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Tortured to Death: The Sylvia Likens Story

*****WARNING: Story includes graphic details of horrific child abuse*****



Sylvia Marie Likens (left) was born January 3rd, 1949, to Lester and Betty Likens. Lester and Betty already had twins, Danny and Diana, and would have another set of twins in 1950, Benny and Jenny. Sylvia, the middle child and only child without a twin, was very close with her sister Jenny. Her parents had marital issues and worked in a touring carnival, leading to lack of stability in the lives of the children. When Sylvia was sixteen, her parents decided to reconcile after separating, once again going on the road with the carnival.

Lester and Betty didn’t want to disrupt the girls’ lives again and decided that they would be better off staying in Indianapolis, Indiana, where they had been living with Betty. Too young to care for themselves at fifteen and sixteen, Jenny and Sylvia needed an adult to care for them while they finished school. After meeting the Baniszewski girls at church, they quickly made friends with Marie, Shirley, Stephanie, and Paula. When their mother, Gertrude Baniszewski, agreed to let the girls stay with her while her parents traveled, the arrangement was quickly solidified by Lester Likens.

Gertrude Baniszewski was a thirty-seven-year-old divorcee living with her children in a two-story house in Indianapolis. Gertrude had married John Baniszewski in 1945 and had four children: Paula, Stephanie, Johnnie, and Marie. They split briefly and Gertie, as she was called, lived with another man but that didn’t work out. Her and John reconciled and had two more children: Shirley and James. John and Gertie divorced in 1963. Gertie then lived with a man just a few years older than Paula, her oldest child, and bore a son, Dennis Wright Jr. She became pregnant again in 1965 but suffered a miscarriage in April of that year. Dennis Wright, Sr. left her, and Gertie was then raising seven children on her own.

Gertie was able to make some money doing ironing but was unable to work as she had to care for her children. Paula had a job, which brought some money to the family. Gertie also collected child support from Dennis Wright, Sr. and John Baniszewski, but the amounts were minimal and irregular. The family was living well below the poverty line. Gertrude had a significant amount of anxiety, diagnosed as a “nervous disorder” and also struggled with asthma. Although visibly short of breath often, she continued to be a heavy smoker. She weighed less than a hundred of pounds and appeared generally weak and fragile.


On July 5th, 1965, Lester Likens agrees to leave his teenage daughters, Jenny and Sylvia, with Gertrude Baniszewski (right) in exchange for $20 per week for boarding. At first, the girls enjoyed the company of the Baniszewski girls. They had fun together, talked about boys, and shared secrets. However, on July 11th, 1965, the second payment to Gertrude from Lester was late. Gertie was mad. She “punished” the girls by hitting them with a belt. By late July, Sylvia was punished by Gertie again for unknown reasons. This time, she got hit with a fraternity style paddle.

Late in July, Sylvia learned that Paula Baniszewski was pregnant. Months earlier, Paula had run off briefly with a married man and was now expecting. Paula, afraid to tell her mother, became infuriated when rumors began to swirl around town that she was pregnant. Paula placed the blame on Sylvia, claiming she was spreading vicious lies about Paula. Gertrude was upset about the rumors and decided Sylvia needed to be punished. She instructed her daughter Paula to hit Sylvia and “solve her own problems”. Paula hit Sylvia so hard she broke her own wrist on Sylvia’s jaw.

Later in August, Sylvia and Jenny gathered some bottles and turned them in for a little money. When the other children told their mother about this, Gertie insisted that they stole. Jenny, who was a polio victim and wore a brace on her leg, was not severely punished. Instead, she put the blame on Sylvia and burned her fingertips for having “sticky fingers”. During that month, the parents of Sylvia and Jenny visited their daughters but noticed nothing concerning. The girls were likely too afraid of punishment to tell their parents what was happening.

