The Sylvia Likens Story

I plan to do this case a little different than the others.  For one, it is an older case (1965 to be exact).  Secondly, if I were to do it like I normally do I am not sure too much would be under disputed facts.  Most importantly, for me, maybe because it happened in my hometown, or maybe because it was such a horrible and uncalled for crime, I want this to be about remembering Sylvia and what happened to her, as well about the time period, and less about the abusers in her case.

Sylvia Marie Likens was born January 3, 1949.  After being beaten and tortured over a period of about three months by Gertrude Baniszewski (pronounced Ban-E-chess-ski), her children and even neighborhood children Sylvia died October 26, 1965 in the Baniszewski home at the age of 16 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

I grew up in Indianapolis, moving there in 1976 when I was 4.  I first remember hearing about this case in 1985 when Gertrude Baniszewski became eligible for parole.  My dad had lived most of his childhood in Indianapolis and was in high school when Sylvia died. Her parole hearing caused an uproar in the community and brought the story back to the forefront and I was told about the story.

Over the years there have been a few books and movies loosely based on this story aside from one "An American Crime" with Catherine Keener as Gertrude Baniszewski and  Ellen Page as Sylvia.  The show "Deadly Women featured the story once and former Indianapolis Star reporter, John Dean wrote the book "House of Evil" during the trial and in later years expanded it and was re-released.

There are people who blame the neighbors of the Baniszewski's for not reporting things they heard to the police, believing that Sylvia could have been saved.  I always try to remember these people that a) it was a very different world in 1965 than what we live in now, things like this did not happen and b) neighbors minded their own business.  We could sit and argue the issue of the spanking of our children all we want.  It does not matter if you believe in it or not... in 1965 it was done. The neighbors in the area would hear screams and cries coming from the home.  From the outside what they saw was a very poor, single mother, with 7 children of her own.  Her ex-husband, John Baniszewski was a police officer and the father of her 6 oldest children.   Her youngest child's father, Dennis Wright was much younger that Gertrude and by all appearances disappeared after Dennis Jr's birth.   There was much speculation as to what role John Baniszewski played in the lives of his children after the divorce.  Some reports say that he was still close to at least some of his children and paid child support, but avoiding Gertrude as much as possible, while other reports say he had little to do with them and did not support them financially. Most reports do agree that the Baniszewski marriage was a volatile one and that John avoided Gertrude at all costs after, never entering the home, seeing the condition.

Sylvia was the third child of five, born in between two sets of twins.  Diane and Danny were two years older and Jenny and Benny were a year younger. Their parents, Lester and Betty, often worked with carnivals and they moved often.  Lester and Betty Likens also had their share of marriage and legal trouble. It appears that while the boys often accompanied their parents on jobs, the girls were often "boarded" or left with family members, on the premises they needed their education. In July 1965, Betty got into some legal trouble and although they were separated she and Lester decided to work on their marriage and to which they would be out working the carnival circuit.   Sylvia and Jenny had met some of the Baniszewski children at a local church and had become friends with them.  Lester asked Gertrude if she would be willing to board the two girls for $20 a week.

At the murder trial Lester was questioned about the condition of the Baniszewski home and why he allowed them to stay in those conditions. In a sign of the times it appears, just as the neighbors did not pry into Gertrude's business, neither did Lester.  From outward appearances the Baniszewski children appeared to be taken care of and disciplined properly.... well so he said after the fact.

It appears that the abuse began when Gertrude believed that she would not get the money Lester promised when the first week arrived a few days late.  By all accounts most of the abuse was leveled at Sylvia.  It is unclear as to whether some of it was because Sylvia was trying to protect her sister, who suffered from polio, and in the beginning accepted most of the abuse to which Gertrude then focused on her or if Jenny's disability played any role in the fact that Jenny was not abused such as Sylvia.

