The murder of Sylvia Likens took place in Indianapolis, Indiana, United States in October 1965. The 16-year-old Likens was tortured to death by Gertrude Baniszewski, Baniszewski's children, and other young people from their neighborhood. Likens' parents, who were carnival workers, had left her and her sister, Jenny, in the care of the Baniszewski family three months before her death. The Likens' parents were paying Baniszewski $20 a week to care for the sisters.
Baniszewski, her daughter Paula, her son John, and two neighborhood youths, Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs, were tried and convicted of torturing and murdering Likens. The case was described by the prosecutor in Baniszewski's trial as "the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana".
Gertrude Nadine Baniszewski (née Van Fossan; September 19, 1929 – June 16, 1990) was born in Indianapolis, Indiana to Mollie Myrtle (née Oakley) and Hugh Marcus Van Fossan Sr., both of whom were originally from Illinois and were of American and Dutch descent. Baniszewski was the third of six children. On October 5, 1939, Baniszewski witnessed her 50-year-old father's death from a sudden heart attack. Six years later, she dropped out of school to marry 18-year-old John Stephan Baniszewski (1926–2007), who was originally from Youngsville, Pennsylvania, with whom she had six children. Although John Baniszewski had a volatile temper, the two stayed together for ten more years before divorcing.
Baniszewski, then 34, moved in with 18-year old Dennis Lee Wright, who abused her. She had one child with Dennis, Dennis Lee Wright Jr. (later given the name Denny Lee Wright by his adoptive mother), but after his birth, Wright abandoned Gertrude.
Sylvia Marie Likens (January 3, 1949 – October 26, 1965) was the third child of carnival workers Lester Cecil Likens (1926–2013) and his wife Elizabeth Frances "Betty" (née Grimes, 1927–1998). She was born between two sets of fraternal twins: Diana (also spelled "Dianna") and Danny (two years older), and Jenny and Benny (one year younger, the former disabled by polio).
Likens' parents' marriage was unstable. The family moved frequently, and the parents had financial difficulties. Likens and her sister Jenny were often boarded out or forced to live with relatives, such as their grandmother, so that their schoolwork would not suffer while their parents were on the road.
To earn money, Likens babysat and ironed, the same kind of work that was done by Gertrude Baniszewski. Likens' favorite rock group was The Beatles. During her early time with the Baniszewski family, she would sing with Baniszewski's daughter, Stephanie.
In 1965, Sylvia and Jenny Likens were living with their mother, Betty, in Indianapolis, Indiana. During that time, Betty was arrested and jailed for shoplifting. Lester Likens, who had recently separated from his wife, arranged for his daughters to board with Gertrude Baniszewski, the mother of the girls' new friend Paula Baniszewski (aged 17) and Paula's six siblings Stephanie (15), John (12), Marie (11), Shirley (10), James (8), and few-months-old Dennis Lee Wright Jr.
Although the Baniszewskis were poor, Lester "didn't pry" into the condition of the house (as he reported at the trial), and he encouraged Baniszewski to "straighten his daughters out."
Abuse and death
Lester Likens agreed to pay Baniszewski $20 a week, but his payment was sometimes late. Baniszewski, described by The Indianapolis Star as a "haggard, underweight asthmatic" was suffering from depression and the stress of several failed marriages. She began taking her anger out on the Likens girls and beat them with paddles.
Baniszewski soon focused her abuse exclusively on Sylvia. She accused her of stealing candy that she had bought, and humiliated her when she admitted that she once had a boyfriend. Baniszewski's daughter, Paula, who was pregnant at the time, kicked Likens in the genitals and accused her of being pregnant. Later medical examination proved that Likens was not pregnant and could not have been. Baniszewski began allowing her older children to beat Likens, and push her down stairs. Baniszewski also accused Likens of prostitution and delivered "sermons" about the filthiness of prostitutes and women in general.
Likens was later accused of spreading rumors within Arsenal Technical High School that Paula and Stephanie Baniszewski were prostitutes. This supposedly provoked Stephanie's boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, to physically attack Likens. Afterward Coy Hubbard and several other classmates and local boys were brought in to assist Baniszewski in beating Likens. Baniszewski encouraged Hubbard, her children, and neighborhood children to torment Likens, including, among other things:
- Extinguishing lit cigarettes upon her skin
- Beating her
- Tying her up
- Burning her with scalding water
- Rubbing salt into her raw wounds
- Forcing her to eat feces and other substances that would cause her to vomit
- Forcing her to remove her clothes and insert a glass Coca-Cola bottle into her vagina (on at least two occasions)
Paula Baniszewski once beat Likens in the face with such force that she broke her own wrist.
