The Lost Babysitter: The 60th Anniversary of a Kidnapping
Originally published on CNN under the pseudonym, Nick Towers.
One dark and lonely night, in a quiet suburb of Wisconsin, a 15 year old babysitter was kidnapped and never heard from again. That was sixty years ago.
Evelyn Grace Hartley (Evie to her family and friends) was tall for her age and a good student. That Saturday night of October 24th,1953 was the night of the big La Crosse State Homecoming game against River Falls. Football was highlight entertainment in the small town, just as it is now. Professor Viggo Rasmusen was encouraged by his students and staff to join the festivities so a week before Homecoming he looked for a babysitter for his 20 month old daughter, Janice. Unfortunately, the game led to a drought in babysitters. Even the usual Rasmusen sitter was going to attend. She was now at that age where good times might be starting to become more valuable than an extra five dollars. So he asked biology Professor, Dr. Richard T. Hartley’s 15 year old daughter, Evelyn. With her responsible nature and penchant for school over play, she said yes.
The Rasmusen’s and their youngest daughter.
It was cold outside (55 °F was the high that day) and Hoeschler Drive in this clean cut neighborhood was decorated for Halloween. The lack of foliage as far as the eye could see gave off an eerie feeling but the trees had all been cut down to build the new suburb. Wire fences separated yards and everyone knew everyone. Children were heard playing even on a cold day and on October 24th, they would have already picked out their Halloween costumes. Evelyn would have been worried more about her grades than Homecoming or the holiday. She was the youngest in her sophomore class at Central High School and the next morning she would be singing in the choir at church.
Those were seemingly pristine and linoleum covered days. President Eisenhower was newly elected. Walt Disney was king and publishing black and white Mickey Mouse newsletters for kids. If there was a second in line to the throne of entertainment, it was Mickey Mantle. Joseph Stalin was dead. Teenage girls wore saddles shoes and cardigans. Bobbie socks too until they were considered a women and then they would have start to wear stockings. You used Lustre-Cream Shampoo if you wanted to be like the movie stars but most families would have in their shower, Ivory Soap and Prell. A house with a new baby, like the Rasmusen’s, would smell like baby powder and little else.
The Rasmusen home in 1953.
Rock & Roll and Elvis were a few years away. Coming from a religious family, Evie was not a girl to curl up on her bed and listen to the new sound coming from acts like The Clovers, with their hit “Good Lovin”, or “Money Honey” by the Drifters. Of course, she would have heard these songs in passing because they were all over the high schools. Her father might have turned on the radio to Hank Williams or safe number one songs like, “(How Much is) That Doggie in the Window?” or “St. George & the Dragonet”. The latter was not really a song but a gumshoe story set to music where the chief of police has a problem: “…dragon again. Devouring maidens.”
At the movies there was Roman Holiday, From Here to Eternity, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes giving America the Marilyn Monroe fix it was starting to need. Instead of this fare, Evie probably watched the new Disney film, Peter Pan. The Andrew’s Sisters would have been playing on the radio when Evie was a little girl. She was raised in the era of smoking in airplanes and hospitals. In schools there would be regular air raid drills with children being told to hide under their desks in case the Russian’s bombed us. And nothing deters the A Bomb like a well made pine wood desk.
Television was new and not everybody had one. If you did you might be watching “The Jackie Gleason Show”, “I Love Lucy”, or the brand new program, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”. It was now a wildly popular sitcom that had once been a wildly popular radio show. No doubt, Evie had seen at least one episode of “The Howdy Doody Show” with that grotesque freckle faced puppet. She would have shopped at least once at Sears and Roebucks, rode a bicycle, and had a crush on a boy from school. She would have read the suddenly popular author, Beverly Cleary. Perhaps Henry Huggins or Ellen Tebbits. Evie was the right age for that.
Also in literature that year was Davis Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter. It is about a felon who after his release kills a widow and tries to hunt down her children in order to find an alleged treasure. There were monsters in 1953 if you looked for them. Evelyn’s monster came from the basement.
