Sylvia Likens as she appeared prior to her stay at the Baniszewski residence
January 3, 1949|
Lebanon, Indiana, U.S.
|Died||October 26, 1965
Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.
|Known for||Torture and murder victim|
|Parent(s)||Lester C. Likens
Elizabeth F. "Betty" Grimes
|Relatives||Diana Likens (sister)
Danny Likens (brother)
Jenny Likens (sister)
Benny Likens (brother)
Sylvia Marie Likens (January 3, 1949 – October 26, 1965) was a 16-year-old murder victim. She was tortured to death by Gertrude Baniszewski, Baniszewski's children, and other young people from their neighborhood.
Sylvia's 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 parents were paying Baniszewski $20 a week to care for her.
Baniszewski, her daughter Paula, her son John, and two neighborhood youths (Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs) were tried and convicted of torturing and murdering Sylvia. The case was described by the prosecutor in Baniszewski's trial as "the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana".
Sylvia 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).
The Likens' marriage was unstable. The family moved frequently, and the parents had financial difficulties. Sylvia 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, Sylvia babysat and ironed, the same kind of work that was done by Gertrude Baniszewski. Sylvia's 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 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 ($150.18 adjusted for inflation) 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 Sylvia in the genitals and accused her of being pregnant. Later medical examination proved that Sylvia was not pregnant and could not have been.
Sylvia 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 Sylvia. Gertrude Baniszewski encouraged Hubbard, her children, and neighborhood children to torment Sylvia, including, among other things:
- extinguishing cigarettes on her skin
- beating her
- tying her up
- burning her with scalding water
- rubbing salt in her wounds
- forcing her to eat things 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.
Sylvia and Jenny attempted to contact their family to inform them of the abuse. They were able to mail letters to their older sister, Diana, who was then 18 years old and married. Diana supposedly visited the Baniszewski home after learning of the abuse but did not call police or remove her sisters from the home.
The girls' parents did not intercede on their behalf.
Baniszewski eventually forbade Sylvia 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).
When Sylvia urinated in her bed (while tied to the bed), she was locked in the cellar and forbidden to use the toilet. Later, she was forced to consume her own feces, as well as urine and feces from the diaper of Gertrude Baniszewski's one-year-old son.
Shortly before Sylvia died, Baniszewski began to carve the words "I'm a prostitute and proud of it!" upon Sylvia's stomach with a heated needle. Richard Hobbs finished the carving.
On October 25, 1965, the day before she died, Sylvia 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.
When Stephanie Baniszewski and Richard Hobbs realized that Sylvia was not breathing, Stephanie tried to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
When she realized that Sylvia was dead, Baniszewski sent Hobbs to call the police from a nearby pay phone. When police arrived, Gertrude Baniszewski handed them a letter which she had forced Sylvia to write a few days previously. The letter was addressed to Sylvia's parents.
The letter stated that Sylvia had agreed to have sexual relations with a group of boys in exchange for money and that 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."
Convictions and sentences
During the highly publicized trial, Gertrude Baniszewski denied being responsibe for Sylvia's death. She pled 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 Sylvia 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 Sylvia's skin. She also testified that she had seen her mother beating Sylvia 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.
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. served two years in prison.
In 1971, Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski were granted another trial. Paula Baniszewski pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was released from prison two years later. Gertrude Baniszewski, however, was again convicted of first-degree murder. In 1985, despite public protests and petitions against her release, the parole board took her good behavior in prison into account, and she was released.
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.
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 Sylvia) 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 Sylvia's 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 November 14, 2010, in Indianapolis at the age of 56.
On May 10, 2015, Sylvia's 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 remote part of California. 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 Sylvia 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.
The case has since been the subject of numerous fictional and non-fictional accounts.
- Author John Dean wrote an account of the murder, 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.
- Sylvia Likens' story is the central theme of Detroit musician Joel Edwards' 2015 album, Sylvia.
- 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.
- Author Lavinia Jewel wrote a crime novel in the first person of Sylvia Likens and Jenny Likens (alternating between chapters), documenting the murder in The Punishment Game
- Jack Ketchum's novel The Girl Next Door is loosely based on the murder.
- 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 Sylvia, 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.
- The Pain Teens recorded a song and a music video titled "Basement," which were based upon the case.
- 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.
- List of murdered American children
- Aurore Gagnon
- Murder of Dennis Jurgens
- Murder of Jennifer Daugherty
- Murder of Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Pena
- Murder of Junko Furuta
- Murder of Kelly Anne Bates
- Murder of Suzanne Capper
- Theresa Knorr
- The Girl Next Door
- An American Crime
- Avenging Sylvia; Time Magazine, 27 May 1966
- Addenda to De Sade; Time Magazine, 6 May 1966
- The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: Foster Care; Crime Library.com
- The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: Foster Care; Crime Library.com
- The murder of Sylvia Likens; Indianapolis Star, Library Factfiles.
- The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: A Dubious Start; Crime Library.com
- ; Sylvia Likens.com
-  Jenny Fay Likens
- The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: The Letter Before End; Crime Library.com
- The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: Drama in the Court Room; Crime Library.com
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- The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens: In Memoriam; Crime Library.com
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- "Anna R. Siscoe Smith (1951 - 1996) - Find A Grave Memorial". Find A Grave. Retrieved 2015-03-15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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- Sylvia Likens' older sister vanishes in California
- "Elderly missing couple found in California, husband dead". globalnews.ca. Retrieved 2015-05-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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- Broeske, Pat H. A Midwest Nightmare, Too Depraved to Ignore; New York Times, 14 January 2007
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- Laurel Fredrickson, "Trap: Kate Millett, Japan, Fluxus and Feminism". Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Volume 19, Issue 3, 2009
- The Devil's Tale. Retrieved 2010-04-24.