Several unsolved crimes from Centre County’s history have captured the attention of people here — puzzles that, over the years, have become almost legend. The names of the victims are well-known. Brenda Condon. Dana Bailey. Ray Gricar. Dawn Miller. Cindy Song. Betsy Aardsma.
But 70 years ago today, another young woman’s story was abruptly cut short, and never finished. And it’s a story that many have forgotten.
On this day in 1940, 17-year-old Rachel Taylor was returning from Easter break to finish her freshman year at Penn State.
According to old CDT and Centre Democrat newspaper stories from the 1940s, the Wildwood Crest, N.J., native took a bus from her hometown, and arrived in State College around 1:20 a.m. March 28. She was seen around 1:30 a.m. getting into a car near her Atherton Hall dorm.
Five hours later, a janitor for the College Township School in Lemont, about four miles from campus, found her nearly naked, battered and lifeless body near the school.
Investigators, from the start, were at a loss to explain what happened to Taylor.
They went through a series of suspects, but seemed to never find the truth.
Rockview inmates who were at the bus station around that time were questioned. Pittsburgh suspects were talked to. A former New Jersey state hospital inmate was picked up in Philadelphia for acting “suspicious, “ and hanged himself in a cell after being questioned. Newspaper articles later said he had a “solid alibi.”
A 35-year-old State College heating engineer was named by police as a suspect almost immediately. But that lead fizzled when he passed a lie detector test “with flying colors, “ the Centre Democrat reported police saying.
Three students were questioned when they showed up at a dry cleaner with red stains on clothing. The stains turned out to be wine.
Weeks after Taylor’s murder, Faye Gates, 24, was found dead near her Centre County home under similar circumstances. But police eventually arrested Gates’ brother-in-law, Richard Millinder, and said it was more likely he used details he read of Taylor’s death as a guide for killing Gates. He was never connected to Taylor.
Police had found a bloodied men’s handkerchief at the scene, but no weapons. They never found what they dubbed the “death car, “ where they think Taylor was killed. A screwdriver, which police thought might have been the weapon that caused Taylor’s head trauma, wasn’t found either.
Fourteen years after the home economics major was sexually assaulted and killed, false leads continued flowing in.
In September 1954, Taylor’s family flew to Oklahoma hoping for an arrest after state inmate Jack Ray, already serving a life sentence, confessed to the killing.
But Ray’s 600-word story of killing Taylor for threatening to expose his campus marijuana ring was fabricated, authorities said, in a bid for attention.
A story written just one week after her death reads, “Baffling Questions: Where is the car used by Miss Taylor’s slayer? Where is the tool or other instrument with which she was mutilated? And where is the weapon with which the slayer dealt the head blow that caused death?”
One investigator, Trooper David Aiello, of the state police barracks in Hollidaysburg, is trying figure out which of these questions remain unanswered. His review of the case started last fall when Penn State researcher John Shingler, whose “curiosity got the better of him, “ called the state police headquarters in Harrisburg asking about the Taylor case.
Few remembered it. But the file was dug out of the archives and handed to Aiello.
“I’m going to be very candid with you, “ he said last week. “This came to my attention a couple of months ago. I got the case out of the archives in Harrisburg, and I’m looking at it, as time permits. There’s a mountain of material.”
Aiello said he enjoys a challenge. That’s good, because cases this old present a lot of them. Seventy years ago, investigative techniques were completely different. Evidence is probably minimal, and even if Aiello can solve the case, the killer could very well be dead.
“I’m not going to say it fell off the radar, “ he said. “We do close cases. I can’t tell you why it was where it was. I’ve not gotten to the end of it to tell you why.”
Every case, Aiello said, deserves a resolution — even the 70-year-old story of a girl the Reading Eagle once called a chubby, athletic girl, whose story captivated the Keystone State.
Sara Ganim can be reached at 231-4616.