Gertrude was arrested in August of 1965 after she failed to pay the paperboy. This was minor compared to the monstrosities she was committing inside her own home. The family went to church regularly, but the teachings of the bible didn’t seem in effect in the Baniszewski home. Neighbors noticed that Paula was frequently hitting and abusing Sylvia at this point, often supported, and even cheered on by her mother. No one reported the abuse, however.

In September, the children all started school. Sylvia worked in the cafeteria at school, ensuring she gets a meal once per day. She was being starved at home. Daily, Paula and Gertie would hit Paula with the paddle, a leather belt, and other items. Gertrude called her a prostitute and told her that she must pregnant because she “messed with boys”. Gertrude told neighbors and Paula that Sylvia hadn’t had a period since she lived in the house because she was pregnant. If she was missing her periods, it was most likely because of the nutritional deficiencies she was experiencing as Sylvia was never pregnant.

Neighborhood children frequented the Baniszewski home and soon other children in the area began to have issues with Sylvia. A neighbor girl kicked her in the stomach and Sylvia shouted, “oh my baby”, seemingly believing what Gertie told her about being pregnant. Police visited in September when Marie, eleven, cut her hand. Who knows what story Gertrude told police, but most likely Marie injured herself while “punishing” Sylvia Likens. Johnnie, Paula, Shirley, and Marie all were helping to whip the girl and even burned her with cigarettes.

On October 5th, Lester and Betty visited once again and gave Sylvia money for shoes and instructed the girls they would return in three weeks. The next day was Sylvia’s last day at school. She was then forced to live in the basement for “being dirty” and was not allowed upstairs. Gertrude began bathing her in scalding hot water, causing severe burns to the girls’ skin. The other Baniszewski children assisted their mother with the exception of the baby, Dennis Jr. Gertie told the children that Sylvia deserved to be punished for wetting the bed. It was later determined she was experiencing incontinence for a kidney injury caused by the horrific abuse she experienced including being “judo flipped” by several kids for their entertainment.

On October 15th, a public health nurse visited the home after being informed that one of the children had “open sores”. The nurse spoke with Gertie who told her that Sylvia is the only one with open sores and that she had run away. The nurse decided that no follow up was needed and left. However, the incident infuriated Gertie who, as usual, took her anger out on Sylvia.

Sylvia was pushed down the stairs, bathed in scalding hot water, burned with cigarettes, beat with a paddle and belt, and punched in the face. The children, including neighborhood children, kicked her, beat her, and practiced “judo flips” with her. Coy Hubbard, Stephanie’s boyfriend, was one of the main participants at this point. Ricky Hobbs, another teenage neighbor, was hanging around the house frequently with Gertie. Some suspected there was a sexual relationship between the two. Other neighbors came over after school to “have fun with Sylvia” and the children took turns torturing the girl. Gertie knew about and encouraged the behavior.

On October 22nd, Johnnie gave Sylvia some soup. Sylvia was starving, so this seems like an act of mercy. However, he forced her to eat it with her fingers while the family laughed at her. The only other food that was given to Sylvia at this time was feces from the baby’s diaper and cups of urine. Insisting that Sylvia was a prostitute, Gertie forced the girl to insert a Pepsi bottle into her vagina on numerous occasions in October while the other children watched. If that wasn’t bad enough, she decided to brand Sylvia on October 23rd. She heated a needle and started the branding, but said she was too weak to finish. Ricky Hobbs completed the job, tattooing her with the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” on her abdomen.


Sylvia was forced to write two letters that detailed her “confessions” to being nothing but trouble. She was told to write that she stole things, disobeyed Gertie, costs Gertie money, and numerous other infractions. After she complete the letters, Coy Hubbard hit her with a broomstick in the head, knocking her unconscious. At this point, Gertie told Ricky Hobbs that they had to “get rid of” Sylvia. Ricky later stated he believed they were going to dump her in the woods somewhere to die.

