the unsolved murder That Haunted Hagerstown
by James Rada, Jr.
It seems Betty Jane Kennedy of Hagerstown was doomed to lead a short life, but her death continued to haunt Hagerstown for years afterward.
When Betty Jane was just six years old in 1933, a car on West Washington Street hit her. She suffered cuts and a fractured skull. This accident was her fault, though. The police report noted Betty ran out in front of the car, which caused the accident.
She recovered from her injuries, only to suffer a worse fate later.
On April 4, 1946, Martin Benchoff, a farmer who lived near the Maryland-Pennsylvania State Line, found the body of a young woman laying face down and against a log at the bottom of an embankment next to the Waynesboro-Rouzerville Highway in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. The woman was also nude, except for a pink slip that was twisted around her body and up under her arms.
Benchoff said “he was attracted to the scene when he noticed a woman’s faded coat hanging from a tree,” reported to the Hagerstown Daily Mail. The coat had a store label for Leiter Brothers in it which gave police a clue to try to identify the woman. A brown leather purse found about a mile away and believed to be the woman’s had no identification in it.
The body was taken to Grove Funeral Home in Waynesboro.
The following day, Hagerstown Police, following up on a missing persons report, identified the dead woman as Betty Jane Kennedy, a 19-year-old Hagerstown waitress. She had been missing for five days after leaving home following an argument with her older sister.
The body was transported to Hagerstown so the family could arrange funeral services. In the meantime, an autopsy showed Betty Jane had been strangled and her neck was broken. Although she was nude, she had not been raped.
“There was some reason to believe that the victim had been alive when thrown onto the embankment, however,” the Daily Mail reported.
Washington County Sheriff John B. Huyett said Betty Jane appeared to have been dead 12 to 14 hours when she was found. This meant that she had been murdered during the evening of April 3.
Police in Maryland and Pennsylvania both investigated the case, because although Betty Jane had been found in Pennsylvania, it was barely over the state line. Police weren’t sure where she had been killed, among other questions.
Betty Jane was last seen alive around 11:30 p.m. the night before her body was found. She left a South Potomac Street restaurant in Hagerstown with a man no one knew. A waitress at the restaurant said he resembled Earl J. McFarland, an escaped killer and rapist from Washington, D.C., who was believed to be in the area.
Police quickly pulled in two men for questioning. One man, who was a taxi driver, who witnesses had seen with Betty Jane the last time she was seen alive. An associate who corroborated the man’s alibi said he was working, but the man’s boss said he wasn’t. Police also discovered the taxi driver had taken a pair of blood-stained pants and a jacket to the dry cleaner the day after Betty Jane’s death. Capt. William H. Peters of the Hagerstown Police said these two facts would require a lot of explanation on the taxi driver’s part.
A security soldier at Walter Reed who had been AWOL during the time of Betty Jane’s death underwent a lie detector test to prove he hadn’t been in the area.
By April 12, police had questioned 33 people and interviewed hundreds. “Captain Peters said several of the witnesses reversed or changed their stories yesterday when they learned of the possibility of the use of the ‘lie detector,’ and the fact that the alibis and stories are being changed ‘leads us to believe this man knows something about the case,’” the Daily Mail reported.
The cabbie said the blood on his jacket and pants was from the bloody nose of a drunk passenger. McFarland, who was never seriously considered a suspect, was captured in Tennessee and had not set foot in Maryland.
By April 15, police were trying to stay optimistic, but the investigation was going nowhere. They did not have a serious suspect, and a lot of unanswered questions remained. Where had Betty Jane spent her nights between the time she left home and the time she died? Where were the rest of her clothes? Where was she killed?
Two weeks after Betty Jane’s murder, the Washington County Sheriff offered a $400 reward for information leading to the murderer’s arrest and conviction. Of this amount, the sheriff offered $300 from his own pocket because the county commissioners could only offer $100 by law.
Around this time, a woman found a pair of shoes near where Betty Jane’s purse was found. Investigators believed the shoes were Betty Jane’s.
Police continued investigating but made no leads or arrests. The lead detective, Carl Hartman, retired in 1948. He said the case was still active, but with his retirement, it went very cold. Nearly 1,000 people had been interviewed or questioned among the seven investigative agencies in two states (FBI, Maryland State Police, Pennsylvania State Police, Hagerstown Police, Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, and Waynesboro Police) with no strong suspects.
Not that there weren’t theories about what happened.
One theory said Betty Jane was killed in a hotel because she saw something she shouldn’t have. Her body was then lowered through a window to the ground, loaded into a car, and driven away. This theory got a boost when a red dress was discovered during the Potomac Hotel remodeling in 1951. It disappeared by the time the police arrived at the hotel to investigate if it was connected to the murder.
One man confessed to the killing before dying of natural causes, but it turned out he hadn’t been in the area at the time of the murder.
“Although Betty Jane wasn’t rich, exceptionally beautiful, or murdered in some unusual way, the case became one of the best publicized murders in this area during the 20th century, because of the vast scope of the investigation that followed,” the Daily Mail reported in 1976.
The murder remains unsolved today.