If Evelyn’s story had been known to myself or my little babysitting friends in junior high we might have been stopped cold from babysitting ever again. This was certainly not a story Ann M. Martin had ever shared with us. Many late nights, while the young children were asleep, I would silently curse at the parents who refused to have locks on their basement doors or blinds on their windows. I was a skittish girl by nature and lived my days like a chess game. “As a burglar I am casing the house. What looks easiest? The room with no lights.” So I ran and turned on the light in the unused living room. Meanwhile, I sat on the couch scaring myself even more by watching Nickelodeon’s “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”, and holding some sort of weapon. A heavy toy or flashlight. I told myself that if someone came from the left I could run to the children’s room, lock the door, and then send the kids out of the window while I wielded the Nintendo controller/ flashlight/ wiffle ball bat.
There were eyes everywhere in my imagination. It’s any wonder I babysat at all. “It is midnight and I am a slobbering bloodthirsty vampire on the hunt for easy prey. Oh, that house with no windows or locks and a seventy pound girl in charge looks fine to me.” Later in years, I learned that humans were scarier. The vampire watching me turned into a crazed killer escaped from prison watching me to a junkie rapist who was watching me. If I had been Evie though, never in my worst dreams could I imagine looking to my right and seeing a strange man standing there staring at me.
Parts of Evie’s story hit too close to home if I go back in my memories. They take me to a night on the living room couch in a strange house with creaks and groans I’m not yet used to. Though about a foot shorter, I looked a lot like her. I was also a quiet girl on the edge of being square. I wore glasses like she did and had short dark hair. I had big cheeks left over from baby fat and enjoyed reading more than socializing. If there was a big football game in town, it would have been me taking the job. We both played piano. Evie did not go steady or was as the kids called it back then, “jacketed”. According to Professor Hartley, his daughter never went out with boys because she thought she was too young.
It was 6:30pm and dusk was settling when Professor Viggo Rasmusen picked up Evelyn Hartley from a two story shingled home on 1533 Johnson Street where she lived with her parents and younger sister, Carolyn. Her older brother Thomas had recently wed Judy and they were in and out most of the time. When Professor Rasmusen drove Evelyn she was wearing a pearl buttoned Ship ‘n Shore white blouse and heavy red jeans. The old fashioned kind that zipped up on the side and today might be mistaken for what we call, “mom jeans”. Around the pants was an Indian beaded belt with a metal buckle. Once at the Rasmusen’s one story home, Evelyn was told to put Janice to bed at 7:00pm and then at 7:15pm, cover her up with a blanket. With Evie at the doorway smiling, Mr. and Mrs. Rasmusen bundled up their seven year old daughter Rozalyn and left for the game at 6:45pm.
Little did anyone know, Evelyn’s attacker was already parked two blocks away and casing the neighborhood. Detective William Sills believed that the kidnapper was originally prowling and not initially targeting Evelyn. According to the detective, there were forced entry marks on one other home nearby. Anyone could have seen inside of the Rasmusen house. As Detective Sills said, “he knew what he was getting into” because he could see that the girl was alone from the open curtains in the living room. This was a picture window facing the back of the house, essentially an open field. It was through that unobstructed window an hour and a half later, that Dr. Hartley saw something that made him start to worry.
Evie felt safe in that home. She had babysat there once before and what sitter does not feel as though she is overreacting to every noise? The Rasmusen family had only moved in three months earlier so the rooms smelled like new furniture and fresh paint. The house was very clean and nicely decorated. There was not a speck of dust on the carpet and next to the couch where Evie spent her last living moments of peace, was a rocking chair for the baby’s feedings. This flat topped couch with one long cushion was entirely modern and clutter free. In fact, it did not look as though there were children living in the home. Nothing was ever taken from any dwelling in the neighborhood so it’s safe to say that robbery was not on the attacker’s mind. He could have hurried and stolen jewelry from the lovely Rasmusen home but he did not even try.
All of the windows in the house were locked. All of the windows but that one basement window the criminal used to get in. He pulled out the screen and slid through the very thin opening down to a steep drop in a dark unfinished basement that smelled like wood carvings. There was a work bench in a corner with tools and a shovel against the wall. Stepping over the wood projects, he then went up the stairs to the door that led to a hallway. One of those short hallways with doors for two bedrooms and the bath. On the right, he would walk directly into the open living room with the large standing radio on his left and next to it, the couch where Evie sat.
The Rasmusen’s living room.
Did Evie turn down the radio when she thought she heard a noise in the basement? Did she keep looking up from her school books because she could feel someone in the house? Her story is every nightmare we have as children, young and helpless. The man confronted her as she sat on the couch studying. She must have resisted because in the living room where he surprised her, detectives found the unfortunate evidence.
