Sylvia Marie Likens
Sylvia always smiled with her mouth closed, because she had a missing front tooth.
Sylvia and her mother, Betty
Sylvia was a normal, healthy sixteen-year-old girl prior to her final nightmarish sojourn in the Baniszewski house. By all accounts, she was a kind, helpful young lady with a deeply spiritual side. She enjoyed roller-skating, singing, and the music of the Beatles.
Jennifer “Jennie” Faye Likens
Jennie, fifteen years old, was too terrified of Gertrude and her clan–who threatened her with “the same treatment as Sylvia” if she told anyone what was going on in the Baniszewski house–to get help for her sister. She managed to make a life for herself after the horrors of 1965, but understandably, the memories haunted her always. She married and had children. She spearheaded the effort to keep Gertrude behind bars at the time of her parole hearing in 1985, but despite massive public support, she was unsuccessful. Jennie died in 2004.
During her trial, thirty-seven-year-old Gertrude consistently denied ever abusing Sylvia, more or less blaming her injuries on the children, whom she claimed must have acted up while she was asleep under the influence of prescription drugs. Nevertheless, she was sentenced to twenty years to life in the Indiana State Women’s Prison for the murder of Sylvia Likens. During her time there, she was described as a model prisoner. Other, younger inmates referred to her as “Mom”. She also apparently became a born-again Christian and received regular counseling from a visiting pastor. Following her parole in 1985, she changed her name to Nadine Van Fossen and moved to Iowa. She died in 1990, of lung cancer.
Paula, at seventeen the oldest of the Baniszewski children, acted as something of her mother’s lieutenant in the house of horror, and she accepted the role with relish. Like her mother, she received a sentence of twenty years to life for her part in Sylvia’s death. While incarcerated, she gave birth to a baby girl (initially named Gertrude) who was later adopted. She unsuccessfully attempted to escape from prison in 1971. In 1972, she was paroled. She eventually married and had children. Reportedly, she lives on a small farm in Iowa today.
Richard “Ricky” Hobbs
Ricky, fifteen years old, was a neighbor of the Baniszewski family. He, along with several other local thugs, joined in the “game” with Sylvia and was assigned the task of branding her with the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it”. I omitted this grotesque detail (along with many others) in my reimagining of the case. Ricky was convicted of manslaughter, but served only three years in the Indiana State Reformatory. He died of cancer in 1971.
John Baniszewski, Jr., (left) fourteen, during the trial, with fifteen-year-old Coy Hubbard, boyfriend of Stephanie Baniszewski. Coy practiced his judo moves on Sylvia, throwing her into walls and down the basement stairs. Allegedly, his malice toward Sylvia was based in rumors she had started at the local high school that Stephanie and Paula were prostitutes, in retaliation for the abuses that she was suffering in the Baniszewski household. This has never been entirely substantiated. Both Johnny and Coy were found guilty of manslaughter and received a sentence of two to twenty-one years in the Indiana State Reformatory. They were both released on parole in 1968. John later became the only publicly repentant member of his family. Coy went on to a life of further crime. He married and had children, later maintaining that he “never hurt Sylvia”. He died in 2007.
Gertrude and her daughter, Stephanie Baniszewski, fifteen, outside the courtroom. Stephanie was never brought to trial due to a lack of evidence as to her participation in the torture of Sylvia. House of Evil author John Dean, among others, paints her as the only friend Sylvia had in the Baniszewski house, aside from her own sister, Jennie. Whatever the truth may be, Stephanie did little to intervene in what was happening to her “friend”, and Jennie’s testimony revealed that she had even joined in the mistreatment of Sylvia on occasion. Stephanie suffered from seizures and blackouts and therefore, her memories of the summer and fall of 1965, then and now, may be faulty. She later became a schoolteacher in Florida, married, and had children. She continues to maintain her innocence to this day. She also claims that Coy Hubbard, her boyfriend at the time, never harmed Sylvia, despite all testimony to the contrary.
Eleven-year-old Marie provided perhaps the most dramatic moment of the trial, when she finally broke down under cross-examination and admitted that she had seen Gertrude abusing Sylvia; until then, she had followed her mother’s example of denying these allegations.
