Grad student killed in Kendall in ’77, the unsolved story

When I was still a prospective student, a junior at the College told me Kendall Hall was haunted.

“A man was shot there in the early 1900s,” he said almost proudly. A week ago, a friend told me she heard the building was closed for a few years due to a murder, and just yesterday I read from a contributor on WeirdNJ.com whose grandmother told him of a murder taking place there in the 1930s.

Yes, there was a murder in Kendall Hall, but most of us have only been told a warped version of it. Allow me to set the record straight.
This story, however, is not for the faint of heart.

Two days before classes began for the College’s (then Trenton State College) fall semester of 1977, the New York Daily News ran a rather shocking banner headline across its front page: “Police Find NJ Coed Slain on Stage.” This followed a summer of headlines about killings, but this one was different in that it had nothing to do with the infamous Son of Sam and took place on a tree-lined college campus in a New Jersey suburb rather than on the streets of New York.

Sigrid Stevenson was 25 years old when her body was found at approximately 11:30 p.m. on the main stage of Kendall Hall on Sunday, Sept. 4, 1977. According to a Signal article from Sept. 6, 1977, Campus Police officer Thomas Kokotajlo had been walking nearby when he noticed an unattended bicycle chained up near a side door of Kendall. The building had last been used by the cast and crew of a production called “J.B.,” but they had all left by 12:30 a.m. early that morning and all doors were locked. Kokotajlo entered the building and walked on to the stage, which he found covered with blood spatters with an increasingly bloody trail leading to the piano. It was here that he discovered Stevenson’s nude body, wrists bound and on the stage floor, covered by the piano’s white canvas dust cover.

A joint investigation was launched with Ewing Township police forces and Campus Police. It was quickly determined that Stevenson had been beaten to death with a blunt instrument, and even though I issued a warning at the beginning of this article, I won’t delve into the specifics of her injuries due to their overly graphic nature. To provide some perspective however, I will say that according to reports, the professor brought in to identify Stevenson’s body could only do so by looking at her student’s hair.

In the Sept. 27, 1977 issue of The Signal, an article explored the police’s silence regarding the investigation of Sigrid Stevenson’s murder. (The Signal 1977)

In 1977, there was no DNA analysis and the murder itself did not appear to have been the result of any common motive. The Mercer County medical examiner determined she had not been sexually assaulted, and her possessions had not been stolen. Using what they had, investigators questioned over 100 people and issued several dozen polygraph tests to students, staff and even some members of Campus Police. Two weeks after the murder, State Police divers combed Lake Ceva for the murder weapon but found nothing. A Dec. 20, 1977 issue of The Signal revealed that stumped investigators had even sought the advice of University of Pennsylvania psychologists and “noted psychic” Sidney Porcelian of nearby Princeton. Nevertheless, the murderer was never found and to this day remains unidentified.
Meanwhile, life continued at the College. A New York Times article described students walking calmly about campus, with a freshman saying she was unconcerned. Several performances even took the stage in Kendall throughout the year, including a concert by The Kinks (famous for their gender-bending hit, “Lola”) that November. By the end of the academic year, the only print reminder of the murder was a brief recap in the 1978 Seal— barely over a 100 words and with the victim’s name misspelled.

But who was Sigrid Stevenson? She was a graduate student at the time of her death and had come to the College to study her lifelong passion — music. Sources say Stevenson was known to be shy and was a bit of a loner on campus, but she had traveled much further to the College than many of her classmates; she came from Livermore, California, which is about an hour east of San Francisco. Her father, however, was a professor at Princeton University before making the move cross-country. Stevenson was described as pretty and blue-eyed, although there are conflicting reports over whether her hair was blonde or brown (and I have been unable to recover any photos).

A Signal article from the time reported that Stevenson lived in the nearby house of Stanley Austin, a supervisor of graduate music study at the College. Other reports say Stevenson had come back to the College after a cross-country hitchhiking stint, only to find that Austin and his family were not yet back from their summer vacation. Although Kendall Hall was locked, it was not very secure and Stevenson had been known to sneak in there to play the piano at night. She camped out in the theatre for several days before the murder, accounts said, and the details of the case suggest she had been playing the piano when she was attacked.

By laying out the details of what really happened in Kendall Hall many years ago, I can only hope that I have humanized what has otherwise become nothing more than a ghost story. We must remember that Sigrid Stevenson, who would have been 59 this year, was a student with her own aspirations, just like those of us today. Her life, although cut short, was still a life. Rest in peace, Sigrid.

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