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Unsolved murder of Transylvania University student Betty Gail Brown: Part 1

Betty Gail Brown
Betty Gail Brown
Photo by HB Elam.

October 26, 1961 was a day like any other for 19-year-old Betty Gail Brown, a popular sophomore at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky. Betty Gail attended a study group meeting that night at Transylvania’s Forrer Hall to prepare for an upcoming biology exam. However, by 1:30 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 27, Betty Gail Brown was dead. She was found at 3:05 a.m., mere hours after leaving the study group, still in her car, which was parked in front of Transy’s Morrison Chapel. The cause of death was strangulation with her own brassiere.

Betty Gail’s study group met at 7:15 p.m. on the night of Oct. 26, and the three other members of the group, along with the Forrer Hall housemother, all reported seeing Betty Gail proceed to her car, which was a blue 1959 Simca. Before Betty Gail entered her vehicle, another Transy student, Charles Risdon, spoke with her. Risdon, who had been dropping off a date at Forrer Hall, was parked just behind Betty Gail. The two reportedly had a dance class together, and Risdon chatted briefly with Betty Gail, asking her how she felt because she appeared to have been under the weather when he had last seen her in class.

Risdon reported that Betty Gail pulled out just behind him and followed him until he turned in to the Hazelrigg Hall parking lot between Third and Fourth streets. The time was 12:05 a.m. on the morning of October 27, 1961, and Betty Gail Brown’s car was seen continuing on Upper Street. This was the last time anyone would see Betty Gail alive.

At nearly 3 a.m., Betty Gail’s distraught father, Hargus Brown, contacted the local police. Mr. Brown explained that his daughter had not returned home from her study group, which had ended at midnight. Officer Don Duckworth of the Lexington Police Department, responding to the report of the missing young woman, was the first to discover Betty Gail’s body.

According to the police report, Officer Duckworth found Betty Gail still sitting behind the wheel of her car, but her head was back and she looked to be deceased. Duckworth secured the scene immediately and radioed for backup. Upon examination, Betty Gail’s blouse was found to be “unbuttoned, but still tucked in, and her brassiere was around her neck”, according to KyForward reporter Mark Boxley.

An autopsy of Betty Gail’s body revealed that the cause of death was strangulation, and the instrument used to strangle her was indeed her own bra. There was no evidence of robbery or sexual assault, but her car keys were “found in the floorboard of the back seat”, Boxley reports. It is likely that the killer gained entry to Betty Gail’s vehicle through the front passenger door, as all of the other doors were locked and that particular door had a malfunctioning locking mechanism. Unfortunately, there were no witnesses to the crime.

At the time of the murder, there were many flaws in the way the case was handled, which only served to further complicate the investigation, as well as all future investigations. In a summary report from a re-examination of the case in 1988, in a section aptly titled “Case Problems”, investigators stated that “practically every detail of the crime scene, autopsy, evidence collected, and witness statements were released to the media fueling theories and speculations”. Ultimately, although all male students and staff of Transylvania University were fingerprinted and given polygraph tests immediately following Betty Gail’s murder, no suspects emerged. It was not until 1965 that police would catch their first break in this case.

On January 20, 1965, police in Klamath Falls, Ore. arrested Alex Arnold for public intoxication. Following his arrest, Arnold openly confessed to the murder of Betty Gail Brown. Arnold was able to provide a statement, written in gruesome detail, about the night of Betty Gail’s murder. Alex Arnold was arrested for the murder of Betty Gail Brown based on his confession, but police once again hit a brick wall when the jury in Arnold’s trial deadlocked.

Coming in Part Two: The details and outcomes of Alex Arnold’s trial, missing evidence, subsequent investigations, modern-day Transylvania University folklore, and the partial palm print that may hold the key to finally solving the more than 50-year-old murder of Betty Gail Brown.

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