"Jenny, I know you don't want me to die. But I am going to die. I can tell it."
-Sylvia Likens to her sister Jenny
It was the 26th of October 1965. A Tuesday. Police received a call from fifteen year old Richard Hobbs. He told them that he believed a girl was dead. Police arrived at 3850 East New York Street, Indianapolis, United States. It was the home of thirty seven year old Gertrude Baniszewski. She was a single mother of seven children, ranging in age from eighteen months to seventeen years old. But it wasn't Gertrude or any of her seven children that needed police assistance . It was a girl called Sylvia Likens.
Richard was a neighbor of the Baniszewski family. After he called police, they arrived at Gertrude's house and discovered the emaciated body of sixteen year old Sylvia Likens.Her body was found in one of the bedrooms. Gertrude told police that Sylvia had been attacked by a gang of boys. She showed police a note written in Sylvia's writing outlining what had happened to her. But police were suspicious. Sylvia's body was covered in cuts and bruises, some of which looked like they had been inflicted some time ago.
Police discovered that Sylvia and her younger sister, fifteen year old Jenny Likens, were staying with Gertrude while her parents were working out of town at the carnival. Their parents, Lester and Betty Likens, asked Gertrude to look after their two daughters for a few months and they would pay her $20 per week. Gertrude was more than happy to take the girls in for money as she was struggling to pay bills.
The Likens family were a poor family too. Lester and Betty had five children. Their eldest daughter Diana was married with children of her own and their two boys, Danny and Bennie, were staying with their grandparents so they only needed help with their other two children, Sylvia and Jenny. They met Gertrude through her daughter Paula. Gertrude's daughter Paula invited the girls to the house and when Lester arrived to collect them, he asked Gertrude to help. An arrangement was made. Lester and Betty would pay Gertrude $20 a week and she would look after the girls, feed them and allow them to stay in the house. The girls went to stay there in July 1965 and their parents would collect their daughters in November 1965.
Police began an investigation. Jenny told them everything. They discovered that Sylvia had sustained the injuries inside of Gertrude's home. They discovered that the first week that Sylvia and Jenny stayed with Gertrude, things were good. They were not fed well, in fact Gertrude only kept bread and crackers in the house, but they enjoyed going to school and Church and playing outside. That quickly changed when Gertrude did not receive her check from Lester and Betty for the $20. She was furious that she had "looked after them for nothing." As a punishment, she forced the girls into the bedroom and began beating them with a paddle. That was the beginning of the end for Sylvia.
Gertrude was underweight, had asthma and was very frail but she ruled by fear and she had two weapons that she used for punishment. Gertrude had a fraternity style paddle and a thick leather belt that had been owned by her ex-husband, John Baniszewski, an Indianapolis police officer.
When Gertrude began beating the girls, Sylvia told her she would take Jenny's punishment too. Jenny had a limp from childhood polio. Even though she was just slightly younger than Sylvia, she was far more timid and quiet. Sylvia was a popular and attractive girl and was confident and sassy.
Gertrude began to focus on Sylvia completely and after that first beating, Sylvia was punished constantly, for things she had no control over and for things she didn't do. There were a number of things that Gertrude didn't like about her. She was jealous of her popularity and good looks. Gertrude had once been able to get her way by being overtly sexual around men but that was no longer the case. She hated that men liked to look at Sylvia.
On one occasion, Sylvia was accused of stealing but she didn't steal anything. She had collected bottles and exchanged them at a grocery store for money. Gertrude didn't believe her. She used matches and cigarettes to burn her.
If Gertrude didn't have the strength to punish Sylvia as much as she wanted to, she made her oldest daughter, seventeen year old Paula do it. Paula did so willingly. Paula punched Sylvia so hard in the face that she broke her wrist. Paula was also jealous of Sylvia and she blamed her for people finding out that she was pregnant with a married man's baby. They made Sylvia undress and insert an empty bottle into her vagina.
The abuse escalated and on one occasion, Gertrude forced Sylvia to lie in a tub of hot water. Gertrude held her hair and slammed her head against the tub. That became another form of punishment. Sylvia would be forced to get into a tub of scalding hot water whenever Gertrude wanted her to.
After a few weeks of beatings and being tortured, Sylvia was forced to remain in the basement .Gertrude said that as Sylvia wet the bed, she would have to remain down in the basement as she could not live with her children. But the reality was that the beatings, torture, the neglect, the stress and getting little to no food or water caused Sylvia to be incontinent.
When Sylvia was in the basement, the abuse continued and intensified.
Gertrude was irate when she was told that Sylvia had spread rumors at school that Paula and Stephanie were prostitutes. She went to the basement with a sewing needle and stated that as Sylvia had branded her children, she would brand her. One of Sylvia's children, ten year old Marie, heated the needle and Gertrude began marking words on Sylvia's stomach. Due to her failing health, she couldn't continue and asked her neighbor, Richard Hobbs, to finish it. He carved the words that Gertrude told him to on to Sylvia's stomach:
"I'm a prostitute and proud of it."
Sylvia begged him to stop. She pleaded with him. But he didn't.
