of any involvement in November of that year. He was eventually placed in a mental institution, where he was declared clinically insane, and he passed away in 1984.

2) There are some who believe Evelyn was not the intended target of the abduction, as she was filling in for the Rasmusen’s regular babysitter. If the abduction had been planned, the suspects would have assumed that the original babysitter would be at the residence that night, meaning Evelyn was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

3) Since the majority of residents were at the homecoming game on the night Evelyn went missing, it’s theorized that the initial motive for the crime was robbery. As most people would not be home, it would have been a prime opportunity for any would-be thieves to stake out houses and steal valuables. However, while the living room was in disarray, nothing of value was said to be missing from the Rasmusen’s house.

It’s believed by some investigators that her abductors had staked out the home, but that the robbery was botched when the suspects came upon Evelyn inside the residence. This is further corroborated by signs that an attempted forced entry was found on a neighbour’s house.

4) Locals believed that the crime may have been a random attack by a transient who was passing through town. Those who supported this theory thought it likely the drifter was high on drugs when he entered the house and attacked Evelyn.

5) A final theory is the result of an audio recording that was submitted to police in 2004. That year, a man named Mel Williams came forward with a recording of someone who claimed responsibility for the crime. On the recording, which was initially intended to be of a band performing at a local bar, Clyde “Twee” Peterson claimed he, Jack Gaulphair and an unnamed third party had murdered Evelyn and buried her in La Farge, Wisconsin. The tape ended after Peterson told Williams to stop recording, and Williams does not recall what happened after it was turned off.

Police promised to investigate the lead, but no further developments were ever publicized. Gaulphair and the unnamed third party are now deceased.

AFTERMATH:

Janice, the 20-month-old baby Evelyn was babysitting that night, later spoke to the media and told them she’d learnt about the case by reading the local newspaper. Her family never spoke of it much, given its horrific nature, and they moved from the home not long after Evelyn disappeared. According to Janice, her father installed bars on the basement windows, and her parents would not allow her, nor her sister, to babysit growing up.

Evelyn’s parents eventually came to terms with the fact they’d likely never find out what happened to their daughter. In the 1970s, they relocated to Portland, Oregon. They have both since passed away. One of her siblings still lives in Oregon, while the other moved to Australia, where they died in 2016.

CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:

Evelyn “Evie” Grace Hartley went missing from La Crosse, La Crosse County, Wisconsin on October 24, 1953. She was 15 years old, and was last seen wearing a white broadcloth Ship n’ Shore blouse with pearl buttons, size 34 to 36; heavy red denim White Stag jeans with a side zipper and the cuffs rolled up above the ankle, size 16; an Indian beaded belt with a metal buckle, size 24; and a pair of white bobby socks. At the time of her disappearance, she stood at 5’7″ and weighed between 126 and 128 pounds. She had straight, light brown hair and blue eyes. She wore eyeglasses, but did not have them with her at the time.

Currently, her case is classified as a non-family abduction and is being investigated as a homicide. If alive, she would be 83 years old.

Those with information regarding the case are asked to contact the La Crosse Police Department at 608-785-5962.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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