Gertrude would accuse Sylvia of stealing things from stores, doing things she did not do, lying to other people and telling untrue stories and focused very much on calling Sylvia a whore when Sylvia had said she had previously had a boyfriend.  At one point Gertrude became aware that there was a story circulating surrounding her oldest daughter Paula.  It was being said that Paula, who was around 17 was pregnant.  Whether Gertrude was actually told by someone else that Sylvia was the one who said it or it was in fact Gertrude who told people that Sylvia had started the rumor is unclear.  Reality of it is, Paula was in fact pregnant.... again, with the times, an unmarried, teenager who was pregnant was something that brought shame and was often regarded as a lack of parenting issue.  Now, of course in this case it likely cannot be argued that there was a lack of parenting and discipline in the Baniszewski home, at least when it came to her children.   Gertrude apparently had no issue disciplining  other people's children.  But again, it was 1965, instead of seeing her as allowing her children to run wild, be bullies, and generally disrespectful (aside from apparently her daughter Stephanie) she was looked upon with sympathy and pity.

One can, in a sense, understand how Gertrude was able to get her own children to help torture Sylvia but it has never been completely clear how she was able to convince other teenagers to do it also.  The torture included beating Sylvia, putting cigarettes out on her, and on at least one occasion forcing a glass Coke bottle into her vagina.  It was reported she was forced to consume feces and urine.  Prior to her death due to the torture and malnutrition Sylvia's body began to shut down which caused her bladder and kidney to fail.  When this began happening Sylvia was placed in the basement of the home.  Of course Sylvia could not go to school during this time and when asked about her by school authorities as well as a local minister (and likely anyone else who did not know the truth) Gertrude stated that Sylvia had run away.  A few days before she died Gertrude began carving "I'm a prostitute and proud of it!" onto Sylvia's stomach with a needle.  Reportedly she did not get very far and had teenager, Richard Hobbs finish it for her.  The number 3 was also burned into Sylvia's chest.

Ultimately Sylvia died of a "brain hemorrhage, shock and malnutrition" in the  home.  As she was dying it has been reported that Stephanie Baniszewski begged her mother to call an ambulance for help for Sylvia.  She was moved from the basement of the home into an upstairs bedroom where she ultimately died. Richard Hobbs ran to a pay phone and called the police.  When they arrived Gertrude gave them a letter she had forced Sylvia to write a few days before to her parents all but stating she had left with some boys and that they had done all these things to her.  This was Gertrude's "insurance policy" she thought to explain the injuries and it went with the story she had told others about her running away.  However, while the police were there Jenny Likens whispered to on "If you get me out of here I will tell you everything."

Gertrude, her children, Paula and John Baniszewski Jr, and teenagers, Richard Hobbs and Coy Hubbard) were all charged in the death of Sylvia.  Stephanie Baniszewski was not charged and gave state's evidence.  Gertrude claimed she knew nothing of what was going on and blamed all of the torture on the younger defendants, two of which were her children.  She claimed to all but be in bed the majority of those 3-4 months sick.  Her own lawyer condemned her for being a murderer but claimed she was not responsible because she 'wasn't all there."  Gertrude threw everyone under the bus in attempts to save her own hide.  

Gertrude was convicted of 1st degree murder and sentenced to life in imprisonment.  She should have been given the death penalty, but then again in just a few years the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional... even still, like Charles Mason, she should have remained in prison.  She was granted a new trial in 1971, largely due to the media sensation of the first but again she was found guilty of 1st degree murder and sentenced to life.  When she came up for parole in 1985, over 40,000 people signed petitions to have her remain in jail.  She was likely released because she had become a model prisoner ... of course she did .. she had it better in prison than she had her entire life!  When she was paroled she still maintained that she barely knew Sylvia ....was "on drugs" at that time of her life,  but claimed to take full responsibility.  I believed she claimed to take responsibility because without that she would have never gotten out, however by stating she barely knew Sylvia and didn't "remember" or participate in her murder was her way of still trying to maintain her innocence.  Gertrude died June 16, 1990 in Iowa where she was reportedly living with her daughter Paula.

Paula was convicted of 2nd degree murder and also sentenced to life in prison.  She too, like her mother was granted a new trial in 1971 and pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Despite two escape attempts she was paroled in 1972 and reportedly lives in Iowa.  She gave birth to a daughter while in prison awaiting trial.  She named her daughter Gertrude.  The baby was placed for adoption.