On October 26th, the children found Sylvia not breathing and with no pulse. They panicked and started to scream. Gertie insisted that the girl was faking and was not dead. Ricky Hobbs called the police who quickly responded to the home. Sylvia Likens died October 26th, 1965, at the age of sixteen. Her official cause of death was a brain hemorrhage, malnutrition, and hypovolemic shock. Her battered body revealed over 150 wounds including burns, muscle damage, nerve damage, swollen vaginal tissue, fingernails broken backwards, and she had bitten through her lips (Sylvia’s Child Advocacy Center). Sylvia Likens was tortured to death.

Despite the letters Sylvia had been forced to write and Gertrude’s claims that Sylvia had been out “prostituting herself” and came home bruised and battered, the police realized quickly that this was a horrendous murder. Jenny Likens told police “You get me out of here and I’ll tell you everything” (Stall, 2015). Jenny told authorities about the torture and abuse in the Baniszewski home. The neighborhood children also told the authorities about the months of abuse inflicted on Sylvia at Gertrude’s insistence.

Six people were charged in Sylvia’s murder, with the death penalty sought against each. Charged were Gertrude Baniszewski, 37, Paula Baniszewski, 17, Stephanie Baniszewski, 15, Johnnie Baniszewski, 12, Coy Hubbard, 15, and Richard “Ricky” Hobbs, 14. However, before trial it was announced that Stephanie would be tried separate while the rest were charged together. Furthermore, Stephanie would testify against the rest of the defendants at their trial prior to her trial.

(Pictured: Ricky Hobbs (right) and Gertrude Baniszewski (left) being escorted to court)

There were many objections raised from the defendants and their lawyers including motions to separate the trials, motions to dismiss charges against juveniles, motions to change the venue due to media coverage, and other motions that were denied. Gertrude’s defense was that she was sick and in bed throughout most of the time Sylvia lived in the home and was unaware of the abuse. She placed the blame for the abuse on her children, claiming she was drugged with phenobarbital for her anxiety and unable to supervise the children. Her attorney claimed she was crazy, despite their own experts failing to find her mentally unfit or insane.

Paula’s attorney defended her by stating that the extreme poverty the family lived in caused built up resentment and anger. Sylvia was the unfortunate target of the anger, but he claimed that poverty was the real reason why Sylvia had been murdered. Johnnie and Coy shared an attorney and he presented the defense that Coy and Johnnie were too young to be tried for murder and were unable to appreciate their actions. Ricky Hobbs’ defense centered around his mother, who died of cancer the same day as Sylvia died, and the influence of Gertrude over him. The attorneys for the boys claimed that the boys were guilty of assault, but not murder.

Gertrude Baniszewski was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Paula Baniszewski was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Johnnie and Coy were both found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 2-21 years in prison. Richard Hobbs was also found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 2-21 years in prison. Johnnie was the youngest person sent to prison in the state of Indiana at that time. He was twelve.

Stephanie Baniszewski never faced trial as a grand jury declined to indict her. Johnnie, Coy, and Richard Hobbs each served two years and were released on parole. Ricky Hobbs died of lung cancer at age twenty-one. John Baniszewski went to live with his father, changing his last name to Blake. When he grew up, he became a minister and talked about the murder occasionally. He showed true remorse for his role. He died in 2005 at age 52. Coy Hubbard remained in Indiana. He was eventually tried for another murder in 1982 but was acquitted. After the movie An American Crime premiered in 2007 about the case, Coy (below) was fired from his job and died a few months later.




Paula (left) gave birth shortly before her conviction to a baby girl that she named Gertrude, but the child was put up for adoption. By 1971, Paula had attempted to escape from prison once. However, she was granted a new trial based on appeals claiming the first trial jury was affected by a prejudicial atmosphere and that the defendants should have been tried separately. This time she chose to plead guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 2-21 years in prison. On December 2nd, 1971, Paula escaped prison again only to be recaptured December 20th of the same year. Unbelievably, she was granted parole in 1974.



