Along the bank of the Mississippi River in southwest Wisconsin lies the city of La Crosse. It’s a charming community, and regularly ranks as one of Wisconsin’s most desirable places to live. But its pleasant reputation was marred on October 24, 1953. On this night, 15-year-old Evelyn Grace Hartley went on a babysitting job and was never seen again.
Evelyn Hartley was a sophomore at Central High School. Her father, Richard Hartley, was a Biology professor at La Crosse State College; her mother, Ethel, was a homemaker. On that fateful evening, Evelyn left for the home of another college professor, Viggo Rasmusen, in order to watch the Rasmusens’ 20-month-old baby. She was wearing red jeans, a white blouse, glasses, and white bobby socks.
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Evelyn typically called her parents to check in during her babysitting gigs. When some time had passed without word, Richard Hartley called the Rasmusen home, but received no answer. Worried, he drove to the residence. Hartley found the house locked, and knocked repeatedly on the front door. Again he received no response. After a few minutes, he discovered an open basement window, through which he entered the house.
To his shock, nobody was there except the baby, sleeping soundly in an upstairs room.
Hartley immediately called the police. Upon arriving, authorities searched the home; they discovered one of Evelyn’s shoes, as well as her broken glasses. Her other shoe was found in a different part of the house. Blood was also found inside. A perimeter search revealed additional blood stains in the yard, and bloody prints on the nearby garage. Bloodhounds were brought in to follow the scent, which they traced to the street. This, police theorized, was proof that Evelyn must have been put into a car and driven away.
A massive search commenced. Volunteers combed the town on foot, while the National Guard, Civic Air Patrol, and Air Force scanned the area from overhead. Boaters took to the waterways in hopes of uncovering clues. Numerous college and high school students joined the effort, and within the first few days, over 2,000 people were looking for Evelyn Hartley.
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Police asked squirrel and deer hunters to stay alert while out in the field, and farmers were told to explore their land for any freshly turned earth. In an effort to leave no stone unturned, even fresh graves were dug up to ensure Evelyn’s body had not been buried in secret.
To take matters further, authorities announced that all cars would be checked. The goal was to have the back seat and trunk of every car in the county inspected for blood stains or any other suspicious signs. 40,000 stickers were printed, each reading “MY CAR IS OK.” Authorities would place a sticker on every car that had been checked and cleared.
Police Chief George Long ordered all gas station attendants to report any suspicious vehicles, as well as the license number of any driver that refused the mandatory search. Police officers were also instructed to immediately check any car without an “OK” sticker.
Richard and Ethel Hartley made several public pleas for information. They addressed Evelyn’s presumed abductor, and begged for answers.
A short time later, the Hartleys received two phone calls in which a man offered to trade information about Evelyn for $500 cash. Police assisted the Hartleys in setting a trap for the caller. The snare was a success, and resulted in the capture of a 20-year-old man named Jack Duffrin. As it happened, Duffrin knew nothing about Evelyn. He was convicted and imprisoned for attempted extortion.
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A number of local businesses, organizations, and neighbors pooled their money to establish a reward fund for any tips that might lead to Evelyn’s return. The fund soon swelled to $6,600. Hundreds of tips flooded the police station. Each tip was investigated, and promptly dismissed. Nobody, it seemed, knew anything.
A year after Evelyn’s disappearance, Sheriff Robert Scullin estimated that his department had questioned approximately 1,200 people. Detective Captain Leo Kihm, who spearheaded the initial investigation, placed that number around 3,500. Despite their efforts, no new leads surfaced.
The case eventually fell into the hands of A.M. Josephson, a criminal investigator from La Crosse County. Josephson would pursue the case for years, paying particular attention to two intriguing items found during the first few weeks of the investigation.
The first clue was a pair of tennis shoes discovered near off Highway 14, some 10 miles southeast of La Crosse near Shelby, Wisconsin. The tread on the bottom of the shoes produced a distinct pattern if pressed into the mud. Indeed, a chunk of dirt had been found on the Rasmusens’ living room floor that detectives believed matched the shoe tread. The same pattern was also found in footprints outside of the Rasmusen house. The second clue was a blood-stained denim jacket, which was recovered within 800 feet of the tennis shoes. Josephson believed this too was connected to the crime.
While inspecting the shoes, Josephson found yet another lead. He determined that the soles exhibited a distinct wear pattern consistent with operating a Whizzer motorbike. Over the next few months, Josephson poured over sales records and receipts and even tracked down past and present owners of Whizzer motorbikes, but never found any worthwhile suspects.
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The jacket and shoes were put on display throughout the region, with a plea for information from anyone who might recognize them. Again, calls and potential leads flooded the police station. Once again, nothing useful materialized.
In the end, the shoes and blood-stained jacket fell out of favor with most investigators, who no longer considered the items significant. While the tennis shoes were a large size 11, the jacket was in fact a small size 36, leading many to conclude the two were unconnected. Josephson, however, refused to give up; he viewed the size discrepancy as proof that two suspects had taken Evelyn.
The investigator continued his search. Alas, his efforts ultimately led nowhere.
The Hartley case received an unexpected jolt in 1957, courtesy of Ed Gein. Gein—a killer and bodysnatcher who confessed to murdering two women and fashioning trophies out of human body parts—was briefly considered a suspect in the disappearance, as he had been visiting relatives in the La Crosse area at the time of Evelyn’s vanishing. However, upon searching Gein’s property, none of Evelyn’s remains were discovered. Gein also passed two lie detector tests during which he insisted he had nothing to do with the case. Authorities officially declared that Gein was in no way connected to Evelyn Hartley. Some, however, continued to suspect his involvement.
Years went by without an answer. By 1959, the last remaining efforts fizzled out, and the Evelyn Hartley case went cold.
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In the ensuing years, numerous individuals came forward and confessed to the crime; all confessions were investigated and dismissed as false. In 1971, a 51-year-old transient named Tommy Thompson was arrested in Casper, Wyoming for passing bad checks. While in custody, Thompson told police of a rape and slaying he had committed in 1953, naming Evelyn Hartley as his victim. Authorities checked Thompson’s claims and found that he had been in a Minnesota prison at the time of Evelyn’s disappearance.
On October 22, 1978, 25 years after Evelyn vanished, the La Crosse Tribune ran a piece on Richard and Ethel Hartley. In it, the Hartleys admitted to giving up hope of ever finding out what happened to their daughter. They further commented that they no longer cared to read about it. Viggo Rasmusen was also interviewed, and claimed to be haunted by visions of what may have happened in his home that night.
To this day, Evelyn’s disappearance remains unsolved.
For more information on Evelyn Hartley’s case, visit her entry at the National Missing Persons Database.
[via the La Crosse Public Library Archives & Local History Department]
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons; Additional photo: Alchetron