Gertrude Baniszewski later forced Jenny to hit her sister.
Sylvia and Jenny Likens had no way to contact other family members to inform them of the abuse. Early that summer, they saw their older sister, Diana, a couple of times at the park. Diana was then 18 years old, married, and estranged from the rest of her family. Their parents had even forbidden contact between the two. So when her sisters told Diana they were punished, she assumed that seeing her was the reason why. They wished they could all live together, but at the time, they did not know they lived less than a mile-and-a-half apart. Later that summer, Diana learned that Sylvia and Jenny were staying at a home, which was not their parents, and she attempted to visit them. She did not know the woman who answered the door, but later learned it was Gertrude Baniszewski. The woman told her that the girls were not allowed to see her, and ordered Diana off her property. Shortly thereafter, a neighbor made an anonymous report, which prompted an in-home visit by a public health nurse. The nurse entered the home, made inquiries, and had no choice but to leave without further investigation. She told Baniszewski the report was about Sylvia; Baniszewski replied she had kicked Sylvia out of her house, and her whereabouts were unknown. The nurse had no way of knowing that the subject of her inquiry was right below her in the basement.
Baniszewski eventually forbade Likens to attend school after she had beaten the girl in an attempt to force her to confess to having stolen a gym suit from the school. Baniszewski would not buy a gym suit for her (without one she was unable to attend gym class).
Likens was often deprived of water. Jenny later speculated, during her court testimony, that Likens was unable to produce tears due to dehydration.
When Likens became incontinent, Baniszewski locked her in the basement and began a bathing regime to "cleanse" Likens, involving dousing her with scalding water and rubbing salt into the burns. She was often kept naked and rarely fed. At times, Baniszewski and her twelve-year-old son John Jr. would make Likens eat her own feces, as well as urine and feces from the diaper of Gertrude Baniszewski's one-year-old son.
On October 22, Baniszewski began to carve the words "I'm a prostitute and proud of it" upon Likens' abdomen with a heated needle. When Baniszewski was unable to finish the branding, she had Ricky Hobbs finish. Hobbs and 10-year-old Shirley Baniszewski then used an iron poker in an attempt to burn the letter "S" into Likens' chest; the burn scar ended up looking like the number "3." The next day, Baniszewski woke Likens, then dictated a letter to her, one designed to look like as a runaway's goodbye note to her parents. After Likens finished the letter, Baniszewski formulated a plan to have John Jr. and Jenny take Sylvia to a nearby forested area and leave her there to die.
On October 25, the day before she died, Likens tried to escape after overhearing Baniszewski's plan to blindfold her and dump her body in Jimmy's Forest, a wooded area nearby. As she reached the front door, Baniszewski caught her and punished her by tying her up in the basement and giving her only crackers to eat.
On October 26, after multiple beatings, burnings, and scalding baths, Likens died of a brain hemorrhage, shock, and malnutrition. She was 16 years old.
When Stephanie Baniszewski and Richard Hobbs realized that Likens was not breathing, Stephanie tried to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
When she realized that Likens was dead, Baniszewski sent Hobbs to call the police from a nearby pay phone. When police arrived, Gertrude Baniszewski handed them the letter she had forced Likens to write a few days previously. The letter was addressed to Likens' parents and stated Likens had agreed to have sexual relations with a group of boys in exchange for money, after which the boys then "dragged her away" in their car. The letter went on to claim that the boys had beaten her, burned her, and carved the "S" upon her skin. Before the police officers left the house, however, Jenny Likens approached them and said, "Get me out of here and I'll tell you everything." Her statement, combined with the discovery of Likens' body, prompted the officers to arrest Gertrude, Paula, Stephanie and John Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard for murder. Other neighborhood children present at the time—Mike Monroe, Randy Lepper, Darlene McGuire, Judy Duke, and Anna Siscoe—were arrested for "injury to person".
Baniszewski, her children, Hobbs, and Hubbard were held without bail pending their trials.