John Baniszewski Jr., Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs all served only 2 years in prison.  None of the other teenagers who helped torture Sylvia were ever charged in her murder.  Four teenagers were initially arrested for "injury to a person" but those charges were later dropped.  Richard Hobbs died 4 years after his release of lung cancer at the age of 21. John Baniszewski Jr. died in 2005 at the age of 52 after complications with diabetes.  He believed that young criminals could be reformed and stated his time spent behind bars (to which by the way, he was the youngest ever incarcerated in Indiana) had turned his life around.  Coy Hubbard was in and out of prison several times throughout his life, once again being charged (and acquitted) of murder.  He died in 2007.

Jenny Likens died in 2004 of a heart attack.  When she had heard Gertrude died in 1990 she reportedly clipped the obituary out of the newspaper, sent it to her mother with a note stating how happy she was to see this. After the murder trial Jenny was taken in and raised by the prosecuting attorney, Leroy New.  This issue has always bothered me.  Lester and Betty had been gone, even extended their time working while their daughters were being abused in a home in which one was ultimately murdered and yet still did not take their child.  I am sure there are those that think they can give a logical explanation to this but I would likely have to disagree as I see no logical explanation.  Although, I do agree that by all reports Jenny thrived in this home and was truly happy.  It has been said that she was better off living with the New's and I cannot argue that fact.

Most of the Baniszewski children changed their names after the trial.

The house in which the torture occurred had trouble maintaining residents.  At one point there were plans to make it into either an unwed mother's shelter or an abuse shelter but as far as I am aware that never came to be.  The house remained vacant for most of the next over 40 years.  Videos can been since on U-tube of the condition of the home as it had been vandalized many times.  In 2009 it was finally torn down and made into a parking lot for a nearby church.  There was a campaign going around asking that some kind of plague be placed in memory of Sylvia at the site but the minister of the church declined.  I heard many reports of things the minister supposedly said as to his reasoning, none of which were very Christian like in my opinion.

There has been a memorial for Sylvia placed in Garfield Park, near the home. Sylvia was buried near family in Lebanon Indiana and reports state her grave often has visitors.  

Sylvia's death opened the world's eyes to child abuse.  Her unwarranted and needless torture had many in the community questioning themselves and the actions of others.  It is possible that if neighbors had reported what they had heard, or authorities or others would have investigated things more into Gertrude's allegations of things Sylvia could have been saved.  Sadly I do not feel that any of the participants in her death were adequately punished..... 

EDITED TO ADD:  I have spent the days since I wrote this post reading through the original trial transcripts.  The bulk of my opinion stands, especially concerning Gertrude.  She got on the witness stand and claimed to be in bed most of the time, too weak to even pick up her small child, and did in fact through her children (and others) under the bus.  It was apparent by the time that the trial was over that her attorney knew her story was not true.  Of course he did not state it but his references indicated that either a) he believed she DID in fact do this or b) at the very least could not have been in the home and not know Sylvia was harmed and she failed to get her medical attention.  It seems MOST of her lawyers arguments largely focused on her civil rights being violated.  The most outrageous comments concerned indicating the first arriving officers had no right to enter the house and even ask Gertrude questions about Sylvia.  They were on a call reporting someone had died.  The fact her lawyer tried to get the comments thrown out based on civil rights violations was just ludicrous.

Several things bothered me reading the transcripts.  One, while I totally believe in the guilt of John Jr.; Ricky Hobbs and Coy Hubbard, and by today's standards they likely would have been charged as adults, the reality is these CHILDREN were 12, 14, and 15 and by all accounts their parents were not informed by the police of their arrests or given the opportunity to be with their children or have any say. Not a lot was reported when it came to John Jr... no statements, little about if his dad was notified and present.  Both Hobbs and Hubbard were supposedly asked about having their parents present and denied it.  Hobbs' father showed the following day just before his previously made statement was put in written form.  Hubbard's mother was apparently contacted by the high school principal informing her of Coy's arrest on school grounds.  She stated that the police never informed her personally and preventing her from having contact with him.  

