The teenage babysitters disappearance still casts a solemn shadow over LaCrosse six decades later.
It’s easy to imagine LaCrosse in the 1950’s as an idyllic upper mid-west town with just enough hustle and bustle too keep things interesting. LaCrosse Wisconsin had all of the quiet hometown peacefulness of a small city with the Mississippi river as it’s prominent feature and the bluffs as her backdrop. In the early 1950’s LaCrosse was probably a cross between a Norman Rockwell painting and Tom Sawyer sprinkled with a bit of the Andy Griffith Show style charm. It’s hard not to imagine the city of LaCrosse in the 1950’s as nothing else than a classic slice of the proverbial middle twentieth century American as apple pie image that’s easy to romanticize.
Unfortunately, the events of October 24th, 1953 smudges that image and takes LaCrosse down a dark path of fear and grief with the disappearance of Evelyn Hartley.
At 5 foot seven inches, Evelyn was a tall gal on a slim frame. She had the reputation of being responsible and studious, which is not too surprising being the daughter of a college professor. No one had anything bad to say about Evelyn. Evie, as her friends and family called her, was by all accounts the kind of teenage daughter that would make a parent proud and a good friend to all of those who were lucky enough to call her that. She also loved the local LaCrosse State College (now The University Of Wisconsin LaCrosse) football team and never missed seeing a game. When the call came through that the Rasmussen family needed a last minute replacement for their regular sitter on homecoming night game against River Falls, Evelyn was reluctant to take the job. The lure of extra money and the encouragement of her mother changed her mind. The 15 year old Central High honor student gathered her school books to study and was picked up by family friend, Viggo Rasmussen, and taken to the Rasmussen’s Hoeschler Drive home to babysit the family’s twenty month old baby daughter.
The Rasmussens instructed Evelyn put the baby down for sleep at 7 p.m. and cover her fifteen minutes later. They then left for the homecoming game at approximately 6:45 p.m., leaving Evelyn and the baby behind. Evelyn was also to call home at 8:30, as she usually did, to check in with her parents. When they didn’t hear from her and several calls to the Rasmussen home went unanswered, her father became worried and drove to the residence at approximately 9:20 p.m. to check up on his daughter. Upon arrival, Dr.Richard Hartley knocked on the locked doors but no one came to let him in.He found one small basement window open. He entered the home through this window. The lights were on,the radio was still playing but his daughter was not in the house. The baby was asleep in the crib but still uncovered. Dr.Hartley then went to a neighbors home to call the police.
In the living room there were signs of a struggle. Evelyn’s glasses were broken on the floor with one of her shoes, along with mud stains on the carpet. The furniture was in disarray and at the foot of the basement stairs was Evelyn’s other shoe. A ladder was found placed under the open basement window. Tennis shoe prints were also found outside the basement window. The baby was undisturbed and there were no signs of a robbery. There was a gruesome discovery in the backyard of a large amount of blood and on a neighbors garage. The blood was later concluded to be Evelyn’s. So much blood was found that it was called into question whether she could have survived after losing so much of it. Police dogs followed her scent to Coulee Drive where it ended, leading them to believe that she was taken away by car.
During the investigation the police uncovered a few details but were still baffled by the disappearance. A neighbor reported hearing three screams around 7 p.m., with the third scream cut off abruptly. At the time, the neighbors looked around but saw nothing and wrote the screams off as kids playing in the late October night. There were also reports of a strange light colored car driving around the neighborhood that afternoon and into the night. It was last seen around 8 p.m.
One man came forward a couple days later stating he was on Coulee Drive to pick up a relative and witnessed three individuals walking sometime around 7:15 p.m. on the night of Evelyn’s disappearance. Two of them appeared to be helping a girl walk who appeared intoxicated. A short time later he saw the three individuals speed off in a two tone Buick. The girl was in the backseat with her head resting on the back of the front seat with one of the males sitting next to her. The witness initially thought these were just some homecoming night partiers. This is believed to be the last time anyone saw Evelyn alive.
Residents of LaCrosse fell under a shock as the story spread of the missing teenager. Students and faculty of her school were questioned. Thousands of cars were searched with stickers given out saying “My car is ok” to the owners. Around 1700 students from LaCrosse were investigated and given polygraph tests. In spite of being one of the largest manhunts in Wisconsin history, none of the efforts brought them any closer to finding out the fate of Evelyn.
Several days into the investigation, a pair blood stained women’s undergarments were found near highway 14, two miles south of LaCrosse. It’s believed that these belonged to Evelyn, as her mother confirmed these were the kind Evelyn wore. A pair of bloody Goodrich tennis shoes were found near Coon Valley, matching the prints found at the scene. These shoes had a peculiar wear mark that matched the pedals of a Whizzer Bike. The blood matched Evelyn’s and a human hair, thought to be from a African American, was found inside them.
Found a short distance away from the shoes was a well worn, blood stained, size 36 jacket. The jacket was cut and re-hemmed at the bottom and wear marks, possibly from a safety harness, was prominent. Bristles, thought to be from a scrubbing brush, were found in inside the pocket and it also had flecks of metal paint on it. It was displayed in 31 different communities yet no one recognized it. Police believe whoever owned the jacket worked as a steeplejack. Interestingly, the disproportionate size between the shoes and the jacket suggest they were worn by two different individuals. One larger person in the size 11 shoes and one with a smaller frame in the size 36 jacket.
Over the years the police investigated numerous leads and tips that came in. One suspect is none other than Ed Gein, who was in LaCrosse visting relatives just a few blocks away from where Evelyn was babysitting. Gein denied having any involvement with Evelyn’s abduction. Female sexual organs thought to be from young women were found on Gein’s property when it was searched after he was arrested in 1957, but they were never connected to Evelyn. Gein died at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in 1984.
A property in Pickwick Minnesota was searched 1989, after a tip that the car Evelyn was taken away in was buried there along with Evelyn’s remains. The car, nor any evidence connected this property to Hartley’s abduction was ever found.
In 2003, an audio recording made 1968 surfaced of two men conversing in a Lafarge tavern. On the recording one man claims that he and another man abducted then killed Evelyn in a LaFarge house, then buried her two miles south of the villiage in a wooded area. Law enforcement considers this a credible lead.
Other suspects and tips included:
-A railroad worker from South Dakota who was in LaCrosse the night Evelyn disappeared was held and later released. A tipster said this individual suspiciously avoided LaCrosse after the abduction.
-A 31 year old African American from St.Paul was held in connection with several attacks similar to Evelyn’s in Madison Wisconsin. This individual drove a tan car with license plates similar to those reported seen in the area of the Rasmussen’s home on the night of the abduction. There was no hard evidence to connect him to LaCrosse on that night.
-A mechanic from Duluth who owned a car matching the one seen by the Coulee Drive witness was given a lie detector test but passed.
Decades later and after investigating all these leads and tips, the story of Evelyn Hartley still remains unfinished with no peaceful closure.