A neighbor nearby, Elvin Saterbak, recalled hearing a scream at around 7:00pm that night. He was on his porch when he suddenly heard two or three screams. He said he thought it was a child getting a beating and nothing more. Even his wife in the kitchen heard the screams and said that they did not sound like play. Both of them did not realize the seriousness of the situation until the next day when the whole town came together to search for the missing babysitter. Even though the front page of the papers had La Crosse State’s victory plastered over them, Evelyn Hartley’s shocking disappearance would be what everyone in town talked about.
After looking throughout the house, the investigators allege that she was dragged down the basement by the attacker and then something bad happened. It was a normal looking unfinished basement with a sawhorse and planks here and there. The low stepladder used by the Rasmusen’s to help with the painting of their basement was under the open window. That was not the only alteration to the Rasmusen basement. Now there was a large quantity of blood and Evie’s shoe. There would have been no lights. She would have been down there with a strange man in complete darkness and without her glasses.
Evie’s shoe in the basement.
The attacker had to have a car because the trail went cold for the bloodhounds on Coulee Drive. They found evidence that she was pushed up through the basement window and taken away into the back shadows of many backyards. Blood was found dragged along the wall of Eugene Downer’s shed a few meters away and with it, one bloody hand print. Evie and her kidnapper went past many homes that were, thanks to the big game, empty. Nice new homes in this growing suburb where there should have been someone around to help in the two blocks it took to get to his car. Although one witness said he thought he saw a man carrying a drunk girl near the Rasmusen’s and another witness saw a 1941 or 1942 brown Buick, these stories could not be confirmed. The last familiar sight Evie would have seen from inside of that unfamiliar car as she was bleeding would have been the bluffs. Sandy looking rock outcrops covered in vegetation and jutting up high on what looks to be a small mountaintop. Even at night and without her glasses she would have seen them outlined against the sky.
Evie and her father had a system.
At 8:30pm, Evie was supposed to call her father and let them know she was all right. In those days crime was so uncommon that when 8:30pm passed, her parents thought little of it. Her father did start to worry when his calls went unanswered. He even looked in the phone book to make sure he had the right number. Finally, at 9:20pm, he decided to make the five minute drive to the Rasmusen’s. When he got there and no one answered the door he snooped around the front of the house. Through the living room window he saw her left shoe on the carpet, laces still tied. Only a few feet away were her now broken cat glasses.
Evie’s shoe and broken cat glasses on the floor in the living room.
Alarmed, Dr. Hartley looked around the dimly lit area on the sides and back of the home. There he found the screen from the basement window out and lying nearby. Pry marks were on other sills. Evie’s father went through the opening only to find Evie’s right shoe next to the bottom of the basement stairs. Without seeing much else, he ran up the steps and searched for his daughter. The toddler was still asleep in her crib but not covered by a blanket. His daughter was nowhere to be found. Dr. Hartley walked around the home with one of the neighbors trying to figure out what to do. Finally, he had that neighbor call the police at 9:49pm. The nearest squad car was at the game five minutes away.
If you look at the grainy black and white photos of the scene that night, all of the men look shell shocked. Confused. Dr. Hartley is still and dumbfounded. The groups of men followed the trail of blood, falling upon a particularly thick pool of it seeping into someone’s basement near Coulee Drive. Mrs. Hartley was said to have announced her daughter dead when she saw that puddle. No one could ever convince her that Evie was alive, not even her husband. After detectives decided no more evidence could be found, they let the Rasmusen’s back into their home at 1:00am. That was the first of many mistakes made by the investigators at that time.
Though crowds and crowds of townspeople searched weeks for her down sewer lines and through forests she was never found. Hounded by an angry populace, the police became desperate. They forced a mandatory search of all vehicles. Gas station attendants were to search their customers’ cars and if the owner refused they were reported. After passing, you were given a nice little sticker for your troubles that said, MY CAR IS OK. Nothing ever came of that. One private detective hired by the sheriff became convinced that the man they were looking for was a steeplejack and there were good reasons for this.