Also, another thing concerned me with the young children.  Several were on the stand.... Jenny Likens, Marie and Stephanie, and several neighborhood children.  First, yes, I believe they all (possibly aside from Jenny) lied to make their involvement less, as well as Marie and Stephanie lied as to what they saw Gertrude do, but I also believe they were all often confused.  There was many, many kids in and out of the house on a very regular basis, let alone the ones who lived there.  There were many things being done over at least a 2 month period to Sylvia.  I think in many situations those incidents ran into each other and while it would not have maybe been too difficult to remember who did what in some of the more outrageous situations, it would have been on the more smaller things as well as keep track of who was there at the time.  I believe the lawyers from the other side, depending on who they were testifying for, purposely or not, confused the children, in going back and forth to questions repeatedly, seemingly to get another answer.  

I have often defended the time period and the lifestyles in the 1960's putting little blame on neighbors who did not report things they saw or even that the children involved said little.  It was a time where adults ruled, you did as they said and if you did not you were punished for it.  It was a time where people spanked their children when they misbehaved; it was a time where neighbors minded their own business because they wanted others to mind theirs.  It has often been pointed out that Jenny could have done more and as I saw someone say once that it is likely a given that until the day she died Jenny was riddled with guilt in what she could have done differently.  There is one person who testified at the trial that I felt not only could have done more but had a professional duty to do so.  One of the county nurses went to the home on a report that there was a young girl from that home with many open sores on her body.  She reported that Gertrude told her this was apparently Sylvia who was being referred to but that she had run away.  The nurse never left the front room of the home and inspected the house.  She was introduced to Jenny and told it was her sister that was being referred to.  The nurse was also the nurse in charge at Jenny's school yet never conversed with her there and asked her questions outside Gertrude's presence.  I believe Jenny would have told if ask... I could be wrong.  The bottom line is that the nurse wrote up a 'one time' visit card and dropped the matter without further investigation.

In the end it appears that the only person who ever fully took responsibility for their actions in 1965 was John Jr.  Many have been on both sides of this.  Many obviously still blame him for his role... to which they should, he was responsible, he did do HORRIBLE things.  Many do not believe he was sincere or truly remorseful when he discussed this case many years later. Many base that on the fact that it appears he would not use Sylvia's name but referred to her as "that girl."  Others believe he used this phrase because of his guilt.  I am in the latter category.  Stephanie has reportedly been on message boards and has continued to deny any responsibility or accept that her boyfriend, Coy Hubbard played a role.  So, of all the children, John Jr. was the only one to ever publicly take blame and show any remorse and that should be noted.


  1. I was hoping that you would show some things that were stated in the trascript but this was a very good read. Thank you.

  2. Unfortunately, I'm not sure anything would have happened even if it had been reported.

    Look at the 2009 murder of Jeanette Marie Maples in Oregon. She had been removed from her mother's care at the age of one, as soon as her mother got her back she moved interstate. Her step-grandmother, a school friend, the friend's parents and school officials on the prompting of the friend all reported it and teachers knew for years the poor girl was starved, abused, and avoiding home. A social worker came by once, didn't even talk to the girl, and accepted her mother's story. The only result was that Jeannette was pulled out of school for "home schooling". Her sister later said Jeannette was abused from the time her mother regained custody (two older boys opted to stay in foster care rather than live with their mother) until the day she died.

    1. Cassandra, I came here to look something up for another post I am researching now and came across this comment again. When I hear of a case referenced it often makes it to a list and then when I sit down I do not always remember where I had seen the name. Apparently I looked very quickly at Jeanette's case and was appalled at what I found. Funny enough without obviously realizing I had gotten the name from you or in reference to this blog, you are correct, it apparently was severely similar and I stated that several times there :)

  3. That is appalling to hear that somebody can do something like that to a person( a child). She should never have gotten out of prison, and Paula should not have been able to plead to a lesser change. From what I have read and seen about the story everyone (except Jenny) should have been convicted of first-degree murder. Gertrude should have been charged with capital murder and given the death penalty. From what I read Sylvia didn't do what Gertrude accused her of doing. I mean come on her daughter (Paula) was pregnant NOT Sylvia. I enjoy true crime stories but that seemed like that really couldn't not happen. I believe Gertrude should have been tortured the same way she tortured Sylvia. She should be happy that I did not get to choose her punishment, because she would have suffered just like Sylvia did. Thank you for your time to read my opinion. I say what people think, but won't say because of someone might think.

  4. The only thing you have wrong is the placement of the memorial. It was placed in Willard Park not Garfield Park.


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