An examination and autopsy of Likens' body revealed numerous burns, bruising, muscle and nerve damage. In her death throes, Likens bit through her lips, nearly severing each of them. Her vaginal cavity was nearly swollen shut, although an examination of the canal determined that her hymen was still intact, which meant it was possible she was still a virgin, discrediting Baniszewski's assertions that Likens was a prostitute and her insistence that she was pregnant. The official cause of death was brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain, and shock from severe and prolonged damage to her skin.
During the highly publicized trial, Gertrude Baniszewski denied being responsible for Likens' death. She pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. She claimed that she was too distracted by her ill health and depression to control her children.
Four minors who took part in the abuse of Likens were also put on trial. They were:
- Paula Baniszewski, aged 17
- John Baniszewski, aged 13
- Richard Hobbs, aged 15
- Coy Hubbard, aged 15
The attorneys for the minors claimed that they had been pressured by Baniszewski.
When Gertrude's 11-year-old daughter, Marie Baniszewski, was called to the stand as a witness for the defense, she broke down and admitted that she had been forced to heat the needle with which Hobbs had carved Likens' skin. She also testified that she had seen her mother beating Likens and forcing her into the basement.
In his closing statement, Baniszewski's lawyer said: "I condemn her for being a murderess ... but I say she's not responsible because she's not all here!" He tapped his head to make his point about her state of mind.
On May 19, 1966, Gertrude Baniszewski was convicted of first-degree murder. She was spared the death penalty and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Paula Baniszewski, who had given birth to a daughter during the trial, was convicted of second-degree murder. She was also sentenced to life imprisonment.
Richard Hobbs, Coy Hubbard, and John Baniszewski Jr. were all convicted of manslaughter and given to 2-to-21-year prison sentences.
Hobbs, Hubbard, and John Baniszewski Jr. each served two years in a reformatory before being paroled in 1968.
In 1971, Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski were granted another trial by the Indiana Supreme Court, largely for reasons of a prejudicial atmosphere due to heavy news media publicity before and during the trial. Paula Baniszewski pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was released from prison one year later. Gertrude Baniszewski, however, was again convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Over the course of the next 14 years, Baniszewski became a model prisoner at the Indiana Women's Prison, working in the sewing shop and becoming a "den mother" to younger female inmates. By the time she came up for parole in 1985, she was known by the prison nickname "Mom".
The news of Baniszewski's parole hearing sent shockwaves through the Indiana community. Jenny Likens and her family appeared on television to speak out against Baniszewski; the members of two anti-crime groups, Protect the Innocent and Society's League Against Molestation, travelled to Indiana to oppose her parole and support the Likens family, beginning a sidewalk picket campaign. Over the course of two months, the groups collected over 40,000 signatures from the citizens of Indiana demanding that Baniszewski be kept behind bars. Despite the efforts, Baniszewski was granted parole. During the hearing, she stated: "I'm not sure what role I had in it ... because I was on drugs. I never really knew her ... I take full responsibility for whatever happened to Sylvia." The parole board, taking her good behavior in prison into account, voted in favor of granting Baniszewski's freedom 3-2, and she was released.
Baniszewski was released from prison on December 4, 1985, and traveled to Iowa, where she called herself Nadine Van Fossan, using her middle name and maiden name. She lived in obscurity until her death in Laurel, Iowa, from lung cancer, on June 16, 1990, aged 60.
When Jenny Likens, who was then married and living in Beech Grove, Indiana, saw Gertrude Baniszewski's obituary in a newspaper, she clipped it and mailed it to her mother with the note: "Some good news. Damn old Gertrude died. Ha ha ha! I am happy about that." Jenny Likens Wade died of a heart attack on June 23, 2004, at the age of 54.
Richard Hobbs died of cancer on January 2, 1972, at the age of 21, four years after being released from the reformatory.
After the Westside Middle School massacre, John Baniszewski Jr., by then calling himself John Blake, made a statement claiming that young criminals are not beyond help and describing how he had turned his life around. He died of diabetes at General Hospital in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on May 19, 2005, at the age of 52.
