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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.

Gertrude Baniszewski

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 Baniszewski

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. 

Marie Baniszewski

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 Baniszewski

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 basement

 

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.

http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/young/likens/1.html

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.

http://forsylvialikens.yuku.com/directory

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

Part I

Part II

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.

http://dukelibrariesrbmscl.blogspot.com/2010/04/re-installing-basement.html

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.

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=118947671490928&ref=mf

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.

Comments
  1. Sharon Rose Black says:

    Hi Craig! Thanks for the tribute.

  2. Diana says:

    Awesome page I saw the movie & read the story online but couldn’t seem to find any pictures of the victim nor the ones who hurt her. I got to put a face to each one, Thank you.

  3. normal person says:

    Hope that sick murderer rots in HELL

  4. Dp says:

    Justice was hardly served in this case. I can’t understand what could cause a person to treat another human being like less than an animal, or for anyone to stand idly by while it happens.

  5. M says:

    Yesterday I saw a movie about this story. I was crying. I didn´t know that this story could be true. Unbelievable.

  6. Lisa C says:

    This is a very sad and heartbreakinng story. Its so sad to think someone can be so cruel. It really makes you think about life in general. I hope that Sylvia Likens is resting in peace. I think about her ever since I have followed this story. RIP angel.

  7. Robert C. from Germany says:

    R.I.P. Sylvia Marie Likens (1949 – 1965)

  8. amanda says:

    i watched the movie couple of days ago,i burst into tears at the end so so sad to think that human beings can turn on eachother so evil very sad to know its true story that poor girl god love her xx

  9. AOL says:

    How could anyone have ever EVER believed a thing that Gertrude “Gertie” said?! How?! Look at her!Listen to her. She is pure evil. And to set her free?!?! And her awful fat daughter should of rotted in prison as well, but no! They let her go too!

  10. bugbrennan says:

    I am re-reading The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice by Kate Millett, about this case. Thanks for this blog.

  11. Jill Patterson says:

    This is the most sickening child abuse case that I’ve heard of, that stupid bitch Paula I heard was teaching kids, she should of got the death penalty or life in prison along with Stephanie and the rest of the kids, Gertrude the so called mom should of FRIED, sick motherfucker, hope they all burn in HELL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!, RIP Sylvia aka Angel

  12. Jill Patterson says:

    And to top it all off, Paula names her daughter Gertrude, now that’s sick, plus her mug shot pictures she’s smirking, so much evil in the world, I’m not perfect and have faults like everyone else but this case really struck a nerve with me, Sylvia likens was about the same age as my mom when this happened, it’s horrifying, I wish that she would of escaped and got out, I know she’s in heaven with god and the angels, child abuse is one of the worst crimes, and don’t use that excuse I was abused as a child, it needs to stop!

  13.  acai berry says:

    It’s an awesome post designed for all the online users; they will obtain benefit from it I am sure.

  14. phillip says:

    I’m just so happy that its going to be a Resurection of the dead back to life (john 5:28, 29).. so silvia will be brought back to life with the propesct of living forever. The earth will be a paradise and she never agiain will have to worry about people trying to hurt her.. she will be reunited with her sister, father and mother..and the best thing is that it wont be a hollyowood ending but it will be the reality for all mankind who have died.. (Rev. 21:3, 4)

  15. jeremy says:

    the video of the inside of the house is mine. It was very creepy being inside there

  16. alison says:

    I don’t understand how any of the neighbors could just stand by and let this happen, they are just as guilty as the rest of them. They should have all been given the death penalty or at least life in prison. God rest Sylvia’s soul, her story will forever haunt me and remind me of the horrors of the world.

  17. valerie says:

    sylvia likens should always be rememberd forever. This was a good tribute to her. She will always be in all our hearts.She is in the arms of the jesus now.

  18. samraat says:

    INHUMAN CRIMINALS DESERVES INHUMAN PUNISHMENTS N TORTURE ONLY!!!
    MORE THAN THEY HAVE TORTURED!!
    THIS IS THE ONLY WAY OF STOPPING THESE KIND OF CRIMES….

  19. Mike K. Deutschland says:

    Kein Kind auf dieser Welt hat so zu leiden und gequält zu werden wie Sylvia ! Zerstört wurde ein Leben , durch Neid , Missgunst und Lügen .Für ein einfaches Mädchen waren diese Komponenten nicht zu übersehen .Das dann aber ihre Peiniger und Mörder nach einem Mord aus dem Gefängnis entlassen werden ist noch ein viel größeres
    Verbrechen . Die maßgeblichen Täter in diesem Fall sind heute so frei wie es Sylvia in ihrer Obhut nie war. Amerika schäme Dich deiner Justiz.

  20. Karl says:

    Just watched that film.Can,t believe that happened,sick gang of cunts hope there all dead r.i.p sylvia

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