How mob mentality led to the torture-murder of an Indiana teen
This article discusses child abuse, torture, sexual abuse, and murder in sometimes graphic detail.
Sylvia Marie Likens, born on January 3, 1949, was the third child of Lester and Elizabeth Likens. She had four siblings, an older set of twins, Dianna and Daniel, and a younger set of twins, Jenny and Benny.
Sylvia was sweet sixteen in 1965. She loved rollerskating and the Beatles. Sylvia had long, wavy, brown hair and a bright smile despite missing a front tooth due to an accident with her brother. Her family called her “Cookie.”
Sylvia cared for her little sister Jenny, who had a limp leg due to Polio. She enjoyed spending her babysitting money on trips to the skating rink with Jenny. Sylvia fastened one skate to Jenny’s sturdy foot and held her hand so she could skate with the other kids.
In 1965, Sylvia met Paula and Stephanie Baniszewski at Arsenal Technical High School. On June 3, 1965, Sylvia’s mother was arrested for shoplifting. Lester sold concessions at carnivals and usually took the boys with him, but could not bring his daughters. Since the Likens and Baniszewski girls got along, Lester decided to send Sylvia and Jenny to live with Gertrude. He agreed to pay $20 each week for their board and care. Gertrude promised to care for the girls as if they were her own.
The Baniszewski Family
Gertrude Baniszewski (née Von Fossan) was born on September 19, 1928. She married John Stephan Baniszewski at 16 years old. The couple had four children together. John became physically violent toward Gertrude, and she divorced him in ten years.
Weeks later, she married Edward Guthrie. He, too, turned out to be abusive, and they divorced within months. Gertrude remarried her first husband, had two more children and divorced for the 2nd time.
Next, Gertrude met 22-year-old Dennis Lee Wright, and the unwed couple had one son together, Dennis Jr, in 1965. Dennis abandoned Gertrude and the baby. She filed a paternity suit against him, though she never saw a penny.
By 1965, Gertrude was a haggard, chain-smoking, single mom of seven living in squalor at 3850 East New York Street in Indianapolis, Indiana, for $55 a month.
Initially, the Baniszewski family treated Sylvia and Jenny kindly, as promised. The Likens and Baniszewski girls spent time singing popular songs and gossipping about boys.
The Baniszewski home was the kind neighborhood children would come and go from as they pleased. They could get away with things their parents wouldn’t allow. Smoking, drinking, even raunchy sex talk happened before Gertrude’s eyes.
Gertrude’s 13th pregnancy had just ended in her 6th miscarriage. She was tired and looked twice her 31 years. To add to her full plate, 17-year-old was pregnant by a married man.
Sylvia and Jenny shared a bedroom with 11-year-old Marie, 10-year-old Shirley, and 8-year-old Jimmy Baniszewski. The room had one mattress on the floor that five children took turns sleeping in.
Regretfully, Lester Likens never stepped foot in the home of the woman they hired to care for their daughters. If they had, they would have noticed there weren’t enough beds. The house had a hotplate where the stove should have been. Gertrude was in no position to take in children.
Gertrude was suffering for money. Without the weekly $20, she had no way to feed all nine children and still pay rent. She was glad Mr. Likens paid $20 upfront. But when the future payments arrived late, or not at all, she became enraged.
The Likens sisters became the object of Gertrude’s contempt. After the first late payment, she dragged Jenny up the stairs and whipped her with a leather belt. “Well, I took care of you two bitches for a week for nothing!” she growled.
The money arrived in the mail the day after the first spanking. Sylvia and Jenny’s parents came a few days later and gave another advanced payment. The sisters said nothing of the beating.
When Gertrude learned that Sylvia was recycling pop bottles for cash, she cut loose on her with a quarter-inch wooden paddle. She hit her repeatedly across the back and head. When Gertrude became weak due to chronic bronchitis, she handed the paddle to Paula.
The abuse increased in frequency and severity. Gertrude may have felt sorry for Jenny due to her fragility, because by August of 1965, Gertrude concentrated her outbursts on Sylvia.
Sylvia admitted she had a boyfriend in California. Gertrude was disgusted and so was her daughter Paula who repeatedly kicked Sylvia in her vaginal area and accused her of being pregnant.
Not only was she subjected to beatings, but Gertrude also started abusing Sylvia with food. Sylvia began to forage for food in dumpsters. When Gertrude caught Sylvia, she, Paula, and a neighbor child named Randy Lepper forced her to eat a hot dog loaded with copious amounts of condiments, and spices. When Sylvia threw up, the trio made her eat the vomit.
The girls returned to school in the fall, which pleased their father. Gertrude accused Sylvia of spreading rumors that Paula and Stephanie were prostitutes. Gertrude admonished the girls in front of her own children and their friends. Stephanie’s 15-year-old boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, attacked Sylvia in response. Stephanie snickered as Gertrude taunted Sylvia by calling her filthy names.
Gertrude accused Sylvia of steeling gym clothes. As punishment, she burnt her fingertips with a lit match, while screaming that she hated Sylvia and how she was ruining her life.
Somehow, the subject turned to Sylvia’s alleged promiscuity. “You should never do anything with a boy until you are married,” Gertrude cautioned. Sylvia replied she hadn’t, which only infuriated Gertrude. “You should never…!” Gertrude shrieked as she kicked Sylvia’s pubic area repeatedly.
Kicking Sylvia did not satiate Gertrude. She made Sylvia strip naked and insert a glass cola bottle into her vagina while her child accomplices watched and laughed.
Sylvia’s parents checked on their daughters on October 5. Again, they kept their secret, afraid of making it worse. As abusers do, Gertrude banned them from seeing their sister, Dianna, who lived nearby. Gertrude alienated them from anyone who cared. Paula once held the door open and dared Sylvia to “Get away, and stay away.” Sylvia had nowhere to go.