During the period of Sylvia's abuse, over a three month period, Jenny was too afraid to tell anyone about it as she thought it would make things worse. She told her older sister Diana about it once and when Diana called to the house, Gertrude wouldn't let her inside. So Diana contacted social services. When they showed up at the house, Gertrude forced Jenny to tell her that Sylvia had run away. The social worker left and no further action was taken.
Sylvia was no longer allowed to leave the house. She couldn't go to school or Church.
Gertrude and three of her children, seventeen year old Paula , fifteen year old Stephanie and twelve year old John, were charged with first degree murder. Their neighbor, fifteen year old Richard Hobbs and fifteen year old Coy Hubbard were also charged. Coy was Stephanie's boyfriend. They all pleaded not guilty. Gertrude pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
Stephanie was granted a special Trial. All charges against her were dropped in exchange for her testifying against her family.
Gertrude claimed she didn't remember the abuse and her children must have abused Sylvia. She said that on the day Sylvia died, she had taken so many pills, such as phenobarbital and other medication, that she could not remember what happened that day.
At the Trial, further details of the horror that Sylvia had suffered were revealed and Jenny testified about the abuse. The Deputy Coroner, Charles R. Ellis, noted that Sylvia had likely suffered intense pain as her lips were "essentially in shreds" as a result of her chewing on them. All of her fingernails were broken backward. There were numerous deep cuts and round, dark punctures all over Sylvia's body. Her face, on the left side,was discolored from the loss of skin. She was undernourished, scarred and punctured and a Doctor described the injuries as the "work of a mad man." There were more than 150 wounds on her body.
The Trial revealed that Sylvia suffered violent and sustained beatings and torture. When she wet her mattress when she was asleep , she was burned and suffered a severe beating. It was then that she was forced to stay in the basement. But it wasn't just Gertrude and Paula who were abusive. Gertrude's other children and children from the neighborhood took part in the abuse. Children would go down to the basement and watch Sylvia being abused and tortured. Some took part. Some of them practiced judo moves and threw her body against a wall , others kicked her and extinguished their cigarettes on her skin. When she had open wounds and cuts, they rubbed salt in them. She was forced to eat faeces , vomit and drink urine. She was tied up at times in the basement but her body had suffered so much violence that even when she wasn't, she could not move anyway.
When Sylvia's body could finally take no more and it looked like she wouldn't make it, Gertrude forced her to write a note stating that a gang of boys had beaten her. Sylvia overheard them discussing leaving her in the woods to die and even though her body had no strength at all, she managed to make it upstairs in an attempt to escape. She was caught and thrown back down into the basement. With every ounce of fight she had left in her, Sylvia screamed for help. Neighbors would later report that they heard the screams but did not report it or help. Hours later, Sylvia was dead.
The cause of death was determined to be brain swelling, internal hemorrhaging of the brain and shock induced by Sylvia's extensive skin damage. She suffered from extreme malnutrition.
Gertrude was found guilty of first degree murder and Paula Baniszewski was found guilty of second degree murder. Richard, John and Coy were found guilty of manslaughter.
Richard and Gertrude
In 1971, the Indiana Supreme Court granted Gertrude and Paula a new trial due to "prejudicial atmosphere. "
Instead of facing Trial for a second time, Paula pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Gertrude had a second Trial and was found guilty of first degree murder again. She was sentenced to life in prison.
Paula received a sentence of 2 to 21 years in prison and was paroled in 1972. She changed her name to Paula Pace.
The three boys were paroled in 1968. They served two years in prison. John changed his name to John Blake. He died of cancer in 2005. Coy was tried for another murder in 1982 but was acquitted. He died in 2007. Richard died of cancer in 1972. He was twenty one years old.
Gertrude was paroled in 1985, moved to Iowa and changed her name to Nadine Van Fossa. She died of lung cancer in 1990.
Sylvia Likens suffered horrific abuse at the hands of the woman who was supposed to be her care giver. But there was a wide circle of people that contributed to Sylvia's death from the people who took part in the abuse:Paula, John, Richard, Coy, Stephanie and some of the neighborhood children to the people who didn't want to get involved and chose to turn a blind eye. Neighbors told police afterwards that they heard screams and someone calling for help but not a single person decided to do anything about it. Some even saw Sylvia in the back yard with a black eye and she was at school with bruises and cuts but nobody at all wanted to get involved. Instead Sylvia was left to endure horrific abuse until her body could not fight any longer. Even her own parents, who had left her with a stranger, didn't examine the house or try to find out what Gertrude was really like before leaving their daughters with her.
When the murder Trial was due to begin, every morning there was a big crowd outside trying to get one of the fifty seats available. The Judge would sometimes allow a further one hundred people to stand in the Court room but there still wasn't enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to watch the Trial. One Attorney who witnessed the crowds at the Municipal Court 6 summed it up perfectly when he said:
"If some of these people had been this concerned about Sylvia earlier, she probably would be alive today."
Sylvia’s case is credited with Indiana’s Mandated Reporter law. The law now requires everyone in Indiana, regardless of age or profession, to report any suspicion of child abuse to law enforcement.
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