The Lexington Police Department’s Cold Case Unit works to investigate serious crimes that remain unsolved. Many of the cases are homicides, but all leave victims without justice — sometimes decades have passed since the crime was committed. These stories are part of an ongoing series on unsolved crimes in Lexington. Anyone with information about any of the cases is encouraged to contact the Lexington Police Department at 859-258-3700.
Nineteen-year-old Betty Gail Brown didn’t believe in the death penalty.
In an essay she wrote while a student at Transylvania University in Lexington, Brown stated: “When a man commits a crime, he no longer has the right to liberty, but his right of life should never be taken away from him.”
Her belief that criminals, even murderers, should be shown compassion and allowed to become productive members of society was simply stated in her essay. One may wonder, though, if Betty Gail’s stance would still apply to the person who murdered her in the early hours of Oct. 27, 1961.
A well-liked sophomore at Transylvania, Betty Gail’s murder is one of the most infamous in Lexington’s recent history — she was found in her car, strangled to death with her own brassiere.
Some would say her death was the wake-up call to residents that Lexington wasn’t just a little town anymore. People have said, “that case became the reason that my family started to lock our doors,” said Lexington Police Department Detective Rob Wilson.
Unsolved for more than 50 years, Betty Gail’s murder is still being investigated by the LPD, but as time passes leads become harder to find.
Betty Gail’s last day
It was nearly 3 a.m. when Betty Gail’s father, Hargus Brown, called police because his daughter hadn’t made it home from a biology study group that ended at midnight.
She had been at Forrer Hall since about 7:15 p.m. that night studying with three other Transylvania students. All three students and the Forrer Hall housemother saw Betty Gail walking to her car, a 1959 blue Simca, when she left the group.
The last person to admit seeing Betty Gail alive was Charles Risdon, another Transylvania student who had just dropped a date off at Forrer Hall.
His car was parked about 30 feet behind Betty Gail’s and he pulled up next to her and chatted for a moment, according to information from LPD.
“(Risdon) states he asked her how she was feeling, (he) did this because he states he has a dancing class with her and she didn’t seem to be feeling her best during the class,” a police report said.
The two rolled up their respective windows and Risdon drove away, with Betty Gail following close behind him until he pulled into the parking lot behind Hazelrigg Hall, midway between Fourth and Third streets. Betty Gail continued down Upper Street. It was 12:05 a.m.
By 1:30 a.m., Betty Gail was dead.
She was found in her car, which was parked in front of Morrison Chapel on the Transylvania Campus at 3:05 a.m. Officer Don Duckworth with LPD was checking campus locations after an “all unit” broadcast was made to officers on duty about the missing co-ed.
“Officer Duckworth noticed the victim seated under the driver’s seat, head back, (she) appeared to be dead,” a police report said. “(He) immediately took the necessary measures to protect the scene and radioed for assistance.”
Duckworth told investigators that no one touched the car until his backup arrived.
Betty Gail was wearing the clothes she left her parents’ house in — a white blouse, Bermuda shorts, a sweater and beige raincoat. But when she was found, her blouse was unbuttoned, but still tucked in, and her brassiere was around her neck.
“An autopsy determined Brown had died as a result of strangulation with her own bra,” a police report said.
It was determined that robbery was not a motive in the murder, and Betty Gail had not been sexually assaulted. While she was still in the driver’s seat, her car keys were found in the floorboard of the back seat. The doors to the car were locked, except the front passenger door, which had a malfunctioning lock. Police were unable to find any witnesses to the crime.
In a summary report complete in the case when it was re-examined in 1988, a section titled “Case Problems” detailed issues that complicated investigation of Betty Gail’s murder.
“Practically every detail of the crime scene, autopsy, evidence collected, and witnesses statements were released to the media fueling theories and speculations,” the report said.
The morning newspaper from Oct. 28, 1961, ran a gruesome photo of Betty Gail’s body still in her car on the front page, “inciting public interest,” the report continued.
Male students and faculty members from Transylvania University were fingerprinted and given polygraph tests en masse, but none were ultimately considered suspects in the case.
Things turned around in January of 1965, when a man named Alex Arnold admitted to killing Betty Gail.
“On Jan. 20, 1965, Klamath Falls Ore. Police Department had arrested Arnold for public intoxication,” an LPD report said. “Arnold told an official in that city that he had murdered Brown.”
Arnold provided police officers from Lexington a handwritten statement spelling out the macabre details from the night he allegedly killed Betty Gail.
Arnold was arrested for the murder.
Coming Monday: Details of the night Alex Arnold allegedly killed Betty Gail Brown come out in his trial — including an alleged lesbian relationship between Betty Gail and an unidentified woman. Arnold is released when the jury deadlocks seven to five after the man recants his confession.