Sylvia’s last day of school was October 6, the day after her parents’ visit. Gertrude told the school Sylvia had no interest in going and pretended to be concerned. In reality, Gertrude banned Sylvia to the cold basement.
Coy became one of Sylvia’s primary attackers. He enjoyed body slamming Sylvia forcefully onto the concrete basement, and tying her up for days at Gertrude’s urging.
Kids from the school visited the residence and participated in Sylvia’s torture. Gertrude, the ringleader, coached them step by step.
Nothing was off-limits. If the children wanted to practice judo, Gertrude had them practice on Sylvia. Some kids put cigarettes out on Sylvia’s skin to hear her cry. Gertrude would bathe Sylvia in scalding hot water until her skin blistered.
Paula once beat Sylvia’s face until she broke her wrist. Doctors put a cast on her arm while Paula bragged about exactly how she broke it. When she got home, she continued to hit Sylvia with her cast.
Gertrude used a needle to carve the letter “I” into the flesh of Sylvia’s abdomen. Unable to finish the full statement, she encouraged her 15-year-old neighbor Richard Hobbs to complete the task. “I am a prostitute and proud of it,” he etched on her belly. Gertrude helped him spell “prostitute.”
At Gertrude’s request, Richard heated a metal hook and attempted to brand the letter “S” on Sylvia’s chest, but instead branded her with the number “3.” Gertrude’s justified it by saying Sylvia branded her child, and now she branded Sylvia. “What are you going to do now? You can’t get married now,” Gertrude taunted.
Sylvia whimpered, “I guess there’s nothing I can do.”
Coy returned and tied Sylvia up in the basement, where he slammed her frail body into the wall over and over.
Gertrude finally broke Sylvia’s spirit. “Jenny,” she consoled her baby sister, “I know you don’t want me to die. But I’m going to die. I can tell.” Her voice was weak and trembling.
The beatings made Sylvia incontinent. Sylvia started to lose control of her limbs too. Gertrude knew Sylvia was taking a turn for the worse, so she permitted Sylvia to sleep on the mattress in the upstairs bedroom.
After giving her a lukewarm bath, she condemned her back to the basement and forced her to write a letter:
“To Mr. and Mrs. Likens:
I went with a gang of boys in the middle of the night. And they said that they would pay me I would give them something so I got in the car and they all got what they wanted . . . and when they got finished they beat me up and left sores on my face and all over my body.
And they also put on my stomach, I am a prostitute and proud of it.
I have done just about everything that I could do just to make Gertie mad and cause [sic] Gertie more money than she’s got. I’ve tore up a new mattress and peaed [sic] on it. I have also cost Gertie doctor bills that she really can’t pay and made Gertie a nervous wreck and all her kids . . .”
That night, Sylvia heard Gertrude and her children making plans to dump her in the woods. In a last-ditch effort, Sylvia tried to run. But Gertrude caught Sylvia, dragged her inside, and attempted to feed her toast. Sylvia didn’t have the strength to eat. Gertrude struck her face with a curtain rod. Her son, John, returned her to the basement.
John tied Sylvia’s wrists to the basement railing. Her toes barely touched the ground. Gertrude shoved crackers into Sylvia’s parched mouth. Sylvia told her she wasn’t hungry and suggested she feed them to the dog. Gertrude then punched Sylvia in her belly. John force-fed her the contents of baby Denny’s diaper as well as her own feces.
October 25, Gertrude, Cody, and John beat Sylvia until she lost consciousness when Gertrude stomped on her head. When she came to, she gathered up enough strength to bang on the basement floor and walls, hoping someone would help her. No one came.
On the morning of October 26, 1965, Gertrude and Stephanie bathed Sylvia. During her bath, Sylvia stopped breathing. The Baniszewskis were terrified. Not because they cared, because they would be caught. Stephanie tried unsuccessfully to revive her with CPR. Gertrude placed Sylvia’s broken body back on the mattress and instructed Richard to call the cops.
Gertrude handed the police Sylvia’s letter. She told them Sylvia ran away recently and returned injured, clutching the note. Gertrude feigned grief and claimed she was “doctoring” Sylvia.
The officers rounded the hall corner to find Sylvia’s emaciated form lying lifeless on that soiled mattress. Deputy Coroner Arthur Kebel noted that Sylvia’s lips were practically chewed through. All ten of her fingernails were bent backward and broken. She had hundreds of wounds on her skin, all of them in different stages of healing, suggesting on-going trauma. Dr. Charles Ellis performed the autopsy. The cause of death was Torture.
The police asked Jenny what happened, and she parrotted what Gertrude said, but added, “You get me out of here, and I will tell you everything.”
Gertrude was convicted of first-degree murder. Paula was convicted of second-degree murder. They each received a life sentence, but after a 2nd trial, Paula pled down to manslaughter and was released two years later. Gertrude was paroled in 1985. She claimed she had no memory of her actions. She died four years later of lung cancer. If there is a devil in hell, he is currently roasting the old bat over hot coals.
Paula moved to Iowa, where she secured a new identity and a job at an elementary school.
Stephanie married, had several children, and became a school teacher.
Jenny Likens married and had children of her own. She lived long enough to read Gertrude’s obituary, which she mailed to her mother with a letter that read, “Some good news. Damn old Gertrude died. Ha ha ha! I am happy about that.”
The death of Sylvia Likens continues to haunt Indianapolis as the worst crime ever committed in the state. Prosecutor Leroy New said it best:
“This case has never had it’s equal. It is the most vicious thing, the most hideous thing, Indiana has ever seen.”
The house sat empty for decades before it was leveled. It is now a church parking lot. A memorial dedicated to Sylvia’s memory stands in Willard Park, where Sylvia used to play.