Shirley, ten, helped Ricky Hobbs with the branding of Sylvia.
Also in the house was eight-year-old Jimmy Baniszewski, who, along with Marie, Shirley, and Gertrude’s youngest child, Dennis, just months old at the time of the murder, went into foster care following the arrest of his mother and siblings.
Jimmy is reported to have commented in a post on the forum for An American Crime on the Internet Movie Database that “…the whole thing was exaggerated…Sylvia died just to piss Mom off”.
Dennis is happily married today, although according to his wife, he cannot bring himself to read or watch anything connected with Sylvia’s tragic death.
The defendants during the trial
Gertrude weeps during the reading of the verdict. At her side is her lawyer, William C. Erbecker.
Gertrude and Johnny say goodbye following their sentencing.
Gertrude Baniszewski at the time of her parole hearing in 1985, at which she stated “…I was on drugs…so I never really knew [Sylvia]…I accept full responsibility for what happened…” Despite these words, however, Gertrude is said to have still ultimately blamed her children for Sylvia’s death, merely admitting that she “…should have watched those kids better”.
The Baniszewski house, at 3850 East New York Street in Indianapolis
The house stood empty for many years, although there was some renovation done with the intent to turn it into a women’s shelter; this never happened. Tenants who rented there following the murder reported unexplainable phenomena, including seeing “a girl walking around”. The house was finally demolished in 2009, to make way for a parking lot for the church across the street. When individuals wishing to honor Sylvia’s memory approached the church about placing a memorial plaque on the site, they were told that the former house wasn’t Sylvia’s house, it was Mrs. Baniszewski’s house, and that since she accepted the Lord following her crime, they needed to just forgive and forget.
The bedroom where Sylvia was found
The Sylvia Likens Memorial, Willard Park, Indianapolis. The poem on it reads “I see a light, hope. I feel a breeze, strength. I hear a song, relief. Let them through, for they are the welcome ones.”
This memorial was erected in 2000. Footage of the dedication ceremony (which Jennie attended in honor of her sister) can be viewed here.
House of Evil, by John Dean
The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum
Justice from Within–Serving Time with Gertrude Baniszewski, by Gisele Veilleux
This is a brief but compelling recent addition to the numerous books about and inspired by the Likens case. An anonymous former inmate of the Indiana State Women’s Prison recounts her stay there, in the same unit as Gertrude, and offers fascinating anecdotes on her behavior and attitude toward her crime. Paula, who was also a resident of IWP at the time, is discussed at length as well.
3850 East New York Street today
Those wishing to learn more about the Sylvia Likens case may do so by visiting the following links. WARNING: the details related on these websites about the crime are often graphic and disturbing.
The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens
By Denise Noe
This is an online e-book which presents a very in-depth look at the case from beginning to end to aftermath.
A moving video tribute to Sylvia (CAUTION: Contains police photographs)
A video taken of the inside of the former Baniszewski house shortly before it was torn down. Very moving, very eerie.
The link to “For Sylvia Likens”, a very active online forum rich in thoughtful discussion and full of hard-to-find information about every aspect of her life and death, including newspaper articles, photographs, and the full transcripts of The State of Indiana vs. Baniszewski.
The trailer for the film An American Crime, starring Ellen Page and Catherine Keener
The trailer for the film The Girl Next Door, starring Blanche Baker
Episode of TV show, Deadly Women, devoted to Gertrude Baniszewski
An interesting blog article and photographs of the reconstruction of author and artist Kate Millett’s “The Trial of Sylvia Likens”, a life-sized diorama based on the case.
Information on the Facebook page of the Axis Theatre Company about their upcoming play, Down There, based on the Likens case, to be produced in New York in September, 2010.
Here is a 1965 radio broadcast of brief interviews with Ricky Hobbs and Gertrude Baniszewski following their arrests.
Sylvia’s favorite song was Shirley Bassey’s “Reach for the Stars”.
This song by Billy Joel seems an appropriate closing tribute to Sylvia and all children who have suffered as she did.