There is a remote area east of La Crosse called Coon Valley. On October 30th, a pair of men’s shoes were found on the side of a road there shortly after they were discarded. They were size 11 Goodrich tennis shoes with laces and a suction pattern on the bottom matching the footprints in and around the Rasmusen home. The blood on them were also Type A, Evie’s blood type. According to charleyproject.org, investigators believe that two people wore the shoe. They also believe that one of the wearer’s feet were too big for those size 11 shoes. One of the owners had probably worked with machinery. The model of the shoe was a “Hood Mogul” and was sold in Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois. Someone who wore them drove a Whizzer motor bike. I’ve seen shoes like these and they look very similar to Converse high tops.
Not far from the shoes was a blue jean jacket, size 36. It had metallic buttons and was cut along the bottom and hemmed roughly with white thread. In the left hand pocket were bast fibers like those from scrubbing brushes and on the front were base metal paint flecks. Bast fibers can also come from rope or burlap. Type A blood stains were on the front and back of the sleeves. Whoever wore it may have worked as a steeplejack as there were safety harness wearings under the armpits. Also, there was a worn line across the back of the jacket that matched the boatswain’s chair a steeplejack uses. Considering this man would be allowed to wear a denim jacket to do his job, it is likely he is an independent contractor or worked in a family business.
The type of harness worn by the owner of the jacket.
The worst find came a few days after Evie was kidnapped. It happened two miles south of La Crosse on Highway 14. A bra and panties, thought by Evie’s parents to be hers, were found stained with blood. Nearby were a pair of bloody blue jeans. There is no information about whether these items were tested to be Evie’s blood type but her parents did confirm that the undergarments were her size.
How scared she must have been in that blackened basement being told to go out of the window. She must have fought hard for her life knowing that once she was out of that window she was on her way to the unknown. That basement was her last grasp at hope. We know she must have struggled. The reason we know that is because a pool of blood, her type, was found on the basement floor. Right next to her other laced up shoe.
And then in the car what happened? What would happen in a car alone in a field with someone brazen enough to take you from your living room? We can all guess but it forces us to admit that she is dead. There can be little doubt that she did not live long after her abduction. In an age where we find adult women held captive since they were children, one might want to be optimistic. In this case, there was just too much blood and evidence to prove that this person’s intentions were somewhere else or she was too injured to keep.
As of now no one knows who Evelyn Hartley is outside of Wisconsin. I brought it up at work and everyone around me shrugged or politely asked me to go on with the story. My best friend did not want me to tell her more, “why would anyone want to know about that, Nikki? How morbid”. It’s not morbid to me because she was a good girl who never had a chance and deserves to be remembered. She was taken by the boogie man that we were all told growing up did not exist. I almost feel that I was duped as a child. When I used to call my mom from a home I was babysitting in, she would coo and tell me that nothing bad will happen. I’m in the middle of a suburb, what could possibly happen? I’m sure Evie thought the same thing until that night.
Some people think serial murderer Ed Gein did the deed. He was visiting relatives in La Crosse on October 24th and was living not far from Hoeschler Drive. In my opinion, the idea that Ed Gein is a possibility at all is far fetched. This is the man who had to dig up women in graves and use a gun when committing actual violence. He was not a hands on confrontational murderer, someone who could grab or have contact with a living victim. A shy recluse, he was safe in his home away from prying eyes doing what he wanted to do, as sick as it was.
Evelyn’s killer was someone who was not afraid of confrontation. He was smart, making sure that there was darkness covering up his break in. Making sure his car was hidden two blocks away on a northeast road called Coulee Drive. It was unlikely that he meant to harm her as much as he did in that basement. She wanted to live more than he thought so he had to incapacitate her early. So Evie, in her white bobbie socks, was dragged away leaving one hand print in blood on the side of a building and her glasses behind. It did not take long for the killer to know he wanted her. The Rasmusen’s left at 6:45pm. The baby was put to bed at 7:00pm. The baby was not covered at 7:15pm so between 7:00pm and 7:15pm, Evie was gone.
This was an obvious sex crime by one so desperate, he had to break into a basement window to get what he wanted. By someone old enough to drive a car. Someone isolated enough to get blood in it. Someone who would not have been missed at the football game. Someone so young he drove a Whizzer bike, according to a pattern on the shoes found southeast of La Crosse. Someone so young he had to attack a babysitter and not a women from a seedy bar or a woman working on the streets. My guess is that he was in his late teens and early 20s and considered a nice boy by those who knew him. If not, people would have pointed him out right away. He knew the area very well and probably grew up there or lived nearby. His family would have known he was missing a denim jacket and did manual labor but they would have said nothing.