Gertrude Baniszewski was also granted a new trial in 1971. She went to trial again and was once again found guilty of first-degree murder. This time she is sentenced to life in prison, sparing her the death penalty. In prison, she changed her name to Nadine Van Fossan. She became a “model prisoner” and was known as “mom” to other prisoners. In 1976 she was denied parole but told reporters that she loved being in prison because she got a nice bed, meals, and television access. In 1985, however, she was granted parole despite an outpouring of victim rights advocates protesting her release. President Reagan was also contacted but stated he was powerless to affect the case. She died January 16th, 1990, in Iowa of lung cancer. (Gertrude pictured below in her later years)


The younger Baniszewski children were not charged and were raised by their father. Dennis Wright, Jr. was adopted by another family. Jenny Likens was left again by her parents, this time with the deputy prosecutor in her sister’s murder case. This time, however, she was given a nice life and stable home. She died in 2004 of a heart attack.

In 2012, Iowa teacher’s aide Paula Pace was fired after 14 years of service when an anonymous tip led the school to learn Paula’s true identity. Paula was Paula Baniszewski, who had changed her name and lied about her criminal history on her job application in 1998.


In another weird twist, Diana Bedwell, older sister of Sylvia Likens, was found stranded in the wilderness in 2015. She and her husband of twenty-five years had gotten lost in the California backcountry and were stranded for two weeks. Her husband, a diabetic, died before Diana was rescued. The couple were listed as missing persons for two weeks.

Sylvia Likens was an innocent child who was targeted by Gertrude Baniszewski as the focus for her frustrations. Gertrude had a terrible life, crippled by poverty and parental responsibilities and without a husband. She was likely jealous of young Sylvia who as pretty and kind. When Paula became pregnant, Gertrude likely resented that Sylvia was still virtuous and her daughter would not be considered so as an unwed mother. Regardless of what her motive may have been, Gertrude demonstrated pure evil in the recruitment and encouragement of her children to perform evil and heinous acts of torture.

This case has fascinated true crime fans, lawyers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and many others because of the effects of mob mentality. The neighborhood kids made entertainment out of torturing another child. Why didn’t anyone speak up? Why didn’t neighbors report the screams they heard from the Baniszewski home? Why didn’t Sylvia and Jenny tell their parents or someone else about the abuse? Why didn’t they try to escape?

As a result of this case, the Sylvia’s Child Advocacy Center was formed in her legacy. The case also led to changes in laws in the state of Indiana, including the introduction of the mandated reporter law. This law requires anyone suspecting child abuse to report to law enforcement. Although her life cannot be given back, perhaps her legacy can save another child’s life.






References

Sylvia’s Child Advocacy Center (2021) Sylvia Likens and “Indiana’s most terrible crime”; Retrieved at: Sylvia Likens and “Indiana’s most terrible crime” - Sylvia's CAC (sylviascac.org)

Stall, Sam (2015) Looking back on Indiana’s most infamous crime, 50 years later; Indianapolis Monthly; Retrieved at: The Murder of Sylvia Likens 50 Years Later – Indianapolis Monthly

Clarke-Billings, L. (2015) Dianna Bedwell: Older sister of young girl murdered 50 years ago found alive after being stranded in the desert; Independent; Retrieved at: Dianna Bedwell: Older sister of young girl murdered 50 years ago found alive after being stranded in the desert | The Independent | The Independent

Fox News (2012) Iowa teacher aide fired after school officials learn of role in 1965 killing; Fox News; Retrieved at: Iowa teacher aide fired after school officials learn of role in 1965 killing | Fox News

In Memory of Sylvia Likens (2013) Timeline of events in Sylvia’s life; Retrieved at: In Memory of Sylvia Marie Likens: Timeline of events in Sylvia's life (fortheloveofsylvia.blogspot.com)

An American Crime (2007) An American Crime; Movie available at: An American Crime - YouTube

Dean, John (2008) House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying; St. Martin’s True Crime Library; Available at: House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying (St. Martin's True Crime Library): Dean, John: 9780312946999: Amazon.com: Books

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