Coy Hubbard, Stephanie Baniszewski’s boyfriend (who had beaten Likens) was in and out of prison after his release. He was later charged with the murder of two men but was acquitted. He died of a heart attack on June 23, 2007, at the age of 56 in Shelbyville, Indiana. He had a wife and five children, 17 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
Paula Baniszewski, the eldest of Gertrude's seven children, received a prison sentence of twenty years to life for her part in Likens' death. Her baby daughter, Gertrude, whom she gave birth to while incarcerated, was later adopted. In 1971, she twice tried unsuccessfully to escape from prison. In 1972, she was paroled and assumed a new identity. She eventually married, has two children, and reportedly lives in a small town in Iowa today. She worked as an aide to a school counselor for 14 years at the Beaman-Conrad-Liscomb-Union-Whitten (BCLUW) school district in Iowa, having changed her name to Paula Pace and lied to the school district when applying for the job. She was fired in 2012 when the school discovered her deception.
The murder charge against Gertrude Baniszewski's second-eldest daughter, Stephanie (aged 15), was dropped after she turned state's evidence against the other defendants. She assumed a new name and became a school teacher. She married and has several children.
The injury-to-person charges against the younger juveniles, Anna Ruth Siscoe, Judy Darlene Duke, Michael John (Mike) Monroe, Darlene McGuire, and Randy Gordon Lepper, were dropped. Siscoe married and had children and grandchildren. She died on October 23, 1996, at the age of 44. Lepper died on November 14, 2010, in Indianapolis at the age of 56.
On May 10, 2015, Likens' sister Diana (who was using the name Dianna Bedwell) and her husband Cecil Knutson were reported missing by their son, Robert Acosta. Dianna and Cecil had been gambling at the Valley View Casino in Valley Center, California. Surveillance video recorded the couple leaving the casino at about 2 p.m. by car, but they did not show up at their son's house in La Quinta. Acosta contacted the police and appeared on television, asking the public's help in finding his parents. On May 25, 2015, the couple was found in a mountainous area of an Indian reservation by members of a volunteer Jeep patrol. Cecil was dead and Dianna was severely dehydrated after surviving on just rainwater and some food. Dianna was airlifted to a hospital in serious condition. She told investigators they were looking for a shortcut when they got lost and became stuck on a rugged road.
The house at 3850 East New York Street, Indianapolis, in which Likens was tortured and murdered stood vacant and rundown for many years after the murder. Although there was some discussion of purchasing it for renovation and using it as a women's shelter, the necessary funds were never raised. The house was demolished on April 23, 2009. The property is now a church parking lot.
A six-foot (1.8 m) tall block of granite was dedicated in June 2001 as a memorial to Likens in Willard Park, 1700 E. Washington Street. The dedication was attended by several hundred people.
The case has since been the subject of numerous fictional and non-fictional accounts.
- Author John Dean (also known as Natty Bumppo) wrote an account of the murder, The Indiana Torture Slaying: Sylvia Likens Torture and Death (later called House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying.)
- Author Paul Donnelly documented the case in his book 501 Most Notorious Crimes.
- The Sylvia Likens case was documented on the “Born Bad” episode of Deadly Women on the Investigation Discovery channel.
- Patte Wheat's By Sanction of the Victim is a fictional account, set in the 1970s.
- The artist and feminist author Kate Millett dealt with the subject in a number of works. She wrote a semi-fictional book relating to the incident, The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice. Millett later stated her belief that "Gertrude seems to have wanted to administer some terrible truthful justice to this girl: that this was what it was to be a woman."
- Mendal Johnson's only novel, Let's Go Play at the Adams', in which a 20-year-old babysitter is kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by a handful of teens whom she had been assigned to sit, was influenced by this case.
- Jack Ketchum's novel The Girl Next Door is loosely based on the murder, set in the 1950s.
- Author Craig Silvey describes the case in the novel Jasper Jones.
- A film of the same name as Ketchum's book was released in 2007, with Blythe Auffarth in the main role.
- The film An American Crime, starring Catherine Keener as Gertrude Baniszewski, Ellen Page as Likens, Jeremy Sumpter as Coy Hubbard, and Evan Peters as Richard Hobbs, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007.
- A play called Hey, Rube written by Janet McReynolds, was produced but never published.
- Kate Millett's 1967 installation art Trap, in a New York loft basement, was influenced by Likens' murder. Millett created another art installation in 1978, The Trial of Sylvia Likens, that depicts a courtroom scene with the five defendants.