Today the Rasmusan’s old home looks very much changed. There is an attached garage to the left side of the house where there had once been a screened in porch. The building has been well taken care of. A large tree grows in the front yard. There are more houses around with more trees and that alone makes it feel safer. Evie’s kidnapping affected the Rasmusen family, even if they never spoke about it. According to the now adult daughter Janice, “I know my parents sold the house on Hoeschler Drive as quickly as they could. And I don’t know what the time frame was but, I think they could probably never got a good night’s sleep afterwards with it being an unsolved murder-the person that did it was still out there.” The next house they moved into had bars on the basement windows. Janice and her sister Rozalyn were never allowed to babysit growing up.
The Hartley family eventually moved to Oregon. Five years after Evie went missing, her brother Thomas wrote a scathing note to the Milwaukee Journal regarding a comment made by a detective agency consultant named Howard Emmer who said they were still waiting to see if she took off that night on her own accord. When Thomas was finished fighting for his sister’s honor on the page, he ended his letter with these touching words, Naturally, all of us who were close to Evelyn hope and pray that she is still living. We must realize now, however, that there is little basis for that hope. We do feel confident that the crime will eventually be solved. We hope it can be soon. Knowing what happened to Evelyn and seeing the guilty person or persons punished will surely bring some relief to the anguish we have suffered since this happened more than five years ago. In 2003, Evie’s younger sister Carolyn Hartley Landsverk (6 at the time of the disappearance) filed an order to be appointed as receiver of her estate. At that time Evelyn had not yet been declared dead. She still does not have a gravestone.
As far as the investigation goes, it is the ultimate cold case in Wisconsin. Last anyone heard, salvation is in two ratty water damaged boxes kept in the basement evidence room of the La Crosse County Sheriff’s department. DNA testing has never been done on the women’s apparel found on the road or the man’s shoes or jacket. If these items still exist then they are in those boxes and whether they are too eroded or not is anyone’s guess. Evelyn deserves justice for the terror she went through that night but will probably get none. We will likely never know what he looked like or where he went after he did this. This sex murderer was not someone who could do this once and stop. He likely assaulted women until he was imprisoned or dead. If we can get a DNA profile of him from the evidence, we can put him in CODIS and perhaps even a relative will come up as having been incarcerated. If you agree with me then call 608 785 9629 and let the sheriff’s office know.
You would have liked Evelyn Hartley. She was the sort of girl you wanted your daughter to be friends with. Evie was a straight A student who enjoyed church and brought five school books with her to a babysitting job. When she smiled she showed all of her teeth. She would have turned 16 years old on November 21st. She would have been 76 this year. No doubt she would have done well in college. When Evie was killed she was a year away from looking at schools. She was two years away from wearing a cap and gown. She would have married a nice boy in The First Presbyterian Church she grew up in. Today she would be spoiling her grandchildren.
Evelyn Hartley was never found. Her parents died knowing they would never find her, that she will never be buried next to them. Evie’s body is out there somewhere in the earth, in a field. Somewhere in Wisconsin is a spot where beautiful things grow around her bones and birds fly over her. After enduring a horror story, she deserves nothing less than this kind of peace.
charleyproject.org, La Crosse Tribune Nov. 19 1953 Appeal for Information on Hartley Girl, Tennis Shoes, La Crosse Tribune Oct 22 1978 Abduction May Remain Unsolved, La Crosse Tribune Oct 26 1953 Release Suspect in Abduction Find No Trace of Missing Girl, La Crosse Tribune Feb 27 1997, Whatever Happened to Evelyn Hartley? Steve Bothun/Dakota Productions 1990, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Oct 28 1953 Parents of Girl View Garments, The Milwaukee Journal Oct 28 1953 Bloody Clothes Found in Hunt for Baby Sitter, Spokane Daily Chronicle Oct 28 1953 Crime Lab Eyeing Stained Clothes for Kidnap Clew, The Milwaukee Sentinel Nov 8 1953 Will Evelyn Hartley Case Join List of Unsolved Mysteries?, The Milwaukee Sentinel Dec 10 1958 Prober Appeals for Data About Evelyn Hartley, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel March 16 2003 Teen’s Estate to be Settled. The Milwaukee Journal Dec 13 1958.
If you have any information or detail that will help the Evelyn Hartley case, call 608 785 5962.